Distraction: don't blame your phone
The call is coming from inside the house
Attention is valuable. Where we choose to place it says a lot about our relationships, core values, and priorities. The challenge, according to many thinkers today, is that our control over our attention is being actively eroded by corporations and technologies that profit from distractability.
While the problem isn’t an entirely new one, the sheer number of devices surrounding us and their constant connectivity means that the fight for focus is raging harder than ever.
The stakes are high. Research has largely debunked the idea that humans can effectively multi-task. We need time and space for “deep work” or “flow states,” but it’s increasingly difficult to create the right conditions.
Moreover, our attention has been commodified through clicks and the minutes (or hours) we spend on apps and websites. Huge corporations are competing for the revenue generated by our distracted surfing and they’ll use just about any trick to get it.
Not surprisingly, a chunk of the self help market is devoted to advice on reclaiming attention. The scope varies widely. We have the more spiritual end of the continuum, such as the Buddhist notion of cultivating attention in terms of becoming more aware of the present moment. And we have the more tech-oriented side of things, full of advice on how to manipulate the settings of your devices to avoid interruptions.
I’m purposefully thinking more about attention this year. One of my 2023 goals is to “refine the quality and objects of my attention.” Maybe a bit vague! But the idea is to pay attention to my attention and be more discerning about where it rests.
With that in mind, I was intrigued to discover that an author who wrote a very popular book advising companies on how steal our attention is also the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
Who better to tell us how to keep focus than Nir Eyal, a man who knows exactly what tricks companies use to distract us?
Eyal’s ultimate aim in this book is to teach us how to be indistractable, that is, immune to the triggers that pull or push us off task or out of the moment.
The book addresses both external and internal triggers. External distractions come from other people, email, social media, texts, noise, etc. Internal ones come from inside our own bodies and minds: hunger, physical discomfort, and psychological discomfort.
For me, the most impactful piece of the book was Eyal’s discussion of the last factor: the distraction that happens because of internal, mental discomfort. I’m going to start here, but I promise to share more about his advice for limiting external triggers later in this newsletter.
Ding! It’s me, your brain, for no reason, hi
The main thing I’m taking away from Indistractable is the simple but eye-opening notion that when we lose focus (with no external trigger to blame) it’s usually because we’ve encountered some internal discomfort.
Our instinct, of course, is to move away from discomfort. When that discomfort is in our minds, we switch our attention to something else.
When I read this, I began to understand why, when I’m working away industriously, I’ll suddenly grab my phone or open up a new tab on my computer. It’s not because my phone dinged me. It’s because my brain did.
What’s dinging away in there? In this case, the ding is a little alarm signalling some kind of discomfort. That discomfort might be anything from not being sure of what word comes next, to avoiding having to chase down a source for a statement, to a tickle of imposter syndrome making me doubt my work.
Nir Eyal is all about practical solutions, so he recommends (and even provides a link to) a spreadsheet for tracking these little moments of discomfort that seem to be telling you to look away from your work.
You don’t actually have to do anything with that data. The idea is that by just taking a moment to recognize what’s happening, you can let it pass through you and return to your focus. It’s like learning not to scratch every itch. If you give it a second, it’ll fade away.
I haven’t started a spreadsheet, but I’m more aware of what’s going on when I feel the urge to shift my attention: “Oh, I’m a little uncomfortable because I don’t know exactly how to say this thing yet. Interesting.”
What I would have liked more of from Eyal is discussion of what the roots of that discomfort might be and how to address those root issues. Imposter syndrome might be one; self sabotage, fear of success, difficulty setting boundaries: there are any number of things that might be bubbling up and causing us to lose focus.
Maybe Eyal’s approach is adequate: if you’re not about to cure imposter syndrome, just noticing it, naming it, letting it pass through, and getting back to work might work well enough.
Okay, sometimes it is your phone’s fault
In the second half of the book, Eyal proposes that we can learn to “hack back” (his term) various sources of distraction: email, social media, meetings, etc. They’ve managed to hack our attention,so we need to figure out how to hack it back.
As his terminology suggests, this advice focuses on technological fixes for (mostly) technological problems.
