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Nir Eyal

Personal Thoughts

This is a great read that dives deep into what distraction is and how it is caused. Nir provides lots of strategies to create our own structure by planning and committing in advance to avoid distractions. In Nir's words, being indistractable is "finally doing what you say you will do." He provides a lot of research on why we get distracted, as well as specific strategies for companies, while at work, with kids, with your partner, and more. A good read!

Summary Notes

  • In the future, there will be two kinds of people in the world: those who let their attention and lives be controlled and coerced by others and those who proudly call themselves “indistractable.”
  • The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought. Planning ahead ensures you will follow through.
  • I discovered that living the life we want requires not only doing the right things; it also requires we stop doing the wrong things that take us off track.
  • Even when we think we’re seeking pleasure, we’re actually driven by the desire to free ourselves from the pain of wanting.
  • Simply put, the drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all our behavior, while everything else is a proximate cause.
  • Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality.
  • Only by understanding our pain can we begin to control it and find better ways to deal with negative urges.
  • All motivation is a desire to escape discomfort. If a behavior was previously effective at providing relief, we’re likely to continue using it as a tool to escape discomfort.
  • Anything that stops discomfort is potentially addictive, but that doesn’t make it irresistible. If you know the drivers of your behavior, you can take steps to manage them.
  • 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.
  • As the eighteenth-century poet Samuel Johnson said, “My life is one long escape from myself.” Mine too, brother. Mine too.
  • If satisfaction and pleasure were permanent, there might be little incentive to continue seeking further benefits or advances.
  • People prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it.
  • The second psychological factor driving us to distraction is negativity bias, “a phenomenon in which negative events are more salient and demand attention more powerfully than neutral or positive events.”
  • As new goals continually capture one’s attention, one constantly strives to be happy without realizing that in the long run such efforts are futile.
  • Time management is pain management. Distractions cost us time, and like all actions, they are spurred by the desire to escape discomfort.  
  • Evolution favored dissatisfaction over contentment. Our tendencies toward boredom, negativity bias, rumination, and hedonic adaptation conspire to make sure we’re never satisfied for long.  
  • Dissatisfaction is responsible for our species’ advancements as much as its faults. It is an innate power that can be channeled to help us make things better.  
  • If we want to master distraction, we must learn to deal with discomfort.
  • 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.
  • Without techniques for disarming temptation, mental abstinence can backfire. Resisting an urge can trigger rumination and make the desire grow stronger.  
  • We can manage distractions that originate from within by changing how we think about them. We can reimagine the trigger, the task, and our temperament.
  • Tell yourself something like, “I’m feeling that tension in my chest right now. And there I go, trying to reach for my iPhone.” The better we are at noticing the behavior, the better we’ll be at managing it over time. “The anxiety goes away, the thought gets weaker or [is] replaced by another thought.”
  • One of Bricker’s favorite techniques is the “leaves on a stream” method. When feeling the uncomfortable internal trigger to do something you’d rather not, “imagine you are seated beside a gently flowing stream,” he says. “Then imagine there are leaves floating down that stream. Place each thought in your mind on each leaf. It could be a memory, a word, a worry, an image. And let each of those leaves float down that stream, swirling away, as you sit and just watch.”
  • A technique I’ve found particularly helpful for dealing with this distraction trap is the “ten-minute rule.” If I find myself wanting to check my phone as a pacification device when I can’t think of anything better to do, I tell myself it’s fine to give in, but not right now. I have to wait just ten minutes.
  • Surfing the urge- When an urge takes hold, noticing the sensations and riding them like a wave—neither pushing them away nor acting on them—helps us cope until the feelings subside.
  • As Oliver Burkeman wrote in the Guardian, “It’s a curious truth that when you gently pay attention to negative emotions, they tend to dissipate—but positive ones expand.”
  • By reimagining an uncomfortable internal trigger, we can disarm it.  
  • Step 1. Look for the emotion preceding distraction.  

          Step 2. Write down the internal trigger.  

          Step 3. Explore the negative sensation with curiosity instead of contempt.  

