1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Digital noise and distractions keep us at the surface level of our conversations and relationships and prevent us from reaching the areas that are most essential.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Choose one of the strategies discussed to reduce the digital distractions in your life.
    • Create a phone-free zone or phone-free time
    • Place your phone in a separate room when you want to think deeply
    • Turn on do not disturb
    • Change your screen colors to monochromatic
    • Turn off auto-notifications on your phone
    • Use software like Focus@Will to improve your focus
    • Take a digital sabbatical to more fully understand your relationship with technology

1 Question to Ask

  • On a scale of 1-10, how much do digital sources distract me from accomplishing essential work or prevent me from being fully present in my essential relationships?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • A moment of distraction at Stanford University (2:11)
  • The effect of digital noise (4:31)
  • Strategies for reducing digital distraction (9:08)
  • Getting at what’s essential by reducing digital noise and going beyond surface-level interactions (16:08)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome back, everybody. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here on this journey with you to learn how to design a life that really matters. When was the last time that you were having a conversation with someone only to look up and find that they weren’t listening at all? Instead, they’ve been pulled into one of their devices. What did you feel at that moment? Was it mildly irritating, or did it trigger something deeper, something beyond mere frustration? Even if you didn’t say it out loud, there was some serious withdrawal that’s gone on inside. 

Many of us think of this moment as being trivial, whether it’s happened to us or whether we’ve done it to somebody else, but this is wrong. What we know now is that the need to be understood, to be seen, to be known is so jugular that even these small errors in communication between people can significantly impact both the quality of those relationships, but also the quality of our own lives. 

This is part two of a multi-part series about the relentless elimination of noise. By the end of this episode, you will be better able to eliminate the noise in your conversations. Let’s get to it.

For any of you who find it a little ironic that there are ads in this podcast, especially in a series about the elimination of noise, I know you, I’ve seen you, and I’ve heard from you, too. We’re working on a premium option of this podcast that will be ad-free. Stay tuned for more information on that as soon as I have it.

Years ago, I was visiting Stanford University. I was at one of the workstations thinking deeply, writing, and a colleague of mine who I hadn’t seen for years stopped by, tapped me on the shoulder, and engaged me in conversation. I immediately stood up, turned around, and began asking after him, how he was, what had been going on with him, and so on. Then within a few moments of the beginning of that conversation, he was gone, not physically gone, but emotionally gone, intellectually gone, gone into his phone. He had, without signaling to me, become involved in a text exchange. I stood there for 10 seconds, 15, it got to 30. That’s quite a long time just to wait for someone, and then at some point after a while, I just left him texting, went and sat back down at the computer, and continued to work. 

A few minutes went by until he returned to the conversation without acknowledging what had happened. He tapped me on the shoulder again and tried to engage. What he wanted was help with getting a job and so on, and of course, I want to help him. Nevertheless, that disconnected experience I just had with him gave me pause. What if he does that in the interview? What if he does that in conversation with somebody that I want to put him in touch with? 

This experience I’m describing is familiar to you right now. I know full well that it’s happened to you. You’re talking to somebody. Maybe it’s something important. Maybe you are on a jugular issue together, but a bing comes in, and they’re gone, and they’re gone sometimes without you even noticing it. And then, of course, once they’re gone, it can lead to another disruption. As they’re on their phones, they then see another text that came in, which takes them onto another link, which takes them to their email, and what begins as a tiny intervention can become a horse cycle of disconnection. And, of course, even when they come back into the conversation, they are full now of all of the experiences and noise of all of those disruptions. They’re no longer in exactly the same place they were before those distractions came in.

This is noise. It’s an example of noise. There’s a lot of noise going on these days, and I don’t really need to be the one to say it to you. You know it full well. We’re buried in noise. We can feel it all the time. Literal noise, psychological noise, noise between people that makes it really difficult to understand where somebody else is coming from when they see it differently from us. And let’s all be honest, too. It’s not like we’ve never done this to somebody else. It isn’t all one-sided, even though we may notice it more when it’s being done to us.

Have you ever been in a conversation where you suddenly became aware that you had become disconnected, that you were distracted? My goodness, as soon as somebody else pulls out their phone, isn’t it immediately tempting to pull yours out as well? What is the effect of this digital noise on our ability to communicate with each other in person?

To answer this, let me share a little about the neuroscience behind why it matters so much to us to be understood in the first place. One of the brain regions that is most responsible for the experience we have when we feel misunderstood, even if that misunderstanding happens because of a digital distraction, is the ACC. That’s the anterior cingulate cortex. This is the region of our brain that’s linked to detecting errors and conflicts. It becomes active when there’s a mismatch between expectation and reality. So feeling misunderstood can activate the ACC because the brain perceives a discrepancy between the intended message and the received one. 

To use a simple metaphor, imagine you are playing a game where you have to match shapes. Sometimes the shapes don’t fit together, right? So the ACC is the part of your brain that says, “Nope, that doesn’t match. Try again.” 

The anterior cingulate cortex helps you to notice when things aren’t quite right, and this is one of many parts of the brain that are activated in a painful way when we are in conversation with somebody or in a relationship with somebody where we feel misunderstood.

