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Better productivity with noise cancelling headphones?

Battling with online distractions has become the number one challenge to productivity. Can noise cancelling headphones help improve creative output?

Writing is an important part of my work as an educator and a blogger. I write every day, but frequency doesn’t make it any less challenging and it certainly doesn’t stop procrastination!

For blog posts, I often type straight into the WordPress composition screen. This gives me fast access to web pages, videos, social media updates and other embeddable content. The downside to this is the risk of being distracted by Twitter and Facebook feeds, email notifications and other types of “micro noise” that has become part of my daily online experience.

In this post, I explore the potential of noise cancelling headphones to help with focus and productivity. Are these headphones a panacea? Definitely not. Do they have a place in the modern workplace? I think so.

Changing my writing routine

The headphones are just one “tool” in a box of writing tricks that I’ve been assembling over the past 6 months. Back in January, I was stuck in a rut: writing had become a drag and I found it hard to concentrate.

So I started to experiment with changes to my writing environment. I looked into ways of minimizing distractions to see what impact it would have on my focus and productivity.

I tried applying the following rules to my daily routine:

    1. First drafts offline

For any new piece of writing, I write offline in MS Word. Even if it is a blog post that needs links and other embedded content. I put down as much as I can in a 30-minute window.

I write “automatically”, pouring out all the thoughts on a particular topic in one go, regardless of problems with grammar, style or shifts in logic.

What I’ve noticed is that before I start writing, I’ve usually already formulated most of what I want to say in my mind. Very little of writing is spontaneous.

The difficulty is forcing myself to get those words out onto the page without interference. In a way, I have to trick my mind into believing that I’m not really writing, I’m just “brainstorming”.

    1. Second drafts online

In the case of blog posts, I copy and paste the first draft into my WordPress post and start editing. I’ve noticed that there’s a big psychological difference between “writing” and “editing” processes.

The former is far more susceptible to distractions than the latter. Why? Because writing is the creation of logic, and logic is a focus-intensive process. Whereas editing is more of a curation process and is therefore much closer to the “micro” experience of the current web.

So, in my 2nd draft, I begin polishing the raw logic from the first draft, add any relevant embeddable content and feel much less prone to distractions.

Noise cancelling headphones and productivity

A few months ago, I was browsing Amazon for some computer gear when I came across the silver and white headphones in the above picture. I clicked the photo and started reading about the Bose QuietComfort 25 headphones noise cancelling headphones.

Reading the product blurb, this line stood out:

Bose noise cancelling technology monitors the noise around you and cancels it out, helping you focus on what you want to hear–whether it’s your music, your calls or simply peace and quiet.

So you put these headphones on, flick a switch on the side, and the noise – auditory or otherwise – disappears. It sounded too good to be true.

After reading a number of buyer reviews, positive and negative, I thought I’d bite the bullet. They’re not cheap, so it was a big investment for me.

When they arrived, I was impressed with the quality, from the sturdy carry case to the headphones themselves. They felt comfortable to wear and look great too. But do they help with concentration and productivity?

Well, after using them for about 3 months, I think they do help. As soon as I put them on, I get straight into work mode. I find myself able to focus for much longer periods. I rarely use them to listen to music, even though the audio quality is decent.

That said, I cannot claim that the headphones will work for everyone. I cannot even claim that they help reduce non-auditory noise. It may just be a placebo effect. But whatever it is, I have found that first draft stage of writing to be much easier with the headphones than without.

Even if it is a placebo effect, I still appreciate the quietness of my room, no more traffic noise or refrigerator hum. I can barely hear my PC fans with them on.

I also took them with me on a recent flight from Japan to the UK, and thanks to the travel adapter included in the kit, I was able to use them for in-flight entertainment. The noise cancelling function also helped made the cabin engine noise fade into the background and I actually got a bit of sleep, which is rare for me.

The headphones use a single AAA sized battery. I use rechargeable batteries and I get about a week of frequent use (2-3 hours per day) from a single battery.

To sum up, when it comes to improving writing productivity, I think the first and most important adjustments you can make are to how you approach writing.

After that, additional support, such as noise cancelling headphones can help go that extra mile to sustaining focus. Whether it’s worth the investment is up to you.

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