1 Big Idea to Think About

  • We are living in the nosiest era of human existence. To combat this noise, we must take deliberate steps to eliminate it. Doing so will allow us to improve our relationships and focus on our most important work.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Select one of the strategies offered in this episode to reduce the noise around you.
    • Practice digital essentialism
    • Try slow media consumption
    • Go on an information diet
    • Create a deep work space dedicated solely to deep, focused work
    • Try a nostalgia bath
    • Take a tech sabbath
    • Cultivate boredom

1 Question to Ask

  • Have I noticed a change in the level of noise in my life? If so, how has it affected my relationships with those that matter most?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • The Hearing Voices Training Simulation (2:21)
  • The noise of our modern life (5:34)
  • The effect of relentless interference on communication (7:07)
  • How to reduce the noise that bombards us (9:17)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome back, everybody. This is your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn how to design a life that really matters. This is part three in a multi-part series about the relentless elimination of noise. 

Have you noticed the change in the level of noise in your life? Do you feel that you might be drowning in it because it’s everywhere around you? Is it possible that it has affected, and perhaps quite a serious way, the quality of the most important relationships in your life, both personally and professionally? 

For years we’ve been aware of, and we’ve been talking about and writing about, the impact of these distractions, of this noise on our productivity, but this is not its most important impact. Its most important impact is not on what we get done but on what this has done to our relationships. By the end of this episode, you’ll be armed with additional tactics and strategies you can use right now to eliminate the noise so that you can have more meaningful conversations and connections with the people who matter most. Let’s get to it.

Thank you to the 175,000 people and counting who have signed up for the 1-Minute Wednesday newsletter. You can sign up for free at gregmckeown.com. You scroll down to the middle of the page and put in your email address. You’ll get chapter one of Essentialism and chapter one of Effortless from my two New York Times bestselling books for free, and you’ll also get in your inbox once a week a carefully curated email that reinforces the messages that we are talking about today and helps you to build this as a practice in your life. 

Dr. Pat Deegan is a psychologist who has been diagnosed herself with schizophrenia, and she designed the hearing voices training simulation. You may have heard of it, but the whole idea is that it helps people better understand the experience of hearing voices. So imagine you walk into a room, part trepidation, part curiosity. Today you are stepping into her simulation. You perch yourself on a chair, a woman, Laura, she says her name is, briefs you. She explains the process. Her words punctuated by your quickening heartbeat. You can leave this artificial reality whenever you want. You nod, your eyes darting between her and the glossy black VR headset on the table. This is the moment where your own world starts to peel away. You pick up the headset; it’s cool to the touch. A universe in miniature sits snug against your eyes, the familiar room replaced by the virtual realm. You’re in a kitchen, morning light streaming in simple tasks awaiting you in the beginning. As you’re in this environment, it’s just whispers that you hear barely audible murmurs from places you can’t pinpoint. You reach for the bread, and like a spectator in the coliseum, the voices amplify. Now they’re shouting, bickering, arguing in your head, some hurling insults, others voicing nonsensical advice, all creating this deafening discord that drowns out your own thoughts. 

What was simple becomes difficult. Each action, each decision, is met with a storm of voices. It’s disturbingly vivid this tumult, and you are in its eye a pop. The toast is ready. It’s an everyday sound, but it sends your heart racing the voices; they’re laughing now. You find your hands trembling a little as you reach out to yank yourself out of this artificial reality. The silence that follows as you take off the headset is as startling as the noise. Laura is there. When you resurface, offering a smile, you’re processing, sifting through the tumultuous tide of emotions that the simulation has stirred up. It’s like peering through a crack in reality, a reality experienced daily by many a struggle, you are now a little closer to understanding the echoes of the voices may wane, but their mark is indelible. Your brief sojo into another’s reality has left a lasting impact. It’s changed you. It’s got you contemplating the noise others grapple with daily. When you step out of the room, it’s with a deeper understanding of this personal noise, a resolution to experience more patience and more empathy with people who struggle with schizophrenia. 

This case study I’m offering here itself is fictionalized, but the hearing voices training simulation is not fictional. This really exists. This has been provided to many people, many thousands, perhaps millions now, all around the world. It’s a brilliant invention, but what I want to posit to you today is this question: What if this simulation is even more relevant in an analogous way to the struggles of almost all of us in our modern life?

Without wanting in any way to minimize the unique challenges faced by those with diagnosed schizophrenia? I do wonder sometimes whether the noise of our modern life doesn’t parallel these voices in some way, and if it does, what does this mean for our ability to understand each other?

Now, let me just say that understanding each other is the pivot, the fulcrum, let’s say, of human relations. As our ability to understand each other approaches zero, So does our ability to make progress, so this is the bottleneck of human, human progress. It’s our ability to understand each other because this is the foundation upon which any solution is based, on an ability to even come to solutions, to the problems or the differences that exist between people so inherent to being alive and being surrounded by other humans. This is the foundation upon which any ability to make a unified decision comes from, or our ability indeed to put into action and execute any decision that is made. So this is the foundation of human progress.

