Pump up the volume

Are you someone who can sit in the middle of your living room with the television on, kids running in and out of the room, and still concentrate fully on the book you’re reading? Are you unlike most people and actually find it difficult to focus when it’s completely silent?

If so, you may be one of the few who will be more successful with your organization efforts if you work with noise.

Borrow a white noise machine from a friend or run an old, clanging fan while organizing. There are also apps for your phone that will generate brown, pink, white, blue, and violet noise. Consider playing music with a quick beat, somewhere around 120 to 140 beats-per-minute, while you work.

If you have a stack of papers that need to be organized, toss them in a box with pad of sticky notes and head to your local coffee shop. The sounds of the customers, cash register, and milk steamer will provide background noise to keep you on track. If you don’t feel like going out, visit Coffitivity, a website that reproduces sounds from various types of coffee shops. They also have an offline version you can install on your phone.

Now, if you’re someone who has to have complete silence when you focus, please read the above advice as a list of things not to do. As long as you know your strengths, you can use them to your advantage while organizing.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

25 Comments for “Pump up the volume”

  1. posted by Tina Mammoser on

    I would just like to highly recommend the sound machine – I’ve had one for years now and it’s great. (I use it for studying and for sleeping.) They are also recommended for people with ADD as a distraction filter.

    I ordered mine direct because Marpac also do sell versions for the 220V UK/European electrics.

  2. posted by Wendi Kelly on

    As an adult with ADHD who works from home as a writer and artist, the white noise machine is a big help. I bought one after my doctor brought up the idea and it has been a great help both during the day and for sleeping!

  3. posted by Maggie on

    Thanks for this post — I’m glad I’m not alone! I decided to try to wear my iPod for one early morning cleaning/decluttering session & found that I get so much more done while having the music to gently distract me. I’ve used it countless times now and often can do so much more and actually have fun while I’m being productive.

  4. posted by Tami on

    My friends & family find it odd that Starbucks is my favorite place to read. For some reason it seems I concentrate and enjoy my book so much more even though I am constantly people watching or talking with the Baristas. I find that my son (who has diagnosed ADHD) is the same way. Sometimes when he has a TON of homework…we will go there to work on it…just seems to work best for both of us!!! Glad to see I am not alone!

  5. posted by Robin B. on

    I’d actually recommend white noise for those who prefer silence (like me), but don’t always have that luxury. I have a Marpac 980 and it’s fantastic for sleeping, but at work I just use headphones and a white noise CD.

  6. posted by Michele on

    In addition to being conducive to work for some people, I think going to a coffee shop makes the task more fun, even if it is work or homework. It just seems less like drudgery to me when I do it there.

  7. posted by George K. on

    I prefer the sound machine offerings from Brookstone and Sharper Image–in fact the sound machine is the only reason I’ve ever had to shop at SI, which suggests one reason they’ve gone bankrupt. The Marpac machines are also sinfully ugly–they all look like they’re from a 1960s medical device company.

    These sound machines are more expensive than most Marpac models but offer more options, too. Brookstone’s “tranquil moments” (ouch!) machine is particularly nice, as it has a few interesting sounds and divides them between sleep, relax and something like renewal or focus.

    The Sharper Image machine has a lot of sounds but many are useless, at least for my tastes.

  8. posted by Dee on

    I was just going to post that as a ADDer I find noise to be key to getting my job done (I’m a writer) and I’m happy to see that I’m not the only one! Great tip – I use it for work already, don’t know why I never considered it for home use!


  9. posted by Tim Visher on

    I have never been able to decide if I really am the kind of person that can work better with noise or without it. I *really* want to be a better worker with noise, but I think that the evidence may bear out that I focus better in silence. Problem is when I’m working in silence my thoughts really do flit around all over the place. It’s almost like the music or noise helps me to have little micro breaks every 30 or 45 seconds rather than being hyper-focussed for a long period of time.

    For people who are using Macs, if you need a noise generator, I would highly recommend this terrific little app, Noise from Black Hole (http://www.blackholemedia.com/noise/). When I don’t feel like listening to music, it works really well, and it’s interface is really nice.

    What I really want to know is how you can really test whether or not you work better with noise or not. I’d pay to find that out about myself. 🙂

    Great post!

  10. posted by amber on

    i totally agree with what you’ve posted! i’m one of those people who cannot stand absolute quiet. i’m actually working in my home office these days without a TV or a radio, and it’s kind of driving me mad (though i can listen to music on my laptop if need be).

    when i sleep, i don’t use a sound machine, but rather…and air filter. i cannot fall asleep with complete silence, and if i could, some random noise during the night would wake me. the fan in the air filter is perfect, because it drowns out background noise, but doesn’t distract me the way some of the settings on a normal sound machine can.

