Donald Trump’s run for president can actually teach us a lot about productivity

Donald Trump (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)
Donald Trump (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)
Takeaway: According to psychologist and author Shawn Achor, “noise” has four characteristics: it’s unusable, untimely, hypothetical, and distracting from your goals. It’s worth making an effort to consume less noise, so you can spend more of your attention on what’s actually meaningful and important.

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 18s.

I’ll admit, the headline for this article is pretty linkbaity, but let me explain.

From the moment Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, he started saying controversial things, and people started paying attention to him. In my opinion (and at the risk of getting political), his campaign has been pure genius—a sort of entertainment disguised as politics. The man says basically whatever he wants, which is often the same stuff a slightly-racist grandpa would yell at the television while watching CNN. It’s hard to look away.

And that’s the problem. Like it or not, there’s noise all around you. When you’re not careful, this noise can distract you from what’s meaningful and important. I don’t say this to be a prude and discount things that are genuinely entertaining, which can bring some pleasure to your life. For example, there’s nothing wrong with watching the odd reality TV show, especially when you know in the back of your mind that it’s simple and mindless entertainment. But there are other things that qualify as “noise,” which add absolutely no meaning or value to your life. Noise can even be counterproductive to your goals, so it’s definitely worth cutting back on.

My favorite definition of this type of “noise” comes from Shawn Achor’s book Before Happiness. (While you’re at it, you should check out Shawn’s other incredible book, The Happiness Advantage). According to Shawn, anything that is noise has four basic traits:

  1. It’s unusable. It won’t change your behavior, and you won’t be able to make use of the information.
  2. It’s untimely. The information will probably change by the time you act on it.
  3. It’s hypothetical. The information isn’t necessarily true, which makes it way less valuable.
  4. It’s distracting. It distracts you from things in your life that are more meaningful and valuable.

As a Canadian listening to the media coverage about the U.S. election—which at the time of writing is 14 months away and changes every day—this would no doubt qualify as noise.

Yet so many Canadians are soaking the story up, and I sadly admit that I’m one of them. This is largely due to the way we’re wired. The human brain is insanely powerful, but it has evolved to perceive threats in our environment. This makes us more likely to pay attention to things that make us feel threatened, jealous, afraid, upset, or superior—especially when we see celebrities rocking their flabby beach bods on a Linkbaity Top 10 List. It’s hard to turn away from this noise, but for the sake of our productivity we should make an effort to. Noise is not valuable, meaningful, or important—even though it’s often disguised as all three.

In Before Happiness, Shawn gives some simple advice: make an effort to reduce how much noise you consume by just five percent. Find a couple small things in your life that have the traits of noise, and stop consuming them. Shawn gives a few examples in his book, and here are the ones that have worked for me:

  • Remove news websites from your bookmarks and list of top sites.
  • Think about whether it’s valuable before listening to a podcast or anything else that downloads automatically.
  • Don’t check social media websites unless you have a clear intention for what you want to get done.
  • Tomorrow morning, leave the radio off for a few minutes during your morning commute.
  • Don’t read angry comments on the internet, especially ones on controversial articles, or on YouTube videos. (That said, the comments on this site are pretty fantastic.)

Your attention is one of the rarest commodities you have, and when it comes to your productivity, it’s worth defending and spending wisely. Noticing and then reducing the noise around you is one of the best ways I’ve found to do exactly that.

  • Dan Coleman

    Thanks, Chris, for another thoughtfully provocative note.

    Matthew Crawford explores some of the heavier implications of the same phenomenon in his new book, The World Outside Your Head (and in his article in the NYT:

    You describe our attention as a commodity; Crawford characterizes it as a kind of natural resource. And he makes the point that choosing what to pay attention–deciding what’s most worth paying attention to– is one of the most profound choices we make.

    • Thanks my friend! Totally agree with Matthew, I’ll have to check his book out! Have you given it a read yet?

  • brendanhowley

    Solid thinking: I don’t think this is linkbait-y at all. I look at this problem (including minimizing my contact with The Donald) as maximizing flowstate rather than agonizing over time management. In other words, creativity’s about being your best as often and as profoundly as possible, not by counting minutes on the clock—being agile and clear and engaged with the work. Best model: a jazz musician.

    That in mind, for the past three years, I’ve co-developed a context engine to identify emerging story patterns, to do precisely what you’ve named: diminish signal-to-noise and pre-validate valuable emergent storylines.

    My tech partner and I are launching both a curriculum piece and an R&D project at McMaster U’s media lab this winter, the latter to the first experiments with the methodology, with participatory workshops on context to follow. We’ll invite students and grad students from as many disciplines as we can gather.

    And thanks for the Shawn Achor tip…

    • You got to admit the title was a bit clickbaity ;-) Very cool approach and research! Do you have a link to it online anywhere yet?

      • brendanhowley

        If you say it’s clickbaity, it’s clickbaity. Me, I liked the taxonomy of noise. As for the engine, we’re chugging along in prototype. Plan is to have a usecase by Xmas. Shoot your email address to inkfish(at)rogers(dot)com and I’ll loop you in once we have a public doc to share K?

  • Олег Жорников

    Thanks, Chris, it’s very useful information.

  • Kei

    I found out about you about an hour ago through the excellent podcast “Unmistakeable Creative”, I immediately opened up your website, subscribed to your newsletter (before the site even suggested it), followed your personal account on twitter, then followed ALOP’s account and when I did I saw the tiny Donald’s picture on the bottom of the page, baffled, I clicked on it, read the headline of the article and tried really hard to not open it (for the same reasons this article mentions) but I kept thinking “please let me not have to change my mind about you this quickly” so I did. I’m relieved, I absolutely loved this article and you hit the nail perfectly. For a year or so now I’ve been trying to be more productive and do more with my life, I recently got into college and since then I have given my best to improve, following other great productive people like you and trying to out their advice to practice. I feel like you, your content and I are at the start of a very strong and lasting friendship. Greetings from Mexico. – Kei

    • Oh man, that’s incredible. Thanks so much! Happy to have you as a reader :-) Greetings right back at you from the Great White North!

  • Kiran Kumar Bokkesam

    i like the way u declare the the takeaway and the time to read, at the beginning of the article; it’s a psychological fact that when u know, what u’ll be getting, u become less anxious about it…!!!

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