NIR EYAL, author of INDISTRACTABLE breaks down steps to eliminate everything that takes you away from the life you want to live, and move you toward TRACTION, with the goal of taking full control of your life.
We cannot call something a distraction unless we know what it is distracting us from.
Let me say that again. You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from.
If you don’t plan your day, somebody is going to plan it for you. The social media companies, the news, your boss, your kids, somebody is going to take up that time in your day unless you decide in advance how you want to spend your time.
We need to talk about the leading cause of distraction. The leading cause of distraction is not what is happening outside of us. Because what I discovered in my five years of research is that most distraction begins from within. We call these “internal triggers”.
What are internal triggers? Internal triggers are uncomfortable emotional sensations that we seek to escape from.
You see, in fact, all human behavior, all human behavior, everything you do, you do for only one reason: the desire to escape discomfort.
So calling yourself indistractable doesn’t mean you never get distracted. That’s impossible. The difference between an indistractable person and a distractable person is that an indistractable person understands why they got distracted, and has the tools to do something about it.
There’s a wonderful Paulo Coelho quote. He said, “A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.” If we keep getting distracted by the same stupid things day after day, week after week, month after month, we are choosing to be distractable.
An indistractable person looks at why they got distracted with this methodology I’ve developed and understands the source of the problem to make sure that they don’t keep getting distracted by doing something today to prevent getting distracted tomorrow.
To understand distraction, we really need to understand what that word even means. When people say they got distracted, what does that actually mean? I didn’t understand the real definition of the term “distraction” until I started along this line of research. The best way to understand what distraction is, is to understand what distraction is not. If you ask most people what is the opposite of distraction, they’ll tell you it’s focus, of course, right? Hmm, not exactly. You see, if you look at the origin of the word distraction, the opposite of distraction is not focus, the opposite of distraction is traction, that both words come from the same Latin root “trahere”, which means “to pull”. So traction, by definition, is any action that pulls you towards what you said you were going to do, things that you do with intent, things that help you live out your values and become the kind of person you want to become.
Now, the opposite of traction is distraction. Distraction, by definition, is any action that pulls you away from what you plan to do, anything that is not consistent with your values, anything that pulls you away from becoming the kind of person you want to become.
So this isn’t just wordplay. This is incredibly important, because I would argue, any action can be either traction or distraction. Let me give you a great example. For years, every time I would get into work, I would sit down at my desk and I would say, “Okay, I’m going to get started on that big project, I’ve got to focus, I have to concentrate, I’m not going to get distracted. I’m not going to procrastinate.” I’m going to get started on that big project that I’ve been putting off. Here I go, I’m going to do it right now. But first, let me check some email, let me scroll this Slack channel. let me do all these other tasks that feel work related.” But really, I didn’t realize that I was allowing distraction to trick me into prioritizing the easy and urgent stuff to trick me into prioritizing the easy and urgent stuff as opposed to doing the important work that I knew I had to do.
So even tasks that feel like they’re work related, if it’s not what you plan to do with your time, they are, in fact, distractions. And in fact, they’re the most pernicious form of distractions, because if we play a video game at our desk, well, we clearly know we’re off task. But when we think we’re working on one project, when we think we’re doing one task that seems to be the right thing to do because it’s work related, but really, we’re putting off doing more important work. That is a much more sinister form of distraction. Conversely, just as anything can be a distraction, anything can be traction. So don’t listen to these chicken-little tech critics that tell you the sky is falling and that technology is addicting us and hijacking our brains. It’s rubbish.
There’s nothing wrong with playing a video game or watching a movie on Netflix or enjoying social media, if it’s what you PLAN to do with your time. You see, the difference between traction and distraction is one word. And that one word is “forethought”. The time you PLAN to waste is not wasted time.
So if you want to take a walk, take a nap, scroll social media, pray, meditate, whatever it is you want to do with your time is totally fine as long as you do it with intent, as long as you have planned ahead as to how you want to spend your time. You can otherwise turn a distraction into traction by planning ahead, by using forethought.
So now that we understand the difference between traction and distraction, we need to ask what drives us towards traction or distraction.
