Stop blaming technology – distraction starts within. Manage your inner triggers to enjoy greater focus and a fuller life
by Nir Eyal
At the Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria, England, on 7 June 2018. Photo by Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty
writes, consults and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology and business. Previously a lecturer in marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, he is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (2014) and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life (2019), and blogs at NirAndFar.com.
Edited by Christian Jarrett
‘Just a second. I just need to respond to this one thing,’ I said to my daughter, as I attended to my iPhone.
Only much later could I count the mistakes in that statement. No, it wouldn’t take ‘just a second’; no, I didn’t ‘need’ to respond to the email – I’m an author and researcher, and thus rarely receive messages that have a drop-everything-and-answer urgency to them. And no, it wouldn’t be ‘one thing’. My brain would be too tempted, I’d feast on it all.
After I finished, I looked up and my daughter was gone. The worst part: before I became distracted, we had been playing a lovely game, telling each other what superpower we most wished for. It could have brought us closer together, but I’d just blown the spirit and substance of it big-time.
If you’re a parent in the 21st century, I bet you’ve experienced your own version of this. But it’s not just parents, it’s all of us in our interactions with each other. Distraction has become the norm. We’re blessed with pocket-sized supercomputers that connect us to anyone and everyone, and a buffet of information. But there’s a dark side: those same gadgets distract us, often at the moments that matter most.
Of course, smartphones didn’t invent distraction – they’re just the latest culprit. Before that, we blamed television. And before that, it was the telephone, or comic books, or the radio. Go back more than 2,000 years, and Socrates was even criticising the written word, for causing ‘forgetfulness in the learners’ souls’.
Still, our present feels different, with the sources of distraction seeming greater in number and more ubiquitous. One study in 2014 showed that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a smartphone resting on a table is enough to change the character of their conversation. That’s a tame example. To see the seriousness of the problem, look at the sobering statistics on ‘distracted driving’ in the United States.
After I abandoned my daughter and our game for an utterly inconsequential email, I realised I needed to deal with my distraction problem. First, I tried a popular approach: I blamed technology and made a serious attempt at a ‘digital detox’. I bought a flip phone, subscribed to a print newspaper, and even purchased a 1990s-era word processor without an internet connection. I convinced myself that, once I banished all the technology from my life, I’d become the disciplined writer and focused father I’d always strived to be.
Talk about a rude awakening. Sitting at my ancient word processor, my eyes began to peer over to my now-tantalising bookshelf. ‘Hmmm,’ I said to myself, ‘I really should take a glance at this book’. I’d justify the distraction as necessary for ‘research’. And if it wasn’t reading, then I’d find something else – the laundry that needed to be folded right now, my desk that needed to be tidied-up this minute. The technology wasn’t distracting me. I was distracting me.
That’s when I started a five-year journey to understand distraction, its causes and its cures. I discovered a great deal that I found surprising and counterintuitive, and I developed methods to deal with my distraction that actually worked – and didn’t involve me trying to turn back time and operate a flip phone. I realised that distraction often begins from within, not without, and found that the fix came from identifying and managing the psychological discomfort that leads us off track.
As often as not, distraction is your brain ducking challenging feelings such as boredom, loneliness, insecurity, fatigue and uncertainty. These are the internal triggers – the root causes – that prompt you to find the comfort of distraction and open a browser tab, Twitter or email, instead of focusing on the matter at hand. Once you identify these internal triggers, you can decide to respond in a more advantageous manner. You won’t always be able to control how you feel – but you can learn to control how you react to the way you feel. A trigger that once sent you to Twitter can perhaps lead instead to 10 deep breaths.
Distraction, in other words, is a symptom of a problem – not the problem itself. Those deeper and systemic reasons – such as an inability to cope with fear, anxiety or stress – deserve our concern, because it’s only when we start to address them that we can make real progress. When we begin to understand what we’re trying to avoid by clicking over to Twitter or checking the news for the 10th time today, we can begin to address the issue itself, and not medicate it through more distraction. We also begin to appreciate how habitual the act of avoiding discomfort via distraction can be, and how much it’s become a part of how we work and live.
The good news is that there’s something paradoxical about discomfort: it’s actually the best tool we have for evolving and developing as a species. Feeling bad isn’t actually bad; it’s what helped us survive. Writing in 2001, the American psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues observed: ‘If satisfaction and pleasure were permanent, there might be little incentive to continue seeking further benefits or advances.’ If we didn’t feel bad, in other words, we’d never achieve good.
