Writings by a younger, less handsome man who shares my name

Most of the time, it’s noisy inside my head.

Noisy with things I need to do and things I don’t want to forget. With emails I wish I had worded differently. With new ideas I want to follow to maturity. With interruptions I invite by leaving email and Facebook open. With phone and text message interruptions I don’t invite at all.

My guess is that it’s noisy inside your head too. Especially if you’re successful. A lot of people depend on you, and you probably have the bloated inbox to prove it.

The problem with all this noise is that it makes it hard to hear anything.

Not just the signal within the noise but also the signal inside your own head. The signal that only you can produce. The stuff that bubbles up when you are free to listen to yourself and think for yourself – when you’re not feeling anxious about something you just did or something you have to do.

If you’re like most people, signal happens somewhere quiet: in the shower, in bed at night or even on the toilet.

Maybe there are people around when it happens and maybe you’re even interacting with them – at a coffee shop, on the golf course or on your carpool to work – but the effect is the same. They are helping you quiet the noise inside.

The trouble is that these days, quiet is on the run. Noise follows us everywhere we can bring a smartphone, even on the toilet and in bed.

Because we can respond to messages anywhere, people expect that we will. We can try to opt-out, but that brings it’s own noisy anxiety. People feel dissed when we don’t respond.

The question today is not how to find quiet, because quiet isn’t out there waiting for us. The question is how to invite quiet into our lives as aggressively as noise invited itself in.

If you’re waiting for me to give you the answer, I’ll save you the suspense. I haven’t figured it out. But I have started to experiment, and I’ll share my thinking so far.

Step 1 – Quieting the noise outside

Quiet is impossible when it’s noisy all around you. So the first step is to quiet the noise outside.

For me, the loudest outside noise is email.

I used to get around 200 emails each day from people who expected a response. The fastest response time I could achieve was around one minute per email. Most required 30 seconds or less but some required 5 or 10 minutes.

When I responded to all of these 200 emails, that meant over 3 hours of noise each day just from email. Add Twitter, Facebook and text messages and that gets me to about 4 hours per day – half of a typical person’s workday and about a third of mine.

The only thing I spent more time doing than email was sleeping.

Quieting this noise wasn’t a productivity problem, it was a math problem:

200 emails x 1 minute per email = 200 minutes (or 3+ hours)

The only way to reduce email noise was to get fewer emails, respond to fewer of them or spend less time on each response. Since I couldn’t reduce my response time any further, I had to look for ways to reduce my email volume and respond to fewer of the emails I received.

My solution was an autoresponder. Everyone who emails me gets an automated response that tells them that I’m only responding to emails about my core projects and then lays out what those projects are. They only get this automated response once every 14 days thanks to AwayFind. I tried to make the email as authentic and human as possible, because I know how much I hate when people don’t respond to my emails.

This has already cut my inbound email by more than 50%, probably because people think twice before pressing the send button on unnecessary emails. It has also made me feel less pressure to respond to most emails.

While I was at it, I thought I’d also reduce the second source of noise: networking meetings. I was spending about 2-3 hours each day with people who had asked to meet with me, which I usually combined with a meal to kill two birds.

Now my autoresponder and my email footer encourage people to find me at events rather than requesting meetings.

My third major source of noise was the news, blogs and other content I was reading. This was also a math problem:

Content noise = Content consumed x Time spent consuming it

Since I can’t read any faster, I had to consume less.

Now I only read content recommended by 20 Twitter accounts on my private “must-read” list and from content emailed directly to me. I’m the same way with blogs and books. I don’t read many people, but I tend to read almost everything these people write. I’d rather be a foot wide and a mile deep than the other way around.

The fourth source of noise was people I cared about. Most of these people add immensely to my life, but a few of them were responsible for most of my drama and anxiety.

As hard as it is to fire clients, leave a job and end relationships, these hard choices can change everything. Whenever it comes time for me to pull the trigger, I ask myself: Have you ever regretted doing something like this after a few months had passed?

I can’t think of a single example where I have.

Step 2 – Quieting the noise inside

The second enemy of quiet is the noise inside your own head.

Quieting this noise requires something different for everyone, and it takes trial and error to find what works for you.

For me, most of the noise in my head is habit, pure and simple. When I landed in Philly two days ago after a vacation in Europe, my head was quiet. But as soon as I started working and doing errands, I felt the noise creep in.

Part of the noise was a checklist of to-dos I started assembling in my head. But the reason I was assembling the checklist was not that everything had to be done right away. It was because I was in the habit of assembling checklists and then worrying about them.

Breaking that habit isn’t easy, but there a few things that help me.

