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January 2014
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TD Magazine

Tuning Out the Open Office

Studies show when to trade your earbuds for earplugs in the office.

Intelligence1
Although employers favor open-plan office layouts, believing that they encourage communication and innovation, employees are quick to complain about the noise levels. The ceaseless chatter and other uncontrollable noises of the office can certainly distract us from our tasks, which is why many employees pop in earbuds or headphones. But does importing our own sounds actually help us focus better?

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Some researchers surmise that the simple act of exerting control over our aural environments can improve our focus. However, new studies show that listening to music is sometimes detrimental to our performance. Apparently, it depends on the task.

In a 2010 study conducted at Cardiff Metropolitan University, researchers found that music undermines short-term memory performance. Study participants were asked to recall a series of sounds in a certain order. Those who listened to music while they completed the task fared worse than those who completed the task in a quiet environment.

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On the other hand, tasks that require psychomotor skills, such as driving or even performing surgery, might be performed better while listening to music. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that surgeons worked faster and more accurately when listening to music that they liked. (Even music that they didn't like helped them perform better than having no music at all.)

When using music as a concentration-booster, proceed with caution. Tasks requiring a relaxed focus, and that you've done repeatedly, likely will get done faster and better if you listen to some tunes in the process. But if you're working on something that involves learning and remembering, make your environment as quiet as possible.

About the Author
Stephanie Castellano is a former writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD). She is now a freelance writer.
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