In this episode we talk about one of the MOST important skills in the modern world - the ability to be inDISTRACTable. Are you sick and tired of distraction? Do you feel constantly overwhelmed in a world of notifications, demands, messages, and more and more information flying at you? In this episode we discuss exactly how you can battle back from distraction, control your attention and choose the life you want using the power of being “indistractable” with our guest Nir Eyal.
Nir Eyal is an expert in “behavioral design” having worked in both advertising and video gaming helping companies build and create more engaging products. Nir is the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the book Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products and has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, and more. Nir is an active angel investor and currently writes to help companies create good habit and behaviors in their users on his blog NirandFar.com.
How do we deal with distraction in today’s world?
Why don’t we do what we say we’re going to do? Why do we do the things we know we shouldn’t do?
What is “akrasia” and how did the greek philosophers deal with the challenge of distraction?
Many of the “folk psychology” remedies to distraction don’t actually work
If there is no knowledge gap, why don’t we follow through? Why don’t people do what they need to do?
Most likely you know what you want to do. It’s also equally important to avoid the things you don’t want to do.
How do you become “indistractable"?
It’s about CONSISTENCY over INTENSITY to achieve anything.
What gets in the way of consistency moves you away from your goals.
If you don’t focus on the CORE reason you’re getting distracted you won’t solve the issue.
What is the job of a knowledge worker?
What is the output of knowledge work? Problem solving. Coming up with novel solutions to hard problems.
What improves problem solving.. FOCUS and CREATIVITY.
"The psychology of distraction”
What is distraction? What isn’t distraction?
The opposite of distraction is NOT focus, the opposite of distraction is TRACTION. And both words end in ACTION.
Traction and distraction are ACTIONS, things we DO, not things that happen TO US but things we DO.
“The time you plan to waste, is not wasted time."
EXTERNAL TRIGGERS are NOT the DISTRACTION
Everything we do is about the avoidance of discomfort. In psychology this is called the “homeostatic response."
This means time management is pain management.
To begin, we have to master our internal triggers.
One of the most common distractions in the workplace are OTHER WORKERS
Distraction is the third leading cause of death in the United States!
How nurses at UCSF made a simple yet earth shattering change that saved thousands of lives by removing external distractions, reducing prescription mistakes by 88%!!
What can you as a knowledge worker do to prevent being distracted during deep work?
The FOUR core strategies to combating distractions
Deal with internal triggers
Make time for traction
Hack back external triggers
Reduce distraction with pacts
They must be done IN ORDER to create the biggest impact
The self help industry has sold you a lie that if you’re not happy you’re not normal. Our species evolved to be perpetually perturbed.
The basic human condition is wanting, craving, desiring MORE. It’s baked into us from evolution.
Mindfulness and meditation is fantastic when you can’t get rid of the internal triggers. The first question you should ask yourself before you meditate is can you change the SOURCE, can you FIX the problem?
Fixing the internal source of your discomfort is one of the most powerful strategies
How do you cope with internal triggers when you can’t fix the source of the discomfort?
Re-imagine the trigger
Re-imagine the task
Re-imagine your temperament
Powerful lesson and strategy you can use from acceptance and commitment tendency: "surfing the urge."
Write down your urgent on paper
Explore your sensation with curiosity instead of contempt
“The ten minute rule” - for ten minutes, explore that sensation. Set a time for 10 minutes, and then give into the distraction after the 10 minutes.
Self compassion is a cornerstone of achievement and an essential component
Blamers and shakers - typical ways we distraction are problematic
"You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from."
The myth of the todo list. The magic to do list fairy doesn’t exist. Your to dos are your OUTPUTS not your inputs. They have nothing to do with your inputs. You can only control and schedule the INPUTS. That’s what you need to focus on.
Think of scheduling work like baking a loaf of bread, the inputs have to be on your calendar, like flour and yeast and water, if you don’t have all the ingredients and don’t have all the inputs, then you won’t get the OUTPUTS (ToDo’s/Goals).
Schedule everything you want to spend time on, good, bad, fun etc - and when you’re NOT doing that, you’re being distracted.
Homework: Know what you WANT TO DO with your TIME.
Homework: Realize you have power, control, and agency to put distraction in its place in your life.
Thank you so much for listening!
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This week's episode of The Science of Success is presented by Dr. Aziz Gazipura's Confidence University!
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Want To Dig In More?! - Here’s The Show Notes, Links, & Research
Indistractable Book Site
Optimizely Blog - Nir Eyal on Habits, Experimentation, and Becoming Indistractable By Robin Pam
Psychology Today - Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
TED Radio Hour - Nir Eyal: How Easy Is It To "Unhook" Ourselves From Our Devices?
[Podcast] Ezra Klein - Is Big Tech addictive? A debate with Nir Eyal.
[Podcast] Intercom - Nir Eyal on designing healthy habits – and the psychology behind them by Adam Risman
[Product] Product Love Podcast: Nir Eyal, Author of Hooked
Nir and Far Blog - Indistractable: How to Master the Skill of the Century
Nir and Far Blog - The Truth about Kids and Tech: Jean Twenge (iGen) and Nir Eyal (Hooked)
Tom Bilyeu - Addictive Behaviors - Nir Eyal | Inside Quest #28
Almost Everything - Social Media business model |HOOKED by nir eyal| almost everything
Productivity Game - HOOKED by Nir Eyal | Core Message
[00:00:04.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than four million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we talk about one of the most important skills in the modern world, the ability to be indistractable. Are you sick and tired of distraction? Do you feel constantly overwhelmed in a world of notifications, demands, messages and more and more information flying at you? In this episode, we discuss exactly how you can battle back from distraction, control your attention and focus and choose the life you want using the power of being indistractable with our guest, Nir Eyal.