First is noticing the noise and telling myself the real reason behind it. The noise isn’t the result of important things that must be done now. It’s the result of my being in the habit of thinking and feeling this way.

Second is choosing to leave things undone, even when my mind protests. Scratching the itch today only makes it worse tomorrow.

Third is distracting myself from the noise. Sometimes this means shutting everything off and diving into work that matters. Sometimes it means distracting myself for the sake of distracting myself.

Physical things are the best distraction for me: taking a walk, playing sports or making something with my hands (see the book Shopclass as Soulcraft). I also get good mileage from going out with friends, visiting family and meeting people for drinks.

Fourth is taking long vacations from the noise – long enough to reset my noise baseline and get some perspective. It’s always hard to keep this baseline after I get back, but I consider it a win if I notice a few important things I can do to make lasting change to my habits.

After this trip recent trip to Europe, I came back determined to give leadership of a few key projects to others, to smile even when I don’t feel like it (as much for its effect on me as for its effect on others), to work at a slower and more sustainable pace, and to occupy more weekday evenings with friends who serve as a personal oasis.

I also set a goal of getting away for a least one week every 2-3 months, totally unplugged.

Step 3 – Inviting quiet to fill the void

Quiet needs a void, but a void can also produce noisy anxiety of its own. A void can feel a lot like boredom and loneliness, scary things to an overactive extrovert.

The best time to get used to quiet is when the rest of the world is asleep. For whatever reason, it’s harder to feel bored and lonely when you’re the only one awake.

I wrote most of this article between 12:30-2:30 AM. I seem to produce most of my signal at times like that, when I don’t have to struggle for quiet.

Living with quiet late at night or early in the morning helps build up your overall tolerance for quiet. It settles the panic reflex that can be triggered when you don’t know what to do, and it soothes the part of all of us that can relate to the quote, which I once read on a fortune cookie: “The heavy chains of worry are forged in idle hours.”

The real magic, though, is finding quiet in other parts of the day – when your peers are drowning in noise and are producing plenty of it themselves.

I haven’t figured this out myself, but here are a few things that work sometimes.

First, I try to make a few places into a personal oasis. An oasis doesn’t need to be beautiful or silent. It just needs to be somewhere that’s unfamiliar and free of any habits. It’s critical to keep that place clean of noise from day one.

Places trigger habits for me, and an oasis is a place where I can build new habits of quiet. A few slip ups and I usually have to start over somewhere else. Once I give myself permission to seek noise there, it’s hard to resist that temptation in weak moments.

Second, I spend time with people who can be an oasis. These are people with very different lives than me. People who don’t want to talk about professional things and tend to be active and talkative. Time with them can lead to internal quiet for hours after we part company.

By the way, these people can be dead or even fictional. Abraham Lincoln is one of the most calming personalities I’ve gotten to know through reading. When I need perspective and quiet, I will sometimes read a chapter from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s great biography of Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals.

Third, I start writing stream of consciousness. This means I type without pausing for 10 minutes, even if I have to repeat “I am typing this sentence over and over” when I don’t know what else to say.

It doesn’t really matter what comes out. What matters is the state of flow it produces. Flow is a state without noise and anxiety, where time passes unnoticed and your internal signal has a monopoly on your attention.

Stream of consciousness writing also helps me purge some of my internal noise.

What works for you?

In my opinion, the pursuit of quiet is one of the most important challenges of our time. I’ve only just started this pursuit myself and have a long, long way to go.

If you’re on your own pursuit, I’d love to share notes on what works for you and what doesn’t. Leave a comment and we’ll continue the discussion there.

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  • http://jamesondetweiler.com/blog Jameson Detweiler

    Blake, this is an amazing post. I'm going through a lot of the same stuff myself right now and trying to figure out how I can focus on only the things that matter and forget about the things that don't. For me, it's all about reducing the amount of stuff coming in and the number of channels through which that stuff comes in. That's why I've decided to work on getting paper out of my life.

    The other thing I do is get everything out of my head and into something I trust. This is part of the GTD methodology. For me, I have two personal filing cabinets, Evernote and Things. Evernote is for content and Things is for what I have to do. I also use Google Docs for things I need to share and have other stuff in an organized file system. Dropbox has made it possible for me to have access to all of the things on my computer that I would need at any time. Do I actually access files from my iPhone through Dropbox that often? No, but it gives me the peace of mind knowing that I can be anywhere and have what I need. This comfort makes it a lot easier to forget and focus on the the task at hand.

    I need less noise though, and I've been working to do that and change my work environment and lifestyle to incorporate those changes.

