The White Noise Experience: An Answer to Getting Work Done

In college, I could not work in the library. And I could not work in my dorm room. Baffled by the dilemma, I bounced from space to space, trying to find a place I could focus. Instead, I ended up wasting time and getting frustrated. In high school, I had achieved all academic milestones in front of the television. I had worked night after night with the TV on, which was hardly an ideal strategy. I now know that too much TV can actually hinder information retention. Still, something about having that background noise helped me focus, and I couldn’t find a good substitute for that study aide in college.

Flash forward a decade. At a conference I attended, I decided to try to multi-task and get some blog posts done during one of the lectures. I sat at the back of the room and wrote blog post after blog post. I was surprised by how easily the words flowed out of me. Alone in my quiet office, I struggled to write even one paragraph. But in the back of a lecture hall, I was on fire!

When I returned home from the conference, I took a moment to analyze why this environment increased my productivity. And I remembered that one of the greatest tools that helps ADHD folks increase their focus is to have a body double. A body double is someone who sits with ADHD students as they tackle tasks that may be difficult to complete on their own. For example, when I run on the treadmill, I run much faster when someone is running next to me because I don’t want the other gym member to think I’m lazy. That gym member acts as my body double. A body double serves as a motivator and reminder to help keep ADHD people on task and accountable. While no one was watching me write those blog posts in the back of the lecture hall, the mere bodily presence of others and their noise had the same effect on me. Perhaps, being in the back of the lecture hall created a noise body double.

I had seen this phenomenon work for some of my other ADHD clients as well. White noise helped them focus when nothing else worked. When I was prepping to talk about this subject on Attention Talk Radio, my co-host, Jeff Copper, said, “Oh yeah. That works for me too. I call it the white noise experience.” Now, I use Copper’s term to describe this tool I have used with my kids consistently over the last decade.

The white noise experience occurs when a person’s focus and productivity is increased by background noise. For some people, the hum of music, activity, hustle and bustle, or other background noise helps sustain their focus. Most of the students I work with are searching for the right moment, the right place, and the right mood to get work done. Driven by distractibility, they often struggle to work in study spaces in which they “should” be able to work, but they end up not being able to accomplish even basic tasks. When I suggest a non-traditional study environment with plenty of white noise to these students, they miraculously blossom.

For example, I once had a client whom we’ll call Alice. Alice was an English major, and she had difficulties getting her work done on time. By the time she came to see me, she had a month’s worth of work backlogged. She had tried all the traditional study tricks. One day, I suggested she sit in the back of a lecture hall in another department—such as calculus or chemistry—a subject that wouldn’t peak her interest. She ended up attending an engineering TA session. During one forty-five-minute session, she was able to finish two assignments, which was a huge productivity leap for her. After getting permission from the engineering department, Alice started attending TA sessions regularly, and her backlog of work quickly disappeared.

If you or your child has had similar struggles, consider using the white noise experience to help increase your focus. Try different study environments that can provide non-distracting background noise, such as coffee shops, school gyms during game time, or parks on nice days. If you find yourself too distracted in those places, try putting on some instrumental music, using a white noise machine, or plugging in a noisy fan in your bedroom or office. I know that this advice may seem counterintuitive. Most people mistakenly assume that a student or professional with ADHD should work in a quiet space without any potential distractions so they can focus wholly and completely. However, time and time again, clinical practice has shown that the ADHD brain can actually function more efficiently with white noise present. Because everyone is wired differently, this tool may not work for every person with ADHD, but I strongly urge you to test it out!

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