Sitting alone in a quiet place can be a difficult experience. Without distractions, we can feel bombarded by unpleasant thoughts and emotions. All the ways we’re unhappy about ourselves and our lives come raging back into our awareness when there’s space for them to come up.
It’s no surprise, then, that our culture is hostile to silence. Everywhere we go, it seems, we’re confronted with some kind of noise—whether it’s background music in stores and restaurants, cars and airplanes going by, or something else. And when we’re alone, we often find ourselves habitually switching on the TV or radio to fill the emptiness.
Why Being With Silence Is Important
However, the ability to be with silence is critical to getting our work done efficiently and enjoyably. My sense is that, for most of us, our work requires us to spend large amounts of time focusing on a single task in silence. Although phone calls and e-mails come in occasionally, the bulk of our time is devoted to working on that computer program, presentation, or other creative project.
If we haven’t learned to tolerate quiet, we get jittery and distractible, and find ourselves putting off our work to avoid the experience. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “unless one learns to tolerate and even enjoy being alone, it is very difficult to accomplish any task that requires undivided concentration.” But when emptiness no longer bothers us, we can hold our attention on our task with little effort.
I think this is one reason lots of us have trouble putting into practice the productivity tips we find in books, seminars and blog posts. Many writers on time management advise us to unplug our phone and e-mail, and eliminate other sources of distraction, while we’re doing important tasks. However, they don’t tell us what to do when we can’t deal with the quiet that results.
Phasing Out Self-Distractions
How do we get accustomed to silence? One useful exercise, I’ve found, is to start eliminating all the ways we create background noise in our lives outside work. Some examples include:
Leave the car radio off. Driving can be a stressful experience, and many of us use the car radio to “take the edge off.” But if we learn to be with the “edgy,” unnerving feeling of driving in silence, dealing with the same feeling at work becomes easier.
Turn off the TV. When we get home at night, many of us habitually switch on the TV and “veg out,” desperate for something to take our attention off our work. Instead, see if you can “veg out” in silence—try just sitting on your chair or couch with no stimulation. Many people are surprised at how tough this can be, but getting used to it can have a big positive impact on your work.
Leave the iPod at home. Many of us push silence away by keeping our headphones on throughout the day. While this drowns out our chattering minds, it also diverts some of our attention from what we’re doing, so the quality of what we produce suffers.
I recommend doing this exercise gradually, phasing out your self-distractions one by one. For instance, on the first day of the week, you might try leaving the TV off; on the second day, you could drive to work without the car radio, and so on. Going completely “cold turkey” from background noise in a single day can be overwhelming for some people.
As I said earlier, when you bring silence into your life, you may be confronted with intense thoughts and sensations. The best way to handle these, in my experience, is to simply allow them to be. Keep breathing, relax your body, and allow each thought and feeling to pass away, without resisting or running from it.
What you’ll discover, I suspect, is that the experiences you may have been drowning out with background noise actually aren’t so threatening. Allowing your thoughts and feelings to be, just as they are, isn’t likely to hurt you. And when your inner experience no longer seems so scary, you become able to concentrate on your work for longer periods of time, and maybe even start enjoying what you do.
Photo by anoldent
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33 thoughts on “How Getting Used To Silence Can Help Your Productivity”
Very well said, Chris. Creativity comes from silence, not from the mind. When we are able to be silent and with things as they are, unlimited possibilities open to us.
@Gail — thanks, I think that’s a great way to put it — I know that my own creative moments spontaneously arise when I take a break from the mind.
Silence, yes… interesting topic.
One reason I think it’s very important is because silence allows you to hear you internal dialog better and become aware of your thinking patterns. And that is the base for changing your thought patterns, which is the base for changing your emotions, which is the base for changing your behavior and becoming more productive.
@Ideas With A Kick, yes, I get the sense that we often use noise to drown out how nasty we’re being to ourselves — but then, when we’re working on a project and we’re trying to concentrate, all that internal nastiness comes up again, and we need to pay attention to it at some point if we want to work with it.
I really enjoyed this post because I very, very rarely have silence in my life. I have a hard time with quiet and it’s something I need to work on. Thanks for writing this and helping me see the importance of silence!
