Increasing Your Signal-To-Noise Ratio

by Stephen Mills on November 20, 2009

Information Overload

Signal-to-noise ratio is defined by Wikipedia as “ratio of a signal power to the noise power corrupting the signal.”  This concept comes from electrical engineering but it can be applied to information overload.  I don’t know about you, but I constantly struggle with finding a signal hidden in all the background noise.  I also worry that I’m creating more noise than signal.  Thus, I’m looking for ways to increase the signal-to-noise ratio in the information I consume as well as the information I create.

Why Do We Suffer From Information Overload?

There may be a lot of reasons, but I have come to believe that it is primarily our own fault.  It boils down to something rather simple:

We are afraid we will miss important information or opportunities.

Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less says we are unhappy with all the choices we have because we are always wondering if we selected the right one out of the endless alternatives available to us.  I think this applies to information as well.  There are so many sources of information and so much information available, we worry that we are missing something important.

What You Need to Accept

  • Accept that you can’t absorb it all.
  • Accept that too much noise will drown out the signal and you’ll wind up with meaningless static.
  • Accept that there is a lot of good information out there and you are benefitting from discovering and acting upon a small slice of it.
  • Accept that that you will be far better off going deep with some systems rather than spending your life reading about a lot of different systems.
  • Accept that others will be a lot more likely to pay attention to you if you create more signal than noise.

Increasing Your Signal-to-Noise Ratio

I readily admit I don’t have the answers and I’m looking for them myself.  This is what I came up with.

  • Make sure you seek information with a purpose in mind.  Seeking with a purpose helps keep you focused.
  • Focus on quality not quantity.  Act on quality instead of filling up with quantity.
  • Find sources you trust, like The Rat Race Trap :-) , and cut out the rest.
  • Skim your sources for things that look interesting and go deeper.
  • Adjust and prioritize your information sources as new sources become available.  Every time I find a new source I add it, but then what do I drop?  It’s a struggle.  I’m trying to focus on an important few.  I’m spending too much time looking and not enough time acting.
  • Don’t get distracted and go hopping down bunny trails when you are seeking something.  You are researching X, you get distracted reading an article that looked promising on your results page, and the next thing you know you are watching some idiot on You Tube.
  • Allow yourself some time to go looking for new and interesting information.  If you see something that tweaks your interest, look a little deeper but don’t get obsessed.
  • If you don’t have something important to say, maybe you should be quiet.  Just because you have a blog, doesn’t mean you have to fill it with noisy placeholders.  I’m having a hard time with this one :-)
  • When you are creating information, concentrate on a single idea.
  • Whether you are consuming or creating, always ask yourself whether you are dealing with a signal or with noise.  If it’s noise, drop it.

I fear I’m creating noise so I’m going to stop.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Vin - NaturalBias November 20, 2009 at 9:24 am

You’re definitely not creating noise, Stephen, but I appreciate your concern, especially in regard to blogging. I think quality vs quantity says it all and I’ve given a lot of thought to writing just two times per week instead of three. Even still, holding ourselves to a regular schedule encourages noise. There’s no easy answer.

However, as your last article suggests, I think there’s something to be said for repetition as well. I believe that writing about the same message with variations in perspective and supporting information helps to strengthen the signal and help push people closer towards taking action.
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..The Elusive Answers to Good Health and Success =-.

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Stephen Mills November 22, 2009 at 7:51 am

Hello Vin, I totally agree about the same message with variations and you do it beautifully in your blog.

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Martin November 20, 2009 at 1:29 pm

I agree that most of the white noise is primarily our own fault. I just opened my Google Reader account, and I am overwhelmed by the amount of articles, blogs, updates, etc. that I “need” to read. I end up skimming information instead of focusing on the few things that may make an actual difference.

With social networking sites, a few discussion forums, a half-finished blog post, and “oh yeah,” my actual work all on open windows right now, I am definitely guilty of some self-induced ADD.

Thanks for writing about the topic.

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Stephen Mills November 22, 2009 at 7:55 am

Hi Martin. I know where you are coming from. I was overwhelmed and I finally had to just cut a lot of it out or risk going crazy.