Once you understand the depth of distraction, you can start to manage it and improve. After years of experiments, I found myself less distracted – a quality that improved nearly every aspect of my life. It turns out that being able to focus on the subjects and people in my life who matter improved everything from my health to my happiness to my productivity. That can seem obvious, but I couldn’t have fully appreciated the joys of living an indistractable life if I hadn’t gotten there on my own after a five-year journey. Being indistractable can lead you to not just change your life for the better, but also experience life fully.
Identifying the triggers that made you feel bad in the first place requires self-exploration. When you notice yourself feeling distracted, pause and ask yourself what you’re feeling. Are you worried? Are you afraid? Then go one step deeper. What caused the sensation? How does it feel in your body?
In exploring my own internal triggers, I began to appreciate that my anxiety about a project, which might lead me to find a tempting Wikipedia rabbit hole, was actually adaptive: the fact that I was anxious was good because it meant I was trying to become better. It was sometimes even as easy as saying to myself: ‘You’re getting distracted right now because you’re worried this won’t be up to snuff. That’s okay. It means you’re trying to do your best work, and that’s something to feel good about.’ It seems like a simple mental trick, but even that thought can have a profound influence in keeping you on track.
There’s an interesting paradox about internal triggers: they can be big, imposing, powerful issues, and yet the fixes can sometimes be easy and quick. Here’s an example: let’s say that an internal trigger when you’re about to get started on a looming project is boredom. You just can’t bring yourself to get excited about doing your taxes. And because you get bored, you get distracted. But if you know you’re going to get bored, you can find ways to avoid the distraction that will soothe the boredom. For instance, if you set a time limit to work on the otherwise mind-numbing task that is so short, you won’t have a chance to get bored. Anyone can work on their taxes for just 10 minutes. This is called the 10-minute rule, and it’s an effective way to avoid distractions of all sorts. The point is to anticipate the internal trigger and then intercept it with a new routine rather than allowing yourself to slink away into doing something you didn’t intend to do.
In the case of my interaction with my daughter, the internal trigger might have been anxiety about work or fear of missing out (on an email). But I can address both of those proactively, so that they don’t interfere with precious daddy-daughter time. In the case of my work anxiety, I could make sure that someone on my team is monitoring incoming messages. I could put up an ‘out of office’ email that encourages people to call me if there’s really an emergency. Or in reality, I could get comfortable with the discomfort that I might indeed be missing out on something, but that’s all right too. Any one of those is a better and more constructive response to the internal trigger than being distracted.
Whatever approach you take to address your inner triggers, it’s encouraging to note that merely recognising uncomfortable feelings and identifying them could be beneficial. For instance, in a smoking-cessation study, researchers found that participants who learned to acknowledge and explore their cravings managed to quit smoking at double the rates of those in the American Lung Association’s best-performing cessation programme. Just identifying and investigating a craving had a tremendous impact.
Once you’ve identified the triggers, you can reframe the task at hand. Sure, you might be ‘forced to do your taxes’. But another way of thinking about that is that you ‘get to review last year’s business successes’. It sounds laughable, but it works. When I hit rough patches mid-book writing, I would say: ‘I get to share this with my audience,’ as opposed to: ‘I really have to work on the book today.’
Here’s one strategy: I found the fun in whatever I was doing. Yes, I know, this is where you roll your eyes, but hear me out. I learned to stay focused on the tedious work of writing books by looking for and finding the mystery embedded in my work. I wasn’t ‘writing’, I was ‘exploring’. I wasn’t Ernest Hemingway; I was Scooby-Doo. Research indicates that even the simple act of thinking of something that you don’t enjoy as fun can have a powerful and real effect on your brain’s interpretation of it. ‘Fun,’ writes the game designer Ian Bogost in his book Play Anything (2016), ‘turns out to be fun even if it doesn’t involve much (or any) enjoyment.’
To take a different example – let’s say you want to exercise consistently, but dislike lifting weights or jogging. Again, you could find ways to view the whole experience as a positive one. Envision every drop of sweat as a sign that your body is getting stronger. Learn to see the burn as tiny muscle fibres getting better at doing their job. Perceived difficulty is often a matter of perspective, and you can choose to re-imagine almost any discomfort as a blessing.
