I recently spoke with Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life about how distracted we are in our daily lives and what we can do about it. It’s common for people to blame their phones, social media, email or the scores of pings and notifications coming at us all day. When it comes to distraction, however, technology is not the problem.
The problem lies within us. It’s not that we are lazy or undisciplined. As humans, we are motivated more to relieve discomfort or pain than we are to seek pleasure. Eyal shared that distractions are fundamentally an unhealthy escape from reality. That is, the root cause of our distractions is not our devices, but our negative feelings, discomfort or pain that drive our desire to escape through some distraction — whether that’s email, social media, TV, food, drugs or alcohol. If you’re watching or reading non-stop news, it’s likely that it’s not because you want to stay informed, but it’s because you’d rather focus on someone else’s problems, rather than your own.
If you can identify these internal triggers and pinpoint the root cause of your distractions, you can then take steps to manage your behavior. Eyal says “If distraction costs us time, then time management is pain management.” First, recognize that feeling bad is normal. Welcome to the human race.
At work, in particular, many people experience an environment with high expectations and low control over outcomes — a toxic combination that leads to more incidences of anxiety and depression, often triggering a vicious cycle Eyal describes as “the less in control I feel, the worse I feel, and the worse I feel, the more likely I am to look for a distraction.” Eyal says it would be one thing if people were distracted on their own with Facebook or Candy Crush, but instead, “the problem with the modern workplace when I feel stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, uncertain or fatigued — what do I do? I look for a sense of agency and control.” We then distract others by sending unnecessary emails, calling unnecessary meetings and the like in a desperate attempt to get more agency and control — or at least the feeling of it.
The real problem, according to Eyal, isn’t the technology. “The real problem,” he says, “is that we can’t talk about the problem.” Distraction is essentially a symptom of cultural dysfunction. He describes how an “always-on” culture leads to more internal triggers by giving people less control and setting higher expectations, which lead to more internal triggers for distraction, and the vicious cycle continues. Eyal describes indistractable workplaces, by contrast, as fostering psychological safety, allowing for open discussions about concerns, and having senior leaders who walk the talk and model the importance of doing focused work. He cites the company Slack as a great model of this. It’s a bit ironic, since his research shows that Slack or other types of group chat are the second most distracting technology (right behind email). The slogan “Work hard and go home” is painted on the walls at Slack — it’s not lip service, but is modeled by senior leaders who set the example for other employees.
In looking at our own distractions, Eyal recommends first noticing the discomfort that precedes the distraction. Perhaps it’s the dread you feel as you sit down to write a tedious report but check email instead? Or maybe you feel anxious preparing for a big presentation later in the week so you decide to first check out today’s news headlines “just for a minute”. Eyal suggests writing down the trigger, including what you were feeling and when it happened (his book, Indistractable, provides a handy distraction tracker). Eyal encourages you to stay with the discomfort and get curious about the feeling versus judging it. He also suggests watching out for what he calls “liminal moments,” which are the transitions from one thing to another, where we can be prone to distractions that go from “checking one quick thing online” to going down a rat hole for half an hour.
When we feel the urge to distract ourselves, we can also practice “surfing the urge,” a technique shown to be effective in smoking cessation. For example, if you’re in the middle of writing a report and you feel the urge to check email, they key is to not fight or resist it, but to stay with the feeling and ride it until it passes. Eyal suggests a “10-minute rule” — give yourself 10 minutes. If you still feel the urge after that time, then go ahead and check email, but the desire will typically pass by then.
So,“don’t judge the technology,” says Eyal, “as long as you use it according to your schedule and your values, go for it.” Being indistractable doesn’t mean ditching your device. But it does mean becoming more aware of your own triggers and consciously deciding how you spend your time.