Chances are you’ve heard — or rather, not heard — the effects of a noise gate, but unless you’re into audio engineering, you probably didn’t realize it. Ever been at a concert or listen to a radio broadcast where it sounds great when there’s music playing or a voice speaking, but no hiss in the pauses between? Unless the signal happens to be really clean, odds are that was a noise gate at work, removing the hiss while letting the loud parts shine through.

While a picture is worth 1,000 words, I’m sure this audio example counts for something too (turn the volume up so you hear the hiss):

» Noise gate demo (MP3)

In our lives, in addition to obvious, upfront distractions, there’s often a lot of “background hiss” that doesn’t appear threatening on its own, but just like breaking down a big project into small tasks helps it seem not so intimidating, the counterproductive opposite is also true — many small interruptions can quickly overwhelm and suck your time, leaving you frustrated and unaccomplished. Quiet breaks between the madness is essential to your well-being, so it’s important to…

Identify the noise

Removing the “noise floor” so there’s blissful silence between the “louder” parts of the day is understandably difficult, because what’s noise to one person is, well, music to another. Here are some common examples of noise:

Requests that say “It’ll only take a minute or two.”

Ever get asked for small favors like this, only to find that 5, 10, or even 15 minutes have already elapsed after you start helping?

People who can’t be bothered to read

It’s a safe generalization that most of us don’t peruse a website’s Terms of Service, let alone a software app’s whole manual — we access info as-needed. But being badgered by questions that someone can effectively help themselves with is bad for all involved.

Emotional vampires

If during quiet moments, your mind wanders and gets increasingly bothered thinking about people who’ve been unkind, you can relate.

Intrusions that incrementally eat time

Whether it’s unwanted advertising in the form of annoying Flash animations or an unwelcome telemarketer, many of us share this problem.

Enjoy the silence

Applying a noise gate may not be easy at first, but it becomes easier the more you do it — habituating yourself high volumes of excellence is far better than drowning in the hiss. Here are some of the ways I do it:

Batch process

This has been highly touted by Darren Rowse of Problogger and many others, and I’ve found it to be incredibly true. Don’t do wasteful things like answer a single email, only to check your inbox moments later and repeat the cycle — devote larger chunks of time, such as half-an-hour and above, to grouped/similar tasks. Really dive in and both the quality and quantity of your output will increase… then you’ll feel peaceful afterwards.

I’m active on a number of social networks (like Flickr and Twitter) I set aside weekend time to browse and converse on. This is a fine interval that allows me to be communally active, yet it’s not overly consuming. Plus, it’s a refreshing feeling to “let comments build up” and dive in. (I allow exceptions for spontaneous responses on a case-by-case basis.)

Afraid some things can’t wait? The good news is, more often than you think, they can… or can be avoided altogether. Most “emergencies” are illusions because people are temporally sensitive to what’s happening now. Try an experiment in cultivating selective ignorance, then you’ll know firsthand whether this works for you.

Document what you do

You may not be a technical writer, but you can certainly scribe a simple Frequently Asked Questions list (FAQ) in a few minutes. If you feel bloated answering the same questions over and over, whether it’s work-related (like mine) or about your personal activities, you lose nothing from sharing your secrets. In fact, it may help you remember better.

The most common objection to this is that it’s “dehumanizing”, that it gives you an excuse to not be personal. That’s wrong! Rather, documenting and automation frees you to be more personal for times when an already-provided answer won’t do. Simple as that.

Remove non-contributors from your life

Oh, harsh! But vibrantly true. If you surround yourself with positive people who take on adversity as opposed to whiners who mope and don’t change their realities, you’ll be empowered to both lift yourself up and have a supply of energy to boost others too.

An unfortunate lot of people passively burn and suffer because they stew about meanies who leech their time and deplete their spirits: whether it’s an Internet troll or a drama-laden “friend”, we’ve all known people like this. Just imagine how much happier you’d be if you put all that anger towards something awesome!

I understand removing useless people — useless as in, “they contribute nothing of value to your happiness” — is harder if they live with you or are related, as opposed to anonymous jerks on the Internet. But you likely still have control over how you spend your time and who you spend it with, and minimizing their involvement by being brief and moving on is the best. Conversely…

Celebrate people who bring usefun (useful + fun) your way

We often call them our close friends, but they can also be prized customers who are eager to beta-test, give feedback, and help advance your work and play so both of you benefit.

Spend the best — and many — moments of your life with people you treasure and who adore you in-kind. Instead of blippy highlights in a sea of hiss, strive for strongly-punctuated life experiences with a beautiful serenity in-between.

Time and energy are finite, and you’ll only have the resources to lavish wonderful individuals if you don’t treat people the same. You can’t. People are different, and some are more noisy than others — it’s their choice to learn to improve, and your choice to focus now on what’s worthwhile. Hey, lead the way!

Regularly find tools to help you

The knowledge is at your fingertips: whether it’s Adblock Plus for smoother surfing or developing the willpower to simply say “No thank-you” to a telemarketer then hanging up, find the tools that let you have more control over how your days go by.

Whenever I have a problem and specifically feel a repeated process is more troublesome to do than it should be, I write it down. I review a list weekly, then go wild searching. For example, I was frustrated with juggling multiple browser tabs in Firefox, and eventually switched to vertical tabs. The sooner you solve attritive problems, the more time you’ll cumulatively save in the long run.

I’m a fan of cheap, lightweight experiments that build on themselves, and I’m not just referring to technological tools, but psychological constructs that condition and bias you towards a life well-lived.

Rock on!

The biggest obstacle I’ve known to the above is letting the noise continue to permeate and invade your life, thinking you may tolerate it and “It’s not that unhealthy…” Those are poor excuses and are self-hurtful, because the noise will only grow. If you harbor such thoughts as I once did, taking the first steps today will serve as a foundation for a noise-minimized future.

It’s unrealistic to expect to have a completely noiseless life, but like the adage goes,

“Everyone has problems. Not everyone deals with them.”

Each interruption, no matter how deceptively faint, is an opportunity to practice and work your way up, building a better noise gate for your life.

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