Signal vs Noise

Not too long ago, I was taking a taxi ride to a talk. I asked the driver to turn off the radio because there were more ads than music on it anyway and I needed some quiet time during the ride. It’s also easy for some taxi drivers to get chatty (and sometimes it can be fun having those conversations), but I do my best to avoid having them (by being polite but assertive) so I can conserve my energy for later. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy small talk as much as the next person, but there are times I’d rather keep to myself. During these times, I also don’t check my phone. I am just being with myself so I can get some mental space. It’s only then I am able to hear what is really going on inside my mind.

By using that space with myself during the ride, I was able to give more of my attention to the event later. The point is when you’re “processing” information and/or interacting with people all of the time, you’re not able to give your undivided attention to some things that matter when they truly deserve your attention. If you’re “on” all of the time, so to speak, when are you truly on?

When I was coming back from the event, I figured the taxi ride back home would be the perfect time to reflect on the event, but I couldn’t because the driver was watching a live cricket match on his phone (mounted next to the wheel) while driving! He was so passionate about the game that I chose to stay silent and decided against telling him to lower the volume or to turn it off. Somehow I managed to get through the ride and reflected on the event later when I was home (what else could I have done?!), but I sure could have used that time to think. There are times, like most people, when I am challenged to express myself.

Here is another example. Sometimes, I find myself mindlessly using my tablet to binge-watch YouTube videos. When I end up doing this in the morning, which is otherwise reserved for creative work, I don’t feel as “fresh” in terms of energy for the work that follows because I have partly used up that energy by watching videos.

When I am watching YouTube videos late in the evening, I am using those unproductive hours, well, unproductively, when I could be much better off going to bed on time so I could make the most of the following morning. Regardless, it can be exhausting taking in all that information mindlessly.

Here’s the thing: when you don’t do things out of intention, there is a disconnect between your internal self (what you should do) and the thing you’re doing at that moment. There is unresolved tension. By not choosing to consciously keep doing that thing or to stop, it keeps gnawing at your attention until you are forced to decide. We are neither able to enjoy that thing guilt-free nor do we stop doing it. We are in a state of in-between, which is not a healthy place to be.

The problem is we are constantly stimulating ourselves with new information. We take in more information in a short time than our ancestors did in a lifetime. We are so “connected” all of the time that we have forgotten what it’s like to truly disconnect. We are like a fish in the water that doesn’t know what it’s like to be out of the water.

It’s easy to assume that we can be attentive to all things all of the time, but it doesn’t quite work that way. It’s hard to find signal if you keep yourself buried with noise all of the time. By using our attention all of the time, we are not able to focus when it truly matters.

Turns out there is a scientific term for this. It’s called signal-to-noise ratio, which is a metric used in science fields and engineering to quantify how much a signal has been corrupted by noise. The idea is to cut down on noise to improve signal.

Here are some ideas for wading through the noise to find and improve the signal in our everyday lives.

As someone has wisely said, it’s difficult to overstate the unimportance of practically everything, yet so much of the time we worry about the trivial things and forget there are few things that matter in the end. It’s worth doing a few things better rather than spreading yourself thin doing many things poorly over the course of your life.

Do things out of intention and do them guilt-free. Avoid getting caught in the middle because that’s the worst place to be for reasons covered earlier.

Stop being “on” or “connected” all of the time. There are moments when you can be on and other times you have to truly disconnect. That’s the only way you can sustain yourself mindfully.

I don’t believe in taking digital sabbaticals (or physical ones for that matter). For instance, if you need to use social media for your work, you can’t remove it from your phone. At the same time, you have to find ways to use it intentionally as opposed to using it to get your dopamine fix. Sure, you might go cold turkey and stop using it for a month to improve your awareness of how you use it, and that’s okay, but thinking you would be okay without it is baloney.

Here’s another example. These days, there are “dumb phones” in the market that are devoid of features found in smart phones. Some people stop using a smartphone altogether for these other phones, while others carry a second dumb phone in addition to the smart phone they have, but who are they really kidding? It’s unthinkable to not use a smartphone in this day and age because the benefits of using it far outweigh the costs. Now, if you don’t have the discipline to use your devices mindfully, the software engineers are not to blame as much as we like to think.

There is nothing wrong with consuming information as long as you’re doing it mindfully. For instance, I think it’s okay to absorb some information in the morning (by way of reading classic nonfiction), which helps you center your day.

There is no doubt in my mind that we work best in sprints coupled with doing one thing at a time and giving it our undivided attention. When I am doing creative work (or any work for that matter), I work in 25-minute sprints followed by a short break; wash, rinse, repeat. This routine is part of a 90-minute sprint. You see, it’s not about the hours you spend at work, but the energy you bring to the few hours you work. To learn more about this, read my draft on how I get work done.

Lately, I’ve been driving on the road in silence (with the radio turned off). Previously, when I listened to music or podcasts while driving, I was neither able to enjoy the drive nor fully listen (even though it was fun to passively listen while driving, I guess it gave me the feeling that I was not alone). These days, I find it more relaxing to drive without any music, radio, or podcast. I also end up driving slower, which might just be a correlation to turning off the audio.

This example reminded me of days when you had a turntable and you would hold the cover and listen to the vinyl record while going through the cover. You weren’t doing anything but listening to music and engaging yourself with the artist one on one. If you don’t know what a turntable is (if you weren’t that old), try a CD player in this example and the rest would still hold true.

That’s not to say I don’t listen to music while doing activities. For instance, I find it motivating to listen to music while exercising; I suspect I am not alone in doing that.

Use your quiet time to quietly listen to yourself. Most things are not worth paying attention to. If we are consuming information all the time (or just using our attention all the time), we are undermining ourselves when it’s time to give something the attention it truly deserves.

It’s easy to get distracted and/or interrupted nowadays by our devices. Rather than always being at the beck and call of others (through your phone), check your phone at set times during the day and return missed calls/texts during those times. Never let yourself (or your meetings) be interrupted by these devices; it’s worth remembering they are for your convenience (and not vice-versa). Never let people justify using their devices during your meetings with them. Remember, we teach others how to “behave” with us.

Learn to set limits on things. Contrary to what most believe, true freedom does not come from living a limitless life. This is not dissimilar to the idea of having and using constraints.

It’s easy to get sucked into the triviality and busyness of life by looking at everyone else’s lives, but that doesn’t free us from leading a proactive life.

There are only two ways of looking at this. Decrease noise and/or improve signal (or both). We think we can always be “on” or connected all of the time, but that’s not possible. It’s only a matter of time before you burn out. If you’re always on, you are never on. Decrease the noise in your life so you can get to the “good stuff”. Learn to live with enough, and focus on the few things that really matter.

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