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Environmental Factors: Chatter

Some recent tweets containing a Florence Nightingale quote about noise have reminded me of one of the environmental factors which seems to sap my mental energy — background noise. The quote was from her book Notes on Nursing, at the beginning of this section:

Unnecessary noise, then, is the most cruel absence of care which can be
inflicted either on sick or well. For, in all these remarks, the sick
are only mentioned as suffering in a greater proportion than the well
from precisely the same causes.

Unnecessary (although slight) noise injures a sick person much more than
necessary noise (of a much greater amount).

I have long been a fan of DeMarco and Lister’s Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, now in its third edition. I have found most of their observations to resonate with my experiences, and they point out a correlation between noise and quality of software being produced in a war game:

Workers who reported before the exercise that their workplace was acceptably quiet were one-third more likely to deliver zero-defect work.

These extracts from The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload are germane:

The processing capacity of the conscious mind has been estimated at 120 bits per second. That bandwidth, or window, is the speed limit for the traffic of information we can pay conscious attention to at any one time. While a great deal occurs below the threshold of our awareness, and this has an impact on how we feel and what our life is going to be like, in order for something to become encoded as part of your experience, you need to have paid conscious attention to it.

With a processing limit of 120 bits per second, this means you can barely understand two people talking to you at the same time. Under most circumstances, you will not be able to understand three people talking at the same time.

In my experience speech, particularly if it’s at the threshold of intelligibility, or hearing one side of a conversation emanating from a computer’s tinny speakers can be quite distracting. The odd snatch of interesting information demands attention, and that attention requires energy to refocus on the task at hand. When I’m pairing with someone and we’re both engaged with some knotty problem then I can sometimes be distracted. If the problem is challenging, and I’m discussing it with my pair then there’s not a huge amount of “spare” mental capacity to devote to accidentally overheard conversations or “spare” mental energy to refocus.

I find it important to be aware of my environment when assessing my performance; sometimes the deck is stacked and I am mindful of the need to steward my energy and attention carefully.

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