The Opposite of Distraction: 3 Things I Learned from Indistractable by Nir Eyal
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I recently finished reading one of the best books on focus and productivity I’ve ever read: Nir Eyal’s Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
What makes this such a great book is that it’s realistic. Too many books on productivity blame smartphones or “technology” for the problem of distraction–they tell you to quit social media, buy a so-called “dumb phone” with limited functionality, hire a virtual assistant to manage your email inbox, and read a lot of Henry David Thoreau.
This approach has never worked for me, not only because I don’t enjoy Thoreau, I don’t have money for a VA, and both my day job and all my side hustles as a creative entrepreneur revolve around digital communications, but also because even when I do take drastic steps, distraction just follows me.
No sooner do I step away from my Facebook account than I start spending inordinate amounts of time cooking five-star dinners at home, scrolling through Bored Panda articles or inane Youtube videos, or watching water boil.
Plus, history. The whole “humans are more distracted than they’ve ever been and it’s technology’s fault” presupposition is a fallacy. Humans have always been distracted and have always sought places of quiet, only to find that scattered thinking and anxious ruminations simply went with them. Read the desert fathers. Or Plato. Or the Flinstones. Or any number of thinkers over the millennia whose minds have been hijacked by dissipation and distraction even in the most peaceful or archaic settings.
But I digress.
Next week, Sarah and I are going to do a whole episode of the Writing on Wednesdays Podcast about Indistractable and its relevance for writers and other creatives.
Until then, here are three things I’m still chewing on from the book…
1. Stop Blaming Technology, Start Claiming Responsibility
As long as we blame technology for our distractability, we will be stuck in the extremes of either neo-Ludditism (shunning digital technology out of fear or suspicion) or ashamed powerlessness (over-indulging in digital technology as though defeated by its sheer power). Neither extreme solves the problem of distraction, which is ultimately driven by inner forces that–when unaddressed–will continue to make claims on our time, attention, behavior, and lives.
Instead, claim responsibility by examining the discomforts you are trying to avoid when indulging in your distraction(s) of choice. Let’s start reimagining the role(s) digital technology plays or could play in our lives. Bottom line: make technology serve you, not the other way around.
2. Your “What” is as Important as Your “Why”
When I’ve tried to set healthy boundaries with social media or digital tech in the past, I’ve spent a lot of time aligning myself with my Why. Why is it important to be less encumbered by distraction? Why is this a value? Why are certain media particularly distracting?
As important as it is to have an underlying purpose backing new habits, however, Nir Eyal’s book points out the importance of having a what. What actually constitutes a distraction in your life? What will you do during all that time you won’t be incessantly checking your email inbox?
You can’t be distracted if you’re not clear on what you’re being distracted from. If every day you wake up with only a vague plan for what needs to get done, and no tangible schedule, you can’t expect to magically stay focused all day. What are you supposed to focus on?
To get a clearer sense of the “what” at any given time, Eyal recommends the strategy of time blocking, and I couldn’t agree more. I started time blocking at the end of November, before I’d read Indistractable, and it has quickly become the single most effective way to cultivate days that are not only more productive but more purposeful and envigorating.
One day entirely blocked out in Google Calendar. Yes, it looks a little compulsive, but that’s the point–when you frame a detailed schedule, there’s always a sense that there’s something to do. I build margin in throughout the day–for example by allotting extra time to a task “if necessary,” or scheduling buffer zones. In the evening square, I schedule fun things like watching a show with my husband, knitting, reading, or other activities I enjoy. I even schedule in a bit of time to cruise social media.
3. Time Management = Pain Management
But time blocking isn’t easy. It requires concrete decision making and a kind of economy toward time that this artistic self finds a little rigid on occasion.
But here’s the thing: the pain of doing the work of time blocking is far less than the pain of whiling away my days with a vague sense of purposelessness and continuous distraction. Without a clear schedule, I never really knew when I was on task or not–even when I was doing work-related activities, I always felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants.
Sure, in some ways that’s easier. It certainly saves me the precious five minutes it takes on a daily basis to block out my day (yes, that’s really all time blocking takes once you get used to the exercise). But in the end, not time blocking sets me up for a different, deeper kind of pain–the pain of wasting time, or at least never really knowing when I’m making the most of time.
Eyal suggests that time management is pain management, and that’s a great way of putting it. We can spend (or waste) our time any way we want, but ultimately we have to recognize the costs–really, the pain–associated with remaining passive.
For me, the longer I implement intentional strategies like time boxing, the less effort they take and consequently the less painful they are to practice. In managing my time, I’ve begun to manage my pain.