This week features the next installment in our recurring “Productive Reading” series, this time talking about key takeaways from Indistractable, by Nir Eyal.
Indistractable asks us to think about the reason we do things and reflect upon our values before adding them to our busy schedule
This week we’re continuing our Productive Reading recurring series. In the past, we’ve talked about the lessons and key takeaways I found in books about productivity-related topics that I’ve found helpful and thought-provoking, including books by authors like Gary Keller, Charles Duhigg Brené Brown, Courtney Carver, Jeff Sanders, James Clear, Michael Hyatt, Maura Nevel Thomas, Joshua Becker, Greg McKeown, Cal Newport, Dominique Sachse, and most recently talking about Laura Vanderkam’s wonderful Tranquility by Tuesday (episode 420). This time I’m sharing some of my most important takeaways from an intriguing book by Nir Eyal, called Indistractable.
Who is Nir Eyal?
Book cover flap copy:
“Nir Eyal has lectured at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. His first book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, is an international bestseller. Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. His writing has been featured in Harvard Business Review, TechCrunch, Time, The Week, Inc., and Psychology Today.”
Why did I read this book?
I heard him mentioned on another podcast and was intrigued by the book’s title and premise.
On the front flap, it asks a key question:
“What could you accomplish if you could stay focused?” It goes on to say that in this book the author “unpacks the hidden psychology driving us to distraction–and explains why solving the problem is not as simple as swearing off our devices. Eyal lays bare the secret of finally doing what you say you will do with a four-step, research-backed model. Indistractable reveals the key to getting the best out of technology, without letting it get the best of us.”
The book is subtitled How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. I found this intriguing. Don’t we all want to figure out what gets in the way of making the life we want for ourselves and those we love?
The book is divided into several parts
The first two chapters explain what it means to become indistractable and the difference between traction and distraction (“Traction draws you toward what you want in life, while distraction pulls you away.”) and then address some of the problems of distraction, including its impacts on our lives, our relationships, and our work. He talks about how simply removing our online tech doesn’t solve the problem, and why: because, as he says many times in the book, “distraction starts from within.”
“Being indistractable isn’t about being a Luddite. It’s about understanding the real reasons why we do things against our best interests.”
“Distractions impede us from making progress toward the life we envision.”
“Distractions will always exist; managing them is our responsibility.”
“Being indistractable means striving to do what you say you will do.”
In an interview with Arianna Huffington, the author said this about what it means to be indistractable:
“Being indistractable means that you strive to do the things you say you’re going to do. It doesn’t mean that you never get distracted. That’s impossible. We all get distracted from time to time, but it means that you’re the kind of person who strives to do what they say they’re going to do. The kind of person lives with personal integrity.”
Part 1: Master Internal Triggers
Part 2: Make Time for Traction
Part 3: Hack Back External Triggers
Part 4: Prevent Distraction with Pacts
Part 5: How to Make Your Workplace Indistractable
Part 6: How to Raise Indistractable Children (and Why We All Need Psychological Nutrients)
Part 7: How to Have Indistractable Relationships
Each chapter ends with a box with 3 or so bullet-point key takeaways, all of which are gathered together in a short section after the last chapter. If you buy the book you can go to a page on his website where by submitting evidence of the purchase you can download some free resources, including a companion workbook, a schedule-maker template, and more. If you buy the book, the link to that website page is in the book itself; I’ve also included it below.
Key takeaways and quotes
1. The true root cause of distraction isn’t the stuff around us. “Distraction starts from within.”
Eyal offers a different take on modern distraction from many of the materials I read.
“Simply put, the drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all our behavior, while everything else is a proximate cause. . . . Unless we deal with the root causes of our distraction, we’ll continue to find ways to distract ourselves. Distraction, it turns out, isn’t about the distraction itself; rather, it’s about how we respond to it. . . . Only by understanding our pain can we begin to control it and find better ways to deal with negative urges.”
“Solely blaming a smartphone for causing distraction is just as flawed as blaming a pedometer for making someone climb too many stairs.”
“Distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality. How we deal with uncomfortable internal triggers determines whether we pursue healthful actions of traction or self-defeating distractions.”
Chapter 4 is called Time Management is Pain Management, and he starts that chapter by reiterating that “the motivation for diversion originates within us. As is the case with all human behavior, distraction is just another way our brains attempt to deal with pain. If we accept this fact, it makes sense that the only way to handle distraction is by learning to handle discomfort.” This is similar to what Brooke Castillo talks about with respect to learning to feel emotions instead of buffering (which is her word for the things we do to distract ourselves from uncomfortable emotions).
“But where does our discomfort come from? Why are we perpetually restless and unsatisfied? We live in the safest, healthiest, most well-educated, most democratic time in human history, and yet some part of the human psyche causes us to constantly look for an escape from things stirring inside us.”
Why? Psychological factors that make satisfaction temporary:
- Boredom. We don’t like to be alone with our thoughts. One study he cites in the book concluded: “People prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.
- Negativity bias (defined as “a phenomenon in which negative effects are more salient and demand attention more powerfully than neutral or positive events.” This makes me think of the line from the movie Pretty Woman, when she’s sharing about how all her life people have told her she was a loser, and when he says he thinks she’s got a lot of good qualities, she replies, “The bad stuff’s easier to believe.”
Negativity bias has a developmental reason: “Negativity bias almost certainly gave us an evolutionary edge. Good things are nice, but bad things can kill you, which is why we pay attention to and remember the bad stuff first.”
- Rumination (“our tendency to keep thinking about bad experiences”).
- Hedonic adaptation (“the tendency to quickly return to a baseline level of satisfaction, no matter what happens to us in life. . . . All sorts of life events we think would make us happier actually don’t, or at least they don’t for long.
“Evolution favored dissatisfaction over contentment.”
“Dissatisfaction and discomfort dominate our brain’s default state, but we can use them to motivate us instead of defeat us.”
“We must disavow the misguided idea that if we’re not happy, we’re not normal–exactly the opposite is true.”
2. The importance of awareness and intentionality in creating the life we want and conquering the distraction that keeps us from doing what we say we’ll do.
We can be intentional about how we use our time, and doing so helps us identify what’s in the way of accomplishing what we intend to: “You can’t call something a ‘distraction’ unless you know what it is distracting you from.”
“The time you plan to waste is not wasted time.”
3. There are very actionable steps we can take to address the distraction that keeps us from making the life we want.
Generally he describes them as: reimagine the trigger (for distraction), reimagine the task, or reimagine your own temperament:
Chapter 6 teaches us to “Reimagine the Internal Trigger”:
“While we can’t control the feelings and thoughts that pop into our heads, we can control what we do with them. . . . [W]e shouldn’t keep telling ourselves to stop thinking about an urge; instead, we must learn better ways to cope. . . . Rather than trying to fight the urge, we need new methods to handle intrusive thoughts.”
He shares a 4-step method for identifying, analyzing, and responding to the internal triggers for distraction:
“Step 1: Look for the discomfort that precedes the distraction, focusing in on the internal trigger.”
“Step 2: Write down the trigger.”
“Step 3: Explore the negative sensation with curiosity instead of contempt.”
“Step 4: Beware of liminal moments.” (i.e., transition times)
“We can cope with uncomfortable internal triggers by reflecting on, rather than reacting to, our discomfort.”
Chapter 7 invites us to “Reimagine the Task” (meaning the task we get easily distracted from) – look for the “fun” in it.
“Given what we know about our propensity for distraction when we’re uncomfortable, reimagining difficult work as fun could prove incredibly empowering. Imagine how powerful you’d feel if you were able to transform the hard, focused work you have to do into something that felt like play.”
“Play” as discussed in this book, isn’t necessarily pleasurable; it’s something that holds our attention. So the idea is to look at the tough task in a new way that can turn it into something that will hold our attention.
“Instead of running away from our pain or using rewards like prizes and treat to help motivate us, the idea is to pay such close attention that you find new challenges you didn’t see before. These new challenges provide the novelty to engage our attention and maintain focus when tempted by distraction.”
