“How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life”
Nir Eyal rose to prominence with his book Hooked, a kind of manual for companies to build habit-forming services. The basic idea is simple: by establishing habitual usage of a service, users continue to pay for the service (either directly via a subscription free, or by viewing advertisements). The techniques in the book are known as persuasive technology, and involve use of human psychology to establish the regular use of services. By the time Hooked was published in 2014, use of persuasive technology techniques was in common amongst Silicon Valley insiders, but the book brought this knowledge to a wider audience.
A decade or so earlier, Eyal had been a student of B.J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University. Others who passed through these classes include Mike Krieger who applied persuasive tech principles when he co-founded Instagram, and Tristan Harris who went on to co-found the Center for Humane Technology in order to raise awareness of the consequences of using such persuasive techniques on human attention.
Eyal begins his newer book with a defence of Hooked. He acknowledges the darker side of habit formation, and says that he also, ironically, got hooked by products utilising persuasive technology.
However, he does not go as far as expressing regret for sharing persuasive technology techniques. The techniques were already wide-spread enough that we’d be dealing with their consequences regardless of whether he had written Hooked.
Eyal proposes that we cannot afford to wait for regulation to defend us from the distractions or addictions caused by persuasive tech services, but must instead we must defend ourselves, and prioritise building the skills to manage these distractions.
Indistractable is a book of many short chapters, perhaps necessarily when our attention spans have become more adapted to checking social media than reading long form.
Developing an Indistractable Superpower
Chapter 1: What’s Your Superpower?
After an introduction in which he Eyal defends Hooked, the first chapter explains the motivation for the book – developing an “indistractable superpower” – and lays out the structure of the remaining chapters in the book. It’s easy to get distracted in this first chapter which is essentially a glorified table of contents.
Chapter 2: Being Indistractable
Eyal recounts the ancient Greek story of Tantalus, who was banished to a place in the underworld where he would be close to many things he desired, but never able to reach them. From this story we have the word “tantalising”.
He then introduces the concept of traction as the opposite of distraction. He also introduces internal and external triggers which lead us to either distraction or traction. He returns to the story of Tantalus, pointing out that we do not need most of our distractions and the solution is to stop grasping for things we do not need. Tantalus certainly didn’t need his distractions (food & water) – because he was already dead!
Part 1: Managing internal triggers.
Chapter 3:What Motivates Us, Really?
Nir Eyal starts by telling the story of Dr. Zoe Chance, a Professor at Yale who got hooked by her smart pedometer, walking up and down the stairs in the middle of the night. He claims that the individual distractions in our life are not the problem, and we must deal with the root causes. It turns out the pedometer was a coping mechanism for a difficult time in Chance’s life. We allow ourselves to be distracted in order to escape discomfort.
Chapter 4: Time Management Is Pain Management
Here, Eyal contends that we cannot avoid pain: our evolution doesn’t allow us to always be happy. Instead, after enjoying each brief period of happiness, we are motivated to find a new goal and will experience struggle until we achieve that goal. This is known as hedonic adaptation of the hedonic treadmill: we tend to stable level of happiness despite positive or negative life changes.
Eyal also introduces negativity bias: we pay more attention to bad things, because it helps us survive. But unfortunately, this rumination makes us less happy. However we can see the tendency to feel dissatisfied as a positive: it is the reason humans have prospered, and Eyal claims that if we can manage our dissatisfaction then we manage our time better and can be less distracted.
Chapter 5: Deal with Distraction From Within
Eyal points out that counter-intuitively, trying not to be distracted can make us more distracted… like when we are asked not to think of a polar bear. He suggests that distraction is a form of addiction, though without physical dependency like with smoking and other drugs. Although distraction is a lighter form of addiction, he proposes that the same solutions can apply, giving an example of smokers whose desire to smoke was found to be highest just before it became possible to smoke (rather than related to elapsed time since last cigarette as we might expect). If even physical addictions have solutions that are mental (“from within”) then these techniques should certainly help with distraction too.
Chapter 6: Reimagine the Internal Trigger
Eyal sets out 4 steps to for becoming more aware of internal triggers:
- Focus on the trigger that proceeds getting distracted. These triggers take the form of discomfort such as a feeling incompetent, having a craving, feeling restless.
- Write down when you feel you are getting distracted. Try to notice that you were distracted, but also how you felt before this happened.
- Explore the internal trigger. Stay with the discomfort before acting on it.
