The “Books with Impact” series takes a deeper look at specific books that have had a profound impact on my financial, professional, and personal growth by extracting specific points of advice from those books and looking at how I’ve applied them in my life with successful results. The previous entry in this series covered The More of Less by Joshua Becker.
Distraction is a constant challenge in the modern world, with smartphones constantly in our pocket dinging us with notifications and infinite entertainment options around us. Distraction has a serious cost for all of us, as it takes us out of the moment, keeps us from producing our best work, and can even disrupt our personal relationships and important life moments.
This is particularly true in the current moment when so many of us are carrying burdens of worry, stress and anxiety. Many of us are adjusting to radical, fast changes to our professional and personal lives and, starved for some ability to make sense of these changes, we find it so easy to fall into distraction, even if it means taking ourselves out of the things we need to do and the people we need to focus on.
That distraction can have enormous and long-reaching personal, professional, and financial consequences. It can endanger our jobs, impact our relationships, and disrupt our own ability to make sense of the world around us.
Indistractable by Nir Eyal is the perfect book for this moment, as it tackles the issue of distraction head-on in a very approachable book, offering a multitude of solutions for this serious problem. The book is subdivided into several sections, each of which is divided into several brief chapters, making this book well designed to be picked up and read in bite-sized chunks, which is perfect for those who are really struggling with distraction. Within those sections are a wealth of practical tips and strategies for minimizing and eliminating distractions from your life, which will help you perform better at work (and at school) and connect better with the people in your life.
Eyal starts off by defining the difference between traction and distraction. Traction is any action we take that moves us toward what we actually want, whereas distraction is any action we take that moves us away from what we actually want.
For example, if my goal right now is to get this article written, focusing on the words I’m typing and the ideas I’m trying to express is traction, but looking at the news or playing a computer game is a distraction. If my goal is to have a nice family dinner with my family, eating my food and listening to and participating in the conversation is traction, while looking at my phone or getting lost in my own train of thought is a distraction.
At the same time, Eyal defines two different classes of triggers for our behavior, the things that nudge us toward choosing distraction or traction. Internal triggers are things inside of us that nudge us in one direction or another, while external triggers are things outside of us that nudge us in one direction or another.
For example, a moment of frustration about what I’m trying to write — as I’m honestly feeling right now as I write this — is an internal trigger that might lead me to glance at the news or play a few rounds of an online game. On the other hand, if my phone beeps at me with a social media notification, that’s an external trigger that can lead me straight down another route of distraction.
The goal of this book, then, is to offer readers tools to ensure that more of their actions are in the “traction” camp and fewer of their actions are in the “distraction” camp. Eyal does this, in part, by delving into techniques for mastering internal and external triggers such that they either go away or are more effective at nudging us toward traction and away from distraction.
Let’s dig in.
Master Internal Triggers
One might assume that Eyal might go down a mindfulness path regarding how to kill off a lot of internal triggers, but instead, he quickly points out that we’re still faced with the fundamental problem of dealing with at least some of our own internal triggers. That’s simply how our minds work. We feel a moment of mental discomfort and, in that moment, we’re sent down a path toward distraction.
Rather, Eyal’s strategy focuses much more around learning how to notice those moments of mental discomfort so that we can develop smart strategies for dealing with most of our common moments of mental discomfort.
Eyal suggests starting by making a log of these moments of mental discomfort that lead us to distraction by following a four-step system.
First, look for the discomfort that precedes the distraction, focusing on the internal trigger. You won’t be able to notice all of them, but the more you notice, the better. What you’re really looking for are those things that make you pause for just a fraction of a second when something is mildly challenging or uncomfortable.
Next, write down the trigger. Note the time fo day, what you were doing, and how you felt at that moment. I did this for quite a while using Evernote — whenever I noticed that moment of discomfort just before I would become distracted, I simply made a note of it. It takes time — I didn’t notice too many at first, but I found that the more aware I was and the more I looked, the more I noticed them.
Then, explore your sensations. How do you actually feel in those moments where you’re about to go down a distracted path? For me, I notice that I often take a somewhat deep breath and I tend to look away from whatever I’m doing at that moment. Again, this took a lot of observation to notice it, but the more I tried to look for that moment of discomfort just before I became distracted, the easier it became to see it.
Finally, beware of liminal moments. Those are moments where you’re transitioning from one action or task to another one, and those are prime moments for distraction. You’re often making a more active choice in those moments, and it can be really tempting to do something that seems less difficult and more fun. In those moments, a good strategy is to make a quick bargain with yourself — if you do a “good” task for 10 more minutes, then you can do the more distractive thing. What you’ll find is that after ten minutes, you’re often a lot less interested in doing that distractive thing.
For me, this quickly translated into making that bargain with myself quite often. If I feel myself on the verge of being distracted — one of those little moments of discomfort — I often just tell myself to get back on task for 10 minutes and then I can do something fun. More often than not, I blow through and past those 10 minutes without getting distracted. It took a while to train myself to notice those little moments where I’m just about to be distracted, but once I started seeing them, it became much easier because I was now aware of that moment and could throw up a bargain in the way.
