Over the last decade, my ability to concentrate has worsened. I used to be able to read a 600-page book over a week, build a complicated financial model overnight, play nocturnes or waltzes for 90+ minutes, or code a small program over an entire day, but that ability has slowly degraded as I get older.
One big factor is technology and the internet: It’s hard to overcome the distractions of internet news (WSJ, FT, Reuters, AP, Hacker News, Techmeme, etc), social media (I love all of it, from Twitter to FB/IG to LinkedIN), to just video streaming (Netflix, HBOMax, Tiktok, etc).
I have a few life hacks to counter distraction, such as:
- Blocking out time for reading
- Only allowing myself videos or podcasts on an elliptical, exercise bike, or a walk/run
- Creating focus silent time for meditation, runs, or yoga
- Not keeping devices (laptops or phones) in my bedroom (though I do keep a leisurely iPad)
- Setting app use limits on my devices and blocking all notifications, and using Do Not Disturb often.
I thought I had a good set of systems till I read Nir Eyal’s book, Indistractable. His main point is golden: “Traction moves you toward what you really want while distraction moves you further away. Being indistractable means striving to do what you say you will do.”
Below are my notes from the book on how to get better. I believe being able to focus and not be distracted is one of the supreme skills of the 21st century, and I hope to keep getting better and learning from others on how to improve. Enjoy my raw notes below!
BOOK: Indistractable, by Nir Eyal (2019)
*THEORY OF TRACTION VS DISTRACTION*
*Living the life you want requires not only doing the right things but also avoiding doing the wrong things.*
Paul Virilio: “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.” Tech / computers/ smartphones are one of the greatest gifts of humanity, but also distract us and get us to burn time. It comes with tradeoffs.
*Traction moves you toward what you really want while distraction moves you further away*. Being indistractable means striving to do what you say you will do. Trying to remove tech doesn’t work – you become sullen and less productive. A one day a week digital break or a longer multi-day or week digital detox are both fine, but we need systems to deal with distraction. We need to understand the real reasons we do things against our interests.
*Distraction stops you from achieving your goals. Traction leads you closer to your goals.* Triggers (psychological cues, internal and external) prompt both traction and distraction.
*MASTER INTERNAL TRIGGERS*
*Motivation is a desire to escape discomfort. Find the root causes of distraction rather than proximate ones. When we think we’re seeking pleasure, we’re often looking to avoid pain or boredom.*. Often distraction has a root cause beyond the device – all motivation is a desire to escape discomfort. Anything that stops discomfort can become a habit or addictive.
*Learn to deal with discomfort rather than attempting to escape it with distraction.* Time mgmt is pain mgmt – distractions cost us time. Evolution favored dissatisfaction avoidance over contentment (to preserve lives), so our tendencies are to avoid boredom, have negativity bias, ruminate on bad things, and hedrnically adapt quickly to situations. Dissatisfaction is our species’ advantage to stay alive – so if we want to master distraction, learn to deal with discomfort. Feeling bad isn’t actually bad, per se- it’s what survival of the fittest intended.
*Stop trying to actively suppress urges-this only makes them stronger. Instead, observe and allow them to dissolve.*. We need techniques to deal with temptation and triggers – just willpower or mental abstinence is too tough for most. Manage the distractions that originate from within by looking at them closely: the trigger, the task, and the context (your temperament).
*A method to analyze distractions.* Reimagine the internal trigger. Look for the negative emotion preceding the distraction, write it down, and pay attention to the negative sensation with curiosity rather than contempt. Be cautious during liminal moments, like transitions during the day. Can you take ten minutes to be present?
*Reimagine the task. Turn it into play by paying “foolish, even absurd attention to it. Deliberately look for novelty.* May a dreary task fun and play, as a tool to keep focused. Play doesn’t have to be pleasurable, just keep our attention. Deliberateness and novelty can make any task fun.