@Positively Present, thanks for your comment — I think a lot of us share the same issues with silence, and the amazing thing is that we can start learning to be with it any time we want without any special or difficult techniques.
Great article. Silence teaches us Truth. The first thing it teaches is how hard it is for the ego to be still and silent! That in itself is a hint.
@Kaushik, yes, that’s a harsh truth to learn when we first start being with silence, I think.
Hi Chris .. silence is golden. Having been brought up in the era without ipods or mobiles I relish my silence and over the years have what our ancestors used to do – filled my space with my own thoughts, my own feelings – and I begrudge this ‘noise’ that’s thrust at me.
I work in silence – but have the need to learn to meditate and you’ve put a thought into my head .. that when I sit at my mother’s bedside I can now practise that move into meditation. I’m not good at sitting still and doing nothing, while also my thoughts are in the forward and future and I’m constantly moving around – not good for someone who just wants to be still in life, doesn’t listen to the radio, and especially doesn’t watch the tv – just lives with her thoughts of 89 years ..and yes she does all 80+ of them!
Thanks – the silence of nature is so wonderful .. interspersed with birdsong, crackling insects, the feel of the wind, and the rustle of the trees …
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@Hilary, I like what you said about nature — beings that never make a sound, like trees, can serve as great examples of how it’s possible to live your entire life in silence while still flourishing.
I think the reason why most people don’t like silence while they are working is simply because it is boring.
With music, internet forums, and other social media distractions, they find it to be more interesting. The thing is their productivity rate drops by a lot.
Silence can be a scary thing when you’re a person who is used to being distracted and enjoy it. Silence can also feel empty and lonely.
But when one gets used to silence and develop a habit of tuning into their thoughts, they realize that silence is one of the best helpers when it comes to raising one’s productivity.
@Tristan Lee, yes, I think getting comfortable with that sensation of boredom is key to holding our attention on our work. And what is boredom, really? I like the way Bruno Bettelheim describes it — “boredom is a sign of feelings too deep and hard to bring to the surface” — that is, it’s all the emotional stuff we don’t want to deal with and thus drown out with all the background noise we create in our lives.
I enjoyed reading this. You won’t see a message like this advertised on TV, or in most locations, because silence is free, and is also devoid of any of that same advertising.
I hear your point about a person who is in silence being better able to handle tasks or other items in continued silence. It is a great way to build character because being alone or in a silent environment leaves you no outlet to handling problems. You can’t divert attention to the audio, or to others around you, because they are not there, so then you have to focus on any issues you have, which is much better in the longer term.
Also, although many would say it is easy for them to sit for 5 minutes without doing anything, and think about their day, the majority will not do that because the benefits of that are not so obvious until it is tried.
Thanks for this beneficial message.
@Armen Shirvanian, yes, I think that’s a good point — that in silence you can’t run away from yourself and the ways you may be unhappy or unfulfilled — which is of course the reason why we tend to avoid it, but then we let our deeper needs go unseen and unmet.
Chris, Fantastic message and one I believe in so deeply. Also since having kids (and mine are still little) I RELISH silence. In fact, it barely seems like “silence” as I get so little of it these days, instead it feels like a luxuriously warm bath in which I let the parts of me that need it most unfold. It is vital for our well being. Thanks for the reminder!
@Katie West/The Levity Coach, I like your description of your experience of quiet moments as a time for us to nourish parts of ourselves that may not get enough attention in our daily lives. I know I talk about the unpleasant aspect of it here but it can also be a source of peace as you say.
Hi Chris: I find that the more I’m able to quiet my mind chatter, the more productive and creative I am. You’re absolutely right that learning to be in silence is vitally important.
@Marelisa, yes, sometimes, I wonder if our really useful ideas are all coming up in moments when there’s a random flash of silence in the otherwise busy day.
I love this. So much can come from simply learning to listen to the silence. It is not easy at first, but the benefits to the mind and body make it worth the effort.
@Nea | Self Improvement Saga, that’s a good point, I think, that tolerating silence becomes much easier and even pleasant with time.
