I was scrolling Twitter during my commute to our San Francisco headquarters when something caught my eye.
“Just finished a 10-day silent meditation. Wow, what a reset! Fortunate & grateful I was able to take the time.”
It was a tweet from Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter — arguably the world’s noisiest social media platform. Apparently, the young mogul is a firm believer in the power of quiet.
It made me wonder: Is silence the new exercise? The latest way to become better versions of ourselves?
Dorsey isn’t the only fan of silent retreats, though.
Author and productivity guru Tim Ferriss has done them, too, as has Sally Blount, former dean of the Kellogg School of Management. According to Blount, silent retreats help her to let go of connection, balance input with reflection, and develop her “leadership muscle.”
It sounds promising enough, but let’s face it; we can’t all disappear for a 10-day retreat. Personally, I’ve never tried one, though nothing refreshes me like some quiet time in the countryside. Even a long, solo walk will do the trick sometimes.
We spend our days surrounded by noise: reading, watching, listening, and passively hearing everything around us.
In order to process all that information, it’s essential to find some peace and quiet — and not just external silence, but also the inner quiet that comes with deliberate practice.
Silence can help us tap into our creativity, lead more effectively, and live healthier, happier lives.
As it turns out, noise can also be harmful to our mental and physical wellbeing — and that’s reason enough to find some quiet on a daily basis.
Science proves that silence is golden
Today’s world is a dangerously noisy place.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called noise pollution a “modern plague,” and claims “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.”
And all that noise is quite literally ruining our lives.
In fact, the WHO estimated that 340 million residents of Western Europe, annually and collectively, lost a million years of healthy life because of noise.
Too much racket has a host of negative effects, including sleep loss, heart disease, tinnitus, and stress.
You know how your heart jumps when you hear a loud crash? That’s your cortisol (aka, stress hormone) spiking — an evolutionary adaptation that helps us to fend off predators but causes nervous system damage over time.
A dose of silence, on the other hand, offers various benefits, including stress relief, improved memory, and better sleep, especially for insomniacs.
Quiet time can improve important brain functions, particularly those that tend to diminish as we age. Research by Duke Medical School’s Imke Kirste has linked silence to the development of new cells in the hippocampus, the key brain region associated with learning and memory.
Silence also helps our brains to integrate external and internal information into our “conscious workspace.”
As Daniel A. Gross explains:
“Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in.”
Silence can be even more relaxing than your “Peaceful Piano” playlist on Spotify.
Physician Luciano Bernardi found that two minutes of silence inserted between musical pieces proved more stabilizing to cardiovascular and respiratory systems than music categorized as “relaxing.”
I’ve personally felt the difference that quiet time can make. I’ve written before about the power of doing nothing, and how some of my best ideas come during moments of silent reflection — in the midst of quiet, non-work activities like olive-picking with my family.
After a reprieve from the clamor, I’m a better colleague, too. With renewed energy, I listen more carefully and with greater empathy.
Not only does my team feel truly heard, but I’m able to more fully assess what’s happening in different parts of our business — both the good and the bad.
As Diane Greene, former Google Cloud CEO, says, “Quiet time is key to clear thinking and increases the likelihood of asking the right questions.”
It helps us to move past the initial, surface level communications and dig a little deeper — to break out of what Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani calls the “good-news cocoon.”
In Nilekani’s words, “if you’re a leader, you can put yourself in a cocoon — a good-news cocoon. Everyone tells you, ‘It’s all right — there’s no problem.’ And the next day, everything’s wrong.”
Silent reflection also helps us reach a higher level of listening, and as a result, lead more effectively. We can anticipate things and plan accordingly, instead of remaining inside the cocoon.
But, what exactly do we mean by “silence?” Is it a remote beach? A cabin in the woods? Those environments certainly help. But perhaps it’s also possible to find silence in the midst of our otherwise noisy world.
Quiet from the inside, out
Orfield Labs in Minneapolis, Minnesota is home to the Guinness Book of World Records’ “Quietest Place on Earth.”
The anechoic, or “no echo,” chamber has a sound level of -9 decibels. For reference, most of us consider 30 decibels to be a comfortably quiet level.
Given that a growing body of research shows how silence provides various mental and physical benefits, you’d think a dip in the anechoic chamber would feel like a trip to the spa.
In fact, those who entered the chamber have reportedly found it deeply unsettling, and experienced anxiety, nausea, and even hallucinations.
As it turns out, there can be too much quiet.
So what kind of silence should we be searching for?
According to the meditation experts at Headspace, “Silence is not an absence of noise… it’s a quality of mind.” Perhaps that’s the quiet we should try to attain: one that starts from within.
Yet, external silence is notoriously tough to come by, especially for urban dwellers.
When I travel with my family, we usually escape the big city din by exploring small towns along the Aegean Sea or on my family’s olive farm in Turkey.
In an effort to be healthier, less stressed, and a better leader, here are some techniques that help me to find some daily quiet time. I hope they help you, too.
1. Be proactive about your peace & quiet
If I go from home to the gym, to the office, then meet with friends after work before heading back home, I might never experience a moment of silence. Constant clamor can be especially problematic for people who work in open-design offices — veritable minefields for distraction and noise.
Though I’m lucky to have a private office (with a door) at JotForm, I still try to seek out quiet time at least once per day. If I’m working in San Francisco, I’ll go for a walk along the waterfront. Even if I can’t find total silence, I’m one step closer to drowning out the usual commotion. It helps me reset and reminds me of the calming effect of a natural backdrop.
2. Take advantage of the mundane
This technique is all about mindfulness: quieting the endless chatter in our minds and being present in the moment. There are plenty of daily opportunities to practice mindfulness, like showering, brushing your teeth, waiting in line, and commuting.
Focus on the tactile sensations: the temperature of the water or the weight of your feet on the ground. Notice your natural body rhythms: the pace of your heartbeat, your breath as you inhale and exhale, and the rise and fall of your chest.
Soon, the constant monologue in your head may start to ease. Best of all, this technique doesn’t require any extra time in your day.
3. Embrace the digital sabbath
Some people call it a device detox. I call it a digital sabbath. Whatever the name, take one day per week and unplug from all technology. Silence the constant stream of noise from your smartphone, tablet, computer, and TV. That’s right — no Netflix or Hulu, either.
I choose Saturday or Sunday for my weekly digital sabbath, and the results are always striking. At the very least, I quiet my mind and forget about whether or not I’ve received this message or that email. Often, I stumble upon new ideas or come up with solutions to ongoing issues.
With space for reflection, my “conscious workspace” can do its thing and process what happened during the past week.
Not to mention, I regain precious time to spend with my wife and kids.
Silence: not just another to-do list item
Silence has many beneficial effects. But before you buy the latest noise-canceling headphones or sign up for a silent retreat, consider the meaning of silence.
Though a remote location may help, true silence begins from within — and can be found anywhere, even in the midst of our noisy lives.
I know it’s not easy. Sometimes, finding silence can feel like another task on our to-do lists. But to think about it another way, silence actually does the work for you.
Speaking about meditation, media entrepreneur Arianna Huffington expressed this idea beautifully:
“Although I’ve known its benefits since my teens, finding time for meditation was always a challenge because I was under the impression that I had to ‘do’ meditation. And I didn’t have time for another burdensome thing to ‘do.’
Fortunately, a friend pointed out one day that we don’t ‘do’ meditation; meditation ‘does’ us. That opened the door for me. The only thing to ‘do’ in meditation is nothing.”