Originally published by, Nir Eyal
How to counter the root causes of distraction and move towards what you really want.
Distraction is a curse of modern life. Between our cell phones and computer screens, not to mention our kids and coworkers, our attention is constantly being diverted. It can become difficult to focus on any one task—or any one person—for very long.
If anything, the world is becoming a more distracting place. Technology is becoming more pervasive and persuasive. But hoping tech companies change their ways and your boss finally learns to respect your time may take longer than you’re willing to wait. Better to equip yourself to manage distraction with strategies you can implement right away. Afterall, although distractions aren’t necessarily your fault, managing them is your responsibility.
In this post, I discuss why distractions are so harmful, where they originate, and key techniques that will help you finally overcome distractions for good. This guide is a brief introduction for how you can become indistractable.
1. What Is Distraction and Why Is It Harmful?
Let’s start with the definition of distraction. Distraction is “the process of interrupting attention” and “a stimulus or task that draws attention away from the task of primary interest.”(1) In other words, distractions draw us away from what we want to do, whether it’s to accomplish a task at home or work, enjoy time with a loved one, or do something for ourselves.
If distraction becomes a habit, we are unable to sustain the focus required for creativity in our professional and personal lives. Worse, if we are constantly pulled away from friends and family by distractions, we miss out on cultivating the relationships we need for our psychological well-being.
In short, a distraction is any action that pulls us away from what we really want to do.
Do you recognize any of these unhealthy distractions?
- Looking at notifications that pop up on your phone—even during conversations with family, friends, or colleagues
- Interrupting focused work to check email
- Chatting with coworkers who pop by your desk when you intended to do focused work
- Scrolling through your social media feeds when you planned to read a book
Let me add to these distraction examples with one from my own life.
One day my daughter—my only child—and I were playing games together in an activity book designed to bring daddies and daughters closer together. We asked each other the question, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”
I wish I could tell you my daughter’s answer, but I can’t, because I wasn’t really there.
“Daddy?” she queried.
“Just a second,” I grunted, “I need to respond to one thing.” My eyes were glued to my phone, my fingers tapping away.
By the time I looked up, she was gone.
I had just blown a special moment with my daughter because I had allowed something on my phone to distract me.
On its own, that incident isn’t such a big deal. However, the scene repeated itself several times. If I was going to live the kind of life I wanted, I knew I had to change, and chances are, you do too.
2. What Is the Opposite of Distraction?
If you don’t want to be distracted, presumably you want its opposite. But if you search “distraction antonym,” you will find that “distraction” doesn’t have an exact opposite. Merriam-Webster does suggest several “near antonyms” like assurance, certainty, confidence, and conviction.(2) That doesn’t really help when your goal is to move away from distraction—toward what? I propose adopting the term “traction” as the opposite of distraction.
Traction is any action that moves us towards what we really want.
Any action, such as working on a big project, getting enough sleep or physical exercise, eating healthy food, taking time to meditate or pray, or spending time with loved ones, are all forms of traction. Traction is any action you do with intent. It’s doing what you say you will do.
3. What Causes Distraction?
All human behavior is cued by either external or internal triggers.
External triggers are cues from our environment that tell us what to do next. These are the dings and pings that prompt us to check our email, answer a text, or look at a news alert. Competition for our attention can come from a person as well, such as an interruption from a coworker when we are in the middle of doing focused work. Even an object can be an external trigger: your television set seems to urge you to turn it on by its mere presence.
Internal triggers are cues from within us. When we’re hungry, we are cued to get something to eat; when we feel a chill, we put on a sweater. When we’re stressed or lonely, we might call a friend for support. Internal triggers are negative feelings.
Since all behavior is prompted by either external or internal triggers, then both the actions we intend to do (traction) as well as those that veer us off course (distraction), originate from the same source.
4. Four Strategies for Becoming Indistractable
If you are ready to take back your life from incessant distractions, you need to follow four steps to become indistractable:
- Master internal triggers.
- Make time for traction.
- Hack back external triggers.
- Prevent distraction with pacts.
A. Master Internal Triggers.
In order to overcome distractions, you need to understand what drives your behaviors—what prompts you to compulsively look at your phone or read one more email.
