“Indistractable” by Nir Eyal

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Introduction

In this day and age, if you are not equipped to manage distractions, your brain will be manipulated by time-wasting diversions.

The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought. Planning ahead ensures you will follow through. With the techniques in this book, you’ll learn exactly what to do from this day forth to control your attention and choose your life.

Being Indistractable

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All behaviors, whether they tend toward traction or distraction, are prompted by triggers, internal or external.

Whether prompted by internal or external triggers, the resulting action is either aligned with our broader intention (traction) or misaligned (distraction). Traction helps us accomplish goals; distraction leads us away from them.

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Indistractable people are as honest with themselves as they are with others. If you care about your work, your family, and your physical and mental well-being, you must learn how to become indistractable. The four-part Indistractable Model is a tool for seeing and interacting with the world in a new way. It will serve as your map for controlling your attention and choosing your life.

Master Internal Triggers

What Motivates Us, Really?

The drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all our behavior, while everything else is a proximate cause.

Unless we deal with the root causes of our distraction, we’ll continue to find ways to distract ourselves.

Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality. How we deal with uncomfortable internal triggers determines whether we pursue healthful acts of traction or self-defeating distractions.

Only by understanding our pain can we begin to control it and find better ways to deal with negative urges.

All motivation is a desire to escape discomfort. If a behavior was previously effective at providing relief, we’re likely to continue using it as a tool to escape discomfort.

Time Management is Pain Management

Evolution favored dissatisfaction over contentment. Our tendencies toward boredom, negativity bias, rumination, and hedonic adaptation conspire to make sure we’re never satisfied for long.

If we want to master distraction, we must learn to deal with discomfort.

Deal with Distraction from Within

An endless cycle of resisting, ruminating, and finally giving in to the desire perpetuates the cycle and quite possibly drives many of our unwanted behaviors.

Without techniques for disarming temptation, mental abstinence can backfire. Resisting an urge can trigger rumination and make the desire grow stronger.

We can manage distractions that originate from within by changing how we think about them. We can reimagine the trigger, the task, and our temperament.

Reimagine the Internal Trigger

Rather than trying to fight the urge, we need new methods to handle intrusive thoughts. The following four steps help us to do just that:

  1. Look for the discomfort that precedes the distraction, focusing in on the internal trigger.
  2. Write down the trigger.
  3. Explore your sensations.
  4. Beware of liminal moments.

A technique I’ve found particularly helpful for dealing with this distraction trap is the ten-minute rule.” If I find myself wanting to check my phone as a pacification device when I can’t think of anything better to do, I tell myself it’s fine to give in, but not right now. I have to wait just ten minutes.

Reimagine the Task

Fun and play don’t have to make us feel good per se; rather, they can be used as tools to keep us focused.

Instead of running away from our pain or using rewards like prizes and treats to help motivate us, the idea is to pay such close attention that you find new challenges you didn’t see before. Those new challenges provide the novelty to engage our attention and maintain focus when tempted by distraction.

Fun is looking for the variability in something other people don’t notice. It’s breaking through the boredom and monotony to discover its hidden beauty.

Reimagine Your Temperament

What we say to ourselves is vitally important. Labeling yourself as having poor self-control actually leads to less self-control. Rather than telling ourselves, we failed because we’re somehow deficient, we should offer self-compassion by speaking to ourselves with kindness when we experience setbacks.

A good rule of thumb is to talk to yourself the way you might talk to a friend. Since we know so much about ourselves, we tend to be our own worst critics, but if we talk to ourselves the way we’d help a friend, we can see the situation for what it really is.

Make Time For Traction

Turn Your Values into Time

Only by setting aside specific time in our schedules from traction (the actions that draw us toward what we want in life) can we turn our backs on distraction. Without planning ahead, it’s impossible to tell the difference between traction and distraction.

We actually perform better under constraints. This is because limitations give us a structure, while a blank schedule and a mile-long to-do list torments us with too many choices.

Keeping a timeboxed schedule is the only way to know if you’re distracted. If you’re not spending your time doing what you’d planned, you’re off track.

Control the Inputs, Not the Outcomes

Taking care of yourself is at the core of the three domains because the other two depend on your health and wellness. If you’re not taking care of yourself, your relationships suffer. Likewise, your work isn’t its best when you haven’t given yourself the time you need to stay physically and psychologically healthy.

When it comes to our time, we should stop worrying about outcomes we can’t control and instead focus on the inputs we can. The positive results of the time we spend doing something is a hope, not a certainty.