- Beware liminal moment: transitions between tasks. This is when we most often get distracted. Eyal suggests promising to wait 10 minutes before acting on the urge. Often the urge is gone.
We covered this topic in more detail in our recent article on Urge Surfing for overuse of technology.
Chapter 7: Reimagine the Task
This chapter introduces the idea that fun doesn’t have to be pleasurable. In other words, challenging work can become fun with a different mindset. We can introduce elements of play into difficult work, which reduces our discomfort. This shouldn’t be through unrelated rewards for our work, but instead by paying more attention to our work with greater curiosity. We like challenges, so find challenges within the work.
Chapter 8: Reimagine Your Temperament
Eyal claims that the belief that willpower / self-control is limited (known as ego-depletion) is not entirely correct. In particular the theory that a sugary snack gives a boost to willpower has been partially disproven. Evidence suggests that ego-depletion and sugar boosts only function as expected when the person already has a belief in these concepts. By changing our beliefs about willpower we can tap into more of it. Willpower is not a finite resource with some biological limit, and with proper management we can have more willpower. When we doubt our ability to keep going, this story can be self-fulfilling. With self compassion and a positive attitude about our ability to continue, encouraging ourselves like we would a friend, we can in fact, keep going.
Part 2: Make Time for Traction
Chapter 9: Turn Your Values into Time
We tend not to guard our time as carefully as our money or possessions. So we need to make a schedule. But a to-do list is ineffective. We perform better when we start with values, and use these to time-box our activities according to intentions guided by our values. By planning in this way, you know what you’re supposed to be doing at each moment, and it becomes far easier to know when you are distracted. Eyal suggests using three life domains: you, your relationships, your work.
Chapter 10: Control the Inputs, Not the Outcomes
This chapter encourages you to value yourself: your health & wellness, your hobbies, etc. Without looking after yourself, you can’t be effective in your work or relationships. So we need to schedule time for ourselves first. When scheduling, the most important thing is controlling inputs (time-boxing each activity) rather than worrying about outputs, since it’s the easiest thing to control. Even if outcomes are not as we hoped, we should stick to our schedule for the day.
Chapter 11: Schedule Important Relationships
Eyal encourages us to value our relationships with family and friends. He gives the example of how he was not pulling his weight in doing household chores, until he listed them out with his wife and scheduled in time for them. Satisfying relationships (family and close friendships) keep us healthy and lead us to live longer and happier lives. To get the most from his friendships, Eyal schedules a “kibbutz” gathering with friends (4 couples) and they discuss some different topic or question each time, to help them move past small talk and into deeper conversation.
Chapter 12: Sync with Stakeholders at Work
In this chapter, Eyal discusses the scheduling of work. Typically, it’s not that we ignore this life domain, but forget to set appropriate limits. When we take on a role, we should be clear about any commitments beyond standard working hours so that we can understand what is appropriate and maintain a work/life balance that we are happy with. It’s important to time-box work, and not extend our hours every time our productivity isn’t as high as we hoped. Working late or taking work home seems a good solution for low productivity on a single day, but it can easily become a habit which is unsustainable if we wish to remain happy about our work.
Part 3: Hack Back External Triggers
This part offers specific advice to tackle the distractions we are exposed to in various different life domains and digital environments.
Chapter 13: Ask the Critical Question
Discusses external triggers such as push notifications. Most technology platforms are now built with these triggers, designed to be encourage use of the platform. The triggers may or may not be helpful for us, so we need to remove those that are unhelpful, and keep or add any helpful triggers.
Chapter 14: Hack Back Work Interruptions
Gives an example of nurses who began wearing special vests when they give medication, as a signal to colleagues that they are not to be interrupted. Doing this substantially reduced mistakes in giving medication to patients in some hospitals, so in this case, reducing distractions saved lives. Those in an office or working from home can use a similar signal to indicate that people are not to be disturbed (headphones or a literal sign can perform this function in an office or home).
Chapter 15: Hack Back Email
Discusses how email takes a huge chunk out of most office workers days. It suggests scheduling office hours for discussions, which cuts down on emails as it allows complex conversations to proceed quickly. We can also reduce the number of emails we receive by delaying our replies – which usually results in our correspondent delaying their response and thus cuts down on the overall volume. We should also remember to regularly unsubscribe from newsletters we are no longer interested in. We can also check our emails in blocks once or twice a delay, allowing us to avoid distractions from emails at other times. We can also tag emails by when they require a response, so we can deal with replies at an appropriate time without re-reading each email many times to decide whether we need to reply yet.
