Most of us, myself included, strive to continuously improve our productivity and effectiveness, and we know that in order to accomplish our goals, we need to stop wasting time and do the actual work. But the hard part isn’t knowing what to do – it’s resisting distractions. Living our ideal life, then, isn’t just about doing all the right things, but also not doing the things you’ll regret – like checking your Instagram for the 37th time today.
Nir Eyal is an expert on habit-forming technology, best known for his book Hooked, which teaches companies how to build apps that you simply can’t resist. Now he’s using his expertise to help the little guys with his new book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. This is how to reclaim a hold on your attention, ability to do deep work, and become indistractable in a new age of the attention economy.
While many of us vilify technology as being the cause for our distractions, Nir emphasizes that distraction is nothing new. Rather than blaming technology for our inability to stay on track, we must take responsibility and understand the root causes if we have any hope of reclaiming our attention.
Master Internal Triggers
Let’s begin with internal triggers, which are cues arising from within, like feeling hunger or cold. External triggers, on the other hand, are those arising from the environment, like a notification on your phone.
Nir argues that the root cause of all our behavior is simply the drive to relieve discomfort — even the drive caused by desire is there to free ourselves from the pain of wanting. You can think of a root cause as the underlying reason and the proximate cause as what is immediately responsible for a problem. In other words, it’s what allows you to deflect responsibility onto something or someone else.
This distinction is important, as addressing the proximate doesn’t actually fix the problem. Distractions are often the result of proximate causes, like our cell phones, that we think are the culprit, but the root cause remains hidden.
Or as Nir puts it, “solely blaming a smartphone for causing distraction is just as flawed as blaming a pedometer for making someone climb too many stairs.”
Therefore, to most effectively deal with distractions, we need to learn to deal with discomfort. There are 4 steps to mastering your internal triggers.
Step 1| Look for the discomfort that precedes the distraction, and focus on the internal trigger. What emotions and thoughts come up prior to engaging with the distraction?
Step 2| Write down the internal trigger. Note the time of day, what you were doing, and how you felt when you noticed the internal trigger.
Step 3| Explore your sensations with curiosity, not with contempt. Think of this as an extension of the mindfulness practices we’ve discussed in previous posts.
Step 4| Be extra cautious during liminal moments. Liminal moments are the transition instances from one task to another throughout the day. For example, let’s say you open a tab in a browser but it’s taking longer to load, and then you open up another while waiting. These are critical moments that can determine whether you stay on task or get off track and go down a 2 hour YouTube binge.
I love Nir’s take on fun. Fun doesn’t require enjoyment. Rather, by reimagining difficult work as fun and rewarding in its own way, you’ll find yourself empowered to do more. Have you ever noticed that you derived deep satisfaction, even maybe some fun, after working through a challenging assignment or problem? That’s the beauty in enjoying the process and noticing the nuances and the hidden beauty beyond the surface level monotony.
One should also be careful not to overlook the importance of identity and temperament. If you label yourself as having poor self-control, guess what, you’ll act in ways that are more aligned with lacking self-control. When you inevitably fall short on your goals, don’t beat yourself up, but rather approach the failing with self-compassion. Paradoxically, self-compassion makes you less likely to deviate in the future compared to being strict with yourself because you break the vicious cycle of stress that so often accompanies failure. Remember, obstacles and setbacks are part of the growth process, not a hindrance to it.
Make Time for Traction
If distraction pulls you away from your goals, traction is what brings you closer to them. And unless you plan ahead, it’s difficult to know the difference between traction and distraction.
As Seneca wrote, “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
While we may idolize the perks of freedom, we actually perform better under constraints. Limitations give us a structure, while a blank schedule and a lengthy to-do-list torments us with too many choices.
Nir is a strong advocate of timeboxing, where you closely schedule out your day in advance. Ideally, you should eliminate all white space from your calendar so you know how you want to spend your time each day. That way, if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, then you’re off track.
Although your aim is to follow the time-boxed schedule as closely as possible, understand you’ll never achieve perfection. Rather, each week, reflect on where your schedule didn’t work out in the prior week so you can make it easier to follow the subsequent week. Over time, your schedule, and the ability to stick to it, will improve.
When first approaching timeboxing, start with your personal time, meaning at the most basic level, what are the things you need to do? Sleep, hygiene, meals, and the like. After that, focus on how spending your time would reflect your values. For some people, that translates to carving a few hours every night for friends or family. For others grinding through medical school, it may be important to schedule different types of study sessions around a daily exercise routine.
Remember, you will never be perfect at this, but don’t beat yourself up when you miss the mark. Think of yourself as a scientist, experimenting and tweaking your schedule and refining it week after week. Remind yourself that showing up is the most important part. Not showing up guarantees failure. You can’t always control what you get out of a work session, but you can always control whether or not you’ll show up and how much time you put into a task.