The root cause of human behavior is the desire to escape discomfort. Even when we think we are seeking pleasure, we’re actually driven by the desire to free ourselves from the pain of wanting.
The truth is, we overuse video games, social media, and our cell phones not just for the pleasure they provide, but because they free us from psychological discomfort.
Distraction, then, is an unhealthy escape from bad feelings.Once you can recognize the role internal triggers like boredom, loneliness, insecurity, fatigue, and uncertainty play in your life, you can decide how to respond in a healthier manner. You can’t control how you feel, but you can learn to control how you react to the way you feel.
To start, you can change how you think about those bad feelings that can lead to distraction.
Studies show that not giving into an urge can backfire. Resisting a craving or impulse can trigger rumination and make the desire grow stronger.(3) When you finally give in, relieving that tension of wanting increases the reward, possibly creating a bad habit. Thankfully, there are smarter ways to cope with discomfort.
Dr. Jonathan Bricker, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, has developed a set of steps we can take when faced with a distracting temptation. His techniques help patients reduce health risks through behavioral change.(4)
- Identify the feeling or thought behind your urge: When you find yourself about to get distracted become aware of the internal trigger that is prompting you to do so. Are you feeling anxious, restless, maybe even poorly qualified for the task?
- Write it down: Bricker advises that you write down that feeling, along with the time of day and what you were doing when you felt that internal trigger. Keeping a log of distractions will help you link behaviors with their internal triggers. The better you get at noticing the thoughts and feelings that precede certain behaviors, the better you will become at managing them over time.
- Explore the sensation: Bricker advises getting curious about the sensations that precede distraction. Do you get butterflies in your stomach? A tightening in your chest? Bricker recommends that you stay with that feeling before following your impulse. He recommends trying the “leaves on a stream” method. Imagine yourself beside a stream, on which leaves gently float by. Place each thought and negative feeling in your mind on one leaf and watch them float away.
In addition to Bricker’s steps, there are several other tactics we can use to master the internal triggers that lead to distraction. I detail every technique I use in my book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. I’ll also be sharing more of these methods through my newsletter.
B. Make Time for Traction.
In this day and age, if you don’t plan your day, someone else will! Without knowing what it is you want to do with your time, everything is a potential distraction. To make time for the things that really matter, follow these steps.
Turn your values into time.
Many people talk a good game about what’s important to them like their families, their health, and their friends, but when it comes to investing time in these areas of their lives, they get distracted and don’t follow through. They don’t live up to their values because they don’t make time for them in their day.
Values are the attributes of the person you want to become.
Examples of values might include being a contributing member of a team, being a loving parent, being in an equitable marriage, seeking wisdom, taking care of your physical fitness, or being a generous friend. Many people might subscribe to these values, but without making time to live them out, they’re just empty aspirations.
Timebox your schedule.
The most effective way to make sure you’ll make time for your values is through timeboxing. Timeboxing means deciding what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it.(5) The goal is to create a template for how to spend your time each day, eliminating all white space in your calendar.
It doesn’t matter what you do as long as that is what you planned to do. Go ahead and scroll through social media, but at the time you set aside for it—not at the expense of other things you planned to do, like spending time with your family.
Decide how much time you want to devote to each domain of your life, according to your values. Make sure that you schedule enough time for yourself and for your relationships. After all, the most important people in your life deserve better than the leftover time in your day.
Then, create a weekly calendar template for your perfect week. You can find a free blank template and tool here. Next, include 15 minutes per week to reflect and refine your calendar. Ask yourself: When did I do what I said I would do, and when did I get distracted?
If you became distracted, note the trigger and decide what strategy you will use the next time it arises.
Also ask: Are there changes I can make to my calendar that will give me the time I need to better express my values?
This gives you the opportunity to change things that will make your calendar easier to follow in the next week.
Synch with Stakeholders.
Now that you have your ideal weekly template, it’s time to make sure the important people in your life are in synch.
Sit down with your family and make sure you’re aligned on how you intend to spend your time. Make sure to discuss who will handle which household responsibilities and when you’ll have some time for fun together.
At work, clarify with your colleagues how you intend to spend your work week so there are no surprises. A quick meeting to go over your schedule is a fast and highly effective way to align expectations regarding how you’ll spend your time.
