1 Big Idea to Think About

  • In a world of constant noise and distraction, it is essential that we learn how to eliminate the noise so we can better hear the signal that is leading us toward our highest potential.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Participate in a “power half an hour”. Use the 3 S formula to cut through the noise and focus on what really matters.
    • Silence
    • Stillness
    • Synthesize

1 Question to Ask

  • What are my biggest distractors, and what can I do to reduce or eliminate them?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • Perspicacity: The ability to see what’s hidden below the surface (1:42)
  • The noise of the modern world (4:25)
  • Finding the signal amidst the noise (8:46)
  • The 3 S formula for finding the signal and eliminating the noise (11:32)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome everyone. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn how to design a life that really matters. Have you ever felt bombarded by the amount of noise there is in the world today? I don’t mean literal noise, but all of the digital noise, all of the internal mental noise, all of the noise between people that makes it hard to even understand what somebody else is thinking. Well, this is part one of a multi-part series on the relentless elimination of noise. By the end of this episode, you will have a single practice that you can utilize right now to push back the noise in your life so that you can see more clearly and discern the signal in the sound. Let’s get to it.

A reminder that the fastest way to learn what I’m going to share with you today is for you to share it with somebody else, to be able to put your own spin on it, to be able to say what stood out for you, what you’ve done about it, and what you are learning in the process. 

Have you ever found yourself rereading the same email multiple times, unable to extract its core message amidst the chaos of your day? Have you ever felt drained at the end of the day, not because of the work but because of the constant distractions you’ve navigated? 

Imagine if you could silence all the unnecessary noise around you for just an hour. How much more could you accomplish? What if you had a way to filter out the noise, to be able to synthesize what’s really going on under the surface? 

Recently, I was doing a pre-keynote call with the CEO of SailPoint Technologies. His name is Mark McLean, and we were talking about how many of us feel we are drowning in noise right now and how it leads many people to just react to the shallow, superficial stuff. We waste thousands of hours and millions of dollars in some situations on peripheral issues. Well, there is a skill perfectly equal for a time such as this. It’s this perspicacity. Perspicacity is the keen ability to see clearly the issues, especially what’s hidden below the surface, to be able to have the ability to cut through that noise, get to the heart of the issue, to pinpoint what’s really going on. And it seems to me that given this noise is not going away anytime soon, the future will belong to people who can master this skill. It’s a skill whose time has come. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m actually really sensitive to physical, literal sound. I’ve never gone through any sort of formal diagnosis, but I think, at least at times, I suffer from a kind of hyperacusis. Hyperacusis is, in its full effect, a disorder in loudness perception. So patients suffering from hyperacusis may appear overly sensitive to a range of sounds, finding many noises unbearable and painfully loud. So for me, if I’m flying, as I did just yesterday, to go to a keynote and I’m in the airport, all of that noise pollution is exhausting for me. On planes, it’s the same, especially if there’s a particularly loudspeaker coming through. I find that miserable, and it costs me more than perhaps the average person. I wear earplugs and noise canceling wherever I can, even sometimes at home, especially, frankly, when the children were little. For anybody listening to this who is on the hyperacusis continuum, you know just what I’m talking about. 

And while I do think there is evidence that the physical, auditory sound and noise in our times has increased, what I’m talking about today and in this series is the noise of the modern world beyond traditional auditory meaning it encompasses a whole series of noise, distractions, irrelevant information, interferences that cloud our judgment, hinder our comprehension, disrupt our focus.

We find ourselves, as far as I can tell, submerged, perhaps even drowning in an almost relentless deluge of noise. It’s not merely the audible kind, the drone of urban machinations, or the incessant hum of our own devices. Instead, it’s an existential bombardment, a ceaseless influx of social media, diatribes, sensationalist, 24-hour news cycles, and the disorienting din of overlapping opinions. In an era where everyone’s voice seems equally amplified yet eerily indistinct, whether it’s the unending chirp of notifications or the mental turmoil of overthinking, this cacophony isn’t just sound; it’s the visual overload of videos of neon billboards, the mental strain of multitasking, the societal echo of political polarization, constantly being reinforced in whatever social media we tap into. This is the noise that I’m talking about, digital and information noise, mental and psychological noise, or cultural and societal noise. All of this has a psychological impact on us.

The human brain is a marvel of evolution, capable of complex thought pattern recognition and emotional comprehension is designed to process a vast array of stimuli. In our evolutionary history, we had to be alert to a myriad of sounds, the rustle of a predator, the murmur of a stream, the distant clap of thunder signaling rain. But there’s a stark difference between these survival-driven stimuli and the incessant noise of today’s urbanized digital world.

Our brains are not naturally equipped to handle the constant overlapping and often irrelevant stimuli that modern environments throw at us. It’s not unusual for people today to have five to seven separate overlapping or unrelated projects in play at the same time through multiple digital channels, and our brains were simply not designed for this. Studies show that the brain’s amygdala, the region associated with emotional processing, for example, shows heightened activity in response to unpredictable noises, a leftover from our days as prey needing to be on constant alert.