Hack Back External Triggers
If you’re anything like me, you have issues with external triggers. You’re not alone. Even in healthcare, external triggers can be a cause of medical errors. At Kaiser South San Francisco, nurses wore brightly colored vests to let others know that they were dispensing medications and not to interrupt them. With this simple intervention, there was a 47% reduction in errors.
Email is a commonly misused tool, and there are several reasons it tends to go so wrong.
First, it’s a variable reward system. As we know from the most basic of psych studies, the uncertainty of variable reward results in a much stronger draw. We often find ourselves checking email impulsively multiple times a day, waiting for new messages.
Second, reciprocity, whereby humans are more likely to respond in kind to the actions of another, pushes us to feel like we should respond to the messages we find in our inbox.
And third, there is a necessity in our current student and work environments. If you wanted to get away from email, good luck navigating college, medical school, or even your job.
Luckily, addressing the issues with email is relatively straightforward. To receive fewer emails, we need to send fewer emails. Nir suggests that if it’s not an urgent email, tell the sender that you have office hours every week on a certain day at a certain time, where they can swing by to ask the question. This has two benefits. First, they are able to come up with an answer for themselves. And second, difficult questions are best handled in person or via a phone call anyway rather than email. While this is most appropriate for those who are working corporate jobs, you can still apply a similar approach as a student. For those questions that are less urgent and less conducive to email, don’t be afraid to suggest speaking about it in person the next time you see them.
Delaying your email delivery is also a sneaky trick that is surprisingly effective. If you respond quickly to someone’s email, you are reinforcing that email is a great way to get a quick reply from you. Don’t be surprised if they respond again quickly soon after. As Med School Insiders grew, I learned this the hard way and was soon overrun with emails. By instead writing the email but scheduling it to send later in the week, which is possible to do with most modern email clients, you’ll break the chain and slow the rate of communication.
Lastly, batching your emails is far more efficient than the constant checking throughout the day. A big part of this is due to the time it takes our brain to switch between tasks. I batch at the beginning and end of the workdays, allowing myself to be more intentional during the middle — doing what is on my task list, not serving someone else’s.
Now let’s talk about your biggest distraction — your smartphone.
First, remove apps you no longer need. I removed games from my phone back in college, and I’ve never looked back.
Second, replace functions where appropriate. If you use your phone to check the time, why not replace the time function with a watch? You can also remove your social media apps from your phone and use them from your computer at predetermined times in your timeboxed schedule.
Third, rearrange your apps. He suggests three categories – primary tools, for apps that help you accomplish defined tasks that you do frequently. For example, getting a ride or finding a location. Slot machines, for apps like email, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media. And third, aspirations, which is for apps that encourage you to do things you want to do more of, like meditation, journaling, yoga, reading, or podcasts.
Fourth, reclaim your attention, which translates to disabling most notifications. As sound notifications are the most intrusive, you should be highly selective with sound — Nir recommends sounds on for only text and phone calls. Visual notifications are the second most intrusive, and for those, he primarily relies on badges.
Prevent Distractions with Pacts
Pacts are pre-commitment devices, whereby you remove a future choice in order to reign back your impulsivity. There are a few different types.
Effort pacts are precommitments that increase the amount of effort required to do an undesirable action. By making unwanted behaviors more difficult to perform, you’re adding friction to becoming distracted. For example, I talk about focus apps on your computer like Freedom, Focus, or SelfControl, which prevent you from being distracted away from work while on your computer.
A price pact is where you put money on the line. This takes advantage of loss aversion, whereby people are more motivated to avoid losses than they are to seek gains. Nir uses a “burn or burn” calendar. Either he burns calories with exercising, or he burns the $100 bill that he has taped to his exercise calendar if he misses a day.
Last, identity pacts are a function of your perception and beliefs about yourself. This can prove tremendously powerful in behavior change. For example, when I went on a plant-based diet in medical school, avoiding meat was surprisingly easy simply because my identity around what I did and didn’t eat had changed. And the beautiful thing about identity change is that the more we stick to our plans and our newly formed identity, the more we enforce it.
How to Have Indistractable Relationships
Becoming indistractable isn’t a solo task — distraction is contagious. When your friend pulls out her phone at dinner, it acts as an external trigger, prompting you to become more likely to pull yours out as well. We call this social contagion, whereby we copy the behavior of others around us.
Paul Graham, a famous Silicon Valley entrepreneur writes about social antibodies, which are social norms that act as defenses against new harmful behaviors. For example, in the mid-20th century, smoking indoors, around kids, and just about any place was considered more or less normal. But now in 2020, norms have drastically changed, and we’ve adopted social antibodies to discourage and shun such behavior. If we develop new norms to make it taboo to check one’s phone when in the company of others, it’ll be a strong force in the fight against distraction.
Remember, being indistractable means striving to do what you say you will do. It does not mean you’ll be perfect or never fail. We all do and will continue, to struggle with distraction. The game isn’t to beat distraction, but to constantly get better at managing it.