Strategies for Preventing and Ignoring Distractions
Anyone with a smartphone is familiar with the feeling of having somehow, as if by accident, lost a precious hour to their device—whether it’s on Instagram or TikTok or this very website. But thinking of ill of that behavior only induces guilt and shame and makes the problem worse, says Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. “It creates a moral hierarchy that some actions are good, and some are bad,” he says. “We have to realize that anything we want to do with our time is fine as long as we do it on our schedule.”
Indistractable focuses not on the behaviors we might consider distractions but instead on useful strategies to help rein in your attention and take control of your workdays. Thankfully, Eyal’s advice has little to do with willpower. Instead, it is about finding the right tools to manage the conditions that hinder productivity.
A Q&A with Nir Eyal
Traction is any action that pulls you toward what you want to do—things that you do with intent. The opposite of traction is distraction: any action that pulls you away from what you plan to do or moves you away from your values and the person you want to become. People tend to believe that things are distracting, such as Instagram or Facebook, rather than the act itself of doing those things. I would argue that anything can be either traction or distraction based on intent.
The most prevalent and insidious form of distraction is the kind that you don’t realize is distracting you. For example, I used to sit down at my desk to work on writing, but then I’d start checking my email. I’d justify that email is work-related task, but it’s just as much of a distraction as playing a video game or checking Instagram because it’s not what I planned to do. That’s a more dangerous form of distraction because it tricks you into prioritizing it as urgent at the expense of what’s important.
“Addiction” is a term that’s used a lot these days. It means a persistent compulsive dependence on a behavior or substance that harms the user. Addiction is not: I like my phone a lot and find it engaging. We use the term “addiction” to our own detriment because we start to believe that we can’t stop. The majority of people do not have this pathology with technology; we have a distraction.
Anything can become a distraction or traction. We have to stop vilifying the technology, because there’s nothing wrong with scrolling Instagram or enjoying Netflix as long as there’s forethought behind those actions. When we vilify technology, we induce guilt, which leads to shame and makes the problem worse. It creates a moral hierarchy that some actions are good, and some are bad. We have to realize that anything we want to do with our time is fine as long as we do it on our schedule. We can turn distractions into traction by planning for them. I budget time every night on my calendar for social media. This way I can enjoy it without guilt because I’m doing exactly what I planned to do. I turned a distraction into traction by planning for it
External triggers and internal triggers lead us to either traction or distraction. We tend to blame the pings and rings of technology and all the things in our outside environment, but the emotional states that we seek to escape from are the most common cause of distraction. If we feel lonely, we check Facebook. When we’re uncertain, we Google. When we’re bored, we check the news, Reddit, sports scores, and Netflix. It’s important to realize that all of these distractions and ways to procrastinate stem from a desire to escape emotional discomfort.
The first question you have to ask yourself is: What is the internal trigger? What are you trying to escape? Procrastination is not a character flaw. It’s not a moral failing. It’s an inability to control impulses. We need to retrain and educate ourselves on how to deal with these uncomfortable sensations in a healthier way instead of trying to escape them.
The four steps basic steps to mastering triggers external triggers and preventing distraction:
1. Master your internal trigger. Reimagine the trigger and your temperament around the task to make it more enjoyable and less daunting. For example, instead of telling ourselves, “No!” when we get tempted toward a distraction (which has been shown to increase cravings), we can tell ourselves, “Not yet,” and learn how to surf the urge for a few minutes.
2. Make time for traction. If you don’t have something on your calendar that you plan to do with your time, you can’t say you got distracted because what did you get distracted from? You didn’t have anything planned. Researchers call this an implementation intention, which is just a fancy way to say: making plans.
3. Hack back external triggers. Turn off notifications on your devices, try to limit unnecessary meetings, gain control over your email, and create a work environment where you can focus.
4. Make a precommitment. As the last line of defense, you can use a kind of firewall that prevents you from becoming distracted. For example, there are apps like Forest that prevent you from using your phone until a preset time has passed, or there are sites like FocusMate that pair you with another person so you can keep each other on task.
I am very anti running your life with to-do lists. If you ask the average person who keeps a to-do list when the last time they didn’t finish everything on their to-do list was, I bet the answer would be today or yesterday, and the day before that. When you don’t finish everything on your to-do list, you are reinforcing an identity as someone who does not keep their promises and finish their to-do list. This is because behavior change is identity change. If day after day, week after week, you don’t finish what you say you will finish, then you don’t live with personal integrity, and you start to settle into this pattern because you’ve lost the war. To-do lists are fine as a temporary place to write down a bunch of things you need to get done. But you need to put those things in your calendar immediately or else they’re just wishful thinking.
I recommend a time-box schedule: Turn your values into time. With a time-box calendar, you plan out what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. The goal is not to finish everything on the list but to do what you say you are going to do for as long as you say, without distraction. For example, if you want to write a book, you could put an hour on your calendar every day to write and stick to it. By doing that, you are reinforcing your identity as someone who does what they say they are going to do. If your goal is to write a book, you can commit to working on it just for that time you set aside on the calendar. It doesn’t matter if you’ve finished the book yet; as long as you’ve done what’s on your calendar, you’re moving one step closer to the goal and have made progress on the task.
Nir Eyal, MBA, writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. He is the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life and Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Eyal blogs at NirAndFar.com, and he previously taught as a lecturer in marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
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