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Do you know what you should be doing and yet you don’t do it? In our previous episode, we dug into the science behind why this happens and how exactly you can overcome this massive obstacle. No one is ever actually stuck, but the reason you feel stuck is because what you want, your goals, desires, changes you want in your life, etc., are bumping up against an emotional roadblock or subconscious limiting belief. It’s like having one foot on the gas while the other slams down on the brakes.
In our previous interview with Dr. Sasha Heinz, we shared what you can do to finally overcome that fear and anxiety and transform your life. If you want to finally get unstuck, listen to our previous episode.
Now for our interview with Nir.
[0:03:27.4] MB: Today, we have another awesome guest back on the show, Nir Eyal. Nir is an expert in behavioral design having worked in both advertising and video gaming, helping companies build and create more engaging products. He is the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today and much more.
Nir is an active angel investor and currently writes and helps companies create good habit and behaviors in their users on his blog nirandfar.com. Nir, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:58.9] NE: Thanks, Matt. Great to be here.
[0:04:00.6] MB: Well, we’re excited to have you back on the show. We loved our previous conversation. You’ve got a new book coming out that is really interesting and I think a critical topic in today’s world especially.
[0:04:12.9] NE: Thank you. Yeah. It’s really great to be back. It’s been a while, but the new book has occupied my brain for the past five years now. I’ve been working on this new book and I’m finally out of my writing cave and ready to tell others about what I learned.
[0:04:25.3] MB: Well, it’s really funny. I was watching one of your speeches on YouTube doing a little bit of research about the book, and you opened with a blooper reel of people on their phones walking into objects and stumbling into things. Embarrassingly, I literally not even a week ago I was walking and I was reading something on my phone and I literally smashed my head into this extended deck that didn’t have – there was nothing on the ground, but it was elevated. I just walked right into it.
Yeah. Fortunately, no major damage or anything, but it was eerie to see that then on the video a couple days later and just be like, man, we really are – I mean, distraction and know it’s hitting home for me.
[0:05:05.4] NE: Yeah, the struggle is real. I thought you were going to tell me that you hit your head while you’re watching the video. That would’ve been the ultimate irony of ironies there.
[0:05:11.5] MB: That would’ve been a supreme irony. No, sadly. Either way, I think as you put it, this whole distraction crisis is something that just every day, almost seems to be getting worse and worse and worse. It’s hard to see through the fog and see how do we get out of it.
[0:05:28.4] NE: Yeah. Well, that’s a big part of what this book is about. I mean, this topic has been covered from a lot of different angles. I know, it’s frankly a topic I wanted an answer to and didn’t find an answer I liked, because every other book on this topic basically puts the blame squarely on technology, right? Every other book I’ve read, I’ve read dozens and dozens of books on this topic, because I don’t like to write books that have already been written. I only write books that I can’t find that properly address the problem that I am facing in my own life.
When I looked for a book to answer this question I had of why don’t we do what we say we’re going to do? Fundamentally, why do we get distracted, whether it’s a technological distraction, or any other sources of distraction, why don’t we do what we say we’re going to do and why do we do the things that we know we shouldn’t do. After five years of researching this topic, originally I thought – I originally started thinking that these books must be write, that it is the technology that’s the problem. When I tried the solutions in these books, like digital detox, or a 30-day plan, it didn’t work. I tried them and they didn’t –
Not only that, the more I researched them, I found that the scientific literature actually doesn’t really support many of these folks, psychology remedies to distraction. We really have to dive deep to understand what distraction is all about.
[0:06:40.1] MB: I love that phrase, folk psychology, because there’s so much of that in today’s world. It’s fascinating once you start getting into the science and really trying to figure out what actually works and how can you implement this and how can we really overcome these problems and challenges? You touched on something a second ago, which I think is really important as well, which is this idea of I think in the book, you call it akrasia, right? Which is this notion. Explain a little bit what akrasia is and why it’s such an important concept.
[0:07:09.6] NE: Yeah. I was surprised to find that distraction is an age-old concept that in fact, Socrates talks about akrasia, this tendency that we have to do things against our better interest. This was 2,500 years ago. Literally, people were complaining about how distracting the world is these days. I just thought that was a really refreshing reminder that Facebook didn’t create distraction, our iPhones didn’t create distraction. This is a part of the human condition.
That led me to explore, well what is it about the human psyche that trips us up this way? I mean, why is it? To me, it’s such a fascinating question. If we know what to do, if there is no knowledge gap, why don’t we follow through, right? We all know if we want to have a good-looking body, we have to exercise and eat right. I mean, do you need to buy a bodybuilding book, or a nutrition book to tell you that? We all know that chocolate cake is not as helpful as the healthy salad. We know that if you want a healthy relationship with your friends and loved ones, you have to be fully present with them.
We know that if you want to do really well at your job, you have to do the work, especially the hard work that other people don’t want to do, or aren’t willing to do. We don’t need to buy self-help books that tell us all this stuff we already know. If that’s the case, if there is no information gap, we actually do know what to do. Why don’t we do what we say we’re going to do?
That was really the basic question of this book, because what I have come to believe is that most people out there do already know what it is that they want to do, but they don’t realize that it’s equally important to know how not doing the things you don’t want to do. That’s really what becoming indistractable is all about. The term indistractable, I made up the word. The nice thing about making up a word is that you can define it anyway you like.
