My Review of Indistractable

Nir Eyal wants us to take back our time

I.

Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life has been on my radar for a long time.  I’d heard positive reviews, endorsements from people whose judgement I trust, and even listened to the author in a podcast interview.  But somehow, I could never find the time to actually sit down and read the thing.  I always had something else to do - inboxes to clean out, articles to read, videos to watch - all while my coffee table was beginning to sag dangerously under my growing pile of unread books.  I was too distracted to read Indistractable.

The irony is not lost on me.

So when I recently heard it recommended once again by Balaji Srinivasan, I was receptive to the idea of getting my time under control.

Indistractable is the follow-up to Nir Eyal’s first book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Building Products.  Its purpose was basically what you’d expect.  Nir’s experience in creating habit-building products affords him unique insight into the problem of protecting oneself from the forces of distraction.  In Indistractable, Nir decides to use his powers for good.  He seeks to arm readers with a set of tools to take back control of their time.  The book is divided into seven parts.  Part 1 describes the internal triggers of distraction.  Part 2 explains the process of timeboxing your schedule.  Part 3 is a compendium of hacks designed to limit external distraction triggers.  Part 4 is a deep dive into the use of pacts to avoid distraction.  Parts 5, 6, and 7 describe the processes of cultivating indistractability in your workplace, children, and relationships, respectively.

Does Indistractable fulfill its promise?  Unlike most productivity books, Indistractable focuses less on complicated systems and focuses instead on clearing away complication, allowing readers to focus on their most important work.  It also acknowledges uniquely modern dilemmas, such as always-on work cultures and group chats, which past generations never had to contend with.  Speaking as someone who has read a number of productivity books, Indistractable might be the first that actually made a difference.

II.

Before diving into strategies and tactics, Part 1 opens with a discussion of why we get distracted in the first place.  Nir asserts that behavior has far less to do with the pursuit of pleasure than with the avoidance of pain.  Even when we check Twitter for the millionth time, we do this not because Twitter is pleasant (1), but to avoid the pain of not checking Twitter - all the likes, tweets, and retweets we could be missing out on.  It also lets us avoid the pain of whatever difficult work we may be engaged in.  Distractions appeal to us not because we like them, but because they provide an escape from things we don’t like.  

Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality.  How we deal with uncomfortable internal triggers determines whether we pursue healthful acts of traction or self-defeating distractions.

Understanding these internal triggers then becomes a core component of becoming indistractable.  First, identify the discomfort immediately preceding the distraction.  Second, write down the trigger.  Third, pay attention to any physical sensations.  Fourth, beware of liminal, or transitional, moments.

Nir takes a moment to debunk one of the most pervasive myths in pop psychology - the notion of “ego depletion”.  That is, the idea that willpower is finite, and only replenishes during sleep (2).  Nir cites studies showing that ego depletion only occurs in those who believe in it - that is, ego depletion is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  He claims that it’s better to think of willpower as an emotion rather than a resource.  Just as we don’t run out of joy, we don’t run out of willpower - it simply ebbs and flows based on what’s happening around us and what we’re feeling.

III.

Part 2 details the process of timeboxing our day.  We can’t know if an activity is a distraction if we don’t know what it’s distracting us from.  He divides life into three domains, in order of importance: you, relationships, and work.  “You” refers to personal physical and mental well-being, “relationships” refers to the health of our relationships with others, and “work” refers to our professional obligations.  Any of these that are not explicitly timeboxed will be neglected.

The goal is to eliminate all white space in your calendar, so you’re left with a template for how you intend to spend your time each day.

IV.

Part 3 describes a number of hacks designed to minimize the likelihood of distraction.  The author does this in terms of the Fogg Behavior Model:  

The Fogg Behavior Model states that for a behavior (B) to occur, three things must be present at the same time: motivation (M), ability (A) and a trigger (T).  More simply, B = MAT.

Eliminating bad behaviors involves disrupting M, A and/or T.  Conversely, good behaviors can be encouraged by supplying M, A and T.  Part 3 contains over a dozen mini-chapters, covering as many types of distractions.  The general theme is to restrict the visibility of distractions; for example, disable notifications for all non-urgent apps, and close your email except when you’ve consciously decided to check it.  He cites studies showing that simply being aware of notifications (but not opening them) can be just as distracting as actually opening them.  He also recommends removing social media apps; instead, timebox a period for checking social media, then do it deliberately in a browser.  This eliminates unnecessary distraction and the dreaded doomscrolling (3).