I have a beautiful quote from Hungarian writer Péter Müller that relates nicely to the article:
“Being alone doesn’t mean being lonely. It means being together with your inside YOU”
@Zoli Cserei, thanks for that quote — being alone, I think, does give us an opportunity to discover a lot about our relationship with ourselves — and many people find that this relationship is in need of repair when they experience silence, which can be valuable knowledge.
nice article:), quite a good coincidence because i was thinking about working in silence this morning!!
@Farouk, thanks for your comment — I’m curious to hear how the experience of that goes for you.
Chris — This is an excellent message. As I work at home and most of time alone, except for my dog and cat, I’m pretty okay with silence and being alone. The time I struggle is in the evening. I do fall into the TV escape, which is something I need to wean myself from, especially when I catch myself just clicking through the channels because I can’t find anything to watch:~(
This post also made me think my youngest daughter who is in twenties. She has so many things, like phone, ipod, and other things that she’s almost never in silence. It seems to me today, silence is harder to deal with because noise is so common.
Well, anyway I appreciated your suggestions and this post in general. It was a good reminder. I tweeted it:~)
@Sara, thanks for the appreciation. It sounds like you’re aware of the moments when you’re using TV or something else to escape from what’s going on for you, which I think we all do with something or other. I wonder what the thing you’re escaping is — I know it’s been valuable for me to take a look at what it is I’m getting away from and what would happen if I didn’t run from it.
I’ve never been one for distraction when I’m concentrating on a project. Even as a kid in school, I needed silence to read or study.
These days, I know something’s “wrong” internally when I seek out distractions like DVDs, eating, or even sleep. I know I’m avoiding something deep within me that’s painful. Does it mean I instantly snap into a state of awareness and deal with whatever it is? No. Sometimes I continue on with the distraction and ignore my need for introspection, quiet and healing.
I’m working on that now, though.
I liked reading this, Chris, as you always have great words of advice!
@Megan, thanks for your comment — it sounds like you see how the importance of silence goes beyond just productivity — that each time we’re seeking out noise, we’re actually missing an opportunity to discover something important about ourselves.
I don’t have a problem with leaving the iPod home … I have a Zune. :) It’s a great point though, I use my Zune most of the day, due to a co-worker who continually has a sports station playing at his desk (drives me up the wall). I hate using the thing, but I hate the sports radio more.
While, I long for the quiet times at work, I believe that there are times for the right kind of sounds – the sound of the natural world around us. Just this morning, I was at the beach, taking pictures and just listening to the sounds of the ocean surf.
Thanks for the article.
I came across your blog today trying to find a way to deal with silence at work. We have to work in silence in our office. No speaking, no saying hello or how was your weekend, no radio, no crunching of any food, no copier beep, no use of mailing tape, except in closed rooms, no hole punching of documents, except in closed rooms. I find that someone who demand total silence is crazy. In fact, our boss has made it so that every noise someone makes is followed by paranoia. We work in fear of making sound. So those of you who long for silence at work, get over it. Try spening 8 hours a day not making a sound. Our morale and productivity work hand in hand and our is down. Way down.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.. I have always been used to work with a movie, music, a documentary anything on the background, mainly to block the noise from the outside, I had it all wrong blocking noise with noise, I went out and bought some headphones to block all sound and voila!
I can only hear my own breathing and I can focus on both, the jewelry I am making, the pieces I am cutting and deep breathing, from the beginning things got done quicker.
It’s so simple, silence in our lives is vital.
@chris, it is well written. In an endeavor to study the productivity tactics i have observed that silence along with solitude and stillness tends to achieve higher levels of productivity.
Well written and conveyed. Best Wishes..!
I personally and wholeheartedly disagree, but this may be due to the unique circumstances I am in.
I was born and raised in a massive extended family with 90+ cousins who were very talkative. I always felt more comfortable when I was with them than when I was not.
When you put me in a quiet environment, it feels like something has gone horribly wrong and something bad is about to happen.
I am unsure if my mental disorder also has something to do with this. Without psychiatric help I suffer from random and severe hallucinations.
I am far more productive when I can hear a human voice having a conversation, or monologuing with themselves. Otherwise it feels like the rest of the world has vanished.
Regardless, if silence works for you, that’s great! However, there are people in this world who really cannot handle it and need it to be able to finish their work.