Nir Eyal, the best-selling author of Hooked, decides to focus on the opposite side of the coin with his newest book Indistractable. Hooked is about how people can form habit-forming and addictive products and services whereas Indistractable is about how anyone can build the skill of focus.
That’s what was interesting to me: being focused is a skill that anyone can learn and develop.
Nir provides a fascinating four-part framework for how to think about focus, which of course appeals to the consultant in me. Here is what I learned broken down into the four-part framework.
- Distraction isn’t linked to your phone, app or technology. Nir found (and I found the same thing) that if you banned internet on your computer or left your phone outside of your office, you find other ways to distract yourself. Maybe you pick up the book on your shelf to read or you shuffle around papers on your desk until you feel you are organized.
- What Nir found was that distraction is an internal trigger. All motivation is a desire to escape discomfort, and when you are bored or otherwise not doing anything, a distraction is your mind’s way of trying to escape that discomfort.
- There are a few things you can do when you feel the urge to do something different than what you want to focus on: note down the urge and wait 10 minutes. From Charles Duhigg’s book, if you want to form a habit, there are three components: the trigger, the action, and the reward. If you feel the urge to do something (say browse social media on your smartphone), the action is browsing social media, and the reward is that you get the hit of dopamine from seeing your friend’s pictures. Disconnecting that reward is one way of breaking the habit.
- Another action you can take is to be comfortable with discomfort. Although Nir doesn’t suggest meditation in his book because it’s talked about in other books, I have found it to be a great way to be comfortable with doing nothing. For a-type individuals, meditation can be a humbling experience.
- Before you understand what is distracting you, you have to be clear on what you are being distracted from. You can’t say that you browsed your smartphone for hours without doing anything productive – maybe you meant to browse your smartphone for hours, which means you were focused. Nir suggests scheduling every block of time in your calendar so you know what you should be doing at any hour. Although I don’t schedule every block of time in my calendar, I do schedule in things that are important to me. What I’ve found is that scheduling work into my calendar, I almost always underestimate how much time something will take. That’s good to know that I (and likely others) are optimistic about how productive we are.
- What scheduling will do for you is convert your time into your values. How you spend your time indicates what your values are. If you have large blocks of time for work and nothing else, you are saying to yourself that you value your career over everything else. If you tell me that your family and health are important to you, I would look at your calendar to see how much time you have devoted to those two things.
- As you may have guessed, you cannot control how productive you will be. You schedule an hour for writing a report and you hope that you will complete the report after the hour is up, but there’s no way of knowing. Instead of trying to control your outputs, Nir suggests controlling your inputs. You may not finish writing a book in a week, but you can devote 2 hours a day, every day of the week, to writing the book. And if you know it will take you 100 hours to write a book, you can control how you put in the 100 hours.
- I like this tip from Nir Eyal: when you know your work schedule, you can align it with your boss to make sure you are spending time on the right things. This does a few things: it tells your boss if you have too many things on your plate; you can focus your time and attention on high priority items; and you can delegate, delete or defer items that you thought may have been important, but your boss now tells you aren’t.
- Create a pact to make sure you go through with an activity. There are different pacts you can form:
- Pacts with accountability. These are pacts like going to the gym with a friend. Your friend is relying on you to be at the gym with them so you can’t easily back down in the same way you would if you had to go to the gym alone.
- Pacts with money. This is where you put up money (giving it to a friend, donating it to a charity you don’t like) to ensure you go through with something. The aversion to loss of money can be a strong motivator.
- A great tip with children and screens: educate children about the tradeoff between screen time and other activities. Nir and his wife taught his young children that the more screen time the children had, the less time they would have for reading, going outside, and other fun activities. Surprisingly, they negotiated with their children on how much time was appropriate and they all agreed that 45 minutes was the limit on screen time. Although it might feel like they are too young to understand the tradeoff between screen time and other activities, you may be surprised if you have the conversation with your young children.
- Put up a ‘do not disturb’ while you are working. If you’re in the office, the universal sign for this is putting in headphones. But sometimes it’s not obvious this is a do not disturb time for you so let your coworkers and boss know, or put up a paper sign so that people visiting your office know not to disturb you. Nir’s wife has a crown that lights up when she is in do not disturb mode.
- Emails are often a source of distraction for people, especially when you feel like you have to respond to emails right away (you don’t, at least 95% of the time things that are ‘urgent’, aren’t). Like Tim Ferriss in The 4 Hour Work Week, Nir recommends batching emails. Block out time for managing emails and then while going through the emails, tag the emails by when you need to respond (e.g., today, tomorrow, later this week, next week). It’s a great way of getting emails out of your head so that it’s not taking up mental space.
- Emails aren’t the only thing you should be batching: you can batch things like administrative tasks, chores at home, shopping, and other activities. This takes advantage of the fact that when you switch activities, there’s ‘boot-up’ time needed for you to get up to speed on the new activity. It’s why emails can be harmful to your productivity – it switches you away from your task and not only do you have to switch gears to understand the email, you have to switch gears to get back to your original task.
Being distracted is human nature. If all of us were comfortable with the status quo, with discomfort, society and humans would not progress as we have. But just because being distracted is human nature does not mean we cannot learn how to adapt and focus. Being focused is a skill that anyone can develop, but we have to make a conscious effort to understand and remove distractions, know what we should be focusing on, master our internal emotions and urges, and block out external triggers. Nir shows us exactly how to do that in Indistractable.