Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life

An interview with Nir Eyal, about his book “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.”

Interview

What is Indistratctable about?

Indistractable is about how to control your attention and choose your life. It answers this age-old question of why do we do things that we know we shouldn’t do, and why don’t we do the things that we know we should? When it comes to this problem of distraction, it’s imperative that we understand that becoming Indistractable, is the skill of the century. When it comes to doing our best work, when it comes to having better relationships, when it comes to raising the healthier, happier children, we have to understand: “How can we make sure that we do what we say we’re going to do in both business and life?”

So, is Indistractable the antidote to Hooked?

It’s not anti-hooked. It’s about bad habits versus good habits. Everything in hooked still stands. We can definitely still use technology to help people build healthy habits in their lives, but if people find that sometimes they overuse certain technologies or just get distracted by anything in life, really, then Indistratctable is about how to break those bad habits.

How did you come up with the idea for Indistractable?

Indistractable really started for me when I had to reassess my relationship with distraction a few years ago. I was sitting with my daughter and we had this beautiful afternoon planned and, we had this book of activities that daddies and daughters could play together. One of the questions in this activity book was to ask each other this question: “If you could have any superpower, what superpower would you want.” And I remember the question verbatim, but I can’t tell you what my daughter said because in that moment I was distracted. I was looking at something on my phone. I don’t even remember what, and I didn’t hear what my daughter said, and I had blown it.

She got the message that whatever was on my phone was more important than she was. And she left the room to play with some toy outside. And so that was really this critical moment in my life where I decided that I really need to reassess what I was doing and my relationship with distraction. And that’s what really started me down, this journey of understanding and what was really going on.

Was it really my phone’s fault? Or was there something deeper going on in my life? And what I discovered was in my life is that by using these four techniques of: 1) mastering the internal triggers, 2)  making time for traction, 3) hacking back the external triggers, and 4) preventing distraction with pact, anyone can become in Indistractable.

What is the framework to become Indistractable?

When we talk about distraction, the best place to start is to understand: “What is the opposite of distraction?” The opposite of distraction is not focused. The opposite of distraction is traction. That in fact, both words, traction and distraction come from the same Latin root ‘trahere’, which means to pull. And they both end in the same six letters, A. C. T. I. O. N. that spells action. So, traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do, things that you do with intent. Now, the opposite of traction is distraction. Anything that pulls you away from what you plan to do. This is really important because anything can become a distraction.

If you’ve ever sat down at your desk and said, okay, now I’m going to work on that big project. I’m going to finish that report. I’m going to stop procrastinating. Here I go. I’m going to do what I said I’m going to do but let me check email first. Then you have noticed how distraction can trick you into thinking what you’re doing is productive, even when it’s something you’ll later regret.

So, anything can become a distraction and conversely, anything can become traction. So, the antidote is not to go on some stupid 30-day digital detox or excise social media from your life. Instead, the idea here is to find ways to use the technology in a way that serves you, as opposed to you serving it, by planning when you will use it.

It is as simple as that. By making sure that we make time in our day for acts of traction that are in accordance to our values and our schedule, we can turn things that are otherwise a distraction, like: television, social media, the news, etc. These things are terrible distractions when you use them on someone else’s schedule, but they can be wonderful for your life when you’re using them on your schedule.

So, we’ve got traction, we’ve got distraction. There are two more parts of the Indistractable model, which are the external triggers and the internal triggers. Now, external triggers are all these things in our environment that prompt us towards traction or distraction. All of these things that come in the form of pings, dings, rings, all of these things that might lead us to do things that get us off track.

Now these things sometimes can serve us, but many times they can lead to distraction. So, the question here that we have to ask ourselves is how we remove the external triggers that don’t serve us and keep the ones that do serve us. But as bad as these external triggers are – most people tend to blame these for causing our distraction – it turns out the root cause of distraction is not what is happening outside of us, but rather what is happening inside of us. That the root cause of distraction is not the external triggers, but rather the internal triggers. Internal triggers are these uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to escape from.

Loneliness, fatigue, uncertainty, anxiety, stress. All of these things are what drives us to look for distraction in one form or another. So, the first step to becoming Indistractable has to be learning how to master the internal triggers. The real cause of distraction.

When you get a great idea…is that a distraction?

The best way to understand distraction is to understand what the opposite of distraction is. The opposite of distraction is traction. So, traction is doing what it is you said you’re going to do. So, if you’re reading a book and you want to continue reading a book and then you get an idea. Or you’re inspired. It sounds great, but it’s another one of distractions, tricks. Because if you said you’re going to read the book for an hour, read the book for an hour. But you say, “Buy I have a great idea. What am I going to do with my great idea?” Write the idea down. Don’t let that great idea send you down a rabbit hole for 30 minutes or an hour, in which case you won’t do what you said you’re going to do. Instead, write down on a post-it note when you’re reading a book, keep a sheet of paper next to you, keep a post-it note next to you, and just jot down that idea. It’ll take you five seconds as opposed to letting it leading you down distraction, which could take you half an hour, maybe more.

