Filter Out the Digital Noise

Are constant smartphone notifications distracting you from what is truly meaningful?
January 20, 2017 Updated: June 24, 2021

Without our realizing it, much of our day can be quickly filled with a deluge of distractions from devices. In the moment, they may seem like the most important and satisfying things in front of us, but what if, in fact, they’re keeping us from focusing on what’s truly important?

What if we could filter out all that noise and instead focus on what’s meaningful? What if we could find stillness instead of constant distraction?

I believe that most of us have that power. In my experience, most of the noise is there by choice, but we’ve fallen into patterns over the years, and it can seem like we’re not able to change them.

Let’s talk about ways to filter out the unnecessary noise, then how to find stillness and meaning.

Ways to Filter the Noise

Take the rest of today to notice what noise you find in your life and make a list of moments when you found yourself distracted.

For example, noise in my life comes from email, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, blogs and other sites I like to read, text messages, Slack, and watching Netflix. You might have other sources, like Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, news, and cable TV.

Once we’re aware of the noise, how can we filter it out? First, we have to decide that our desire for more quiet and meaning in our lives is great enough for us to “miss out” on some of the things in those noisy channels.

Then we can take action:

  • Turn off app notifications, including the unread-messages count for each app on your phone.
  • Unsubscribe from notifications from Twitter or any other apps where you’re “following” people, blogs, or websites. If you use an RSS reader, unsubscribe from as many feeds as possible. Leave only a handful that give you meaning.
  • Unsubscribe from email lists and notifications you don’t read or only glance at.
  • Decide to check on some communication channels or apps (like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) just once a day. Others you can check more often, twice or three times a day, if needed (like email). But set a limit.
  • Delete apps or accounts that aren’t giving you real meaning (I deleted my Facebook account years ago).
  • Tell people that you’re only checking your messages once a day, to set the expectation. Don’t use an autoresponder, if you can help it. Instead, just send a message to the people who matter most, and ask that they be understanding.
  • Set a time each day when you watch TV or movies (if at all). Set a time of day when you read news or blogs (if at all). If you say, “I only watch TV after 7 p.m.,” then you’ve limited how much space this takes up in your life.
  • If there are some communications such as email or text messages that you need to stay connected to for work, try to negotiate with your boss or team to have periods of time when you can disconnect. For example, ask if you can take a couple of hours in the morning or a couple in the afternoon to be disconnected from email so you can focus on important tasks.

If you take these actions, you’ll filter out most of the noise.

What’s left? Time for quiet, stillness, focus, and meaning.

Finding Stillness and Meaning

(Kalen Emsley/Shutterstock)
(Kalen Emsley/Shutterstock)

Once you’ve filtered out the noise, you’re left with a few interesting problems:

  1. Changing your habits of busyness and constant movement.
  2. Figuring out what’s meaningful.
  3. Learning to stop and stay still.

I think those are wonderful problems to be faced with. Most people never even consider them. Find gratitude that you can work on this at all.

Take some time to notice your constant need for busyness or distraction. For example, if you have a moment when you’re not doing anything—you’re waiting in line, you’re alone at your restaurant table while your friend goes to the bathroom, you’re sitting on your couch—what do you do to fill the time, out of habit? This is your pattern of busyness and movement.

Now see if you can let go of those patterns. Catch yourself, and instead opt for stillness and quiet. Try to just sit there and notice your surroundings. Soak it all in. Savor the moment. Meditate on your breath. Reflect on your day. Ask yourself what you’re grateful for right now.

Start building new patterns of stillness. For example, try meditating every morning, even if it’s just for a few minutes, focusing on your breath. Try going for a morning or evening walk, without your phone. Try turning the phone and computer off and write in a journal instead.

Start finding activities that are more meaningful to you. This doesn’t have to be done in one day—you can slowly experiment to figure out what’s meaningful to you. You might start writing a book or screenplay, for example, or taking photos, or drawing, or making music. You might start learning something that’s meaningful or teaching something to others. You might decide to start a business or charity that helps bring positive change to the world.

Quiet time to contemplate what is meaningful is truly a gift. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)
Quiet time to contemplate what is meaningful is truly a gift. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Find ways to help others and make the world a better place. Keep a journal, meditate, declutter, exercise, prepare healthy foods, and make dates with people who are important to you.

When you notice yourself running to distraction, pause. Turn instead toward stillness and your meaningful activities.

Build a life around stillness and meaning, and notice the difference it makes in you.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of Zen Habits, a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.net