Updated on 07.31.14

The Silent Room

Trent Hamm

flowerI get asked over and over again by people how I am able to write so much material for The Simple Dollar while also working a regular job, managing a family, and keeping up with other interests.

I usually point to a lot of things that I do:

I practice Getting Things Done almost fanatically and I process my inbox twice a day – in the morning and in the evening.

I keep a “hipster PDA” (basically a very simplified organizer made out of index cards) and an idea notebook on me at all times, and use them frequently.

I sleep somewhat irregular hours, often getting up in the middle of the night for a spell or getting up very early in the morning for the sole purpose of writing.

I write as much in advance as I can so that when inevitable things come up, I can handle them with ease.

Even with all that, though, there’s one big thing that really overshadows the rest of it: I have a “silent room” where I go, close the door, and kick things into gear.

The Silent Room Idea
A “silent room” refers to a place with minimal interruptions where you can just focus on getting the stuff done that you need to get done. It can be an office, it can be a wood shop, it can even be a briefcase that you take to the library.

The big key is silence – actually, just a total minimization of interruptions. Turn off your cell phone, take your real phone off the hook, close your email program, close the door, and you’re getting close. Eliminate entertainments, block websites that might distract you, and you’re getting very close.

In the end, location really doesn’t matter too much, as long as you’re not able to be distracted from the task at hand.

My Silent Room
My “silent room” was once my office at home, but it is now slowly migrating to being my laptop carrying case with lots of pockets in it. It usually holds a file folder that is my GTD “inbox,” two or three books, my laptop, and any materials I might need for projects.

At home, my silent room is my office. I’ll go in there, shut the door, and get going on things. I’ll usually turn on some ambient music on the small stereo and get cracking.

On the road, I can usually do things wherever I need to be. For example, there is a coffee shop about twenty minutes from home that I regularly meet people at. I often make that my “silent room” – I take over a table in the back corner, plug in my iPod, and get to work.

My Secret Weapon For Making Any Room A Silent Room
One of the biggest keys for making the idea of a “silent room” work, particularly if you’re in a busy environment or only have limited periods to make it work is to get in the right mindset quickly. Without that ability, it doesn’t work.

Here’s what I do to get “in the zone” (or close to it) in about fifteen seconds, no matter where I’m at.

First, I close my eyes and completely block out the light.

Next, I breathe in and out very deeply and slowly about five times. Each breath takes about two to three seconds, all told.

I then open my eyes and turn on some ambient music. I want music that helps me to focus – the opposite of distracting. So, even though I enjoy Radiohead and other groups, I usually head for Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. I listen to it in a loop, mixing in a few other of Eno’s ambient albums, and I find that no matter where I’m at, I can get in the appropriate mindset to write.

Making Your Own Silent Room
The key to making your own silent room isn’t following a recipe. It’s a matter of finding where you’re comfortable and thinking well and then eliminating potential distractions from that place.

Let’s say, for example, that you often do great thinking at a coffee shop. Make a portable “silent room” and take it there – turn off your cell phone, turn on your headphones to some supporting music, and dive in.

I do recommend doing a brief meditative exercise right as you start, something that takes less than a minute and clears your mind of the other chaos. For me, it’s closing my eyes and breathing deep. For others, it could be stretching or walking around or drinking some ice-cold water. There are a lot of good quick meditation activities out there – try some and find one that fits you.

What’s The Benefit?
More than any of my other productivity systems, the idea of a silent room makes my side business possible, particularly The Simple Dollar. I need to be able to shut out the world for short periods (half an hour to an hour) and turn it on quickly. Having a “silent room” makes this possible for me.

I don’t just use the technique to write, however. I use the same technique when assembling grocery lists, processing my to-dos, and so on. These tasks get done much faster when I can deeply focus on them and thus I am left with more uninterrupted quality time to spend with my wife and children, which is the really valuable part of my day.

So, not only does it make me more productive and able to carry on more tasks, it also helps me to find time that I can devote to my family, which is really important to me.

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  1. Thanks for so much detail on such a powerful technique.

