The Sounds of Inefficiency

I once heard an engineer mention the significance of noise in machines. It was just an aside and wasn’t the point of the discussion, but for me it was the most valuable takeaway. He stated that noise (defined as unwanted sounds) is the result of parts rubbing together or vibrating when they aren’t supposed to. Noise indicates a system isn’t as efficient as it could be, and the source of that noise is stealing energy away from the system as a whole. It means something needs to be fixed or redesigned.

This got me thinking: If noise indicates inefficiency and a loss of energy in a system, what can I learn about the noise in the systems of my life?


I run. Not every day, and not as far as those who consider themselves runners, but enough that I want to work on my form to be a better, more efficient runner. One of the most important changes I’ve made to my running is that I try to run quietly. I’m no ninja, but I’ve managed to become a much quieter runner because I know that the more noise my feet make as I run, the more energy is being diverted from my stride and into the running surface. It also means my movements lack control. The sound of my shoes scraping the pavement means I’m dragging my feet. A thudding sound when I connect with the ground means my weight is going up and down and I’m putting unnecessary (and potentially damaging) stress on my joints and back. My solution: Run as quietly and smoothly as I can, in a controlled manner, with the least amount of arbitrary side-to-side and up-and-down motion as possible. And keep moving forward. I strive to make my work flow that way as well.


No surprise here, but technology brings a host of noises: the ping of a text message from a friend, the ding of a new social media post by someone interesting I follow, or the swoosh of an email from a client or colleague asking a not-necessarily-urgent question about a project. If I let these in when I should be doing something else, I’m getting distracted and my workflow is less efficient. Many people view this as multi-tasking, but I’m of the “multi-tasking is counter-productive” school of thought. There’s a fixed cost associated with switching focus from one activity to another, so constantly switching between activities means more time lost to those transitions. My solution: Turn off and tune out whenever possible, and batch activities together. Batching is particularly helpful with technology: Emails, texts, and social media are dealt with during scheduled blocks of time. If I’m writing and suddenly realize I’m checking a notification on my phone, I’ll move the phone somewhere else or silence it so I can concentrate.

Small, Unscheduled Tasks

I have a running list of things that need to be done. Order a new beard trimmer because my old one broke. Stop by the store to get a couple of missing ingredients for dinner. Air up the rear left tire on the car because it’s looking a little low. It’s easy for these small tasks to cry out for attention when I should be focusing on activities that contribute to larger goals. Those small tasks need to get done, of course, but doing them whenever they pop into my head is 1) often a form of procrastination from other work, or 2) a way to get instant gratification from checking something off my list. My solution: Make sure I have an efficient system in place for doing these things when and where they need to be done, probably setting a reminder (I use Evernote for this), and probably as part of a batch (as mentioned above regarding technology).

Inefficiency in Other Systems

I don’t have this issue as much now that I’m freelancing and working mostly from my home office, but I have experienced this kind of noise in the workplace. When other people are bored or procrastination or don’t have a workflow that helps them focus, they often turn to idle chit-chat with others, and I’ve found myself caught up in their inefficiency. A coworker would stop by to deliver the latest office gossip or vent about how terrible their favorite restaurant is now that it’s under new management. I’m not referring to real conversations here — I mean the kind of talk that involves the other person talking AT me, not WITH me. These folks aren’t trying to maintain a meaningful connection; they’re engaging in self-distraction. My solution: Avoid these people. It may not sound like the nicest thing to do, but some folks are perfectly fine dominating your attention just because they can, and there’s no point in letting the inefficiency in their system spill over into mine.


Self-doubt may not be a literal noise, but it’s every bit as real, inefficient, and draining on my energy. That little voice in the back of my mind is telling me this article sucks, that no one will read it, and that even if they do, they’ll criticize the hell out of it, nitpicking my metaphor until the whole logic of it falls apart. My solution: Replace my inner critic’s screams of doubt with the quiet whisper of accomplishment, the tap of my keyboard, and finally, the click of my trackpad as I press the “Publish” button.

The Exception: Good Noise

Noise isn’t always bad, of course. Sometimes noise is a sign of growth. Consider the role of noise in music — a clarinet’s reed disrupts air flow to create a sound, which is then controlled to make music. In the hands of a beginner, the clarinet will initially create “noise” because the beginning musician is still learning. I’m a big believer in being growth-minded: Accept failures as opportunities for improvement, see challenges as ways to get stronger, understand that diligence trumps intelligence and tenacity trumps talent. Sometimes that means we have to make some noise before we can make music.

This may not be the most tautly arranged metaphor ever, but there is something to be learned from it. When there are approximately 17 bazillion books and articles a year published about how to be more productive and get more done, it’s a safe assumption that most of us want to cut unnecessary inefficiencies from our own systems. My advice on this is only a starting point, but it’s free and simple to apply: Listen for the noise.

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