Becoming "indistractable" is the most important skill for the 21st century: Nir Eyal
Technology and social media usage has significantly increased as a result of the pandemic, and constant distractions and interruptions have become the "new normal." Hence, it is especially imperative to master what Nir Eyal, a former Stanford lecturer and behavioural designer, calls the "skill of the century," i.e. the power to become indistractable.
In this exclusive interaction, the bestselling author turns our attention to the psychology of distractions and explains why, as paradoxical as it may seem, technology is not the culprit behind personal and workplace distractions. He also shares pertinent insights into how distractions are not just around us but more so within us, and how we, as individuals and leaders, can develop the superpower of indistractability.
When you started writing your highly acclaimed book ‘Indistractable’, you went extreme with cutting back on your technology usage to fix the distraction problems you were struggling with. What did you find out from this experiment?
My gut reaction was to believe the popular narrative today, which is technology causes distraction, that we’re addicted to technology, and that we’re helpless because of the amazing algorithms, video games, social media, and the internet. So I read books by different people who espoused this idea of getting rid of your technology.
Technology is the problem, go on a digital detox, that’s the typical advice. And I did that. I got myself a flip phone on Alibaba that could only make and receive calls and text messages. I also got a 1990s word processor that had no internet connection, and I thought, “Okay, great. I got rid of the apps— no internet. I’m going to be focused, and nothing is going to distract me. But there’s that book that I’ve been meaning to do some research into. Let me just give that a quick perusal. Oh, the trash needs to be taken out. Oh, geez, my desk is a mess. I should sort up the things on my desk.” What I noticed was that I kept getting distracted.
Distraction is not a new problem. Facebook, iPhones or the internet didn’t invent distraction. In fact, 2,500 years before the internet, Plato, the Greek philosopher, talked about 'akrasia', which means the tendency to do things against our better interest. Plato was getting distracted 2,500 years before these modern technologies!
What I eventually discovered was that the problem is much deeper than just blaming the latest technology. And that’s why I wanted to dive deeper, not just into technology distraction (of course, we need to deal with distraction that comes from technology), but into other relevant aspects.
Could you define what distraction means?
The best way to understand distraction is to understand what distraction is not.
Most people will tell you the opposite of distraction is ‘focus’, but that’s not exactly true. The opposite of distraction is ‘traction’. If you look at the origin of these words, both traction and distraction come from the same Latin root ‘trahere’, which means to pull. Both words also end in the same six letters: A-C-T-I-O-N.
So traction, by definition, is any action that pulls us towards what we want. Things that pull us towards our values and that help us become the person we want to become are all acts of traction.
Any action that is not aligned with our values and pulls us farther away from the person we want to become is a distraction. Understanding this dichotomy is incredibly important. This isn’t just some fancy wordplay; it’s fundamental to understanding what distraction is, because by definition, anything that you decide in advance with forethought, with intent, is fine.
There’s nothing evil about scrolling Facebook or watching a YouTube video or messaging your family on WhatsApp. None of these things is bad if you use them on your schedule, because when you plan for them, you turn distraction into traction.
I will also argue that anything can be a distraction as well. How many times have you sat at your desk thinking, “Okay, now I’m going to get to work. I’m not going to let anything get in my way. I have to work on that project. But first, let me clear my inbox or finish a few things on my to-do list.”
I used to do it, and I thought I was productive. What I didn’t realize was that I was allowing distraction to trick me into prioritising the urgent at the expense of the important, because I was thinking, “I’m doing something work-related. I’m checking email. I’m doing to-dos on my to-do list.” But if that’s not what you plan to do with your time, it is just as much of a distraction as playing video games or scrolling Facebook.
If technology is not the problem, what are the root causes of distraction, and what’s the best way to cope with the intense urges to check our devices every now and then?
There are two types of triggers: internal and external.
If it’s the pings, the dings, the rings, or anything in your outside environment that leads you to some sort of action, those are external triggers. That’s what we tend to blame, right? When we get distracted, we say, “It was my phone, it was this, it was that,” things outside of me.
But what I discovered in my five years of research is that the leading cause of distraction is not what is happening outside of us. Rather, distraction begins from within.
Most distraction in our day-to-day lives is not caused by external triggers. It is, in fact, caused by the internal triggers which are uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to escape from, such as boredom, loneliness, fatigue, stress, uncertainty, etc. All of these uncomfortable sensations are the root causes of distraction.