To become indistractable means you become the person who strives to do what they say they’re going to do. It means you live with personal integrity. You’re as honest with others as you are to yourself. If you can do that, if you can become indistractable, I mean, isn’t that a superpower? I mean, imagine what we could accomplish if we actually did everything that we said we’re going to do.
[0:09:16.9] MB: That’s a great framework and a way of looking at it. It reminds me of something that some of my intellectual heroes, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger talk frequently about, how their strategy is not necessarily to be smart, but it’s to be less stupid and minimize a lot of the negative decision-making traits and ideas and so forth, so that they can – if you eliminate a lot of the bad possibilities, then suddenly, your decision-making quality improves, even without you doing super difficult, genius, incredible novel things. It’s the same approach, right?
That’s what you’re talking about, which is there’s so many things we know we don’t want to be doing them and yet, how do we create structures in our life to actually predictably and systematically start to minimize those things that distract us and create negative behaviors?
[0:10:01.7] NE: Absolutely. I mean, that is exactly spot on. It’s really about consistency over intensity. In so many aspects of our life, if you want to be more healthy, if you want to have better relationships, if you want to do better at your job, it’s not about, “Oh, I read this book that gave me this amazing new breakthrough technique that’s the flavor of the week and I’m going to implement it right now.” It’s about consistently performing the job, or the activity at hand for the rest of your life, right? That’s where excellence comes from. It’s not about these fly-by-night ideas. It’s about consistency over intensity. What gets in the way of consistency is distraction.
[0:10:36.4] MB: That’s another great framework. I’ve heard that concept and idea so many different times. I’ve never heard it exactly put so succinctly, the notion of consistency versus intensity. Even coming back to the example, which we’ve talked about in many episodes on the show, because it’s such a crystal clear one, but you brought it up as well, the idea of weight loss or healthy lifestyles, being healthy.
It’s not rocket science what you need to do and yet, people don’t do it. One of my mentors in the fitness world told me something about meal plan or diet, which is basically adherence trumps everything else. If you can’t adhere to it, it doesn’t matter. At the bottom of the pyramid of most important things, whether it’s calories, macros, meal timing supplements, whatever, the number one thing is adherence.
[0:11:22.1] NE: Right. Exactly. Should it be any different for these current dilemma that we face around distraction, that the same exact rules apply. This is why I’ve been so dissatisfied with the other books that have come out in this category, because they all tell you, just put away the technology, go in a 30-day detox, do this 30-day plan. It doesn’t work. I tried them and they don’t work. I got myself a feature phone that did nothing but send text messages, receive phone calls, no apps. I got myself a word processor from eBay from the 1990s that had no internet connection and I still got distracted, right?
I got rid of all the technology. I thought that was the problem and I still got distracted. Why? Because there were these books behind me and this bookcases that I just wanted to read that one thing that might be helpful for work, or let me just clean up my desk for a second. I probably should throw out the trash. The trash needs to be taken out. I constantly got distracted, because I wasn’t focusing on the core issue that was causing me to get distracted.
I didn’t understand the psychology of distraction. Just like, I used to be clinically obese at one point in my life. I remember I would do these fad diets. I would go on these 30-day fad diets and then you know what happens on day 31, right? It all comes back, because you eat with a vengeance. That’s exactly what happens with our technologies these days and these distractions. If we don’t learn how to manage the use of these products – look, we need them for our livelihood.
It’s very easy to say, “Oh, get rid of your technology when you don’t have a social media account.” Some authors don’t, do write about this topic, which I think is really ironic. That wasn’t helpful. I want to know how I can live with these technologies and yet, make sure that I can get the best of them without letting them get the best of me.
[0:13:03.3] MB: It’s so fascinating that you try to – you actually did get rid of these things and you still got distracted. I find that really interesting. I want to expound upon, or explore something you touched on a minute ago that ties into all of this, which is this notion that in today's world with this distraction crisis that we're facing, it really is a superpower if you can be indistractable, because the things that are going to be rewarded are things that benefit from and are derived out of focus and deep work and creativity. That's where all the value is being created in today's economy. If you're constantly distracted, you can never get to that place.
[0:13:40.8] NE: That's right. That's right. I mean, if you think about okay, what is the job of a knowledge worker? I would put, it's very clear if you work on a factory line on what your output is, right? You're making widgets, you're baking bread, whatever it might be, you can see your output on a production line. For knowledge workers, what is our output? Our output is problem-solving. Our job in one form or another, whether it's through customer service, whether it's through design, whatever it might be, our output in whatever format it takes is creating and coming up with novel solutions to hard problems. It turns out that without doing focused work that becomes very hard to do.
How do people do it? Well, they do it after work, right? They do e-mails and meetings all day long. Then at night is when they do the actual work of work, when they actually come up with novel ideas to hard problems. That is let's say, suboptimal to say the least, because there is always a price to be paid. The price to be paid comes out from the people we love. It comes out of time with our family, it comes out of time with friends, it's leading to this loneliness epidemic in this country, that there are fewer and fewer people can say that they have close relationships.
A big part of that is because we just don't spend the time that we need with people who make us feel good, because we're just so busy these days with work that spills over out of work, out of work hours, I should say. This affects so many different facets of our life. I mean, I think last but not least is our relationship with our kids. Many parents I speak with complain about how their kids are so distracted these days with Fortnite and Facebook and they're yelling at them to put these devices away as they're looking at e-mail on their iPhones.
We're hypocrites. As parents, we need to become indistractable first and foremost. I say this as a father myself of an 11-year-old. We need to set the example for our children and help them become indistractable by first becoming indistractable ourselves.
