Blog Post

Work in Public Despite the Noise

With our lifestyles, many web workers find themselves working in public spaces — cafes, trains, bus terminals, libraries — at least some of the time. Yet for many, peace and quiet is a prerequisite to quality output. And few of these places offer the golden silence you might enjoy at home.

The next time you’re stuck in a public place trying to get something done, try these tips for ignoring the noise, and boosting your output.

1. Use Earplugs

A very cheap solution to the noise problem, earplugs are easy to carry, simple and effective. If you’re trapped on a rowdy train, or relegated to a busy corner of a cafe, earplugs can provide an effective barrier between you and the world at large. The one issue you may find is that you may not realize immediately when you’re being spoken to by another person.

Some find earplugs uncomfortable, so shop around for a pair that suits you — I find foam earplugs more comfortable than plastic. Also consider whether you plan to use your earplugs for another purpose — sleeping, reducing ear canal pressure while you’re flying, etc. — and consider whether a task-specific pair of earplugs might also be suitable for blocking noise in a public space.

2. Wear Noise-canceling Headphones

If you’ve ever had noise-canceling headphones, you’ll know that they don’t need to play music in order to block ambient noise: simply turn them on and things suddenly become more serene. You’ll also know that they don’t block all noise, but they do a lot to reduce monotonous ambient noise, and dull the general din of everyday life.

Of course, if you listen to a lot of music and other audio while you work, you may decide to ditch your existing headphones and get a noise-canceling pair for everyday use.

Noise-canceling headphones can be expensive, and you really do get what you pay for when it comes to this kind of product. If you travel a lot, you might be able to justify investing in a high-end pair that covers the whole of your outer ear (and you might be able to buy them duty-free); if you plan to use them less frequently, the smaller ear-bud style might be all you need. In my experience, though, these tend to be less effective than the larger models. Again, shop around and try a few models before you make your decision.

3. Non-technical Options

There are no-cost, non-technical options that can allow you to get work done in public spaces. The options vary depending on where you’re working:

  • If you’re in a library, try to find a quiet space or reading room.
  • In a cafe, library or similar space, do a quick reconnaissance before you sit down, to work out which part of the cafe has the fewest people (is it the spot near the window, by the stairs, or in the garden out the back?); avoid tables by the coffee machine, bar and register. If you can’t find somewhere that looks good, try a different location.
  • If you find yourself getting distracted, take a few minutes to close your eyes, breathe deeply and relax while focusing on the goal you need to achieve. Relaxing can reduce your agitation and stress, and can, in turn, decrease the attention you’re paying to the world around you. By actively calming your mind and focusing on the task at hand, you can improve your concentration enough to get the job done despite that baby crying three seats away.
  • Move seats if you really can’t focus and think a different position might be better for you.
  • If you want a coffee and some silence, get it to go and head to the nearest park.

What tips can you share from your experiences working in noisy public places when all you need is a little peace?

4 Responses to “Work in Public Despite the Noise”

  1. One of the greatest purchases I have made in my life was noise canceling ear buds. While they cost around $100, they are worth every penny. It’s one of those decisions I’ve never regretted, and they are indispensable (especially when traveling).

  2. You touched on this briefly with the noise-canceling headphones, but the best audio protection I find when working in a public space or shared office, for that matter, is a good playlist. For work I generally listen to some familiar jazz or electronic dance tracks–rock can get distracting for me. All in all, familiar music can act very much like white noise. Unfamiliar music–new tunes or a genre you’re not as well versed in–can draw you out of the work “zone”.

    Generally speaking, I find the constant stream of e-mail, IM messages, tweets, and Skype, plus the massive variety of sites to surf offered by the Internet to be more of a distraction than anything caused by working in a public space. There’s no doubt, Web workers require some serious concentration and discipline to be able to get work done.

  3. You can try to listen to some white noise to drown out the other sounds around you. You can download mp3’s. There are even iPhone apps that provide this functionality.

  4. paula berg

    I actually find that I am most productive when I’m on a bus, in the airport, or on an airplane. There is noise, but there are no inturruptions and no meetings to go to. There have been a few instances on flights, however, when I could have used some noise cancelling headphones. It may be time to invest.