          Step 4. Be extra cautious during liminal moments

  • Play can be part of any difficult task, and though play doesn’t necessarily have to be pleasurable, it can free us from discomfort—which, let’s not forget, is the central ingredient driving distraction.
  • For me, I learned to stay focused on the tedious work of writing books by finding the mystery in my work. I write to answer interesting questions and discover novel solutions to old problems. To use a popular aphorism, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
  • 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.
  • Dweck concluded that signs of ego depletion were observed only in those test subjects who believed willpower was a limited resource. It wasn’t the sugar in the lemonade but the belief in its impact that gave participants an extra boost.
  • He 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 in response to what’s happening to us and how we feel.
  • Addicts’ beliefs regarding their powerlessness was just as significant in determining whether they would relapse after treatment as their level of physical dependence.
  • Labeling yourself as having poor self-control actually leads to less self-control.
  • 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.
  • Self-compassion makes people more resilient to letdowns by breaking the vicious cycle of stress that often accompanies failure.
  • We can cope with uncomfortable internal triggers by reflecting on, rather than reacting to, our discomfort. We can reimagine the task we’re trying to accomplish by looking for the fun in it and focusing on it more intensely.
  • If we chronically neglect our values, we become something we’re not proud of—our lives feel out of balance and diminished
  • I know many of us bristle at the idea of keeping a schedule because we don’t want to feel hampered, but oddly enough, we actually perform better under constraints. This is because limitations give us a structure, while a blank schedule and a mile-long to-do list torments us with too many choices.
  • How much time in each domain would allow you to be consistent with your values? Start by creating a weekly calendar template for your perfect week.
  • You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from. Planning ahead is the only way to know the difference between traction and distraction.  
  • Does your calendar reflect your values? To be the person you want to be, you have to make time to live your values.  
  • Timebox your day. The three life domains of you, relationships, and work provide a framework for planning how to spend your time.  
  • Reflect and refine. Revise your schedule regularly, but you must commit to it once it’s set.
  • Exercise, sleep, healthy meals, and time spent reading or listening to an audiobook are all ways to invest in ourselves. Some people value mindfulness, spiritual connection, or reflection, and may want time to pray or meditate.
  • If I woke up, I’d repeat a simple mantra, “The body gets what the body needs.” That subtle mind-set shift took the pressure off by no longer making sleep a requirement. My job was to provide my body with the proper time and place to rest—what happened next was out of my control. I started to think of waking up in the middle of the night as a chance to read on my Kindle and stopped worrying about when I’d fall back asleep. I assured myself that if I wasn’t tired enough to fall asleep right at that moment, it was because my body had already gotten enough rest. I let my mind relax without worry.
  • Schedule time for yourself first. You are at the center of the three life domains. Without allocating time for yourself, the other two domains suffer.  
  • Show up when you say you will. You can’t always control what you get out of time you spend, but you can control how much time you put into a task.  
  • Input is much more certain than outcome. When it comes to living the life you want, making sure you allocate time to living your values is the only thing you should focus on.
  • The people we love most should not be content getting whatever time is left over. Everyone benefits when we hold time on our schedule to live up to our values and do our share.
  • “The clearest message that we get from this seventy-five-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” Socially disconnected people are, according to Waldinger, “less happy; their health declines earlier in midlife; their brain functioning declines sooner; [and] they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.” Waldinger warned, “It’s not just the number of friends you have . . . It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”
  • Satisfying friendships need three things: “somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy.”
  • The people you love deserve more than getting whatever time is left over. If someone is important to you, make regular time for them on your calendar.  
  • Go beyond scheduling date days with your significant other. Put domestic chores on your calendar to ensure an equitable split.  
  • A lack of close friendships may be hazardous to your health. Ensure you maintain important relationships by scheduling time for regular get-togethers.
  • Studies have found that workers who spend more than fifty-five hours per week on the job have reduced productivity.
  • The Fogg Behavior Model states that for a behavior (B) to occur, three things must be present at the same time: motivation (M), ability (A), and a trigger (T). More succinctly, B = MAT. Motivation is “the energy for action".
  • External triggers often lead to distraction. Cues in our environment like the pings, dings, and rings from devices, as well as interruptions from other people, frequently take us off track.  
