Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.


Book Notes: "Indistractable" by Nir Eyal

Summary

Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal (2019) approaches productivity from the standpoint that the things we don’t do are as important as the things we do. This quote from the first chapter sums up Eyal’s thinking: “Living the life we want requires not only doing the right things; it also requires we stop doing the wrong things that take us off track.”

Eyal’s “Indistractable Model” is his approach to productivity. Traction gets us closer to those goals and distraction pushes us away from those goals. There are two types of distractions, internal and external. To fight against these distractions, Eyal encourages us to plan ahead and be intentional about how we will spend our time. Timeboxing is one strategy he repeatedly endorses.

The book is divided into seven parts. The first half of the book, parts 1-4 are the most useful. Eyal explains his system in these chapters. The final 3 parts are more tactical and can be skimmed if you are already familiar with productivity literature. There are better books on this topic (for instance, “The One Thing” by Gary Keller), but Eyal injects a fresh perspective and enough compelling ideas to make his book a decent read.

Pros: Some less familiar ideas (at least for me) like the Fogg Behavior Model are presented. The first half of the book, which is relatively short, contains the book’s best material.

Cons: The second half of the book about tactics in the workplace, with kids and with family can be skipped as it drags and is repetitive.

Verdict: Read the first half of the book, or even the first chapter, and you’ll have a good sense of Eyal’s system. 6/10


Notes & Highlights

Introduction: From Hooked to Indistractable

  • The author wrote the manual on creative addictive apps “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” so he knows the playbook the most successful companies are using to distract us with their products.
  • “The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought. Planning ahead ensures you will follow through.”

Chapter 1: What’s Your Superpower?

  • Are you choosing your distractions over the most important people in your life?
  • Eyal believes that blaming gadgets isn’t the answer: “Removing online technology didn’t work. I’d just replaced one distraction with another.” The problem goes deeper and existed before the smartphone and social media eras.
  • “Living the life we want requires not only doing the right things; it also requires we stop doing the wrong things that take us off track.”
  • “The first step is to recognize that distraction starts from within.”
  • “You can’t call something a ‘distraction’ unless you know what it is distracting you from.”

Chapter 2: Being Indistractable

  • The Greek myth of Tantalus as a story of perpetual distraction and desire: always yearning for something unattainable and just out of reach.
  • Traction, “to draw or pull” is the opposite of distraction “drawing away from.” Traction gets us closer to our goals. Distraction pushes us away from them.
  • Distractions are prompted by triggers both external and internal.
  • Internal triggers are cues from within us. Examples: When we are hungry, when we are cold, when we feel sad or lonely or stressed.
  • External triggers are cues from our environment. These can be notifications from our phones or interruptions from other people. They can also be objects like the TV which, when we see it, we thoughtlessly turn it on.
  • Triggers prompt us to take action. The triggers we allow and actions we respond with are either aligned with our intentions (traction) or misaligned (distraction).
  • “Traction helps us accomplish goals; distraction leads us away from them.”
  • “Researchers tell us attention and focus are the raw materials of human creativity and flourishing. In the age of increased automation, the most sought-after jobs are those that require creative problem-solving, novel solutions, and the kind of human ingenuity that comes from focusing deeply on the task at hand.”
  • “Tantalus’s curse is also our curse. We are compelled to reach for things we supposedly need but really don’t. We don’t need to check our email right this second or need to see the latest trending news, no matter how much we feel we must.”
  • Control your attention and choose your life.

PART 1: MASTER INTERNAL TRIGGERS

Chapter 3: What Motivates Us, Really?

  • You need to be able to identify between root causes and proximate causes of our behavior.
  • Proximate causes allow us to deflect responsibility onto external factors like a thing or person.
  • “All motivation is a desire to escape discomfort” or to escape pain.
  • “Only by understanding our pain can we begin to control it and find better ways to deal with negative urges.”

Chapter 4: Time Management is Pain Management

  • Humans are hardwired for dissatisfaction. Consider it a biological imperative. “Feeling contented wasn’t good for the species.”
  • Four psychological factors make satisfaction temporary: Boredom, negativity bias (we pay attention/remember the bad stuff), rumination (thinking about bad experiences), hedonic adaptation (the tendency to quickly return to a baseline level of satisfaction).
  • “Dissatisfaction and discomfort dominate our brain’s default state, but we can use them to motivate us instead of defeat us.”

Chapter 5: Deal with Distraction from Within

  • Ironic Process Theory: psychological phenomenon in which attempts to suppress a thought make it more indelible (e.g. the “polar bear experiment”). Dostoevsky: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
  • You need to employ specific techniques to counteract mental abstinence. The very act of resisting an urge can strengthen the desire.
  • “We can manage distractions that originate from within by changing how we think about them. We can reimagine the trigger, the task, and our temperament.”

