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I'd like to add to the comment that the yellow ear protectors were a flag that someone was concentrating on their work. In my noisy office at work, I keep my headphones on most of the time, regardless of whether I have music playing or not. It minimizes interruptions since people assume you are concentrating. Also, you can choose to ignore people if they call out to you, and only after the second or third time say, "What?" as if you didn't hear them. This is a passive way of telling them that you don't want to be bothered with their nonsense unless it is absolutely necessary. This may not be "nice" but it works. And helps with my work productivity.

Regarding music affecting calculations/complicated technical work, I keep both rock and classical music on my iPod at work. If I need to tone the music down to do calculations, I find the classical music sometimes actually helps me--it's still good "white noise" to block out distractions but doesn't distract so much from thinking in itself. Honestly, I think the iPod is one of best inventions to help with workplace productivity ever.

Doug Park

Does the benefit of headphones hold for more complex jobs where cooperation and collaboration are important? Have there been any studies for that population? I'd be interested in hearing about that.

Alexandra Levit

Hi Bob,

I'm so sorry that this happened to you again. I'd rather have a book with a super-marketable title that people want to buy than a book with a title that traditional newspapers want to print but no one else cares about.

Anyhow, I've worked with Phyllis and she's terrific. This piece is no exception. Thanks for making the effort to ensure that these important messages are heard again and again.


Alexandra Levit
Workplace Author and Speaker


I've always found that headphones were a positive addition to the tools I use at work. However, this post made me think about a study mentioned in chapter 12 of Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister's book Peopleware. They mentioned that music showed to have a negative affect on knowledge workers trying to figure out a somewhat complex problem. Although that particular case study wasn't documented, I think it has some truth. I think the statement "people in the most boring and simple jobs had the most positive reactions to wearing the headphones... " is key. I do have to "toggle" the use of my headphones for different situations, but I would never give them up!

Walter Underwood

When I was at HP in the 80's and 90's, lab stock carried big yellow ear protectors. They were popular with programmers, both to shut out sound and as a flag that they were in the middle of some concentrated work.

I also remember Capers Jones describing an invention of his, cubicle walls that went all the way to the ceiling with an extra partition that was hinged to close off the space. Never caught on.

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