Schedule Important Relationships

The people we love most should not be content getting whatever time is left over. Everyone benefits when we hold time on our schedule to live up to our values and do our share.

The clearest message that we get from this seventy-five-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

Satisfying friendships need three things: “somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy.”

No matter what kind of activity fulfills your need for friendship, it’s essential to make time on your calendar for it. The time we spend with our friends isn’t just pleasurable — it’s an investment in our future health and well-being.

Sync with Stakeholders at Work

Given that work likely takes up more of your waking hours than any of the other domains, it’s even more important to ensure the time spent there is consistent with your values.

We can do more and live better by clarifying our values and expectations with each other at work. Clarification around how we spend our time at work fosters and reinforces the central quality of a positive working relationship: trust.

Using a detailed, timeboxed schedule helps clarify the central trust pact between employers and employees.

Whether at work, at home, or on our own, planning ahead and timeboxing our schedules is an essential step to becoming indistractable. By defining how we spend our time and syncing with the stakeholders in our lives, we ensure that we do the things that matter and ignore the things that don’t. It frees us from the trivialities of our day and gives us back the time we can’t afford to waste.

Hack Back External Triggers

Ask the Critical Question

The more we respond to external triggers, the more we train our brain in a never-ending stimulus–response loop. We condition ourselves to respond instantly. Soon, it feels impossible to do what we’ve planned because we’re constantly reacting to external triggers instead of attending to what’s in front of us.

Hack Back Work Interruptions

Whether it’s a vest, a screen sign, or a light-up crown, the way to reduce unwanted external triggers from other people is to display a clear signal that you do not want to be interrupted. Doing so will help colleagues or family members pause and assess their own behaviors before they break your concentration.

Hack Back Email

To receive fewer emails, we must send fewer emails.

By asking the other party to wait, you’ve given them the chance to come up with an answer for themselves — or, as is often the case, time for the problem to just disappear under the weight of some other priority.

The bottom line is that asking people to discuss complex matters during regular office hours will lead to better communication and fewer emails.

Not only does delaying delivery allow time for the matter to resolve through other means, it also makes it less likely I’ll receive emails when I don’t want them. For example, while you might enjoy clearing out your inbox on a Friday afternoon, delaying delivery until Monday prevents you from stressing out your coworkers and helps protect your weekend from relaxation-killing replies.

Managing unwanted email messages takes time, but by reducing the likelihood of unwanted messages creeping into your inbox, you’ll see the number dwindle to a trickle instead of a torrent.

There’s mounting evidence that processing your email in batches is much more efficient and less stress inducing than checking it throughout the day. This is because our brains take time to switch between tasks, so it’s better to focus on answering emails all at once.

Checking email isn’t so much the problem; it’s the habitual rechecking that gets us into trouble.

Tagging each email as either “Today” or This Week” attaches the most important information to each new message, preparing it for the second (and last) time we open it. Of course, for super-urgent, email-me-right-now-type messages, go ahead and respond. Messages that don’t need a response at all should be deleted or archived immediately.

Hack Back Group Chat

Treat chat like a sauna — stay a while but then get out … it’s unhealthy to stay too long.

Schedule time in your day to catch up on group chats, just as you would for any task in your timeboxed calendar.

Don’t get everyone on the line, the smaller the chat, the better the chat.

Chat should be about quick, ephemeral things while important topics need time, traction, and separation from the rest of the chatter.

Hack Back Meetings

Part of the problem is that too often people schedule a meeting to avoid having to put in the effort of solving a problem for themselves.

One of the easiest ways to prevent superfluous meetings is to require two things of anyone who calls one. First, meeting organizers must circulate an agenda of what problem will be discussed. No agenda, no meeting. Second, they must give their best shot at a solution in the form of a brief, written digest. The digest need not be more than a page or two discussing the problem, their reasoning, and their recommendation.

With few exceptions, creative problem-solving should occur before the meeting, individually or in very small groups.

Devices in everyone’s hands makes it more difficult to achieve the purpose of the meeting. With the exception of one laptop in the room for presenting information and taking notes, leave devices outside.

Reducing unnecessary meetings by increasing the effort of calling one, following good rules of synchronous communication, and ensuring people are engaged in the meeting instead of on their devices will make them much less awful.

Hack Back Your Smartphone

The first step to managing distraction on our phones is to remove the apps we no longer need. To do so, I had to ask myself the critical question of which external triggers on my phone were serving me and which were not. Based on my answers, I uninstalled apps that didn’t align with my values. I kept apps for learning and staying healthy and removed news apps with blaring alerts and stress-inducing headlines.