But that’s the problem is our modern world, with all of its noise, produces a state of constant alert, and that is not optimal. And this would all matter less, but that amid that noise, there is also signal. In the realm of information theory, the term signal refers to the desired meaningful information. While noise is the unwanted interference, transposing this concept into our daily lives, the signal is the crucial work. It’s a heartfelt conversation. It’s the key insight. The noise is everything that distracts or detracts from that, and this constant exposure to noise makes it hard for our brains to filter out the essential from the non-essential. When bombarded by too many stimuli, too much noise, the brain struggles to identify and process the signal. You know the feeling. You’re trying to write a report, and your email notifications keep pinging, annoying emails interfere with the signal writing the report, affecting the quality of your decision-making and clarity, and all of this leads to mental fatigue or cognitive fatigue when the brain is overused. Similar to how our muscles tire after prolonged exertion, constant noise, and distractions demand the brain to switch tasks frequently.

You know what it’s called – context switching. Each switch uses up cognitive resources leading to rapid depletion of our mental energy. So this is why after not even a day but a few hours with constant interruptions, even if they’re minor, you can feel as exhausted as if you’ve done intense physical labor. The fatigue isn’t just about the mental effort of the main task but about the additional energy expended in managing and shifting between distractions, and the fatigue has a compounding effect. As you become more tired, your capacity to differentiate between noise and signal diminishes further, making you even more susceptible to distractions, which in turn increases fatigue. So there’s a vicious cycle that can severely impact mental wellbeing. 

So understanding this dance between noise, our brain, and its implications on our mental state is essential in today’s world. It empowers us to devise strategies essential in today’s world. One upside is that it motivates us to devise strategies and to cultivate environments that can foster clarity, that can foster this ability to discern the signal from the noise. 

Now, let’s come back to this conversation that I was having with Mark McLean. We were just riffing on everything I’ve just been riffing on with you, and he said something to me that just grabbed my attention. He said that he now consistently, in a disciplined way, takes the first hour of every day completely without access to email, texting, or any of those forms of noise. He uses a 3S formula to think about. Now, he does this for an hour, but my invitation to you is going to be to do it for half that length, a power, half an hour, let’s call it, where we focus on what Mark calls silence, stillness, and what I would add to that is that we want to synthesize what’s going on with our life in that time so that when we wake up in the morning, instead of just diving headlong straight into that noise, which is right there in your digital devices, you push it back.

Now, I’ve done this before at times in my life, but when I heard it from him, I realized I’m not doing a great job at it right now. And Mark, even as the CEO of a fast-moving, fast-growing technology company, has got this discipline down. The power half an hour of silence, stillness, and solitude can be a valuable practice for enhancing perspicacity. Now, that’s not a word that you’re likely to be familiar with. You may be, but not many people are. In fact, in the keynote today, I asked the group, about 200 leaders, who was familiar with the term, and nobody put their hand up, but perspicacity is the skill of our time. The noise of our time makes this relevant for our times. 

During this dedicated time, you can synthesize thoughts, gain clarity, and uncover deeper insights into complex issues. It allows you to cut through the noise and focus on what truly matters. This practice can be particularly effective when facing challenging decisions or when seeking to understand the core of a situation. In other words, every day of our lives. Right now, in my power half an hour, I’m trying to spend 10 minutes reading from inspirational literature. I’m trying to spend the next 10 minutes at least using the 1, 2, 3 method to design my day around the things that really matter, to review my schedule, and to get myself oriented for the day. 

But there’s a lot of things to do with that time, and I’m not suggesting you do all of the following, but just things to be thinking about. You might want to reflect on a single question. Instead of letting your mind wander, have a single problem in mind that you want to explore during this time. It could be a professional challenge, a personal decision, or a philosophical inquiry. You could use this time to journal, to be able to write in pen and paper your thoughts, ideas, and insights. You’ll remember the six-minute free writing exercise that we covered in a previous podcast episode. You might use your power half an hour outdoors in nature because a walk in nature can provide a change of scenery and fresh perspectives. I am, as I’m recording this, looking outside at a marvelous view of mountains, of trees right around Lake Tahoe, where I just finished this event. Perhaps it’s meditation for you or a gratitude practice, but whatever it is, it is, at minimum, disconnecting. Disconnecting from email notifications, disconnecting from any texting, disconnecting from any news updates. Disconnecting from technology allows for this deeper introspection. Mark, put it this way, wise people are pulling back that is from the news, from the updates, from the endless continual cacophony of noise.

What is one thing that stood out to you in today’s conversation about the relentless elimination of noise? What is one thing that you can do differently as a result of this conversation, and who is one person that you can share this idea with so that you can help them be accountable and they can help you be accountable? Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. This podcast is now consistently a top five self-improvement podcast within the United States and growing. For all of you who have written reviews on Apple Podcasts, thank you. If you haven’t done that already, you have the chance to get free access to the Essentialism Academy simply by writing a review, posting it there, and letting us know about it. Go to gregmckeown.com/essential for more details. Thank you, and I’ll see you next time.