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Armen Shirvanian November 20, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Hi Stephen.

That guy in the image sure has loads of signal and noise coming in through those various monitors. That sure is a stimulus-filled setup.

Those things you point out that we need to accept sure take some risk to do, as we think we might miss out on an item of value.

Concentrating on a single task works way better than going through a link on a web page to a link to a link to a link and so on until the original task was now 15 minutes ago. We have to cut off the first distraction and leave it for later. We always remember the distractions anyway, and get to them eventually.

Signal to noise ratio is huge.
.-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..Motivation Related To Production =-.

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Stephen Mills November 22, 2009 at 8:00 am

Hello Armen, I thought that picture captured the problem with our modern technological world of information overload quite dramatically. I don’t think that accepting we can’t do it all is taking a risk. It’s accepting reality and spending some time doing something rather than simply trying not to miss something, which is going to happen anyway.

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Daphne @ Joyful Days November 20, 2009 at 11:44 pm

Stephen,

I like the idea of a signal-to-noise ratio. I’m guilty of pursuing bunny trails when I do online research. Often I forget what I started looking for, and that’s fine if I have time to kill but when I have a job to finish then it’s a time-sucker.

Thanks for giving me this ratio to think about :)
.-= Daphne @ Joyful Days´s last blog ..Can You Pack Your Life Into Two Suitcases? =-.

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Stephen Mills November 22, 2009 at 8:03 am

Hello Daphne! That bunny trail thing is sometimes a killer for me. But on occasion and when I have time (which is not often), I’ve discovered something wonderful. We have to make a little time for that as well. It’s about a little balance.

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Ideas With A Kick November 21, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Hey Stephen,

This is a topic on which I think we don’t here enough of. We hear about time management, life management, but not information management (or should I say, noise management). Absorbing or emitting too much information with low value, not only that it’s unproductive, but it’s also physically and mentally exhausting. In this era when we are bombarded with information, we need to be careful with it. I find your tips very useful for managing it.

Eduard
.-= Ideas With A Kick´s last blog ..Forget achieving life balance and try this instead =-.

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Stephen Mills November 22, 2009 at 8:08 am

Hello Eduard, thanks a lot for commenting and for your compliments about my article :-)

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Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills November 21, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Stephen, this subject is so fitting for maintaining our sanity as the noise levels all around continue to increase. Awareness is the perfect place to start. We need to make choices and your guideline seemed really appropriate to me. Thanks for this!
.-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..How Your Beliefs Create Your Reality part 4 =-.

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Stephen Mills November 22, 2009 at 8:12 am

Hi there Jonathan, and thanks for commenting. I’m all about maintaining my sanity in the rising ocean of noise. :-)

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LostinTranslation November 22, 2009 at 12:17 am

Stephen,
I must say that I am thrilled you chose to write about this topic today. I can not tell you how relevant your input is to my thoughts. I can say that the act of choosing information is not so easy when there are so many choices at hand, ESPECIALLY with the power of the world wide web. There are quite an abundant amount of sources; some driven by personal experience, and others by the pre-pared EXPERTS!
While the experts seem to have the popular KNOW HOW information at hand, it seems that many LESS QUALIFIED, have a much broader perspective on the environment of topic. This desire to find the information from the less qualified can drive me all over the place looking for new perspective. I could search for ages finding information on a topic, only to be driven from my research on the letter A, all the way to Y, then C, then Z, and back to A. Essentially, I just get caught up in all the excitement along the way, only to have found myself 2 hours later getting finished on the origin of A. The point is, it throws me for a major loop, and communication has virtually failed. The plane has already passed well beyond the airport, and now must make its way back!! WASTE OF TIME! It’s the story of America, and the ability to find the American Dream, and not knowing where to begin, or where to end, for there are so many possibilities to choose from! I don’t need to take my guidance counselors advice any longer, cause I’ll just rely on what I know, and what others similar to me have endured! Trust yourself!! Thanks again, and if this post seems in anyway really confusing, then forgive me, cause I’m working on better expressing my thoughts in a more clear and concise manner. Thanks again! LostinTranslation

