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  • Tara Rethore

How to Quiet the Noise When It's Everywhere

Not so long ago, 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.


At the height of the pandemic, when the world locked down, most of us worked and studied from home. Even today, schools and offices return to or remain virtual. This is both a convenience (continued learning in lieu of a snow day; avoiding long commutes) and a safety precaution (COVID spikes.) Our family is 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.


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 dissonant rhythms of hybrid work, an “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. 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. Later, 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 had changed; so, too, had the nature of opportunities. Amid the distractions, take a moment to recognize the real work.


3) Leverage the good noise. As the CEO learned, not all noise is cacophony. For her, good noise represented the new and different opportunities that had arisen. By allowing space, she determined whether to quiet the noise, or to translate the interruptions into more lasting opportunities. Sometimes, that meant adapting a planned program to fit a new 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 she would have deemed to be simply a distraction. The CEO learned to leverage the good noise.


Together, the confluence of crises in today's business context – global health, inflation, social inequities, supply chain, and labor shortages – have amplified the volume of the distractions around us. They may also have added new dimensions that are worth exploring, or exploiting, in this new context.


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.