July 30

Separate Signal from Noise: Know the Distinction Between Important and Urgent

Picture yourself at the beach. It's crowded, but you manage to find a quiet spot. You settle in there comfortably with your eyes closed, tuned to the sounds of the crashing ocean waves. Then, a group of boisterous teens decide to set up camp near you, taking up the only other quiet spot on an already packed beach. The teens proceed to blare some loud music—or rather, sounds you normally don't associate with the word music. Is there a way for you to tune out the unwanted noise around you and focus on the sounds you want to hear (crashing waves)? Do you have the ability to separate signal from noise?

Or, is that kind of focus and attention restricted to enlightened and monk-like souls?

This article is about the ability to separate signal from noise—a must-have life skill but one that often doesn't get its due.

The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth - Nate Silver

One pivotal technological invention in the last century has been the advent of headphones. It's a product I've had a love-hate relationship with. While I commend the headphones' ability to tune out the overly friendly passenger seated next to me on my transcontinental flight, I'm not as delighted when my teen uses the same technology to tune out my instructions to her.

That said, headphones are underrated.

Relationship savers

Ever watched an ad for "TV-Ears"—a voice clarifying product for the hearing impaired? Their by-line is that they are relationship savers. The product helps keep the peace in relationships when one partner wants to amp up the TV volume while watching sports, whereas the other would rather crochet quietly.

The technology behind headphones is impressive if you think about it. Headphones scan the noise in the environment for meaningful sounds. They allow you to tune in to what you are interested in and tune out all other background noise. They can separate signal from noise.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had another device that works the same way, except, in this case, it would help block out mental clatter instead of physical sounds? The technology could help us tune out all the noise, anxiety, distractions that consume our minds and instead let us hone in and focus on what's right in front of us?

Spoiler alert: This isn't going to be a breakthrough Nobel prize-winning technological innovation. Because it has always existed. In fact, it's something we're all born with.

I'm referring to our innate abilities to separate signal from noise. We behave like we are powerless against the noise in our lives. We run around like headless chickens letting the clatter of life overwhelm us sometimes (most times?) All along, we simply could choose to cut out the noise and embrace the quiet.

Why do we struggle to separate signal from noise?

Most of us get carried away by the minutiae of life. Distractions come flying at us from all directions, and we're only too happy to oblige.

One minute I'm writing this article, and the next, I'm on the phone discussing dinner plans. Then, as I mentally review what's in my fridge, I realize I have to make an appointment with the appliance repair technician to fix the broken ice-maker. As I search online for the number to call, a Buzzfeed quiz catches my eye. Do I prefer the same animated universe as most people? Interesting. I want to know. I'm immersed in the quiz when my stomach growls, and just like that, it's 6.30 p.m., and I haven't even started to cook dinner.

Three hours later….

Where was I?

Urgent v Important

Some people call episodes like this "living in the moment." That's a very charitable way of looking at things. I'll call it what it is. Scatter-brained. Living in the moment, in this case, is simply a euphemism for lack of self-discipline. And, it stems from one root cause—our inability to distinguish between what's urgent and what's important.

The person who powerfully highlighted this difference—between urgent and important—was a very busy man. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied forces during the Second World War. As someone who held the fate of the world in his hands, Eisenhower said:

I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.

(Eisenhower attributed the above quote to a "former college president.")

You've probably heard that no good deed goes unpunished. I'd venture to extend that to say, "no good words go unexploited!"

It didn't take long for management consultants to pounce on Eisenhower's words to create what's popularly known in management circles as the "Eisenhower matrix."

Eisenhower matrix

Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower matrix is quite simple and has four quadrants to provide a framework for accomplishing tasks based on their urgency and importance. It's a powerful time management tool. Used well, it can help eliminate busyness and add purpose to your life.

Here are some examples of tasks that belong in each of the four quadrants and the recommended strategy to address them:

1. Filling out your child's permission form for a school trip due next week is both an urgent and important task. These sorts of tasks should be done right away.

2. Creating an estate plan is an example of an important but not urgent task. Such tasks need to be scheduled for a future (not too distant) date. And when that scheduled date approaches, you need to treat the task as important and urgent, which means you don't reschedule them.

3. Urgent but unimportant tasks – like when someone interrupts to ask you for a favor at short notice (when you yourself are overwhelmed)—can be delegated. You don't have to feel guilty. You're well within your right to think (in your head):

Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part!

4. It goes without saying, but tasks such as finding the perfect GIF to reply to a group chat are both unimportant and non-urgent. The recommendation? Ignore or delete them from your list.

When you can clearly distinguish between important and urgent tasks, progress is inevitable. The noise slowly breaks away to reveal the signal.

How to separate signal from noise?

