Nir Eyal: Finding Focus and Calm in Uncertain Times

Nir Eyal: Finding Focus and Calm in Uncertain Times

This week will be our fourth installment of our Attention Expert Series (a list of previous posts can be found at the end). Throughout the series we have spoken with a variety of experts within our community to learn about the tools and techniques they are using to find calm and focus during these uncertain and overwhelming times.

This week we sat down with attention expert and best-selling author, Nir Eyal. A former Stanford Lecturer, Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business and is well known for his bestseller Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. However since writing Hooked, and with the continued rise and accessibility of distracting tech, Nir began to search for tools and techniques that could help him and others fight back against the overwhelming wave of digital distraction.

His most recent book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life he reveals the Achilles’ heel of distraction and provides a guidebook for getting the best out of technology without letting it get the best of us.

So without further ado, let’s learn a little more about the techniques and tools he has used to deal with the uncertainty and change that has affected so many of us in 2020.


What changes, if any, have you made to your environment during this time?

My family and I left New York City, our home, for a short period. We basically made the judgment that since we were healthy and mobile, it would be easier not just on us but on the healthcare system if we left and reduced our chances of getting sick. Obviously, even though we were able to do that, a move is a move—and it throws off all your usual rhythms and work habits. So I’ve been more than usually disrupted in my work. But I count myself lucky on a number of fronts—that my family is safe and sound being the foremost.

The other thing I’ll add here: my wife and I have been working remotely for years, so it’s been an interesting experience to watch our friends and loved ones adopt this new way of working. And I think they’ve found what we had, which is that being able to work irrespective of location can be a real boon for quality of life and for the time we get to spend together as a family.

I think they’ve found what we had, which is that being able to work irrespective of location can be a real boon for quality of life and for the time we get to spend together as a family.

When do you find it most difficult to focus? How do you overcome this?

I chronicle this in my book, Indistractable, but I had a hard time at the outset of that book avoiding distractions—which, ironically, is what helped me do a good deal of the research for the book because I wanted to find out what was causing my brain to shift from the writing I needed to get done to the closet I definitely didn’t need to clean or the social media feeds I didn’t need to check. In my case and in others’, obsessively checking Instagram is usually a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. I needed to make sure I was “mastering my internal triggers”—a process by which you explore the feeling that preceded the distraction, write it down, examine the sensations behind it, and pay attention to liminal moments, meaning those moments when you shift from one behavior or task to another.  

I wanted to find out what was causing my brain to shift from the writing I needed to get done to the closet I definitely didn’t need to clean or the social media feeds I didn’t need to check.

How do you deal with the emotional aspects of productivity? For example, lack of motivation, feeling stressed or overwhelmed, feeling unsafe or uncertain?

What’s fascinating is that the emotional aspects of productivity are so much more critical to get right than the right time-tracking app or inbox software. In fact, in my book, one of the things I talk about is getting to the root of your distraction. So for example, I found myself having trouble writing my book, and at first, I blamed technology. But then I noticed that even when I resolved the tech distractions, I would find other things to grab my attention. And it wasn’t until I dove much deeper and began to ask myself why I was shifting my attention that I realized it was all the usual writerly anxiety. But once I identified that, I could begin to ask questions about it and deal with it. In so many cases, I have found that so-called “lack of motivation” is actually just masking fear or worry, and one of the things I advocate is actually putting the emotional aspects of productivity first and figuring out what it is that has you stuck. 

What’s fascinating is that the emotional aspects of productivity are so much more critical to get right than the right time-tracking app or inbox software.

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is really struggling to find focus or motivation during this time?

This might sound counterintuitive, but I would go easy on yourself. Here’s what I mean: there’s a lot going on right now, and people feel like the waves are crashing down on our heads all the time. So recognize that you might not be as hyper-productive as you’d like to be right now and give yourself a break. Here’s the truth: There’s actually research about the power of that kind of self-compassion to help us achieve our goals. In fact, in the research on addiction, they find that people who speak themselves with compassion actually report more progress toward breaking their addictions—meaning it isn’t just about willpower but also about how you talk to yourself about yourself. That’s powerful, and it applies in this case too: Remind yourself that, during a crazy time, it’s okay if you don’t get every item of the to-do list crossed out.

Indistractable: Control your attention and choose your life by Nir Eyal

What are the rules or boundaries you have put in place for yourself regarding news consumption, social media, or both?

In my weekly schedule, you’ll find an odd item that you probably wouldn’t expect: “enjoy social media time.” Huh? The guy who is telling us about not becoming distracted allows himself to binge social media? Let me explain the method to the mayhem. During those chunks of time, I’m allowed to enjoy social media. But when that time is over, I don’t use social media. (Apps like Freedom and Self-Control can help to make this super rigorous, by the way, by blocking certain sites outside of certain time windows.) 

So if you have to market your food booth, schedule it. And if you want to have dinner with your children, schedule it. And then in both time periods, don’t allow yourself to do anything else. If you’re going to work on marketing, work on marketing. If you’re going to dine with your kids, be fully there.

What tools or resources have you found most useful during this time?

The tools below have helped me not just in this period but well before this. I think technology can help in these situations by helping us deal with the many triggers to distraction in our lives and the tools below have helped me in my work: 

Freedom – I use this app and recommend it to everyone: it helps you block websites that distract you. And it can even help limit those websites to certain times of the day. It’s also got built-in features that prevent you from simply switching it off if you feel the urge overwhelm you.

Surfing the urge (MP3) — An audio-based exercise from the University of Washington that helps an individual develop the practice of dealing with cravings or urges to behave in a certain way.

Sanebox — They analyze your email habits to determine future email importance and auto-filter/organize those emails so that the most important ways get the attention they deserve. It also comes with the SaneBlackHole feature that ensures you never see emails from a particular address ever again.

Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator — A personal favorite, and it does what it says it will do: makes your newsfeed disappear, so you can use the best of Facebook without getting pulled into the vortex.

Distraction-Free YouTube — Similar to the Newsfeed Eradicator — this scrubs ads and recommended videos, so you watch what you came to watch on YouTube.

Nir Eyal author of 'Indistractable' and 'Hooked'

To learn more about Nir or his work, or blog – you can visit his site at NirAndFar.com.

You can also get a complimentary Indistractable workbook here.


Attention Expert Series: