By guest blogger Renee Calvert
The whinnying horse was a new one.
Because our office is located in a busy business park with several doctor’s offices, a community center and an active neighborhood across the street, there are all sorts of sounds I’ve been attempting to ignore these past few months. Honking clown horns from the ice cream man, shouting children, thudding rap music in the parking lot underneath my window, car alarms, loud arguments, video games in the downstairs dentist’s office, pigeons with weird, otherworldly cooing…
And, recently, a very loud neighing horse. I don’t know whether it was an actual horse making those sounds, or a recording of horse noises, but I spent a good two hours of that morning wondering what in the world was happening in the office below us.
It was then I realized I may be easily distracted by sounds.
It took me by surprise – me, the person who could sleep like a baby with an all-night bus stop underneath the window of her apartment and busy inner-city hospital across the street – easily distracted by sounds? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was true. Any time there is an out-of-the-ordinary noise, it encroaches upon my thoughts and makes me wonder what is happening and why the noise is occurring.
And once my concentration is broken, it’s hard to get back on track.
I know I’m not the only one whose thoughts are easily derailed by external sounds. One of my co-workers is really bothered by chewing sounds. We spent years working back-to-back in a smaller office, and it was an unwritten rule that I could not chew gum while working. Not because of a need to protect equipment or carpets or any other reason, but simply because if I actually chewed it, even subtly and slowly, I would soon be asked to spit it out. Even the sound of someone swallowing water sometimes bothers her. She doesn’t know why, only that those little mouth noises are highly disruptive to her concentration.
Little annoyances can be such a detriment to working that it begs the question – how do we stop them from occurring? It’s not like I can go out and ask someone driving down the street to kindly turn down the bass on their stereo for the brief five seconds they’ll be driving past my office. Nor can I put on headphones to drown out the noises, as that would send the wrong signal to my co-workers that I don’t want to be bothered.
Some of these problems can be resolved through communication with others. My co-worker, for example, has let us in the office know that gum noises bother her, so we know we shouldn’t chew gum or eat loudly in her presence. Likewise, it’s easy to communicate with those in the offices around us. We can easily ask the doctor downstairs to turn the volume down on the drum music he likes listening to in the afternoons. But what about external factors out of your control?
I don’t have a concrete answer. Half the reason I’m writing this blog is because a car alarm just went off in the parking lot and writing a blog was a good transition activity to help me refocus my thoughts. But here are a few coping mechanisms I have learned from working in busy, loud environments.
1. If you can tune it out, do
You can’t always put headphones on. Phone calls, communication with co-workers, or a need to concentrate fully on what you’re doing are all good reasons to leave Pandora off. But if you’re working on something where you can listen to music and you do need to be left alone, headphones are a good way to block out external noises. Just be sure you’re being respectful of your co-workers and let them know that they’ll need to tap you on the shoulder or get your attention some other way. You don’t want to miss out on what they need to communicate to you.
2. Have a good transition activity
No, this is not giving you carte blanche to look at Facebook. While sitting down and poking around social media can be a way to refocus back to your screen, I’ve found it to be a rabbit hole that I end up wandering down longer than I would like. Instead, keep a list of work that needs to be done but can serve as “warm up activities” for more thought-driven tasks (or boring work that you need to focus extra-hard on to overcome said boredom). For me, writing blogs and social media content is a good way to put my mind back in a work space so I can get back to the research, content maintenance and art on my to-do list.
3. Take a stretch break
If a distraction has really, REALLY derailed you, take the opportunity to get up and stretch your legs. Get a drink of water, go to the bathroom or even just do some toe-touches at your desk. Part of your inability to concentrate may be coming from a physical need, so make sure you aren’t ignoring what your body is telling you. Take those one or two minutes to refresh yourself and come back to your work with renewed energy.
4. Tough it out
Sometimes, there isn’t anything you can do. Sometimes there is construction work happening nearby, and all you can do is do your best to ignore that persistent jackhammering. Sometimes your office is above a pediatrician’s and crying babies are just part and parcel of the location. Sometimes you have to work late, and your work doesn’t take precedence over the cleaning crew doing their jobs. Sometimes there is just noise.
When those times occur, as difficult as it is, you have to dig in and do your best to pretend it doesn’t exist. This can be challenging but, over time, the annoying noises will fade into the background. Remember, too, you may be a source of distracting noises for others, so be mindful of your own activities. Understanding the preferences of your co-workers and clearly communicating your own preferences will lead to minimum distraction and maximum effectiveness within the office.
Some days will be more difficult than others. But whether it’s demon pigeon coos, screaming kids, carpet cleaners, jingling ice cream trucks, people stomping through the bushes underneath my window, or even just someone else's gum… At the end of the day, it’s just noise.
But not the horse whinnying — that was just weird.
Renee Calvert is the Art and Communications Director at People First Productivity Solutions.As a leader, it’s imperative to understand why and how to show ever person that you care about them. Learn more about how you can CONNECT2Lead. And be sure to subscribe to the CONNECT2Lead Blog for weekly tips and techniques on leading with a people first approach.