We have two kinds of triggers. The first kind of trigger is called an “external trigger”, and it’s what people tend to blame, the usual suspects like the pings, the dings, the rings, anything in your outside environment that can lead you towards traction or distraction. We can get back to those in just a minute. But first, I want to focus on what’s even more important than the external triggers.
We need to talk about the leading cause of distraction. The leading cause of distraction is not what is happening outside of us, because what I discovered in my five years of research is that most distraction begins from within. We call these “internal triggers”. What are internal triggers? Internal triggers are uncomfortable emotional sensations that we seek to escape from. You see, in fact, all human behavior, all human behavior, everything you do, you do for only one reason: the desire to escape discomfort. In fact, even the desire to feel pleasure is, itself, psychologically destabilizing. This is called the “homeostatic response”.
If you think about it, if you go outside and it’s cold, well, the brain tells you, “Oh, this is uncomfortable, you should put on a coat.” When you walk back inside, the brain says, “Oh, it’s too hot in here, take it off.” If you feel hunger pangs, you eat. If you’re full because you ate too much, you stop eating. And so physiologically, everything we do is about a desire to escape discomfort. This is called the “homeostatic response”. It’s pretty common sense.
But what most people don’t realize is that the same phenomenon occurs with our psychological sensations. Think about it. Where do people go when they’re feeling lonely? Well, you check a social network like Facebook. And what about when you’re uncertain? Before you scan your brain to see if you know the answer, you’re Googling? And what about when you’re feeling bored? Oh my goodness, so many solutions to boredom, right? Check the news, check stock prices, sports scores, Pinterest, Reddit, all kinds of solutions to take care of this uncomfortable sensation of boredom, because we don’t like those internal triggers, they don’t feel good, and we look for escape from them.
So here’s the fact of the matter:
TIME management is PAIN management.
And if all human behavior is about a desire to escape discomfort, if you don’t understand what is that emotional itch, what is the uncomfortable sensation you are looking to escape, whether it’s with too much news, too much booze, too much football, too much Facebook, it doesn’t matter; we have to first start by mastering these internal triggers, so that we can gain control over them, as opposed to them controlling us.
So now that we understand the difference between traction and distraction, and we understand that we are driven towards traction or distraction by internal and external triggers, we can actually plot out the four points of how we become indistractable. It starts, first and foremost, by mastering the internal triggers, by understanding the deeper reasons why we look for escape from those uncomfortable sensations. The next step is to make time for traction.
Over the past five years research in my book, I’ve talked to thousands of people, and many of them have complained to me about how distracting the world is, how they can’t get anything done because social media this, and did you hear what happened in the news that, and their boss wants this and their kids want that, and they tell me how distracted they are. But when I asked them, “Okay, but what did you get distracted from exactly? Let me see your calendar. What was it that you plan to do?” They haven’t a clue. Sometimes they’ll show me their calendar.
And I’m guilty of this as well. I used to do this several years ago before I wrote this book. My calendar was blank. I’d have maybe an appointment here and there, but for the most of my day, I didn’t have anything planned. What I did have was a super long to-do list with all kinds of tasks I wanted to check off. What I’ve since discovered is that running your day with a to-do list as opposed to a calendar, is just about the worst thing you could possibly do for your productivity. Instead of keeping it to do list, which we tend to tick off the easy stuff and the fun stuff as opposed to the important stuff, when we keep a calendar, not just a calendar, a time box calendar, we utilize this fundamental truth that we cannot call something a distraction unless we know what it is distracting us from.
Let me say that again. You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. And so if you don’t plan your day, somebody is going to plan it for you. The social media companies, the news, your boss, your kids, somebody is going to take up that time in your day unless you decide, in advance, how you want to spend your time. There’s a reason we call it spending time and paying attention. The same type of language that we use to describe spending money and paying with dollars and cents, because our time and attention has value. And so if you just give it away to whoever wants it, don’t complain when you haven’t gotten done what you wanted to do with your time, and frankly, with your life.
So, this comes down to turning our values into time. What does that mean? Fundamentally, we have to ask ourselves, what are our values? So what are values anyway?
Values are attributes of the person you want to become, meaning you have to ask yourself, how would the person I want to become spend their time?
