How to not get distracted, Q&A with best-selling author Nir Eyal
With technology entering all aspects of our lives, our struggle with distraction is harder than ever to overcome. People around the world are desperately searching for solutions to help them be less distracted and more productive, especially in the office. But nothing seems to work. Are there practical solutions for today’s pervasive distractions? Is there a way to reduce distractions or are we chasing an unrealistic dream? Is getting rid of our devices the only way?
We had the pleasure of interviewing author Nir Eyal to help us answer these questions, drawing on his recently published book, “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.” Now let’s see what Nir has to say about distraction.
Nir, we’re going to dive right in. So, obviously, the topic of distraction is not new. As you’ve said many times before, Plato talked about it 2,500 years ago. What compelled you to write “Indistractable,” a book about this age-old struggle, today?
After writing my first book, “Hooked,” which is all about how to build good habits, I wanted to tackle the flip side of that, which is how to break bad habits. I wanted to get to the source of why we do things against our better interests. Why do we do things we know we shouldn’t do. And why don’t we do the things that we should do. It really came out of a personal struggle that I talk about in the intro of my book.
I used to get really distracted and today distraction is so much easier to find. And it really hit me in an incident with my daughter. We were playing a game together and at one point we were asked to answer a question: “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”
My daughter answered but I couldn’t tell you what she responded. I was glued to something on my phone, and by the time I looked up she was gone, and the game was over. After apologizing to her, I really wanted to get to the route cause of why I was putting distractions before my daughter because it wasn’t an isolated incident.
I immediately started reading books on distraction but I couldn’t find practical solutions in those books. They were all focused on explaining why technology is the problem. But I didn’t buy it. Technology is something that we blame but I knew there was something deeper going on behind the technology I was using.
But why shouldn’t we blame technology? It seems like a reasonable assumption since most of us feel our devices are the problem. How did you realize that technology was just a symptom and not the root cause of distraction?
Because I got rid of it. I did what all the books told me to do. They say technology is the problem so get rid of the technology. And I did that. I got rid of the technology. I got myself a flip phone from the 1990s and a word processor with no internet connection. And I still got distracted. I would rearrange my desk or take out the trash. I’d do anything, instead of doing what I had originally intended to do.
I used to be clinically obese and I remember trying to lose weight. I would go on these 30-day diet detoxes, no junk food, for example, and of course, those diets never work because they’re temporary. The same thing goes for digital detoxes.
So, the solution that other books propose of getting rid of the technology or participating in a digital detox is for one, not practical, secondly, these technologies are fantastic and can do so much good for us. And, as I figured out, it is not the root cause of the problem because it doesn’t help us understand why we get distracted in the first place. If you don’t understand the root cause of the problem, you will always find distractions somewhere.
This, of course, begs the question; what is the root cause?
The root cause of the problem is not the external triggers – the pings, the rings, the dings in our environment. The root cause of the problem is the internal triggers; what’s happening inside of us.
All human behaviors are prompted by the desire to escape discomfort. And if you don’t address this discomfort, you will always find a way to distract yourself from addressing it. Those internal triggers; uncertainty, stress, fatigue, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, are the root causes for why you keep reaching for your devices. You feel things you don’t want to feel. And if you don’t know how to deal with that discomfort in a healthier manner, you end up turning to technology to avoid those feelings.
If internal triggers are what cause us to be distracted, how can we deal with these uncomfortable feelings you describe? Are we able to control them?
We can’t control the thoughts that enter our heads or feelings that arise in our bodies, but we can control how we deal with them. There’s a lot to take from Jonathan Bricker. Bricker is an internationally recognized scientific leader who’s done a lot of work on smoking cessation with an approach he calls Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. He says you shouldn’t tell yourself to suppress the thoughts around the urge because it will only come back stronger. You need to find better ways to cope with the urge.
And what’s the best way to cope with intense urges to check those notifications, send those emails, or schedule those meetings?
It’s all about reimagining our internal triggers and there are four steps to doing that. The first step is to look for the discomfort that comes before the distraction. Zoom in on the internal trigger and understand why you’re about to send that email or schedule that meeting. If I take myself as an example, a common problem I have is when I’m supposed to be writing, I often feel the urge to google something, telling myself I need to do more research. But, usually, it’s really a diversion from difficult work. Maybe I’m feeling anxious or restless. It’s important to really understand what’s going on inside in that moment.
What do you do when you catch yourself feeling anxious or restless?
I write down the internal trigger. That’s step two. Bricker recommends writing the trigger down as soon as you notice it because it’s easier to remember what you were feeling. And then include as much detail as possible like the time of day, what you were doing that led to that feeling.
One way to do it is to look at your situation as an observer and say something like “I’m feeling my heart beating fast right now. And there I go anxiously looking to fire off a few emails in a panic.”
So now you’ve recognized that you’re feeling uncomfortable, and you’ve written down the experience… what’s next?
The third step is to explore the sensation and get curious about it. How fast is your heart beating? When does it start getting faster? Bricker encourages sitting with the feeling before acting on it. He refers to the technique “leaves on a stream,” where you place yourself next to an imaginary stream and put any thoughts, feelings, words, or images on leaves and watch them float further away from you down the stream. The idea here is to help yourself avoid doing something you’d rather not.
That sounds like a great technique to really distance yourself from the thought and look at it as an observer. So, now, what’s the final step to reimagining these triggers?
The fourth step is to beware of liminal moments which are basically moments of transitioning from one thing to another throughout the day. Liminal moments are doing things with the intention to do them “just for a sec” only to find yourself doing the action for much longer than you intended. You then find you’ve gotten yourself completely off track. It’s like waiting for a page to load and then opening up another tab to check something else while you waited; or checking Facebook while walking from one meeting to the next, only to keep scrolling when you return to your desk.
Think we’ve all been there. I know I have. Is there anything that works particularly well for you in making sure you don’t get off track?
A technique I’ve found helpful is the “ten-minute rule.” If I find myself wanting to check my phone I tell myself, yes, that’s fine, but not right now. I have to wait for just ten minutes. This is a technique that some behavioral psychologists call “surfing the urge.” What you’ll find after “surfing the urge” where you’re not necessarily giving in, but you’re not saying no either, is that after those 10 minutes the urge isn’t there anymore. That liminal moment has passed and now you’re able to do the thing you intended to do. These techniques are really helpful mental skill-building exercises that can recondition the mind to seek relief from internal triggers in a reflective rather than a reactive way and ultimately help you stop impulsively giving in to distractions.
Before concluding, how would you define someone who has mastered being “indistractable.” Is it possible?
The great thing about “indistractable” is that it’s a made-up word, and when you make up a word you can define it any way you like. So being indistractable doesn’t mean you never get distracted. That’s impossible. Being indistractable means you understand why you got distracted and are able to do the things you actually want to do. So if you’re able to do that then you’re well on your way.
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Interested in reading the book? Order your copy here.
About Nir Eyal Nir writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The M.I.T. Technology Review dubbed Nir, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.” Nir founded two tech companies since 2003 and has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He is also the author of the best-selling book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” In addition to blogging at NirAndFar.com, Nir’s writing has been featured in The Harvard Business Review, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today.