Microphone head on black background

Audio distraction

One of my major focus killers is noise pollution.

To really distract me, it has to tick a few boxes:

  1. Irregular enough that I can’t file it into a pattern; but
  2. Regular enough that I know it’s coming in the near future; and
  3. Within a certain frequency (I’m no auditory expert, but academics say that 2,000 to 5,000 Hz is the most distressing – and, from a few upsetting minutes of experimentation, that sounds about right)

The problem

If an irritating noise breaks me out of my workflow, it can take a while to get back into it.

I get irrationally enraged by this, which makes matters worse – trying to focus when angry is almost impossible.

If the noise is repetitive, it gets into my head to the extent that I find it difficult to concentrate.

Such is my (over)reaction to noise interruption, I thought at one point I might suffer from a touch of misophonia – although I’ve since met people who really suffer from it, and they have a much harder time living with other human beings who (e.g.) occasionally eat food or breathe.

The solutions

Noise-cancelling headphones

I love these. So much.

They are the invention that has made aeroplane and train travel bearable (screaming children? What screaming children?)

They are the gadget that means I can work on an article while my husband plays Mad Max (PS4) in the same room (to whoever made the driving sound effects for that game: I hate you deeply).

‘Active’ noise cancelling headphones  the obvious winners – work electronically: you flick a switch and a fairly complex process begins.

This article goes into it in detail but, in summary, they detect noise and play its opposite frequency: thus ‘cancelling’ rather than ‘blocking’. It’s the auditory equivalent of your blue light filter.

Tragically, some people are unable to enjoy the peace and quiet of active noise cancellation: it induces vertigo in a small percentage of the population (although this is lessening as the technology improves).

For these unfortunates, I’d still recommend passive noise cancelling headphones – the shape and materials used are good enough to isolate most eardrums to a reasonable standard.

Ambient noise

I can’t really walk around with noise cancellation 24/7. My husband would object, the battery bill would skyrocket, and I assume I’d eventually go a bit mad.

Ambient noise is something I’ve put off trying, because it seemed counter-intuitive to me: I sought silence, so why would I deliberately add noise to my day?

However, in a barely-related venture, I recently started following the advice of ‘The Dog Listener’, who recommends practising calm and consistency in order to inspire the same in your pets.

Now, I’m a naturally flinchy being – I boast a full-body eye flicker – and it seems that this was rubbing off on the dog, who was barking at bumps in the night/day/early morning.

To try and get a grip, I started listening to thunderstorm noises when I was home alone with the pup – I figured it would dull my natural reaction to auditory intrusion.

I was right! I was clearly a setting a better example for the dog, who calmed down pretty quickly.

Just as excitingly, I got a solid couple of hours of reading done without getting distracted. It seems that the micro-distractions of background sounds (traffic at the front of the house, weirdly noisy trees at the back) were having more of an effect on my brain than I thought.

What kind of ambient noise?

This is going to be pretty subjective but, in general, you want to go for something totally random – i.e. ‘white noise’.


  • Ocean waves
  • Bubbling water
  • Crackling fire
  • Heavy rain

These also have the advantage of being ‘natural sounds’ that don’t startle the monkey brain too badly.

I started off with YouTube videos of thunderstorm sounds but, as I refuse to pay £11 a month for basic functions on the mobile app, this quickly became untenable. Still, on browser it’s a good option:

Youtube ambient noise videos (for focus)<br />

I’m currently using A Soft Murmur, which is a browser/mobile app with a nice choice of sounds.

You can move sliders to mix different noises, too, so if you fancy working to the bizarre combination of ‘coffee shop and singing bowl’ you can do so. I won’t judge you.

I paid a couple of quid for the extra tracks (these are free on browser, if you want to try them out) – and I’ve now settled into a mix of thunderstorm and fireplace. Mmm.


I’m really pleased with the two solutions I’ve found to the problem of noise distraction. I think they’ve had a genuinely exciting effect on my productivity.

Two thumbs up for noise cancellation and artificial ambient noise.

Further reading

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