One technique: timers. “Operating under time constraints . . . is the key to creativity and fun.”
“Fun is looking for the variability in something other people don’t notice. It’s breaking through the boredom and monotony to discover its hidden beauty.
Chapter 8 discusses reimagining our own temperament–what kind of person we are and what that means for how we show up in the world. This chapter offers a new perspective on willpower. Much of what I’ve read in the productivity literature talks about willpower being a finite resource, teaching that we should create habits and routines that become automatic and avoid the need to exercise willpower. He talks about the work of researchers like Carol Dweck and others who offer an alternative view of willpower. For instance, he cites the work of one psychology professor at the University of Toronto, who says “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 in response to what’s happening to us and how we feel.”
These researchers see a link between temperament and willpower.
“[I]f mental energy is more like an emotion than fuel in a tank, then it can be managed and utilized as such.”
“[W]hen we need to perform a difficult task, it’s more productive and healthful to believe a lack of motivation is temporary than it is to tell ourselves we’re spent and need a break (and maybe some ice cream).”
This is about our own mindset and our beliefs about who we are and what we’re capable of:
“What we say to ourselves is vitally important. Labeling yourself as having poor self-control actually leads to less self-control. Rather than telling ourselves we failed because we’re somehow deficient, we should offer self-compassion by speaking to ourselves with kindness when we experience setbacks.”
Eyal cites studies regarding the effects of mindset:
“Several studies have found people who are more self-compassionate experience a greater sense of well-being. . . . An individual’s level of self-compassion had a greater effect on whether they would develop anxiety and depression than all the usual things that tend to screw up people’s lives, like traumatic life events, a family history of mental illness, low social status, or a lack of social support. The good news is that we can change the way we talk to ourselves in order to harness the power of self-compassion.”
“If you find yourself listening to the little voice in your head that sometimes bullies you around, it’s important to know how to respond. Instead of accepting what the voice says or arguing with it, remind yourself that obstacles are part of the process of growth. We don’t get better without practice, which can be difficult at times. A good rule of thumb is to talk to yourself the way you might talk to a friend. Since we know so much about ourselves, we tend to be our own worst critics, but if we talk to ourselves the way we’d help a friend, we can see the situation for what it really is. Telling yourself things like ‘This is what it’s like to get better at something’ and ‘You’re on your way’ are healthier ways to handle self doubt.
“[Y]ou don’t have to believe everything you think; you are only powerless if you think you are.”
4. We can intentionally structure our use of time to gain traction (progress toward what matters to us).
This is about the importance of scheduling our days.
When we don’t, “Our most important asset–our time–is unguarded, just waiting to be stolen. If we don’t plan our days, someone else will.” Be intentional about it. He encourages us to start with our values: “Instead of starting with what we’re going to do, we should begin with why we’re going to do it.”
Values are ‘how we want to be, what we want to stand for, and how we want to relate to the world around us.’ They are attributes of the person we want to be. . . . We never achieve our values any more than finishing a painting would let us achieve being creative. A value is like a guiding star; it’s the fixed point we use to help us navigate our life choices.”
“The trouble is, we don’t make time for our values. We unintentionally spend too much time in one area of our lives at the expense of others. . . . If we chronically neglect our values, we become something we’re not proud of–our lives feel out of balance and diminished. Ironically, this ugly feeling makes us more likely to seek distractions to escape our dissatisfaction without actually solving the problem.”
He suggests categorizing our values into various “life domains”–e.g., self, relationships, work–noting that these domains “outline the way we spend our time. They give us a way to think about how we plan our days so that we can become an authentic reflection of the people we want to be.” Because, he says, “In order to live our values in each of these domains, we must reserve time in our schedules to do so.”
He talks a lot about what he calls “timeboxing”–allocating your time to the various activities in the domains you’ve identified. This is important, he says, because “It doesn’t so much matter what you do with your time; rather, success is measured by whether you did what you planned to do.”
