The problem – All that noise.
I grew up one of four children, all of whom were born on the same day at approximately the same time. I am a quadruplet.
Now, as cool as that sounds (and it was a blast growing up) if you think about it, I have been competing for “position” in this family since I was in the womb. I had three other people who all wanted to literally get out ahead of me, before we ever took our first breath.
Fast forward to when we were 7, and I was still competing — not for birth order, but for a voice. I wanted to be seen, I wanted to be heard and recognized as an individual, not just one of four.
And boy, did I work for it — I grew into quite the little entertainer. I sang, I put on shows in the living room, anything I could do to stand out and get my voice heard. It worked for a while.
Saying “No” To the Noise
Over the years, it seemed the decibel level in the family just kept increasing. With four growing kids, someone was always trying to get out ahead, have a bigger voice, gain more recognition from Mom and Dad. And with the increased noise in the system, it meant I had to be louder too. (sigh)
It was around the age of 10 that I started to retreat on a regular basis to my bedroom and shut the door.
I remember my Mom asking me, “Are you feeling okay? You are awfully quiet.” She grew concerned. Granted, it was a shift from the “norm” in our family. Quiet was something we didn’t do very well.
Clearly, from my Mom’s reaction, quiet meant something was wrong. In reality, I had just made a simple decision to say “no” to all of the noise. I shut out the need to compete and made space to focus on my own thoughts, process my day, and get to know my inner voice. I made space to breathe!
This need for silence and solitude is something I have held onto into my adulthood and I have brought it into my day-to-day business life. While it is incredibly important to me, I have not found the same value of silence being echoed in the greater business community.
The Damage of Missing Silence in Business
As a culture, we don’t do very well with silence. We are taught to literally “speak up!” — those people that do, actually brought their brains to work. Those who are quiet, must have checked out for the day.
We are taught to keep up with the noise of email, IMs, texts, phone calls — the busier we are the harder we must be working…(it is never ending). Our days are interrupted (frequently) by rings, buzzes, and dings notifying us that someone or something needs our attention NOW.
So what’s the big deal? Isn’t all that noise beneficial, isn’t it helping us get the work done? Not really…
When I was a kid and didn’t get my precious quiet time, I can tell you — I got cranky! I was less productive, more agitated, easier to trigger, and usually got into some sort of trouble. I was louder in a not-so-helpful way. I wasn’t “me”.
Research has proven that I am not alone. It has been determined that too much noise raises cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure. It can contribute to memory loss and insomnia. It raises our collective anxiety levels. It depletes our creativity, impedes productivity, and hinders good decision-making.
To make matters worse, research also shows that too much “technology noise” (emails, texts, general screen time) can lead to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, a decrease in communication skills, and other health ramifications such as insomnia and back, neck and eye strain.
Whether the noise we are dealing with is literal sound or it is coming at us from our laptops or handheld devices, that noise is hurting us! Something needs to change.
So, what would happen if you built more silence into your day? What if you stopped talking long enough to actually hear yourself think? Or turned off the cell phone, shut the laptop, and marinated in your own thoughts for a while?
For some of you, the permission of unplugging for minutes or hours feels like a gift — a mini-vacation from the day. For others, I can almost hear you running away from this blog post. But don’t give up on me just yet.
Consider this: studies have shown that silence can regenerate brain cells. In fact, even a few minutes a day of quiet can help regulate your cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure.
In addition to your physical well-being, there has been some fascinating research around the importance of silence to learning, to our performance, and even what solitude does for the mind and creativity.
To take it even further, there are plenty of leaders who have talked about the power of “white space” in their own lives/careers. By his own estimate, Warren Buffet has spent 80 percent of his career reading and thinking. He made it a priority to clear his calendar and spend the majority of his time in thought…in a way, you could say silence built the Warren Buffet we know today. Powerful stuff, right?
At this point I have several of you thinking, “Okay, so silence is important. But I have no time for that!”
(Ahh, but can you really afford not to?)
How to build Silence into Your Workday
For those of you wanting to know how you can build silence into your day-to-day, and still keep up the pace that is demanded of you, here are a few tips that may help:
1. Block out time in your calendar to reflect.
It works for Warren Buffet! Our calendars are not just for meetings with other people. I once had a leader say to me “you shouldn’t use your outlook calendar to block out working or thinking time.”
Hog wash! That is precisely how I use my calendar. To organize all of my time, prioritize what needs to get done, and create the space within which to do it. And it works.
This doesn’t mean block off days or weeks on end of “no meetings”. But I am giving you permission to place a 30 minute, 1 hour, 2 hour “HOLD – DO NOT SCHEDULE OVER” block of time in your schedule per week. (My hope is you work this into a daily practice, but we can start small.) Schedule it into your calendar and don’t compromise this time.
2. Enjoy a conversation with yourself.
During that lovely block of time that you have no meetings, sit with your own thoughts (and absolutely no agenda). Meditate, talk a long walk, plan a personal retreat. Journal or “flush your thinking.”
My cousin calls it “cleaning out the basement,” I love that. What are those deep, collective gems of thought that you haven’t allowed to surface? Put them on paper, see where they go. What brilliant idea is waiting to make an appearance?
3. Let silence do the heavy lifting.
Even in the middle of a conversation. You don’t need your schedule to be void of meetings and interactions to leverage silence. What might happen in your meetings or one-on-one conversations if you said less, listened more, and provided time to think about what has — and has not — been said?
Insight occurs in the space between words. Important conversations require moments of silence during which we can reflect on what someone has said, and consider our responses, before opening our mouths.
This does not mean we adopt the silence of non-participation, of avoiding topics that are uncomfortable. It means that when a question is asked, we give ourselves and others time to reflect and respond.
How do you do this? Practice the 10 second rule — When you ask for input or ask a question, count to 10 (slowly) before jumping in with your own thoughts and ideas or to answer your own question, giving others time to process.
Take notice of how this feels the first few times you do it — how strong is your need to continue talking? What is the impact of creating more space/silence in your conversations?
Noise can be deafening and detrimental to our health, our relationships and our productivity. So pay attention to your own behavior. Are you speaking just to hear yourself speak? Are you getting sucked into the addiction of all of that technology?
Where can you leverage more silence in your day, so the next thing out of your mouth (or typed onto the screen) is truly meaningful?