Guest Op-Ed: The New Year’s Noise Diet: Why You Should Cut the Empty ‘Brain Calories’ in 2020

By Joe McCormack

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.

The real problem with giving into noise temptation isn’t what you’re doing; it’s what you’re not doing. 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 nerve!

• 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.

Are you feeling that noise hangover settle in? Don’t worry, you can kick off the new year with a different kind of diet—one that cuts the empty “brain calories” of digital distraction and gives you what you’re really craving: a more intentional life. Join my “Just Say No to Noise” Movement and tip the scales in the other direction. A few suggestions:

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.

Reduce temptation by “hiding” distracting devices from yourself. Okay, you probably can’t hide your computer but you can shut the office door. As for cell phones and tablets, treat them like what they are: gateways to digital distraction (and it is a very slippery slope). Find an out-of-the-way place to charge and store your devices so you’re not constantly reaching for them.

Break the idiot-box “background noise” habit. It’s easy to mindlessly turn on the TV when you get home. Problem is, it’s broadcasting nonstop noise into your work-free hours. Instead, plan a time to watch your favorite shows. Daily exposure to the depressing litany of pain and conflict we call “news” isn’t making your life better. Neither is watching the “Fatty McButterpants” episode of King of Queens for the 50th time. (Okay, we admit that one is pretty funny.)

Set some work/life boundaries with the 7-to-7 rule. The company won’t crash if you stop answering emails around the clock. After 7 p.m., put away your devices for the night. Don’t pick them up again until 7  a.m. the next day.

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.

…and screen-free family fun days. For instance, make video games and TV completely off-limits every Wednesday and Friday. Yes, even if the kids swear they have no homework. Instead, do something fun or productive as a family. Play a board game. Go bowling or skating. Cook a great meal together. Volunteer at the local animal shelter. Heck…maybe even read.

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.

…and choose some meaningful goals to pursue. When you are able to sharpen and aim your focus, you can do some pretty impressive &%$#. Want to start a website? Get a better job? Learn to code? These “North Star” goals are the best incentive to rethink your relationship with noise and see how your life changes.

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.

Joe is the founder and managing director of The BRIEF Lab, an organization dedicated to teaching professionals, military leaders, and entrepreneurs how to think and communicate clearly. His clients include Boeing, Harley-Davidson, Microsoft, Mastercard, DuPont, and select military units and government agencies. He publishes a weekly podcast called “Just Saying” that helps people master the elusive skills of focus and brevity.

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