The advantage of working in an open-plan office is that it’s easy to interact with your colleagues; the downside to working in an open-plan office is that it’s easy to be distracted by your colleagues interacting. Short of locking yourself away in an empty closet or meeting room, the next best anti-distraction technique is to plug your ears with sound to block out the distractions, and with an iPod or iTunes running it’s really easy to do.
But sometimes music is just as much of a distraction - a pounding beat or obtrusive vocals can be almost as bad as chattering colleagues if you’re trying to maintain a train of thought. So plain old noise can be better in these situations - but then the question is what kind of noise?
I’ve tried using noise generation software to mask out background sounds - pink or white noise is very effective at blocking out extraneous noise. But it’s not particularly pleasant - there’s a good reason why blasting victims with white noise is a favourite CIA interrogation technique.
An alternative I’ve come across is ChatterBlocker - it’s a small app that has a number of built-in soundtracks of things like running water, birdsong, random chillout-y music and indistinct voices. The clever part is that you can mix these sounds together at various volumes to create a custom soundscape that works for you - so currently I’ve got a babbling brook and birdsong with a smattering of airy chords blocking out the sound of colleagues talking and the street beyond. It helps that I’m using a pair of Sennheiser CX300 in-ear headphones, which help to cut down the outside noise with rubbery bungs.
It’s very effective, and I’m surprised by how quickly you manage to forget the fact that you’re wearing ear buds and that the noise is artificially generated. It’s not quite working by the banks of a stream in a forest glade, but it’s certainly an improvement on a busy office in the centre of London.