Learning to Tune Out Distraction

Earl Vickers
The Sound Guy, Inc.


A
companion article, "Coping with Speech Noise in the Modern Workplace" [1], examined the problem of office noise and the resulting stress, distraction and loss of productivity. Irrelevant speech was found to be the most distracting type of sound, because the mind tends to follow the unwanted conversation instead of the worker's own thoughts.

The article reviewed the acoustical limitations of cubicles and open-plan offices and recommended a number of possible remedies, including minimizing the problem at the source (by encouraging a culture of acoustic courtesy) and masking unwanted conversations with nature sounds, instrumental music, and/or distant chatter.

This article will focus on a complementary approach to the problem. Since some people are less disturbed and distracted by extraneous conversation than others, it seems possible that the ability to tune out noise might be a learnable skill. We will explore the practice of mindfulness as a way of learning to reducing the stress and distraction of office noise.


A Startling Discovery

The startle reflex is just that — a reflex, an involuntary response to a sudden unexpected stimulus. Within the first third of a second after a surprising sound, everyone responds in the same way: the same five facial muscles contract, and we experience an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and sweating. Since it is a function of the reptilian brain, the startle reflex cannot be suppressed by force of will. [2, 3]

At least, that's what scientists believed until they tested Öser, a European-born Tibetan monk, in the laboratory.

When a very loud sound (equivalent to a firecracker or gunshot) was played while Öser practiced "one-pointed" meditation, his facial movements were quite small, and his heart rate and blood pressure actually decreased. And when the sound was played while he practiced "open state" meditation, his face did not move a muscle [3].

Öser said, "When I went into the open state, the explosive sound seemed to me softer, as if I was distanced from the sensations, hearing the sound from afar.... If you can remain properly in this state, the bang seems neutral, like a bird crossing the sky." [3]

While these are impressive findings, suggesting that the ability to tune out noise may indeed be a learnable skill, what are the implications for those of us who are unlikely to spend months or years in intensive meditation practice?


Meditation for the Rest of Us

"Attention is the key to learning, and meditation helps you voluntarily regulate it." — Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, University of Washington [29]

Since occupational stress is a leading cause of disease, absenteeism and lowered productivity, research has focused primarily on meditation's ability to reduce stress at work [4]. Numerous studies have shown that even a relatively short training in meditation can reducing stress, anxiety and burnout, while increasing employee satisfaction and creativity [5, 6, 7, 8].

Less research has been done regarding meditation's impact on the ability to concentrate, but studies have shown:

Other research has focused on the structure of the brain. Just as MRI studies have found that in violinists, the part of the brain that controls finger movements grows in size [3], recent experiments have shown that meditation actually increases the thickness of the part of the cortex relating to attention and sensory processing [15].

Since a common element in all meditation is the retraining of attention [13], it seems likely that the practice of meditation could be helpful in learning to focus on one's own thoughts and tune out distractions.


Meditation at Work

"There's no question employees who do this are more relaxed, and some are even more productive." — George Bennett, CEO of Symmetrix [16]

While some companies (and employees) are skeptical about the idea of meditation in the workplace, others are being won over by its benefits. Given that 70% to 90% of employee hospital visits are stress-related [18], the value of stress-reduction should be apparent. Articles in The Washington Post [19] and Business Week [16] have emphasized that meditation-based stress reduction programs can improve corporate productivity and reduce expenses from health care, employee turnover and absenteeism.

Insurance companies, which have a clear financial incentive to minimize health care costs, have begun offering meditation classes and stress-reduction seminars [16]. After a majority of Tower Companies' employees began meditating, health care costs dropped so much that Great West Insurance covered most of the costs of the meditation course and dropped the company's premium by 5% [19].

Tech companies like Google, Apple and Yahoo have begun offering meditation courses, as have Nike, Toyota, Walt Disney, AT&T, Deutsche Bank, Hughes Aircraft, the Chicago Bulls, General Electric, and many others [18, 20]. When the chemical manufacturing company R.W. Montgomery instituted a meditation program in 1983, they found that over the next three years productivity rose 120%, absenteeism fell 85%, injuries and sick days declined, and profits increased by 520% [19].


