Is Too Much “Noise” Making Us Miserable at Work? (and 10 Ways to Quiet It)

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Be honest: How does your job make you feel? Do you feel productive, energized, and eager to accomplish more? Or is each day a thankless, stressful slog through an avalanche of emails; a minefield of muddled messages and pointless meetings; a cacophony of dings, beeps, buzzes, and chatter; and an ever-snowballing to-do list? 

If your stomach is in an anxious knot, it’s because these words resonate all too well. This is how most of us experience our work life. And the bigger problem, says Joe McCormack, is that we accept these conditions as normal—and thus we do nothing to change them.

“We think, This is just the reality of work in the Digital Age,” says McCormack, author of the new book NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus (Wiley, January 2020, ISBN: 978-1-119-55337-3, $25.00). “We’ve forgotten how it feels not to be perpetually distracted and overwhelmed. We’ve lost sight of the fact that work isn’t meant to be a gauntlet we run for a paycheck. It’s not supposed to be easy, but it also shouldn’t drain our life force.”

The root of our collective dysfunction is what McCormack calls “noise”—the onslaught of information and constant connectivity that bombards our brains, breaks our focus, and causes us to tune out the things that matter. Consider these statistics from his website, The Brief Lab:

  • Professionals check their email 36 times an hour. 
  • They’re interrupted 50 times per day. 
  • They have an 8-second attention span. 
  • They check their phone 150 times per day. 
  • An estimated 92 percent of people multitask during meetings. 
  • 37 billion dollars is spent on unproductive meetings. 
  • 75 million dollars is lost among Fortune 500 companies annually.

It’s obvious that attempting to work while fielding endless distractions can cripple a career. No one can live up to their potential if they can’t focus. The question is, what can we do about it? More than you might think, says McCormack. Just by making a few simple changes, we can make inroads to protecting our greatest career assets: our attention and our time.

 He says when we start discerning what to allow in—and break the habit of consuming so many “empty calories” of useless information—we dramatically improve our relationships and our quality of life at work and at home. That’s the goal behind his “Just Say No to Noise” movement. He wants us all to stop accepting the status quo in every area of life. 

“We can’t change the reality of our workplaces, but we can take small, doable steps that together help us better manage the overflow of priorities, requests, and challenges,” says McCormack. “We can apply some Old World practices to the New World problems we face. They work; we just need to actually do them.”

For example: 

Get clear on why noise is a problem. 

Noise hurts our attention span, impacts our brain and working memory, and eventually causes us to stop caring and listening, says McCormack. For example, consider the interruptions that break your concentration multiple times a day. Now consider that it takes 25 minutes to get back into the swing of things when you’ve been interrupted. When you realize the high cost of noise, you’ll be more likely to take it seriously.

“Just calling it ‘noise’ goes a long way toward helping people see that it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with,” says McCormack. “By naming, framing, and claiming it, we make it real.”

Get intentional about your time and attention. 

Even if you have little control over the meetings you must attend and what arrives in your email inbox, you can fine-tune your focus the rest of the time. Get to work on time in the morning and dive right into the most important task of the day. Don’t exhaust high-quality attention by reading news feeds, checking social media, deleting emails, or looking at the weather.

Carve out quiet time. Prioritize it. 

A study conducted by The Brief Lab found that 64 percent of professionals reported having less than two hours a day of quiet, uninterrupted activity. Those quiet moments when we used to get lost in thought are largely disappearing as we obsessively consume information. We can fix a big part of this problem by wrenching ourselves away from screens as much as possible (see next tip). We can also seek out quiet spaces at the office when we need to do “deep work.” And we can utilize tools like noise-canceling headphones or even an old-fashioned handwritten “do not disturb” sign taped to our door.

“The point is to get intentional about protecting quiet time,” says McCormack. “When you don’t shut out the world, you’re constantly aware of its endless demands. These will break your focus and make you feel anxious because you can’t stop what you’re doing and ‘fix’ them.” 

