Silence is golden: how to sound-proof your writing room

image Interruptions kill productivity. But background noise can slow you down in less obvious ways:

  • Fatigue. Noise makes you tired. Just as shouting over loud music in a bar strains your voice, your brain has to work harder to filter out unwanted information.
  • Poor concentration. It’s more likely that your brain will latch onto some background noise, speech or music and interrupt your flow of thoughts. While this isn’t the same as the phone ringing, it takes to refocus after each micro-interruption.
  • Uncreativity. Background music taps into your creative brain leaving it with less bandwidth to come up with cool new ways to express yourself.

For more on this, check out Peopleware. It goes into great detail about the effects of noise and interruption on productivity (among other things).

Writers need to concentrate for extended periods, they need to be imaginative to come up with one good word after another and they need to keep a mental map of the document they are writing so that each word and sentence makes a coherent whole.

Here’s how I try to reduce the noise level in my writing room.

  • Designated writing room. I write in a study. I know that this is a great luxury but you can turn any room into a writing room by setting out your writing equipment in a conscious, deliberate way and telling yourself ‘this is where I work’. The decision itself makes it happen. It’s best to work alone in a room with a door.
  • Keep outsiders out. I keep my door shut when I’m working and I have a funny sign (see picture) on the outside that makes it clear that I don’t want to be interrupted when I’m working. It’s a good deterrent to stray actors or whoever else may be wandering around. My wife runs a theatre company and sometimes people rehearse at home.
  • Stop PC interruptions. I switch off Outlook new mail pings, Twitter alerts, Skype on ‘busy’
  • Phone on silent. My iPhone pings, chirps and beeps constantly. Putting it on silent stops that until I’m ready to deal with it.
  • Noise-cancelling headphones. I use Bose headphones which cancel out a lot of outside noise. In the winter they also keep my ears warm. I’m a big fan of Bose and I use their aviation headphones when I’m flying too. For travel, I have some Shure in-ear headphones which are pretty good.
  • Silent PC. I have a custom-built Chillblast silent PC which is really good. It’s actually silent in operation. You’d be surprised how much noise a regular PC makes. My wife’s PC squeaks and the fan purrs away. I also use a Hush MediaPC which is very, very quiet but that’s in the TV room. I recommend them too.
  • Double-glazing. It helps a lot but it’s expensive but even a heavy curtain can cut out noise from outside. I also try to stop people chatting in the garden outside my window when I’m working.
  • Soundproofing. A friend built a sound studio in his house and sound-proofing foam etc. Isn’t horrendously expensive but I don’t use it. Instead, I lined the two interior walls of my study with shelves and books to deaden the incoming noise. A carpet or rug can help; also in the room above your writing room.
  • Switch stuff off. Do you need the central heating or A/C on? I have mine on a timer so it’s off during the day. That stops a lot of plumbing noises. I also use a central power control to switch off electrical items in my study. It’s surprising how much noise some power adaptors and chargers make. Ideally, I like to make sure that radios and stereos around the house are switched off too but since other people have their own lives it isn’t always possible.
  • Silent brain. Increasingly, I find a short period of zazen (sitting meditation) helpful in stopping the bubbling noise of my own mind. It doesn’t have to have any religious connotations; it’s just about letting your mind focus on the present moment and relax a little.
  • Earplugs. I use Quies ear plugs. They’re a little more expensive than the usual ones but cancel more noise. Mainly I use them when travelling but if there are builders outside or something they work well inside my headphones to create a zone of silence.

If this is helpful, please check out another article: 22 ways to stay focused on writing.

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17 Responses to Silence is golden: how to sound-proof your writing room

  1. Nancy February 5, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    My in-laws have lived with us off and on for years. When they’re here, the noise levels are maddening. I can expect the fire alarm to go off *at least* once whenever my mother-in-law starts cooking, for instance.

    The only thing that keeps me sane when they’re around is my set of noise-canceling headphones, also Bose. Honestly, I don’t know how I survived as long as I did without them. (“Them” being the Bose, not the in-laws.)

  2. kristell February 6, 2010 at 10:27 am #

    I wish my employers would read this – Central Bedfordshire Council – they have decided to do the exact opposite and instead of us having our own offices there is a massive refurbishment programme to convert all areas to massive open plan office with less than three foot between you and the person sitting next to you – in banks of 6/8 whatever can be fitted in. I can’t even conctrate to read an email when there are five others around me all talking let alone write a comittee report!

  3. Joani Edens February 8, 2010 at 5:12 am #

    I definitely empathize with Kristell. I’ve worked in positions where I could not control the noise around me and reacted in line with the study you linked, with headaches and lack of concentration.

    However, I now work from home and thought I had it made until reading your list. I understand about insulating out your wife’s business noises, but it sounds like you work in a bubble. I’m not sure if that would help me or drive me batty, but I think I’m willing to try a few of the easier items to find out. I am setting higher performance goals for myself and will need all the energy, focus and concentration I can get to meet them.

    Thanks for sharing. If you have a spare sec, cross your fingers for me… I have a bet with my hubby on what I will be able to accomplish!

    • Matthew Stibbe February 8, 2010 at 6:34 am #

      When I’m writing I need the bubble. I get my work done so much faster and better when I can concentrate properly. But I’m not isolated – when I’m not working, I get out and see people. Also, I think it’s very important to have face to face contact with clients so I have plenty of meetings and so on. I did work in an office for a while with lots of other people – my old company had 60+ employees – and I wouldn’t go back.