[0:15:44.7] MB: Let's unpack this a little bit more. I want to dig into as you called it a minute ago, the psychology of distraction. Tell me more about that. I want to start unpacking a little bit more.
[0:15:55.5] NE: Sure. Let's define what we mean by distraction. To understand what distraction is, we have to understand what it is not. What is the opposite of distraction? The opposite of distraction is not focus. The opposite of distraction is traction. Both words come from the same Latin root, trah are, which means to pull. You'll notice that both words end in the same five letter word, action. Traction and distraction both end in action, reminding us that traction and distraction are things that we do. They are actions we take, not things that happen to us.
Traction is any action you take that pulls you towards what you want, things that you do with intent. The opposite of traction is distraction. This is an important framework to get into our heads. We can think about it like a horizontal line with two arrows pointing to the right and to the left.
This is important for a few reasons. One, it frees us from this moral hierarchy that what some people do with their time is somehow morally inferior to what other people do with their time. It drives me nuts when people say, “Oh, those video games. What a waste of time. That's a bad thing to do with your time,” but me watching that football game, that's fine. March Madness, that's perfectly fine. Me wasting time on watching the sixth hour of Fox News, or MSNBC, that's okay. You playing video games or Candy Crush or social media, not okay. It's ridiculous, because they're both pastimes and there's nothing wrong with your pastimes, whatever it might be, as long as it is time that you plan to spend.
There's a quote in the book. I can remember who said it, but it's a great quote that the time you plan to waste is not waste of time. Anything that you plan to do with intent is traction. Anything that is not traction, that takes you off track from what you plan to do with intent is distraction. Similarly, I mean, in the same vein many tasks that we think are worky, right? That feel we should be doing, can also be distraction.
One thing that constantly got me before I learned how to overcome it was sitting down on my desk and saying, okay, it's time for me to do some focused work, it's time for me to write this chapter in my book, or to finish this presentation, but let me just for a minute scroll e-mail for a minute, or let me just check that Slack channel, or I'll Google something. That feels worky, right? That's a good thing to do. It's something I have to do anyway at some point, right? No, that is just as much of a distraction if that is something that you did not plan to do with intent.
You've got traction on the right, you've got distraction on the left, on the horizontal axis. Now I want you to think about a line bisecting that horizontal axis vertically, okay? Now you have a line, a big plus mark now in your head and you've got almost the four points of a compass north, east, south and west. Now you've got the south and the north. We haven't talked about those two. We already did traction-distraction, but what about the two other points, the top and the bottom of the vertical line?
At the bottom, I want you to place external triggers. External triggers are things that move you towards traction or distraction, by giving you some piece of information in your outside environment. This is where all the pings, dings, rings and things that we have all around us every day can either move us towards acts of traction, things we want to do, or distraction. If your phone buzzes and says, “Oh, it's time for that workout, or it's time for that meeting you planned, or it's time to read a book,” or whatever it might be that you plan to do with intent, well now it's moving you towards traction.
If you receive a buzz on your phone that gets you to do something you didn't plan to do, if you're working on a hard assignment, or your e-mail is buzzing you and now it's moving you towards distraction, because that is something you didn't plan to do. Then finally and most importantly, and this is where we really get into the weeds around the psychology of distraction that the north part of this plus mark right at the top is internal triggers. Internal triggers are these things that prompt us to action just like external triggers, but where the source of the internal trigger comes from within us.
One of the mantras I want everyone to remember here is that by and large, distraction starts from within. These internal triggers are uncomfortable emotional states. They are feelings, negative valence states that we feel that we don't want to experience. If we really back up a bit to think about the first principles around not only why do we get distracted, but why do we do anything? The answer is not what most people believe. Most people believe that the nature of motivation is some form of carrots and sticks, right? It's about pain and pleasure. Freud's pleasure principle.
It turns out that neurologically speaking, it ain't true. That neurologically speaking, it's not about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Turns out the way the brain gets us to do everything and anything is through the avoidance of discomfort. Everything we do is about the avoidance of discomfort. This is of course called the homeostatic response, and so whether it's a physiological sensation, if you feel cold you put on a coat, if you feel hot, you take it off, if you're hungry, you feel hunger pains, you eat. If you are stuffed and you ate too much, well you stop eating, because that feels uncomfortable. Those are physiological states.
The same is true for psychological states. When we're feeling lonely, we check Facebook. When we're uncertain, we Google. When we're bored, we check Reddit, or stock prices, or sports scores, or the news, or YouTube. All of these things cater to these uncomfortable feelings, even the pursuit of pleasure, right? Even wanting to feel something that feels good is itself psychologically destabilizing, right? Wanting, craving, the urge, a desire. There's a reason we say love hurts. Neurologically speaking, it does in fact hurt.
Everything we do, even the pursuit of a pleasurable sensation is driven by the desire to escape discomfort. That means if all our behavior is driven by a desire to escape discomfort, that means that time management is pain management. If we are really to get to the bottom of why we do or don't do the things we know we should or should not do, we have to start with these internal triggers. We have to master this discomfort that prompts us to either traction or distraction.
[0:22:30.9] MB: So many great points and things that I want to explore more. One of the most important things I think you've said is this notion that distraction is not about the external triggers, it's the action that we take. It's not something that comes from the outside. It's something that comes from us.
[0:22:47.7] NE: Right, right. By and large, there are clearly external triggers can drive us to –
[0:22:52.7] MB: Or inaction.
