5 Ways the “Kingdom of Noise” (And Distractions) Are Blocking Your Productivity

This post is an excerpt from Jordan Raynor’s book, Redeeming Your Time: 7 Biblical Principles for Being Purposeful, Present, and Wildly Productive. 

By Jordan Raynor:

Now more than ever, we are living in what C.S. Lewis’s devil Screwtape called “the Kingdom of Noise.” And I’m not just referring to the obvious increase in external noise created by nonstop news, entertainment, and the buzzing of the devices in our pockets. I’m primarily referring to what all that external noise creates, namely internal noise that blocks our ability to be silent and reflective.

Why should leaders care? Because noise is one of the greatest threats to our ability to be purposeful, present, and productive.

How so? In at least 5 ways.

#1: Noise limits our ability to think

When I was CEO of the venture-backed tech startup Threshold 360, one of our investors asked me, “What’s the number one skill we should be looking for as we consider investing in other founders and CEOs?” My answer came easily: “The ability to discern the essential from the noise.”

In a startup—really, in any work a leader does today—new information and opinions come flying at you from every direction. Every time you open your email or social media feed, you see new market research, new product ideas, and four different people who believe that attending their meeting is the best use of your time. This of course makes it incredibly hard to discern and focus on what matters. As one Nobel Prize Winner said, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

But information in and of itself isn’t bad. Information is a gift! The problem is when the information flow never stops. To discern the essential from the noise, at some point you’ve got to turn off the information and opinion firehose, get quiet, and simply think. Mister Rogers said it best: “Just be quiet and think. It’ll make all the difference in the world.”

To discern the essential from the noise, at some point you’ve got to turn off the information and opinion firehose, get quiet, and simply think. @jordanraynor Click To Tweet

#2: Noise limits our ability to be creative

C.S. Lewis may have never written The Chronicles of Narnia had it not been for boredom. Lewis grew up in the early 1900s on the Irish countryside where there wasn’t much to do, especially on the Emerald Isle’s frequent rainy days. As his biographer points out, Lewis and his brother “spent many hours making up their own stories….I suppose the beginnings of Narnia can be seen in this childhood occupation, which was their way of combating the boredom of hours spent in the house while the soft Irish rain fell slowly and steadily outside.”

Of course, boredom—which we could define as a lack of noise—is much rarer today than it was for Lewis in the early 1900s. With all of the noise in our life today, we’ve made boredom nearly extinct, and that’s a problem because a lack of noise is essential to creativity.

With all of the noise in our life today, we’ve made boredom nearly extinct, and that’s a problem because a lack of noise is essential to creativity. @jordanraynor Click To Tweet

Let’s make this personal: Where do you have your most creative ideas? If this were a question on Family Feud, I can almost guarantee the top answer would be, “In the shower.” Why? Because the shower is one of the last places on earth that isn’t filled with noise. It’s one of the last places we can find solitude, boredom, and thus creativity.

#3: Noise limits our ability to cultivate depth

Every leader wants to do more “deep work.” But here’s the thing: Dissenting from the Kingdom of Noise is a prerequisite for doing quality, focused work. The research shows that if you spend all of your time away from your desk filling your mind with noise, you will have a much harder time focusing on your work when we want to. In order to “go deep” when you’re ready, you have to, in the words of Deep Work author Cal Newport, “wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”

Of course, our lack of silence and reflection doesn’t just limit our ability to cultivate depth at work. It’s equally harmful for engaging deeply at home. God didn’t design our minds to merely receive information. He created us to think about and make creative connections between various inputs.

God didn’t design our minds to merely receive information. He created us to think about and make creative connections between various inputs. @jordanraynor Click To Tweet

So what happens when we fail to make the time to do this thinking alone? We do it when we’re with others—our spouse, kids, and friends. Even if the external noise is turned down (yours and your spouse’s phones are out of sight, the TV is off, etc.) the internal noise is still blaring because your brain is trying to process and connect the information you received throughout the day.

#4: Noise limits our ability to be at peace

Three things happened in 2007. First, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, ushering in a future in which the lack of a smartphone is almost unheard of in the developed world. Second, Americans started a ten-year, fifty-nine percent decrease in productivity compared to the previous decade. And third, seemingly out of nowhere, anxiety and other mental health issues exploded around the globe—especially in teenagers.

The timing of these three events is not a coincidence. The rising volume of the Kingdom of Noise is making us less productive and significantly more anxious.

Most leaders understand the power their phones have to create anxiety. But what most leaders are less aware of is how other forms of noise—especially the news—lead to a lack of peace.

