On Background Noise, and Striving for Productivity.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always considered one of my greatest gifts to be my ability for bare and honest self-reflection. I don’t pull punches when it comes to facing up to my weaknesses and striving to improve my strengths. So it’s pretty easy for me to own up to one of my more noticeable quirks; I’m a fidgeter. A serial multitasker, my brain and my body only work in perfect tandem when I give them multiple tasks to complete simultaneously. It doesn’t matter how passionate I am about a topic or how vital it is that I complete a project correctly — if I don’t have more than one thing to do at a time, I can’t complete a task to the best of my ability.

Indeed, all through school, silent activities were something of a disaster. If my mouth was silent, my feet were tapping. If my feet were still, my fingers roamed restlessly. Although I pride myself on my ability to focus under pressure, I really do do my best when my mind is given the opportunity to explore multiple avenues at once. Working in schools now, the lingering vestiges of my childhood self are hugely jealous as I see kids play with the now ubiquitous putties and fidget-toys as they wander from class to class.

I have lots of hypotheses about why I’m such a consistent multi-tasker. An excess of energy, perhaps, or some undiagnosable muscle condition. The thing I come back to again and again, though, is conditioning.

You see, as an adult, my number-one coping mechanism (besides the constant knuckle cracking many of my friends and family abhor) for keeping my brain on track is background noise. I know that I do my best work with mindless but engaging noise that’s easily accessible in my auditory periphery. After much trial and error, in fact, I’ve come up with a television genre that consistently yields my perfect content.

Sounds like that shouldn’t have been a difficult thing to figure out, right? Wrong. Over the years, I’ve realized that my background noise of choice can’t be music — classical, pop, or otherwise (because even if there aren’t vocals, inevitably I’ll end up singing along). It can’t be any TV or film on my watchlist, because whether I want it to or not, anything I’m actually interested in will suck me in and leave me behind on one important deadline or another. No, the best white-noise-for-work I’ve found is the basic procedural crime drama.

With its varied cacophony of sounds and predictable plot lines, the procedural crime drama provides the perfect amalgamation of comfort and suspense. While 90% of the time I find the quick-fire dialogue, muted explosions, and loud verbal exchanges easy to ignore, the 10% of the time I choose to tune in, crime dramas are always easy to follow. Plus, whatever music they play in their background comes and goes so quickly I don’t have to worry about latching on and joining in.

Of course, over time I’ve come to wonder about my steadfast love of background noise for work. Is it some weird evolutionary tic? A strange genetic inheritance? A confirmation of all the click-baity articles regarding millennial focus problems?

If you ask me, it’s none of the above. As a kid, I spent a lot of my time in choir rehearsal. At rehearsal, when our section wasn’t working on a particular piece, we were allowed to tune out and do homework or read, as long as we weren’t disruptive. Over the course of years, I got used the loud commands issued by the conductor, the low murmuring of my peers, the brief snippets of music as various excerpts were perfected and fine tuned. As time passed, it came to seem as though something was wrong if there wasn’t a wall of sound in the background as I studied for a test or pounded out an essay. The click-clack of my laptop keys blended in seamlessly with the rhythmic taps on the piano, the staccato beat of the drum. Just like the procedural crime dramas my adult self so enjoys, my childhood self latched on to the multifaceted auditory experience of rehearsal as a way to help me focus.

So now, here I am, twenty-four years old and doing my best work with Tom Selleck grumbling in the background, or Mariska Hargitay yelling out the solution to some based-on-a-true-story mystery. It be a little weird, but it works for me. As quirks go, it’s one that’s pretty easy to live with. Still, I’ll run out of standard procedural crime dramas eventually; if you have any suggestions, please let me know in the comments. It’s not like I’m going to run out of work to do any time soon.

Choir.

–S

Day 32: February 2, 2017

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