Now we can ask ourselves within these three life domains of you, your relationships, and finally your work. How would the person I want to become spend their time starting with you? So whatever is important for you in terms of personal values, how much time would the person you want to become spend on reading, on yoga, on prayer, on meditation, whatever it is that’s important to you, heck, playing video games, if that’s important to you, that’s part of your values, and the way you want to take care of yourself, wonderful, but plan that time in your schedule.
Next, our relationships. We are going through a global loneliness crisis, because over the past several decades, and this didn’t start with social media, but since the 1990s, social scientists have told us that the time that people devote to planned activities with their friends has markedly decreased. And so we can bring that back. We can make sure that we spend time with our friends, loved ones, and family members by putting time for it in our schedule.
If part of your value system involves being a devoted spouse, or a loving parent, or an available sibling, do you have that time to connect with the important people in your life scheduled and held on your calendar? And then finally, when it comes to our values around our work.
You see, work is split up into two kinds of work. We have what we call “reactive work” and “reflective work”. Reactive work is how most people spend most of their time at work. It’s responding to emails, answering phone calls, messages, slack notifications, reacting to what other people want you to do with your time. Now, that time is clearly part of many people’s jobs, but what we neglect to do is to carve out and protect time for reflective work.
Listen, if you want a leg up on the competition, if you want to do your job better than anyone else can, let me give you a little secret. Make time to think. You know why? Because it’s such a rare skill; nobody’s doing it.
Nobody’s making time in their day to work without distraction, to allow you the time to reflect, to plan, to strategize. You have got to have that time held and secured on your calendar.
So the second step to becoming indistractable is to make time for traction by keeping a time box calendar and then doing what we call “doing a schedule sync with the important stakeholders in your life.” So this will not only change your work-life balance, it’ll also change your relationship with your life partner. For example, when you can sit down with your schedule once a week, takes maybe 10-15 minutes, and review that physical artifact of your schedule, this is how we make sure that we live up to our obligations to others and to ourselves. The third step to becoming indistractable is to hack back our external triggers. So external triggers, again, are these pings, dings, and rings, anything in our outside environment that can lead us off track towards distraction rather than traction. And so there’s all kinds of things that we can do. Many of these things are really common sense.
Two thirds of Americans never change their smartphone notification settings. What? Can we really complain that our smartphones are addicting us when we haven’t taken five minutes to turn those notifications that don’t serve us, off?
So the critical question is to ask ourselves, when it comes to all of these external triggers, all of these pings and dings, which external triggers serve me and which am I serving? And to critically evaluate in all the different external triggers in your life, not just on your phone, but on your computer, at home, at work, meetings, emails, all of these external triggers, which are serving you and which are you serving? And it turns out that there are, in fact, thousands of free tools that we can use to hack back technology. And I used that term very deliberately. “To hack” means “to gain unauthorized access”. Does anybody not know that the big tech companies and the big media companies are in the business of harvesting our attention?
This isn’t something new to social media. If you think about newspapers, cable TV shows, all of them sell your eyeballs to the highest bidder. They sell them to advertisers. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the news or television or social media as long as you know what you’re in for. And the good news is, as opposed to television and newspapers, you can actually hack back with interactive technologies.
So there are all kinds of tools that we can use. For example, when I scroll Facebook, I love Facebook, but I don’t need to see that newsfeed. There’s a free Chrome extension called Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator that does exactly what it says. It gets rid of that newsfeed so that you can check Facebook without looking at this wall of noise. Instead, you can go to specific friends and see what’s up on their specific pages. Another great tool is YouTube DF. I love YouTube videos. You’re probably watching me on YouTube right now. But do I really need to see all those ads, all those extra videos that are put there in order to keep me watching and watching? No, I can install a great Chrome extension called YouTube DF. DF stands for “distraction free”. And this free Chrome extension will scrub out all the superfluous stuff around the video, so that you can just see the video you’re watching without a lot of the tricks that they use to keep you hooked. But this is really the tip of the iceberg.
We can learn how to hack back these external triggers in all different facets of our life. How to hack back meetings, how to hack back email, how to even hack back working from home when so many of us are working at home and our kids might distract us from time to time, what do we do to make sure that we can hack back all the various distractions in our life, so that these external triggers lead us towards traction rather than distraction?
