The world’s quietest room is in Redmond, Washington. It blocks out all noise. It’s an anechoic chamber, meaning that when you clap your hands, it creates no echo. It is completely silent. Or is it?
“Most people find the absence of sound deafening, feel a sense of fullness in the ears, or some ringing. Very faint sounds become clearly audible because the ambient noise is exceptionally low. When you turn your head, you can hear that motion. You can hear yourself breathing and it sounds somewhat loud,” said Hundraj Gopal, a speech and hearing scientist and the principal designer of the anechoic chamber.
The experience within the chamber can be so unsettling that some people ask to leave within seconds. The complete lack of outer noise causes a flurry of inner noise. Turns out that the room’s most silent room isn’t so quiet after all.
A noise epidemic
Today’s world is dangerously loud. The World Health Organization has deemed noise an underestimated threat that can cause short- and long-term health problems: sleep disturbance, cardiovascular effects, hearing impairment, and poorer work performance. In fact, just two minutes of external silence can decrease your blood pressure and heart rate, aka, relax your system. On the other hand, achieving a state of inner quiet can reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure, and improve sleep.
Besides the obvious health benefits, silent time can boost productivity. Ollie Campbell, CEO and co-founder of Milanote, said that introducing “quiet time” made his team 23% more productive. Real silence can also spur clear and creative thinking.
Needless to say, it’s worth taking the time to find some outer quiet — but inner quiet can be just as important.
Every summer, I visit my family’s olive farm in Turkey. Sometimes, while the sun is rising across the horizon, I like to walk the fields. Aside from the occasional bird chirping, it’s the closest I get to inner and outer silence. But most days, at the office, silence is harder to come by — but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Here are some techniques for turning off the noise on a daily basis — wherever you are, both outside and inside your head.
Declutter your space
One of the quickest ways to achieve a deeper sense of outer silence is to declutter your workspace. Who better to ask for tips for creating a zen work environment than decluttering pro, Marie Kondo? As the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up writes:
Clutter overwhelms the brain and compromises the ability to take initiative; a calm and clean area will enhance both productivity and joy. To get there, identify the items that are crucial to getting your work done, and designate a spot for them.
I think this is a great practice because every time you tidy up, you’re forced to re-evaluate your goals and decide what kind of work you want to do more of. It’s a technique that I recommend to readers in my newly-released book — to ask yourself: What do you enjoy doing the most? What would you like to save your brain to do more of? What delivers the most impact?
Once you answer these questions and decide which items you need to get it done, you can clear the rest from the picture. But Kondo recommends keeping one item that sparks joy. She writes, “For me, it’s a crystal and small vase of fresh flowers on my desk.”
For me, it’s a picture of my wife and kids.
Automate your peace of mind
As the folks at the meditation app Headspace explain, “[E]ven when the environment is calm and the body motionless, the sound of the mind can still be deafening.” To achieve inner silence, it’s important to de-clutter your brain. At the workplace, that means setting yourself to find some peace of mind — a sense that you’re safe and unworried. Anxiety is low and protection from major slip-ups is high.
So, how can you attain peace of mind at the office? One way is by embracing an automation-first mindset
Automation can help you to stay calm in the face of everyday demands. It can help you to worry less about those things that keep you up at night: from ensuring bills are paid on time (for example, by using accounting software products like QuickBooks, Xero, and FreshBooks) to data privacy (for example, using tools like Zapier). Automation can also help you avoid frustrating hiccups in human relationships, like double-booking a meeting or overlooking someone’s project feedback. I even automate my to-do list (using Trello) to eliminate any anxiety that some critical task might slip through the cracks.
Financial, technical, communication, and operational systems are all stronger when they include automated workflows. The more you automate, the more you can quiet that perpetual worrying voice in your head.
Cultivate a silent routine
When I began carving out time for silence, I noticed an almost immediate change in my productivity and creative output. But starting a new habit and sticking to it are not one and the same. To ensure that I continue practicing quiet time, I schedule a regularly occurring twenty-minute appointment with myself. I follow the same routine: if I’m in the office, I close the door. I set a timer. I switch my devices into silent mode. I spend the first few minutes counting my breaths. I spend the rest letting my mind be still. If it wanders, I try not to worry. Before I know it, quiet time is over.
Vijay Eswaran, author of In the Sphere of Silence, breaks his 60-minute routine into three parts. Writing for Harvard Business Review, he explains that the first 30 minutes are for goal-setting, the next 20 minutes are for learning and growth (reading a passage of a book and reflecting on what he’s learned), and the last 10 minutes are for mindfulness. Eswaran writes:
This final segment is an important grounding process, like a cool-down after a good workout.
Consistency is important for establishing a new habit. So whether you have 20 minutes or an hour, cultivating a silent routine can help you to stick with it. After a while, you might be surprised to find yourself looking forward to it.
Author Caren Osten Gerszberg set out to find true silence on a guided retreat. Writing for the New York Times, she explained that in addition to refraining from speaking, she and other retreaters were asked not to read or journal. They were told to avert their eyes when passing others. These rules were directed at the inner chatter.
Challenging as that sounds, the payoff was worth it. Gerszberg wrote:
The week had given me a sort of spalike experience for my mind, protected from the distractions and stressors of daily life.
If your work life is anything like mine, then there tends to be noise all day long: calls, meetings, presentations, and a constant flow of emails. Sometimes, it feels like I’m always on. Carving out even the shortest break for silence can be profoundly liberating — like a spa for the mind. You can return to the clamor feeling refreshed and ready to dive back in and do your best work.
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