Ask almost anyone what they value most in life and they’ll have an answer. Family and friends. Good health. Traveling. Passion projects. The list goes on.
Unfortunately, as simple as it is to identify what matters most to us, finding the focus and motivation to do all of the activities required to stay true to our values and goals is a whole other matter. We skip the gym after a long day’s work, we keep scrolling through Instagram as a deadline draws nearer, and we check email and notifications while trying to spend time with our friends and loved ones.
So why don’t we do the things we say we will?
That’s the fundamental question author and behavioral design expert, Nir Eyal, set out to answer in his new book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
A former Stanford lecturer, Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business and is most known for his besteller 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 techniques that could help him and others fight back against the overwhelming wave of digital distraction.
After five years of research, Nir has developed a research-backed, four-step framework for how to become indistractable in an age where distraction is always within arm’s reach.
So this week we sat down with Nir to learn a little more about the hidden psychology that drives us to distraction and how we can take back control of our attention for the things that matter most.
Firstly, what started it all for you? When did you realize that your relationship with technology and distraction was something that needed to be examined, monitored, and even actively sculpted?
I come to this subject matter from the inside. I wrote a book about five years ago called “Hooked.” And so I had two main reasons to write this one.
One was to help people use the same techniques and psychology that makes products like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Slack and Snapchat so habit forming and engaging. I thought it would be amazing if, what if we could use those same exact techniques and psychology to make all sorts of behaviors more engaging and habit forming, for example — eating more healthfully, exercising, saving money, making education products more helpful, increasing patient adherence to medical devices and medication, even building apps to help people focus — all of these things can use the same psychology to help make products more engaging, help people stick with a technology as opposed to just keeping these secrets locked up in big tech companies like Facebook and Google.
The second reason I wrote the book was because I realized the power of these products to change our behaviors, and in some cases, in ways we don’t always like.
So the other purpose of “Hooked” was always to shed a light on these techniques so that we could hopefully put this technology in its place. I realized after writing “Hooked” that it wasn’t enough. I realized that I needed a heavier artillery for fighting the war against distraction. So I wanted to write a response to a lot of the tech criticism and my own personal struggle with too much tech distraction.
I felt like there wasn’t a model or a framework that we could look to that really explains all distraction. In the beginning I thought I would just write a book about technology distraction, and it turned into a book about all distraction. Because it turns out that technology is not the only source of distraction. There’s lots of distractions out there.
What I found in my own life when I stopped using one distracting technology, I would find it somewhere else — with reading books when I wanted to write, with cleaning up my desk when I needed to do some other task that I was avoiding and procrastinating.
That’s really what Indistractable is about, is this larger topic of all distraction. It answers the fundamental question of — why don’t we do what we say we’re going to do?
That’s really what Indistractable is about, is this larger topic of all distraction. It answers the fundamental question of — why don’t we do what we say we’re going to do?
I’m very pro-tech. I think that we can get the best out of technology without letting it get the best of us. And I think that’s a marked shift from — all the books on this topic that I’ve seen — are very anti-tech. The tech is the problem, right? Do a digital detox, get rid of your phone in one way or the other.
And the fact is that that doesn’t work for the same reason that fad diets don’t work. If we excise fast food from our lives — and I know this from personal experience because I used to be clinically obese — when I went on a fad diet and stopped eating fast food for 30 days, guess what happened on Day 31? I’d go crazy and I’d bring it all back.
So to be truly ‘indistractable’ we have to understand the deeper internal triggers — what I call internal triggers — that drive us to distraction in the first place.
In Indistractable, there’s a quote a quote in the beginning that says: “We already know what to do. What we don’t know is how to stop getting distracted.” Why do you think so many of us fall prey to distraction, often unknowingly?
There are many reasons why we have a predilection for distraction. And these include some ways that our brains are hardwired in an evolutionarily advantageous way when our species essentially stopped evolving about 200,000 years ago — traits like “being present” bias. That would be a very helpful trait on the Serengeti 200,000 years ago, but not so helpful today. Things like negativity bias, another reason. Hedonic adaptation — all of these quirks in our functioning were very helpful when our species first evolved, but backfire today.
When we live in a world of abundance as opposed to a world of scarcity, we don’t need to be so present bias and gobble up whatever sweet thing is in front of us. We don’t need to have such negativity bias and constantly be scared of bad things happening. And therefore constantly distracted with protecting potential losses. We don’t need to have such hedonic adaptation -meaning we don’t enjoy what we currently have long enough to sit still and are constantly searching for something else.
