I spend a lot of time in my teaching talking about vision, and that means I also spend a lot of time talking about "noise" – the unplanned, seemingly endless intrusions in life that threaten to draw your time and focus away from your vision. But I think it's worth going a little deeper and examining what we mean when talk about noise, starting with these three things you need to know about it:

  1. Noise is unavoidable. No matter how clear your vision, no matter how well you plan, you are going to have noise in your personal and professional life. Nobody who has a life of any significance can escape it.
  2. Noise is not always trivial. Just because it wasn't part of your plan doesn't make it unimportant. For instance, it's easy to see emergency patients as a disruption in the schedule. But I've also seen many dentists take a true emergency procedure and turn into a comprehensive treatment plan. Some noise, in other words, is worth devoting attention to. And that leads to another point...
  3. Noise can't just be labeled and ignored. Effectiveness is about recognizing where to exert your energies, but saying "that's just noise" doesn't make it go away – in fact, it will usually pile up to the point where it becomes disabling. A desk stacked with articles, magazines, charts, and bills is evidence of someone who is trying to ignore the noise, and not succeeding.

Now that we know what noise is and isn't, we need to know how to handle it. And for that you need three kinds of skills:

  1. The skills to deal with it. Since you can't eliminate it, put systems around it. If you really only have time to read two magazines a month, don't let six pile up. (Personally, I don't trust myself, so I have my assistant makes sure no junk mailers and no more than two magazines make it to my desk.) Have a today/this week/this month system of prioritizing what you have to do, clarity for what you can't do, and a clear system for delegating what someone else can do.
  2. The skills to feel good about it. A growing life is like a growing family — it comes with more noise. You can either let it dominate, or you can recognize it as a sign of a full and purposeful life. The happiest people I know have the most noise to deal with, but they embrace it as the price to pay for success and they learn to master the most important skills about noise.
  3. The skills to rise above it. Let's get back to that emergency patient. Too often the impulse can be to deal with the pressing concern, get them on their way, and try to get back on schedule. But if you look at that patient in a complete way, and open the path to a comprehensive treatment plan, you can turn disruption into opportunity – for both of you. You're not just responding to noise, you're rising above it by transforming it into something much more positive. Being able to leverage challenging noise in this kind of a thoughtful, strategic way is not just efficient, it elevates you. As with so many challenges, it comes down to a matter of how you perceive it and how you choose to approach it.