Olivier Lacan

Software bricoleur, word wrangler, scientific skeptic, and logic lumberjack.

Bose Mode

Written on July 08, 2014

My friend Anthony Colangelo and I just recorded the third episode of our new podcast on Monday. Anthony's the kind of guy I could have hourlong phone conversations with on anything and it would be the most entertaining thing ever.

While he was retelling a memorable moment, Anthony reminded me of a funny little concept we came up with while we were studying at Full Sail University: Bose Mode.

Although Bose inarguably makes the best noise canceling headphones and earbuds on the planet, this moniker wasn't really meant as an endorsement. When this concept emerged, I think we were at the beginning of the second third of our academic path. This meant that regardless of prior knowledge everyone in our class had by this point acquired a hefty amount of knowledge.

With the acquisition of knowledge comes an odd phenomenon: it becomes much more intricate to accomplish something that involves that knowledge. I want to pause here to emphasize the fact that I'm not saying it's harder, because that's not true. Knowledge should give you the tools to solve problems more easily, but there's another edge to that sword.

When taught properly, knowledge is often accompanied with wisdom. I would define wisdom as the humility to appreciate the extent of one's ignorance. It's almost a trope but the more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know and have yet to learn.

I think a byproduct of knowledge and wisdom is thoughtfulness. It can help you make fewer rash decisions by encouraging you to spend more time weighing the variables at stake when solving a problem.

In order to weigh variables, you need to be able to hold them all in your mind at the same time. This is why being a judge must be excruciating.

In this industry of what people sometimes refer to as "knowledge work", there is an almost unstated understanding that what we refer to as "flow" is the state of mind required in order to make thoughftul decisions while weighing all the necessary variables.

When I try to explain this process to outsiders, I often use a computer as a metaphor — which seems fitting. In order to compute, a computer often needs to download data before it can even parse and analyze it. This is exactly what I believe flow helps "knowledge workers" like programmers and designers achieve. Slowly at first, faster as time elapses, we start placing all the facts about a problem at the forefront of our mind — our Random-access memory.

The reason Bose Mode is so crucial is because any interruption, any loss of focus during such a critical phase means starting from scratch may be necessary. At the very least you will need to retrace your steps in order to make sure you didn't lose an important fact due to the interuption. When electrical current stops flowing through a computer's RAM, all the information it contained is irretrievably lost. That's because RAM is volatile memory, unlike the non-volatile memory of a hard drive or SSD. I find the similarity between humans and machines here striking.

Physically isolating yourself from the sounds of the world is a way to achieve flow which doesn't rely on the courtesy or cooperation of others. During my time at Full Sail, I've managed to achieve flow in a busy Firehouse Subs restaurant at rush hour while sitting under a TV blasting ESPN's SportCenter. All this thanks to my pair of noise canceling headphones and a base layer of lyric-less music1 that didn't subtract from my attention. The advantage of "Bose Mode" is that most actively noise canceling heaphones have an LED which shows whether the noise canceling mode is on. This can act as a mild deterrent to interruptions if people notice that not only you have headphones on, but you're clearly trying to block out external noise as well.

If you talk to any programmer who travels regularly, ask them what they do on a plane. On flights with no Internet access available, a roomful of strangers in the sky with the right pair of headphones can encourage rare feats of concentration and complex problem-solving. Thanks to Bose Mode, you will also barely even notice the heavy hum of the plane's engines.

All in all I'd encourage any "knowledge worker" to be aware of how volatile their optimal state of mind to achieve productive work is. You don't need to receive a popup notification and sound whenever an email comes in. You don't need to see a little badge number increment on your phone for that either. Email is not chat, it should be able to wait at least a few hours. If you have urgent email, then simply check it more often. At least you'll be doing that on your own schedule and not be at the mercy of other people's schedule.

Start using great isolation features like OS X and iOS's Do Not Disturb modes. On OS X, hold ⌥ (Option) and click on the Notification Center in your Menu Bar (the rightmost icon). This will grey out the icon and will turn off all notifications until you click it again. It's a really useful tool to use when your brain is fully loaded and you've achieved flow with the help of Bose Mode.

There are many other ways you can exert more control over what is allowed to interrupt you during your work, but none is as important as the realization of how costly these interruptions are to your ability to do good work with velocity.

  1. I highly recommend Tycho, the Inception soundtrack, the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, Zero 7, Bonobo or any music with sufficiently steady rythm and few lyrics. If you don't know where to get started, you can try my own Flow playlist