We don’t need that. That would’ve been very helpful to keep our species constantly dissatisfied. And that’s something that I think we need to realize, all of us need to realize, is that… I say in that very same chapter in the book that being dissatisfied is not a problem. It’s how our species evolved. Because being dissatisfied is very evolutionarily beneficial. A species that is constantly perturbed is constantly looking for more, did better than a genetic species that was satisfied. The people who were satisfied, our ancestors that were satisfied and stopped striving aren’t with us anymore. Right? Those genes weren’t passed along.
And that same desire for more and more and more that can oftentimes lead to distraction is also one of our greatest traits. It’s what gets us to explore the cosmos, find new medicines, overturn despots. I mean, this is really a core trait of what makes us such a successful species.
The problem of course is that sometimes our best traits also lead to some of our negative traits. And that same trait of always looking for more can lead us towards distraction, makes it hard for us to focus on one thing at a time.
The good news is that the antidote to impulsiveness is forethought. So knowing about these traits and doing something about it by planning ahead, by using tools to get in front of what we know is our predilection for distraction is how we put these distractions in their place.
The good news is that the antidote to impulsiveness is forethought.
So despite the fact that we have all kinds of natural tendencies, and many of our natural tendencies… We don’t give into every impulse, right? When you’re mad at somebody, you don’t kill them. There’s lots of things that we do that temper our impulses.
Some of the ways that we can temper our impulses is through these techniques I describe in Indistractable. It’s all about forethought and planning ahead. I believe we are a species, that with the right techniques, can overcome any sort of distraction by planning ahead. I don’t care how powerful the algorithms are or how persuasive the technology is. With forethought, we can put this stuff in its place and we can make sure that we can get the best of technology without letting it get the best of us.
What role do you think our internal narratives about how we spend our time play in succumbing to distraction?
One thing I see quite a bit is the propagation of myths when it comes to our capabilities, our temperament. Some of these myths include this myth of ego depletion. This idea that was promoted over a decade ago now that willpower is a limited resource. And this is a widely accepted piece of folk psychology that received some amount of support from certain psychologists, and it turns out is not true, that there is no such thing as this gas tank reserve of willpower that somehow runs out — unless you believe that to be the case. There are studies that show that ego depletion is real if you believe it is real.
And this is very, very important because we see this same principle repeated time and time again. We know that alcoholics who believe they are powerless to give into the temptation of drinking more after rehab are much more likely to relapse. In fact, their belief of their own power to stop drinking is more of a factor of whether they will relapse than their level of physical dependency. That’s huge. That’s really, really important.
It turns out that our mindset, the way we believe how powerful we are, whether that’s believing in this myth of ego depletion, whether it’s believing in our sense of powerlessness, is super important.
So what that means is when we tell people that technology is hijacking our brains, that it’s addicting you, what we are doing is perpetuating these myths that make themselves true. And that’s really, really dangerous. We need to stop telling people that technology is addictive. It does addict some people, just as alcohol is addictive to some people, just as sex is addictive to some people, just as food is addictive to some people, but we’re not all alcoholics, sex addicts and food addicts. No. Some people get addicted to these things. But just because something is addictive to someone doesn’t mean it’s addictive to everyone. And that’s the same case when it comes to distraction and technology.
For the vast majority of people… Unless you actually have a pathology, which is what addiction is, then for the vast majority of us, it’s a personal responsibility issue that thankfully we can put in its place – if we believe we can.
So it’s really, really important that we don’t perpetuate this nonsense that technology is somehow hijacking our brains. Because that just ain’t true.
What piece of research regarding distraction have you found most astounding?
Well, there’s a lot of research in my book that I think is really interesting that certainly overturned my apple cart and my mindset when it came to a distraction and even addiction.
One study that I think is particularly interesting was a study done on flight attendants who were smokers. And this study was really interesting because my view of addiction was that addiction creates these chemical hooks in our brain with these substances. In the case of smoking, it’s nicotine. And over time as the brain metabolizes these substances, our cravings increase.