According to TIME Magazine, “More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result…Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report ‘constantly’ monitoring their social media feeds—which often exposes them to the latest news headlines, whether they like it or not.”

This is certifiably insane. We are literally making ourselves anxious by welcoming all of this noise into our lives.

I’m not immune to this problem. For the past 5 years or so, I have consumed virtually zero news. No news websites. No newspapers. No news podcasts. Nothing. But when my friends notify me of a major event that directly impacts my life and work, I’ll pull open a news website to get the information I need.

That’s exactly what happened at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. When I heard about the virus from a few friends, I started checking news websites for information about school closures, social distancing directives, and face mask mandates.

Obviously, this information was highly relevant to me. But in the search for that important information, I quickly stumbled into the quicksand that is most digital news services, scanning headlines from the ridiculous (“Hulk Hogan: ‘Maybe we don’t need a vaccine’”) to the fear-inducing (“750,000 people in North Carolina could be infected by June”).

While Hulk Hogan’s antics were mildly entertaining and North Carolinians were now in my prayers, the fact was that this news didn’t impact me at all.

A couple of days after my rare entrance back into the Kingdom of Noise, I was experiencing a level of anxiety I had never felt before. That’s when I read Philippians 4:6-8:

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Up until reading this passage during the COVID-19 pandemic, I had never connected verses six and eight together before. But of course, there they are, back-to-back, separated only by verse 7. Could that be because part of the solution to our anxiety is found in what we’re choosing to think about—the noise and information we are inviting into our minds? I think so.

Most news is not “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, or admirable.” It’s just noise. And much like our smartphones, news creates anxiety in our lives, making it harder for us to focus on the work God has given us to do.

#5: Noise limits our ability to listen to God’s voice

This final way that noise impacts our ability to be productive is the most important.

John Mark Comer said it best: “The noise of the modern world makes us deaf to the voice of God, drowning out the one input we most need.” By filling our lives with noise, we are becoming the “wicked man” of Psalm 10:4 who “in all his thoughts” has “no room for God.” We are inflicting ourselves with what Tim Keller calls “the torture of divine absence.”

The problem is less about what noise we allow into our minds and more about what noise we’re keeping out—namely our own thoughts and ability to listen to God’s voice.

The problem is less about what noise we allow into our minds and more about what noise we’re keeping out—namely our own thoughts and ability to listen to God’s voice. @jordanraynor Click To Tweet

I think it’s important to note here the difference between hearing and listening to the voice of God. We hear God’s voice when we read his Word.

But here’s the thing: “Quiet times” aren’t actually that quiet. We read. We study. We are quiet in the sense that we aren’t speaking, but our minds are still noisy because we are still consuming and intaking information. When we read and study God’s Word, we hear his voice, but it takes silence and reflection to listen to his voice and connect his Word to our lives.

In Psalm 46:10, our Father invites us to “Be still, and know that [he is] God.”

Commenting on this verse, author Emily P. Freeman said:

“There’s a reason why God invites us to be still first: the stillness makes way for the knowing….Stillness is to my soul as decluttering is to my home. Silence and stillness are how I sift through the day’s input. The silence serves as a colander, helping me discern what I need to hold on to and allowing what I don’t need to fall gently away, making space to access courage and creativity, quieting to hear the voice of God.”

That’s it. Silence, stillness, solitude, reflection—that’s the difference between hearing God’s Word and listening to his voice.

How can we dissent from the Kingdom of Noise?

You’re sold on the fact that our noisy world is blocking your ability to be maximally productive. So what can you do about it? I offer nine practical answers to that question in my new book, Redeeming Your Time: 7 Biblical Principles for Being Purposeful, Present, and Wildly Productive.

There’s not enough space here to share all nine practices, but let me share the simplest one that you can start implementing today: Refuse to fill the crevices of your day with noise.

Refuse to fill the crevices of your day with noise. @jordanraynor Click To Tweet

The next time you find yourself waiting for the elevator at work, resist the urge to unlock your phone. The next time you finish reading a chapter of your book five minutes before your kids are expected home, don’t turn the page. The next time you hop in your car to run a ten-minute errand, don’t press play on that podcast episode (yes, even if it’s mine).

As we’ve seen, boredom doesn’t come naturally for us in the twenty-first century. So we have to work out this muscle. We need to intentionally develop the skill of being still and silent. Why? So that we can think, be creative, prepare for deep work, be at peace, and listen to the voice of God.

 

What About You?