Chapter 16: Hack Back Group Chat
Covers group (text-based) chat. Being constantly in group chats creates distractions throughout the day, so it’s better to use it sparingly, for a short time and appropriate topics. We can mark our status as Do Not Disturb whilst doing focused work. A company culture that expects everyone to be available to chat at all times for any topic is harmful to productivity because of the constant distractions.
Chapter 17: Hack Back Meetings
Suggests requiring an agenda and brief for all meetings, which focuses the meeting as well as cutting out useful meetings. When we’re in a meeting, we should be fully focused on it, not doing other tasks such as checking messages or emails. Ideally we should keep meetings tech free to focus on the conversation: perhaps one device per meeting for a presentation or note taking, but that should be the limit in most cases.
Chapter 18: Hack Back Your Smartphone
Covers phone usage, which can cause many distractions throughout the day. We should remove apps that we do not use or are not healthy for us. Social media apps should typically be removed as they are mostly used for distraction and comfort (they can still be used on desktop at a scheduled time). You can rearrange your home screen to highlight the apps you wish to use regularly and hide less healthy apps. You should make adjustments to app notifications to disable apps that are likely to send you inessential notifications. Alternatively, you can make notifications less prominent by disabling sounds or pop-up alerts. You can also use Do Not Disturb mode to reduce notifications.
Chapter 19: Hack Back your Desktop
Suggests that a cluttered desktop takes a toll on your attention, since the icons on the screen act as triggers, constantly reminding us of unfinished tasks. A simple way to do this is to put everything out of sight in a single folder – it doesn’t even need to be sorted, since search can be used.
Chapter 20: Hack Back Online Articles
Covers the difficulty of resisting attractive headlines and reading articles online when going online with other intentions. Eyal suggests never reading an article immediately, instead, saving it to read later with a tool such as Pocket. We can then schedule in time to read the articles we’ve saved. When it comes to reading the articles, we might decide on reflection not to read every single article we’ve saved. This approach reduces multitasking throughout the day, helping us to focus for longer and being more productive overall. Eyal points out that whilst multitasking is often harmful, it can be helpful if used wisely, for example meeting whilst walking around a park, or listening to am audiobook when doing simple activities like exercise or household chores.
Chapter 21: Hack Back Feeds
Covers scrolling news feeds. The infinite scroll feature of Facebook and other platforms is incredibly engaging – good for Facebook, not so much for our time. Free browser extensions can disable or replace the news feed on Facebook. Eyal also suggests using bookmarks to go directly to pages that avoid the feed, for example going directly to a messaging page for responding to people. Similarly, we can use a browser extension to disable video recommendations on YouTube.
Part 4: Prevent Distraction with Pacts
Chapter 22: The Power of Pre-commitments
Suggests that we can make commitments for when our future selves may temporarily have different preferences. Business contracts or marriage demonstrate this power, both of which are commitments which help us maintain a relationship through hard times. Eyal suggests making similar commitments against distractions, however he sees this as a last line of defence that will be ineffective unless we also follow the strategies from the first three sections of the book. This part of the book covers various types of pre-commitment.
Chapter 23: Prevent Distraction with Effort Pacts
Introduces a specific kind of pre-commitment, an effort pact, which “prevents distraction by making unwanted behaviours more difficult to do”. Apps can help with this, for example Self Control, Freedom, or Forest. Apple and Google have also added built in features such as Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing which help us avoid using certain apps at specified times. Eyal explains how we have less social pressure than in the past, as it’s easier to go off-task at the screen without anyone noticing, especially if working remotely. FocusMate (which Eyal invested in) pairs you up with a partner online to add a little social pressure back into our workspaces.
Chapter 24: Prevent Distraction with Price Pacts
This involves putting money on the line to ensure we follow through on our commitments. Committing to lose a significant amount of money if we don’t follow through can be tremendously effective, whether quitting smoking, exercising, or writing a book. Eyal used this technique to help him finish writing Indistractable. However, he warns that they are not always effective, if we cannot stop the external triggers that are distracting us, if we use them for more than short tasks, or if we have a tendency to beat ourselves up when we fail (the significant amount should not be so large that we cannot cope with a possible failure).
