Can't Concentrate? Listen To The Birds!

Ever wondered why working on your laptop in the garden makes you less productive? Blamed yourself? Thought yourself ‘childish’ for being so slow at getting things done when you’re outside? Don’t anymore. Start listening to the birds instead!

Research has shown that your productivity increases approximately threefold when you listen to singing birds. Apparently this is because birdsong functions like both an alarm clock and a calming influence. It is this combination that makes us relaxed, yet alert. “We instinctively know that we are safe when the birds sing,” explained Ted Talks presenter Julian Treasure not long ago. “Being calm and alert is a perfect state to be productive,” he believes.

If you have recently been at Glasgow airport, you might already be familiar with the work of Treasure, because this corporate sound guru -with a client roster including BP, Nokia and Unilever- has installed a soundscape on behalf of BAA, using the sounds of singing birds. Passengers as well as people working in the terminal area measurably felt better and turnover at the airport shops increased ten per cent, according to Charles Byrne, head of sponsorship & experience at BAA.  

Since there’s a downside for every upside in this life, there are also sounds that make our productivity take a nosedive when they are bestowed upon us. Most people’s concentration drops 36 per cent the minute they are subjected to the talking of others in their near surroundings.

Unsurprisingly, these are the type of sounds we associate with irritation. Topping the bill in terms of our communal daily office pet peeves that make people lose their concentration, is when the phone rings on the desk of a colleague who’s just stepped away and talking colleagues in the background.

Other factors that are detrimental to our productivity are noisy machinery and devices (think office laserjet printers), smartphone bleeps, humming voices of colleagues in the background, according to research by the University of Cardiff. These noises not only lower productivity, but increase stress levels and will ultimately also hike sickness levels.

Personally, I need a certain level of noise around me to come into my own, something I already noticed when learning my French idiom on the bus to school during my teen years. So I find it hard to believe that office chatter in the background is that detrimental to your concentration.

Researchers at the University of Illinois might confirm my hunch. They say that you tend to have your best creative moments when you find yourself in a constant humdrum of voices in a coffee bar. They concluded this after conducting an experiment during which participants were asked to brainstorm about new products. Testing several levels of background chatter, the researchers concluded that around 70 decibels yielded the most spectacular ideas. When the noise level was nudged to 85 decibel (the noise level of a garbage truck driving past) participants were distracted too much to come up with mindbenders.   

So what about headphones? They shield off your ears from outside noise, so must stimulate your concentration, right? Nope, say Nick Perham and Martinne Sykora from that wretched Cardiff University, who proved in 2012 that cognitive performance dwindles when you listen to music. Even when dr Dre is involved, or at least the level of concentration of their test subjects fell by equal amounts when they were played music they liked and when they were played music they hated. Damn!


Image credit: Alex Murphy cc