How to Block out Noise before It Kills Your Work and Study Performance

Noise affects you as a professional, office worker, teacher, and student. It impairs your ability to read and write effectively, remember what you have learned, and do math. Everyday noise can cause a performance loss of 50 percent or more. This is easily the difference between an A and an F. Luckily there are some smart ways to block out and mask noise so it doesn’t disrupt you.Block out noise and improve cognitive-performance

A good 18 months ago, I was sitting on my balcony watching an online lecture on my computer. My balcony is facing a small aisle, but the traffic noise from a nearby road is still very noticeable.  I was wearing decent earbuds, so the noise wasn’t bothering me – or so I thought.

Just out of curiosity, I put on a pair of earmuffs, which I had purchased earlier to block out noises that often startle me during my early-afternoon naps.

Well, they did a hell of a job with the traffic noise: I was sitting there, and all the honking, squeaking and rumbling had receded into the background. It wasn’t completely quiet, but everything was so faint. That’s very nice indeed, I thought.

Why not try continuing the lecture with my earbuds underneath the earmuffs?

The first thing I noticed was that the voice of the lecturer was now way too loud. Annoyingly loud.

I had to turn down the volume from 10 to 3 to make it comfortable again.  I also noticed that I could hear the finer nuances of the lecturer’s voice. I could even understand other students’ questions. These students weren’t equipped with microphones as this was a normal computer science lecture recorded at MIT in a big lecture hall (part of MIT’s Open Courseware program).

Wow – it was so much easier to follow the lecture and take in the whole experience. One of the great advantages of watching a recorded lecture is that you can stop it and re-listen to parts you couldn’t comprehend the first time. After putting on the earmuffs, this became almost completely unnecessary. Not only was I able to listen at a much lower volume and make out previously unheard details, I was also comprehending faster!

Bolstered by that experience, I experienced with earmuffs in other learning and reading situations as well

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How to Take the Perfect Nap for Performance, Mood and Memory

how to take the perfect nap

I have been an afternoon napper for more than 14 years. I started napping after moving to a country where most people took a siesta. For various reasons, I just couldn’t get enough sleep during the night, so it was easy to fall asleep.

Over the years, I have tried short power naps, 60-minute naps, and occasionally 90-minute mid-afternoon sleeps. In this post, I would like to share with you how to nap for better mood, alertness, concentration, improved memory, and restoration of learning capacity. We will cover how long and when to nap for maximum benefit, how to avoid after-nap grogginess (sleep inertia), and the possible risks associated with longer naps.

As a final point, I am going to share my personal napping experience and my favorite napping hacks.

The benefits of napping are numerous

For me personally, the most important benefits are improved mood and decreased sleepiness. I just feel happier and ready to tackle my afternoon after a nap.

Napping studies have found a large number and variety of benefits of napping in all kinds of workplace and operational settings.  Studies looked at drivers, commercial airliner pilots, shift workers, doctors and nurses, students, children, senior citizens…

Here is a non-exhaustive list of research-proven benefits:

  • Improved cognitive performance
    • Increased alertness and concentration
    • Decreased reaction time
    • Speed and accuracy improvement on cognitive tasks
  • Better mood
  • Less sleepiness and fatigue
  • Significantly reduced number of driving incidents such as drifting out of one’s lane in a car simulator experiment: the number of incidents caused by drivers who had taken a 15-minute coffee nap (see below for details) was 91% less than for drivers who had just taken a break. Coffee alone reduced the number of incidents by 66%.
  • In a NASA study, pilots who took naps were able to maintain their performance and reduce incidents during a demanding multi-day schedule. Pilots who weren’t allowed to nap experienced deceasing performance and a significantly larger number of incidents, including during the descent and landing.
  • Significantly Improved memory and protection of learned information from interference: a study that focused on declarative learning found a 60% increased memory retention for nappers at a final test one week after initial learning, compared to learners who hadn’t napped.
  • Nappers perform better at abstracting general concepts and making connections that weren’t directly learned but can be inferred from what was learned (relational memory).
  • A nap can restore the capacity to learn, which otherwise deteriorates considerably with time awake.
  • Performance on a creative problem solving task where subjects had to find a linking word between three seemingly unrelated words was improved by more than 40% after a 90-minute nap containing REM sleep (see below) compared to rest and naps containing only non-REM sleep.

To better understand what nap length you should aim for, here is a sleep architecture primer

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