Every year it’s getting more important to learn how to be focussed and productive. At the same time, it seems to get harder every year as well. With various news websites and (social) media platforms like Twitter and Youtube, the attack vector for distractions keeps growing at a fast pace. Add the COVID pandemic to the mix and we have a perfect trap that keeps us engaged in its infinity pools, while we’re trying to develop the right routines, discipline and workflows that help us focus on the things that really matter.
Improving our information diet is essential, not only to avoid getting distracted, but also to put our time to much better use and learn new things and skills instead. Things and skills that either help us navigate the world, improve our relationships, get a better or new job, or just to stay on top of things in an ever changing information age with so many exciting things happening, like crypto and artificial intelligence.
In the past I’ve put together a productivity manifesto that I keep getting back to and remind myself of the very few things that I know work well for me. However, it doesn’t actually discuss how to stay focussed and get rid off distractions.
In this article, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from reading Nir Eyal’s Indistractable, which was put out as a task at 1729.com (disclaimer: I don’t actually have high hopes to get selected and earn anything from this, but since I enjoy reading books anyways, the learnings are already a big win for me), and I’ll discuss some of the techniques I’m using to optimize my information input and become “indistractable”.
The four steps to become indistractable
If you’ve read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of overlap when it comes to building habits and becoming indistractable. I’d even argue that becoming indistractable is just yet another subset of proper habit building.
James Clear breaks habit building down into four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward:
- Cues trigger our brain and indicate that we’re close to some sort of reward
- Craving is the motivation that makes us act and do the thing that brings us closer to the reward
- The response is the actual habit we perform, like smoking, eating sweets or more useful things like exercising and reading
- Finally, the response delivers the reward (ever noticed how you feel when you eat that chocolate bar you’ve craved for?)
For further information on how this habit loop can be used to your advantage, I highly recommend reading the book as I won’t go deeper on it in this article. Just like habit building in Atomic Habits, becoming indistractable has been broken down into four steps as well:
- Master internal triggers – Figure out what motivates you, what’s the pain you’re trying to escape from?
- Make time for traction – Block time for your three life domains. Control your inputs, not your outcomes.
- Hack back external triggers – Is the trigger serving you, or are you serving it?
- Prevent distractions with pacts – Set up rules and align with your values.
Let’s take a closer look at all of these. There’s a chance you get to learn more about who you are and the things you value in life.
Master internal triggers
First and foremost it’s important to realize that we usually get distracted either by some internal or external trigger. While external triggers can be rather obvious things like our buzzing phones, internal triggers are not always so easy to detect and we need to be a bit more mindful about why and when they occur.
Eyal makes the point that, when we get distracted, we often think what we’re seeking is pleasure, however, what really motivates us is the desire to free ourselves from the pain of wanting. In other words, distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality. Remember the last time you were supposed to work on that challenging or boring task and you kept going back to your social media feeds? Think about it. What was the pain you tried to escape from?
To become indistractable it’s crucial got get a better understanding of ourselves and truly notice when these escape moments happen. If you happen to be into meditation, the following method can help:
- Look for the discomfort that preceds the distraction
- Write down the trigger
- Stay with the sensation (again, this should be familiar if you’re an experienced meditator)
- Be extra cautious during “liminal” moments
Liminal moments are transitions from one state to another. For example sitting to standing, reading to surfing the web etc.
While these are all the steps mentioned in Indistractable, one could take it a step further and also write down how much time was spent on a particular distraction. This is useful information in the next step. Once we have a better picture of what distracts us when, we can deliberately tackle each of the distractions with various techniques. One of them being making time for ourselves.
Make time for traction
With various triggers of distractions and ideally time spent with them written down, it’s now possible to derive patterns and habits from these. We often think we’re very aware and in control of how much time we spend on our phones or things like social media, but I’d argue that most of us underestimate this greatly. Chances are that the time you think you spend on social media and your phone in general is probably half orders of magnitude more than that.