Fundamentally, time management is pain management. If we don’t understand the uncomfortable sensation that we seek to escape from, we will always succumb to one distraction or another, whether it’s too much news, too much booze, too much football, or too much Facebook.
Something will always be there to take us off track if we don’t understand why we are looking to escape, why can’t we sit with our children without checking our device, why can’t we do our work without constantly wanting to see what’s in our email inbox, why can’t we be alone with ourselves without constantly needing to take our mind somewhere else? We have to begin here.
The good news is that anyone can learn the tactics to become indistractable, and it starts with mastering the internal triggers.
I teach people some simple techniques that they can use, so that the habitual response to discomfort is not reaching for something to take our mind off of our problems, but rather being comfortable with discomfort, and knowing how to sit with that feeling so that it leads us towards traction rather than a distraction.
You ask people to be careful of using the term “addiction” and how it disempowers us. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Addiction is one of those terms that gets thrown around much too often. Today, everybody seems to be getting addicted to everything. For instance, just the other day, I saw a restaurant menu that read, “Danger! Addictive food.” My wife recently got a box of shoes that read, “Caution! Addictive contents inside.” We’ve inflated this medical disease.
Addiction is a pathology, and yet we talk about it as if everybody’s got it. Why do we do that? Because if something is a disease, it’s outside of our control. We’re saying to ourselves that we can’t do anything about it and that it’s not our fault. However, often, it isn’t really an addiction; it’s a distraction. But when you call it a distraction, you think, “Oh, a distraction. Now I got to do something about that. That’s no fun. Can’t I just blame somebody else? Can’t I blame the tech company for this?” No.
Just like with alcohol, some people really are addicted to technology. But not everybody who has a beer with dinner is an alcoholic. There are single-digit percentages of people who are addicted to alcohol, and it’s the same thing with technology. The vast majority of us are not addicted; we are simply distracted.
We need to stop overusing the word “addiction” because when we misuse that term, we are doing exactly what tech companies want. They want us to believe we’re powerless. They want us to justify the behaviour we know is not good for us by saying, “We don’t have any responsibility, we don’t have any power. This is outside of our control.” That is not true and not helpful.
Your book describes a four-part research-backed model that sets out how to become indistractable. Could you briefly explain how each step in this framework can help overcome distractions?
Of the four parts to becoming indistractable, the first is to master the internal triggers, which we talked about earlier. We have to start with those uncomfortable emotional states and build new habits and routines around how we deal with that discomfort in a healthy way.
Step two is about making time for traction.
You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from.
I work with many people who tell me how distracted they are, how the world is pulling them in all directions, and they can’t get anything done. When asked, “What did you plan to do with your day? What did you get distracted from?” they say, “I don’t know. I didn’t plan my day. I don’t keep a calendar.”
If you don’t keep a calendar, you can’t complain. You have no right to say you got distracted if you don’t know what you got distracted from. I used to do this. I used to keep a to-do list. And as it turns out, studies find that a to do list is just about the worst thing you can do for your personal productivity. It makes us miserable and teaches us that it’s okay not to finish what we say we’re going to do.
We have to stop running our day with to-do lists and instead use calendars and schedules made in advance to help us become indistractable.
Step three is about hacking back the external triggers. This is where we get down to brass tacks. How do you hack back your smartphone, feeds, notifications, emails, group messages, and the biggest time-waster of all, meetings? How do you hack back when you’re trying to work at home, and your kid decides to come into the room where you’re working to interrupt you?
A key to hacking back external triggers, the things in your environment that can lead you towards distraction, is to ask whether that trigger is serving you, or are you serving it.
The fourth step is to prevent distraction with pacts. Pacts are promises that we make to ourselves, to technology or other people in a way that provides a backstop, a line of last defence, a firewall so that when everything else fails, there is something to defend us from getting distracted.
To become indistractable, you have to use all of the four techniques. If you just use one, you’re not done, you’re just getting started. I teach you exactly how to do it. It sounds hard, but it’s not.
On the workplace front too, we have sort of a love-hate relationship with technology. Interestingly, while writing your book, you visited Slack and observed that despite it being a technology company, the employees of Slack did not have much of a problem with technology distractions. Could you elaborate on that experience and also on the attributes of an indistractable workplace?