[0:22:54.4] NE: Right. The knee-jerk reaction is just to think about the external triggers. Even there, most people will think about the pings and dings on their phone and their computer, we don't realize how many external triggers there are in the outside environment that have nothing to do with technology. In my research, I found that one of the most common sources of distraction in the workplace is other workers, right? It's the scourge of the open floorplan office where someone can come by and say, “Hey, I just heard this office gossip. We have to talk about this. Come on, let's talk about this,” when you're in the middle of a big project. That is just as much of a pernicious source of distraction as anything you might get on your phone.
There are ways to deal with that. One of the ways that you deal with is you hack back these external triggers. One thing that is unique about this book is inside the book, there is a piece of cardstock. Actually, let me back up. Can tell a quick story here? Let me digress for just a minute.
[0:23:45.4] MB: Absolutely.
[0:23:46.6] NE: This research about external triggers is really interesting. There's an anecdote I tell in the book about the third leading cause of death in the United States.
If I were to ask you, what's the third leading cause of death in United States, I'll give you the first two, number one is heart disease, number two is cancer. The third leading cause of death, if it were a disease, it's not Alzheimer's, it's not accident, it's not stroke, third leading cause of death in the United States of America is prescription mistakes. People being given the wrong medication, or the wrong dosage of medication by healthcare practitioners inside hospitals. 200,000 Americans are harmed every year by this completely preventable human error.
Now most hospitals in America just say, “Well, what are you going to do? It's the price of doing business. Not much we can do about it.” Until a group of nurses at UCSF decided to get down at the bottom of this and trying to figure out what was going on. Why are so many people given the wrong medication by healthcare practitioners? They discover that the source was distraction. That nurse practitioners primarily, when they were dosing out medication on their medication rounds were being interrupted by their colleagues. Somebody would come up to them and distract them, typically one of their colleagues, a doctor, or a fellow nurse.
What was interesting about this study is that the people dosing out the medication and making these errors didn't realize that they were making the errors until it was too late by and large. That's exactly what happens to us as knowledge workers. We don't even realize how much better our performance could be if we could focus on one task at a time, just like these nurses who were dosing out medication and didn't realize they were making an error until it was too late. We as well don't realize how much better our work could be if we just simply focused on a task for a substantial period of time.
What was the solution? What did these nurses do? They actually found a solution to this dilemma that reduced prescription mistakes by 88%. 88% reduction in prescription mistakes. Their solution was not some multi-million dollar technology. Their solution was plastic vests. Plastic vests that said, dosing rounds in progress. That's signaled to their colleagues that these nurses were not to be bothered while they were dosing out medication. This reduced prescription mistakes by 88%. Unbelievable.
I translate this lesson from these nurses into what we as knowledge workers can do every day inside these open floor plan offices. Back to what I started to talk about earlier, every copy of indistractable inside the book comes with a cardstock sheet that you can pull out, fold into thirds and place on your computer monitor. I call this a screen sign. The screen sign says in bold letters, “I'm indistractable. Please come back later.”
Now you don't leave this up all day long. You only leave this up maybe 45 minutes at a time to signal to your colleagues that right now I'm doing focused work. I can wear headphones to do that. No, you can't, because people have no clue if you're watching YouTube videos, or listening to ESPN, podcasts, or whatever.
It's much better to send a very clear explicit signal that you are not to be disturbed during this period of time. You will find that your performance will improve markedly when you have that focused work time to not be interrupted, not just by the obvious interruptions of your technology, but also from the less obvious distractions like your workplace colleagues.
[0:27:21.3] MB: Such a great example and that story about the pharmacist is amazing. Even the practical, bringing that all the way back to something people can implement right now today in their offices is such a great framework, such a great strategy.
[0:27:34.4] NE: Thank you. Yeah, it's worked. I use it in my home. I work from home and it's even effective, even if you don't work in an open floor plan office. When my kid comes into my office here, she also has to know that I can't be distracted. Even my child can be a distraction, and so we use – actually, my wife bought this $5 light-up crown that she wears. It looks a little ridiculous, but it works like a charm, because before your words can come out of your mouth to interrupt her, you see – we call it the concentration crown. “Okay, sorry. I know you're concentrating right now. I won't bother you.” It's a very, very effective technique.
[0:28:08.5] MB: That's awesome. I want to come back and unpack a couple of the things about internal triggers as well and how we can manage our own psychological states and deal with the distraction and so forth that comes internally. Before we do that, I want to explore and finish unpacking external triggers. What are a few of the other strategies that we can use, or implement to make it more difficult for us to get distracted?
[0:28:31.4] NE: Sure. The four parts, just we talked about the north, east, south and west four parts of this model. Just to recap those, the first step is to master internal triggers, the second step is to make time for traction, the third step is to hack back external triggers and the fourth step is to prevent distraction with pact. That's the strategy. I mean, the tactics here are less important. Whether it's a screen sign, whether it's this app or that app, those are all tactics. The book is full of tactics. There's lots of tactics out there.
What's even more important is the strategy. Tactics are what we do, strategy is why we do it. My contribution I think to this field is that now we can have a clear picture as to why we get distracted. I would constantly get distracted day in and day out and not realize why, or do anything about it, right? What's that definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.
Like an idiot, I would constantly get distracted day after day and not do anything about it. That's where I think this model is helpful is to finally be able to picture, “Oh, okay. Was it an internal trigger that I need to deal with and find a better way to cope with that discomfort? Was it that I didn't make time for traction? Was it that I should have hacked back that external trigger that distracted me? Or can I use a pre-commitment, or a pact to prevent distraction?” Those are the big four strategies.
