Signal to Noise
On Friday we talked about how it is a misnomer to think that the urgent and the important cannot – or do not – coexist for all of us. I mentioned that the real problem was differentiating between the urgent and the noisy.
“Noise” is a powerful word – and it’s different than sound. We rely on sounds to let us know things are going well – such as the sound of a car engine. The first time I rode in a hybrid and the engine shut down while we were still moving I was unnerved by the lack of noise – something must be wrong! In fact, there are “minimum sound requirements for hybrid and electric vehicles” to keep pedestrians safe when crossing the street. Similarly, when you hear that extra grinding sound when you put on the brakes, you know it’s time for a visit to the repair shop.
Both of those sounds were signals – that is, they convey useful information about the environment. The car is running. The brakes need fixing. At the same time, though, there is a lot of noise going on that is not conveying useful information – the birds outside, the wind blowing, the radio playing music. Not that the music isn’t entertaining, which, yes, is a kind of useful – but it isn’t necessarily conveying information. In fact, the entertainment may actually be hiding the information you need – which is why turning up the radio so you can’t hear the grinding brakes is probably not the best strategy.
Your Personal S2N
Part of separating the truly urgent things from the noise in your life comes with your electronic presence. There are many techniques for it – “Inbox Zero”, choosing an email-checking schedule, “analog time” (when you don’t use anything electronic). One of the founders of a powerful social media tool called Buffer has his own strategy: the Zero-Notification Challenge.
Joel’s idea was to simply turn off all the notifications – aggressively called “push” in the Apple iPhone world – on his phone. No more “You’ve got mail” tones, no twitter updates, no Sports or News flashes, no Facebook likes except when he chose to look at them.
I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look.
When I read about this last week I was intrigued, and in my gung-ho way I went to try it out. Then I realized that I was working a conference that would have many social and organizational demands…and so I simply shut off most of the notifications. I suspect the organizers are grateful, since it let us pull off a wonderful event.
All Things in Moderation
Perhaps “zero” is a bit of overkill. I know that while I’m good at “inbox zero” (emptying my email inbox) I also tend to compulsively check it in case more emails have cluttered up my box – and that means I check my email more, not less.
Similarly, I found that while I don’t have as many beeps and flashing letters on my phone, I also tend to impulsively check twitter and my messages to see what I might have missed. At least it makes me more aware of what social media outlets I spend my time on, and helps me figure out where I can better control my focus in the future.
That’s the challenge for this week’s practice: try turning off most, if not all, of your notifications. At the very least, take a look at what your devices are trying to tell you and make it a conscious decision. And as always: let me know how it goes in the comments!
There are two types of people: One strives to control his environment, the other strives not to let his environment control him. I like to control my environment – George Carlin
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