  11. posted by Chip on

    I have a few choice stations in iTunes’ radio feature that I’ll put on in the background. This provides the noise I need to work, I don’t have to hear the same songs I’m familiar with and I just may come across something new.

  12. posted by Lori on

    Whether I need noise or silence completely depends on the task, and the type of noise makes a difference, too. For editing or proofing difficult material, I need silence. For lighter fare, I can go with a familiar CD or jumbled cafe chatter. It seems to keep that part of my mind not really needed for the task at hand occupied, rather than thinking about all the things I have to do. But, if the background noise is the radio, TV, or a single conversation, I can’t do it — something about the unpredictability of not knowing what’s coming next on the radio and the inability to shut out conversations/broadcasts I can actually follow.

    For general organizing tasks, laying out an upcoming project, working on my jewelry, and everything else, I do better with music.

  13. posted by Kris on

    The white noise machine is fabulous and we can’t live without it. Our boys use one, too. It’s the nicest ‘noise’ we’ve found ….

  14. posted by Jason on

    I’ve been using this little program on my Macbook to create “pink noise” when my wife has the TV on too loud or the kids have noisy friends over. Not perfect, but it helps.


  15. posted by Rhynole on

    I can’t stand the silence. I need some kind of noise, but white noise is not it. I must be entertained at all times. So whenever I am doing any household chores(laundry, cooking, dishes, lawn care), I have my headphones on, either listening to music or talk radio. I find that I can get so much more done because I am not dreading the fact that I am working, but instead focused on something more entertaining.

  16. posted by kimberly on

    I have started listening to classical music when I work around the house or the office. I feel like it is helping with my productivity. I use a sound machine to help me get to sleep at night. I have a hard time sleeping if it is too quiet.

  17. posted by Leslie on

    I can’t really deal with white noise, but I don’t like to work in silence either (except for reading). The type of music depends on what kind of work I’m doing. Does anyone know of a program that tells you beats-per-minute of a song, or is that functionality built into iTunes or Windows Media Player and I just haven’t found it?

  18. posted by Tim Visher on

    @Leslie: I kind of wish iTunes had a better discovery feature but it does, in fact, support beats per minute information. It in the song info->Info->BPM (near the bottom on the left). You’ve gotta manually enter it, but you can do this slowly over awhile, starting with music you know you like to listen to during certain types of work. Then, just create a few smart playlists and base them on the BPM value (i.e. 200).

    One trick that I use to get a similar effect is I use the genre field like a value list and certain keywords mean that I think the song is “energetic” or “chill”. Then, I base my smart playlists on that. This catches the problem of a song being relaxing yet still fairly hi in BPM. Of course, you could just as easily make “fake” bpms that simply mean 60=relaxing, 120=normal, 240=hi-octane.

    It would be really cool to find a program that counted the BPM for you, though!

  19. posted by pixieopower on

    LOL. I am a waitress and i actually have a regular couple that comes to the restaurant Sunday afternoons SPECIFICALLY to do their filing, de-junking of mail, and small(ish) organization projects. While it works great for them I have had to remind them several times to warn me when they need a new trash bag. Six person booth with 2 people and a weeks worth of paper junk and it still over flows. I am going to give them this website next time I see them!

  20. posted by Fractal Dimension on

    I found, that high-BPM instrumental music (like drum & bass) seems to work best for me when I need to focus on programming, maths and similar tasks.
    Havent’t tried white/pink noise yet, but as an amateur electronic musician I don’t think I would enjoy it… 🙂

  21. posted by Wendy on

    I play my dance/techno and upbeat broadway CD’s loud while decluttering the house. The music gets my feet moving (too many years of marching band) and the job gets done faster and adds a bit of an aerobic workout.

    If I have let the filing go to long, I put in a favorite movie and challenge myself to be finished by the end of the movie.

  22. posted by Andy on

    This little website may provide the noise you need with no cost! (Also I found that the website for the mac noise app doesn’t seem to be there anymore 🙁


  23. posted by Andy on

    Oh! Here’s the link: http://www.simplynoise.com/
    Oops! Should have been listening to the noise!

  24. posted by Meeta Shah on

    I definitely prefer complete silence when working on things. Read this as a list of things not to do.

  25. posted by Kate S on

    Dear lord, are there really people in the world so goddamn extroverted they would take a stack of papers that need sorting to a public place to work on them?! No thank you. I’ll take my completely silent house and fervently hope no sound intrudes on my peace.

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