How to deal with distractions

Book Review and Notes from Nir Eyal Indistractable How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life

How to deal with distractions
Image credit: Jason

Distractions are everywhere. A notification on mobile, unwanted phone calls, a chatty friend at work, or even a work related email when we are spending time with our loved ones. They prevent us from doing what we want to do. This week, I finished reading a book titled “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life” by Nir Eyal.  This is the book about avoiding distractions and finding more time for the things we want to do. The best part of the book is its organization. The book is divided into parts. There are a few chapters in each part and each chapter has its summary. At the end, the book has a short summary for each chapter again. The book also includes some topics for discussions for book-clubs.

The first point Nir makes is that the distractions are hard to avoid if we don’t use the correct techniques. For example, we can try removing apps from mobile or switch off internet while working on a computer. Sometimes those things work well but not always. We will end up replacing those distractions by some other distractions. Moreover, many times those fixes are difficult. For example, I prefer not to uninstall a lot of apps on my phone because they are sometimes useful. To avoid distractions, we need to understand the root causes for them. Distractions can be triggered by internal or external triggers. We first see how to deal with the internal triggers, and then we look at the external triggers. Nir also talks about opposite of distractions. That is ‘Tractions’. The things we want to do. The book has 4 parts talking about how to avoid distractions and make time for tractions.

The first part is about mastering internal triggers. The most important part in the book according to me. We first acknowledge that the distractions start from within. There is a hidden discomfort we are trying to find relief from while checking emails, scrolling through social media accounts, endless browsing on internet, or playing games. All of these provide temporary relief, and that makes them addictive. We first need to identify this discomfort and then find ways to address it better. Without doing that, we may temporarily fix our distraction by fixing external triggers, but that discomfort will cause us to either go back to that distraction or replace it with some other distraction.

Why do we have those discomforts? Because our ancestors had to stay constantly perturbed for survival. We don’t need to now. But the perturbation is present as part of our evolution. Basically, we can’t stay satisfied for a long time. There are four psychological factors that make the satisfaction temporary. Boredom, negativity bias, rumination, and hedonic adaptation. Boredom is self-explanatory. Negativity bias says that we pay more attention to negative things than positive things. Rumination is related, it says that we have a tendency to keep recalling bad memories. And the last one, hedonic adaptation, is our tendency to quickly return to baseline level of satisfaction, regardless of what happens in our life.  

To deal with those internal triggers, Nir suggests that at first, we need to identify that discomfort. Recall that the triggers start the habit routine. We just need to observe how we feel right before we jump into the distraction behavior. We list them down. Sometimes, just being aware of the state of the mind is enough to counter that internal trigger. Once we start identifying them, we can choose to stay with that feeling for a while before jumping in to the distraction. That’s all. That fixes it over the time. Nir claims that eventually, we will realize that the distraction is not needed to fix our discomfort. It goes away without that as well.

Another way is to focus on the traction. The thing we want to do. If we are focused on the task, we won’t feel that discomfort. We have experienced such focused periods at some point in our life. To get more of those focused periods, Nir suggests trying to make our task more fun. Add some game element to it.

The second part is about making time for traction. The simple way to make time for tractions is to make a plan. Now, a lot of us fail to execute our plans. To fix that, we should focus on why we want to do something (long-term and short-term impacts) rather than what we want to do, while we make our plan. This plan can also include things like watching a movie or checking social media etc. These are not distractions if we do them when we planned to do them.

Nir goes a step further to help us find the right priorities. We care about ourself, our relationships and our career. The order of importance is exactly that. We first block time for activities that help us grow. Then we focus on activities that help our relationship grow. Often this is ignored and hence we don’t have enough time left for it. Finally, we put time blocks for our career related activities.

The third part is about avoiding external triggers. This part mainly has things that we find all over the internet. A bunch of tricks to deal with unwanted meetings, emails, phone calls, notifications, group chats, a chatty friend etc. The common idea is to ask ourselves: Is this serving me, or am I serving this? Nir mentions a lot of tools to deal with all these external triggers. For me, the simple things work. Just put the phone out of the sight and close the email and other distracting tabs on the browser. I mostly do my productive work from home, so not much affected by others. At work, I used to wear headphones to avoid noise and other distractions caused by chatty people. Different things work for different people. This part of the book is still worth reading to get some high-level ideas. Some tools are really cool in the sense that they can block feeds on social media and all. But again, deal with the internal triggers first, you mostly won’t need to use these hacks.

The next part is about preventing distractions with pacts. There are many pacts we can make for avoiding distractions. I particularly liked the idea of price pact, where Nir burned a $100 bill for not doing something he wanted to do. In the book ‘4 hour chef’, Tim recommended donating the money, which is better. But the money pacts will only work for short tasks. The one I liked more was identity pact. Quote from the book: “Our perception of who we are changes what we do”. The idea is to identify ourselves as indistractable. Someone who isn’t distracted very easily. This will trigger the necessary changes in our behavior and eventually, we will become indistractable.

The other parts are more about how to use those principles to make a better workplace, raising indistractable children and having indistractable relationships. Parents would definitely benefit from the part related to children. The idea is to give them enough freedom and explain to them what the distractions are and why they should avoid them. They can make the plans to avoid them without parents’ help. And children are a lot smarter. If you think they are too young to understand all that, you might be wrong. Nir could explain important parts to his 5-year-old daughter.

Some parts of the book seem a bit too stretched. But anyway, the key takeaway is in the first part. If we succeed at tracking and managing internal triggers, the distractions would be very easy to manage. Hope you liked this. Stay tuned for more!

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Quote of the week: “When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck.” —Paul Virilio