By the way need, to be done in order. A lot of what I discovered in my research is that if you do these out of order, like a lot of people have heard about pre-commitments, making some bet with a friend to make sure they do what they say they're going to do, these type of tools have been around for a while. In fact, they can backfire if you don't first take care of the other step. It's very important you do these in order.
[0:30:17.2] MB: In that case, let's back up and start – come back to internal triggers and talk a little bit more about how do we deal with those. I love what you said earlier about this idea that in psychology, everything is fundamentally about the avoidance of discomfort and the homeostatic response. I wanted to explore a little bit more, even this notion you shared that time management is pain management. Tell me a little bit more about all those and how that comes back to helping cope and deal with internal triggers, since that's the first of the four core strategies.
[0:30:48.5] NE: Yeah, yeah. This is the hardest one to deal with, I'll be honest, because the other ones are more tactical. This one requires us to face the icky, sticky uncomfortable truth that we use these devices to escape ourselves. I think managing these internal triggers starts with dispelling this notion that somehow if we're not happy, if we're not satisfied, then something's wrong with us. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What I want folks to realize is that the self-help and personal development industry has sold us this lie, because it makes them a lot of money that if we're not happy, we're not normal. That is just not true, that our species evolved to be perpetually perturbed. That's how we advanced, right? We need dissatisfaction. If there was ever a tribe of homo sapiens who was happy hunky-dory and satisfied with life and didn't want more and didn't feel these internal triggers to spur them to want more, if that tribe ever existed, our predecessor has probably killed them and ate them, because they wouldn’t have survived.
The first step is to realize that feeling bad isn't bad. It's normal. That is the baseline human condition is wanting, craving, desiring more. Now we can either use that for good, right? We can use these internal triggers, these uncomfortable emotional states to help us do more, to be better, to help us discover life-saving medicine, to help us overturn despots, to reach for the stars, all of these things come from a desire to want more.
We need to harness that power to do one of two things; we can use that power to either change our circumstances and change the source of the internal trigger, or where we can't change the source of that discomfort, we need to learn methods to cope with that discomfort. I think over the past few years, I talk about in the book very, very briefly. It’s one sentence. I talk about how I will not be talking about meditation or mindfulness for the rest of this book. Not because these techniques don't work, but I think they've gotten too much airtime. That it's almost like in a way, behavioral economics versus conventional economics.
That most of human behavior is driven still by conventional economics. Incentives work and those incentives fall under conventional economics. Of course, behavioral economics explain some of the exceptions to standard incentivized behavior. The same goes when it comes to mindfulness and meditation. Those techniques are fantastic when we can't change the source of the discomfort. Let me tell you, we don't always want to meditate our problems away. Meditation is itself a form of psychological escape and we need that to some degree. There's nothing wrong with it, but we shouldn't go straight to that.
We should start by first asking ourselves, can we change the source of the discomfort itself? Can we fix the problem? Only when we can't fix the problem and we will always have these uncomfortable emotional states, that's when we need to learn techniques to cope with that discomfort. We either fix the source of the discomfort and I talk about in the book in the second half of the book, I talk about how one of the major sources of discomfort in people's lives is terrible workplace culture.
Many people work in work environments, which perpetuates these internal triggers, feelings of anxiety, depression, stress, fatigue are perpetuated by workplace cultures that are toxic. Those are the type of workplace environments that we have to fix that culture, because what do people do when they experience these uncomfortable emotional states? Well, they send even more e-mails. They call even more pointless meetings. They do behaviors that not only distract themselves, they distract their colleagues as well.
There's a big chunk of the book about how to build an indistractable workplace. That's where we fix the source of the discomfort. Then when we can't fix the source of the discomfort, I give three techniques for coping with these internal triggers, when we can't necessarily fix the source of the discomfort. These three techniques are all about reimagining these internal triggers. We can either reimagine the trigger, we can reimagine the task, or we can reimagine our temperament. Those are the three big categories for what we can do when we have an internal trigger that we can't necessarily fix the source of.
For example, I'll just give you one technique I use almost every single day. This technique comes out of acceptance and commitment therapy. By the way, nothing in the – I hate these self-help books that are, “Hey, I tried this technique and it worked great for me. Therefore, it will work for everybody.” No, no, no. That's not what my book is about at all. Everything in my book is peer-reviewed, studies that have appeared in academic journals. Most of it is old research, but applied to this new domain.
For example, this technique that comes from acceptance and commitment therapy of doing what's called surfing the urge. Here's how this technique works. When I sit down on my desk and I need to work on a big project, I need to write, I need to do something that I'm likely to get distracted while doing, when I find myself potentially getting distracted, so let's say something that used to get me all the time, now I know how to deal with it is this urge while I'm writing.
Writing is really hard work for me. While I'm writing, I'll just say to myself, “Let me just check that quick e-mail. I wonder if something came in, or let me just Google something. I need to do a bit of research here for a minute.” That's of course distraction, because it's not what I intended to do with my time.
What I used to do was to bully myself. I would have this negative self-talk of, “You see, you're so easily distracted. You have such a short attention span. You see, it's something wrong with you.” That's exactly the wrong thing. What we really want to do is to explore that sensation with curiosity, instead of contempt. Step one is we simply write down that sensation. I'll give you a link to a distraction tracker that is in the book as well, where all we have to do is simply note that sensation. Simply putting it on paper, feeling bored, okay. It sounds silly. It sounds simple. Incredibly effective. That's the first step.