  • External triggers aren’t always harmful. If an external trigger leads us to traction, it serves us.  
  • We must ask ourselves: Is this trigger serving me, or am I serving it? Then we can hack back the external triggers that don’t serve us.
  • Open-office floor plans were supposed to foster idea sharing and collaboration. Unfortunately, according to a 2016 metastudy of over three hundred papers, the trend has led to more distraction. Not surprisingly, these interruptions have also been shown to decrease overall employee satisfaction.
  • There’s mounting evidence that processing your email in batches is much more efficient and less stress inducing than checking it throughout the day. This is because our brains take time to switch between tasks, so it’s better to focus on answering emails all at once.
  • Checking email isn’t so much the problem; it’s the habitual rechecking that gets us into trouble.
  • Only touch each email twice. The first time we open an email, before closing it, answer this question: When does this email require a response? Tagging each email as either “Today” or “This Week” attaches the most important information to each new message, preparing it for the second (and last) time we open it. Of course, for super-urgent, email-me-right-now-type messages, go ahead and respond. Messages that don’t need a response at all should be deleted or archived immediately.
  • We should use group chat in the same way we use other synchronous communication channels. We wouldn’t choose to participate in a conference call that lasted for a whole day, so the same goes for group chat. Fried recommends we “treat chat like a sauna—stay a while but then get out . . . it’s unhealthy to stay too long.”
  • Instead of using group chat for long arguments and hurried decisions, it’s better to ask participants in the conversation to articulate their point in a document and share it after they’ve compiled their thoughts
  • Real-time communication channels should be used sparingly. Time spent communicating should not come at the sacrifice of time spent concentrating.  
  • Company culture matters. Changing group chat practices may involve questioning company norms.
  • Different communication channels have different uses. Rather than use every technology as an always-on channel, use the best tools for the job.  
  • Get in and get out. Group chat is great for replacing in-person meetings but terrible if it becomes an all-day affair.
  • If we are going to spend our time in a meeting, we must make sure that we are present, both in body and mind.
  • Make it harder to call a meeting. To call a meeting, the organizer must circulate an agenda and briefing document.  
  • Meetings are for consensus building. With few exceptions, creative problem-solving should occur before the meeting, individually or in very small groups.  
  • Be fully present. People use devices during meetings to escape monotony and boredom, which subsequently makes meetings even worse.  
  • Have one laptop per meeting. Devices in everyone’s hands makes it more difficult to achieve the purpose of the meeting. With the exception of one laptop in the room for presenting information and taking notes, leave devices outside.
  • Stubblebine recommends sorting your apps into three categories: “Primary Tools,” “Aspirations,” and “Slot Machines.” He says Primary Tools “help you accomplish defined tasks that you rely on frequently: getting a ride, finding a location, adding an appointment. ... rearranging your phone’s home screen so it only displays your Primary Tools and your Aspirations. He instructs you to “think of your home page as a group of apps that you feel you are in charge of. If the app triggers any mindless checking from you, move it to a different screen.”
  • You can hack back the external triggers on your phone in four steps and in less than one hour.  
  • Remove: Uninstall the apps you no longer need.  
  • Replace: Shift where and when you use potentially distracting apps, like social media and YouTube, to your desktop instead of on your phone. Get a wristwatch so you don’t have to look at your phone for the time.  
  • Rearrange: Move any apps that may trigger mindless checking from your phone’s home screen.  
  • Reclaim: Change the notification settings for each app. Be very selective regarding which apps can send you sound and sight cues. Learn to use your phone’s Do Not Disturb settings.
  • Desktop clutter takes a heavy psychological toll on your attention. Clearing away external triggers in your digital workspace can help you stay focused.  
  • Turn off desktop notifications. Disabling notifications on your computer ensures you won’t get distracted by external triggers while doing focused work.
  • As you can imagine, as a writer, I use the web for research every day. However, whenever I discover a new article, I no longer read it in my web browser right away. Instead, I’ve time-shifted when and how I read online, thereby removing the temptation to read for longer than I intend.
  • A recent study found walking, even if done slowly and on a treadmill, improved performance on a creativity test when compared to sitting down.
  • Cooking and eating a healthy meal with friends allows you to do something good for your body while also investing in your relationships. Stepping out of the office for a long walk while taking a phone call or inviting a colleague for a walking meeting checks off two positive things at once. Listening to a nonfiction audiobook on the way to work is a good example of making the most of a commute while investing time in self-improvement. Doing the same while cooking or cleaning makes the chores seem to pass more quickly.
  • Online articles are full of potentially distracting external triggers. Open tabs can pull us off course and tend to suck us down a time-wasting content vortex.  