  2. J.D. says:

    I love this concept, Trent. It incorporates a lot of things that I’ve learned over the past few years, but which I’ve failed to put into practice: meditation, a private space, getting things done, etc. This is actually something I’m striving to create for myself. I have the room. Now I just need to learn to use it. And get rid of interruptions. Weaning myself off e-mail would be a keen thing…

  3. Carlos says:

    This is probably one of the most informative posts I’ve read on this site in terms of the specific issues I’m curious about. I too carry a notebook (Moleskine) and write at a coffee shop before work (so it’s a little creepy too). What I like best is that there is no secret “aha!” trick to getting all your work done, it’s just a matter of being efficient and staying motivated.

  4. chris says:

    I agree on using the right kind of music. Back in college I found that the perfect music to get my writing/coding done was the original blue man group CD (not the one with vocal, the all instrumental)

  5. Lisa says:

    The biggest obstacle for many to overcome is avoiding immediately checking thesimpledollar each time the laptop is opened (or email, news, etc.)
    I am a grad student and use the same Eno CD. It is not sleepy. I also have a little program on my mac called Noise that I use to drown out background noise.

  6. Aaron Stroud says:

    Excellent strategy Trent. You’re really going to receive dividends over the years as your kids get older and rightfully receive more and more of your time!

    Boy do I wish I could survive on fewer hours of sleep. Unfortunately my brain needs at least a solid 8 hours to recharge.

  7. Kyle Brooks says:

    Trent, question: without music, how do you get into the silent mindset? Your post is great!

  8. Oswegan says:

    I really like this idea. Unfortunately for me we don’t really have an extra room in the house and so all of my writing takes place in my bedroom at night and I often disturb my wife when she is trying to sleep. I’ll have to think of a place to make my own or come up with some way to be more portable.


  9. Very nice! This reminds me that I used to be very productive in coffee shops after work while finishing my degree. Somehow I fell out of that habit. Perhaps I can pick up the pace on my blog with a large latte in hand!

  10. E.C. says:

    I greatly enjoyed this post. I’ve discovered that wearing earplugs greatly improves my focus. My dad always wears them while reading and at times it bothered me that he felt the need to tune out our family for large portions of each day, but I’m beginning to understand the value of silence.

  11. Daisy says:

    This is great; thanks! I’m always overwhelmed but all the stuff I have to be doing at any given moment. Your ideas will be a big help.

  12. Eugene says:

    What laptop carrying case do you use?

  13. Mariette says:

    Great post Trent! I agree with Carlos that staying motivated is key, something I often have difficulty with and which is why I sometimes don’t apply all of these wonderful concepts, even though I know how to use them. I’m better than I used to be though and that’s good to keep in mind, so long as the long-term progress is towards improvement and I continue to try, then we’re good. Who am I fooling, I’d be better off if I tried harder.

  14. Brian says:

    Trent, I’m curious–why do you use both a hipster PDA and an idea notebook? Why not one or the other?

  15. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    The “hipster PDA” is more of a “things to do” list, while the idea notebook is more chaotic and full of things to think about.

    Right now, my laptop case is basically just a two pocket backpack. I’m in the market for a better one, though.

  16. Michelle says:

    I find I actually work better with a little TV noise in the background. The key is that I cant have on something I would want to watch, it has to be there just to break the silence otherwise I will get distracted.

  17. Stephan F- says:

    I use the library as it is not too far away and is mostly silent already. I just found my noise canceling headphones again and they make a huge difference. Sennheiser pcx250s if you’re curious much less expensive then the Bose.

    I use my Hipster to capture just about everything and note which context it goes in for later where I dump it into the correct document on the computer.

    I listen to Enya a lot.

  18. Sean says:

    Earplugs are awesome. There’s something about how eerily quiet it makes everything that makes me even more productive than when listening to music. They’re also cheaper and more convenient.

  19. Marina @ Sufficient Thrust says:

    If you don’t have enough room for a quiet area in your home, maybe you’re using space for the wrong things. I wrote a post the other called “Why Furniture Is More Evil Than Google” and it seemed to resonate with many of my readers — why devote an entire living room to a couch and a TV when it could be your office? Why a formal dining area you use 2x/year when it could be an exercise room?

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