Turns out that’s not exactly right. That in fact, this study of flight attendants did something really interesting. They took two groups of flight attendants, both leaving from Tel Aviv, Israel. One group of flight attendants flew to London, which was a three hour flight. The other group of smoker flight attendants took a trip to New York. And they asked these flight attendants to rate their level of cravings every 30 minutes. And you would expect if this hypothesis of a chemical hook causing these cravings was true, then the same amount of time should elapse between their last smoke and their cravings. So whatever it is, an hour and a half, two hours, three hours, both groups should equally crave the substance that they’re addicted to. But that’s not what happened.
What the study found was that the level of desire of craving for the cigarettes in both groups was not how much time had elapsed, but how much time was left until they could smoke. So while the flight attendants who were in London were lighting up and had reported a very high craving 30 minutes before landing, the flight attendants who were over the Atlantic Ocean on their way to New York reported very little cravings three hours into their flight.
So what this tells us is that even our desires, our cravings, are mediated largely by our expectations, by our mindsets.
That’s why it’s so important to better understand our temperament and to use these psychological hacks to understand the nature of our cravings, the nature of distractions, so that we can get hold of these internal triggers, these uncomfortable emotional states, that drive us towards distraction.
That really blew my mind. Most people believe, as I used to, that behavior is driven by the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. This is called Freud’s Pleasure Principle. But in fact, all behavior is driven by the desire to escape discomfort. It’s all about pain. Which means if all behavior is driven by the desire to escape discomfort, then time management is pain management.
So really the key to becoming indistractable, the very first step is about mastering these internal triggers. If we don’t understand the discomfort that drives us to distraction, we will always get distracted. We will always find something to take us off course.
What are some of the ways in which you notice the negative effects of distraction taking its toll?
Oh, where do we begin? I mean, I think the fundamental question in my book is why don’t we do what we say we’re going to do? We all know what we should do. And millions of self help books are sold every year. Billions of dollars go to gurus because people are looking for the answer.
But the fact is if we just sit and think about the answer, we know the answers. We know what to do. If you want to lose weight, exercise and eat right. If you want to be more productive at work, do the work. If you want to have closer relationships, spend more quality time and be fully present with those you love.
But why don’t we do it? Why don’t we do those things? We know what to do, basically. This is the fundamental question of the book. It’s bigger than just about technology distraction. It answers this question of — why don’t we do what we say we’re going to do?
What I do is differentiate between distraction and traction. And their opposites. Traction is any action you do that you do with intent, that is what you want to do, that moves you towards your goals. The opposite of traction is distraction. Anything you plan to do that you didn’t do, that you got off track.
So it’s not that technology is necessarily evil, that it’s melting our brains or anything necessarily harmful to us individually. It’s a matter of, if we are using technology as the proximate cause of why we go off track, if we are using a technology without intent but mindlessly, and that keeps us from doing what we really want, that’s when it’s a problem.
That’s really what the book is about, is how do we put these things in their place for all distractions, whether the distraction is — I intended to go to the gym and I got lazy and watched TV, or whatever it might be. Whether it’s — I wanted to be with my family and spend quality time with them but I got distracted by my device. I sat down at work and I wanted to work on that big project, but I ended up checking email or Slack channels.
Those are all distractions if they take us off course from what we really wanted to do.
What would you say to someone who feels defeated and frustrated by their inability to ignore distractions like social media?
That’s a great question and my answer is that you are more powerful than you believe. First and foremost, this is very, very natural and normal. Part of the cost of living in a world with so many good things in it, with so much technological progress, is that there is more distraction than ever before. That if you are looking to get distracted, it is easier than ever to go off course.
So it’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility. Because it’s no one else’s responsibility. The tech companies are not going to make their products less distracting. Government regulators, if you hold your breath waiting for the government to fix this problem, you’re going to suffocate. So it’s not your fault that these distractions exist, but it is your responsibility to do something about it. We have no other choice. These technologies aren’t going away.
The good news is, is that there’s some very simple techniques that empower you to become indistractable. There’s four simple steps of mastering internal triggers — making time for traction, hacking back, external triggers, and finally, preventing distraction with pacts. These are the four steps of the indistractable model. Those four steps followed in order, unless you have an actual pathology like addiction or obsessive compulsive disorder, can help you handle this. You can do this.
So that’s really the message I want to spread, is a message of empowerment, that we are more powerful than these technology tools and potential distraction if we know what to do about them.
What would you recommend as a first step for someone wishing to tackle the problem of distraction?