Work as Meditation

"I'm able to sort through work challenges in this state of calm much faster than trying to fight through it. And I make fewer mistakes." — Dave Jakubowski, VP of Business Development, United Online Inc. [18]

Peak performance at complex tasks such as programming, engineering and writing often involves a state of "flow," defined by Csikszentmihalyi as:

"Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [21]

The workday is most productive and least tedious when you are in flow, "in the zone." The capacity to focus attention and achieve a flow state can be cultivated by training in mindfulness meditation, yoga, martial arts and other disciplines. [22, 23] Peak performance is, itself, a type of meditation, where you are at one with the present moment, focused on your task with a one-pointed awareness.

The state of flow is somewhat fragile, however, and can be disrupted by boredom (too easy a task) or frustration (too hard a task), as well as by noise and other distractions.


Internal and External Chatter

"Meditation is based on the simple principle that clearing a clutter is enough for clarity to surface spontaneously." [24]

Irrelevant speech distracts in two separate ways. First, our minds start listening to the unwanted speech instead of our own thoughts. Then, when we notice that a co-worker has disrupted our task, we have an emotional reaction.

Especially if we are under a deadline, we may feel angry or frustrated. We may think, "I shouldn't have to listen to this," or "Why can't I just be left alone to work in peace and quiet," or "Now I'll never get this done on time." Often the emotional reaction is more distracting, and certainly more stressful, than the speech sound itself.

Similarly, beginning meditators often get frustrated when their minds wander, and blame themselves for meditating incorrectly. In reality, wandering is what minds tend to do (just as chatting is what co-workers do), and the essence of meditation is the practice of gently, repeatedly, bringing the mind back to the breath or other object of meditation. Instead of getting frustrated or angry at the intrusion of unwanted thoughts or sounds, simply return the attention to the meditation object, over and over.

Mindfulness Meditation, as practiced in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course taught in over 200 medical centers in the United States, promotes an attitude of acceptance, which means seeing things as they actually are in the present [25]. Some of the exercises involve listening:

"... try just listening to sound when you meditate. This does not mean listening for sounds, rather just hearing what is here to be heard, moment by moment, without judging or thinking about them. Just hearing them as pure sound." [25]

If you notice unwanted sounds during the practice, pay attention to your reaction to the sounds. How can these sounds disrupt your meditation, if the object of the meditation is to be mindful of sounds and your reactions? This practice can help desensitize us to intrusive speech and defuse our emotional response.

Other meditation exercises involve withdrawing the attention from external sounds and internal chatter, focusing instead on a specific object or one's own breathing:

"Sounds abound even in a quiet environment.... Pratyahara involves a gentle withdrawal of attention from these sounds in an attempt to cultivate a studied indifference to the source and significance of these sounds. In addition to thoughts triggered by sensory stimuli, is the spontaneous flow of thoughts often manifesting as rumination. The person learns to ignore these thoughts as well during pratyahara." [24]


Meditations on Work

A recent study showed that the average American worker wastes over two hours per 8-hour workday, not counting lunch and breaks. The biggest distraction was personal Internet use (surfing the web, like you're doing right now) at 45%, followed by socializing with co-workers (23%), conducting personal business (7%) and the ever-popular "spacing out" (4%) [26].

Not all of the wasted time is intentional. But just as the mind tends to wander from one thought to the next, the mouse clicks from one web link to the next, and soon an hour has passed. The primary time-wasting excuses were "Not enough work to do" (33%), "I'm underpaid for the amount of work I do" (23%), and "My co-workers distract me" (15%) [26].

"Wasted time" is not necessarily a bad thing, of course; we all need some play and a little slack. Furthermore, a good deal of problem solving happens while socializing with co-workers, spacing-out, etc.

