Separate the Signal From Noise: How Technical Leaders can boost their Sensory Capacity

“An average person in our modern information economy spends ever more time on basic tasks of managing information and ever less time on producing creative ideas and truly useful knowledge”1

Whether you agree with this statement or not, there is something to be said for how we process and regulate information we receive. What we do with the information we receive matters.

You have a certain capacity for processing data from your environment. At a certain point, you will become stressed and cease effectively processing additional information. What’s most important to you in the moment may depend on you parsing out the significant data from the noise. One can work on their capacity to absorb for information AND one can also use techniques and strategies to regulate that flow of information.

The intent of this post is to start a dialogue on tools technical professionals can use to notice information in your environment. Synthesis of information can lead to insights, innovation, creativity, and work that is increasingly buoyed by perspective. Each of these exercises can be done within 5 minutes and can be used to give a quick boost to gain leverage on your day.

1) Toss the ‘To Do List’ …. For the moment

You are a sensor. Under times of intense stress, you may be task focused and working at maximum capacity. Depending on your mood (see the next section) this stress may be working for or against you. If it’s not working for you, it may be worthwhile to take a mental break. This sounds intuitive — however, with tight deadlines, mental breaks may be tossed aside for task focused work. Decreasing the load on your sensor may improve the quality of what you notice.

2) What is your mood?

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and Author of Thinking Fast and Slow writes “A good mood is a signal that things are generally going well, the environment is safe, and it is alright to let one’s guard down. A bad mood indicates things are not going very well, there may be a threat, and vigilance is required. Cognitive ease is both a cause and consequence of a pleasant feeling.”2

The professionals I work with are predominantly from a technical background. It is interesting that in general, mood and feelings are a difficult aspect for them to delineate and describe in detail. In these situations, an exercise to bring awareness to specific moods and attitudes may be appropriate. When there is awareness a choice on how to proceed may materialize. Give your self time (3 minutes or more), silence, space, and minimize interruptions then breathe and ask your-self ‘what is your mood?’ or ‘what is the attitude of your mind?’.

Moods are analogous to a check engine light on a car — what would it look like to monitor your dashboard frequently to enable you to perform optimally in different situations?

3) What are you sensing (Taste, sight, sound, touch, smell)?

You can calibrate your intake of information by breathing deliberately and identifying your sensations (i.e., what you are seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, and tasting). Take 2 minutes of uninterrupted time and identify each of the sensations. Following this exercise, how much more aware are you for processing, problem solving, and interacting with others?

4) What’s on your mind? Write it down

Engineers and technical professionals use diagrams and rough schematics to frame their thinking around a specific section. Focus is heightened when this framing is used. Writing down what’s on your mind enables one to momentarily heighten our senses when we need to provide a boost to our sensing capacity. Knowledge workers take frequent and consistent notes of a technical nature all the time. It is possible that taking notes of the affective (moods, feelings, sensing) can drive effectiveness and creativity. An individual can benefit from even a one-minute check in of what’s on their mind through a mental break.

5) Calibrate your sensor perspective. What information are you processing?

You might be thinking “Now, Chris — How do I do that?”. When you are ready, take your index finger on your left hand — about 15 to 20 centimetres away from the front of your face and point your fingertip vertically. Now focus on both the finger and the surroundings. How does that work for you? If you are like me, I can only focus on either the fingers or the surrounding — not both. In his book The Master and his Emissary , Iain McGilchrist suggests “When there is a high probability that what we are looking for lies at the local level our window of attention narrows in order to optimize performance at this level ‘thus reversing the natural tendency to favour the global aspect”3.

There is value in alternating our perspective from a local level (like the finger you just focused on) to the global aspect (what you focused on beyond your index finger). For example: If you are drafting up a document what did you not include? If you are drawing a schematic what is outside of that schematic? If you are preparing for a presentation, what are you not focusing on? In other words, what is outside of the frame you have initially considered? This question can be used as a check and balance for yourself and others you work with and not require significant time for deliberation. What we do not notice may be critical information to successful decision making and problem solving.

Summary: Integrate Your Effectiveness

You can heighten the effectiveness of your sensor by using the above techniques to regulate your flow of information and return to the task at hand to be increasingly alert, perceptive, and possibly more creative. These attributes lend well to problem solving, creative thinking and strategic planning all of which are critical tasks of a technical minded professional.

This article is intended to be descriptive and not prescriptive. I hope you find this content interesting enough that it encourages you to do your own research, ask questions, generate a dialogue with others and integrate your learnings into action.

What are some of the ideas that connected for you? Do you have a different option or a technique that works for you? Where do these techniques fail to work? Please comment to share your thoughts.

1Homer-Dixon, F. (2000). Chapter 8: Brains and Ingenuity. In The Ingenuity Gap (pp. 209). essay, A.A. Knopf.

2Kahneman, D. (2011). Chapter 5: Cognitive Ease. In Thinking, fast and slow (1st ed., p. 69). essay, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)

3 McGilchrist, I. (2019). Chapter 2: What do the Hemispheres ‘do’?. In the master and his EMISSARY: The DIVIDED brain and the making of the western world (pp. 44). essay, Yale University Press.

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