I found my solution by replacing when and where I used the problematic services. Since I’d set aside time for social media in my timeboxed schedule, there was no longer any need to have them on my phone. After a few minutes of hesitation, removing them from my phone felt like a breath of fresh air. I could breathe easy knowing I could still access these services on my computer and at a time I set aside, not whenever the app maker decided to ping me.

Now that we are left only with our critical mobile apps, it’s time to make our phones less cluttered and, consequently, less distracting. The aim is that nothing on our phones is able to pull us away from traction when we unlock our devices.

By taking a fraction of the time you would otherwise spend getting distracted by your phone, you can customize it to eliminate unhelpful external triggers. A distraction-free mobile experience is well within your grasp. There’s no reason you can’t hack back.

Hack Back Your Desktop

Our brains have a tougher time finding things when they are positioned in a disorganized manner, which means every errant icon, open tab, or unnecessary bookmark serves as a nagging reminder of things left undone or unexplored. With so many external triggers, it’s easy to mindlessly click away from the task at hand.

Disabling notifications on your computer ensures you won’t get distracted by external triggers while doing focused work.

Hack Back Online Articles

Whenever I discover a new article, I no longer read it in my web browser right away. Instead, I’ve time-shifted when and how I read online, thereby removing the temptation to read for longer than I intend.

Use multichannel multitasking like listening to articles while working out or taking walking meetings.

Hack Back Feeds

A free web browser extension called News Feed Eradicator for Facebook does exactly what it says; it eliminates the source of countless alluring external triggers and replaces them with an inspirational quote.

By avoiding the feed, I’m much more likely to use social media mindfully while still allowing time to connect with others proactively.

Overcoming the countless external triggers on social media, from news feeds to suggested videos, represents a significant step in our quest to become indistractable. Regardless of the exact tool we choose, the key is to regain control over our experiences rather than allowing the social networks to control our time and attention.

Prevent Distractions with Pacts

The Power of Precommitments

What these creative professionals understand is that focus not only requires keeping distraction out; it also necessitates keeping ourselves in. After we’ve learned to master internal triggers, make time for traction, and hack back external triggers, the last step to becoming indistractable involves preventing ourselves from sliding into distraction. To do so, we must learn a powerful technique called a precommitment,” which involves removing a future choice in order to overcome our impulsivity.

Such precommitments are powerful because they cement our intentions when we’re clearheaded and make us less likely to act against our best interests later. Just as we make precommitments in other areas of our lives, we can utilize them in our counteroffensive against distraction.

Prevent Distractions with Effort Pacts

An effort pact prevents distraction by making unwanted behaviors more difficult to do.

Adding a bit of additional effort forces us to ask if a distraction is worth it.

Scheduling time with a friend for focused work proved to be an effective way to commit to doing what mattered most.

Prevent Distractions with Price Pacts

A price pact is a type of precommitment that involves putting money on the line to encourage us to do what we say we will. Stick to your intended behavior, and you keep the cash; but get distracted, and you forfeit the funds. It sounds harsh, but the results are stunning.

“People are typically more motivated to avoid losses than to seek gains.” Losing hurts more than winning feels good. This irrational tendency, known as loss aversion,” is a cornerstone of behavioral economics.

A price pact is effective because it moves the pain of losing to the present moment, as opposed to a far-off future. There’s also nothing special about the dollar amount so long as the sum hurts to lose.

Price pacts only work when you can tune out or turn off the external triggers.

If we are bound by a pact for too long, we begin to associate it with punishment, which can spawn counterproductive effects, such as resentment of the task or goal.

Expect some trepidation when entering into a price pact, but do it anyway.

When used in the right way, price pacts can be a highly effective way to stay focused on a difficult task by assigning a cost to distraction.

Prevent Distractions with Identity Pacts

One of the most effective ways to change our behavior is to change our identity. As modern psychology confirms, slight alternations in the way we see ourselves can have a dramatic effect on our future actions.

To leverage the power of identity to prevent distraction, we can enter into what I call an “identity pact,” which is a precommitment to a self-image that helps us pursue what we really want.

By aligning our behaviors to our identity, we make choices based on who we believe we are.

Repeating mantras, keeping a timeboxed schedule, or performing other routines reinforces your identity and influences your future actions.