The first step of becoming indistractable, as I mentioned a bit earlier, is understanding the internal triggers that drive you towards distraction, understand the deeper discomfort of why you are using these tools as an escape from some kind of uncomfortable sensation.
So it’s really about understanding when you become distracted. There are only three reasons why you become distracted. Either it’s to escape some kind of internal trigger, in which case the solution is either to change the source of that discomfort or learn strategies to cope with the pain that you can’t eliminate from your life, and that’s part of being human; there’s all kinds of uncomfortable sensations we experienced throughout the day. So either fix the problem or learn to cope with it.
The second reason that we get distracted are by external triggers. So if somebody interrupts you or something, some ping, ding, or ring, that takes you off track. Those are things we can fix by hacking back the external triggers.
And finally, the third reason we get distracted is because of a scheduling problem. So, in Indistractable I give folks a distraction tracker where they can actually plot out and record where and when they got distracted. By using that distraction tracker you can figure out what the source of that distraction was, whether it was an internal trigger, an external trigger, or a planning problem, and then take action to fix that problem next time so that it doesn’t occur in the same way again in the future.
The idea behind becoming indistractable is not that we never get distracted. Distraction is inevitable. The idea is that we know why we got distracted and only then can we can take steps to fix it so that it doesn’t happen again in the future. We can take steps to do what we say we’re going to do. Being indistractable as defined as being the kind of person who’s striving to do what they say they’re going to do. It doesn’t mean you will never get distracted again. It means you are striving to do what you do and you’re getting better and better at managing distraction and doing more acts of traction.
In Indistractable you say “you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it’s distracting you from” – how did you decide what you didn’t want to be distracted from?
This is a super important principle. It turns out two thirds of people do not keep a calendar. In this day and age, that’s crazy. That’s a formula for getting constantly distracted. And the idea is, as you just wrote here, that you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. If you don’t know what it is you plan to do, everything is a distraction. Everything takes you off track because you didn’t define what it is you wanted to do.
So it’s not that any of these distractions — watching TV, watching Netflix, reading a book, using social media — all of these things can be traction or distraction based on whether they’re done with intent. So as long as you know what it is you wanted to do and make time for it on your calendar, then it’s traction. It’s not a distraction.
For me, to decide what I wanted to do with my time, and this is what I recommend doing in the book, it has to start with your values. Values are attributes of the person you want to become. It’s not something you ever arrive at. You never become that. It’s something you try to move towards.
The problem is, many of us talk a good game, as I did. I said family was important to me. I said that physical health was important to me. Being a good friend is important to me. Being an equitable life partner for my wife was important to me. I was talking the talk, but I wasn’t walking the walk.
So what you have to do is turn your values into time. Meaning, if something is valuable to you in your life, if you hold the value dear to you, then you have to make time for it on your calendar. It’s not good enough to say — oh yes, my values are such and such — if it’s not on your calendar, you’re not living out those values. You don’t have time to act accordingly to those values. So that means we have to schedule time in our day.
So for me, physical health is one of my values. Taking care of my body is one of my values. I have time to exercise on my calendar. I have time to prep healthy food for the week on my calendar. Being an available father, being a fun dad, I have time on my calendar to live out that value. Being an equitable partner for my wife, I have time on the calendar where I do household chores and admin tasks.
I found with my wife, as with most heterosexual couples that both work outside the home, women tend to take a disproportionate share of the household admin duties. It’s totally unfair. I didn’t realize that until I actually sat down and put the time on my calendar and figured out how I was spending my time and living up to my values. So, very important to make time for traction on your calendar by turning your values into time.
How have your digital habits changed since writing Indistractable?
I wrote Indistractable first and foremost for me. I was struggling with distraction and I needed a solution. So my habits have changed dramatically. I am much more healthy than I ever was. I’m in the best shape of my life. I work out consistently for the first time ever. I eat more healthfully. I spend much more time with my wife and my daughter, much more time with my friends. And I find that I can use technology and things that were previously distractions in a much more healthy manner.
So my life has really changed dramatically in the past five years of exploring this topic and writing Indistractable by implementing these techniques. The techniques I talk about in Indistractable are techniques that are not some Highfalutin academic — these are techniques that, I have actually implemented for myself and with my clients. So I know they work. These are tried and true tactics. But they’re not just anecdotes. All of them are backed by decades-old research. So you get both the very practical techniques as well as these techniques that are also based on years of very solid academic research.