Then the second step is to explore that sensation with curiosity, rather than contempt. Most people, their self-talk is horrendous. I know it was for me. If I talk to my friends the way I talk to myself, they wouldn't be friends with me anymore, right? We are oftentimes are our worst critics. What I've done now is to cultivate self-compassion, is to talk to myself the way I would talk to a good friend. In that process of self-compassion, what I'm doing is self-talk, something like this for example.“Oh, there I go reaching for my cellphone. I'm feeling fatigued. I'm feeling uncertain. I'm feeling fearful that nobody's going to like what I'm writing. I get curious about that sensation.
Then what you're going to do is for simply 10 minutes, this is called the 10-minute rule. Again, this comes from acceptance and commitment therapy, is for 10 minutes explore that sensation. For those 10 minutes, you have two choices; you can either get back to the task at hand, or just sit with that feeling. Once that timer is up and you can use your iPhone even to set a timer very quickly, just as serious at a timer for you for 10 minutes. Once that timer goes off, you can give into that distraction.
99% of the time, by the time that 10 minutes timer goes off, you will have forgotten that sensation. The sensation will have crested and passed away and you won't feel that internal trigger anymore and you'll be on to doing the work you really want to do. That's just one of many, many, many techniques in the book that I use every single day.
[0:38:28.7] MB: Awesome strategies and very, very detailed. Self-compassion is so important and something that's tremendously underrated. People think it's soft. People think it's woo, woo. It doesn't get talked about enough and we've done a couple episodes on it that are awesome that we'll throw to the show notes.
I think it's so important to just underscore that, that self-compassion is really a cornerstone of being a great achiever of achieving your goals of doing it you want to do and correlate of that that you talk about as well in the book is this notion that being self-compassionate, part of that too is when you fail, when you get distracted, it's okay. Getting back on the wagon is more important than just saying, “Oh, I got distracted,” and just giving up and blowing up the whole project.
[0:39:10.3] NE: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely. What we find is that most people fall into two categories. I call them the blamers or the shamers. The blamers say, “Oh, you see it's the technology that's doing it to me. The big bad technology companies are making me get distracted.” Those are the blamers.
The shamers go into this self-talk death spiral of you see, there's something wrong with me. I knew I probably have some obsessive compulsive disorder, or I have a short attention span, or an addictive personality. Look, some people really do have a pathology. There are people out there that do have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or an addiction, or whatever the case might be. Very, very small percentage. We're talking single digit percentages here.
The vast majority of people listening to me right now do not have such disorders and yet, we psych ourselves up. We tell ourselves that somehow we are dysfunctional in some way and the answer is neither of those things. The right answer is not to be a blamer, it's not to be a shamer, it's to realize that these are behaviors and our behaviors can change, if we know how to deal with these internal triggers appropriately in a healthful manner.
[0:40:09.8] MB: I want to come back to something that I've also heard you talk about that I think was really important from a thematic standpoint around the idea of distraction. That's this notion that coming back all the way to what we're talking about the beginning of conversation, the opposite of distraction is action. You have to have proactively, which is one of the I guess, the second pillar now that we're getting into, making time for traction. You have to proactively figure out what do you actually want to achieve. Because if you're getting distracted from nothing, then are you really being distracted at all.
[0:40:43.8] NE: That's exactly right. The way I phrase it as a title of one of the chapters is you can't call something a distraction, unless you know what it distracted you from. We have no right to complain that's something distracted us. If you can't show me on your calendar what it was you wanted to do with your time, right? I used to do this all the time. I used to have a big wide, open calendar and I had put in a big block and I'd say, work. Okay, today I work. Well, that's ridiculous. I used to bind to this myth, as I think many people still do. I call it the myth of the to-do list. That productivity experts tell us if you just put things on a to-do list, magically they'll get done somehow.
I don't know how that works. I don't know where the magic to do fairy exists to get your stuff done. It's ridiculous. Because your to-dos are your outputs. That has nothing to do with your inputs. If I were to ask a baker to bake me a hundred loaves of bread, he would say, “Great. Okay, where are the inputs, right? Where is the flour, where is the yeast, where's the factory, I need the employees,” all this stuff to make the hundred loaves of bread.
We knowledge workers, we don't ask that question. We just take orders from our boss, from our family, from whoever needs us to do stuff in our day and we put long to-do lists. Then most days, half the tasks get shipped over to the next day and the next day and the next day and they never get done. Because you have to put those tasks on your calendar, or they'll never get done.
This is part of this process that I talk about called syncing up with stakeholders, where we need to have this regular check-in with the various stakeholders in our life, starting with ourselves, right? Do you have time on your calendar to live up to your values? I say, you have to turn your values into time.
If I look at your calendar of your week ahead, not the week before, but the week ahead, can I see how you will live up to your values? I'm not telling you what your values should be by the way. If health is a value for you, if taking care of your physical body is important to you, then is that time on your calendar? If taking care of your spiritual health is important to you, is that time on your calendar? Is taking care of your intellectual growth, is that time on your calendar? That has to do with the domain of the you.
The second domain above that is your relationships. Are you making time for the important people in your life? Not just, “Okay, I'll see them when I see them,” but do you have time on your calendars on a regular basis to make sure that you connect with people you love? Your family, your friends, other loved ones, your community members. Is that on your calendar? Then finally when it comes to the workplace, we also have to make time for the important tasks in our day-to-day jobs.