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Derrick November 22, 2009 at 12:22 am

Stephen,

Another great post! My point centres once again on anchoring your attention to the present moment.With your intuition you relentlessly return to this presence of mind. Human nature will always have us wondering somewhat whether we are succeeding or failing but the flow of the process like anything else comes with practice. All sorts of different situations and perceived interuptions will arise but in the end it is the persistent practice of controlling our own thoughts and habits that will give us the best possible results we desire in such cases. You mentioned the word focus which often goes hand and hand with the word attention,however,sometimes we need to have a “wide screen view” of our enviroment in order to determine the validity of the constant informational feed in order to avoid information overload(where person becomes overwhelmed and loses perspective of the situation). I like to give the analogy of a pilot with all the different gages in front of him and systematically juggling the forms of attention required in each individual situation. In the end we are all responsible for pilotting our own airplane through the various terrains and conditions that life will throw at us.

Derrick

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Derrick November 22, 2009 at 4:01 am

Stephen,

After discussing this topic with a friend I wanted to explain a little further as to where I am coming from.

I am attempting to describe a practice of continually maintaining attention to the basic felt sense of existence. By this I mean a wordless awareness of the experience of being alive. This can be done by placing and resting your attention in the open space of the heart rather then the clutter of the thought filled mind. This allows you to:

A) Not get lost in useless “self talk” that erodes the quality of your moment to moment experience of life.

B) Catch the sweet and subtle moments of life that you would normally miss.

C) Recognize your own triggers that cause you to react with thoughts,judgements and interpretations which almost always lead to emotional reactivity.

Living in your”head space” is a bad habit that destroys the quality of your life. By learning to live in the “open space” of your heart will allow your mind to remain fresh and rested to put every situation into perspective when called upon.

Derrick

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Kelly Ray-Grady November 22, 2009 at 9:41 am

Lotta noise but no touching.
Lotta words but no intimacy.
I don’t know.
Is it a narcissistic thing?
I thought about that.
Are we finding ways to distract ourselves from the necessary path?
(dispossession of words)
…so that we can hear a truth not born of our own breath?
I think we’re just afraid to shut up and listen.

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Steven November 22, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Hey Stephen great post on this information overload subject.

With too much information these days, many people who are just starting to learn in a particular topic, could feel exhaustion and anxiousness. Because there are too many sources available, and there is no way for a person to fully know which source is the most credible. In order to find out if a source is credible or not, more information has to be accessed, which could cause more potential exhaustion and anxiousness. – I was one of that.

I was researching global warming, however the information on was completely scattered with multiple sides to it. And every single side is biased with their own arguments. I have no idea which side is right. Even if I find a credible source, there is another credible source opposing their side. Luckily, I’ve talked to some folks with credible backgrounds on this topic, so that drove away my frustration on finding out the truth.

But like you said in your post, I can only accept that I could only absorb some parts of the whole story.

Thanks for this post Stephen.

Steven
.-= Steven´s last blog ..Comic Lesson #5 : Don’t Be Afraid to Give and Love =-.

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Robin Easton November 25, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Hi Stephen,

I left a comment here yesterday, but somehow it hasn’t gone through. Weird.

I just wanted to say that this post is FANTASTIC. This is all such good and much needed advice. The internet is just too dang big and I can’t and don’t want to take it all it all in. AND it can if I let it detract from my own inner stillness where my OWN unique perspective lives. And it can if we let it, take us away from ourselve and living a very real life. I refuse to let that happen.

So good to see an article about this. It’s something I think about everyday. Although more and more I just don’t watch, don’t read, don’t respond, don’t…. because the bottom line is I can NOT do it all. And I can either watch, read, respond to everything that comes my way or I can do only what is best for me and my work and then go for a hike which is good for my peace of my mind and my body and spirit. I need that hike. It may sound selfish but I think in this day and age there are some real areas we NEED to be selfish. Or another way of saying it is: we need to take care of ourselves in this way. Thank you my friend. Robin
.-= Robin Easton´s last blog ..Death as an Adviser =-.

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