Good productivity requires both forethought and follow-through. If that sounds daunting, consider the power of technology to help us manage both.
There are all kinds of apps available now to help you plan, hack, and track your workday. That’s on the forethought side. And on the follow-though side, one of the biggest roadblocks has all but disappeared. “It used to be that I couldn’t do what I said I was going to do because I didn’t know how to do it,” says author and angel investor Nir Eyal. “Today that’s not really an excuse anymore. If you don’t know, you Google it.”
What we haven’t addressed is the flip side to figuring out how to do more, which is figuring out how to do less. Or, as Eyal puts it, “We haven’t learned how to stop getting distracted.”
In his first book, Hooked (2014), Eyal, who previously worked in the advertising and video-game industries, offers instructions for building habit-forming products. His second book, Indistractable (2019), is a handbook for dealing with distractions, tech-based and otherwise.
Are they two sides of the same coin? The affliction and the cure? Eyal doesn’t see it that way. “Hooked was about how to build good habits,” he says. “I didn’t write it for Google or Facebook or the gaming companies. They’ve known these techniques for a very long time. What I wanted to do was steal their secrets; I wanted to democratize their techniques so that all sorts of companies can use them for good. I mean, no one is getting addicted to SaaS or educational software.”
The same can’t be said for social media and video games, which are just two examples of our ever-present options for diversion. With Indistractable, Eyal helps readers learn how to identify and prevail over a wide universe of potential distractions. (Quartz members might recognize this kind of advice as a feature of the transformation economy.)
Eyal recently spoke with Quartz about distraction triggers in the workplace, and smart ways to manage them. The following transcript, exclusive to Quartz members, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Quartz: What led you to the topic of distractibility?
Nir Eyal: I was patient zero here. I was very much struggling with distraction. I noticed that in my professional life I was having trouble finishing things I started; I noticed that with my daughter, I was distracted by my device. I would say that I should go to the gym and I wouldn’t; I would say I would eat healthfully and I didn’t.
Part of the reason it took me five years to write the book was that I was distracted when I started it and hadn’t learned the tactics yet. Now I’m in the best shape of my life; I exercise consistently and eat healthfully. And I’m closer to my daughter than ever before. She told me recently that I’m much better [about device distraction] than I used to be.
And what kind of reaction are you getting from a broader audience?
I think people are really hungry for an alternative to the Chicken Little narrative that the sky is falling and tech is melting our brains. They want to be able to do something about it, and they just don’t know what to do yet. You could be waiting for Washington to do something about the problem, or you could hold your breath waiting for the tech companies to do something about the problem. Or, instead of waiting, you can do something about the problem today. You can learn one technique to manage your internal triggers better. You can plan one day a week in your calendar. You can turn off your notifications on your phone. You can start small.
Small is good, but what do you find to be the biggest external triggers of distraction?
I teach people how to hack back their phones, their computers, their emails, meetings. But it turns out the number one source of distraction for the modern American worker, as revealed by surveys, is not the pings and dings—it’s their co-workers. Particularly when it comes to open floor-plan offices, other people are a constant source of distraction. And they’re not going away. Open floor plans save companies way too much money in terms of real estate costs.
Any hints for handling that?
Every copy of the book comes with a piece of card stock that you pull out, fold into thirds, and put on your computer monitor. For the next hour or however much time you need, it’s going to tell your colleagues that you’re busy at the moment. You don’t want to leave this on all day, but for that time, you’re indistractable.
If you don’t plan the time for focused work, it’s not going to happen. And not only do we need to protect that time, we need to defend it. We have our money in vaults in banks, but when it comes to our time, somehow it’s like, “Yeah, sure, come on by and steal as much of it as you like.”
On the one hand, with tools like instant messaging, it seems like we have more options than ever for pinging people. On the other hand, with the rise of messaging and also remote work, perhaps we’re less likely to have colleagues show up at our desks for a chat. Have you seen workplace distractions evolve with the take-up of new technology?
The root cause of distraction in the workplace is not the technology, it’s not even any of the external triggers. Distraction is a symptom of dysfunction. Once people can talk about this, they solve the problem.
There are two conditions in the workplace that have been shown to lead to anxiety and depression disorder—this is from the work of Stansfield and Candy—and it’s the combination of high expectations with low control. This is the kind of workplace environment that literally drives us crazy. We get sent so many stupid emails and get called into so many superfluous meetings. And what do people do when they feel out of control? They send more stupid emails, they call more superfluous meetings, in an attempt to find agency.
So this is, in many ways, a management problem?
Yeah, and it’s a big problem. Everybody blames Slack as this technology that’s distracting people. I went to pay Slack a visit for the book. At Slack, they don’t suffer from distraction. When you go into Slack headquarters, in bright pink letters, there’s a sign that says “work hard and go home,” and for everyone in the company, from [CEO] Stewart Butterfield on down, that’s part of the culture.
I don’t believe in these French-style laws that say you can only work 35 hours a week. If you want to work 100 hours a week, go for it. But the bait and switch, where companies say it’s 40 hours a week—and then it turns out that’s 40 hours a week in the office [and then many additional hours on top of that from home]—that’s unethical. That’s a problem.
What do well-managed companies do to limit those kinds of problems?
There are basically three traits to an indistractable company. One, they give employees psychological safety to talk about what’s wrong in the company, without fear of retribution. Number two is they have a regular forum, a place to talk about their problems. And number three is that management shows the traits of how to be indistractable.
So in a way, it’s about changing norms, right?
Exactly. I remember when I was a kid, my parents had ashtrays all over the house, but nobody in the house smoked. So why did we do that? Because back in the early ’80s, if somebody came to your house and they smoked, they expected to be able to light up a cigarette. What changed? Was there a law? No. What changed was the norms. My mom took away the ashtrays. We spread what’s called social antibodies to protect ourselves from these bad things.
What role does habit formation have in the quest to become indistractable?
I’m not a big fan of habits, believe it or not. When people say they want to form a habit, that’s typically shorthand for “I want something but I don’t want to have to work for it.” So many behaviors will never become habits. I want to make a habit of writing. I want to make a habit of exercising. But the definition of a habit is a behavior done with little or no conscious thought—and I can’t write without conscious thought. If you want to improve your writing, it’s going to require more than unconscious thought. It requires deliberate purpose. You have to embrace the fact that you’re going to get uncomfortable—it’s a sign that you’re improving. And then you keep doing it because it’s a routine, it’s not a habit.
So help us figure out how to set a routine.
The first step is to master the internal triggers, to know how to cope with the things that lead to our distraction. The next step is synchronizing our schedules with the other stakeholders in our life, so that if anything needs to be reprioritized, we reprioritize it. We hear this myth that you should say “no” more. But how do you say no to your boss? Instead, you make a calendar and show your boss, here’s what I’m going to do this week. You say no [to what I should drop from it]. The third step is about hacking back the external triggers. And the fourth step is to create pacts to stay on track.
There are different kinds of pacts you can make that help you stick to your commitments. There’s an effort pact, where we put a bit of friction between us and something we don’t want to do, like check our phone so much. There are apps for that, like SelfControl, RescueTime, and Freedom.
Then we have what’s called a price pact, where there’s some sort of cost to getting distracted. [Eyal has blogged about his use of a price pact to finish the first draft of his book; he promised an “accountability partner” $10,000 if he didn’t meet his deadline; he ended up finishing on time.]
And the most important of the three is the identity pact, where we have a moniker we give to ourselves, like when someone calls themselves a religious Christian or a devout Muslim or even a vegetarian. It changes your behavior. So I say there is a new moniker for this century, and this is who I am: I am indistractable.
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