At work e-mails ding constantly, disrupting our train of thought and with it our productivity. All day long, phones ring, buzz, vibrate. At night we can’t sit down to dinner without fielding a text message from the boss or (possibly worse, since it’s voluntary) checking our social media pages. And our kids are glued to digital devices when they should be doing homework, sleeping, or Heaven forbid spending time with us, their equally distracted parents.
Such are the unintended consequences of the Digital Revolution. But before you shrug off this painfully familiar scenario with a cynical “What can you do?” check out Joe McCormack’s new book, NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus.
“We were always taught that more is better—the more information we have, the better, smarter, stronger, more successful we’ll be,” says McCormack. “It turns out the opposite is true. The onslaught of information and constant connectivity is changing the human brain for the worse: how we focus, how we think, and how we relate to the people in our lives.”
“We’ve stopped discerning what we allow in, it’s empty calories. Instead of nourishing us, it makes us mentally anemic.”Joe McCormack
What you may think of as “information” or “being connected,” McCormack calls “noise.” And if that word has a bad connotation, well, that’s on purpose. The formula we’ve always accepted is “Data becomes information becomes knowledge becomes wisdom.” But what he’s talking about in his book does not follow that path.
Here are a few ways to think about the noise problem
It’s killing our quality of life
We’ve never been more focused on health and wellness than we are right now. We eat organic foods, we work out, maybe meditate. But what’s really hurting us in every area of life is the onslaught of information that batters us 24/7. “While we don’t have to take our emotional temperature every five minutes, we do need to be aware of the negative impact of noise,” says McCormack.
The damage isn’t only about what we’re doing. It’s about what we’re not doing
Noise teaches us to unfocus, says McCormack. That’s a problem, because it’s the ability to focus on what matters that empowers us to do deep work, solve big problems, be better listeners, nurture relationships—all the things that create quality of life.
We’re masters at justifying our addiction to noise
We might say, “I work hard and need social media to unwind.” Or, “I get on Facebook only at night.” But think of it this way: If we eat right 60 percent of the time, and the other 40 percent of the time we eat crap, the end result is the same. “We need to ask ourselves how we feel after a couple of hours of scrolling Facebook,” says McCormack. “We also need to ask, What makes me feel productive, energized, and content? Those are the things we need to be doing instead.”
So How Do We Break the Cycle?
Realize we have a human responsibility to manage noise
This is everyone’s job, says McCormack. Parents need to prevent bad habits from taking hold in their kids so they won’t struggle to “fix” the problem later. Business owners need to require responsible communication practices so people are not perpetually distracted by an onslaught of data. (Deep work is where real value happens.) We all need to be accountable for the quality of our relationships.
Don’t think you have to ban technology. This is not about disconnecting, but discerning
We need to take charge of what we allow in. We need to take a step back and ask, How can I use technology to improve my life, not worsen it? (Levi’s got it right with its “connected, not distracted” marketing message.)
“We’re taking an incredible, high-end, intricate tool and using it to bludgeon our minds and lives,” says McCormack. “We can choose, consciously and intentionally, to stop misusing it.”
Get super-focused on protecting your most valuable asset: your attention
You need to be really intentional about this. (No app can do it for you!) But McCormack says there are lots of small, practical changes you can make to start managing noise instead of letting it manage you. Turn these into habits and you can rewire your brain to better adapt to a busy, noisy world.
“It’s ironic that we go to great lengths to protect our money and property and other resources, yet we don’t think twice about squandering our most expendable, scare resource,” muses McCormack. “We have limited time, so what we pay attention to really matters.”
“You don’t have to change the whole world to drastically improve your quality of life,” says McCormack. “Reducing noise is doable, and worth doing. It will help you become a better person, employee, parent, and friend.”