Nir ends the section with a word on multitasking - we’ve been told that multitasking is a myth, but this is a simplification.  It is technically possible to do two things at once, but you can only concentrate on one thing at a time.  What this means in practice is that mindless activities (like walking, jogging, simple chores, and basic data entry) can be combined with activities that require attention (listening to a podcast, for example).  

V.

Part 4 introduces the concept of pacts.  These should only be utilized after the first three aspects of the Indistractable model.  There are a few types of pacts - one is precommitments, which is a commitment in the present to prevent distractions in the future.  Nir uses the example of Ulysses having himself tied to the mast of his ship to resist the sirens’ song.  Modern equivalents include writing on a laptop with no internet connection, to eliminate the possibility of constantly checking email and social media (4).

Another type of pact is an effort pact.  This involves increasing the effort required to engage in a distraction or other undesired behavior.  The author gives the example of putting a timed lock on a cookie jar - it can’t be opened until the timer has run out, so the only way to engage in the undesired behavior is to get a hammer and smash it open.  This is enough of a deterrent to prevent undesired snacking.

Price pacts are arguably even more powerful than the others, though they are not suitable for all situations.  They take advantage of the human brain’s natural tendency towards loss aversion - that is, losing something causes much more pain than gaining it causes pleasure.  A person will work harder to avoid losing $100 than they would to gain $100.  If failing to follow through on an obligation causes you to lose money, you’ll be much less likely to succumb to distraction.

The fourth and final type of pact is identity pacts.  People are more likely to follow through on their commitments when such commitments are expressed as an extension of their identity.  One study divided participants into two groups:  one was asked if they were going to vote, and the other was asked if they were voters.  People in the second group were much more likely to actually vote (5).  Readers can take advantage of this by associating their identity with their goals; instead of saying, “I can’t eat sweets,” say instead, “I don’t eat sweets.”

VI.

Part 5 discusses distraction in the workplace.  Earlier, we established that distraction is fundamentally an escape from pain.  Therefore, chronic distraction at work is often symptomatic of underlying workplace dysfunction.  Some workplaces are hostile enough to even cause clinical depression.  The two greatest contributors to this dysfunction are 1) high strain, in which employees are expected to meet high expectations, yet have little control over outcomes, and 2) effort-reward imbalances, in which workers don’t see much reward for hard work and effort.  The common theme is a lack of control.  Distraction can create a mental break from this loss of control.

I found this to be the weakest section so far.  Nir does an excellent job of describing the problem, but offers little in the way of solutions to those outside of management.  He explains the vicious cycle of “always-on culture”, in which people are expected to be available the more they make themselves available outside of work.  His advice is to avoid getting trapped in the cycle to begin with - sensible enough, but it offers little aid to those already mired in it.

VII.

Raising indistractable children is the subject of Part 6.  The digitization of society has raised moral panics about the well-being of our children for decades, so Nir begins by debunking a few myths.  He reminds us that every generation believes that there is some kind of unprecedented “crisis” facing youths today, and every generation is proven wrong.  Current research suggests that moderate screen time does not increase anxiety or depression in teenagers.  Remember that excessive distraction is an attempt to avoid pain - if a child spends unhealthy amounts of time online, it’s worth examining what it is that they’re avoiding, rather than what it is they’re pursuing.

The author points out that online spaces offer freedom for teenagers in a time when they are subject to incredible restrictions.  He cites some eye-opening statistics - for example, teenagers are subject to ten times as many restrictions as adults, and twice as many restrictions as active-duty marines, as well as prison inmates.  It’s little wonder that teens love the freedom that the internet offers.  If excessive screen time is a problem, parents may wish to consider that they aren’t giving their kids enough freedom in the real world (6).  To parents worried that they aren’t connecting with their kids, Nir points out that having meals together is perhaps the single most important thing they can do.  Sharing family meals has been shown to lower drug use, depression, school problems, and eating disorders in kids.  He also points out that kids are sometimes too young for certain devices, and that parents should help their children make informed decisions about how much screen time is desirable.