To give an example: I’ve once figured out that I put ~13 hours per week on average into Twitter and Youtube and was very surprised because I was convinced I spend maybe about an hour per day or so on these pages. Of course, not every video on YouTube or tweet on Twitter is a waste. In fact, these things can be harnessed and turned into very valuable sources of information for learning and inspiration, but imagine losing 13 hours of your time every week on things that don’t actually help you in life.
We should all ask ourselves these very important questions:
- What do I value in life?
- What do I want to spend my time on?
- Do I spend my time on things that I value in life?
Eyal points out that we tend to make too little time for things we value and too much time for other people’s agenda. Do that for a longer period and you most likely turn into someone you don’t really want to be. Obviously, we can’t just drop the hammer and only focus on ourselves because there’s people in life we care about and other responsibilities we need to take care of.
That’s why it makes sense to block time for the three life domains: You, relationships, work. In that order.
There are countless articles and resources on time blocking, but the basic idea is that you take your calendar and create time slots for various things you want to spend your time on. The easiest way to get started is to plan out one week with dedicated blocks and reviewing and adjusting them on a weekly basis. Just make sure to cover all life domains.
To give an example, this is what my typical week looks like:
I use different colors for the different domains:
- The green blocks are my personal time. This includes my morning routine (showering, working out, meditation, journaling etc), lunch breaks but also the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes I attend. These are colored yellow, simply because I consider them “appointments” as well, but really, this is time spent on improving personal skills
- All the blue blocks are “Deep work” slots and are usually related to work and personal projects. Unsurprisingly, those make a big chunk of my time.
- The purple-ish blocks are reserved for friends & family
It’s important to keep in mind that these things are not static. There are surely days where I miss my morning routine because I trained until late evening the day before. I certainly also meet friends apart from weekends as well. Depending on life circumstances, time blocks can change entirely. For example when moving in with your spouse there’s probably much more time spent on family.
The point being: Your daily schedule is never completely set in stone and that’s fine. However, blocked time slots serve as a great framework to keep us focussed on the things we value.
Hack back external triggers
With internal triggers tracked and time blocked in our calendars for our three life domains, we’ve optimized a lot of the input we control. The next step is to look at external triggers, which sometimes are hard to avoid. External triggers are things like emails, chat application messages, push notifications, phone calls or even humans that interrupt us and want our attention.
A lot of these triggers can often be eliminated but others are necessary to fulfill our responsibilities. The key is to figure out which triggers we can get rid off and which we can keep around (“hack back”) but still be in control. An important question to ask yourself when looking at your external triggers:
Is it serving me, or am I serving it?
Let’s take a look at some examples.
A feature that operating system manufacturers are trying hard to solve and get under control themselves. If you haven’t done a proper cleansing of your notification settings and installed apps in general, chances are very high you regularly get flooded with notifications that just pull you into the next infinity pool. How about turning things around? Instead of having the phone tell you when there’s something new, you tell the phone when you’re actually interested in something new. In practice that means:
- Uninstall distracting apps (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, … you name it)
- Review your notification settings and only allow app notifications that are really necessary or important to you
- Put your phone in “Do not disturb mode” all the time
The last one is certainly tough for many people, but I can tell from my own experience that it’s probably the best of them all. You get to decide when you need to check your phone, and with all the actions taken in the previous sections, you’ve most likely made time for that.
Email and Newsletters
We’ve all experienced this thing where we keep checking our inbox in the hope of receiving another email. It’s no news that there’s a lot of time wasted in doing that and the general recommendation is to check emails maybe once or twice a day and bulk process them.
There’s a few things that can be done on top of that though, so that we spend even less time with email. Use filters and labels to automatically move things like newsletters, invoices, or GitHub Pull Request emails for review, to dedicated folders so they are out of sight. To give some inspiration, I use the following labels which are applied to emails that are immediately archived:
- “Newsfeed” – These are all my newsletters. I recommend to regularly unsubscribe from newsletters that aren’t interesting to you. Here’s a trick: Only subscribe to newsletters that provide content that helps you learn things. All of a sudden your “Newsfeed” becomes a resource of learning material. I check this archive once a week.
