The world is a noisy place, and it’s only getting noisier.

If you’re like me, you remember a time when there were only a couple of TV stations (in fact, when I lived in the Arctic as a kid, we only had ONE channel!). You remember a time when you had one telephone, and if it rang, and you weren’t home, it just kept ringing. The caller would just have to call back later. There were no answering machines. If you were on the phone, and someone tried to call you, it didn’t go to voicemail – the caller got a busy signal. Because you were…busy. The mail wasn’t just full of junk flyers and bills. There were letters and postcards too.

25 years ago, our incoming information was manageable. Most of us only had a few inputs – our work phone, our home phone, the mail, and in person. These days, the number of inputs has grown exponentially – we have voice mail at home and at work, multiple email accounts, text messages, Facebook messages, Twitter replies, Google+ conversations, blog comments….there’s seemingly no end to the amount of inputs we have.

For all the noise that our volume of inputs creates now, there’s a lot of good, too. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook enable us to keep in contact with many people at once (imagine having to send an email to 300 of your closest friends every time you wanted to tell them something!). Text messaging is a convenient and quick way to communicate to others. I wouldn’t give up any of our modern ways of communication for the world. It’s made me more productive, helped me grow my business and it’s a heck of a lot of fun!

So how do you manage the noise that all of these inputs create? Well, the truth is, it’s up to each of us to find the best ways to control the information we receive on a daily basis. Here are some things I’ve had success with.

1. Get control of your email. Today.
We are all overloaded with email. I used to be too, averaging 2-300 new messages in my inbox every day. But I sat down and took a good hard look at the email I was getting. Most of it was useless – notifications from Twitter and Facebook, and myriad other social tools. Email newsletters that I’d signed up for but never got around to reading. Blog post subscriptions. The number of important emails I was getting was actually pretty low.

So I went on an unsubscribe rampage. I went to every social tool and turned off ALL notifications. All of them! Now I check my @replies and Facebook messages when I want to. I unsubscribed from all email newsletters except one or two that I get REAL value from. I moved all of my blog subscriptions to Google Reader. I also give out my cell number to people who need to reach me on a regular basis, and ask them to send me a text if their message is short. Now, I average 20-30 mostly relevant emails per day. It’s made a huge difference.

2. Use Twitter more wisely.
I follow over 5000 people on Twitter. When people discover that, they wonder how I can possibly keep up. Well, first of all, I’m not trying to read everything – Twitter is about skimming for me. Second, I take advantage of Twitter lists. I have a private list of about 100 people and sources that I follow on a regular basis. I spend most of my time in that list. (Here’s how to create Twitter lists). I also use tools like HootSuite and Echofon, to help me manage my @replies and messages, and to follow #hashtag conversations. The secret to Twitter is to treat it like a pub or coffee shop – you pop in and only experience it while you’re there. When you’re not there, the conversation continues without you, and that’s okay. You can either catch up later or stop worrying you’re going to miss something (I do the latter most of the time).

3. Turn off ALL notifications.
This is a lesson I learned from Mitch Joel. Turning off email notifications is only part of the battle. You also need to shut off anything that blinks, flashes or beeps on your phone and computer screen. I even turn off my email badge indicators (so I don’t see the email piling up before my eyes – too stressful!). You don’t need to know every time someone replies to you on Twitter. You don’t need to hear a “beep” or see a red flashing light every time you get a text message or an email. The reason we are so exhausted and can never seem to catch up is because we’re continuously bombarded with new messages. YOU control who accesses you and when, not anyone else. Shut down those notifications. Do it today. Tell people if it’s really urgent, to phone you, or use a service like AwayFind. You’ll be so much happier, and get so much more of the important stuff done.

Finally – if you really need to reduce the noise so you can accomplish more, there’s one thing you can do, that I highly recommend. Just shut everything down. Close all applications on your computer and unplug the Internet. Put your phone away (and shut off the darn ringer!). Heck, turn the computer right off, and grab a piece of paper and a pen. Gain control of your information flow again, and you will find your productivity and your peace of mind go through the roof!

How do you manage the flow of information?

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5 Responses

  1. It’s funny when people ask me if I saw their tweet.

    I say no, that I look at Twitter at my own schedule. Sometimes for 5 minutes, sometimes for an hour. But I’m in charge. I follow people, and unfollow them. I also use lists, and spend time there too.

    But should I follow 5000 people and not the 800 today? I don’t know.

  2. Distractions are everywhere and getting harder to ignore. I’ve become a big fan of the IA Writer app for this very reason (sorry, PC people, it’s Mac only). It has a focus mode, which combined with running in full screen, means there is just the words. That said, here’s a weird confession: I do my best work and deepest thinking when there’s jazz playing in the background in the office. It’s a habit I picked up in university and I’ve never shaken it.

  3. Excellent piece. I’ve lately got back into the habit of having my email open all day so this is the kick I needed to STOP being reactive and start being proactive.

    I like the point you make about using texts for important stuff and short messages – I’m going to do this more. I also use Twitter DM’s a lot to save on email bulge and reach people more readily.

    I’m now going to turn everything off and relax for the evening – thanks!

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