The ability to focus seems to be increasingly endangered by our modern lives. What we hope will be a few hours spent in a creative flow taking care of important tasks at work, for example, is often interrupted by the pings and dings of a nearby cell phone.
“If it’s a distraction you seek, it’s easier than ever to find,” writes Nir Eyal in his recently published book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. And, critically, these distractions “impede us from making progress toward the life we envision.”
But unlike the many who advocate for avoiding your smartphone altogether, engaging in a digital detox, or transitioning to a flip phone, Eyal doesn’t place the blame entirely on the technology that clamors for our attention. Each of us has a personal responsibility to resist temptation and to focus, he explains, no matter what gadget or gizmo enchants our minds next.
It makes sense that Eyal is measured in his approach to tech; after all, he also wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, a guide for developing products that influence our behavior and keep us coming back again and again. But he also reminds us that before phones and the Internet, there was television and radio, both of which were seen as culprits of distraction by past generations. Furthermore, Eyal once attempted his own digital detox, purchasing a 1990s word processor without Internet so he wouldn’t be diverted while penning his book. He soon found himself flipping through books on his shelf instead of working. “Removing online technology didn’t work,” he remembers. “I’d just replaced one distraction with another.”
Eyal explains that all of our behaviors fall within a continuum: on one side there is traction, that is, actions that draw us toward what we want in life, and on the other, distraction, actions that pull us away from what we really want. Eyal argues that you can choose traction, that you can learn how to be “indistractable,” which he defines as “striving to do what you say you will do.”
Here are three key takeaways from his book.
We’re in charge (not our phones)
Our devices often “gain unauthorized access into our brains by prompting us to distraction,” Eyal writes, and, unfortunately, “the more we respond to external triggers, the more we train our brain in a never-ending stimulus response loop.” All behaviors require motivation, ability, and a trigger, he explains.
It’s up to us to “hack back” by getting rid of unwanted triggers. “By hacking back our phones, we can short-circuit the external triggers that spark harmful behaviors.” First, remove apps you don’t use that result in notifications and visual clutter. Second, remove the apps you do use and love and fit them into your schedule in a different way. For instance, instead of mindlessly checking Facebook notifications all day, set aside an hour to scroll through your news feed daily on your computer. Or if you really like a certain news app, spend time reading the articles on your web browser instead.
By rearranging your apps in a way that decreases clutter and reclaiming your time by changing your settings, you can put yourself back in control of interrupting alerts and triggers.
Rely on a plan, not your willpower
Mastering distractions takes foresight and planning more than willpower in the moment.
One of Eyal’s main strategies is to “timebox” your calendar, in other words, to start with a daily schedule instead of a to-do list. This means filling in all the white space in your schedule with everything you want to do so that you have a template for how to spend each day (in psychological terms, “setting an implementation intention”). While some may consider this limiting, Eyal argues that we are actually more successful with constraints. “Limitations give us a structure, while a blank schedule and a mile-long to-do list torments us with too many choices.”
Another one of Eyal’s techniques uses the “Ulysses pact,” or a commitment to your future self (think marriage or retirement accounts). One example he gives involves social pressure. For a period of time, Eyal asked a friend and fellow author to do 45-minute “work sprints” with him, in which both committed to working without stopping. Both found it helped keep them on track.
Mastering distractions helps us live according to our values
Mastering distractions doesn’t only aid our productivity; it helps us to be true to our values. Instead of simply reacting to external or internal triggers, we can craft our lives intentionally.
It’s critical to first reflect on your values, Eyal says, and the qualities of the person you wish to be. Then, the way you spend your time will fall in line. For instance, one of his poignant stories in the book is his regret over missing a magical moment with his daughter when he was lured away by his phone. As a remedy, he blocked off time in his schedule every Friday afternoon to fully engage in an activity with her (pulling a note out of a “fun jar” to determine the outing or special occasion). “Having this time in my schedule allows me to be the dad that I envision myself to be.” He writes:
If we chronically neglect our values, we become something we’re not proud of—our lives feel out of balance and diminished. Ironically, this ugly feeling makes us more likely to seek distractions to escape our dissatisfaction without actually solving the problem.
You can be proactive in setting yourself up to focus on what matters most while minimizing distraction. And Eyal writes that you can even influence others to also strive to do what they say they will do.
“In the workplace, we can use these tactics to transform our organizations and create a ripple effect both in and beyond our industries,” Eyal says. “At home, we can inspire our families to test these methods for themselves and live out the lives they envision.”