Jacked In

On Thursday, I started listening to music (headphones, Pandora) at work. Thursday and Friday were probably also the best work days I've had in at least five years. The difference was amazing.

With an Internet full of pictures, this is as close as I could get.

The music thing was kind of a big deal for me. I've been holding out for a long time based on a vague memory of an old study that suggested that music got in the way of overview bringing-it-all-together style thinking. In my head, the study went down like this:

Researchers grabbed 40 college Juniors and a programming problem (FORTRAN). They split the students up into two groups of 20. One group had a quiet room, the other had some kind of music playing. They then timed how long it took each of the students to solve the programming problem and collected averages for each room. In addition, the programming problem was designed in such a way that the straightforward solution was a bit messy and long, but if you had an "Ah ha!" moment, you could discover a cute elegant solution. The average times for the rooms were about the same, but many more of the quiet room students were able to find the awesome cute solution.

I don't know if this study even really happened. I certainly haven't ever been able to find it any of the times I've gone looking for it on the Internet. It seems like a weird thing for me to make up though.

Despite this study being a potential fever dream, and other similar studies being un-compelling for various reasons, I've used this result to guide my programming music policy since the late 90s. Until last Thursday...

Where I work is a big enclosure (maybe small, there's six desks and a open "conference room") with ten foot ceilings that we've split up with seven foot walls. Come to think of it, here's a model that I once had an intern put together:

The gray walls on the conference room? Yeah, that's steel. (True story, sometimes we ask interns to scrub off rust.)

As you can see, you can hear it when people talk. Sometimes I feel compelled to jump in an express my (unsolicited) opinion, sometimes I feel the need to ask the group if they can help me compile a list of animals that fight with their butts (skunks, wasps, etc). Long story short, there's opt-in distractions. It also prevents me from having little crazy-person conversations with the code: "Ooh, you think you're so clever eh? How about this! Muahaha, I got you you little... Ow, you son of a -" Because, you know, people would hear, and it's insane.

So, in 2011, I decided enough was enough. I wanted to create my own little isolation chamber and I wanted to do it with headphones. It was AMAZING! Suddenly, I'm forgetting to call Julie at lunch time, realizing that an hour and a half ago I desperately needed to go to the bathroom, and understanding convoluted snake pits of code I co-created two years ago. I think I'm also drinking less tea.

The weird thing is I can still hear everybody, but with something else to listen to I'm not reflexively "forced" to engage. So nice. I think that the part of my brain that would be doing complicated synthesis-level problem solving has long since rotted out - assuming I had one to begin with. So loss if the music shuts it down, pure win.

If you're wondering about those high-powered conversations between me and my monitor? Yeah, those are back too. Pure. Win.


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