Personally, I didn’t learn any new tips from these sections, but for folks out there who haven’t ever adjusted their phone’s notification settings, Eyal gives you hands on, detailed steps for taking some control of your tech.
His advice did remind me that it’s useful to periodically “audit” the apps on your phone or tablet. Over time, we can easily accumulate more and more. They clutter our screens and they all want to remind us of their existence several times a day.
Once in a while it’s good to do a purge. Delete the ones that you don’t really use. If you’re feeling very ambitious, delete those that bring you the most distraction or easily suck you in for hours of scrolling.
If deleting isn’t an option or seems too final, move the app to the fourth or fifth screen on your phone. Or bury it in an app folder. The idea is to make it less visible and less accessible.
I did a phone purge and declutter a while back, based on Marie Kondo’s advice.The queen of creating clutter-free environments suggests treating your phone the same way: keeping only what you love or absolutely need.
For me, this means a handful of frequent-use apps on the first screen, a clutch of slightly-less urgent apps on screen two, and eventually work-related apps on screen four. After reading Indistractable, I deleted a bunch of news apps that I find myself opening for no real reason every hour or so, and moved TikTok to the last screen on my phone.
Nir Eyal also endorses this approach. The more barriers—or at least speed bumps—you can place between external distractions and you, the better chance you have of staying focused.
Of course, hacking other people isn’t as simple. Their settings are not so easily adjusted.
Eyal’s plan here is to use your calendar as much as possible. You should, according to Indistractable, be deliberately scheduling time with family and friends, time in which you’ll be distraction-free and focused on being on together.
This also works the other way, where blocking your focused work times means that others know (or will hopefully learn to respect) your need for a distraction-free bubble.
I suspect this somewhat heavy-handed method of scheduling everything and everyone won’t appeal to most people, or it won’t be sustainable. But for those who love a good plan, it might work.
I appreciated that Eyal recognized that for his plan to function within his immediate family, there needed to be parity between him and his wife. If his desire for more focused time put more domestic burdens on her, or limited her distraction-free time, it would go against one of his core values (gender equity).
This meant figuring out how to equally share domestic work and child care responsibilities, and ensuring that they each had their own times and spaces to do un-distracted work.
The gender piece is so important here, because a lot of productivity or attention-related advice seems like it’s written for people who don’t need to listen for the chime of the laundry machine or watch the clock for day care pick up time.
Research bears out the pattern that in heterosexual relationships, men have more leisure time (or time for solo activities) than women. So if you’re figuring out ways to be less distracted, make sure you aren’t inadvertently infringing on someone else’s personal time.
Indistractable is a state of mind
Eyal’s guidance picks up on a key tenet of self help: it’s more effective to make something your identity than to make it a habit. In essence, it’s better to say “I am indistractable” than to say “I will be more focused.” Once something becomes part of who you are (even if you’re faking it ‘til you make it for a while), it’s more likely to last.
Ultimately, “indistractable” might be a bit of a stretch as an identity marker. And maybe it’s too absolute: on occasion, distractions are just what we need and they might even lead to fruitful discoveries and insights. After all, distraction is a word that can sometimes mean “something fun.”
Perhaps the challenge is to figure out how to balance focused attentiveness with permission to let the mind wander. Eyal would probably tell you to schedule “mind wandering time,” but maybe it’s okay to just let it happen, at least every once in a while.
What else am I reading? Gentleman Jack by Anne Choma; loved the HBO Max show and am, of course, obsessed with everything Suranne Jones does. Also finished Son of Elsewhere by Elamin Abdelmahmoud; this memoir had been on my list for a while and it didn’t disappoint.
Next self improvement book on my list: Atomic Habits, by James Clear.
What am I watching: In perpetuity, RuPaul’s Drag Race. But I also recently finished Woman of the Dead (Netflix). If, like me, you enjoy watching very brave, nice-looking people risk their lives on tv, check out The Climb (HBO Max).
Something that made me think:
With help from people like Nir Eyal himself!
I’m pretty sure this tidbit was in her work-related guide: Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life.