June 25, 2013, 6:00 AM —
Image credit: flickr/Jon Bell
To distract or not to distract? That’s usually not much of a question when it comes to programmers. For most, distractions hurt their coding productivity. But one study suggests there are goods kinds of distractions that may be beneficial to problem solving.
The study, published late last year in the Journal of Consumer Research found that moderate levels of ambient noise can boost creative productivity. Specifically, the researchers found that constantly varying background noise of up to about 70 decibels (i.e., the ambient noise in a roadside restaurant or a coffee shop) increases creative output. The researchers argued that the distraction caused by this level and type of noise reduces processing ability somewhat but also stimulates abstract thinking and thereby increases creativity. Too little ambient noise doesn't induce a high enough "construal level" to trigger abstract thinking; too much background noise, though, becomes too distracting and hurts productivity of all sorts.
Do these findings apply to programmers? While the researchers don’t discuss any particular occupation, I would argue that programming is a very creative task and so the results are relevant. Software development is mainly about problem solving and, often times, needing to step back and look at a problem from a different angle, or consider creative ways around problems. While it can require periods of the concentrated focus, it also requires quite a bit of abstract thought. For those latter times, this study suggest that the right level and type of ambient noise might be a real help to developers.
Traditionally, programmers have made it clear that, for the most part, they work best in environments where distractions are minimized.
For any kind of knowledge work, distraction is kryptonite.
… don't really need quiet, just not to be bothered.
Programmers cannot work effectively in an interrupt-driven environment.
The key, of course, is the type of distraction. Being regularly interrupted with questions, or just by ambient noise that’s too loud, can take a developer (or anybody, for that matter) out of “the flow”. Getting back into that flow can take a significant amount of time. Some have argued that developers should be given private offices (as Microsoft does) to give them the ability to shut the door and focus properly on the task at hand. Open office plans, in particular, while good for collaboration, have often been the target of programmers’ ire.
This study suggests, though, that a little bit of the right kind of distraction (ambient background noise, not people interrupting you) can possibly help you to think a little more creatively and come up the solution to a tricky problem. Of course, everybody is different and there are those who like working in a noisy office environment and those who prefer silence. But many might benefit from some artificial coffee shop noise when they have a particularly tough nut to crack.
[h/t New York Times]
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