Reducing the white noise by scrutinizing your inputs

Cleaning up my Linked-In groups

From recent experience: I was looking through my Linked-In feeds and noted just how much junk I found in there. Maybe I’m not selective enough, I thought. An ideal moment to clean up some of the accumulated mess that provided too high a level of white noise in recent months. After all, while a bit of white noise in the background allows you to focus, too much white noise can drive you insane … or at least significantly influence your productivity levels. And that exercise got me thinking.

The noise that surrounds us

How much noise surrounds us? How much irrelevant yet present line input do we receive that does not contribute to our core roles and responsibilities? Groups in Linked-In that you joined a long time ago, are no longer relevant to you but still send you daily email updates? RSS feeds that create an ever increasing unread count, accompanied by a nagging badge? The news?

I really started scrutinising my inputs, which I ranked in one of four areas:

Areas of control

These are inputs that require my personal attention or input. Examples include projects I’m responsible for, email or any other type of communication which I need to react to, reports or reviews of such reports … pretty much all of the “stuff” I need to be actively involved in on either a personal or a professional level. You could link this to GTD’s incompletion trigger list.

Areas of interest

This is stuff I like or care about, but is really non-essential in nature right now. In all honesty, this is where I go when I procrastinate. Just knowing what these areas are are sure-fire ways to identify those moments when I slide into procrastination. If I focus on these areas, they may actually become areas of control. Such as when your hobby becomes your full time profession …

Areas of concern

These are the inputs that impact me and that I should be aware of but which fall outside of my direct area of control or interest, meaning I need to be aware, but I cannot (yet) intervene or take a concrete action. Examples are management team decisions which are relevant for your work but don’t impact you directly. Or think about delegated work that is still in progress. Or my wife informing me about what my mother-in-law said about me. These are potential stress areas and should be limited to the most essential.

All the rest

This is the stuff that comes in and should hit my spam filter but hasn’t yet. Think news, or gossip around the water cooler. These are major distractions that do not further my master plan but take away my attention and cause additional, undue stress.

A new set of agreements with me

I agreed with myself the following:

any inputs that are in my areas of control get dealt with or put in OmniFocus when I process that specific bucket of stuff. I have the obligation to deal with this, even if it entails saying “no” to the related activities. This stuff gets the standard GTD treatment, as the input usually results in a concrete next action decision.

Any inputs in my areas of interest are reserved for leisure moments, such as when commuting on the train, at home after the chores are done. I take the time to listen to my – carefully selected – podcasts, I write blog posts such as this one, I read a book or an article, I watch the occasional TV show, I scan my Reeder feeds …

Inputs in my areas of concern get reviewed on a regular, but not too frequent a basis.

This could be daily, but will more often be weekly or in some cases even monthly or less frequent. Think of it as the daily overview you get from your spam software on which messages were blocked … a type of exception reporting. Or think about a weekly Linked-In digest.

Ideally I have a filter here which I trust to do the correct filtering and to only warn me if I have to urgently deal with something. At work, for example, my excellent (big hat tip) collaborator filters certain meeting minutes and warns me if we need to take an action or a position, i.e. if it enters into one of my areas of control.

All the rest of the inputs which my produce irrelevant stuff that contributes to the white noise just get killed, taken off line. I delete the RSS feed, I leave the Linked-In group, I avoid the build up of stuff before it even gets started.

Reducing the white noise

Because I’m 42 years old, I don’t have the luxury to just waste time without focus or purpose. I’ve made the choice for significant white noise reduction. The resulting, reclaimed silence is deafening, but it has created a clarity which is awe-inspiring. All of a sudden, there is a lot more creative white space in my life.

I’ve culled all of my inputs to the essentials and no more. Hence, irrelevant Linked-In groups are gone. My non-critical RSS feeds are no more. I’ve killed TV time except for two shows and the occasional movie, all of which I pre-record and watch in my leisure time. I’ve even updated my spam definitions in both Spamsieve and Postini Services. I check personal email once a day and no more, and professional emails only three times a day, on set hours. You would not believe what areas of space and time have opened up.

Combating information overload

Note that I’m not promoting a structural lack of awareness. On the contrary, you should try to keep abreast of all information you deem relevant for you. However, in our always on, 24/7 information society, there is a real and significant risk of information overload.

At best, this distracts you and makes you less effective. You will reach your goals later. At worst, you get so depressed you cannot bear to get out of bed in the morning. You will never reach your goals at all. So, instead of worrying about the horrible loss of life in a conflict you’ve seen on TV, perhaps you need to look at what you and those around you can do about it.

Remember that this is the day and age of the internet, where both boundaries and gatekeepers are fewer and less defined. That can work against you, if you let it get out of control, such as with uncontrolled inputs which create stuff in your life, stuff that was not available to you even ten years ago. However, it may actually work to your advantage as well, such as when you engage in a concerted effort to right a wrong. Any wrong you deem to be within your area of control.