How do you block the noise? Or do you fall victim to it? Share in the comments below.

 

5 Ways the “Kingdom of Noise” (And Distractions) Are Blocking Your Productivity

11 Comments

  1. play solitaire on November 11, 2021 at 10:10 pm

    Well, that’s a superb article! Thank you for this great information, you write very well which I like very much. I am really impressed by your post.

  2. KC on October 31, 2021 at 9:42 pm

    Wow, I am pretty picky about what I read and this tops my list of excellent this month! I am so grateful for the time you put into research prior to writing. The data and quotes from authors add to your already thoughtful writing. This is a crucial topic, and I hope this message spreads like wildfire. Thank you!

  3. Jeremy Van Langenberg on October 27, 2021 at 5:54 pm

    Thanks, I just appreciate the reminder, especially when I evaluate my productivity based on what I ‘got done’. But responding to ‘the noises’ is so inefficient. Hope I can be consistent in applying Ps 46:10 & Phil 4:6-8.

  4. Lanny Heinlen on October 26, 2021 at 10:26 am

    I emphasize what I call the 4 S Principle. 1. We need to learn how to be sit. 2. We need to learn how to sit still. We can be sitting but not still. I think it is important that we learn how to be still before the Lord. 3. We need to learn how to sit still in silence. When I spend this time I do not have music playing. I also try to find a quiet place to sit. The fourth S is simplicity. I believe we need to seek to try to live as a simple life as possible. Sometimes we can become so busy that we miss out on enjoying the simple things of life.

  5. Rabbi Keith Stern on October 25, 2021 at 1:48 pm

    I am a long-time, appreciative student of your wisdom. You inspire me; your teachings have transformed my personal life as well as my work with my congregation. I call you my ‘guru’, and that is without irony or hyperbole.
    I want to push back on #4 and your news blackout. My mother, may she rest in peace, was a proponent of your philosophy. She never called me or my siblings when we got older to make sure we were safe after a long trip. One day I asked her, “Hey Mom, what’s up with the communications embargo? Don’t you want to know that I’m safe?” She answered serenely, “If something bad happens someone will let me know.”
    That was good for my mom. But with a congregation of 425+ families, I can’t afford the serenity. I have cut back dramatically on media content. But I believe it’s part of my role as rabbi and teacher to know what’s going on in the world first-hand, not as reported by a friend of a friend. It’s all about holding the center.
    And as always, your teachings bless my life.

    • Mark on October 26, 2021 at 6:20 am

      Rabbi, You are correct. That noise is what is affecting your parishioners’ lives. I guess the most appropriate sermon would be to explain how what is in the Torah and prophets is directly applicable to today’s issues. This is not easy to do.

  6. Josh on October 25, 2021 at 10:46 am

    I grew frustrated with myself because of my easy distractibility. I can get sucked into something unproductive and lose an hour. I knew that I had to set limits for myself. I now use both StayFocusd for my PC to limit the amount of time I have on distracting websites. Recently, I also paid for a subscription to Freedom which blocks both websites on a PC and apps on a cell phone. You can customize it for content and length of time.
    I also recently read “At Your Best” which has helped me to schedule my time so that I am more efficient and productive!

  7. Nancy DeStefano on October 25, 2021 at 9:26 am

    As a busy pastor for two churches I try to find blocks of time when I can “Be still and know that [He] is God.” On trips to work I will sometimes turn off the radio. At home it can be more difficult. My husband, a professional drummer and an advertising executive, loves to watch the noise ( I mean the news) and constant sports updates. At night he insists on having the ambient noise of a fan running. I love the quiet when he is out at work!

  8. Robert Smullin on October 25, 2021 at 8:05 am

    EXCELLENT ARTICLE

    The ONE THING to make this a practical reality which I use virtually every day:
    I set aside 1 full hour to 1.5 hours during the morning (normally first thing) turn off my phone and any computer dings and give myself this time to think or move the needing on a project

    ONE HOUR EACH DAY ….100% NO DISTRACTIONS

  9. Terri on October 25, 2021 at 7:43 am

    I get so much out of your newsletters! Thank you for putting out such worthy content in a straightforward format.

  10. Chris on October 25, 2021 at 7:42 am

    This is a great article! I’m constantly amazed (grump old man mode: activated!) by the abundance of notifications I see on someone’s phone when we’re in a meeting or conversation. I imagine their focus, effectiveness, and emotional stability being chipped away one ding at a time.

    Thanks Jordan for sharing your great thoughts here. Adding your book to my Amazon cart!

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.