How are you changing to become Indistractable?

I’ve changed my life in all sorts of ways over the past five years of researching this book. Number one, I have tactics in my day that I use. When I feel those internal triggers. So instead of feeling boredom and instantaneously feeling this impulse to check my phone to relieve boredom, I now have tools that I can use to master that internal trigger as opposed to letting it master and control me. I schedule my day in a way that I never did before using a technique called making an implementation intention. And so, I have every minute of my day planned. And this is a technique that we don’t have the luxury to not do. If you’re the kind of person who looks at their to do list every day and says, why did I still not accomplish everything I said, I would. This is your problem.

We have to schedule our time or someone else will schedule it for us. So, I’ve changed what I do throughout the day so that I can look at my calendar and understand the difference between what is traction, what is in my calendar and what is distraction, anything that is not on my schedule. I schedule sync with my wife. It’s a very important tactic and essentially saved my marriage. Every Sunday we synchronize our schedules and I show you exactly how to do that in the book as well. You can do that with your boss. Very important technique will change your life.

I hacked back all of these external triggers. On my phone, on my computer, in group chat channels, meetings, email, Oh my God, just what I’ve done in my life in terms of email, I probably spend 90% less time checking email now using this technique that helps you become Indistractable by hacking back the external triggers.

And then when it comes to that fourth technique around preventing distraction with pacts. I use these three types of pacts, an effort pact. So, every night in my household we use what’s called an effort pack to make sure that the internet shuts off in my household every night at 10:00 PM because we value our sleep.

My wife and I value getting to bed on time together, and so we know that when 10 o’clock comes, our internet shuts off. That’s an example of an effort pact we can use to help us prevent getting distracted. We use price pacts. That, I talk about in the book about how I got into the best physical shape of my life.

I put on 11 pounds of muscle in just one year this year because I exercise consistently for the first time in my life because I use these price pacts to keep me on track. And then finally I use what’s called an identity pact, which is where we have some kind of moniker, some kind of identity that we use that helps us stay on track and make sure we don’t get distracted.

Which is why the book is titled Indistractable because this is our new label. This is our new religion, our new identity that people who are out there who want to stand up and say, I don’t want others to control my life and my attention and my time. I want to decide what I want to do with my time and my attention.

I am Indistractable.

 

How can we master email?

So, the way we want to start mastering our email and hacking back, the external triggers that come with email is to understand where do we waste the most. Time on email. Now, most people think that you waste time in terms of just the sheer volume of emails, but it turns out that in time studies, it’s not the checking or the replying that wastes time.

What wastes the most time when it comes to using email, is the re-checking of email. You know this routine, right? You open it up an email, you look at it, you put it away, you open up an email, you look at it, you put it away, you open up an email, you look at it, you put it away. That is where we waste the most amount of time on email.

So, here’s what you do instead. Every time you get an email, you have to answer one key question, not what is in the email. That’s not that important. What’s important from a time management perspective is to ask yourself one question, when does this email need a reply? And according to the answer to that question, you have a few choices to make.

You can either delete the email or archive it if it never needs a reply. If it needs a reply right this minute, Oh my God, this is an emergency. You have to email me back right this minute. Typically that won’t happen. That’s maybe 1% of emails. People will call or text you if it’s really an emergency. But sometimes that happens.

The rest of the emails, 99% of the emails will fall into two categories. Either they will be emails that need to be returned sometime today, or emails that can wait within one week’s time. And what I want you to do every time you receive one of those two types of emails. Is to label it. If you don’t know how to use labels, just Google it. There’s lots of, every email service provider can help you label your email. It’s very easy to do in Gmail or Outlook or whatever. You want to label those two types of emails with a color coded label by when it needs a reply, either today, or this week. Then what you’re going to do, referring back to the second step to becoming Indistractable, you’re going to make time in your schedule to process those emails.

So, every day you’re going to have time to just check the emails, that need a reply today. Okay, so only the urgent emails, those are about 20% on average of your emails. The rest of your emails, that you do need to reply to, but don’t need a reply today, you’re going to book a big slot of time. So in my case, it’s three and a half hours every Monday. I call it message Mondays. That’s what I’m going to process all the emails that need a reply, but don’t need a reply today that can wait within a week’s time.

Now you say, well, where am I saving time? Right? Isn’t just this putting off the inevitable. No. Cause here’s where the magic happens. It turns out, that most people think that they’re being very productive when they’re replying to emails, but they don’t realize is the simple math of how emails work. That if you want to receive fewer emails in a given period of time, you have to send fewer emails in a given period of time. So, by slowing down this stupid ping pong game that most people play with email, you will reduce the number of emails you get per day.

Now, when it comes to those emails, they need to be answered sometime this week, right? Aren’t you putting off the inevitable? No, you’re not. Here’s what happens when you delay replying to non-urgent emails, there’s something amazing that happens. People figure out their own problems, and many of those emails, they thought they needed your input, turns out they don’t. People figure out their own issues. The email gets crushed under the weight of some other priority, and you will find that a good chunk of those emails, about 50% of those emails that you let wait a little while, don’t need a response or the response you would have sent, is now no longer relevant.

