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Nir Eyal

April 28, 2020

Having written the playbook on the subject, Nir Eyal knows all about ‘engaging’ technology. Yes, he is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, the mythical yellow book that’s passed about with reverence at tech/social media companies. The same companies that, coincidentally, seem to occupy so much of our time and attention now.

He had good intentions - Hooked was written in an effort to help startups and socially concerned companies reach their users with the same effectiveness as the tech giants.

Since then, however, the problem has only gotten worse. It’s become the norm to spend hours every day endlessly scrolling on social media. It seems that the tech companies have hacked our biology and made products so addictive that they’re now integral parts of our lives. 20% of people in one survey would rather go without shoes than their phone.

Ironically, Nir eventually got ‘hooked’ himself. That’s why he decided to write another book. Why?

We are much more powerful than any of the tech giants. As an industry insider, I know their Achilles’ heel - and soon you will too.

The good news is that we have the unique ability to adapt to such threats. We can take steps right now to retrain and regain our brains. To be blunt, what other choice do we have? We don’t have time to wait for regulators to do something, and if you hold your breath waiting for corporations to make their products less distracting, well, you’re going to suffocate.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal, pg.

Indistractable is a guide to help you take control of your attention and focus on what matters.

Nir realized he had a problem when he noticed he was missing out on opportunities to spend quality time with his young daughter. He was getting distracted, and she wasn’t getting any younger. He knew something had to change.

First, he tried removing technology - he bought a flip phone, subscribed to a print newspaper, and did his writing on a word processor without internet access. He found himself still getting distracted - by books.

Somehow, I kept getting distracted, even without the tech that I thought was the source of the problem… Removing online technology didn’t work. I’d just replaced one distraction with another.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal, pg.

He knew what he had to do. He started researching this book.

Logophiles beware - Eyal starts off by redefining the word traction to mean the opposite of distraction: “We can think of traction as the actions that draw us toward what we want in life” - pg. 12

Furthermore, this is also one of those books that seeks to coin a word - namely, Indistractable. Just thought I'd give a fair warning.

Nir’s first key discovery was that our actions are motivated by discomfort.

Simply put, the drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all our behavior, while everything else is a proximate cause.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal, pg.

We may blame our environment for distracting us, but the core reason is often something within ourselves. Unless we acknowledge this, the source of our distractions will just seem to be a shape-shifting phantom embodied by different objects in our environment. We blame proximate causes like our phone - or a book - for distracting us, but the root cause is our own discomfort.

What discomfort?

It could be many things - stress about work or a relationship, anxiety about money, or even boredom. Ultimately, distractions are a way to avoid paying attention to uncomfortable areas in our lives. As Nir says,

Only by understanding our pain can we begin to control it and find better ways to deal with negative urges.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal, pg.

All right. If distraction is just a result of internal discomfort, can’t we just crank up our willpower and power through it? Not quite. In fact, “An endless cycle of resisting, ruminating, and finally giving in to the desire perpetuates the cycle and quite possibly drives many of our unwanted behaviors.” - pg. 34

It turns out that forcing ourselves to abstain from negative thoughts makes the pressure to relapse even stronger. More distraction. So, how do we change? By changing our thoughts themselves.

Notice your triggers

The first step is to pay attention to the internal trigger we feel before getting distracted.

Look for the discomfort that precedes the distraction, focusing in on the internal trigger.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal, pg.

Write down the details - what you were doing, what you felt, and the time of day. Comment on your feelings and behavior like a dispassionate observer, just documenting what you see. Note: the book and downloadable workbook both include a ‘Distraction Tracker’ that makes this easy.

Once you’ve observed a pattern, explore what you feel immediately prior to getting distracted. Spotting this feeling before giving in to distraction will help to break the cycle. Focusing on the internal trigger instead of the external distraction will help us become more aware.

Now that we know how to spot internal triggers, the next step is to change the nature of our task to be more engaging.

Change your task

We can use the same neural hardwiring that keeps us hooked to media to keep us engaged in an otherwise unpleasant task.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal, pg.

That’s right. We’re going to turn our work into a game.

Intermittent rewards - a staple of social media psychology - are a powerful way to increase our engagement with our work. Find ways to compete with yourself. Try to break a previous record, or find a new and novel way to complete a task. Searching for novelty forces us to focus. As Nir says, “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.” - pg. 43

Change your temperament

Now that we’ve spotted our triggers and made our task more fun, let’s take another look at willpower.

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. Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: ego depletion.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal, pg.

It makes sense. You work hard at something, and eventually, you get tired. You’re more likely to get distracted, more likely to make bad decisions, and… it turns out this line of thinking is wrong. Referencing a study by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, Nir says, “People who did not see willpower as a finite resource did not show signs of ego depletion.” - pg. 46

It turns out that your limiting factor is not your lack of willpower, but rather your belief that willpower is a limiting factor. Changing our mindset allows us to tap into these stores of willpower and stay focused.

Schedule your time

Part of eliminating the pull of distractions is knowing how you actually want to spend your time. Having a plan for your day is a powerful buttress against distractions.

You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it’s distracting you from.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal, pg.

Nir recommends a technique known as ‘timeboxing.’ First determine how much time you want to spend on each domain of your life - work, family, health, etc. - and then block off time on your calendar appropriately. “Keeping a timeboxed schedule is the only way to know if you’re distracted. If you’re not spending your time doing what you’d planned, you’re off track.” - pg. 57

Having a plan for how you want to spend your time also allows you to go back later and review how you actually did spend your time. This can offer more insights, revealing additional ways you can improve.

Focus on inputs, not outcomes

After observing how you’re spending your time, you’ll probably want to make some changes. Where should you start?

We can start by prioritizing and timeboxing ‘you’ time. At a basic level, we need time in our schedules for sleep, hygiene, and proper nourishment. [...]

With your body and mind strong, you will also be much more likely to follow through on your promises.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal, pg.

Set aside enough time for proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep. These will have compounding effects as you continue to tackle other areas.

Remember that your objective is to spend your time correctly, rather than worrying about outcomes. Nir reminds us, “The one thing we control is the time we put into a task.” - pg. 64

Having elaborated on these principles in much greater detail than we have here, Nir then proceeds to application. The book offers tactical advice on applying these principles to specific communication channels and devices, including email, group chat, computers, phones, and social media. Two of my favorites are:

  • Meetings: To call a meeting, the organizer must circulate an agenda and a briefing document.
  • Email: Delay replies when possible to reduce incoming volume.

Nir offers specific tips on using pacts to make distraction difficult, expensive, or downright impossible. These are categorized by:

  • Effort pacts - make bad choices harder.
  • Price pacts - forfeit money if you make a bad choice.
  • Identity pacts - change your perception of yourself to reflect the choices you wish to make.

Finally, Nir concludes with specific sections filled with actionable advice on creating indistractable workplaces, raising indistractable children, and having indistractable relationships.

Neologisms aside, I found Indistractible to be an actionable guide to reclaiming attention for the things that matter. Much of the information is similar to other popular habit-change literature, but this does not diminish from its utility here.

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