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I never thought this was a problem until recently. I work in an office that is very distracting, with loud conversations, shouting, laughter, etc. for at least 6 hours/day. I complete about 2 hours of work per day. To be fair, management assigns very little work, so that's enough time to get it done. I'd prefer to go home when I'm done (I'm salaried), but that's not allowed. I get in at 7, most of the noisemakers get in at 9, and I might as well go home at 9 for how unproductive I am the rest of the day.

(There is only so long I can wear headphones before getting a headache.)

Anyway, it seems like everyone else has no problem talking, shouting, laughing, and working at the same time.

But I have a really hard time focusing or concentrating, to the point where I can't even form a coherent thought.

That noises and distractions affect me this severely leads me to think I might have a psychological, neurological or other problem. I always thought it was fairly normal to need relative quiet to concentrate, but maybe it's not.

I'm looking for a new job, but more generally, I'm curious. Does anyone else experience extreme difficulty working, or even thinking, in a noisy or distracting environment... and is this normal or indicative of a problem?

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    how long have you been there? Usually there is a period of acclimatisation – Kilisi Nov 4 '19 at 18:47
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    It's never been a problem before this workplace, so I don't think medication is needed. – Frosty Nov 4 '19 at 18:53
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    It's not a duplicate because I'm not asking how to get work done in an open office. I'm asking if it's normal that I can't. – Frosty Nov 4 '19 at 18:57
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    @gnat not everything is a duplicate – Old_Lamplighter Nov 4 '19 at 19:17
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    Not exaggerating. But the expression "I can't even hear myself think" exists for reason. My office is that loud. – Frosty Nov 4 '19 at 20:09
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Is it normal to need relative quiet to concentrate?

Yes, shouting is hard to tune out, harder than repetitive noises. Forestry workers wear earmuffs because the noise can damage their hearing. Office workers wear head phones to concentrate. So it's perfectly normal.

To not be able to think at all is not normal. You should have acclimatised to some extent in 6 months.

Get more comfortable headphones or seek medical advice.

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I totally sympathize with you. I felt like I was reading my own thoughts when I read your post! I find myself in the exact same situation and I cannot for the life of me understand why open office plans are the norm for jobs that require you to focus. Other people seem to think it's not a big deal when someone two feet away from you is on a conference call and multiple people are standing around and conversing loudly for half an hour or more at a time.

But nobody would tolerate this if you were taking a standardized test like the SAT or the LSAT right? What if a surgeon started to perform a critical surgery and all of a sudden two nurses start talking loudly about their weekend plans?

So I think this proves, that yes of course it's normal to need relative quiet to concentrate.

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  • "I cannot for the life of me understand why open office plans are the norm for jobs that require you to focus." Because it saves the company a few pennies (at the expense of employees) when they have large open plans with "flex workspaces". – Hugo Zink Nov 5 '19 at 11:01
  • It also means employees can communicate (quietly) with those in their team in the surrounding area more easily, and is usually fine if managed well, so can be beneficial in a smaller area. Bigger areas can also be ok if the acoustics dampen the noise, and people respect those around them (having conference calls in meeting rooms etc). – Smock Nov 5 '19 at 15:58
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"Normal"? It all depends on the extent of your problems.

  • Open offices are notoriously a pain to deal with and there is for sure a lot to be distracted with. If the open office is large (dozens of people) the worse the performance suffers.
  • Often there is also a problem of company culture: I've worked in environments where noisy colleagues were immediately "shushed", in others no one gave a damn
  • Tolerance to noise and distractions is personal, some are unaffected, others are way more affected
  • But then: if you experience "brain fog" or feel that you have a serious gap with your colleagues in your ability to concentrate, it's surely useful to investigate in other directions.

In the latter case, I would seek a professional to see if you are dealing with stress or other conditions: in my case, I have the same issues, but my extreme sensitivity is explained by my ADHD diagnosis - and the diagnosis helped me a lot to understand exactly why I was unable to perform under certain conditions and try strategies.

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Is it normal to need relative quiet to concentrate?

Yes. When you're trying to focus on something and there are outside distractions it is completely normal for someone to struggle. However, if you need complete silence or find yourself having difficulty focusing on basic tasks then you may have an issue that needs to be addressed (such as A.D.D.).

I never thought this was a problem until recently. I work in an office that is very distracting, with loud conversations, shouting, laughter, etc. for at least 6 hours/day. I complete about 2 hours of work per day.

I find both of these statements hard to believe... even very lax work environments aren't going to have constant distractions, and if you're only completing 2 hours of work a day then I'd be more concerned about them eliminating your position than your inability to concentrate.

(There is only so long I can wear headphones before getting a headache.)

Then you aren't wearing headphones that fit you properly or that aren't doing a good job of blocking sound and are forcing you to listen at a volume that is bad for your hearing. Many headphone companies have multiple options for how they fit in your ears, but as a last resort you could investigate a custom in-ear monitor as opposed to ear buds.

Custom headphones aren't cheap, but they basically create a mold of your ear like they would for a hearing aid and then craft ear pieces that fit perfectly in your ear canals. They do an amazing job of blocking out ambient noise, are substantially more comfortable and can be worn for basically the entire day. I've never been able to wear ear buds for more than an hour or two a day, but I can wear my custom in-ear headphones as long as I need to. Check out Drop.com (formerly Massdrop) and keep an eye out for good deals.

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  • Regarding “hard to believe”, if others there are, for instance, sales people on the phone all the time, it could be entirely likely that the office as a whole is very noisy all day. – Gwyn Evans Nov 8 '19 at 23:09
  • If you think 2 hours of work is little, you should see how little the noisemakers do – Frosty Nov 11 '19 at 18:33
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Yes, this is normal for concentration intensive work

(Just think of the 'turning your car radio down when you want to navigate' comments)

I'm a programmer, I need to concentrate on high levels for long amounts of time. If my headphone battery is empty, I'm a lot less productive. I also find that as I get a bit older, I require the isolation more. I've worked at a couple of companies now, at all of them all programmers had either a headphone or earphones available.

It's not an excuse though. There are tasks which you can do, some more light work, which you can time right. If you wear a headphone for a while, you can work 'peacefully', burn less concentration and can take it of without going to a 0% production speed. You can use those first two hours to do some heavy lifting, when your colleagues come do something like a standup and then you can put on your headphone


If you get a headache of a headphone, you need another headphone :) I prefer a little more expensive, but light headphones. I've found that that is very large contributor. In fact, I had to temporary switch to my older, heavier headphone and the air pressure and headackes are popping around the corner again :)

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