However, there is something about the boss-employee relationship that can induce a sullen, adolescent resentment, an ongoing, unspoken slow-down strike consciously or unconsciously intended to make up for perceived injustices, such as being underpaid, overworked, underworked or forced to work on pointless projects. This is not an ideal situation for either the boss or the employee.

Instead of withdrawing from a boring or unpleasant situation, which is the usual response, we might try paying closer attention, looking for any parts of the job that might engage our curiosity and interest. We owe it to ourselves, and perhaps to our employers, to seek "right livelihood," either by looking for meaningful work or by searching for the meaning within our current work. Attention can add interest to even the most mundane job.

Those who manage to achieve a state of flow, working steadily during the day at projects for which they are well-suited, tend to be happier and less stressed than those who drag their heels and goof off at every opportunity. If we can learn to relax our bodies and focus our minds while working, we may be able to achieve the same or better results with less struggle, less cursing at the computer, less setting the office on fire and shooting our co-workers.

Muscle tension does not increase our productivity; it just causes burnout. Mindfulness practice can help us relax and stay focused on our most important goals, gently bringing us back on-task when we get sidetracked by unimportant activities.


Reminders to Be Mindful

"No matter what is chosen as a reminder, our real work is to remember. This remembering is called mindfulness." [27]

As another way of assisting the quest for mindfulness, we might borrow the technique of "experience sampling," which involves randomly sampling people's activities to see how they actually spend their time in daily life. Experience sampling was originally used by Csikszentmihalyi and Larson as a research tool [28]. For example, it could be used to provide a more accurate measure of wasted time than that obtained when employees reconstruct their experiences from memory.

A modified version of this method can be employed as a tool to promote mindfulness. For example, an occasional bell sound (perhaps once or twice per hour) could be used a cue to remind yourself to take a deep breath, relax, and adjust your posture. When you hear the bell, you could ask yourself, "Am I working, relaxing, or killing time? Am I focused on a worthwhile task?"

Aldous Huxley's novel Island featured hundreds of parrots that repeated the word "Attention," reminding the inhabitants to pay attention to the present moment [30]. Over time, we may habituate to such reminders, or they may even become new distractions, but reminders can be useful if we take the effort to seek out small moments of mindfulness.

An article called "Mindfulness and Mastery in the Workplace" offered an excellent list of 21 ways to reduce stress during the workday [27]. It provided suggestions such as:


ChatterBlocker

ChatterBlocker™ is a personal computer application intended to reduce distraction from unwanted speech. It offers a variety of speech-masking nature sounds, vocal sounds and music, which can be played individually or in any combination.

It also includes mindfulness meditation tracks of various lengths:

  • A "listening meditation" intended to desensitize you to office noise by helping you minimize judgments and emotional reactions that can be more distracting and stressful than the noise itself
  • A "breathing meditation" intended to enhance focus and concentration by teaching you to bring your mind back to your breathing each time it wanders or is distracted by office noise
  • A meditation on work and distraction

While the speech-masking sounds help block out distractions, the guided meditations are meant to help you minimize your distractibility. By practicing selective attention, you learn to focus on the "sound" of your own thoughts within a chaotic environment, without being disturbed by internal or external chatter. Ultimately, the goal is to help workers achieve a state of flow by getting totally absorbed in their work, which can be a type of meditation in itself.

The application also includes bell sounds that repeat at various intervals, such as once per hour. Workers can use these sounds in various ways; for example, the bell could be a reminder to


Conclusion

Office noise, particularly extraneous conversation, is a common cause of stress and distraction in the workplace. Sometimes it is possible to address the problem at the source or mask the unwanted speech with other sounds. However, we may also want to consider ways of tuning out the noise or minimizing our reaction to it, since our emotional response can be even more distracting than the original sound.

The practice of mindfulness can help increase concentration and reduce stress. An organized course, such as the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction classes taught in many hospitals and medical centers, can be an excellent way to make mindfulness part of your daily life. Guided meditations like those included in ChatterBlocker can serve as an introduction to meditation or a way of integrating mindfulness practice into your workday.


