Crying Children and Crackling Campfires

One of the common benefits listed for remote work is that you can have some peace and quiet and therefore be more productive without the interruptions and background noise of the office environment.

But it wasn’t happening for me. Why not? Sure, I had more time without the long commutes into New York. But I felt like there were more distractions, more interruptions, more noise. Why was that? At Fog Creek, my office had been right next to the open area where the sales team worked. They spent the whole day on the phone, talking to customers. And honestly, though I had a door that could close, I often left it open. Their noise didn’t bother me much at all, and it would sometimes get loud.

Now that I worked from home, it seemed like the smallest noises from my wife or kids, who were often at the other end of the house, would disrupt my concentration. What was going on?

I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for months, and it took learning some new things before this pattern (which continued for a while), began to make sense. I learned that background noise is healthy and can help us be more creative. There are now many websites and apps that will recreate the casual background noise of coffee shops or nature in an attempt to stimulate greater creativity.

Once I understood that, I started using it occasionally. My current favorite background noise website is Noisli. One thing that’s nice about it is that I can pick the background noises I like – I usually go with an even mix of rain and a crackling fire.

I was just reminded of the second realization that made this all clear. As I started writing this blog post this morning, the kids began to wake up. Thus, background noise. My three year old daughter began crying, not loudly or annoyingly, more like a little whimper coming from her room. Normally, I’d let my wife deal with it. But it went on for a little bit. And so I jumped up to check on her. After giving her a hug and calming her down a bit, I found out that Mom had walked in on her getting dressed. She was crying because she had wanted to finish before Mom came in to surprise her by being all ready for the day. This so disturbed her that she sent Mom away and proceeded to console herself by crying about it.

Cute? Yeah. Distracting? Yeah.

But the point for me wasn’t that it was cute. The point for me was that it was background noise that I couldn’t ignore. The noise of my daughter crying means something more to me than the sales guys at Fog Creek chattering away on the phone. It means more than a rainstorm or fire in the background. It means more than the bustling sounds of a busy coffee shop. And because of that I can’t ignore it.

There are just some types of background noise that my brain tunes into. It could be my daughter crying, or my sons playing and laughing together, or my wife trying to round up the kids to go to their home school co-op. I care about my family deeply. Anything they do is important to me. And that means that their background noise is never in the background of my mind.

It’s easy to think of background noises that would immediately make you sit up and take note. The sound of rushing water and a crackling fire are the peaceful sounds of camping on a summer night. But a snapped branch and the rustling of a large animal in the background, even if it’s quieter than the fire, would immediately take you out of your reverie.

Campfire (c) kennymatic

It’s pretty easy to ignore the background noises at a coffee shop. But if someone across the way starts talking on the phone about their friend with the same name as you, it would get really distracting really fast. You’d need to make an effort to ignore the conversation in which your name kept being repeated.

I’ve realized that when I’m working I need to find ways of eliminating the background noises that distract me. That’s one reason we’re building a new office in the garage. The extra insulation will make things quieter, eliminating the distracting background noise of my kids being homeschooled each day.

Until that’s complete, Noisli is my go-to source for overpowering the distracting noises of my family. I also like to listen to music, especially music I found and loved back in college. I know the words by heart, and its so familiar that I’ll sometimes get into the coding flow and only realize 10 minutes after it’s stopped that I didn’t pay attention to a single song on the whole album. And I probably sang along with half of them.

What tools do you use to eliminate distracting background noise? To ensure healthy background noise?