Every knowledge worker I interviewed for this book, when I asked them, is focused work even important to you? Should I even write this book? Every one of them said, absolutely. I have to think. I have to in order to solve problems, come up with novel solutions to difficult problems, I need time to think. So few of us actually have that time on our calendars. We have to turn our values into time and actually put that time on our calendar. Now there's a free tool. I'll give you a link in the show notes. You don’t have to sign up. You don't even have to give me your e-mail. None of that stuff. It's totally free. I just kept getting asked this question of where do I make a weekly template? How do I even do that?
I built this tool that's completely free online. I'll give you in the show notes, where you can make what your ideal weekly template should look like, so that finally, you will know the difference between what is traction, things that are on your calendar, things that you're doing with intent and anything that you're doing that's not on that calendar is distraction. Now by the way, I get this question a lot around well, isn't some distraction good for you? No. Not according to this definition. What I think some people mean is diversion. Diversion can actually be good for you.
For example, if you want to divert your attention and let your brain just wander and relax, or become creative, great. Put time on your calendar to watch Netflix. Put time on your calendar to check Facebook. Put time on your counter to pray, or meditate, or just take a walk. Great. Do those things if they're consistent with your values, but do them on your schedule. In my schedule, every evening I have time to check social media. I love social media. There's nothing wrong with it, but I use it on my schedule, not on the app maker schedule.
[0:44:52.6] MB: Such a great point. I just made a note to myself to start thinking about how I can take everything that's on my to-do list and frame it into discrete blocks on my calendar when I want to be executing those things. It's absolutely, absolutely awesome strategy.
[0:45:07.4] NE: It does take a little bit investment of time. I'll warn you, it took me – the first time I did it, maybe 30 minutes. Then after that, it's only 15 minutes every week. Just to review it and make sure that you're making small adjustments, but a few things have changed my life and made me more productive, much more happy in my day-to-day life, closer to my family and my friends, than this simple act of making time for the things that are important to me on my calendar, down to the minute.
[0:45:29.1] MB: This is actually a lesson I learned from a good buddy of mine, Sebastian Marshall who's a previous guest in the show as well. He talks about there's as you start to measure and do this, there's a value in learning how much you can accomplish in let's say, a 30-minute block. You get better and better at estimating, okay, if I'm going to – I need to do X, well how much time should I really allocate to that? You start to get a lot more intuitive about understanding, okay, that's really going to be a two-and-a-half-hour task, or that's really going to be a 15-minute task, or whatever it might be. There's real value in understanding how productive you can be in a given time period.
[0:46:00.4] NE: Right, right. It only comes from this cycle of looking back at the week that passed, figuring out hey, did I go off-track? Was it enough time? Was it too much, or too little time? Then adjusting your calendar the next week, the template the next week based on what you learned the week before.
[0:46:16.3] MB: Exactly. If you don't measure it and you don't put on your calendar, then it's just going into a black hole and you have no idea what's happening.
[0:46:21.5] NE: That's right. That's exactly right.
[0:46:23.6] MB: We've talked about so many great ideas, concept, strategies, tactics. For listeners who want to concretely implement one thing coming out of this episode, what would be the first action step that you would give them to start becoming indistractable?
[0:46:39.3] NE: Well, I really think it's about this strategy more than any one specific tactic. It's about knowing the next time you get distracted, becoming indistractable, it doesn't mean you never get distracted. It means you know what to do the next time you get distracted, so you don't keep getting distracted by the same thing again and again every day. You can make sure that you can do what you really want to do as opposed to doing what other people want you to do with your time.
Because look, the fact is if you don't plan your day, if you don't know these techniques, there's no doubt that somebody's going to eat up your day, right? Whether it's the tech companies, with their distractions, or the demands of your spouse, or your kids, or your boss, somebody is going to eat up your time, unless you know what you want to do with it to make sure you don't get distracted.
The biggest takeaway are these four key pillars, right? Master your internal triggers, make time for traction, hack back external triggers and prevent distraction with packs. I think a macro theme here that I think is very important to realize is I really want to counteract this myth that I think is perpetuated by some folks in this space, that technology is controlling your brain, because the more I research this idea, one, the research just doesn't bear this out, that addiction, this idea of tech addiction is real for some people, right? People can get addicted to any analgesic is potentially addictive, but it's not the vast majority of us.
For the vast majority of us, it's not addiction. It's maybe overuse. When we call it what it is, which is at times overused, we can begin to take control over it, as opposed to just sloughing off responsibility.
The worst thing you can do is to say to yourself, “Well, there's nothing I can do, because the algorithms are hijacking my brain and they're addictive.” What we're teaching people is essentially learn helplessness, which is actually ironically giving these companies more power and more control than they deserve. The first step is to realize that we do have power, we do have control, we do have agency if we know how to put distraction in its place, we all can become indistractable.
[0:48:36.5] MB: Nir, where can people find you, your work and the book online?
[0:48:40.2] NE: Absolutely. My blog is at nirandfar.com. Nir is spelt like my first name, N-I-R. nirandfar.com. Information about the book Indistractable: How to Control your Attention and Choose Your Life. A book is sold anywhere books are sold. If you do get the book, even if you don't get the book, if you go to indistractable.com, there are all types of resources there. There's an 80-page workbook, there's that distraction tracker I mentioned earlier, there's the schedule maker, all of these tools, many of them free, whether you buy the book or not, all of that is at indistractable.com. That’s I-N-distract-A-B-L-E. Indistractable.com.
[0:49:17.9] MB: Well, Nir. thank you so much for coming back to the show, sharing all this wisdom, insights, ideas, incredible conversations, so many lessons. Thank you so much for joining us once again on the Science of Success.
[0:49:29.4] NE: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me back.
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