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A Self-Imposed “Earbud Exile”? December 22, 2005

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Knowledge Workers, Technology.

More and more, I’m thinking about the psychology of knowledge workers and busy/noisy environments. For the purpose of this discussion, I define knowledge workers as people who have to concentrate for long periods of time, and then taking actions based on those thoughts. Rather like the polar opposte to elected officials, who take actions, and are later forced to spend many hours making up stories to explain those actions.

Ear-Buddy System
On a regular basis, I have found myself intentionally isolating myself with earbud-style headphones. Sometimes this is in the gym (though not often enough), sometimes when I’m waiting in an airport, but most often when I’m working in a crowded room or a cubicle. Interestingly, when I’ve worked in a private office, having music playing was only necessary for me when I needed to really hyper focus, which is to say completely ignore potential distractions in the environment.

Obviously, distracting and isolating ourselves in public places makes a social statement. Simply putting some earbuds or headphones on seems to shout “I don’t want to listen to you or anything around me.” In a noisy subway or airport, where interaction with strangers is uncommon (and frequently unwelcome), this makes some sense. However, it seems almost rude to do this in the context of co-workers and/or friends. Should I feel insulted when my cube-neighbor slips on headphones and is suddenly immune to me calling out, “Did you see the latest Dilbert strip?”, or should I accept the headphones as the cube-land equivalent of a closed door?

Phoney Calls
Last night, I saw a mobile headset that switches between cellphone and MP3 connections. I joked with the salesman that once my co-workers learned about the functionality, they would no longer know if I was really talking on the phone, or simply talking to myself while I listened to my iPod. That immediately reminded me that there were times that I considered putting my desk phone’s headset on, to make people think I was on the phone and therefore not interrupt me when I was trying to concentrate. (As an aside, it’s interesting that people don’t seem to have any problem with interrupting someone reading highly complex documents, but will think twice about interrupting a phone call, regardless of the nature of the call.)

Maybe I Need Interruption Isolation Headphones
So now I’m starting to feel self-conscious about my self-imposed “earbud exile.” Am I being rude? Am I really more productive? Did I really add Janis Joplin to this playlist?

Things were so much easier when I could just close the door when I wanted some privacy.


1. Peter Harkins - May 27, 2006

So to sum up, you feel rude because you’re trying to recapture the lost privacy that made you productive? Sounds like a pretty dynsfunctional place to work.

Check out the book Peopleware for a quantitative look at the effects of music and other distractions on knowledge workers, and get your door back.

2. timthefoolman - May 27, 2006

Yes, I felt rude trying to gain privacy. One of my co-workers joked that the only way for him to get any coding done was to go to one of the “quiet rooms” and pretend to be having an extended personal phone call.

This was also a summation of things that I’ve been hearing about people wearing earbuds when they’re out and about, riding the subway, walking the dog, and so on. For me, the point of convergence was when I realized that I was losing productive time in the office, but also when using public transportation, or even walking the dog. I wanted the privacy, but the world seems to be screaming that doing so is wrong, and creates an “isolationist society” on the micro level.

BTW, I now have a door again, but I had to change jobs to get it. And yes, the previous environment was dysfunctional.

Peopleware is a good read, and you’re right about the observations about music and distractions for knowledge workers. – Tim

3. Daniel - May 28, 2006

I use my iPod at work all the time, and I’m not the one who is being rude.

My coworkers routinely tap the tabletops with their fingertips, click their pens over and over and over and over, cut their fingernails with nail clippers, and have numerous conversations about sports or how much money other people are making.

I’ve had a few comments about my earphones, and I try not to take offense. I’m not used to people suggesting that I’m not being professional – but I think it would be unwise to confront them about the noise pollution they create.

I’ve done the math, and figured out why people are so noisy and inconsiderate. It’s because they’re _bored_. The moment a true crisis comes up at work, the nail clippers get put away, the pens stop clicking, and people tend to shut up.

4. Ray - May 30, 2006

I’m wedged in between a (used to be two) marketing manager who is extremely enthusiastic on the phone, and an highly gregarious programmer who constantly chats to himself while he codes. The noise is unbearable, yet I have no where to hide. The irony is that HR has put in so much effort into making our cubes ergonomically safe and comfortable, yet when I brought up the issue of noise, they tell me to find an empty conference room (scarce) or go to cafe. I’ve tried, with the result of my hands cramping from the laptop.

5. Mr Angry - May 31, 2006

Earbuds are definitely the way to go. People can still get your attention if they need to but the constant low-level distractions can be negated. Mind you, the choice of music is important. Taste is an individual thing but I can’t concentrate if some really driving rhythm is pounding in my head. Music without too much variation between the highs and lows works best for me.

Also, a little counter-intuitively, it helps if I don’t listen to my real favourite. That way I won’t get distracted by wanting to sing along.

6. A Fool and his Words are Soon Parted » The Social Effects of Going Topless - July 19, 2006

[…] A Convertible: The Anti-iPod? At some level, it seems that this is the antithesis of the isolation that we experience when we carry around an iPod (or other MP3 player) and earbuds in our ears. Instead of being sealed up in my cocoon, safe from the rest of the world, I’m out in the open, almost inviting social interaction. […]

7. Aphra Behn - July 20, 2006

Interesting stuff. I will very very occasionally use the radio on my mobile to cut out background words. I can cope with noise, but words distract me. I’ve got a different take on it though. I wonder how often we use ear-buds to cut out our inner-voices as well as the outer ones?

Ach, what do I know.

Nice blog.


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