Book review – Indistractable by Nir Eyal

How to control your attention and reduce distraction, from the author of ‘Hooked’, a manual for designing addictive products.

12 January 2021

Book review Productivity

Split into two halves, Indistractable first explains the causes and triggers for distraction, then gives some strategies and tactics for managing it in various contexts, such at work, in the home, and with the family. Both halves are worth reading, but the first half is the strongest as it explores the motivation and triggers for distraction, while the strategies in the second half are basic and better covered elsewhere.

It’s also hard not to see this book in the context of the author’s previous book, Hooked, an influential guide to designing addictive products. While he does see distraction from digital devices as a problem, he places the blame firmly on the individual for allowing themselves to be addicted, rather than challenging the notion that designing products to be addictive is in any way problematic.

Ultimately the book never quite exceeds the sum of its parts, but does make some good points. Here’s what stood out:

What causes distraction

We aren’t motivated by pleasure, but from finding ways to relieve discomfort. If a behaviour is effective at causing relief, we’re more likely to continue doing it. This is the cause of both distraction and addiction – time management is pain management.

Humans are a dissatisfied bunch and, no matter what happens, always revert back to an unhappy default. This is caused by four things:

  • Boredom. We hate being bored, and are willing to do anything to avoid it. “People prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.”
  • Negativity bias. We pay more attention to the negative things than the positive. This is thought to be an evolutionary bias as good things are nice but bad things can be fatal.
  • Rumination. We keep thinking about bad experiences, chewing them over in our minds. This includes self-critical thoughts, bad things people have done or things you want but don’t have.
  • Hedonistic adaptation. Happiness is temporary and we return to a baseline level of satisfaction, no matter what good things happen. Things that we think will make us happier, don’t, at least not for long.

This dissatisfaction is a strong motivator to progress and make things better, but it can be a pitfall as well as a strength. Therefore, to deal with distraction, we need to accept that there’s nothing wrong with us if we’re unhappy – that it’s normal. To beat distraction we need to come to terms with discomfort.

Rethinking internal triggers

Resisting a thought or desire for distraction – mental abstinence – triggers rumination and makes the thought grow stronger. And giving in to it provides relief that makes it grow stronger still.

An endless cycle of resisting, ruminating, and finally giving in to the desire perpetuates the cycle and quite possibly drives many of our unwanted behaviours.

However, while we can’t control the thoughts and feelings we have – and suppressing them makes them stronger – we can control how we respond by reimagining our internal triggers.

Rather than fighting these thoughts, we need to handle them differently:

  1. Look for the discomfort that comes before the distraction. How do you feel before the trigger? Are you bored, tired, restless, hungry or have a craving for something?
  2. Write down the trigger, both internal and external. Think about it as though you’re an observer. “I’m feeling bored right now, so here I am reaching for my phone”. The better we are at noticing the behaviour, the better we get at managing it over time.
  3. Explore your feelings. Get curious about how you feel just before you get distracted. What does it feel like when the cravings crest and subside?
  4. Beware of transitional moments. These are when you’ve finished doing one thing but before you’ve begun another, for example when waiting for a web page to load or when in between tasks. It’s easy to pick up your phone ‘just for a moment’, and get sucked in.

Exploring the triggers and being aware of your feelings help ‘surf the urge’ – noticing the sensations and riding them like a wave – neither pushing them away or acting on them, helping us cope until the feelings subside.

When feeling the uncomfortable internal trigger to do something you’d rather not, imagine you are seated beside a gently flowing stream. Then imagine there are leaves floating down that stream. Place each thought in your mind on each leaf. It could be a memory, a word, a worry, an image. And let each of those leaves float down that stream, swirling away, as you sit and just watch.

Another useful technique is the ‘ten minute rule’. If you find yourself with an urge to do something, tell yourself it’s fine to give in, but that you have to wait ten minutes. By then, the urge will most likely have receded.

Rethinking external triggers

We’re more likely to get distracted if a task isn’t fun. So, if we can make boring things fun, they’re more likely to hold our attention. But for things to be fun they don’t actually have to be enjoyable or make us feel good, they just need to be novel or provide new challenges.

Therefore, by paying close attention to the task and finding new challenges, we can maintain our focus and not give into distraction.

Fun is looking for the variability in something other people don’t notice. It’s breaking through the boredom and monotony to discover its hidden beauty.

Rethinking our character

What we say to ourself matters, and if we believe we’re powerless to resist distraction, we will be.

A study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that individuals who believed they were powerless to fight their cravings were much more likely to drink again.

Addicts’ beliefs regarding their powerlessness was just as significant in determining whether they would relapse after treatment as their level of physical dependence.

By changing our internal narrative from ruminating on problems to practicing self-compassion, we can manage our internal triggers. This doesn’t mean we won’t get it wrong, but instead we need to take responsibility for our actions without heaping on toxic guilt that can make us feel worse – and even seek more distraction from the pain of shame.

Self-compassion makes people more resilient to letdowns by breaking the vicious cycle of stress that often accompanies failure.

Speak to yourself like you’d help a friend, instead of being your own worst critic.

Other notes

  • External triggers, like notifications, often lead to distraction, but they aren’t always harmful. Ask whether the trigger serving you, or are you serving it? Remove the ones that don’t serve you.
  • Interruptions lead to mistakes. You can’t do your best work if you’re frequently distracted.
  • Defend your focus. Let people know when you don’t want to be distracted.
  • People align their actions with how they see themselves. Call yourself someone who doesn’t get distracted.
  • Distraction in social situations can keep us from being fully present with important people in our lives. Interruptions degrade our ability to form close social bonds.
  • Distraction can hinder our most intimate relationships. Instant digital connectivity can come at the expense of being fully present with those beside us.