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Apply a Noise Gate to Your Life

Apply a Noise Gate to Your Life

    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…

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    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:

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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