As this series goes on, I’m going to explore more of the neuroscience behind our need, and I say that not lightly our deep need to be understood, but as we explore these aspects in detail, we can gain, ourselves, a greater, more profound understanding of why the act of being understood or misunderstood carries such emotional weight. It’s not trivial when we are communicating, and somebody suddenly is disconnected because they’re pulled into their phone; they’re pulled into their distraction. That’s not nothing, and when it happens, conversation after conversation, day after day and week after week, and so on, it can have a profound effect on the relationship that we have, the level of trust we have in that relationship, the way that we experience our own self and our own life, because this feeling of being misunderstood, it’s not just a fleeting feeling, it’s hardwired into the very structure and function of our brains.

Remember, in episode 214 and then in 216, I had the chance to interview the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith, about these subjects. We discussed one of Brad’s ideas, which is this, for more than a century, almost every technology that has connected people who live apart has also created new barriers between people who live close together and how true that is. Digital distractions have become a significant barrier to meaningful face-to-face interactions. It’s like the more connected we’ve become to technology, the more disconnected we’ve become from the people that matter most to us, and maybe that wouldn’t matter so much, but for goodness sake, when all is said and done, when we get to the end of our lives, we will find with perfect clarity that only a few relationships mattered in that essential way, that not all relationships are created equal, and we give such immense value to the latest thing that’s come into our phones as if it’s equal in value to the person that we are with at that moment, we make, I think, a fool’s bargain.

So here are some effective strategies you can use to minimize digital distractions. During conversations, you can designate phone-free zones or times. Determine specific areas – okay, the dining room, or specific times – during mealtime or family time where phones, tablets, and other digital devices are simply not allowed. I talked to somebody recently who admitted that for his family, this rule does not exist, and even the attempt to make it happen leads to a sort of emotional crisis. So huge fits from people, and to me, that’s a wake-up call because it shows how far the digital media companies have gone in invading our space, controlling what we do and when we do it, and reasserting our desire and need and requirement for space away from their agenda may feel almost radical, but it’s the kind of thing we have to do – to set a clear boundary and expectation for undistracted interaction.

Some things that may be obvious, but we still may not be doing them yet. They are common sense, let’s say, but not common practice. When engaged in important or meaningful conversations, switch your phone to do not disturb mode. This will prevent notifications from interrupting the conversation. If you’re worried about missing emergency calls, many phones allow exceptions for specific contacts or repeated calls from the same number within a short timeframe. 

You can create physical separation. Out of sight does mean out of mind, so simply placing your phone in a different room or even just on a table away from where you are sitting can reduce the urge to check it continually. It certainly stops you from checking without realizing you’re checking for meetings or group interactions. You can consider having a designated area where everyone places their phones. This mutual agreement can set a focused tone for the interactions.

Another housekeeping item is to turn off non-essential notifications. Yes, you probably already know that, but have you done it recently, or have apps you’ve downloaded over the last few weeks or months automatically made their way into your space? Literally, almost all apps come with notifications enabled by default, so delve into your settings and turn off non-essential notifications. This way, your device won’t constantly be pinging you for every email, social media update, or app activity. By reducing these interruptions, you are less likely to have your attention diverted during conversations. 

So far, we’ve covered just some of the basics. Let’s go a little more deeply, and by the way, you don’t have to do all of these things. I’m suggesting you capture one of them, maybe two, and start there. But going more deeply, have a digital sabbatical beyond just a digital detox weekend. Consider taking a digital sabbatical for a longer period, perhaps a month or more, where you substantially reduce or eliminate non-essential digital interactions. This practice, while challenging, can offer profound insights into one’s relationship with technology.

You can try a monochromatic screen setting. Alright, that’s a bit of a mouthful, but the colorful icons and notifications are designed to grab our attention, so by changing your phone’s display to grayscale, you make the screen less enticing. This tactic is sometimes hidden deeply within accessibility settings, but they can decrease the dopamine-driven urge to constantly check your phone. 

I’ve done this for a while myself, and it really does make the phone a little more boring, which is precisely what you want – stacking the deck in your favor. On the new iPhone, you can make that change to black and white by simply touching the button on the right-hand side three times fast. 

If things are getting out of control for you, you might even go to specialized software or devices. A device like the light phone, which offers minimal features, can be used for times when you want to be reachable but don’t want the distractions of a full-fledged smartphone or software. Solutions like Focus@Will provide background sounds scientifically optimized to improve concentration.

One tactic I use when I want to really listen deeply to somebody else not just to be digitally distraction-free, but even to focus my mind from all of the noise that naturally sits within it. I take out paper and pen and will try to graphically represent the ideas that the other person is sharing with me. This really helps my concentration and helps to be able to go layer after layer down into what’s really essential because there is, the deeper point I’m trying to make at the surface is the shallow is the superficial, and that is always true in conversation too, and if we are distracted by digital means or other forms of noise, we will immediately reset the conversation back to the surface.

The essential things, the things that really matter, the vulnerable subjects, the underbelly of the relationship lives many levels down. We protect ourselves, other people protect themselves, and so we have to make it very safe indeed for someone to remove one layer than another. The prize for everybody involved in creating safety free from this distraction miles away from digital distraction is that we can get to those things that are not just 1X but 10X or even 100X more important. The essential is almost always more vulnerable. It is almost always more hidden. So when we want to build better relationships, when we want to build real communication and deep connection, we have to practice the relentless elimination of noise.

Thank you. Really thank you for listening to this episode. What is one thing you can do immediately in the next 5 to 10 minutes to be able to put this conversation into action in your life? And who is one person that you can share that action with so that they can help you be accountable, and you can help them? 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.