*Reimagine your temperament. Self-talk matters. Your willpower runs out only if you believe it does. Avoid labeling yourself as “easily distracted” ‘ or having an “addictive personality.”*. It turns out that willpower being limited or a muscle may be a myth (ego depletion isn’t real, per research from Evan Carter). Or willpower isn’t a finite resource, but just an emotion. Addicts who believe they are powerless are less like to change. Self-compassion make people more resilient to failures and letdowns and to break the cycle. So talk to yourself the way you would to a friend. Reimagine your temperament to manage your inner trigger – and know that you don’t run out of willpower. What you say to yourself matters – give yourself the label of focused and “indistractable.”
*MAKE TIME FOR TRACTION*
*Turn your values into time. Timebox your day by creating a schedule template.* You don’t know what is a distraction till you know what you value, what is traction, what your biggest goals are. So set those and plan ahead – then you can tell apart traction and distraction. Timebox your priorities by putting them on your calendar, into: you/personal, work, and relationships. Revise the schedule regularly, but stick to it.
*Schedule time for yourself. Plan the inputs and the outcome will follow.*. Take care of your physical and mental health, get sleep, exercise, food, meditation, etc. Show up when you say you will (you may not finish, but showing up is important). Your input is more certain the outcome.
*Schedule time for important relationships. Include household responsibilities as well as time for people you love. Put regular time on your schedule for friends.*. The people you love deserve more than leftover time. Put regular time on your calendar with them. Put dates with your partner on the calendar, but also domestic chores. Keep up a web of relationships – family, friends, acquaintances, internet friends, etc.
*Sync your schedule with stakeholders.*. Have visibility on time spent with colleagues and managers. Weekly checkins are crucial.
*HACK BACK EXTERNAL TRIGGERS*
*Of each external trigger, ask: “Is this trigger serving me, or am I serving it?” Does it lead to traction or distraction?*
Cues in the environment are texts, pings, dings, rings, and interruptions from others. But they aren’t always bad – some lead to traction, so manage them by your main goals.
*Do Not Disturb: Defend your focus. Signal when you do not want to be interrupted.*. Away or working messages, a crown/symbol to show you are unavailable, and a closed office door. Just box out interruptions and use an obvious signal.
*Email: To get fewer emails, send fewer emails. When you check email, tag each message with when it needs a reply and respond at a scheduled time.*. You can slow down receipt or delay delivery of emails, or just stop spammers. Try to process emails in batches and use the OHIO principle – you “only have it once” so you answer right away. Often the habitual rechecking of email is the problem, like an email icon with a notification.
*Group Chat: When it comes to group chat, get in and out at scheduled times. Only involve who is necessary and don’t use it to think out loud.*. Use real-time channels sparingly, or in batch mode – figure out how to make this work for your company culture (Do not disturb mode). Get in and out of group chat – doing get dragged in.
*Meetings: Make it harder to call meetings. No agenda, no meeting. Meetings are for consensus building rather than problem solving. Leave devices outside the conference room except for one laptop.*. Be fully present and see if you can get away without notes or a laptop.
*Apps: Use distracting apps on your desktop rather than your phone. Organize apps and manage notifications. Turn on “Do Not Disturb.”*
Remove, replace (bad to good), or rearrange your apps away from the Home Screen. Think of your apps as primary tools, aspirations (what you want more of), and slot machines (the apps you get lost in). Put the first two in front, and make slot machines harder to access.
*Notifications: Turn off desktop notifications. Remove potential distractions from your workspace.*. Go to notifications in your desktop and mobile and turn them all off. Unless you are an emergency worker, you don’t need them. Sound triggers are the worst, then sight ones moving, then the passive ones like a red dot.
*Save online articles in Pocket or another Reader to read or listen to at a scheduled time. Use “multichannel multitasking, which means save for later and do when reading, walking, working out, etc.*. Save good YT videos or articles to revisit them later. Some things that pair well: phone calls on a walk; watching videos while on a workout elliptical or bike; audiobook or podcast on a walk or drive.
*Use browser extensions and app controls that give you the benefits of social media without all the distractions.* You can use these to limit the time you spend, focus on just one area, or limit overall app usage. Examples: Newsfeed Eradicator or Newsfeed Burner for FB, DF Tube, etc.