The first step to solving a problem is to recognize there is one – Zig Ziglar

The process to separate signal from noise, in theory, is quite simple. Filter out the noise and tune in to the signal. Sounds easy, but what does it really mean?

1. Filter out the noise

We immerse ourselves in meaningless tasks over and over without ever realizing it. We lose the forest for the trees and then wonder why we fail to accomplish our goals.

I once spent over an hour on the phone trying to reverse a $7 charge. To be fair, I didn't realize it would take an hour when I started. Fifteen minutes into the process, my ego got involved. Then I began to rationalize my timewasting as "sticking to my principles."

Another example of me getting lost in the noise is my relationship to my email inbox. I'm one of those zero-inbox people—yes, the kind you probably make fun of! But clearing emails is like a game of whac-a-mole. As soon as I delete one email, a few more pop up. Without fail. I can spend hours, even all day, on such tasks, with not much to show for it at the end.

What I'm saying is this: pause to take stock when you're a few minutes into an activity to understand which quadrant of the matrix described earlier you're operating in. Is it important? Is it urgent? Then, simply let the quadrant decide for you on whether you stop or continue.

Unimportant tasks are usually just noise. Filter out the noise by delegating and ignoring these noisy tasks. I've had glimpses of the ensuing silence. It is beautiful.

2. Tune in to the signal

Lucy in the sky with diamonds is a 1967 Beatles song that John Lennon (the songwriter) said was inspired by a nursery drawing. Soon, speculation arose about the song.

People, including those at BBC, claimed they could cut through the noise of the lyrics to see the signal the song was trying to send. They believed the song was a subtle reference to drugs since the starting letters of the song matched the drug LSD. Given the shenanigans of rock n rollers of that era (or any era, for that matter), it's not difficult to believe that to be true despite the Beatles' insistence about the song's innocence.

It is easy to lose signals within the noise, intentionally or unintentionally. Even when the noise is cut out (step 1), it takes persistence to tune into the signal. Moreover, you can only tune into signals you really care about.

I found this on the internet:

A child who appears deaf to all parent commands about chores and homework will still hear the tinkle of an ice cream truck five miles away.

Moral: You can easily tune into signals you want to tune into.

Finding the right tunes for you

Imagine turning off social media or cutting out the wi-fi and just having a blank slate of a day ahead of you. What do you naturally gravitate to doing when you are intentional with your time?

Even if you're unsure, the stillness that follows after the noise is cut out can help you recognize signals you're interested in.

Lean into the stillness. Meditate, if you can. This can be a profoundly introspective exercise. I've tried it and learned a thing or two about myself. Not all rosy, I should add. But that's a step towards self-development, isn't it?

Tuning in

Eventually, when we find signals worth tuning into, the hard part is to persist. Keeping up with the tune can sometimes be more challenging than eliminating the noise.

Here's an example I understand only too well—writer's block. Supposedly, it's the reason why hundreds of blog posts never get written, and millions of stories never get told.  

Manuel Ebert, a software designer, designed a rather brutal writing app called Flowstate. It's an app designed to confront writer's block by forcing the writer to type something. Anything. Continuously.

The app is simply a text interface that looks normal, but the screen starts to tinge red as soon as you stop typing.  If you pause for a longer duration, the app begins to gobble up words you already wrote—the text you already typed starts to disappear, forcing you to start all over again. It's like losing and recreating a document over and over again. This no-carrots, all-stick approach is perhaps a little too extreme for most of us.

But the point is well taken. Tuning in to the signal that's relevant to us is hard. So, we use noise as a crutch to escape from the intensity of the signal we, ostensibly, have volunteered to tune in to.

But, like with everything else in life, with a pound of practice and an ounce of discipline, it's possible to tune in to the signal. At least for a while. This blog post is proof.

In Sum

An unknown 23-year-old guitarist appeared in front of John Hammond. Hammond was a promoter of a sterling reputation in the music industry. His clients included Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan.

Hammond heard the novice guitarist play a couple of songs and then offered to sign him up for Columbia Records. That guitarist was Bruce Springsteen.

Hammond's genius was in finding the gem in the rough. He could cut right through the noise of hundreds of voices to find the few signals worth tuning into. He did that time and time again with artists who have since become household names.

Separating signal from noise is the first step needed to achieve any success. For that to happen, we need to distinguish between what's urgent and what's important clearly.

So, permit yourself not to answer an email within five minutes of its arrival. Ignore the need to drop everything you're doing to accommodate serial interrupters. Enjoy the resulting quiet and stillness.

Like clouds parting to reveal a bright blue sky, cutting through the noise will lead you to see the signal you were looking for. Just hope it's the right one!

Be like a postage stamp – stick to something until you get your destination. 

PS: In case you are wondering about my Buzzfeed quiz results, I don't prefer the same universe as most others. Buzzfeed concluded I was different. I think that's a good thing? Right?



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