Martin Rue

Making things. Writing code. Languages.


Let's be honest, silence is not usually considered an exciting subject. Despite Depeche Mode's ironic effort to convince us, the idea that we should enjoy silence seems like a stretch. So why am I writing about it?

The subject of silence interests me because it's so uncool, yet so powerful.

Like everyone else, I tend to listen to music while working.

I imagine you're picturing the stereotypical programmer sat in a dark corner with headphones on, but stereotypes don't help anyone. I often put a light on in order to illuminate a path (the shortest of which I've previously calculated) to crawl out from in order to locate nutrition-free food and return without talking to anybody as quickly as possible. Just beware of stereotypes is all I'm saying.

For a long time I mostly ignored the feeling that music was affecting my attention and ability to focus. Music makes me feel good, and feeling good is good for productivity, so listening to music is productive, right? The math on that one sounds about right.

I believed that for a while, but I've now changed my mind.

There have been too many occasions where being in complete silence has shown me how much better I can focus. It's not just that the focus is easier to find, it's that it's deeper and easier to keep as well.

When there's no music (or any other audible distraction), all of my senses are connected to the work I'm doing. The only thing affecting my heart rate, happiness, stress, emotions, etc. is the work itself and how I'm interacting with it. Just me and the work. Aside from keeping me alive, my energy is being spent nowhere else. My attention is going nowhere else.

Well, unless I've left Slack open, in which case, probably best you don't do that.

Once I started to think about it, it became clear that the reason music is so enjoyable is because it affects how we feel. It's a form of stimulation. It uses energy, causing responses in various parts of the brain such as the amygdala and hippocampus, which are responsible for memory and decision making.

Music certainly can make us feel better while working, but is it a good trade? How much of the energy being used to enjoy the music could have been useful, even essential, for the work we're doing, had we chosen silence?

It's not a simple question, especially when you consider that not all music is the same, not all work demands the same energy and focus, and not everyone wants to optimise for output – sometimes you just want a healthy balance between output and feeling good (if the work itself isn't providing the feels).

Having experimented a lot more with working in silence recently, I've begun to acknowledge the evidence that in silence I simply work better. I don't always need to work better, but knowing how to pull that lever when I need to is a useful tool.

While this is all just anecdotal, taken from my own experience, it feels like there's a simple truth somewhere in the idea that the less stuff you give your brain to respond to, the more energy and focus you have to use elsewhere.

I've started to respect silence as the ideal, natural state for concentration, choosing to exchange it with music, a podcast, etc. very deliberately, rather than by telling myself it makes no difference. It makes too big of a difference to continue ignoring it.

It's true that the word silence doesn't really evoke a sense of having an awesome time. For one, I can't listen to Tina Turner, uh, Drake, while writing code. But sometimes all of those Dake joules are better spent giving yourself the edge when it comes to producing your best work.

Drake might be is awesome, but the satisfaction of losing yourself in deep work, the joy of being present and producing your best stuff... you ever tried that?

That kind of euphoria is anything but silent.

Silence is a true friend who never betrays – Confucius