*PREVENT DISTRACTION WITH PACTS*
*The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought. Plan ahead for when you’re likely to get distracted.* Use recommitments, like Ulysses and the sirens, to reduce the odds of distraction.
*Use effort pacts to make unwanted behaviors more difficult.* Make it harder to slack off by working with a friend, or keeping phones out of the office. Apple like SelfControl, Forest, and Focusmate will work too.
*Use a price pact to make getting distracted expensive.*
A price pact adds a cost to getting distracted, and are most effective when you can remove external triggers and the distraction is temporary. They can be difficult and scary to start. Learn self-compassion to do it. Example: If I don’t do goal (lose weight, write book chapters, run X miles) by date X, I will pay $Y to person or org who knows this.”
*Use identity pacts as a precommitment to a self-image. Call yourself “indistractable.”*. Our perception of who we are changes what we do. Align you behaviors to your identity, and make a pre-commitment to your self image and become a noun. Share this identity with others and hang out with similar people. Adopt rituals like mantras, routines, etc.
*HOW TO MAKE YOUR WORKPLACE INDISTRACTABLE*
*An “always on” culture drives people crazy.*
Jobs with high expectations and low control lead to depression, which are painful. Also don’t overuse tech – make breaks. More tech use and bad norms force a cycle or responsiveness. Set off times and hours.
*Tech overuse at work is a symptom of dysfunctional company culture. The root cause is a culture lacking “psychological safety.”* Be able to talk about tech overuse and come up with a plan to get back to deep focus. To do that you need psychological safety and regular open discussions about concerns and distractions. To create safety, do 3 things: 1) frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution one. “We’ve got to get everyone’s brains and voice in this game”. 2) Acknowledge your fallibility – we don’t have the answers. 3) Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.
*To create a culture that values doing focused work, start small and find ways to facilitate an open dialogue among colleagues about the problem.* Companies confuse bad culture with symptoms like tech overuse or employee turnover – help people find their motivation to work and now they’re not stuck in an uncaring unchangeable machine – they can shape their environment.
*RAISE INDISTRACTABLE CHILDREN*
*Find the root causes of why children get distracted – teach them the four-part indistractable model.*. Don’t deflect blame on TV, social media, or society – you as the parent own the problem, and techno-panics have been going on since the phonograph and radio. Tech isn’t evil and used in the right ways and amounts, it has a huge benefit on kids’ lives (while too much or too little will also harm them). Teach kids the method.
*Make sure children’s psychological needs are met.* All people need to feel a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Kids don’t get their needs met in the real world, they look to fulfill them online. Kids need autonomy, volition, and freedom of control. They then strive for competence via mastery, progression, achievement, and growth. The also seek relatedness and feel important to others and have friends. Give kids free play time – so autonomy, competence, and relatedness, in real-life options to digital. Set limits together with your child – they need an understanding of why less screen time may be better.
*Teach children to timebox their schedule. Let them*
*make time for activities they enjoy, including time online.*. Teach the traction model around goal setting, and help them set their time based on goals. It’s also ok to fail – it’s how we learn.
*Work with your children to remove unhelpful external triggers.*
Make sure they know how to turn off distracting triggers, and don’t become a distracting external trigger yourself. A kid wanting something really really badly is not a good reason to get it. As they get older, a good test of whether they are ready for a device is their ability to understand the built-in settings for turning off external triggers (Do Not Disturb, notifications, quiet mode, out of sight, etc). Schedule focus time and sleep time. See Kamenetz, The Art of Screen Time. Teach them to swim with simpler devices and guard wheels before diving in.
*Help your kids make pacts and make sure they know*
Managing distraction is their responsibility. Teach them that Distraction is a solvable problem and that becoming indistractable is a lifelong skill. Don’t underestimate their ability to make commitments and follow through, and teach them consumer skepticism and media literacy. Put them in charge to manage their own attention.
*HAVE INDISTRACTABLE RELATIONSHIPS*
*When someone uses a device in a social setting, ask, are you’re on your phone. Is everything OK?”*
*Remove devices from your bedroom and have the internet automatically turn off at a specific time.*