Quiet time

How working in silence made us 23% more productive, and how you can do it too.

Illustration by Daniel H Gray

Collaboration can be amazing. Nothing compares to the feeling of a team building on each other’s thoughts, creating something with words and scribbles that didn’t exist before. As Google’s Eric Schmidt writes “Smart creatives thrive on interacting with each other. The mixture you get when you cram them together is combustible.” Across the road in Menlo Park, Facebook’s new campus features the largest open-plan office ever created. Mark Zuckerberg describes the Frank Gehry-designed building as a creative utopia, a “giant room that fits thousands of people, all close enough to collaborate together.”

But collaboration isn’t free; it comes at a cost. Because every minute you spend working with other people or sending messages on Slack is a minute you’re not spending by yourself. And if you’re someone who creates things for a living, then a huge amount of your work needs to happen between you and the empty page. Just you, alone. Kafka once described his creative process “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.”

This isolation can be terrifying. Or it can be sublime. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about ‘flow’ — a complete, rapturous absorption in a task. The state where time disappears and the act of creation is all that matters. This is when some of our best ideas come, where our biggest breakthroughs happen. And every minute you spend talking to other people is one less minute when that can happen.

There’s a place called ‘work’ where most of us go every day. And like the rest of the modern world, the modern workplace is a pretty noisy place. Emails and notifications arrive like artillery. Conversations and meetings catch fire and subside. Sometimes this energy is fantastic. But if you need to focus, ‘work’ is pretty much the worst place you could be. Researchers from the University of California followed information workers in the US with stopwatches for several days, timing every action. They found that between interruptions, the average worker’s day is splintered into fragments of concentration lasting just over three minutes.

That means that in most workplaces, focused work is left to chance. If nobody’s called you for a meeting that day, you might get an afternoon to yourself. If nobody taps you on the shoulder when you’re wearing headphones, you might get lucky. But getting lucky isn’t enough. As Csikszentmihalyi says “It is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art.”

The way we spend our time should be a choice — it should be intentional. All great design is about intentionality, and designing how we work should be no different.

According to the International Facility Management Association, over 70% of US offices are open-plan. Around the world, most tech and creative firms are the same. But mostly, open-plan isn’t a choice, it’s a default. And far from being neutral, this type of space is loaded with implicit values — that disruption is an acceptable consequence of togetherness; that serendipity is worth all the interruptions; that collaboration is all that matters.

Collaboration is important for creative work. But so is focus. And this is the heart of the problem: when the ideal environment for filling the empty page is both Kafka’s isolation and Facebook’s cavernous room, how can we balance the two?

Introducing “Quiet Time”

Over the past four years we’ve been experimenting with a solution called ‘quiet time’. We divide each day in half, and we spend the first half in silence. No phone, no emails, no meetings. And most of all, no talking. Quiet time is about bringing the balance back. It’s about drawing a line around a few hours a week and saying These hours are mine. I’ll choose how to spend them, not anybody else.

How we made it work

First, we had to pick a ratio — the right balance between collaboration and focus. For us, this is about 50/50, which meant allocating four mornings of quiet time every week, Monday to Thursday. In the afternoons we come together as a team to reflect and build on what’s been done.

To make this work we needed to quarantine our meetings. We cancelled any that were booked during quiet time, and declined any new ones which came in. Eventually, Thursday became our ‘meeting day’ to avoid scattering them throughout the week. This meant our entire team could start the week with three uninterrupted days. Suddenly we had an amazing sense of freedom to explore and experiment. We quickly settled into a rhythm of design, discuss, improve, repeat.

While this schedule worked for most of our team, it wasn’t right for everyone. For example, our general manager needs to stay in touch with the outside world throughout the week. During quiet time, he’s careful to do that off-site or behind closed doors so he doesn’t disrupt the rest of the team. As Paul Graham says “Most powerful people operate on the manager’s schedule, they’re in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency if they want to. But the smarter ones restrain themselves, if they know that some of the people working for them need long chunks of time to work in.”

We knew we needed a hook — something to make quiet time a habit. The solution was our morning standup meeting. As well as discussing what we plan to work on, we added two simple questions:

  1. “Do you need to talk to anyone before quiet time starts?”
  2. “Is anything preventing us from doing quiet time?”

We’ve found making it opt-out rather than opt-in stops exceptions from becoming the rule.

During quiet time, we disconnect. Close down email, sign out of Slack, and put our phones in a drawer. These tools were designed for interruption. They’re incompatible with quiet time.

Then it’s time to take a deep breath, relax and begin. When you’re used to multitasking, being alone with your thoughts for a few hours can be intense. It literally took us months to adapt. Why? Because talking to people is fun. Checking your phone is fun. And work should be fun sometimes. But sometimes it should be work. This is the difference between quiet time and a ‘do not disturb’ flag. Quiet time is a contract: a few hours a week where we agree to work even if we don’t feel like it.

Sometimes the hours go fast. Sometimes they go slow. Sometimes you want to ask a question so badly it feels like you’re going to explode. But after a while you realise that whatever it is, it can wait a few hours. Soon you learn to ask those questions before you start.

When it’s over, it’s time to look up, make eye contact, and start talking again. This part always feels a bit strange, like you’re popping a bubble or breaking a spell. Because quiet time is a little bit magical. A moment of calm in a restless world.

We’ve been doing this for four years, and the benefits have been huge. We compared months of data on our team’s velocity, and it showed we’re 23% more productive. Because of this, we don’t work on Friday afternoons any more. We’re less stressed. And we think our work is better, too. But the biggest change is deeper. People have stopped avoiding the office when they have something important to do. Work has become the best place to get things done.

If you’re having trouble finding focus, consider this question: who decides when you get quiet time?

Maybe it should be you.

A version of this article was originally published in the October issue of desktop.