Walking back to your desk from a meeting, you quickly send a text to a friend, and as the “typing” bubble appears, an alert from Venmo comes through. Ah, your brother has paid you back. You open the app to see that you still owe a coworker for drinks last week, when … Ping!, the fire emoji appears from a friend reacting to your Instagram story. You shoot back a smiley face, then check email to read about the new team structure. Whoosh!, that reply text from your friend comes in. You look up, you’re back at your desk, and 10 minutes have gone by. You blame your smartphone and dive back into email.
Distraction is nothing new, though our dependence on smartphones and social media make more tempting than ever to toggle between tasks. In his new book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, former Stanford GSB lecturer and member of the MBA Class of 2008 Nir Eyal argues that we can “hack back” our attention spans by slashing the idea that we’re addicted — and helpless — when it comes to technology.
“Unless we deal with the root causes of our distraction, we’ll continue to find ways to distract ourselves,” Eyal writes. “Distraction isn’t about the distraction itself, it’s about how we respond to it.”
Here, Eyal describes his journey in becoming “indistractable” and suggests some techniques for staying focused at the office and at home.
Q. What made you want to write a book about fighting distraction? When I wrote my first book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, I wasn’t doing many speaking engagements. It was easier for me to write because I didn’t have so many demands on my time. But the more popular the book became, the more distracted I got, flitting from one thing to the next, always checking my device. As I was sitting down to write — the work I actually had to do — I would check emails or the news, just to distract myself, because I didn’t have the right techniques in place. I wrote this book for myself more than anybody.
Q. You say being indistractable is a skill set, meaning it’s something we can learn by practicing. Absolutely. And it’s nothing new — Plato complained about how distracting the world was 2,500 years ago. Clearly Plato never struggled with an iPhone, so I take issue with the current narrative that technology is hijacking your brain and that it’s addictive. It promotes learned helplessness: We stop trying to change something because we think there’s nothing we can do.
Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality; the drive to relieve that discomfort is at the root of all our behavior. So instead of blaming technology, look for the discomfort that precedes it. By identifying an uncomfortable internal trigger — for example, loneliness, boredom, anxiety, or discontentment — and exploring the sensation with curiosity, we can more easily disarm it.
Q. How does the workplace affect your ability to be indistractable? Work is an environment that absolutely influences our behavior. Let’s say you’re out to dinner with your family on a Friday night, but your boss calls you at 8:00 p.m. and interrupts your dinner. That’s clearly a distraction. In that case, do we blame the cellphone, the technology that distracted you? Or do we blame the fact that you work in an environment that doesn’t respect your time? When you look at companies that struggle with distraction and those that don’t, there’s no correlation with technology. The root cause is that people can’t talk about the problem in the first place.
Q. So what are the signs of a culture of distraction within a workplace? The first characteristic is when companies don’t give employees psychological safety [a belief that they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes]. The second is the absence of a forum to talk about these issues. And third, when management doesn’t exemplify what it means to become indistractable, you get companies that are flooded with distractions because of culture, not technology. There are many companies like Slack, which makes a technology that everybody thinks is so distracting, that don’t struggle with distraction because they ensure their culture is one that respects people’s time.
Can you talk more about what you call “liminal moments,” the transitions throughout our day when we’re changing tasks? For instance, checking social media while waiting for a browser window to load, or sending a text message while waiting for an elevator.
There’s nothing wrong with using all of the tools at our fingertips. But if you start using your phone on the way to your desk after a meeting, then you keep using it 10, 15, 30 minutes later, you’ve become distracted as opposed to working on what you wanted or needed to. That’s where these liminal moments are dangerous.
Q. How does being indistractable play out in your personal relationships? I’ve been married for 18 years, and something I call “scheduled thinking” saved my marriage. Once a week, my wife and I sit down together and review our calendars and the week ahead: “OK, you’re going to pick up our daughter on this day. You’ve got this responsibility. I’ll see you for dinner on this night and this night but not that night. You’re going to load the dishes on this night. You’re going to prep the food on that night.” Before this practice, we would fight because I wasn’t pulling my weight in the household. Once my wife and I had this clear schedule — and it takes us 15 minutes to review it for the week — it changed our lives. We don’t have these arguments anymore because of these weekly “thinks.”
Q. Is there a risk with over-scheduling? We perform better under constraints. Schedules give us a framework, while nothingness torments us with the tyranny of choice. An unscheduled day isn’t freedom. Rather, it’s a recipe for regret. When we don’t plan time in our day to do what matters, our life quickly falls out of balance.
There’s nothing wrong with scrolling Instagram, playing a video game, or watching Netflix, as long as that’s what you intended to do. Taking a break can be good for us. It’s when we do these things unintentionally that we get into trouble. For this practice to work, you must schedule every minute of your day. This technique is called “timeboxing” or making a “zero-based calendar.”
Q. How do you recommend people apply this in their professional relationships? It’s crucial at work as well. When we sit down with our boss and say, “Here are all the priorities you gave me; here’s what I’m working on. I want to show you how I’m spending my time because there are some priorities I couldn’t get to. Tell me if I should reprioritize.” Most bosses don’t want to seem like they’re micromanaging, but they’re dying for their employees to open their calendars in this way. That is where the power of the timebox calendar really comes to fruition.
Q. How can we make this change, while still feeling we’re being a good parent, manager, or friend? When someone calls themselves a vegan, they don’t just say, “Oh, I don’t think I want to eat bacon today.” If you’re a vegan, you don’t do that. It’s part of who you are. I want people to use that same psychology to call themselves indistractable: “I’m sorry, I don’t answer every email within 30 seconds. That’s not what I do. I value my time and attention.”
It’s OK to tell people, “I’m not going to return your text within 30 seconds. However, I would love to put time on our calendar every week from here until eternity because I love spending time with you. I would love to get a coffee with you every Thursday at 5:00 p.m. Let’s make this a regular thing.”