And so, by labeling emails, by when they need a reply, and then only replying to those emails according to your timebox schedule, you will save a tremendous amount of time on those unnecessary time-wasting messages.

How do you handle emails?

So, for me personally, I spend about an hour a day on email. I check first thing in the morning, before I make breakfast. I label everything. I don’t reply, but I label. Then I, I have a time after lunch when I check my emails again. And then at the end of the day, I check, only the urgent emails. So, I reply to those.

Some people, they say, no, I need to be very responsive to email. That’s totally fine, but again, do it according to your schedule, not according to someone else’s. So many people I work with, they say, I’m going to work for 45 minutes, focused, and then I’m going to check email for 15 minutes.

Okay, that’s totally fine. You can do it in whatever cadence you want. The important thing is that you decide in advance, when you will be on email, because if you don’t, you know what’s going to happen. You’re going to check it whenever you’re feeling stressed, anxious, uncertain, you’re going to let your emotions dictate your behavior as opposed to you controlling the distractions.

What are some tools to mastering “internal triggers”?

There are all kinds of techniques that we can use to master those internal triggers, starting with re-imagining those internal triggers. So how we think about the triggers is very, very important. There’s lots of techniques we can use. The book is filled with dozens of different techniques. some of them are as simple as what I call the 10-minute rule.

And this has been around for decades now. It’s not something I invented. It’s, it comes from acceptance and commitment therapy. And the idea of the 10-minute rule is to react to these temptations, whether it’s the temptation to get distracted by eating a chocolate cake that you know you shouldn’t be eating or checking email when you want to be working on a big project or whatever the case might be.

Whenever you encounter one of these distractions, you want to tell yourself that you’re allowed to give into that temptation, but in just 10 minutes. Because it turns out that abstinence, strictly telling yourself don’t do something can really backfire. So let’s say for example, if I told you whatever you do right now, don’t think about a white bear.

What are you thinking about? Nothing but a white bear, right? And this is called rumination. And then by telling yourself, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Okay, fine. That giving in actually feels pleasurable and you’re doing nothing but reinforcing the very behavior you are trying not to do. So instead of using strict absence, particularly, this is why I hate these programs like digital detoxes or 30 day plans. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t help you deal with the real source of the problem. The real source of the problem is that we can’t deal with these uncomfortable sensations in a healthier manner. So one of the things that we can do to deal with these uncomfortable sensations in a healthier manner is when we feel like we are about to get distracted, all we have to do is to note down the sensation. Just write that sensation down and sit with it for 10 minutes. Now. In those 10 minutes, you have to do one of two things. You can either get back to the task at hand or explore that sensation with curiosity rather than contempt. And if you can do that, just explore that sensation. Telling yourself, yep, I can give in to that chocolate cake, I can check my email, whatever it might be. In just 10 minutes, you’re doing what’s called surfing the urge. You’re allowing that sensation to crest and then subside. And what you’ll find is by the time that clock strikes and the 10 minutes are up, you’ll be back on that task at hand because that sensation, that temptation, that urge, that itch will have subsided and you’ll no longer be craving it as much as you did before. So that’s one of dozens of different techniques that we can use to master these internal triggers.

Is becoming Indistractable a journey?

Yeah, so you can call yourself Indistractable right now. You don’t even have to read the book to call yourself in distractible because using a moniker, having a noun that you use to describe yourself, kind of like how someone describes themselves as a vegetarian or someone who’s religious calls themselves a devout Christian or Muslim, whatever it might be. Having a moniker is a very effective way to do what it is you say you’re going to do.

So you can call yourself Indistractable right now because you are the kind of person who strives to live with personal integrity. That’s what that word means. Now when you read the book, you’re going to learn a bunch of other techniques that you can layer on, okay. That you can start using more and more. Anyone can do the techniques in the book, starting from the very, very simple techniques up to the techniques that might require a little bit more commitment. But the idea is that it’s a process that you’re working through these four basic steps of mastering the internal triggers, making time for traction, hacking back the external triggers and preventing distraction with pact, and you’re adding more to your life or coming up with new solutions that follow these four strategies and principles to add these type of practices in your life to become increasingly Indistractable.

What’s the next step to become Indistractable?

So, there’s a lot in the book, and if you want more information, there’s actually a an 80 page workbook that we couldn’t fit into the final manuscript. And so we have it available online. Anyone can get that. That’s completely free. It’s on my blog NirAndFar.com and if you go to indistractable.com and you buy the book, if you keep your order number, make sure you keep the order number no matter where you buy the book, if you get it from a local book seller or Amazon doesn’t matter, keep that order number, enter it at indistractable.com and you’ll get access to a video course that I recorded for you to help guide you on this journey.

Nir Eyal author

Nir Eyal

Book Author

Nir Eyal is the bestselling author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” and “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.”

He has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. His writing on technology, psychology, and business appears in the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today.

Nir blogs regularly at NirAndFar.com