Finally, the fourth step to becoming indistractable is preventing distraction with pacts. Pacts implement this psychological technique of making a precommitment. Now, a precommitment is when we decide, in advance, what we want to do to prevent ourselves from doing something we don’t want to do. And there are three types of pacts. We have effort pacts, price pacts, and identity pacts. Effort packs are when we put some bit of friction in between us and something we don’t want to do.
So for example, in my household, for many years, I found that my wife and I were going to bed later and later every night. She was scrolling her iPad and I was on my computer. And so one night, we decided to use some of these techniques, and we decided to get ourselves a $10 outlet timer. Now, this outlet timer, you plug it into the wall outlet, and anything you plug into it will turn on or off at any time of designated day or night. So in my household, at every night at 10 pm, my internet router shuts off. In fact, today you can buy internet routers with this functionality built right in, so some devices can stay on while others turn off. And this is an incredibly effective technique to make a pact with yourself. Now, could I get back online somehow? Of course, I could find a way to cheat. But I’ve inserted a bit of mindfulness because of the extra effort required so that I can think for a minute and say to myself, “Wait a minute, is this really important, is this really consistent with my values, or is this leading me down the path of distraction rather than traction?” So that’s one example of an effort pact. A price pact is when we put some kind of monetary disincentive on the line. And then perhaps the most powerful of the three types of pacts is what we call an “identity pact”. And identity pact comes out of the psychology of religion.
Research has shown us that when we have some kind of name, some kind of moniker that we identify with, it becomes much more likely that we’ll reach our long-term goals.
So for example, when someone calls themselves a devout Muslim or an observant Christian or even, for that matter, a vegetarian. A vegetarian doesn’t wake up in the morning and say, “Hmm, I wonder if I’ll have a bacon sandwich for breakfast?” No, a vegetarian knows that they don’t eat that because they don’t eat meat. They are a vegetarian. Well, we can adopt a similar mindset and use this psychological hack ourselves by labeling ourselves as indistractable.
When you think of yourself as the kind of person who strives to do what they say they’re going to do, the kind of person who lives with personal integrity, you can call yourself indistractable. And that moniker has been shown to help us stay on track and achieve our long-term goals. One of the things I learned over the past five years of researching the psychology of distraction, is that distraction is not a new thing. Facebook and the internet and the iPhone didn’t invent distraction.
In fact, Plato, the Greek philosopher, talked about distraction over 2500 years ago. He called it ‘akrasia’ in the Greek; the tendency that we have to do things against our better interest. And Plato wondered why is it that despite knowing what to do, we don’t just do it. And if this was difficult in Plato’s day, it’s even more baffling today. In previous generations, people could say, “Well, I don’t know what to do. I don’t have access to the information to tell me some kind of secrets.” But there are no secrets. Who doesn’t basically know how to lose weight? You have to eat right and exercise. Who doesn’t basically know how to improve your work performance? You have to do the work, especially the hard stuff that other people don’t want to do. Who doesn’t know that to improve our relationships with our family and loved ones, we have to be fully present and invest in those relationships?
We already know this stuff. What we don’t know is how to stop getting in our own way. How do we stop getting distracted?
You see, there are typically two types of people when it comes to dealing with distraction. We have what we call the “blamers” and the “shamers”. The blamers blame things outside themselves. “It’s Facebook, it’s my boss, it’s the modern world these days that makes me so distracted and unable to accomplish my goals.” And then you have the shamers. The shamers, they don’t blame things outside themselves; they shame themselves. And here’s what it sounds like.
This is what I used to do all the time. “Oh, maybe there’s something wrong with me. I’m not very good at focusing. Maybe I have an addictive personality. Maybe I’m this, maybe I’m that. There I go again, doing this thing that I said I wasn’t going to do once again. There’s probably something broken in my brain.” And that’s almost never the case. Both techniques are not very effective. The blamer blames things outside of themselves that they have virtually no control to change.
We can go back into some time machine before these technologies existed. And even if we could, there was no magical time without distraction. The shamers really harm themselves with that mindset because the more shame we feel, the worst we feel. And ironically, when we feel shame, a very uncomfortable emotion, many people escape that sensation with guess what? More distraction to take their mind off of how crummy they feel about themselves. So we don’t want to be blamers. We don’t want to be shamers.