References

[1] E. Vickers, "Coping with Speech Noise in the Modern Workplace," http://chatterblocker.com/whitepapers/conversational_distraction.html, 2006.

[2] D. Goleman, Dalai Lama, Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Bantam, 2003.

[3] D. Goleman, "The Lama in the Lab: Neuroscience and Meditation," Shambhala Sun, March 2003.

[4] F. Stein, "Occupational stress, relaxation therapies, exercise and biofeedback," Work, 17(3), pp. 235-245, 2001.

[5] P. Carrington, G. Collings, H. Benson, H. Robinson, L. Wood, P. Lehrer, et al, "The use of meditation-relaxation techniques for the management of stress in a working population," Journal of Occupational Medicine, 22(4), pp. 221-231, 1980.

[6] J. Janowiak, R. Hackman, "Meditation and college students' self-actualization and rated stress," Psychological Reports, 75, pp. 1007-1010, 1994.

[7] S. Shapiro and R. Walsh, "An analysis of recent meditation research and suggestions for future directions," Humanistic Psychologist, 31, pp. 86-114, 2003.

[8] E. Langer, D. Heffernan, M. Kiester, Reducing Burnout in an Institutional Setting: An Experimental Investigation, Unpublished manuscript, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, 1988.

[9] D. Foris, "The Effect of Meditation," UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research VIII, 2005.

[10] M. Fiebert, T. Mead, "Meditation and Academic Performance," Perceptual and Motor Skills, 53, pp 447-450, 1981.

[11] P Hall, "The effect of meditation on the academic performance of African American college students," Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29 (3), pp. 408-415, 1999

[12] B. Gustavsson, "The Effects of Meditation on Two Top Management Teams," Studies in Action and Enterprise, 4, Department of Business Administration, University of Stockholm, 1990.

[13] N. Rani and P. Rao, "Effects of meditation on attention processes," Journal of Indian Psychology, 18, pp. 52-60, 2000.

[14] E. Valentine and P. Sweet, "Meditation and attention: a comparison of the effects of concentrative and mindfulness meditation on sustained attention," Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 2, pp. 59-70, 1999.

[15] A. Motluk, "Meditation builds up the brain," NewScientist.com, 2005 November 15.

[16] A. Dunkin and G. Smith, "Meditation, the new balm for corporate stress," Business Week, p. 86, 1993 May 10.

[17] M. McDonald, "Shush, the Guy in the Cubicle is Meditating," U.S. News and World Report, 1999 May 3.

[18] M. Hovanesian, "Zen and the Art of Corporate Productivity," BusinessWeek Online, 2003 July 28.

[19] J. Stevens, "Meditating on the Bottom Line: Employees Encouraged in Productive Form of Rest," The Washington Post, 1996 October 1.

[20] M. Duerr, A Powerful Silence: The Role of Meditation and Other Contemplative Practices in American Life and Work, The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, www.contemplativemind.org, 2004.

[21] J. Geirland, "Go With The Flow," Wired, 4.09, 1996 September.

[22] M. Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life, Basic Books, 1998.

[23] "Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi," Wikipedia.

[24] R. Bijlani, "Demystifying Meditation," Biofeedback, pp. 16-20, Fall 2004.

[25] J. Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Delacorte Press, 1990.

[26] D. Malachowski, "Wasted Time at Work Costing Companies Billions," salary.com, http://www.salary.com/careers/layoutscripts/crel_display.asp?ser=Ser374&part=Par555

[27] S. Santorelli, “Mindfulness and Mastery in the Workplace: 21 Ways to Reduce Stress During the Workday,” in A. Kotler (ed.), Engaged Buddhist Reader, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1996.

[28] R. Larson and M. Csikszentmihalyi, "The Experience Sampling Method," in H. Reis (Ed.), Naturalistic Approaches to Studying Social Interaction: New Directions for Methodology of Social and Behavioral Science, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1983.

[29] L. Cullen, "How to Get Smarter, One Breath at a Time," Time Magazine, 2006 January 10.

[30] A. Huxley, Island, New York: Perennial Library, 1962.

 

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