Separating Signal from Noise – Part Two

To continue from Part 1…

We are constantly being peppered, assaulted really, with things competing for our attention, and there is no sign that the universe is going to let up on us.

I am generally regarded as someone who is technologically progressive, but you will not find me on any social media other than LinkedIn, for professional reasons. Otherwise, I have come to conclude that social media is to useful conversation what diarrhea is to healthy digestion.

And then there are our mobile devices. I think Seth Godin put it best in his 30 DEC 2016 blog post:

On one hand, it was hired by you to accomplish certain tasks.  In the grand scheme of things, it’s a screaming bargain and a miracle. But most of the time, your device works for corporations, assorted acquaintances and large social networks.  They’ve hired it to put you to work for them.  You’re not the customer; you’re the product.  Your attention and your anxiety are getting sold, cheap. When your device grabs your attention, when it pushes you to catch up, to consume and to fret, it’s not working for you, is it? On-demand doesn’t mean you do things when the device demands.

Because I prefer to manage my interruptions, rather than allowing any device or system to do so, I refuse all apps’ offers to push notifications my way. And as a champion of courtesy and civility, I also refuse to interrupt a conversation I am having with one person, for another, regardless of the media on which that interruption presents itself.

I think it is still an early life lesson that it is rude for a third party to interrupt a conversation two other parties are already having. That’s still a good lesson and should apply regardless of the media involved. There are exceptions, of course; 911’s from a family member or friend moves right to the top of my list. However, those are an exception, not the norm. I believe that if you’re having a conversation with someone, you shouldn’t allow another person to interrupt it, whether their interruption is also in-person, or by phone, or by text message, or by email, or by any other kind of push notification.

By design or default, we each manage our interruptions, and in a world where the assault for our attention is only going to increase, it begs the question, “How do you choose to spend your time?”

The method that I use is one taught to me long ago by Dr. Stephen R. Covey (if you’re familiar with his work, this is what evolved into “Habit 3”). It requires the ability to distinguish between “important” and “urgent.” It also requires the ability to distinguish between genuine importance and false or fabricated importance (often using a false sense of urgency to disguise itself as important). And it requires the ability to distinguish between genuine urgency and false or fabricated urgency.

What makes something urgent is usually self-evident, but what makes something important? For me, something’s importance is a function of the strength of its correlation with my mission. The stronger the correlation, the greater the importance; the weaker the correlation, the lesser the importance. (And, yes, I have a personal mission statement. Implied or expressed, you do too—it may be one that you have allowed to evolve by default or it may be one that you have thoughtfully designed.)

With the ability to delineate between importance and urgency, and distinguish between varying degrees of importance and urgency, we now have everything we need to decide how we want to spend our time.

Here’s how I prioritize among the seemingly infinite number of things competing for my decidedly finite attention

  1. Things that are both important and urgent (i.e., genuine emergencies).
  2. Things that are important, but not urgent (i.e., preventative action and other opportunities to address something proactively).
  3. Urgent, but not important (i.e., fake emergencies).
  4. Neither urgent, nor important (i.e., most of life).

Items 1 and 2 are a signal; I make every effort to tend to these. Items 3 and 4 are noise; I almost never get to these.

The ability to separate signal from noise is a leadership competence essential to agility.

We’re agilityIRL. We deal in signal.