We want to be what we call “claimers”. Claimers claim responsibility not for how they feel. This is a really important point. Most people don’t realize you cannot control your feelings, you can only control how you respond to those feelings, that the reason we get distracted, the reason we procrastinate, it’s not a character flaw, there’s nothing wrong with you; it’s simply that you don’t have the tools to deal with those uncomfortable feelings in a healthy manner to lead you towards traction rather than distraction.
You see, many things in the world these days are not your fault. You didn’t invent Facebook, you didn’t invent social media, you didn’t create what’s happening in the news today; these things aren’t your fault. But managing your response to the discomfort that you feel every day that can lead you towards distraction is your responsibility. Many people will classify distraction as certain behaviors. Playing a video game, that’s bad, that’s distracting, but doing your work is somehow good. But that can’t be right. I would argue that any action can be either traction or distraction, whether it’s something we do with intent, with forethought.
So for example, if you sit down at your desk, and guide your work life based on what’s on your to-do list, you’re going to have attention for doing the things that are urgent, easy, or fun, as opposed to doing the stuff that’s actually important. You see, distraction tricks us by us thinking that what we’re working on is what we think we should be doing: checking emails. slack notifications, whatever it is that seems like a work related task.
What we’re doing is allowing distraction to trick us into doing what I call “pseudo work”: these things that we feel like we’re being productive by doing these work-related tasks, but if it’s not what we plan to do with our time, working on that big report, finishing that proposal, whatever the case might be, not doing the work we’re avoiding, that is, in fact, a more dangerous, insipid form of distraction because we don’t even realize we’re getting distracted.
So being indistractable is really the skill of the century. Look, if you think that the world is distracting today, just wait a few years. All trends point to the fact that the world will become an increasingly distracting place.
As technology improves and becomes more ubiquitous, there will be more potentially distracting things in the world. Whether it’s virtual reality or augmented reality or who knows what other kinds of reality, the temptation to get distracted will only increase if you are looking for distraction and you are not armed to deal with it. Which is why becoming indistractable really will be the skill of the century.
Look, I think, in the future, there will be two kinds of people in the world. There will be the kind of people who allow their time and attention and their lives to be manipulated and controlled by others. And there will be the kind of people who stand up and say, “No, I will decide how I spend my time, how I spend my attention, how I live my life. I am indistractable.”
So you hear a lot of people these days saying that technology is addicting us, that it’s hijacking our brains, and there’s basically nothing that we can do about it. And I want to tell you right now that you are much more powerful than you think. Look, I wrote the book on how companies get us hooked. The book is called Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products. And I know every which way that these companies are designed to manipulate your time and attention. And I will tell you, these techniques that the tech companies use are good; they’re not that good. Meaning if we use a few simple techniques to regain control over our time and attention, we are much more powerful than the tech companies.
One of the worst things that you can do is to believe that you are somehow addicted. Now, some people are in fact addicted. If you think about alcohol, for example, alcohol is highly addictive, but is everyone who has a glass of wine or a beer with dinner an alcoholic? Of course not. Very few people are actually addicted to alcohol, and very few people are actually addicted to social media. Now, short of people with the pathology of addiction, the rest of us have to understand that there are things that we can do right now that are very simple to do to make sure that we can control these technologies, as opposed to these technologies controlling us.
The study of what people will do when they feel bored is fascinating. In fact, a study by Timothy Wilson at Harvard found that a significant proportion of people would rather shock themselves with an electrical shock they were told would be painful, than to sit alone in a room and feel boredom. Now, this study reveals to us that there are steps that we will take to try and avoid this uncomfortable sensation, that we would rather have some kind of stimulus than to be stuck alone feeling this uncomfortable emotional itch.
So what this tells us is that we have to find ways to cope with discomfort in a healthier manner. Because many of us, when we feel bored, lonesome, indecisive, fatigued, uncertainty, we reflexively look for some kind of escape. whether that escape is by turning on the television or checking our phones or doing something to take our mind off of that discomfort. Instead, what we can do is we can use those internal triggers, those uncomfortable emotional sensations as rocket fuel to move us forward towards traction, as opposed to trying to escape them with distraction. How can we do that? Well, we have to start with understanding that feeling bad is not bad.
