How to differentiate between a signal and noise for better clarity
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How to differentiate between a signal and noise for better clarity

How to differentiate between a signal and noise for better clarity

We must learn to focus our attention on what’s important and ignore the rest


I would like you to take a moment and sit back and contemplate the real world wherever you are – the local café where the gruff-looking man sits in the corner adding three sugars to his morning tea, or the Ash trees that shed their leaves covering the pathway on the street where you live, or the whirring sound coming from the Metro that runs by overhead.

How do you sense and interpret the world of humans and things you encounter? What new understanding do you formulate from observing and being in the world of experiences?

What connections can you formulate between things that, on the face of it, might appear disparate? Are you able to somehow join the dots between them? When we try to break down the setting in which we find ourselves, the outer and the inner, we can soon become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of rich information and experiences around us. It’s in these moments that we learn to focus our attention on what’s important and ignore the superfluous. Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, estimates that our brain receives 11 million ‘bits’ of information in the form of sensory experiences each second.

Yet despite receiving so much input, our minds can consciously process just 40 bits per second. In other words, the brain is constantly making choices – what chunks of information to process and what to ignore. One way to instruct the choices our mind makes, according to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, is to look for positive signals “because the better your brain is at using its energy to focus on the positive, the greater your chances of achieving your goals”.

He cites a number of studies that suggest that picking up on positive signals can help you make better decisions, be three times more creative, generate 37 per cent more sales, improve your health, increase your productivity by 31 per cent, make you 10 times more engaged and 40 per cent more likely to get a promotion. Achor suggests we make a distinction between a signal, something we should pay attention to, and noise, something we should ignore.

He explains that information can be identified as noise if it falls into any of the following categories:

Unusable: The information will not change your behaviour; for example, reading about a natural disaster on the other side of the world, unless you plan to help the victims.
Untimely: Information that you do not plan to use immediately and may change by the time you use it, such as currency rates for a holiday destination you are planning to travel to in six months’ time.
Hypothetical: Where the information is “could be” as opposed to “what is”, such as a five-day weather forecast that has a 53 per cent chance of being correct.
Distracting: In which the information you are receiving distracts you from your career or personal goals. If it does, then it is noise.

When we have limited attention and need to make a choice between a signal and noise, then directing our mental gaze to what is currently occupying our attentional space becomes crucial; otherwise, we run the risk of senseless mind wandering. Bringing attention to what we are thinking about in the moment is a process called meta-awareness. This is one of the
best practices for managing our attention.

The more we notice what is occupying our attentional space, the faster we can get back on track when our mind wanders, which it does 47 per cent of the time.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT, an educator and novelist

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