Become Indistractable With Nir Eyal
Bestselling author Nir Eyal shares his insight to help you achieve more of what you want in life.
Focusing and Becoming 'Indistractable'
We know we have to be present with the people we love. We know what to do, but we don’t know how to stop getting distracted. The opposite of distraction isn’t focus; it’s traction. They are the actions that move you towards what you say you want to do.
If you ask someone what they get distracted from, they won't be able to tell you. Running life on to-do list is terrible. Instead, make an implementation intention. Plan what you're going to do, and when you're going to do it. Being reluctant to hyper schedule is just fear trying to stop you from doing the work you know you want to do. It is just a simple act of deciding how you want to spend your time.
Follow my strategy rather than just a few random tactics.
Step 1: Master the internal triggers.
Studies find that only 10% of the time that you get distracted is due to external triggers. An external trigger is something in our outside environment that prompts us to either traction or distraction (e.g. ping, ring, ding),
The other 90% of the time, you get distracted by your internal triggers. An internal trigger is an uncomfortable emotional state - like boredom, loneliness, fatigue, life pressures that we seek to escape from.
All human behaviour is not about pain and pleasure. Neurologically speaking, the reason you do anything is not for the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, it is because of the desire to escape discomfort.
Everything you do is about a homeostatic response. If you’re lonely, you check Facebook. If you’re uncertain, you check Google. If you’re bored, you check Instagram. We escape our problems by looking at someone else’s problems 5000 miles away.
Even the pursuit of pleasurable sensations- like wanting, craving, lusting- is itself psychologically destabilising.
Therefore, if all human behaviour is about the desire to escape discomfort that time management requires pain management. If we can’t master these uncomfortable emotional states, we will always get distracted by something. We have to learn how to master these triggers or they will be our masters.
Step 2: Making time for traction
Make an implementation intention, and keep a timebox schedule.
Plan what you’re going to do, and when you’re going to do it.
Plan leisure as well. Schedule time for social media and video games so that it doesn’t become a distraction when you’re trying to work.
Step 3: Hack back the external triggers
Your phone will ring, your boss will tap you on the shoulder, and your child will need you.
Even if you’ve mastered the internal triggers and timeboxed, you can’t avoid the ping, ring, and dings of the physical world.
You also need to learn how to hack back the external triggers.
Step 4: Build a firewall
Use pacts against distraction as a last line of defence. If all else fails, this is the firewall preventing us from doing something we did not intend to do.
Enter a social pact with someone else so they become your firewall.
You can do this in real time on Focusmate.com. You pick a time when you want to do focus work in your day. You’re assigned a focus mate to work together, focus, and keep each other accountable.
Does spreading oneself too thin mean you get distracted from everything as you focus on nothing properly?
By spreading ourselves too thin and task switching- meaning doing a little bit of everything- our brains stay very shallow and don't get to focus. People object to my idea of timeboxing because they seem to think that they can do work whenever they want. People who say that are the least productive. The most productive people are the ones who sit their butt in the chair and do the work. If we try to do multiple things at once, we do nothing to our utmost abilities.
What about life hacks?
Nothing works unless you control internal triggers. Have to start with that first. Then making time for traction.
Why does the mind and attention wander?
The most rational explanation is that it served an evolutionary purpose. Being on guard of what was going on around you was an advantage. It’s only in the past 10,000 years of civilisation that having the skill to have long periods of concentration became very valuable. Now we don’t struggle with how to escape boredom as we’re constantly stimulated.
How do I stay focused?
There is a base of people who self-diagnose although they do not have any kind of medical diagnosis. This happens because people want to absolve themselves of responsibility and believe that there is a reason behind their inability to focus. For people who do have an actual diagnosis- first try exhausting non-pharmaceutical options because drugs have side-effects. See how far you can get with these techniques to find ways to limit the amount of pharmaceuticals that you’re taking.
What is your view on multitasking? Is that a distraction or can it be effective?
You can multitask, it is a myth that you can’t. It’s about what kind of multi-task. We cannot multitask on the same channel from two different sources. For example, you can’t listen to two podcasts at the same time. However, we can multi-channel multi-tasking and ways to timebox this.
How do I multi-channel multi-task?
Use a technique called temptation bundling. This means bundling activities we like with things we don't like. For example, I combine the reward of listening to articles with going to the gym, which I don’t like. I listen to articles read to me (using pocket extension on chrome) as I’m on the treadmill.
How to timebox a task that you don’t know how long it will take?
There is a cognitive bias called the planning fallacy- humans are very bad at figuring out how long a task will take. On average, a task will take a person 3x longer than they thought.
Evaluate yourself based on one metric: did I do what I said I was going to do for as long as I said I would without distraction? This way you have a feedback cycle that allows you to know how long a task takes you. E.g. in 30 minutes, how far did I get?
How to deal with daily work distractions (e.g. Slack messaging)?
99% of the time the real problem is not that someone needs you, it’s that you feel like they do. Feeling is what’s driving you to distraction. Synchronising your schedule with your boss so you can have time for pure focus work. The real problem is inside our own heads, which brings us back to the problem of internal triggers and understanding how to deal with them.
What types of personalities struggle most with distraction?
Personality science is tricky. The only types of personalities that have been scientifically validated are called the Big Five. We haven’t seen that there is a particular type of person who deals the most with distraction. We have seen, however, that people who score high on conscientiousness are better at time management.
Can social framework help master internal triggers?
Absolutely, great technique. Entering into a pact with another person can be that firewall we discussed earlier.
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Why are to-do lists unhelpful?
I’m not against taking things in your head and putting them on paper. What I’m against is running your life on a to-do list. When you have no constraints, you are setting yourself up for failure. Everyday you don’t finish your list, your self image gets impacted. When you start to believe you are incapable, it eventually becomes true. Instead, use a timebox schedule where you succeed by measuring yourself. Check if you did the task you said you’d do, for the amount of time you said you would, without getting distracted. It completely changes your self image.
What has the pandemic changed or not changed about your focus?
My line of research became more necessary because so many of us work from home now. At home the distractions are different. It’s no longer your coworkers distracting you but instead it’s your kids, spouse, and everything around you. The good news is that the same four steps apply. They are even more important when there are more internal triggers in the world because we’re more likely to seek distraction.