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How to be Indistractable

Interview by Carolyn Drebin

Best-selling author and behavioural design expert, Nir Eyal, describes the pervasive state of distraction that plagues people today.

Being ‘indistractable’ has been called the essential skill for our time. Why is it so critical right now?

In today’s world, technology and interruptions are everywhere. If you sit down to work on a project with a fast-approaching deadline, it won’t be long before you hear the swoop of a text message or email coming in; or a colleague might drop by to chat. Even at home, screens of various shapes and sizes get in the way of spending quality time with our loved ones. Just imagine what we could all accomplish if we could stay focused! In this day and age, if you are not equipped to manage distractions, your brain will continue to be manipulated by time-wasting diversions. We all need to learn how to avoid distraction.

Explain the difference between distraction and traction.

All of us are constantly reaching for something: more money, more experiences, more knowledge, more status, more stuff. Traction is anything that pulls us towards the things we want, while distraction pulls us away from them. Imagine drawing a line down the middle of a sheet of paper to represent the value of everything you do on a particular day. To the right are all the actions that are positive in that they draw you towards what you want in life; and to the left are actions that get in the way of that. On any given day, the goal is to have many more behaviours and activities that classify as traction than distraction.


All human behaviour is prompted by a desire to escape different forms of discomfort.


You write that the first step towards becoming indistractable is to acknowledge that distractions have two sources: external triggers and internal triggers. Please elaborate.

External triggers are the obvious things: smartphones, notifications, interruptions from colleagues, and all the other outward things we blame. But in fact, the root cause of distraction is always internal. It’s not about what is going on around us, it’s about what is going on inside of us. Internal triggers are uncomfortable emotional states that prompt us to take some kind of action to remove that discomfort. All human behaviour is prompted by a desire to escape some kind of uncomfortable psychological or physiological state.

For example, if we feel lonely, we might take a scroll through social media. If we’re bored, we might check the news. We use various products and services in our lives to escape feelings of discomfort. Even within the pursuit of physical pleasure, we also want to feel some connection. This can be psychologically destabilizing, which is why we say ‘love hurts’. Neurologically, that is exactly what is going on.

If all human behaviour is prompted by a desire to escape different forms of discomfort, we could think about time management as pain management. Once you acknowledge and understand the social discomfort you are seeking to escape from, you can choose to either change the source of that discomfort or learn tactics to cope with it, so that your internal triggers lead you towards traction rather than distraction.

You advise that the best way to master internal triggers is to ‘turn our values into time’. Please explain.

Whatever our values may be, it is helpful to categorize them into three life domains that outline where we spend our time: the self, our relationships and work. These domains give us a way to think about how to plan our days so that we can become an authentic reflection of the person we want to be. In order to live our values in each of the three domains, we must reserve time in our schedules to do so. Only by setting aside specific time for traction can we turn our backs on distraction.

How much time in each domain would allow you to be consistent with your values? I advise people to start by creating a calendar for your ‘perfect week’. You can find a blank template at NirAndFar.com/Indistractable. Next, book 15 minutes with yourself each week to look over the past seven days and refine your calendar by asking two questions:

1. When in my schedule did I do what I said I would do, and when did I get distracted?
2. Are there changes I can make to my calendar that will give me the time I need to better live out my values? 

This ‘timeboxing’ exercise enables us to think of each week as a mini-experiment — and the idea is to get better with each iteration. I always advise people to schedule time for themselves first. You are at the centre of your three life domains, so if you don’t allocate time for yourself, the other two domains will suffer.


We all have impulse control issues, and the antidote to impulsiveness is forethought.


How can we combat distraction in the workplace?

Unfortunately, interruptions are pervasive in today’s workplace, and they do lead to mistakes. You just can’t do your best work if you are frequently distracted. The misuse of space is often a significant contributing factor. Today, 70 per cent of offices in the U.S. are arranged as open floor plans. Open-concept offices were supposed to foster idea sharing and collaboration; but according to a 2016 meta-study, the result has been greater distraction, which has led to decreased employee satisfaction.

I advise people to physically signal when they do not want to be interrupted. While I don’t advocate wearing a neon orange Do Not Interrupt vest, you can clearly signal your desire to not be disturbed by making a small sign for your office door that says, in large font, “I NEED TO FOCUS RIGHT NOW; PLEASE COME BACK SOON!” This sends an unambiguous message in a way that wearing headphones can’t.

     
 

Mastering Internal Triggers

Understand the root cause of distraction. It is about more than your devices. Separate proximate causes from the root cause.

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

Anything that stops discomfort is potentially addictive, but that doesn’t make it irresistible. If you know the drivers of your behaviour, you can take steps to manage them.
 
     

     
 

Hack Back Your Smartphone

Remove. Uninstall the apps you no longer need.

Replace. Shift where and when you use potentially distracting apps to your desktop instead of your phone. Use a watch so you don’t have to look at your phone for the time.

Rearrange. Move any apps that may trigger mindless checking from your phone’s home screen. 

Reclaim. Change the notification settings for each app. Be very selective about which apps can send you sound and sight cues. Learn to use the Do Not Disturb settings.
 
     

What are ‘effort pacts’, and how can they help us be indistractable?

This is another tool that you can use to help stay on track, and it works by putting friction, or effort, between you and the distraction you are trying to avoid. In other words, you put up an obstacle to the distraction, whether it’s placing your phone out of reach, turning on a timer, etc. Ironically, part of the solution to tech distraction is sometimes more tech that can help prevent us from being distracted.
Figure1
The biggest external trigger for distraction today seems to be screens of various types, and the increasing amount of time we spend on them. Thoughts?

The fact is, Plato talked about distraction 2,500 year before the iPhone was invented — so this is nothing new for humanity. Many of us let ourselves off the hook by blaming our distraction on screen addiction, social media algorithms etc., and this ‘learned helplessness’ can be quite harmful. We need to call it what it is — a distraction — and take responsibility for being distracted and do something about it. We can choose to schedule time for the things we enjoy most, whether it be gaming or news.

It’s important to recognize that we all have impulse control issues, and that the antidote to impulsiveness is forethought. Planning ahead and setting up systems is the only way to combat distraction, whether it be caused by technology or anything else. The good new is, when we plan, we actually have more freedom to enjoy the things we enjoy without guilt. If we leave it to the moment — to willpower or self-control — we will lose every time. I advise people to regularly ask themselves, ‘Does my calendar reflect my values?’ To be the person you want to be, you have to make time to live your values.   


Nir Eyal is the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life (BenBella Books, 2019). An active angel investor and Stanford MBA, he has lectured at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. To learn more visit NirAndFar.com.

This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

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