- “Papertrail” – Anything related to orders, invoices, transactions etc. goes here. I don’t want to process them manually in my inbox so I move them to a dedicated place where I can access them any time I need them.
- “Set Aside” – Emails that I want to come back to but I don’t want or need to reply right now. These things can sit there for several days or even weeks.
- “Reply later” – Emails that need a reply rather soonish but not right now. I check those every day.
Filtering and labeling emails is something people have been doing for many years. Eyal adds another interesting idea to the mix: Slowing down email.
The basic idea here is that you schedule reply to emails so that recipients get your reply at the latest possible time. By getting delayed replies, communication tends to slow down, resulting in less emails in your inbox.
Chat applications like Status, Slack or Discord are the primary communication platform for knowledge workers these days. But there’s a downside to it. Chat is usually synchronous, which means both parties have to be online to receive messages and have realtime communication. This is certainly good for many use cases, but generally, probably one of the biggest sources of external triggers that cause distraction.
One thing I’ve learned from Indistractable that works very well for me, is to put myself in “Do not disturb” mode while I’m in my “Deep work” time slots. This way I don’t receive sound notifications and can focus on my task at hand. I might still check the chat every hour or so when I’m having a smaller in-between break anyways.
There’s many more external triggers like meetings, group chats and the likes, but the principles are the same at its core. For a deeper dive into this topic, I recommend reading the book.
Another impactful source of external triggers are feeds like Youtube or Twitter, although they are probably often caused by internal triggers as well. I personally spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos. Often to learn new things, but with their latest recommendations system, I found myself more looking at what YouTube thinks I want to watch, than actually searching for something specific. Yet another infinity pool.
To counteract here, I’ve installed a browser extension that turns off all recommended videos, suggested channels, comments etc. resulting in a blank page:
Now I’m forced to deliberately search for things I want to learn about, which significantly changes my information diet.
Prevent distractions with pacts
The last part of the book discusses the idea of making unwanted behaviours more difficult to do with pacts. Again, there are a lot of similarities with techniques discussed in Atomic habits to make bad habits less accessible.
A pact is like a contract in which certain conditions are set to keep us from misbehaving. This could be as simple as saying: If I spent more than one hour on social media per day, I have to deposit $50 doller to the savings account of my best friend.
With seven days per week there’s potentially $350 that go down the drain, just because one couldn’t resist mindlessly scrolling some newsfeed. A strong incentive to stay focussed on things that matter. This example above is what is called a price pact. There are other pact “types” that can help here. An identity pact for example, is a pre-commitment to a self-image that helps us pursue what we really want. James Clear touches on that in his book as well. Imagine you’re a smoker and want to quit. The next day a friend offers you a cigarette, what do you say? There’s a few options:
No thanks, I’m trying to quit.
No thanks, I don’t smoke.
The difference is subtle but has great impact on what you identify yourself with. Saying “I don’t smoke” reemphasizes what you are – a non-smoker. The same can be applied to, being indistractble. “I am an indistractble person.” has a nice ring to it, no?
Eyal has put together a nice framework and collection of techniques and ideas that help to fight back in a distracted world and be in control again. I also enjoyed the fact that a lot of the concepts are very similar to what is discussed in Atomic Habits, as I’ve already applied many of them in my daily life for quite some time.
However, many of the techniques shown have been discussed and covered in many other books and articles already. People that tend to optimize their lifes will probably not gain too many new ideas from this book, but it’s still good to revisit them and review what has been applied and tried out in the past.
I for one have tried time blocking a bunch of times and it never really worked for me, primarily because the day tends to be way too dynamic to be put into a fixed structure. On the other hand, the whole idea is to enforce some structure and control your inputs after all, so I guess it’s also a matter of sticking to the schedule and readjusting it.
If you think you’re absolutely lost in distraction especially at times where a global pandemic forces you to change your life style, this is probably a good book to get started and learn how to stay on top of things.