The benefits of reframing also extend to how you think about your own tendencies. Before I focused on distraction, I used to chastise myself for being a ‘distracted person’. ‘Stop getting distracted Nir!’ my brain would shout … at itself. A dive into the research showed that this was making my problem worse, not better. Instead, I began to do what the contemporary wellbeing literature recommends: I showed compassion to myself and my struggles. I began to speak to myself the way I might to a friend: ‘Nir, you’re distracted right now, and that’s OK. What’s causing it? Let’s figure it out.’ These simple thoughts helped me reframe my temperament, which is a critical step in addressing distraction.
Identify your priorities
Self-exploration and reframing are all in the head. You also need to attack the substance of your work life, noticing not just where your mind goes, but where your time goes as well. It will help you stay focused if you make sufficient time for ‘traction’ – the actions that draw you toward what you want in life. That can involve leaving time for relationships, fun or diversions too – but, crucially, it all has to keep a place on your calendar.
Here’s one method: turn your values into time. Do you want to make your family a priority? Figure out how much time you actually want to spend with them and reserve that time on your schedule. Want to focus on your health? Again, decide how many hours you want to devote, and block off specific chunks of time in your schedule. In translating your values into time, you take something fuzzy and undefined (eg, ‘health’) and turn it into something definite and countable (ie, ‘hours’).
When I did this, it gave me room to give in to things that I enjoyed, without letting them become distractions from what most mattered. So if I wanted, for example, to scroll social media, I would give myself an hour on my calendar to do it. It meant that I could browse Twitter or Facebook guilt-free – as opposed to using those things as a way of avoiding other work.
‘Hack back’ against external triggers
You’ll notice, I didn’t lead with this. The preliminary work of figuring out the internal triggers and turning your values into time is what allows you to then figure out what to do about those pesky notifications; to create environments that are conducive to focus and that help you defeat distraction. That means getting a handle on your email, and replying only during set times. It means using real-time communications channels such as Slack deliberately and sparingly. And it means giving your smartphone a spring clean, removing apps that no longer serve you, and disabling notifications you don’t need. This process also involves culling your media diet and deciding which feeds you want to ignore and avoid altogether. In sum, it means regaining a measure of control over your work environment and your information inputs – giving yourself the maximum time and room for focused work.
Forethought is the antidote to impulsivity: you can use a ‘precommitment’ to a particular course of action to exert a powerful influence on your future behaviour. If you precommit, you make a choice in advance, and pledge to stick to it – and then you don’t need to depend so much on the whims of self-control or willpower in the moment. Consider a simple example: once you buy a plane ticket for a friend’s wedding, it’s rare that you back out. Another example: once you put money away in a retirement account that has a penalty for early withdrawal, you’re less likely to take money out. Research in health psychology has similarly shown the benefits of these kinds of pacts – such as committing to visit the gym with a friend or ordering groceries in advance to reduce in-the-moment temptation. Crucially, precommitment devices can also help you defeat distraction. I used a precommitment device to finish my book. It took the form of a price pact: I told a friend of mine I’d give him $10,000 if I didn’t meet my deadline. I kept my money and finished my book. You can use pacts with yourself strategically, creating barriers that allow you to overcome your bad habits and bring out your best work. However, remember to use precommitments only as the last step. Before you do, be sure to master your internal triggers, make time for traction, and hack back external triggers, then use precommitments as the final firewall between you and distraction.
As someone who writes about distraction, time management and focus, I’m used to hearing the claim that social media is ruining people’s minds. Critics argue that these digital platforms are capturing our attention, wrecking our relationships and hijacking our brains. However, there’s little scientific proof that social media ‘permanently reduces attention span’ – that claim and many of the other wilder accusations about social media are founded on little more than opinion. One of the most interesting contributions related to this topic that I read this past year was from the British psychologist Amy Orben, who took a deep look at the other studies published on the links between social media use, digital technology and wellbeing. To my surprise, and to the surprise of many others, she found unreliable research methods, exaggerated claims and bad data throughout this research field.
That doesn’t mean the opposite is true, of course: absence of evidence, as they say, is not evidence of absence. There’s no question that overuse of tech can have negative consequences. My own view is that technology is not inherently good or bad. It has to do with how much tech you use, who is using it, what they are doing, and what they would be doing instead of using it.