VIII.

Part 7 concludes the book with a discussion on how to bring Indistractable principles to relationships.  Social norms are contagious - when someone constantly checks their phone during a social event, it normalizes the behavior.  Nir suggests that we harness social contagion for good and try to encourage better behavior around device usage in public.  Indistractable fittingly ends with advice on how to prevent distractions from getting in the way of intimate relationships.  He recommends limiting device usage in the evenings, ideally stopping at least an hour before bed, as well as using timers to automatically shut off the internet late at night.

IX.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t test the methods presented in Indistractable for myself.  I’ve included my experiences with some specific tactics in the footnotes, but I found that the largest improvements came from certain mindset shifts.  For instance, Indistractable taught me that “ego depletion” is a myth.  When I felt too tired to work on something in the evening, ego depletion gave me an excuse.  When I stopped telling myself that working on projects in the evening is difficult, it stopped being so difficult.

Another mindset shift was the idea that every hour of the day should be timeboxed, from the moment you awaken to the time you go back to sleep.  This includes non-work activities, like leisure.  The largest problem I’d been dealing with was my ability to balance productive and unproductive activities.   When I spent too much time working, I’d find my mind drifting towards things like Netflix and video games.  But when I actually picked up a new show or game, I’d feel guilty for “wasting” that time.   Timeboxing my free time alleviated this feeling of guilt by allowing me to be deliberate about how much time I was willing to devote to leisure activities.  

Timeboxing leisure first struck me as restrictive, but in practice it’s been liberating.  It’s also made leisure even more enjoyable.  Rather than getting stuck on mindless Netflix binges, I’m forced to make choices about what would be the most fun thing to do.  If I decide that I’ll grant myself an hour of screen time, I ask myself, “What would be the most fun way to spend that hour?”  Rather than just watching the same old shows or doomscrolling on Twitter, I find myself constantly trying new things.

X.

In the saturated market of productivity advice, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life stands out as one of the rare books that delivers upon its promises.  With a mixture of high-level theory and low-level tactics, readers can be confident that they’ll walk away with actionable insights that will help them rein in distraction, as well as providing a depth of understanding that will allow readers to customize the advice to meet their particular needs.  For those eager to get started, Nir Eyal has also supplied a series of workbooks and exercises available for download for everyone who has bought a copy of the book.  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to get more out of their time.

Footnotes:

(1) Lol

(2) This was one of the more surprising sections in the book for me; before reading Indistractable, I believed in the existence of ego depletion.  

(3) Personally, one of my biggest digital vices is following every link in every article I read, until I have dozens of tabs open and my browser slows to a crawl.  For this, Nir has some unusual advice: don’t read articles in the browser.  Instead, he recommends saving articles for later using apps such as Pocket or Instapaper, and only reading the saved articles during the appropriate timebox.  Not only does this prevent you from losing track of time, but it also serves as a filtering mechanism.  When I review saved articles hours later, I often find that most of them are garbage.  Coming back to it with a fresh perspective helps to separate the signal from the noise.

(4) I’ve found this one to be particularly useful.  I’m currently typing these words in the local public library.  I prefer writing here because my apartment contains too many distractions - if I tried writing there, I’d feel the pull of Netflix, video games, and my ever-growing antilibrary.  Even if I overcame these impulses, the constant effort would make writing needlessly difficult.  By making a precommitment to go to the library, I’ve eliminated the possibility of distraction.

(5) Anecdotally, I have found identity pacts to be extremely powerful.  I once stumbled across the idea on Twitter.  Someone said that when you are struggling to work on a project, simply go up to a mirror, look yourself in the eye, and say, “I am a creator.”  I was struggling with distraction while improving my coding skills, and decided to give it a try.  It felt silly for a moment, but my desire to quit immediately vanished.

(6) This explanation rings true to me.  As a teenager, my screen time occasionally drifted above the “healthy” range.  I grew up in a rural community in the Deep South, where there were few things to do for a bored, understimulated student.  The internet granted me an intellectual freedom that my physical surroundings sorely lacked.