Of course, not every company has a corporate culture that respects people’s time. I discuss why distraction is often a symptom of a dysfunctional workplace, and how to fix it, in my book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
C. Hack Back External Triggers.
Tech companies use external triggers to hack our attention. The pings and dings from our devices often distract us by pulling us away from what we really want to do. We may try to ignore those triggers, but research shows that ignoring a call or message can be just as distracting as responding to one.(6)
Not all external triggers are distractions, however. If used to help you accomplish tasks, external triggers can remind you to do what you planned. While by definition there is no such thing as a good distraction for anxiety, an external trigger that reminds us to take a break can serve as a diversion that has been shown to ease physical pain or help control unhealthy cravings.
The right approach is to ask whether the external trigger is serving you, or are you serving it. If the prompt leads you to traction, keep it. If it leads you to distraction, eliminate it.
Hack back your smartphone.
Whether it’s to keep in contact with family, navigate around town, or listen to audiobooks, this miracle device in your pocket has become indispensable. It can also be a major source of distraction, but you can take back your smart phone in four steps:
- Remove the apps you no longer need.
- Remove apps that you like, but that you can use on your computer instead.
- Rearrange the remaining apps on your phone to reduce visual clutter.(5)
- Adjust your notification settings for each app.
Hack Back Your Feeds.
When it comes to distraction social media plays a huge role. Sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit are designed to send you endless external triggers. Facebook’s infinite scroll is particularly devilish, but you don’t have to fall prey to it. Several new tools are available that either eliminate the news feed (News Feed Eradicator) or unlock it only after you’ve done other, more important tasks (Todobook).
D. Prevent Distraction With Pacts.
These tools work across several platforms, allowing you to use apps the way you want, rather than the way their companies want. (For more of my favorite tools for hacking back, see here).
The antidote to impulsivity is forethought. The last technique for becoming indistractable is to make a “precommitment”—removing a future choice—in order to overcome distraction.(8)
Examples of precommitments include advanced healthcare directives, retirement accounts that penalize us for early withdrawal, and “till death do us part” marriage vows.
They are decisions we cement well in advance of the temptations and distraction we know might come. As such, this is step should only be taken after we have followed the other three steps and learned to manage our internal triggers, made time for traction, and hacked back the external triggers that pull us to distractions.
There are three types of pacts.
An effort pact is a kind of precommitment that involves increasing the amount of effort required to do something you don’t want to do. Adding additional effort forces you to ask if a distraction is really worth it and usually you decide that it isn’t. There are numerous apps designed to help you make effort pacts with your digital devices. (Good examples include SelfControl, Forest, and Freedom, but there are many others.)
A price pact puts money on the line. If you stick to your intended behavior, you keep the cash. If you get distracted, you forfeit your funds. This kind of technique has had astounding results when used to help smokers quit.(9) I used a price pact to finish the first draft of my book, promising my accountability partner $10,000 if I did not finish the draft by my deadline. I kept my money and finished writing my book.
Finally, an identity pact is another way to change your response to distractions. Your self-image has a profound impact on your behavior. By taking on a new identity, you empower yourself to make decisions based on who you believe you are. Consider how people who call themselves “vegetarians” don’t have to expend much willpower to avoid eating meat.
To become indistractable, you can stop telling yourself you are a person with a “short attention span” or and “addictive personality” and instead tell yourself, “I am indistractable.” If you tell yourself you are the kind of person who is easily distracted, it instantly becomes true. However, if you believe that you are indistractable, you empower yourself to respond more healthily to whatever distractions get in your way.
We Can Do This
Becoming indistractable is not some mysterious formula, it’s as easy as following four steps. Mastering your internal triggers, making time for traction, hacking back your external triggers, and preventing distractions with pacts, are powerful tools that can reshape your life.
The world is splitting into two types of people: those who allow their attention and their lives to be manipulated by others, and those who proudly call themselves indistractable.
When you become indistractable, you influence others to do the same. You can influence colleagues and coworkers to try these techniques. You can inspire your friends and family to pursue the lives they envision. You can help your children learn what is sure to be the skill of the century, the power to become indistractable.
Nir’s Note: This article was written in collaboration with the NirAndFar.com team.