All of us have been there; either at home, or in the workplace. We have good intentions. We have ‘important’ things to do – big projects, smaller tasks, housework, ‘life admin’. We write out our ‘to-do list’ because it makes us feel good and, in theory, we think this will make us get the job done.
We are about to tackle the task and then: ping! It’s a text from a friend, or a news alert pointing us to an interesting article that we must read right now. What harm can it do being distracted for a second?
But, as we all know, seconds can easily turn into minutes, minutes to hours, and over a period of time, we have wasted days being distracted from what we really want to get out of life.
Acknowledging these distractions is half the battle according to ‘behavioural designer’ and author, Nir Eyal in Indistractable – How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
There are an infinite amount of books and resources out there proclaiming to be ‘the’ solution to our time management problems, and our guiding light in this digital-centric world.
Nir’s book is the ultimate companion for anyone who wants to regain control and focus in their life. It’s packed with tools and insights on how we can make better sense, and introduce more structure to our daily lives, putting us humans back in the driving seat of controlling technology, rather than letting it control us.
Indistractable is an engaging and accessible read. The author guides us through the often murky business of understanding why, as a species, we are easy to distract.
Nir delves into the psychology of distraction and links our relationship to everyday interference such as email, social media and the news, with a more profound problem with being human: that we often lose touch with our own values and what’s important in life.
This book will appeal to any busy person who wants to get more out of their life, especially busy professionals, coaches, counsellors and mental health professionals who are supporting clients in reaching their goals.
The author manages to cleverly combine some of the complicated psychological theory of distraction, illustrating it with diagrams and tools, with real-life examples of how these can be used in practice.
The book contains handy tools for the reader, including: a schedule template for managing your time better; a Distraction Tracker to manager your own triggers (more of that later); and a ‘Red Light Card’ which is to be cut out of the printed book and used in the readers’ workplace to give their colleagues a clear ‘do not disturb, I am working’ message.
It is hard to distil the learning from this book down into a short book review without doing it a disservice. Below are just some of the highlights:
The Indistractable Model
This model comes near the start of the book and it is what the rest of the book’s premise is based on. In a nutshell, the author believes:
- ‘Distraction’ stops us from achieving our goals
- ‘Traction’ leads you closer to your goals
- ‘Triggers’ prompt both traction and distraction
The model includes: internal triggers for distraction; prevention of distraction; making time for traction (i.e., what you really want to do in life and how you want to spend your time); and advice on how to introduce ‘hack backs’ of external triggers.
One of the most powerful parts of the book is when Nir talks about the work of Dr Jonathan Bricker, a psychologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle. Here, we learn about four stages in recognising and dealing with our own internal triggers:
- Step 1 – Paying attention to the feelings you get before you become distracted: the internal trigger that has driven you to distraction. For example, why did you feel the need to check your phone when you sat down to lunch with the friend you hadn’t seen for months? Often this can lead to what Bricker describes as ‘feeling anxious, having a craving, feeling restless, or thinking you are incompetent’.
- Step 2 – Bricker advocates for writing down what triggers your distraction: using a journal, piece of paper, chart, or an app. Note what you were doing, how you were feeling. The Distraction Tracker tool at back of the printed book guides you through this. Bricker notes that people can easily identify external triggers but: ‘It takes some time and trials to begin noticing those all important-inside triggers’. The theory goes that the more we notice what we are distracted by, the better we will be at managing it.
- Step 3 – Get curious about what you are experiencing. Why do you reach for your mobile as soon as you and your partner sit down to watch a film at night? Learning to acknowledge your cravings without acting on them is a powerful way of overcoming them. As we see from similar techniques that have been applied to a study of people trying to stop smoking. Participants who explored their cravings in detail managed to quit at twice the rate of those in the American Lung Associations best performing cessation programme.
- Step 4 – Beware of liminal moments. ‘Liminal moments’ are when we transition from one thing to another during the day. You may look at your mobile phone while at a traffic light; or you get caught up with social media in between meetings. Nir suggests using a 10-minute rule, rather than acting on your impulses, you give yourself ten minutes, by then the urge may have passed, and you can spend time on what you really want to do.
Nir claims that: ‘One of the most pervasive bits of folk psychology is the belief that self-control is limited; that by the nature of our temperament we only have so much willpower available to us. Furthermore, the thinking goes, we are liable to run out of willpower when we exert ourselves.’ He goes on to explain that this is what psychologists describe as ‘ego depletion’.
University of Toronto Professor of Psychology, Michael Inzlicht, believes that: ‘Willpower is not a finite resource but instead acts like an emotion. Just as we don’t ‘run out’ of joy or anger, willpower ebbs and flows based on what’s happening to us and how we feel.’
I found this description useful as it gives an empowering message to the readers about how we may all feel that we have run out of willpower, but in reality it never really goes away.
How much time do you want to spend on each domain of your life? Be it work, home and family life, exercise or self-development. Does this reflect your personal values and what you want your life to be? The schedule template at the end of the book also provides a simple yet handy tool for reworking your time schedules in keeping with the goals you want to achieve in life. You can also find this online.
The latter part of the book has a series of chapters which talk about the ability to ‘hack back’, in other words cutting back on what you are doing or allowing yourself to control your technology (not the other way round). Examples of these include:
- Hack back emails. Reduce the number of messages received. Spend less time on each message – label emails according to when they need responses, reply to emails during scheduled time in your diary.
- Hack back your smartphone. Delete apps you don’t use, switch alerts off, get the tech working for you, not the other way round.
- Hack back online articles. The most handy aspect of this was the reference to the app Pocket (which I have since downloaded) allowing you to quickly earmark media articles for consuming at a later time, helping you avoid distraction during a busy day.
I also found the author’s description of his wife’s ‘Concentration Crown’ – which lights-up when she is busy working from home and doesn’t want distracted – hilarious and actually a very clever way of handling home working during lockdown!
What I like about the book is the author’s realistic approach to what’s achievable. He isn’t saying to stop doing all the things that distract you – checking social media, emails etc. – but what he is saying is that you should manage your time to allow yourself to do the things that are important to you and fit with your goals and values.
Disclaimer: I only checked my phone 350 times while reading this book.
Mike Findlay is book review editor at Psychreg. He is a Glasgow-based writer and communications professional. Connect with him @MikeFindMedia.