I think that there’s a very popular myth in the self-help communities these days, that somehow if we feel any kind of emotional discomfort, we have to escape it as quickly as possible; that if we feel lonesome or bored or indecisive or anxious or fatigued or stressed, God forbid, we should have to feel those sensations. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
The default human condition is not to be perpetually happy, to be always contented; quite the opposite. Our default state is perpetual disquietude, is always wanting more. And if you think about it, what drives entrepreneurs, artists, politicians, what drives people to change the world is this uncomfortable desire for more, to do something better. That’s what has always driven our species forward. And if you can harness that discomfort and use it to your advantage, this is how we get ahead, this is how we make the world a better place, by understanding that discomfort and dealing with it in a healthy way, as opposed to trying to escape it with distraction in an unhealthy manner.
So there’s a technique called “progressive extremism” that can really be a useful tactic if you’re trying to change your life in a positive manner. And this acknowledges the fact that temporary fixes are pointless. What’s the point of getting in shape by going on some kind of fad diet so you can fit in your wedding dress for just one day, if you’re not maintaining a healthy lifestyle forever? The point of getting in shape is to have the benefits for the rest of your life. So instead of having some kind of crash diet, which we know people tend to bounce back from and with a vengeance, instead, what we want to do is to train ourselves with this technique called progressive extremism.
What does progressive extremism mean? Progressive extremism means that we are going to remove some kind of unhealthy behavior in our life for the rest of our lives, nut we’re going to do it in a very small way.
Here’s how it works: So for me, when I decided I wanted to eat less processed sugar, I didn’t say, “That’s it, I’m never touching processed sugar ever again.” Instead, what I said was, “I am going to cut out one food that’s refined sugar for the rest of my life.” But it has to be easy. So the first food I started with was candy corn. Now, I don’t know if you like candy corn, I don’t really like candy corn all that much. I would eat it kind of on Halloween when my daughter would bring it back from trick-or-treating. It’s kind of the dregs of the Halloween haul. And so I decided one year, “You know what? I’m eating these things not because I like them, but because they’re just here. Well, they’re never going to be here ever again.” And so I pledged myself, “I’m never going to eat another candy corn for the rest of my life.” No big deal, I didn’t really like him to begin with. And then I was ready to do a bit more, to progress. So the next thing I said I’m not going to eat ever again, was I excised sodas, sugary sodas in the house. Now, I told myself I could drink sugary sodas outside the house, just not in the house. That was the first tiny baby step that I was going to take along this path of progressive extremism. When I was ready, about a month later, I decided to excise more and more and more. And so today, after years of doing this, there’s all kinds of things that I just don’t eat. And what we’re doing is leveraging an identity that we know that people who say that “they don’t” versus those who say “I can’t”, are much more likely to stick with their long-term goals.
Because when you say “I don’t do something,” for example, “I don’t eat meat, I am a vegetarian,” versus “Oh, no, thanks, I can’t because I’m on a diet,” you’re much more likely to stick over the long term. So when you regularly review this list of “Wow, look at all the things that I don’t have in my life anymore, starting with candy corn, sugary drinks,” whatever the case might be these small, simple things that you’ve removed from your life over years, and this takes time and commitment, what you’ll find is that you’ll be very proud to have this entire list of things that you don’t really miss anymore, because you took this path of progressive extremism. So if there’s one mantra that summarizes my five years of research into the psychology of distraction, it’s this: that the antidote to impulsiveness is forethought.
You see, our species has an amazing gift that no other animal on the face of the earth has, which is that we can see into the future. We can predict what is going to happen with greater fidelity than any other animal that roams the earth. And so we should use that capability because if you wait till the last minute, you will lose. If you wait until the cigarette is lit in your hand, you’re going to smoke it. If you wait till the chocolate cake is on a fork on the way to your mouth, you’re going to eat it.
If you sleep next to your cell phone every night, of course, it’s going to be the first thing you pick up in the morning before you say hello to your loved one. So don’t wait to the last minute. What I discovered in my five years of research, is that people who are indistractable, they don’t have a lot of willpower, they don’t have a lot of self-control; what they have is a system. They plan today to make sure they don’t get distracted tomorrow. By mastering the internal triggers, making time for traction, hacking back the external triggers, and preventing distraction with pacts, this is how anyone can become indistractable.