How To Quiet The Noise When It’s Everywhere?

Staying focused requires an ability to turn off distractions—or, in some cases, to lean into them.

Last week, as I was concentrating fiercely, deeply immersed in work, Son #1 started Spanish class. How did I know this? He was singing. In Spanish. With enthusiasm. Meanwhile, down the hall, Son #2 entered band class. He’s a percussionist.

I went for a walk.

Like many other families, we are working and studying from home. We are fortunate to have designated work spaces for each of us. Yet, even having doors we can close, the noise creeps in.

The same is true in business, especially now.

Consistently, the executives I work with talk about the myriad things around them that challenge their ability to focus on the key things needed to drive progress. Even having addressed the immediate tasks that sustain operations and satisfy customers, many leaders feel bombarded. That feeling is compounded by the “always on” consequence of virtual meeting tools and fewer boundaries between work and life. They are surrounded by noise, a cacophony of things they could or should do, join, deliver, consider…and so on. The noise steals their attention and consumes energy, leaving no time to first decide whether that’s the best use of their resources.

Escaping outside for a walk, I enjoyed a moment’s peace. Yet, knowing that the situation will persist, I also pondered how to achieve a more lasting solution – both personally and in business. Here are three steps to quiet the noise.

1) Classify the noise. When there is so much going on, it’s hard to think amid the cacophony. Over the last week and in talking with clients, I’ve discovered different types of commotion. I’ve found it’s useful to discern what’s real or important from what’s irrelevant – the real noise. List the variety of things coming at you and classify the noise: What is draining? What may be helpful? What is simply a distraction? Armed with that analysis, you can adjust the volume.

2) Recognize the real work. One CEO commented to me: “Sometimes the distractions are the work.” In other words, what may feel like an interruption or non sequitur may in fact be a new or unexpected opportunity. Pre-pandemic, the CEO’s calendar was routinely filled – or overfilled – with travel, meetings, presentations, etc. When the world shut down, her calendar went blank. Then it refilled with crisis mitigation tasks. Recently, the CEO realized that her calendar had changed dramatically. She was connecting for different reasons and taking time to reflect on the direction she wanted for her organization. Being more available resulted in space to revisit (and reshape) the core work. Yes, the world has changed; so, too, has the nature of opportunities. Take a moment amid the distractions to recognize the real work.

3) Leverage the good noise. As the above CEO learned, not all noise is cacophony. For her, good noise represents the new and different opportunities that have arisen. By allowing space, she can determine whether to quiet the noise, or to translate the interruptions into more lasting opportunities. Sometimes, that’s adapting a planned program to fit a virtual world. Another time, the CEO accepted an interview that unexpectedly catapulted her organization onto a much broader stage. Having the space both for reflection and to experiment with new ideas allowed her to say yes to something that previously would have seemed to be simply a distraction. The CEO learned to leverage the good noise.

The current pandemic and economic crises may have amped up the volume – or added new dimensions – to the distractions around us. Still, for most of us, work has often been somewhat noisy. I believe we are more aware of the noise because it’s no longer confined to a single aspect of our business or life. It can be harder to find a moment’s peace. Perhaps, by finding a way to discern the cause of the commotion – and ideally, eliminate or leverage it – we can quiet the noise.

And if not? Take a walk outside.

Tara J. Rethore
Tara Rethore works with CEOs and Boards to make strategy real and actionable: that’s Strategy for Real™. In industry and as a consultant, Tara has done this across a variety of industries, globally, and in mission-driven and for-profit contexts. She knows what it takes to succeed and how to make strategy real. Currently, Tara serves on the Boards of D+R International, Inc. and JHS Scholarship Fund.