  • Make a rule. Promise yourself you’ll save interesting content for later by using an app like Pocket.  
  • Surprise! You can multitask. Use multichannel multitasking like listening to articles while working out or taking walking meetings.
  • Feeds, like the ones we scroll through on social media, are designed to keep you engaged. Feeds are full of external triggers that can drive us to distraction.  
  • Take control of feeds by hacking back. Use free browser extensions like News Feed Eradicator for Facebook, Newsfeed Burner, Open Multiple Websites, and DF Tube to remove distracting external triggers.
  • An effort pact prevents distraction by making unwanted behaviors more difficult to do.  
  • In the age of the personal computer, social pressure to stay on task has largely disappeared. No one can see what you’re working on, so it’s easier to slack off. Working next to a colleague or friend for a set period of time can be a highly effective effort pact.  
  • You can use tech to stay off tech. Apps like SelfControl, Forest, and Focusmate can help you make effort pacts.  
  • If we are bound by a pact for too long, we begin to associate it with punishment, which can spawn counterproductive effects, such as resentment of the task or goal.
  • A price pact adds a cost to getting distracted. It has been shown to be a highly effective motivator.  
  • Price pacts are most effective when you can remove the external triggers that lead to distraction.  
  • Price pacts work best when the distraction is temporary.  
  • Price pacts can be difficult to start. We fear making a price pact because we know we’ll have to actually do the thing we’re scared to do.  
  • Learn self-compassion before making a price pact.
  • To leverage the power of identity to prevent distraction, we can enter into what I call an “identity pact,” which is a precommitment to a self-image that helps us pursue what we really want.
  • By thinking of yourself as indistractable, you empower yourself through your new identity. You can also use this identity as a rationale to tell others why you do “strange” things like meticulously plan your time, refuse to respond to every notification immediately, or put a sign on your screen when you don’t want to be disturbed.
  • According to several recent studies, preaching to others can have a great impact on the motivation and adherence of the teacher. Researchers Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach have run experiments on diverse groups, from unemployed workers looking for a job to children struggling in school. Their results consistently show that teaching others provides more motivation for the teacher to change their own behavior than if the teacher learned from an expert.
  • Studies show teaching others can be even more effective at changing our future behavior when we admit our own struggles. As Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach note in the MIT Sloan Management Review, when people confess past mistakes they are able to acknowledge where they’ve gone wrong without developing a negative self-image. Rather, teaching empowers us to construct a different identity, as shown by the act of helping other people prevent the same mistakes.
  • Even when they are not embedded in years of tradition, simple rituals can help us build personal discipline and self-control.
  • By making identity pacts, we are able to build the self-image we want. Whether the behavior is related to what we eat, how we treat others, or how we manage distraction, this technique can help shape our behavior to reflect our values.
  • Identity greatly influences our behavior. People tend to align their actions with how they see themselves.  
  • An identity pact is a precommitment to a self-image. You can prevent distraction by acting in line with your identity.  
  • Become a noun. By assigning yourself a moniker, you increase the likelihood of following through with behaviors consistent with what you call yourself. Call yourself “indistractable.”  
  • Share with others. Teaching others solidifies your commitment, even if you’re still struggling. A great way to be indistractable is to tell friends about what you learned in this book and the changes you’re making in your life.  
  • Adopt rituals. Repeating mantras, keeping a timeboxed schedule, or performing other routines reinforces your identity and influences your future actions.
  • It doesn’t so much matter what you do, but rather the work environment you do it in.
  • The second factor that correlates with workplace depression is an environment with an “effort-reward imbalance,” in which workers don’t see much return for their hard work, be it through increased pay or recognition. At the heart of both job strain and effort-reward imbalance, according to Stansfeld, is a lack of control.
  • Jobs where employees encounter high expectations and low control have been shown to lead to symptoms of depression.  
  • Depression-like symptoms are painful. When people feel bad, they use distractions to avoid their pain and regain a sense of control.  
  • Tech overuse at work is a symptom of a dysfunctional company culture.  
  • More tech use makes the underlying problems worse, perpetuating a “cycle of responsiveness.
  • In her TEDx talk, Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”
  • How does a team—or a company, for that matter—create psychological safety? Edmondson provides a three-step answer in her talk:  Step 1: “Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.” Because the future is uncertain, emphasize that “we’ve got to have everyone’s brains and voices in the game.” Step 2: “Acknowledge your own fallibility.” Managers need to let people know that nobody has all the answers—we’re in this together. Step 3: Finally, leaders must “model curiosity and ask lots of questions.”