In the traditional communication model, a sender creates and sends a message. The message is encoded for transmission through various potential channels, verbal, written, digital, and then the receiver decodes and interprets the message. Feedback from the receiver back to the sender helps refine future communication. 

Okay, so far so good. You may have seen these sorts of models written in communication textbooks. However, any interference or noise can distort the message. What would the effect be, let’s say, if you happen to live in the noisiest era the world has ever known? I’m just asking for a friend here. Imagine how we might appear to an alien who did not understand the digitized world in which we live. A couple can be on a walk together when one is interrupted with no warning, with an incoming call, and one continues the conversation as before, unaware that the other is now completely consumed with a new conversation. When we speak to our partner, to our spouse about something important, only to find that they did not hear a single word because they were responding to a text, or maybe you are the one that’s been guilty of that, I know I have been.

The advent of remote working has created a peculiar phenomenon where individuals feel compelled to show productivity by being virtually present at multiple meetings simultaneously. This divided attention inevitably breeds noise in the form of completely diluted divided attention. Thus, of course, reducing the quality of comprehension and communication, or indeed bringing it close to zero. 

The noise is everywhere. The perpetual ebb and flow of meetings, emails, chats, the whisperings of influencers, the blare of social media, the winds of change, the intricate dance of complexity, the burgeoning AI, the widening crevices of polarization. 

So what can we do about it? What can we do to try to reduce these voices that bombard us, this noise that can drown us? I’m going to share quite a few ideas. I’m not suggesting you do all of them, but perhaps one of them will speak to you, and you’ll be able to do something about that.

You could try digital essentialism. This is beyond just digital detoxing. It’s a philosophy to be much more intentional about your use of technology to evaluate and optimize every digital tool you have and to ensure that it serves your deeply held values rather than it using you. Technology, as I’ve said before, makes a good servant but a poor master. 

Perhaps the slow media movement is something that you want to consider. This is analogous to the slow food movement, which encourages consuming media in a more mindful, focused, and deliberate manner rather than the incessant scrolling and swiping habits we’ve developed or, rather that have been thrust upon us by a multi-trillion dollar super system that has studied and gathered data and then processed with ever-increasing precision, more and more addictive behaviors to us like we’re rats in an experiment. 

Another way to attack this problem is to think of information dieting. Just as we watch what we eat, we can be selective about the information we consume. This might involve setting specific times for news, selecting a few quality sources, and avoiding the pool of sensational headlines. Let me say again, almost everything that pretends to be news today is little more than sensational gossip. Often if you evaluate it, it is a talking head talking about something somebody has tweeted in reactive, often not very kind ways about something else somebody else has tweeted. This is not news. This is not informing us about the hidden meaning of a story. It is just reactionary, and it ought to be placed at the very periphery of our lives. 

You could consider creating deep workspaces, create spaces, physical or digital, dedicated solely to deep-focused work. This means no distractions, no multitasking, just singular, intense focus on one task at a time.

You could try what we might call a nostalgia bath. That is to deliberately spend time with all the technologies or media like vinyl records or film cameras or, better still, handwritten letters. It’s not about being a Luddite who shuns modern technology, but it is about reconnecting with a slower pace and tactile experiences. 

Perhaps you would consider a tech Sabbath to designate a day or a specific timeframe weekly where you disconnect entirely from digital devices, allowing for a reset and appreciation of the non-digital world. I once had a mentoring session with a group of really honest, open executives who had been each other’s mentors for years, and one of them was completely open and frank about how completely addicted to technology he was on every day of the week other than his Sabbath in which he was completely tech-free. Thank goodness for that. We all thought, and him included, but he found it puzzling that he was able to achieve that so successfully one day a week and so unsuccessfully the other six, free from tech.

Perhaps you could cultivate boredom, embrace moments of boredom without immediately seeking digital stimuli. This can foster creativity, problem-solving, and a reconnection with one’s thoughts. 

This is part three of a multi-part series on the relentless elimination of noise. In part one, I outlined the power half an hour of reclaiming the first 30 minutes of your day. In part two, we began to explore what the effect is of this level of noise on our relationships, what neuroscience teaches us about why it’s so painful to feel misunderstood by the person we’re talking to because they’ve become distracted by technology. And in this episode, we began with the hearing voices training simulation designed by Dr. Pat Deegan and others and have likened that to our modern, mad, and noisy world. Such is the noise of our times that we could be above average and still be drowning in the level of noise that we have. And today, I’ve suggested a whole range of things to be able to take control back to relentlessly eliminate that noise from our lives and to begin to wake up to what life is when it isn’t controlled by the puppet masters of technology who are so incentivized to keep us chained in this cacophony of sound. 

What is one thing that you heard today that caught your attention? I want you to listen and think about that. Maybe it isn’t even something I said, but some other thought that came to you. Listen to it. What is one thing that you can say no to because of this conversation that you might otherwise have said yes to? Who is someone that you can share this episode with so that this conversation can continue? Now, the episode has come to a close for all of you that 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.