Improve Your Signal to Noise Ratio

The signal to noise ratio is exactly that – a measure of how much useful information there is to how much garbage there is. Far too often in life, we don’t have a great signal to noise ratio. When this happens we end up burning time and stressing ourselves out.

How do we improve our signal to noise ratio? Well, it is a ratio of two things – so there are really two ways to improve that ratio.

Increase Signal Strength

This probably isn’t the best approach, but it helps. Make the important things in life stand out. Put them in prominent places. Use sticky notes, highlight important notes, put reminders in your phone, and tack notes on your bathroom mirror. Your goal is to make the most important things stand out as much as possible. How you do this and what works for you is probably quite personal, but if it works, use it.

Decrease the Noise

This is probably the better but harder of the two to do. How do you eliminate noise? First of all, you need to define it.

You need to figure out what is important and what isn’t. Fortunately, I can’t tell you that – you need to figure that out for yourself. For one person, catching up on a favourite TV show will take priority over cleaning the litter box. For someone else it might be eating a snack before tacking homework.

All the junk mail you get is a prefect example of deciding what is important and what isn’t. What is the first thing you do when you grab the mail? You sort it by importance. In my mail local free newspapers and real-estate advertisements are usually take up the most room and are the first to go. Bills and important letters stay. You get rid of things that are not important. Getting rid of it means getting rid of it right then and there. Dump the unwanted junk mail in the recycle. Delete the unwanted email. Decide to not do whatever unimportant task it was you had just considered that really wasn’t important.

Once you have decided what is important and what isn’t, do it. Pay the bills that came in the mail. Email back that coworker who asked you a question. Turn on the TV and sit down and watch that show*. Don’t distract yourself with whatever other less important things are there. If you don’t finish doing it now, who is to say that you will have time later on? It’s far often easier to just do whatever it is right then and there. People are much more efficient when they aren’t multitasking (especially guys – I can say this because I am one!). It is far often better to just do whatever it was and finish it, then to end up with half a dozen half done things nagging at you. That’s the sort of thing that causes stress.

I’m a huge proponent of the “touch it once” strategy. You really should only have to touch any piece of paper once. If it was important, it should have been dealt with the first time you laid your hands on it. If it wasn’t important, it should probably have been recycled**. This same technique can be applied to email, text messages, and tasks. As my father tried to instill in us as children: Do it. Do it right. Do it right now.

From personal experience, I can say that things in my own life go much more smoothly when I have a better signal to noise ratio.

Bonus: for Programmers
Programmers: How do you keep your signal to noise ratio nice and high? Keep your log files clean. Make sure projects build/compile cleanly. Comment your code properly. If you are a .Net developer, use #region tags as appropriate.

This post was inspired by a recent experience. I inherited several .Net projects which were in a very sad state. Both were exceeding the number of warnings that Visual Studio would allow. I took some time and cleaned up both to the point where there was only one warning each (with regards to a file reference). This allowed me to see exactly what was breaking when something didn’t build. Instead of having to sift through all the compiler warnings, I now had a clear and immediate picture if something was amiss.

*I by no way endorse wasting huge amounts of time in front of the TV, and nor should it be as big of a priority as some make it out to be. The same goes for Facebook and video games. If you want to make it a priority, that’s fine – you’ve decided it is important, but you do need to be aware of the consequences of making it a priority.

**Some things do need to be filed away for future reference, such as tax papers, banking contact information, etc. These are generally the exception, not the rule. Even then, you’ve touched it once, and done the important thing of filing it away in its correct place, not added it to the pile on your desk/dining room table.

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