The New Year ‘noise diet’

If you’re like most of us, you overindulged a bit too much in 2019. No, not on calories (well, maybe those too!), but on “noise.” That’s the name for the dizzying onslaught of information from work emails, app notifications, the 24/7 news cycle, social media updates, and other forms of screen time that leaves us unable to focus, listen, or do deep work.

A smidgen of noise now and again is okay. (We all have our guilty pleasures!) But consuming it mindlessly, all day long, is as bad as keeping a bag of chips, a monster-size soda, and a can of frosting at our desk and reaching for them every few minutes.

Too many empty brain calories won’t make you fat but they will make you mentally anemic. Noise keeps you in a constant state of distraction. And like actual junk food, a high-noise digital diet is addictive, yet it never satisfies or nourishes you.

You’re tuning out what really matters. You’re skimming the surface. When you’re scrolling Facebook, for instance, you aren’t learning a new language, refining that career-changing presentation, or engaging with your kids in a meaningful way.

The new year is the perfect time to put yourself on a noise diet. To help with your calorie count, let’s take a look at what noise junk food looks like:

The irritating—yet addictive—parade of social media stock characters in your newsfeed. This band of noisemakers assaults your brain with their cries for attention. For instance:

The humble bragger. Your college rival who subtly slips into her post that she just got another promotion at her swanky company. #blessed #gag

The cryptic drama-stirrer. That self-righteous friend who calls out people anonymously for perceived slights or makes vague “poor me” pity posts. (Cue the wave of very concerned commenters.)

The over-sharer. We don’t need a play-by-play of your colonoscopy. Thanks.

The drop-of-a-hat ranter. Whose day would be complete without a furious recounting of how the barista screwed up your nonfat, dairy-free, double-shot, decaf, extra-hot mochaccino with extra foam?

The overly zealous kid promoter. Yes, yes, we know Junior is the smartest, cutest, cleverest tot around—your other 15 posts this week made that perfectly clear.

The amateur political pundit. Do not engage...just don’t.

Dumb@$$ shows on TV. You don’t need to waste your precious attention span watching Jerry Springer, B-list celebrity lip-synch contests, or those morning talk shows. Substance-free television combined with the lure of a cozy couch can quickly turn into a lost day or evening.

The 24/7 news carousel-of-darkness. Sadly, most news is bad news, and during a controversial election year it can also be fodder for controversy, vitriol, and the loss of civility with friends, family, and neighbors. (Hint: You don’t need to totally disengage, but it’s good to be discerning about what you let in—and about how often you engage in debates with the people in your life.)

Your work email. Your boss just had to email you at 9:30 p.m....again. The moment you jump out of the bath to write back is the moment work email becomes yet another source of noise.

Try going a week without social media. (We promise, you’ll survive.) A short detox from social media is a pretty painless way to unplug and reclaim a lot of lost time. When the week is over, you can see if you even want to go back to occasional scrolling.

Insist on phone-free family dinners... Yes, the kids might whine at first, but soon enough they’ll get used to conversing with the out-of-touch “Boomers” and “Karens” at the table.

Learn to save your “appetite” for the stuff that really matters... Your “appetite” is really your attention span, and it’s your most precious resource. Filling up on headlines, emails, and social media means there’s little left over for doing the deep and meaningful work that helps you reach big goals at work and in your personal life. Before you cozy into an hour of lurking on your ex’s Facebook page, close the laptop and find something productive to do.

We don’t realize that very often our addiction to information is the thing holding us back from getting a huge promotion, becoming valedictorian, or training for a marathon, but that’s exactly what happens as time passes. Once you think of it this way, it’s so much easier to put yourself on a noise diet. Make this the year you take back your time and use it to do something that matters.

Joseph McCormack is the author of NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus. He is passionate about helping people gain clarity when there is so much com¬peting for our attention. He is a success¬ful marketer, entrepreneur, and author. His first book, BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less (Wiley, 2014), sets the standard for concise communication.