  4. Lorraine February 8, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    Hi Matthew:

    I admire your ability to concentrate with a rehearsal in progress in your home. (My first career was acting and I know rehearsals can get intense. And LOUD.)

    Finding quiet is a ongoing challenge. While researching and planning projects I can handle small distractions. But I need utter quiet to draft copy.

    Sound proofing would be heaven.

    I’ve been considering Bose ear phones for some time. I occasionally use disposable earplugs–but a number of ear infections obviated this noise-canceling option.

    Regarding switching stuff off: Au contraire, in the summer I switch the AC/fan on. I find the white noise a soothing relief from my neighbors’ incessant power lawn mower. (In the fall it’s leaf blowers, in the winter, snow-blowers. Argh.)

    • Matthew Stibbe February 8, 2010 at 4:07 pm #

      Ah! White noise. That’s not a bad idea. :) Matthew

  5. professional copywriter February 8, 2010 at 7:02 pm #

    As an agency copywriter I don’t have a room as such – more an office surrounded with the loudest printers in the world!!!
    I adopt the headphone technique, listening to some calming music (no lyrics) often makes things go a little smoother.

  6. Shaun Hume February 14, 2010 at 1:10 am #

    I disagree with background music being something that can slow you down when writing. I often use music as something to inspire what I’m writing. Esspecially depending on the mood of what I’m writing, like listening more emotive music if I’m writing something descriptive in a story, setting the scene. Or if it is a more intense passage then I might listen to heavier music to help me get that intensity into the story.

    • Matthew Stibbe February 15, 2010 at 6:51 am #

      I listen to music when I work too – mainly classical if I have to think – but I’m increasingly persuaded that silence is the best policy! :)

  7. Dawn Embers February 21, 2010 at 6:10 am #

    This is a very interesting post and I hope some of my writer friends get to look at it. For me, I don’t mind noise. I write with tv going or music. People being around doesn’t bother me because for the 2008 NaNoWriMo, I much of the writing in a coffee shop. Though I do wish I had a writing room. A location with a proper seat and place for my laptop would be beyond ideal at this point. Some day.

  8. Joana C April 13, 2010 at 11:40 am #

    This is an interesting article.
    I agree with Lorraine “Sound proofing would be heaven”. I work from home and my neighbor’s noise levels are maddening. After months of me struggling with their ridiculous music, I finally got my wall done with this product called quietrock and I am so happy with the results. Now I have a noise free room. I have tried the headphone technique, listening to some calming music but at times you need absolute silence.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Matthew Stibbe April 13, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

      That’s great. I’ve often wondered how you would add quiet proofing to an existing room. Matthew

  9. Taylor Dryden March 7, 2011 at 7:19 pm #

    My name is Taylor Dryden I am a Student at Manchester High School, and I did a Science project that has to do with sound dampening. In this project, I took 3 different sizes of aluminum and taped them to a cookie sheet that was clamped onto a counter all at different times, then took a nut attached to a string that would strike the cookie sheet in the middle each time i released it from the same height. I would record each noise level that came off of the cookie sheet being hit with a DB, and I took the graphs and compared the noise levels. It seemed to be that the littler the sheet of aluminum got, the less sound it reduced, but also adding in between the pieces of aluminum and cookie sheet, then added a viscoelastic layer, which was double sided carpet tape. If any way possible that you could take the time out and talk to me a little about how you think this viscoelastic layer helps reduce the noise level, or if you think the type of metal would affect the noise level reduction, I would be very appriciative. If anyway possible, could you also tell me what your oppinion and thoughts are on the sound barriers that are along highway, and how helpful you think they are.

    Thank you for your time, please get back with me as soon as possible!

    Thank you very much,
    Taylor Dryden

    • Matthew Stibbe March 7, 2011 at 7:57 pm #

      Thanks for the comment on my blog. I’m afraid I really have no idea at all about sound engineering. I would suggest you talk to someone who builds recording studios or perhaps someone in an engineering department at a university. Your experiment sounds very interesting though and I wish you every success with it. Matthew

  10. Soundproofing March 8, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    If we really want to soundproof places then we need to understand what sound actually is and does. Airborne sound is produced from a source which vibrates the air molecules and sets up sound waves that travel through the air. Sound waves are produced over a wide range of frequencies with only a limited band between 15 to 20,000 Hertz being audible to the normal human ear. it is these frequencies we soundproof against, so the materials we use must stand up to this.

    Unwanted noise levels from impact and structure borne sound through separating walls and floors are reduced by the use of isolating construction and resilient pads or mats. A masonry cavity wall is the simplest form of isolated construction but generally the leaves will need to be tied together for structural reasons which unfortunately create a route for the transfer of sound. The Building Regulations specify types of tie to be used for internal and external cavity walls. The leaves of the wall which form the core should be constructed of dense brick or blockwork to provide mass to counter the transfer of airborne sound and be faced on the room side(s) with lightweight plaster or plasterboard which will act to absorb some of the sound.

    A single leaf internal wall should be built of dense brick or blockwork to provide mass and be faced each side with dense panelling spaced 25mm minimum off the core wall for isolation.

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