You know how you strive to stay productive during the day…only to get sidetracked by the notifications on your phone or the donuts in your kitchen? If you’ve ever felt like you could be so much more productive if only those distractions would quiet down, then get ready to feel empowered.
I invited Nir Eyal – author of Indistractible: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life – to join me on the Modern Mentor podcast today. Nir's research has uncovered tons of actionable advice on how to take back the reins and stay in the zone of productivity.
Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. Nir previously taught as a Lecturer in Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He was dubbed “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology” by M.I.T. Technology Review and Bloomberg Businessweek wrote, “Nir Eyal is the habits guy. Want to understand how to get app users to come back again and again? Then Eyal is your man.” He is the author of two bestselling books, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
You’ll want to hear Nir’s story firsthand – in which case you’ll need to listen to our interview. But in summary, we talked about the importance of noting and managing our internal triggers (like boredom, anxiety, or loneliness) in order to manage our relationship with external triggers (like technology, food, drink, or anything that temps us away from our focus). And more importantly, he shares how he does this – and suggests how you might do the same.
Here are some of the big ideas we covered:
Begin by understanding distraction
“The best way to understand what distraction is is to understand what distraction is not…The opposite of the word ‘distraction’ is ‘traction.'” Traction is the thing that pulls us toward the action we want to be taking, and distraction is the thing that pulls us away.
Any action can be traction or distraction. The key is in your intent.
If you’re trying to stay focused on getting that report written but your fingers keep hitting that refresh button on your Insta feed, then technology has become a distraction. However, if your plan was to finish the report and then reward yourself with 20 minutes of scrolling, then your scrolling has become your traction. Because you set and intention and you executed it.
Technology isn’t always the enemy. It’s all about setting an intention. It's absolutely OK to scroll through your feed as long as it's what you planned to do.
Traction is the thing that pulls us toward the action we want to be taking, and distraction is the thing that pulls us away.
Manage your internal triggers
According to research in Nir's book, the “pings, dings, rings, and things” we point to as distractions are only about 10% of the problem. The main reason we turn to our phone – or the donut – is due to an internal trigger. It’s what’s happening within us that truly prompts us to seek a distraction.
When we experience something emotionally uncomfortable – like boredom, stress, anxiety, or loneliness – our human instinct is to comfort that feeling with something soothing. And our phones are delighted to play that role.
Nir says, “Time management requires pain management.” And we need to understand what’s triggering the need for the distraction, in order to then manage the habit or behavior.
So next time you realize your fingers have wandered somewhere unwanted, ask yourself what's going on. Are you anxious about that job interview coming up? Are you tired of writing this report you've been working on for weeks? Start by noting – and acknowledging what experience you're having. This self-awareness is the first step in becoming Indistractible.
Next time your fingers have wandered somewhere unwanted, ask yourself what's going on. Are you anxious about that job interview coming up?
Form a plan – then implement it
What distinguishes truly indistractible people from the rest of us? “They don’t have tremendous self-control. They don’t have tremendous willpower. What they have is a system in place," Nir explains. “They know what to do when temptation rears its ugly head.”
Now that you know why you're turning toward a temptation, you can devise a plan to manage it.
“The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought.” One of the many techniques Nir employs? The 10-Minute rule. Instead of telling yourself you can’t have or do the thing you want, tell yourself you absolutely can. You just have to wait 10 minutes. If at the end of 10 minutes, you still must have it, then go for it. Ironically, research shows that more often than not, 10 minutes is all it takes for an urge to subside.
Instead of telling yourself you can’t have or do the thing you want, tell yourself you absolutely can. You just have to wait 10 minutes.
Another tactic to try? Time-boxing. Instead of falling into a pit of eternal report-writing, try committing to 15 minutes of focused writing. Then, have a plan to take a break and watch a cat video.
In this conversation, we covered a lot of ground. But a few key takeaways I carried with me include:
- Being distractible does not make you flawed – only human.
- White-knuckling your way through temptation – gripping your fists and saying “I can’t have it” only makes you want it more.
- Managing your internal triggers (your emotions and sensations) will make the external triggers (the temptations calling your name) less powerful.
- This gets easier with time and practice as you build self-efficacy. So just start somewhere today.
- Becoming indistractible is a superpower. It’s the “skill of the century.”