  • http://www.robertshedd.com Robert Shedd

    Blake, thanks for the post! I'm also in a struggle to try to balance all of the information flying around. Ever since you launched the auto-responder on your email, I've been interested to hear about the end result, so I'm glad to hear that this is improving. There's also just so much in terms of social media and blogs that one feels like they need to stay on top of to “keep current” that it quickly becomes overwhelming. I think you point to the first step on the process to solving this — becoming self aware of what's working and what isn't, and where improvement is needed. Our team noticed that there was a lot of duplication in terms of stuff we were all following, so we're piloting an improved process in this regard.

    My chief concern with information overload is that we spend so much time just reacting to everything, trying to respond and track everything, that there's very little time to actually think and crank out creative work. As soon as I realized how much time I was loosing to my information routine, I've been trying to improve on it, though it's certainly a long slog. Glad to hear things are working well for you! :)

    Oh, and yes – the 12am – 2am period has become my quiet time period, too. As the rest of my day has become busier, I've found this quiet period ending later and later… Have to find the time to think somewhere!

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    Thanks so much Jameson. I'd love a tour of how you're using Evernote and Things.

    It is such a relief to know that the things you need to remember are recorded somewhere safe and easy to find. That way you can let go of them in your head.

    Same with simplify and reducing the channels through which things come in. To have email, SMS, Twitter, Facebook, blog comments each in their own place seems like something that has the change as all this social technology matures.

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    Amen my man! – “My chief concern with information overload is that we spend so much time just reacting to everything, trying to respond and track everything, that there's very little time to actually think and crank out creative work.” So true.

    I want to desperately to get out of the cycle of stimulus-response, where we're spending so much of our time being reactive. Imagine if we could start each day with nothing we had to do and only what we're hoping to achieve.

  • http://jamesondetweiler.com/blog Jameson Detweiler

    Well, lucky for you, I'm starting a series on my blog about my
    personal productivity routine/lifestyle engineering. Basically, I'm
    trying to deal with the same issues you have and work through them
    publicly. Evernote and Things will be one of the earlier topics.

    As for SMS, email, etc., I'm playing with a few new tools for
    aggregating channels.

    One of the ideas I've been kicking around recently is a life
    dashboard, but obviously, it's a huge and complex problem.

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    Fantastic, I can't wait! A life dashboard is a huge problem but I bet it can be reduced to one key problem first.

  • http://jamesondetweiler.com/blog Jameson Detweiler

    I think the life dashboard can be reduced to what do I need to do right now? Of course, there's quite a number of things that would go into that, but I think that's the key.

  • http://cera.us cera

    Awesome post.

    I've been doing a bunch of talking at events lately, and this has greatly increased my activity of people wanting to get together. I like your approach of redirecting them to an event instead. Also – for some reason I always felt compelled to meet people in center city, but I ask people to meet me in West Philly now so it's easier for me.

    I'm also glad to hear the results of your auto-responder are positive. I've chosen not to unsubscribe b/c it makes me laugh everytime I see it. Two email related things I've done in the past year:

    1) Separate my primary project email (Vuzit) from all other projects. This has helped me focus immensely on the project most important to me.

    2) Decouple sending email from receiving email. I have to click a “check email” button which really helps reduce incoming distractions when simply trying to clear my inbox. I try not to “check email” unless I'm at Inbox 0, or I've had a processing step that chose to ignore that emails 1, 2, 3, … for whatever reason. The worst thing for me was auto-checking email, especially if you use something that pops up a window on your screen interrupting you.

    I have a bunch of books that I want to read, and I think the only way to get this done is if I find an oasis. I'm thinking the coffee shop near my house, and putting it on my calendar to make sure I make it.

    Post 10PM is still my prime-time for getting work done, and always has been. I didn't have the “noise” problem when I was in college, but glad I morphed into a night person at that time.

    I use Remember the Milk for my TODO list. Anything that is Important to me personally (and not urgent b/c somebody e-mailed it an hour ago) goes into this TODO list. I've gotten in the habit of reviewing this when I'm on a long walk or public transportation to keep perspective. Cost is free unless you want the iphone app so it's $25/year. I also use this for my shopping list, so the iphone app is a must. I think any tool with mobile access would work, so maybe Things is better.

    I stopped checking Twitter almost entirely, but I've been meaning to create the private must-read list as well.

    Thank again -Chris

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    This is great, it's really cool to get a peak into your workflow. It makes a lot of sense to decouple sending email from checking it. I'm thinking about how I could do that with gmail, maybe I could use offline mode.

    I'm also curious to track the evolution of how you handle all the meeting requests. It's hard to say no selectively. I know when I asked Seth Godin for a meeting in what I thought was the most irresistible way possible, he sent me back a kind email that nonetheless said “I don't do meetings.”