How to Make Your Workplace Indistractable

Distraction Is a Sign of Dysfunction

Two particular conditions that predicted a higher likelihood of developing depression at work:

  1. High “job strain.” This factor was found in environments where employees were expected to meet high expectations yet lacked the ability to control the outcomes.
  2. “Effort-reward imbalance,” in which workers don’t see much return for their hard work, be it through increased pay or recognition.

Because we turn to our devices to escape discomfort, we often reach for our tech tools to feel better when we experience a lack of control. Checking email or chiming in on a group-chat thread provides the feeling of being productive, regardless of whether our actions are actually making things better.

The cycle of responsiveness is caused by a cascade of consequences. Technology such as the mobile phone and Slack may perpetuate the cycle, but the technology itself isn’t the source of the problem; rather, overuse is a symptom.

Fixing Distractions Is a Test of Company Culture

Companies consistently confuse the disease of bad culture with symptoms like tech overuse and high employee turnover.

Knowing that your voice matters and that you’re not stuck in an uncaring, unchangeable machine has a positive impact on well-being.

Only when companies give employees a psychologically safe place to air concerns and solve problems together can they solve some of their biggest workplace challenges. Creating an environment where employees can do their best without distraction puts the quality of the organization’s culture to the test.

The Indistractable Workplace

Indistractable organizations, like Slack and BCG, foster psychological safety, provide a place for open discussions about concerns, and, most important, have leaders who exemplify the importance of doing focused work.

How to Raise Indistractable Children

Avoid Convenient Excuses

When it comes to the undesirable behavior of children today, convenient myths about devices are just as dubious as the blame parents deflect onto sugar highs, underdeveloped teen brains, and other technologies like the book and the radio.

Used in the right way and in the right amounts, kids’ tech use can be beneficial, while too much (or too little) can have slightly harmful effects.

Teaching children how to manage distraction will benefit them throughout their lives.

Understand Their Internal Triggers

Without sufficient amounts of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, kids turn to distractions for psychological nourishment.

Instead of more ways to limit your kids’ autonomy, Ryan advises seeking to understand the underlying needs and associated internal triggers driving them to digital distraction. What we’ve found is that parents who address internet use or screen time with kids in an autonomy-supported way have kids who are more self-regulated with respect to it, so less likely to use screen time for excessive hours,” he says.

In the absence of competency in the classroom, kids turn to other outlets to experience the feeling of growth and development. Companies making games, apps, and other potential distractions are happy to fill that void by selling ready-made solutions for the psychological nutrients” kids lack.

Let your children know what you’re doing differently in your own life to manage distraction; being vulnerable and showing kids that we understand their struggle and face similar challenges helps build trust.

Make Time for Traction Together

Let your children know what you’re doing differently in your own life to manage distraction; being vulnerable and showing kids that we understand their struggle and face similar challenges helps build trust.

Without a clear plan, many kids are left to make impulsive decisions that often involve digital distraction.

Empowering children with the autonomy to control their own time is a tremendous gift. Even if they fail from time to time, failure is part of the learning process.

While we must be prepared to make adjustments to our family schedule, we need to involve our kids in setting our routines and honoring our commitments to each other. Teaching them to make their own schedules and being indistractable together helps us pass on our values.

Help Them with External Triggers

As kids get older, a good test of whether they are ready for a particular device is their ability to understand and use the built-in settings for turning off external triggers.

There is little justification for having a television or other potential distractions in a kid’s room overnight. Make sure nothing gets in the way of them getting good rest.

Respect their time and don’t interrupt them when they have scheduled time to focus on something, be that work or play.

Teach Them to Make Their Own Pacts

Even young children can learn to use precommitments as long as they set the rules and know how to use a timer or some other binding system.

It’s only when kids can monitor their own behavior that they learn the skills they need to be indistractable — even when their parents aren’t around.

How to Have Indistractable Relationships

Spread Social Antibodies Among Friends

We can tackle distraction among friends the same way we beat social smoking, by making it unacceptable to use devices in social situations. Prepare a few tactful phrases — like asking, Is everything OK?” — to discourage phone usage among friends.

Be an Indistractable Lover

In short, we were making progress by using all four methods for becoming indistractable. We learned to cope with the stress of stopping our compulsion to use technology in the evening, and, over time, it became easier to resist. We scheduled a strict bedtime, claiming the bedroom as a sacred space and leaving external triggers, like our cell phones and the television, outside. The outlet timer that turned off the unwanted distractions made compliance with our precommitment something we came to expect every night. We began to use our reclaimed time for more productive” purposes as we gained greater control over our habits.