Skip to main content


| August 1, 2017

by Jim Bruce

The need for peace and quiet

Last week’s Tuesday Reading, Our Busy, Busy, Busy Brains!, focused on how our brains are daily assaulted by sounds from our smart devices, from the arrival of email, tweets, and Facebook posts, from music we might be playing, from sounds within our workspace, from traffic outside our buildings, etc.  Even at night, when I’m awakened, I hear traffic noise from a nearby highway, occasionally the rumble of a large plane taking off or landing at a neighboring Air Force base, and from time to time the hooting of a great horned owl.  It’s no wonder that Aldous Huxley, writing in the 1940s, referred to his century as the age of noise.  He once wrote, “The radio is nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes.”
And, while there is a lot of good, including productive work that flows through our electronic devices, we do pay a price for it.  As we noted last week, research has shown that the task switching we do when we “multitask,” reduces an individual’s productivity as much as 40% and lowers IQ by 10%.  Not a good impact!
Talbot-Zorn and Marz, in their Harvard Business Review article report a number of notable individuals who cultivate silence.  “Author JK Rowling, biographer Walter Isaacson, and psychiatrist Carl Jung have all had disciplined practices for managing information flow and cultivating periods of deep silence.  Ray Dalio, Bill George, California Governor Jerry Brown, and Ohio Congressman Time Ryan have also described structured periods of silence as important factors in their success.”
If that were not enough, incessant noise, even at low levels, increases stress and tension, depletes our mental resources (you get mentally tired by just being in a noisy environment), and makes it difficult for the brain to process information.  Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, writes in his recent HBR article “Bursting the CEO Bubble,” that cultivating silence “increase[s] your chances of encountering novel ideas and information and discerning weak signals.”
So, how might you get some silence or at least enjoy the benefits of silence?  Many are thinking, just give me a small office with a door that I can keep shut.  That would help, but I know it isn’t in the cards for most of you. 
Realistic things that will help include:
1.  Turn off as many of your aural notifications as possible.  Every “beep” causes your mind to auto-interrupt and your attention to go to the device.  And, this is also helpful to those who you are with you.
2.  Become aware that you need time each day for a time of silence and stillness.  Think about that as you plan your day.  For example, as you go from meeting to meeting, can you take a path that will take you outside for a 5, or even better a 10, minute walk?  Or, if adjacent meetings are in your office, don’t schedule them back-to-back, give yourself a 5 or 10-minute break between them.  And, when you are on that walk or between the meetings, don’t whip out your smart device to check mail or make a quick phone call!
3.  Start your day with a time of mindful breathing.  Sit comfortably in a hard chair, and slowly and deeply breathe in and out focusing on your breathing.  And, when your mind wanders, as it likely will, gently return the focus to your breathing.  Some individuals, instead of focusing on their breathing, will recite a “mantra” with each breath.  Some mantras that might be attractive to leaders include:  “Ask for feedback.”  “Build relationships.”  “Leaders are always on-stage.”  “Focus on the important.”  “Leaders focus on the strategic.” 
Mindful breathing is also an effective technique to use at any time to de-stress, to increase your focus, and to allow you to concentrate more fully.  Deborah Schoeberlein suggests you mindfully breathe in the moments you have each day between routine tasks:  Between when the phone rings and you answer.  While you are waiting for your computer to boot up.  Between meetings.  When walking to get tea or coffee.  You’ll be surprised at how much these very short “interventions” will change your day.
4.  Get outside at lunchtime.  Don’t eat at your desk.  Take a walk.  Sit on a bench; look at the trees and how they interact with the sky.  You’ll be surprised at how even 10 minutes in a different environment will improve your outlook.
5.  Give yourself a real break.  Once a month schedule yourself for a half-day personal retreat.  Go someplace where you can work in silence and won’t be interrupted.  You’ll be surprised at the progress you can make on a difficult issue.
This quote  “Silence isn’t empty, it’s full of answers.”  from an unknown author says it all.
Make a practice of finding some silence multiple times each day as you make this a great week.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Carolyn Gregoire, Why Silence Is So Good For Your Brain, HuffPost May 2016.
Robyn Reisch, Four Reasons You Need Silence, Heart Intelligence, June 2016.
George Michelson Foy, Why We Need Silence to Survive, Psychology Today, March 2010.
Deborah Schoeberlein David, Why Mindful Breathing Works, HuffPost, Nobember 2012.
Justin Talbot-Zorn and Leigh Marz, The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time, Harvard Business Review, March 2017.