Give the screens a rest. 

In The Brief Lab study, 70 percent of respondents said they were likely to begin and end each day by checking their smartphones. However, those who rejected this “always-connected” behavior found quality time much easier to come by. Forty percent of those who didn’t begin and end their day by checking their smartphone reported having four hours or more a day of quiet, uninterrupted activity—far more than the others in the survey. McCormack suggests the 7-to-7 rule.

“Don’t check your smartphone or computer before 7:00 a.m. or after 7:00 p.m.,” he says. “This will provide vital quiet time for deeper thinking (typically in the morning) and greater reflection (in the evening). These are ideal moments to plan and prioritize activities. Common sense suggests this practice will benefit families, friends, and spouses too!”

Try the 11-minute unplug before critical conversations, presentations, and meetings. 

Step away from all screens for 11 minutes and think intently about what you hope to accomplish. You may have to take a walk or hide in a conference room, but it will be worth it. Why 11 minutes? Because 10 isn’t quite enough.

Focus on few things, not many. 

The key to productivity isn’t multitasking; it’s single-minded focus. Juggling too many balls at work is awkward and counterproductive, and constant distractions can be so irresistible that you end up saying yes to everything. Focus on the most important things you need to do first. And don’t move on to the next task until the current task is complete. 

A good trick to try: Write one task on a Post-It note and throw it out once you’re done. Check the trash can for all the little things you accomplished by doing one thing at a time. NOTE: For more tips, see this blog post.

Get brief in your communication. 

When trying to inform, explain, update, and convince, simplicity goes a long way. Focus on being lean, clear, and concise whether you’re speaking or writing. Ask yourself: What is the single most important thing I want to convey in this conversation or communication? Then, tailor that email, voicemail, phone call, or presentation accordingly. 

Master your impulse management skills. 

There are countless moments when our minds get yanked around, latching onto things that really don’t matter much. When you find yourself impulsively getting distracted, practice managing your impulses and staying focused. 

  • Notifications. When you hear an alert on your phone, tell yourself no and get back to work. (And better yet, silence any digital noisemakers.) 
  • Passerby. When someone approaches your desk, your curiosity awakens. Now you have to either say hi or pretend you didn’t see them. Back to work. Say no. 
  • Ideas. Walking to get scissors, you start thinking of an appointment tomorrow and recall you haven’t accepted the invitation yet. Just say no and retrieve the scissors. 

Commit to work-free nights and weekends. 

Don’t bring your work home with you. Working all the time leads to physical, emotional, and cognitive exhaustion. Use your weeknights and weekends to relax, rest, and recharge. This ensures that when you show up to work, you can produce and perform. 

Tune into why your work matters. 

As you are tackling a particularly tough task, lean in a little more and consider why you’re dedicating your undivided attention to the task. This helps you dig deeper and provides specific, meaningful purpose to your focus, especially when it gets really tough to pay attention. 

“This is really just about breaking your bad habits and replacing them with good ones,” concludes McCormack. “Once you learn how to tune out the noise, it frees you up to consistently focus on the things that make you more productive, more creative, and a better innovator and collaborator. These are the qualities that make you a better leader, client, and coworker. They’re the qualities that get you recognized and fuel your success.”

About the Author

Joseph McCormack is the author of NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus. He is passionate about helping people gain clarity when there is so much com¬peting for our attention. He is a success¬ful marketer, entrepreneur, and author. His first book, BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less (Wiley, 2014), sets the standard for concise communication.

Joe is the founder and managing director of The BRIEF Lab, an organization dedicated to teaching professionals, military leaders, and entrepreneurs how to think and communicate clearly. His clients include Boeing, Harley-Davidson, Microsoft, Mastercard, DuPont, and select military units and government agencies. He publishes a weekly podcast called “Just Saying” that helps people master the elusive skills of focus and brevity.

To learn more, visit www.noisethebook.com.

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