- “To create a weekly timeboxed schedule, you’ll need to decide how much time you want to spend on each domain of your life.”
- Ask yourself “How much time in each domain would allow you to be consistent with your values?”
He offers blank templates in his book and on his website for doing this. Then he encourages us to schedule 15 minutes each week to reflect and refine your schedule by asking 2 questions:
- “When in my schedule did I do what I said I would do and when did I get distracted?
- “Are there changes I can make to my calendar that will give me the time I need to better live out my values?”
The book’s chapters offer very practical suggestions for dealing with external distraction triggers and work interruptions, managing emails and group chats, and making more productive use of your smartphone. There’s a great chapter on dealing with meetings to make them productive, and another section on using pacts to keep yourself on track to doing what you say you’ll do.
There also are some great info and tactics for making your workplace more productive, being less distracted and more present in your relationships, and for helping your children become indistractable.
The book’s key message
For me, the key message, which he reiterates many times, is that distraction starts from within–from our instinctive drive to avoid discomfort (pain). We are not at the mercy of our environment, our tech, or even our subconscious instincts. We have the power to take control of both, make conscious decisions about our use of time, energy, and attention, and make space in our lives for traction: actually making progress toward the life we envision for ourselves.
Some final thoughts
There is more to this book than what I’ve mentioned here. What I like about it best is that it is so thoughtful and backed by references to research and studies. He provides lots of resources, including step-by-step processes and questions to ask yourself, that make it totally doable to become indistractable in every area of your life.
I love what he says in the conclusion after telling a story about an interaction with his young daughter about superpowers. His daughter wanted the power to always be kind to other people: “I took some time to think about her answer. I realized that being kind was not a mystical superpower that required a magical serum–we all have the power to be kind wherever we want to be. We simply need to harness the power that’s already within us. The same is true for being indistractable. By becoming indistractable, we can set an example for others. In the workplace, we can use these tactics to transform our organizations and create a ripple effect both in and beyond our industries. At home, we can inspire our families to test these methods for themselves and live out the lives they envision. We can all strive to do what we say we will do. We all have the power to be indistractable.”
What do you think?
Have you read Indistractable? If so, what did you think? Are you implementing any of his recommendations? Share your takeaway with us. If you haven’t yet read it, what’s a productivity-related book you’ve read recently that you’d recommend? Share your takeaway with us. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
Resources and Links
Nir Eyal’s books:
- Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
- Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
- His website
- 39. Nir Eyal on How to be Indistractable – Greg McKeown
- Nir Eyal interview: The power to become “indistractable” – Omniconvert Blog
- Nir Eyal: Why Are We So Distracted and How Can We Become “Indistractable?” | by Tremis Skeete | Product Coalition
- Video presentation: How to Become Indistractable
Productive Reading Episodes
- TPW episode 133-The One Thing, by Gary Keller
- TPW episode 147-The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
- TPW episode 166-Lessons from Brene Brown
- TPW episode 182-Soulful Simplicity, by Courtney Carver
- TPW episode 211-The Free-Time Formula, by Jeff Sanders
- TPW episode 230-Atomic Habits, by James Clear
- TPW episode 250-Free to Focus, by Michael Hyatt
- TPW episode 271-Attention Management, by Maura Nevel Thomas
- TPW episode 324-The Minimalist Home, by Joshua Becker
- TPW episode 349-Effortless, by Greg McKeown
- TPW episode 366-Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport
- TPW episode 403-Life Makeover by Dominique Sachse
- TPW episode 420-Tranquility by Tuesday, by Laura Vanderkam
Please share your questions or thoughts in the comments section below this post or on The Productive Woman’s Facebook page, or send me an email. Also, don’t forget to tell a friend about this episode, share it using the social sharing buttons at the top of this post, or leave a review in Apple Podcasts.
Help Spread the Word!
Tell a friend about The Productive Woman podcast. Share an episode using the social sharing buttons at the top of this post, and consider leaving a review in Apple Podcasts.
Click here to discover my favorite apps!
I would love to have your help!
Royse City, Texas