I admit that puts me in a different camp than many of my peers who write and research in this space, because I am still a fan of technology even as I write about its hazards. My book Indistractable (2019) doesn’t recommend that people move to a cabin in the woods, quit social media, or block the internet entirely from their lives. I found that such advice, while well-meaning, didn’t fit with the reality of how most of us live today.
The issue, as I’ve pointed out before, isn’t principally the technology itself or social media. It’s getting to the root causes of what leads us to be distracted in the first place. When I worked on the research for Indistractable, I discovered that I was just as susceptible to being distracted by a news report or a dirty closet as I was by a glowing screen. Does that mean I cut out the news, or let my closets go? No. It meant having to figure out what I was avoiding (writing) and why I was avoiding it (all the writerly anxieties) and then dealing with those. It also meant building systems to manage my time, attention and internet use.
Thankfully, technology companies are waking up to the need for a more balanced relationship with the devices and services they’ve created. It’s why you’re seeing features such as ‘Screen Time’ as defaults in Apple products; it’s also why you’re seeing stronger and more highly tailored parental controls. The big tech companies are responding to the market’s growing need for sensible technology, and it’s a promising start. We need to encourage them to keep going – if they get rewarded for trying to restrain and build controls, then they will keep doing it.
Finally, and most importantly, we have to remember that it’s up to us, not them. We have the strategies and tools to deal with distraction now, and we don’t have to wait for Apple to release a software update or for Google to change how its browser is built. We can take control of our attention now, and we can remove and better manage the things that compete for that attention.
One of the reasons I wanted to investigate distraction is because I thought there ought to be better approaches to the subject than ‘just meditate’ or ‘move to Walden Pond’. My family and my friends live in a technologically enhanced world, and I don’t think that’s inconsistent with also being able to focus for long periods of time on substantive work. That line of thinking led me to explore digital resources that help us defeat distraction; here are a few that I have found most valuable:
My book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life (2019) provides research-backed techniques to overcome distraction. There are more than 30 pages of citations from academic journals and dozens of practical techniques, as well as a section on raising indistractable kids and building an indistractable workplace.
SelfControl: I use this app and recommend it to everyone: it helps you block websites that distract you.
Surfing the urge (MP3): an audio-based exercise from the University of Washington that helps an individual develop the practice of dealing with cravings or urges to behave in a certain way.
Mixmax: among other things, this app allows you to delay email delivery – which can help you control your inbox.
SaneBox: this software analyses your email habits to determine future email importance and auto-filter/organise those emails so that the most important get the attention that they deserve. It also comes with the SaneBlackHole feature that ensures you never see emails from a particular address ever again.
News Feed Eradicator for Facebook: a personal favourite, and it does what it says it will do – makes your News Feed disappear, so you can use the best of Facebook without getting pulled into the vortex.
Distraction Free for YouTube: similar to the News Feed Eradicator – this scrubs ads and recommended videos, so you watch what you came to watch on YouTube.
If you’re anything like me, you want to know the hard thinking and science behind some of the techniques I’ve outlined above. And you’re in luck: the past decade has seen an explosion in research on this issue, which I would argue is a direct response to all of us becoming more distracted, or at least feeling that way. Here are some of the journal papers, books and blog posts that helped me understand the psychology of distraction:
There’s a difference between a break and a distraction: in their book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (2016), Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist, and Larry Rosen, a psychologist, explain that good breaks can reduce mental fatigue, boost brain function, and keep us on-task for longer periods. They helped me understand the distinction between a ‘break’ and a ‘distraction’ – one that allowed me to give my brain a pause without sending it down a rabbit hole I didn’t intend to go down.
The rewards of reward-based programmes: pacts and incentive programmes were one of the most effective interventions for my issue with distraction, and again, the research bears this out. In their 2015 study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania explored incentive programmes for smoking cessation, and found that those that gave people financial rewards for quitting smoking led to higher rates of sustained abstinence from smoking. It led me to think about how I could reward myself for remaining indistractable, and how I could create pacts that led to the behaviours I wanted.
Your smartphone isn’t the enemy: I think it’s important to be honest about issues such as ‘technology addiction’ and distraction. In many cases, what you’ll read in the media are sensationalised accounts designed to make you think that your smartphone is the root of all evil in the world – particularly as it applies to raising children. I would encourage people interested in these subjects to take a deep look at the research; what you’ll find is surprising – technology isn’t rotting people’s brains indiscriminately, as the psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh explains in her blog post in 2017.