Chapter 25: Prevent Distraction with Identity Pacts
When we see our actions as our identity rather than single actions, we are more likely to follow through with the best choice. For example, those who see themselves as voters will vote more, those who say they “don’t” are more able to resist than those who say they “can’t”, vegetarians find it easier to not eat meat than those who wish to eat less. Similarly, teaching others helps us form a stronger identity which in turn helps us practice what we preach. (So if you’d like to be less distracted, you could start by teaching others what you’ve learnt by becoming a contributor for mindful.technology!). Rituals can also reinforce our identity. Whilst rituals are often used in religious contexts, they can also be used by secular people to build discipline and self control.
Part 5: How to Make Your Workspace Indistractable
Chapter 26: Distraction is a Sign of Dysfunction
This chapter discusses our work intruding on our personal time, as well as non-work distractions interrupting our work. Eyal returns to the idea that distractions are a coping method we use when we are experiencing discomfort. In the work environment he claims that this discomfort is caused by a problematic work culture, which typically leads to a cycle of responsiveness. Even though there is usually no formal requirement to respond to emails or messages outside of work hours, people feel they should respond quickly because others do the same. An always-on work environment can lead to unhappy employees with symptoms of depression, this in turn leads to more distraction facilitated by technology.
Chapter 27: Fixing Distraction Is a Test of Company Culture
Discusses research into workplace culture and introduces the concept of psychological safety, where people feel safe to raise concerns and ideas openly, have happier employees and less distraction as a consequence.
Chapter 28: The Indistractable Workplace
Mainly discusses Slack (the popular chat software for workplaces). Although in many organisations this contributes to distraction and a feeling of having to be always available, the company making Slack has a good working culture which ensures this isn’t a problem.
Part 6: How to Raise Indistractable Children
Chapter 29: Avoid Convenient Excuses
Explains how device use in children may be a symptom rather than a cause. The example of sugar highs is given: many parents explain their kids behaviour in this way when the evidence shows that sugar doesn’t make kids more hyperactive. After every new age of media (radio, TV) there has been an associated moral panic amongst adults raising children, so might this time be similar? Is there a non-tech root cause for kids overusing their devices?
Chapter 30: Understand their internal triggers
Kids (like adults) need autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
- Kids need autonomy: studying in “police state schools” may be reducing attention spans, as kids give up control of their attention as they give up their own autonomy to the system.
- Children strive for competence: standardised tests on school make many children feel incompetent. Instead, they look for alternatives such as online activities where they feel more competent.
- Kids seek relatedness: feeling important to others and that others are important to us.
Children experience less in-person play than previous generations did. It’s not just due to tech but parenting style: parents want to keep children safe so don’t let children go out and play with friends in the way they used to be able to. When managing children’s screen-time, we should try to devise a plan with the child rather than creating rules that they see as arbitrary. In this way, they learn the skills to manage their own usage.
Chapter 31: Make Time for Traction Together
Most children would agree that they want to spend time with family, for example eating meals together. So give allow children the autonomy to decide what’s important for them, and help them make a schedule for their time.
Chapter 32: Help Them with External Triggers
It’s necessary to set some limits for tech use as kids are growing up. We can give them limited devices such as a “non-smart” phone, similar to the way kids use floats when learning how to swim. Allow kids more freedom once they’ve shown they have the skills to handle the external triggers they will be exposed to via devices.
Chapter 33: Teach Them to Make Their Own Pacts
Kids should understand that app makers are trying to make people use their apps more. With this understanding, kids can agree their own screen-time limits and make commitments under parental guidance. With this autonomy children will learn the skills they need to handle distraction without constant oversight from parents, and without resentment of parents setting rules.
Part 7: How to Have Indistractable Relationships
Chapter 34: Spread Social Antibodies Amongst Friends
This chapter introduces “social antibodies” with the example of how acceptable smoking behaviour changed in a generation. Smoking used to be acceptable indoors including many homes but now it’s not, because people have “social antibodies” against it so wouldn’t accept it. We can use this same concept to gently draw people away from their phones in social situations.
Chapter 35: Be an Indistractable Lover
This final chapter serves as a conclusion for the book. For those living with a partner, specific tips include leaving phones outside the bedroom and turning off internet access at a specific time in the evening.
Indistractable is packed full of tips throughout the 35 short chapters, so even if not every piece of advice works for you, there’s plenty here to experiment with.
I listened to the audiobook edition, read by the author Nir Eyal himself, and found he talks very fast so I had to slow down the playback. I also found the short chapters made it hard to stay with the book as it felt like it was jumping around a lot. Taking a break after each chapter helped, to let it sink in. Nevertheless, I would recommend this book for anyone looking for a lot of practical strategies and tips to help manage distractions from tech.