How Noises Can Smash Your Flow and Make You Depressed

Programmers need Silence!

Like many programmers, my work is a huge part of my life. My perfect day at work is a solid chunk of good code, my hobbies involve coding. I code in my sleep. It’s not that I’m a shut-in or anything like that, I cycle, walk and train the dog, cook, tinker in the garden, but code is easily my longest running train of thought.

If I write bad code I honestly start to feel down and it’s easy to see why; it’s pleasurable, there’s always something to learn and it’s intrinsically linked to your thoughts! Take that away and you can easily feel like a failure.

What has this to do with noise?

6 months ago the IT office was a tiny, windowless workshop that smelled of metal, oil and solder. We had no desks and instead stood at a workbenches with our monitors on cardboard boxes, there was so little room that I could lean back and hit a wall; literally squeezed in. Dark and cold this is my favourite working space of my career.

There were desks available in other rooms with heating and real chairs and yet we stayed in the workshop being super-productive. It was so quiet that you could hear your own breathing. It was amazing.

  • No phones
  • No radio
  • No neighbours — it was above a stairwell, in the corner, next to a rarely used storeroom
  • No-one gossiping or chatting
  • Most of the office (some 50 people) didn’t even know the room was there, if they did they told stories about what was behind the door. Suffice to say they didn’t knock.

Today, our custom built IT office has a window where we can see green things, a real door, desks, chairs! stationary, allsorts of shit and my god I’ve never hated an office so much. All day I can hear phones ringing, people talking, giggling at each other, clomping around with what I’m assuming are wooden clogs, the family-run business next door argue and shout at each other and they have a dog that barks and howls. But the thing I hate the most are the doors. Slamming. All. Day. Long.

The weird thing? It’s quiet most of the time, the noises happen about every 2 or 3 minutes. My day looks like this:

  • Silence
  • Door Slamming
  • Silence
  • Phone Ringing
  • Silence
  • Dog Barking
  • ad infinitum

The noises aren’t loud, they’re just really jarring. Maybe I’m particularly sensitive, but this really disrupts my flow, I can’t get into anything. In any given day I might get about 30 minutes of real, actual work done.

Sometimes I come in late and wait till everyone has left to get some work done, but that’s not sustainable, I want to see my wife in the evening, play with my dog and y’know, have a life. This office has stifled my skills, crippled my work and made me feel like a failure.

What to do?

Last year I saw Julian Treasure at Thinking Digital, he gave a thrilling talk about how sounds in the workplace are vitally important. He made this talk in The Sage Gateshead — an acoustically beautiful building.

“Out of 7 years training architects spend only one day on acoustics.”
~ Julian Treasure

I don’t quite know where to go from here, but I know that if you want to be happy at work, if you want to really knuckle down and get some great work done, think about how your workplace sounds, give yourself room to think.

This article was written at home, I can hear the leaves rustling outside and about nothing else.

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