Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. By Nir Eyal
"I discovered that living the life we want requires not only doing the right things, it also requires that we stop doing the wrong things that take us off-track," says the author. That is a truism worth reminding ourselves of - often.
The problem is that our world has always been full of things designed to distract us.
You cannot call something a 'distraction' unless you know what it is distracting you from: after all, the time you plan to waste is not wasted time.
Being 'indistractable' means doing (or trying to do) what you say you will do. A 'distraction' stops us from achieving our goals, whereas its opposite, traction, leads us closer to those goals.
Much of what distracts us merely tantalises. In Greek mythology, Tantalus (from which tantalise derives,) was banished to the underworld by his father, Zeus, as a punishment. Tantalus' punishment was to yearn for things that he could never grasp. The curse was that Tantalus was oblivious to the bigger delusion - he didn't need those things in the first place.
We need to learn how to avoid distractions, which are and will always be a tantalising fact of life. Distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality. Whether we pursue healthful acts of traction or self-defeating distractions, is a function of how well we understand the root cause of distraction.
"Dissatisfaction and discomfort dominate our brain's default state," Eyal explains, "but we can use them to motivate us instead of defeat us." This book offers a practical method to do just that.
Dissatisfaction is a positive force that is responsible for our species' advances, as well as its faults. A good place to start this counter-intuitive line of thinking is the understanding that evolution favours dissatisfaction.
If we want to master distraction, we must learn to deal with discomfort. Eyal's method requires us to think differently about three distraction-related issues: internal triggers, the task, and our temperament. This will enable us to manage distractions that originate from within, by changing how we think about them.
Internal triggers interfere with our ability to do what we commit to. It is the point at which we take an unnecessary break in an important activity, to respond to an impulse, check emails, chat, etc. Without understanding the reason we do this, no written list of 'To-Do' tasks will save us from distraction.
First, says Eyal, look for the emotion preceding distraction. Were you frustrated, anxious, insecure, bored, etc? Write down the internal trigger – writing is stronger than thinking in this case. Then explore the cause of the negative sensation with curiosity, not contempt. Do you feel inadequate to the task? Incapable of achieving what you need? Unable to complete what's required in time? And so on.
Given what we know about peoples' propensity for distraction when we're feeling uncomfortable, it is important to reframe this difficult work as fun, a creative moment, a puzzle to be solved or any other perspective that could prove empowering. "Fun and play don't have to make us feel good per se; rather, they can be used as tools to keep us focused," Eyal explains.
The solution is to focus on the task itself and find new challenges and pleasures you didn't see before. These new insights provide the novelty to engage our attention and maintain focus when we are tempted by distraction. This is essentially using the same neural hardwiring that keeps us hooked to media, except here it keeps us engaged in an otherwise unpleasant task.
A fact proven in many contexts is that operating under constraints, is the key to creativity and fun. When you are mowing the lawn, finding the optimal path for the mower or beating a record time, are ways to create an imaginary playground in that context. You can do something similar anywhere.
Breaking through the boredom and monotony to discover its hidden beauty, novelty, challenge, etc. is a way to escape distraction and stay with a desirable activity.
The way we perceive our temperament, has a profound impact on how we function.
The power of mindset
Studies show that addicts who indicate they feel more powerful as time passes, increase their odds of overcoming their addiction. Those who believed they were powerless to resist, were most likely to 'fall off the wagon' after quitting. Addicts' belief regarding their powerlessness, was just as significant in determining whether they would relapse after treatment, as was their level of physical dependence.
Mindset mattered as much as physical dependence!
To repeat: Reimagining the task we're trying to accomplish by looking for the fun in it, focusing on it more intensely, and reimagining our temperament, can help us manage our internal triggers.
On a very practical level, "Timeboxing" is advised for overcoming distraction. It is the well-researched technique of 'setting an implementation intention'. Essentially, it is deciding what you're going to do, and when you're going to do it. This applies to watching a video, scrolling social media, or taking a nap. What matters is that you do what you planned to do. Timeboxing enables us to think of each week as a mini-experiment. Are we achieving what we wish to with our lives?
It is to commit to a practice that improves your schedule over time by helping you know the difference between traction and distraction for every moment of the day. (This is best done as a 'curious scientist' not as a 'drill sergeant'.)
If we don't plan ahead, we shouldn't be surprised that everything becomes a distraction. The crux of this process is that you can't call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from.
"Just as you wouldn't blow off a meeting with your boss, so you should never bail on appointments you make with yourself," says Eyal.
There is much more to be gained from this book on time management than I have covered here, and more than from any other book on the topic I have come across. This is a 'must read' for anyone concerned with their personal achievement at work and at home.
Readability Light --+--- Serious
Insights High -+--- Low
Practical High +---- Low
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation, is the author of 'Strategy that Works' and a keynote speaker. Views expressed are his own.