  • Don’t suffer in silence. A workplace where people can’t talk about technology overuse is also one where people keep other important issues (and insights) to themselves. Knowing that your voice matters is essential. Teams that foster psychological safety and facilitate regular open discussions about concerns not only have fewer problems with distraction but also have happier employees and customers.
  • There is a dedicated channel called #slack-culture and another called #exec-ama where executives invite employees to “ask me anything.” Shevat says, “People will post all sorts of suggestions and are encouraged to do so.” There’s even a special channel for airing your “beef” with the company’s own product, called #beef-tweets.
  • Here’s where emoji can come to the rescue. Management lets people know they’ve read their feedback with an eyes emoji.
  • Indistractable organizations, like Slack and BCG, foster psychological safety, provide a place for open discussions about concerns, and, most important, have leaders who exemplify the importance of doing focused work
  • Stop deflecting blame. When kids don’t act the way parents want, it’s natural to look for answers that help parents divert responsibility. Techno-panics are nothing new. From the book, to the radio, to video games, the history of parenting is strewn with moral panic over things supposedly making kids act in strange ways. ech isn’t evil. Used in the right way and in the right amounts, kids’ tech use can be beneficial, while too much (or too little) can have slightly harmful effects. Teach kids to be indistractable. Teaching children how to manage distraction will benefit them throughout their lives.
  • Just as the human body requires three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) to run properly, Ryan and Deci proposed the human psyche needs three things to flourish: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When the body is starved, it elicits hunger pangs; when the psyche is undernourished, it produces anxiety, restlessness, and other symptoms that something is missing.
  • Teens in the U.S. are subjected to more than ten times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons.” While such a restrictive environment isn’t every American student’s experience, it’s clear why so many struggle to stay motivated in the classroom: their need for autonomy to explore their interests is unfulfilled.
  • Studies demonstrate that children who eat regularly with their families show lower rates of drug use, depression, school problems, and eating disorders. Unfortunately, many families miss meals together because they “play it by ear,” a strategy that often leaves everyone eating alone on their own schedules.
  • In my household, we’ve established a weekly “Sunday Funday,” where we rotate the responsibility to plan a three-hour activity. When it’s my turn, I might take the family to the park for a long conversation while we walk. My daughter typically requests to play a board game when it’s her turn to pick. My wife often proposes a trip to a local farmers’ market to discover and sample new foods.
  • Teach traction. With so many potential distractions in kids’ lives, teaching them how to make time for traction is critical. Just as with our own timeboxed schedules, kids can learn how to make time for what’s important to them. If they don’t learn to make their own plans in advance, kids will turn to distractions. It’s OK to let your kids fail. Failure is how we learn. Show kids how to adjust their schedules to make time to live up to their values.
  • Teach your children to swim before they dive in. Like swimming in a pool, children should not be allowed to partake in certain risky behaviors before they are ready. Test for tech readiness. A good measure of a child’s readiness is the ability to manage distraction by using the settings on the device to turn off external triggers. Kids need sleep. There is little justification for having a television or other potential distractions in a kid’s room overnight. Make sure nothing gets in the way of them getting good rest. Don’t be the unwanted external trigger. Respect their time and don’t interrupt them when they have scheduled time to focus on something, be that work or play.
  • Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to precommit and follow through. Even young children can learn to use precommitments as long as they set the rules and know how to use a timer or some other binding system. Consumer skepticism is healthy. Understanding that companies are motivated to keep kids spending time watching or playing is an important part of teaching media literacy.Put the kids in charge. It’s only when kids practice monitoring their own behavior that they learn how to manage their own time and attention.
  • Distraction in social situations can keep us from being fully present with important people in our lives. Interruptions degrade our ability to form close social bonds. Block the spread of unhealthy behaviors. “Social antibodies” are ways groups protect themselves from harmful behaviors by making them taboo. Develop new social norms. We can tackle distraction among friends the same way we beat social smoking, by making it unacceptable to use devices in social situations. Prepare a few tactful phrases—like asking, “Is everything OK?”—to discourage phone usage among friends.
  • Distraction can be an impediment in our most intimate relationships. Instant digital connectivity can come at the expense of being fully present with those beside us. Indistractable partners reclaim time for togetherness. Following the four steps to becoming indistractable can ensure you make time for your partner.


Nir Eyal

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