Use the Cone of Silence to Improve Your Focus

by Henrik Edberg

For many years I tried listening to some excellent songs while studying or doing some other work.

It felt pretty great just sitting at my desk or lying in bed with music in the background and a book in front of my nose.

It didn’t turn out that great results-wise though. I learned and got things done. But it took a long time.

Finally I realized that I had to let the music go if I wanted to improve my focus and effectiveness.

Image by Môsieur J.Today I use what you may call a cone of silence while I work. How do you create one? You unplug and remove as many distractions in your work environment as possible. Some examples:

  • Unplug your internet cable. If you don’t, it may be tempting to just take a short breather online. Perhaps check your email or your RSS-feeds. Or chat for a few minutes with some friends via IM. This breather usually expands and before you know it your 5 minute break has become a 35 minute procrastination-session.
  • Unplug the phone. If have the possibility, consider unplugging or shutting off the phone for a while. Talking, smsing and emailing can become big distractions and time-thieves.
  • Shut the door. Get away from the voices and noises outside your room. Try to keep it as silent as possible to be able to focus on your work.

When you have removed those sources of interruptions and distractions I like to take it a bit further.

I reduce and clean up visual clutter.

What you clean up may differ from person to person.

Just like the factors above.

But I like to do these three things before I for instance start writing a post like the one you are reading right now:

  • Declutter the desk. I remove old coffee mugs, put things back where I got them, order any loose papers in neat piles and throw out what is not needed. This creates a clean workspace with a minimum of visual distractions.
  • Declutter the desktop. If I have any files/icons on the desktop that should be stored somewhere else on the computer I move them. What I don’t need anymore I throw out.
  • Do the dishes. Since I live in a small apartment the dirty dishes are never far away. And for some reason they really add to my mental clutter. I have a hard time focusing on getting things done when they are looming in the background. So I do the dishes and a big part of my mental clutter disappears.

All these things are very simple and can be done quickly.

Creating this cone of silence makes your workspace look nice and clean. But the real upside is how it affects your mind. A decluttered and ordered workspace brings clarity and order to the mind. A silent workspace without the opportunity to distract yourself keeps your mind focused on what you want to get done.

It’s not always fun to give up your distractions. It’s not easy at first. I’m still trying to do it more consistently. But I’m improving and I am increasing my effectiveness and ability to focus on one single task. And I feel happier and more satisfied with my work and what I actually get done when I work in the silent and decluttered zone.

I still listen to music, of course. But nowadays I usually do it between sessions in the cone of silence.

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{ 12 comments }

Michael October 30, 2007 at 2:32 pm

This sooo applies to me and my youngest son (he’s 20.) I emailed him this blog entry right away.

Thank you! BTW, I love what you’re saying in your blog.

Henrik Edberg October 30, 2007 at 5:01 pm

Thanks, Michael. I hope you and your son will find some good use of the post to help you cut out distractions and to sharpen your focus.

Ivan Rios October 30, 2007 at 8:32 pm

Silence is also so important to analyze whether you are being productive, and not getting lost in day-to-day menial activities that just fill time and don’t really get anything done. It gives an opportunity to think. Great post, since it reminds people of the importance of silence.

Fattaneh October 31, 2007 at 8:11 am

I use music during studying my lessons and I find it wonderful because it’s the only way that let me not listening my brothers’ voice out of my room. I am anxious about if I turn off my mp3 player their voice wouldn’t let me study my lesson.

Henrik Edberg October 31, 2007 at 1:32 pm

Ivan: That’s an excellent point about silence. Thanks a lot for reminding us.

Fattaneh: If listening to music works out great for you then I’d continue doing it. Different things work for different people.

Chrissy the EA October 31, 2007 at 3:35 pm

Excellent post! I wish you had written it a year ago. I only recently discovered how powerful silence is. The only time I can listen to music and work is (1) if the music has no lyrics and (2) if the work is mindless, like cleaning.
Thanks for another wonderful post!!

Henrik Edberg October 31, 2007 at 4:25 pm

Thanks, Chrissy. I also use music for mindless tasks. I’ve tried music with no lyrics for more demanding tasks and it seems to work better than music with lyrics. But silence still seems to be the best choice for me.

Joel Libava November 7, 2007 at 4:56 pm

Thank you so much for the “cone” post.
When I unplug, my focus is so much better.
You write some great stuff,and I have have linked to you for almost a year!
Joel Libava
The Franchise King Blog

vsio November 18, 2007 at 7:18 am

I like your blog, It is useful for me. Thank you!

V Sio
http://www.visualizationforwealth.com

Rahul Singh December 30, 2007 at 4:53 pm

Thanks for the wonderfull post.
It’s going to be difficult to completely remove music from my study time but the other stuff definitely seem to be working for me.
Thank you for this…..

Steve March 27, 2008 at 1:00 am

Loving your site – finding it very helpful

I thought it was just my age and getting all cranky, but I really need silence to reach that hyper-focused-productive zone – and boy what a difference it makes when I get there.

Steve.

Sarah June 9, 2009 at 11:41 pm

and if the cone of silence rarely exists?? I think that’s what Fattaneh is saying and values the music for. I have bought music specifically for its ‘ignorability’ just to block out the noise around me. (I won’t state which music because I’m sure the artists would be appalled!)

That said, your points are very valuable. I try to notice when the office gets quiet so that I can make use of that cone. Now cleaning off the desk…

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