Another great strategy that Eyal offers is making your task more enjoyable by choosing to focus on it in a different way. Try to examine what’s interesting about this task and lean into it. Notice the little details of what you’re doing, and feel pride when it starts to come together well. Tasks don’t have to be drudgery; that’s an internal choice you make.
Make Time for Traction
As noted earlier, traction simply refers to choosing (and doing) an action that moves us toward what we actually want. His main strategy for increasing the traction in our lives is to give ourselves time to make those decisions by reducing liminal moments (mentioned earlier, those are moments in which you’re switching from one task to another) and giving yourself plenty of time to do the things you really value most.
So, how do we do that? Eyal advises using time blocking, which basically means blocking off time in your day for different kinds of activities that are important to you and, within those time blocks, consciously choosing to stick to those kinds of activities.
Time blocking is something I’ve been doing for many years with tremendous success. Basically, a given weekday looks like this for me:
Before 6 a.m. – free time
6 a.m. to 7 a.m. – meaningful reading
7 a.m. to 8 a.m. – morning routine (journaling, stretching, breakfast time with kids, etc.)
8 a.m. to noon – work (right now, this is done in same space with kids so we’re all on task together)
noon to 12:30 p.m. – lunch
12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. – work
3 p.m. to 4 p.m. – physical activity (doing things that make me sweat)
4 p.m. to 5 p.m. – mental activity (doing things that make me think, sometimes hobbies but not always)
5 p.m. to 7 p.m. – dinner and free family time
7 p.m. to 8 p.m. – meaningful family time (often a board game)
8 p.m. to 9 p.m. – household chores
9 p.m. to bedtime – time with Sarah
During those “blocks,” I can do whatever I choose, but the things I choose to do need to be in line with what the purpose of the block of time is. So, for example, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., if I have a household chore that is going to make me sweat, that’s what I do; otherwise, I’ll exercise.
Knowing what I should be doing at any given time gives me something to aim my choices at. From 8 a.m. to noon, I know my choices should be aimed toward work.
The reason this works so well is because it helps me to control the one main element of life that I can control, which is the amount of time and focus I put into the things I want to do in a given day. For the most part, that weekday schedule is proportioned pretty close to what I want in terms of the areas of my life that I care about. Weekends are more free form and change a lot from week to week, but I still time block them and they usually involve at least one big block of hobby time, plus some space for household chores and catching up on what’s missed.
The key here is to think about what you care about in your own life and come up with time blocks that line up with those things you care about. Make sure to have time blocks for the people you really care about in your life — my “meaningful family time” block is about my kids and my wife above all else and what we actually do doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I’m focused on them during that time. My “traction” choices are focused on my family during that block.
Hack Back External Triggers
Anything in your environment that pulls your attention away from what you’re doing in the moment, whether it’s a ding, a ping or a vibration from a device or someone interrupting you or whatever, is an external trigger. They can send you quickly down a path of distraction – taking actions that are not in line with what you want.
The thing is, not all external triggers are bad things. There are some that you really want to notice, like a truly important text or a crying baby. The problem is that those useful triggers are mixed in with a giant pile of ones that just guide you into something much less important. With anything that grabs your attention away from your work, you should be asking whether the trigger is serving you or you’re serving it.
The solution, then, is to devise ways to filter out all of those external triggers that point to something less important to you than what it is you’re wanting to complete.
Take your phone, for example. If you have it on you and you’re trying to work, which notifications on that phone are actually important enough to justify pulling you away from your focus on your task? If your phone is giving you any more notifications than those during a work session, then it’s a problem. You need to hone the notifications on your phone so that only those vital ones are getting through. The same thing is true at the dinner table with your family, or when you’re hanging out with friends – you don’t want anything other than the most meaningful interruptions.
The solution is to lock down the notifications on your phone and minimize the ways it can distract you, leaving those distractions for just the most important things. I wrote a guide for doing this, detailing how to turn your phone from a distraction into a productivity tool.
In fact, most of the time, simply having my phone nearby is a distraction because of the ease with which I can pick it up and get lost in some kind of distraction – news reports, social media, a game, a non-urgent conversation with a pal. To combat those, I often leave my phone in a completely different room, or leave it in the car if I’m not at home.
When I really need to focus on a work task, almost all forms of outside audio are a source of distraction, so I often wear noise cancelling headphones while I work.
This section has a ton of tactics that will work well for people in different specific situations, but the goal of all of these tactics is the same: you want to reduce external triggers that lead to distraction.
Prevent Distraction with Pacts
Another approach to this problem was alluded to a bit earlier: you can often tackle distractions as they occur with pacts. Earlier in this article, I noted the idea of using a brief 10-minute pact if I’m distracted while working: if I work for 10 more minutes, I can give into that distraction for a while. I find that when I do this, I often end up working for longer than 10 minutes and the distraction is no longer compelling when I pay attention to it.
