The sun setting over Nature Valley in South Africa
Photo by Charl van Rooy

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.
There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
–– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

We need silence and it is becoming harder and harder to get it. 

Our cities are noisy. 

Cars zoom this way and that. A loud, extended horn sounds as a car runs a red light and almost crashes into another car. The wail of an ambulance grows louder and louder as it approaches.

We hurriedly shuffle from place to place, coffee in hand, phone in pocket, headphones in ears, music blasting.

Our phones buzz with activity. We reply to a text message and then hop on over to a group chat on WhatsApp to make plans for the night. A notification pops up and we tap into Instagram, land of #goals and filters.

Moments once reserved for silence are no longer.

We are on our phones while we poop. Forgetting our phones when we go to the bathroom has become unbearable. Full pages of memes are dedicated to this “atrocity”.

We are on our phones while we drive. 

We are on our phones while we eat.

Our world today is go, go, go, now, now, now.

We’re on treadmills, needing to move faster and faster so we don’t fall off.

We’ve heard this rant before, but we’ve yet to listen.

We need quiet, relaxing, natural environments free of distractions to ensure optimal performance.

This isn’t a productivity hack. This is the way we’re wired, the way we’ve evolved.

There’s no shortage of studies that prove our noisy, full-of-distractions environment is affecting our ability to do meaningful work.

The need for quiet environments

In 1998, researchers studied the effect of noise pollution on people by taking a look at 217 German third- and fourth-grade children before and after the opening of an airport near their town. [1]

About half of the children were in the flight path of the airport, and so were exposed to increased levels of noise.

The children exposed to the noise experienced “modest but significant increases in blood pressure and significant increases in stress hormones” and “a significant decline in their quality of life”.

The need for distraction-free environments

In another study, this one done at the University of Texas at Austin in 2017, researchers looked to measure the effect of smartphones on cognitive performance. [2]

To measure this, study participants took a series of tests that required full concentration. However, before starting, the participants were randomly told to either put their phone in another room, in their backpack or pocket, or on their desk face down.

Even though the phones were put on silent, the group with their phones in another room performed significantly better than those with their phones on their desk, and slightly better than those with their phone in their backpack or pocket.

The mere presence of our smartphones reduces our cognitive performance.

“We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” Ward said. “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process - the process of requiring yourself to not think about something - uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”

Further experiments by the same researchers showed that whether the phone was on or off or face-up or face-down didn’t matter. Whenever our phone is in sight or within reach, some cognitive capacity goes toward resisting the urge to grab it and use it and this “wasted” cognitive capacity is not available for use on the task at hand.

The need for natural environments

A third study, this one done in Japan in 2008, looked to measure the restorative effects of natural versus urban landscapes. [3]

Twelve Japanese men in their twenties were randomly divided into two groups. One group spent three days in the forest and the other spent three days in the city.

At the end of the three days, those who had spent their time in the forest had significantly lower salivary cortisol concentration (an indicator of stress), diastolic blood pressure, and pulse rate.

Not only were their physiological indicators better, but the forest group also reported feeling “more comfortable, soothed and refreshed.”

So what can we do?

1. Dumb down your “smart”phone

The all-in-one nature of our smartphones is both a blessing and a curse.

It is amazing that a phone, a camera, an alarm, a stopwatch, a timer, a calculator, a notepad, a music player, a GPS, an e-book reader, and more can fit into one rectangular block.

However, this amazing combination of features can turn our phones from useful tools to distraction boxes.

I’ve talked before about reducing the attention-sucking aspects of our phones by turning off notifications and having as few apps as possible.

Another thing I started doing lately is putting my phone in airplane mode and turning off the wifi on my laptop when I go to sleep. 

This way when I wake up early to write, I just turn off the alarm and put the phone away, out of sight and out of reach. There are no tempting notifications or distractions waiting for me and I can get right to work.

A “rule” I like to follow is to use my phone for one thing at a time. If I’m on the phone, I’m on the phone, I’m not fiddling with my calendar or taking notes. If I’m listening to music, I’m listening to music, I’m not checking text messages or going through my pictures.

2. Make time for quiet reflection

It’s easy to spend a whole day without even five minutes of reflection and silence. 

Wake up, check phone, rush out, use phone during the commute to work, work, use phone during the commute from work, music in the shower, Netflix during dinner, bed, repeat. 

I’ve found the shower is a great place to slow down and let the brain relax. 

Free from additional input, our brains have time to settle and analyze everything we’ve been throwing at it. 

How many times have you had “Eureka” moments while showering?

We need to reserve blocks of time to let our brains work their magic, to assimilate information, to connect and transform ideas. The end-of-day, quiet reflection shower has been the perfect time and place to do this.

3. Spend time outdoors

We need time away from our urban landscape.

Few things are more refreshing, mentally and physically, than a one hour walk through nature.

I have trouble making time during the week, but there is no excuse during the weekends.

Immerse yourself somewhere where car horns are replaced by the chirping of birds, where you can see squirrels doing acrobatics on the trees, where a raccoon sprints across your path and then peeks at you from the bushes, somewhere where a family of woodpeckers is hard at work, making a home and raising their little baby woodpeckers (I couldn’t have asked for nicer walks this weekend).

An easy thing you can also do is to set the background of your computer and phone to natural landscapes. Landscapes full of green, full of nature.

In fact, there’s research that indicates that just seeing the color green (potentially due to its associations with nature - trees, grass, etc.) improves our mood. [4]

“Viewing green scenes may thus be particularly effective in supporting relaxation and recovery after experiencing a stressful period, and thereby could serve as an opportunity for micro-restorative experiences and a promising tool in preventing chronic stress and stress-related diseases.”

Our ability to do meaningful work depends on this

We’re always busy. We’re rarely productive.

We spin our wheels without moving, we sprint aimlessly, bouncing off the walls, wasting brain cycles, ending up exhausted and frustrated.

When was the last time you laid down to sleep at night, with no slight throbbing in your temples, relaxed and happy with the amount of meaningful work you were able to do that day, excited to wake up and do it all again?

This is not a productivity hack. This is not a hack at all.

We need to turn off the distractions. We need periods of quiet reflection. We need to immerse ourselves in nature.

It’s no small task, but our happiness and ability to do meaningful, fulfilling work depend on it.

Footnotes

  1. Airport Noise Can Seriously Affect The Health And Psychological Well-Being Of Children
  2. The Mere Presence of Your Smartphone Reduces Brain Power, Study Shows
  3. Restorative effects of viewing real forest landscapes, based on a comparison with urban landscapes
  4. Autonomic Nervous System Responses to Viewing Green and Built Settings: Differentiating Between Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Activity