My assumption was that the more a company uses technology, the more of an always-on culture they would have. Isn’t it the technology that’s constantly keeping us chained to our workplace? Well, not exactly.
What I discovered was that distraction in the workplace is a symptom of cultural dysfunction. The real problem of technology distraction at work is that we can’t talk about those issues.
If you work at a company where you’re afraid to speak up and talk about this problem, I got news for you. Your biggest problem is not technology distraction. You got all kinds of other skeletons in the closet that people don’t want to talk about because what I found in my research is that there are three attributes of a company that provides an indistractable workplace environment.
One, they give you psychological safety. They make it okay to talk about a problem without fear of getting fired.
Two, they get a forum to talk about these issues. At Slack, for example, they actually use Slack channels to talk about all kinds of issues within the company, and workplace distraction is just one of many issues. When you give people the place or the forum to talk about these concerns without fear of getting fired, guess what happens. You solve these problems because they’re just like any company problem. There are lots of solutions out there; we just need to start the conversation.
The third attribute of a company that provides indistractable work environment is that leadership exemplifies what it means to be indistractable. For instance, when I walked into Slack headquarters, I was shocked to find that in the middle of this multibillion-dollar company in Silicon Valley, there was a motto written on the wall in bright, pink neon letters that you can’t miss. It said, “Work hard and go home.” And everybody in the company, from Stewart Butterfield on down, knows that this is an important attribute and one of their values. They lead by example.
When you go into a meeting with your manager at Slack, they’re not talking on their phone because they want to show you how important you are. They give you their full attention and hold a meeting without devices so that you know that they are fully present with you. They respect people’s time. When someone marks on Slack that they are not to be disturbed, they respect that. So distraction isn’t a technology problem. In fact, the technology provides much of the solution.
When you have a toxic work environment, and you add all kinds of technologies to it, then you get a terrible situation. The technology can certainly be a catalyst to make things worse, but it’s not the root cause of the problem.
It’s a deeper cultural issue when people don’t work in an indistractable workplace. But the good news is culture can fix this. Cultures can change.
Many leaders have an open-door policy where employees feel welcome to ask questions or share feedback. While the goals are noble, there are several disadvantages to this, too, such as productivity losses and employees becoming overly dependent on management for making decisions and solving problems. How could leaders maintain all the benefits of the open-door policy without it being a productivity killer?
In addition to the frequent interruptions for the manager, the biggest issue is that we begin to rely upon someone else to think for us.
The problem I think most managers face, especially since many people aren’t now working in offices, is that people email you every five minutes. Why? Because they don’t want to think. They want you to think for them. And every time you impulsively feel like you have to answer that email and the next and so on, you are essentially training them to believe that they are incapable of making decisions on their own, of thinking for themselves. When you enable that, it’s easy to offload.
Humans are cognitive misers. We don’t like to think. It takes energy; it takes work; why would I do something that requires effort? Let somebody else do it. That’s what your employees are doing to you if they’re constantly sending you messages saying, “Is this okay, boss? What about this boss? What about that?” So, what you want to do essentially is to slow that down.
Don’t make your availability at any time, e.g., “Reach out to me whenever you want; you’ve got my cell phone number, and you’ve got my email, 24/7.”
Instead, if you find that you’re getting too many of these one-off requests—whether it’s in the office, somebody’s knocking on your door too often, or you’re getting too many emails—what you could reply with is this: “These questions that you have, if you can’t figure these out for yourself, and they’re still pertinent, please combine, and we’ll discuss.”
You can hop onto a Zoom call and say, “Look, hey, every day from 4:30 to 5:30 or whatever, I’m going to be in Zoom. If you need me to pop in, we can talk live.” This way, people know to not ping you every five minutes, but instead, to wait for a little while so that they can get access to you regarding the questions they can’t solve for themselves.
Why is this so effective? Not only are you not interrupted throughout your day, but you’re adding a bit of friction.
Today, it’s too easy to make your problem someone else’s problem. So, what you want to do is to add some friction, make it a little bit more difficult and costly to pass the buck. This way, they now know and are thinking to themselves, “I sent him an email, but he’s not going to reply right away. He’s going to tell me to wait until Thursday. Maybe I should figure this out on my own.”
To know more about Nir and his book Indistractable, visit NirAndFar.com/Indistractable
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