Music and distractions in the workplace

I was recently re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and it re-reminded me of why I do not like to listen to music in the workplace. The thesis in Pirsig’s book (in regards to listening to music) is simple; you can’t concentrate entirely on the task at hand if you have music distracting you. So those who value their work tend to not have idle distractions like music playing (and be all engrossed in their work).

I have worked in various shared workspaces (cubicles and shared offices) for quite a while now, and I do have a knack for going off into space and ignoring all of the background noise around me. But I still do not like listening to music, even though I have learned to cope with the situation. At this point I prefer the open office workspace, as there at least is no illusion of privacy. When I worked at a cubicle someone coming behind me and scaring me was basically a daily thing.

Scott Adams, the artist of the Dilbert comic, had a recent blog post saying that music is the lesser evil compared to constant distractions via the internet (email, facebook, twitter, etc.) This I can understand as well, and sometimes I turn off the wi-fi to try to get work done without distraction. I don’t see how turning on music helps, but given its prevalence it may just be differences between myself and other people. I should probably turn off the wi-fi for all but an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon everyday, but I’m pretty addicted to the internet at this point.

It partly depends on the task I am currently working on though how easily I am distracted. Sometimes I can get really engrossed in a particular problem and become obsessed with it to the point you could probably set the office on fire and I wouldn’t notice. For example this programming problem dominated my thoughts for around two days, and I ended up thinking of the general solution while I did not have access to the computer (while I was waiting for my car to get inspected). Most of the time though I can only give that type of concentration for an hour or two a day though, and the rest of the time I am working in a state of easy distraction.

Background music I don’t like, and other ambient noises I can manage to drown out, but background TV drives me crazy. My family was watching videos (on TV and tablets) the other day while I was reading Zen and ironically I became angry, because I was really into the book and wanted to give it my full concentration. I know people who watch TV in bed to go to sleep, and it is giving me a headache just thinking about it while I am writing this blog post.

I highly recommend both Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Scott Adam’s blog. I’m glad I revisited Zen, as it is an excellent philosophical book on the logic of science that did not make much of an impression on me as an undergrad, but I have a much better grasp of it after having my PhD and reading some other philosophy texts (like Popper).

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