Eyal discusses several different kinds of pacts in this section, but for me, one in particular stands out as being useful: the identity pact. In short, it’s a lot easier to focus in on a task if successful completion of that task is part of your internal and external identity.
For example, I view myself as a writer, so the professional tasks I have that center around writing are easier for me to keep focused on because it’s tied to how I identify myself. I think to myself, “I’m a writer, I can do this,” and that in itself becomes a way to get past distraction temptation.
I also find myself using the “I’m a good parent, I focus on my kids” concept at times. I self-identify as a good parent, and being a good parent means I give my kids focused attention, which makes it easier for me to just say no to distractions when I’m in that role.
How to Make Your Workplace Indistractable
Many of Eyal’s strategies make a lot of sense, but it can be hard to apply them in a world that often works against those strategies. Eyal addresses this later in the book by applying the ideas to a few portions of life where you might find it very difficult to apply those strategies, starting with one’s workplace.
Many workplaces have a lot of distractions. You can be distracted by your boss, other coworkers, noise technologies, unimportant meetings and so on. Those are sometimes made worse by workplace layouts that encourage collaboration when your work requires lots of concentration. Often, company culture gets in the way of being able to focus on one’s work.
Eyal’s solution to this problem is to address it within company culture rather than outright rejecting it and going your own way. Rather than just putting on headphones and ignoring everyone all day, have a conversation with your boss about the need for focused work time and then find a solution that gives you that time. If you’re finding that workplace distraction is intruding on your life outside of work, discuss the possibility of different people having “nights off” from workplace intrusion, such that each person might have a night or two (or more) per week away from being pinged by the workplace.
Another really good approach — one that I’ve seen used effectively in offices — is to simply put a sign on your desk that says, “I’m focusing on something for a while. I will be done at X:00; please come back then.” Make it big and clear so that people can’t miss it. That way, people know when to come back and talk to you, and it gives you some room to put your phone in do not disturb mode and put on some headphones.
How to Raise Indistractable Children (and Why We All Need Psychological Nutrients)
Although this section is ostensibly about parenting, it actually focuses a lot on basic things that we all need in life. We need some sense of autonomy — control over our own time and choices. We need some sense of relatedness — a sense that we’re important to others and matter to them. We need a sense of competence, both in ourselves and the people around us. This is true for both adults and for children.
So, how do we ensure that our children have these things? Eyal suggests working through the ideas in this book together with your kids. Talk to them about the idea of time blocking, and let them be involved in setting how much time they have each day for screen time as long as they stick to that limit. Ask them about the things that are important to them and then come up with a rough schedule where they’re giving time to those things each day.
You can also help them deal with their own sets of external triggers. I’ve found a lot of success at home in simply having everyone put their devices elsewhere during mealtime and family activities, for example; it helps everyone focus on the thing we’re doing together.
Another good approach has been to help them define their own pacts. For example, they often get a lot more free time (often used as screen time) on Sundays if they’ve stuck to their own time blocking during the week. We also tend to reward devoted time spend on homework and studying rather than the actual end result, because our kids can control their homework and studying time and effort, but they can’t always completely control their grades.
Working through these things with your children gives them a great sense of autonomy, and if they see you doing the same thing, that contributes to relatedness.
How to Have Indistractable Relationships
How does the idea of being indistractable relate to a relationship, whether it’s a marriage, another form of romantic relationship or just a good friendship?
Simply put, meaningful relationships need focused time and attention, whether they’re romantic relationships, family relationships or friendships, and most of the tactics described throughout this book really apply well here.
First of all, make sure you have devoted time for your partner, as well as devoted time for your close friendships that matter a lot to you. During those blocks of time, make the other people your focus by cutting out as many external triggers as possible and being aware of your internal ones.
My wife and I don’t watch much television together, but when we do, I turn off distractions so I can focus on just the show and her. The same is true when we play a board game together or take the dogs on a walk. If it’s time with just the two of us, I aim to kill distractions.
One thing I need to work on is applying the same approach to face-to-face social encounters with friends, like our board game nights or dinner parties. The same thing is true there – if I’m at a social event like that, my focus should be on my friends and on the activity we’re sharing, not on the game.
There are a lot of great strategies to apply here.
This article really only scratches the surface of the good ideas for maintaining focus and avoiding distraction found in Indistractable; I’ve mostly focused on a handful that I know work well for me personally.
If you find that distraction is having a negative effect on any aspect of your life, whether it’s professional work, personal relationships, parenting, the ability to focus on hobbies, anything, this book offers a lot of strategies for helping you work through those distractions. It’s written in a very approachable way with very short chapters that can be read and absorbed quickly and lots of principles and strategies that can easily be pulled right out and applied to your life.
This is a valuable book, one that’s going to find a slot on my bookshelf right next to the equally wonderful book Deep Work by Cal Newport, which tackles the need for focused effort from a much different but complementary angle. I hope you find Indistractable as valuable as I have.