On the work side of our lives, we struggle to wrap up goals and objectives and ponder what commitments await us the first of the year. On the home front, we have the myriad of holiday events ranging from concerts, faith community celebrations and family get-togethers. Facing this veritable soup of logical and emotional endeavors, it seemed appropriate to focus this newsletter on the concept of seeking quiet and solitude as a way to withstand the stressors that nag us this time of year.
A little disclosure here: I am an ambivert. No, that does not mean that I eat flies sitting on a lily pad in a pond. Ambiverts are neither extroverts nor introverts but rather straddle the line between the two. Having one foot, as it were, in each world makes me sensitive to the varying needs for quiet between individuals. On days where I am experiencing low stress and feeling more extroverted in nature, quiet bores me, makes me feel under-stimulated and distracted. On stressful days I am pulled much more inward so that noise and stimulation is excessively distracting and my productivity goes out the window. Experiencing both sides of the continuum makes me acutely aware of how important it is to plan for the level of quiet I need to be the most effective.
My mind was really opened to this whole concept by reading Susan Cain’s brilliant book Quiet, reviewed in the side column on the right. Take some time this holiday season to read Cain’s book and think about your own need for quiet. Then you can plan the New Year to consciously build the best level of noise in your world so that you can work more effectively to get the most done.
Happy Holidays to you all. May your New Year be full of peace, prosperity and good health!
QUIET: AN OVERLOOKED PRODUCTIVITY TOOL
By Dr. Alice Waagen
I crave quiet. Solitude is a luxurious state, difficult to find, but comforting when I find it. Like other luxuries, rarity demands a high price. Sometimes this price is in real currency, as in paying for a weekend getaway. Other times, quiet demands the price of time and discipline, requiring me to carve out a place to turn off and tune out.
No matter the cost, solitude has vast rewards. When I am alone with little external stimulation, my brain relaxes and slows down. Buried thoughts emerge and new insights surface. I will sometimes pick up a thread of mental discourse I abandoned days earlier just when I was reaching a good conclusion. I can stop to study an idea or just let it drift by for another time. I find that I am most creative when noise abates and my brain energizes.
There is a truism in the antique world that says the more there was then, the less there is now. Put plainly, the more common an item was years ago, the scarcer it is today. Common items get discarded as valueless, creating scarcity later. The ubiquitous dinnerware known as Fiesta ware, popular in the 1940’s and 1950’s, aptly illustrates this phenomenon. Cheap, gaudy and plentiful as it was in its day, most Fiesta ware ended up broken or trashed. Now scarce, it demands a high price in the collectables market.
Early in my life, quiet time was like Fiesta ware – abundantly available. I did not need to seek it out; indeed I more often pursued noise and stimulation. Absent from these times were iPods, tablets, wireless technology, cell phones, need I say more. Lest I sound like a Luddite, let me clarify that I do not think of pre-technology life as better, just different, vastly different from today.
Today I need to consciously choose quiet, when the norm is beeping emails and buzzing phones. Because solitude and quiet need to be a conscious decision, I now plan how to get the quiet time that I need so that I can refresh and renew my harried brain cells. Over the years, I’ve developed a 5-step process to build quiet into my life. Let me share it with you so that you can use it to document the amount, quality and sources of reflection time that will allow you to renew and rebuild your mental efficiency.
- Assess your quiet threshold. Determine the level of silence you need to maximize your productivity. For me, total quiet can actually be a bit distracting. I need a low level of background noise, the kind you find in a typical office with commercial white noise, to be the most productive for serious concentration. I use a low level of background music in my office to enhance the absolute quiet into a non-distracting noise level.
- Analyze your work for the concentration level you need. Examine a typical week or month and code your major repetitive work tasks as those needing a high level of concentration, those that need moderate concentration, and those that are so routine that you need little attention to successfully execute them. For me, original writing requires the most mental power, phone conversations and reading are moderately demanding and cleaning out my email or paper work are least. Look especially at work you are doing in a team or meeting setting. Does it require heavy concentration? Do you need quiet to work at your best? Be careful to build solo breakouts into the agenda where you and others can get away briefly and concentrate.
- Inventory possible work locations. Once you identify your quiet baseline, you can identify locations and environments with more stimuli (office break rooms and cafeterias; busy noisy coffee shops, and so on) for the tasks that do not require deep concentration. My colleagues who are self-employed and have no commercial office space, usually gravitate toward the public libraries or the larger, more relaxed coffee shops when they need moderate levels of noise to concentrate. Identify multiple work locations with various levels of quiet and stimulation. If your office is “open door” (a phrase I abhor because it can make the office a freeway, not a work space) then look for other quiet places in your space you can use. Or, negotiate a telework day but don’t restrict yourself to home, look at local libraries and quiet coffee shops to use. Think about it: handheld and wireless technologies allow us to work anywhere yet we still limit ourselves to the traditional desk in an office setting.
- Work your schedule. As much as is feasible, match the work task with the most appropriate location. Challenge yourself to find creative places to work that maximize your productivity. If you find yourself struggling to concentrate, determine what is getting in the way. Is it too much noise? Too little quiet? Be conscious of the effect the work location has on your ability to get the job done.
- Reassess and revise as needed. At the end of every day, give yourself a productivity rating. Use a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being “low productivity, I didn’t get anything done,” and 5 being “boy, I was on fire and smoked everything on my list.” Then ask why, what in the environment helped your concentration, what was distracting? Use this data to get better and better at matching up your need for quiet with the best place to work.
I wrote the first draft of this newsletter first thing in the morning when my office was quiet as a tomb. I am now editing it in a moderately noisy yet stimulating coffee shop. The noise gives me a chance to think through these edits while planning the next body of writing I need to crank out. Only problem, I drink a lot of coffee these days!