For a once-in-a-lifetime experience that was supposed to isolate us, the pandemic has proven to be incredibly noisy. By eliminating in-person work — and the standard of paying close attention to someone while in their physical presence — we fell into a sea of digital communication signals, all competing for our attention.
When we communicate with one another only via Zoom, Slack, tag, comment, whatever, it’s never focused. Instead, it sounds like utter chaos. Twitter, Reddit, comment threads on just about any platform, redlined documents, even the boxes of people on your Zoom call, are different kinds of signals that we’ve recategorized as “noise.”
We didn’t mean to downgrade anyone’s message. This happens because we just can’t get a minute to ourselves. We’re so accessible that we can’t take any shelter from the storm of signals.
The false promise of delta signals
Now, heading into month 16 of pandemic life — just as we’re supposed to begin un-isolating ourselves — we are, paradoxically, driven to seek out more isolation. But it turns out that some degree of isolation is good for us. It’s a natural state.
That state gets invaded when we are constantly bombarded with what I call “delta signals” — pings that let you know that you’ve already fallen behind. Delta signals come in all shapes and sizes.
I’m guessing you tried to click on it. You had that impulse for a couple of reasons. First, it’s blue and underlined, carrying traits of the web’s almighty hyperlink. But more importantly, those 10 characters fired off a very particular part of your brain, signaling that you’re already behind, and if you don’t get caught up on the action, you will be left in the dust and you might never succeed.
Delta signals reveal themselves in all sorts of ways. Dots on your apps that tell you there’s something to go check on. Bolded channels in Slack.
Then there are those automated email notifications. A human-to-human communication medium has been appropriated by fidgety machines that can’t help but loop you in. They love to remind you that:
- There’s new activity for you to get caught up on.
- Your colleagues took a serrated knife to your document and you’ve got a bunch of edits and comments to catch up on.
- Your task is due 10 minutes from now, or it’s due right now, or it’s overdue.
- You’ve got a meeting soon (real soon).
At Postlight, we use a recruiting tool that fires off an email a couple of hours after you’ve interviewed someone. And it is not happy with you:
Nice move, recruiting app. Red, bolded links yelling at me, and then a jab at how my cognitive abilities deteriorate over time.
Your apps aren’t mad, they’re just disappointed
Eventually apps that fire off notification emails kind of give up and fall into a mild form of digital depression. This happens when the app can’t get through to you no matter how often it pings.
After trying for weeks, it’ll toss a Hail Mary: yet another sad, pathetic email. This time it’s coming from a place of zero leverage:
Hey! It’s been a while since we’ve seen you on CollaboApp.
Where are you? Rich! Where are you?
I’ll tell you where I am. Alone. Thinking my thoughts. Sifting through shards of ideas without all those signals — good or bad.
And that’s the irony of it all. There are good signals out there. Of course I should write that candidate review as soon as possible. It’s good practice! Of course I should close all my other windows when I’m on a video call. It’s good etiquette. The people on the call deserve my attention! But the sheer volume of signals turns even the good signals into noise, too.
Just two people talking
Working alone isn’t just normal, it’s natural. Isolation permits us the focus it takes to make good work.
When I’m trying to solve something big and ambiguous, I open up Bear. You can’t collaborate in Bear (it’s one of its killer features). There’s actually not much to it. It’s a basic markdown editor with good cloud syncing. But it’s a private space for me to get thoughts down.
Many of my documents have curse words in the title at first. It’s just a list of grievances. Then, little by little, I organize them, outline-style, until I see things in a connected way. Once the full picture is in front of me, I walk away. I leave the document alone for a day or two. Eventually I’ll come back and start to jot down what a world looks like where this set of problems can’t thrive.
My co-founder, Paul Ford, does something similar in the other direction. He’ll drop 25 bullets that organize his thoughts and ideas. Then we talk.
It’s worth stating the not-so-obvious: I don’t share my document with Paul. Instead, we tend to drop bits of information like kindle to keep the dialogue going.
The key secret to this dynamic is that we are very much alone together in our discussions. It’s a very isolated and organic process — almost secretive. We are not in a crowd, a video call, or a comment thread. It is true one-on-one collaboration, narrowed down and reduced to basic conversation. By eliminating other signals, the noise metaphor melts down. It’s just two people talking.
Mute the bad signals to focus on the good
I have 22,441 photos on my iPhone. Last year, Apple updated iOS to include widgets, and one of the widgets is this tiny photo carousel that randomly plucks 10 photos every day to show you. It is the single, most important update to my photo collection. We are not designed to wade through 22,000 photos and reminisce. Even the good signals. Hey! Remember how rich your real life is? It’s all here for you to appreciate. If there’s too much of it, even if it’s good, it’s still overwhelming. It’s still noise.
Whether you need to be alone to think your thoughts (no signals allowed) or need to go deep with a single collaborator or a small team, muting those delta signals is key.
And all those notifications you’ve been ignoring? The pleas for a sliver of your attention? Don’t worry, they’ll be waiting for you when you return.