Chapter 6: Reimagine the Internal Trigger

  • Step 1: “Look for the emotion preceding distraction.”
  • Step 2: Write down the trigger at the time it occurs. Note the time of day, what you were doing and how you felt at that time (this will help you diagnose future triggers and formulate a response).
  • Step 3: “Explore the negative sensation with curiosity instead of contempt.”
  • Step 4: Beware of liminal or transitional moments. A transitional moment could occur between activities or during short moments of downtime (book example: waiting for a traffic light to change, waiting in line at a checkout stand).
  • The 10-minute rule: When author is bored and considering giving into a distraction like checking his iPhone or watching Netflix, he requires himself to wait 10-minutes before he can do so. Often, in the interim, he is able to redirect his attention before giving into his urges.

Chapter 7: Reimagine the Task

  • “Fun and play don’t have to make us feel good per se; rather, they can be used as tools to keep us focused.” Can you find ways to reframe or reimagine certain tasks as “fun”?
  • “Fun is looking for the variability in something other people don’t notice. It’s breaking through the boredom and monotony to discover its hidden beauty.”

Chapter 8: Reimagine Your Temperament

  • Psychologist Roy Baumeister’s popularly accepted work on “ego depletion” and willpower as a finite resource have been called into question recently by other researchers.
  • “People who did not see willpower as a finite resource did not show signs of ego depletion.”
  • “We don’t run out of willpower. Believing we do makes us less likely to accomplish our goals by providing a rationale to quit when we could otherwise persist.”
  • Mindset is a critical component in accessing willpower. If you label yourself as having poor self-control, you are more likely to have poor self-control.
  • Treat yourself with compassion and kindness when dealing with your failures and shortcomings. Instead of saying “this is the way I am”, tell yourself things like: this is a process and something I can get better at.

PART 2: MAKE TIME FOR TRACTION

Chapter 9: Turn Your Values into Time

  • Goethe: “If I know how you spend your time, then I know what might become of you.”
  • Time is our most precious asset, but only 1/3 of Americans actively plan and protect how they will use that time (e.g. daily schedule).
  • A to-do list is a common approach to planning BUT a to-do list describes what you will do, not why. Start with why instead.
  • In order to determine your “why”, you must first identify your values.
  • “A value is like a guiding star; it’s the fixed point we use to help us navigate our life choices.”
  • Author uses a 3-part model called the “three life domains” to understand where your time is spent: 1) You, 2) Relationships and 3) Work.
  • Use “timeboxing” to make time for each of your life domains. Timeboxing is the act of setting a time for when you are going to do something.
  • “To create a weekly time boxed schedule, you’ll need to decide how much time you want to spend on each domain of your life. How much time do you want to spend on yourself, on important relationships, and on your work? Note that “work” doesn’t exclusively mean paid labor. The work domain can include community service, activism and side projects.”
  • Allocate 15 minutes each week to reflect and refine your calendar. First: Did you do what you planned to do or did you get distracted? Second: Can you refine your calendar so that it better supports your values?

Chapter 10: Control the Inputs, Not the Outcomes

  • “Schedule time for yourself first. You are at the center of the three life domains. Without allocating time for yourself, the other two domains will suffer.”
  • You cannot always control outcomes but you can control the inputs. For instance: if you say you will do something, show up and spend the time doing that thing (this is something you can control). The result might not be there immediately, but keep focusing on the input portion of the process. The outcome or result will eventually come.

Chapter 11: Schedule Important Relationships

  • Schedule time for your loved ones. “The people we love most should not be content getting whatever time is left over.”
  • Spending time with others is more than just scheduling date nights. Ensure that you are doing your share of household chores.
  • “A lack of close friendships may be hazardous to your health. Ensure you maintain important relationships by scheduling time for regular get-togethers.”

Chapter 12: Sync with Stakeholders at Work

  • “Syncing your schedule with stakeholders at work is critical for making time for traction in your day. Without visibility into how you spend your time, colleagues and managers are more likely to distract you with superfluous tasks.”
  • “Sync as frequently as your schedule changes. If your schedule template changes from day to day, have a daily check-in. However, most people find a weekly alignment is sufficient.”

PART 3: HACK BACK EXTERNAL TRIGGERS

Chapter 13: Ask the Critical Question

  • The Fogg Behavior Model (developed by Stanford professor BJ Fogg). For a behavior (B) to occur, three things must be present simultaneously: motivation (M), ability or the ease of the action (A) and a trigger (T). The equation: B=MAT
  • External triggers play a key role in the B=MAT equation. External triggers come in many guises including device notifications and interruptions from other people.
  • The key critical question: “Is this trigger serving me, or am I serving it?”

Chapter 14: Hack Back Work Interruptions

  • Interruptions create errors and mistakes. Your best work is not happening if you are interrupted.
  • “Defend your focus. Signal when you do not want to be interrupted. Use a sign or a clear visual cue to let people know you are indistractable.

Chapter 15: Hack Back Email

  • Nir Eyal’s email equation: Time spent on email (T) is a function of number of messages received (n) multiplied by the average time spent per message, T = n * t (or TnT as the author calls it).
  • Send fewer emails in order to receive fewer emails.
  • Timebox the time spent on emails. Only reply to emails during your scheduled blocks of time.

Chapter 16: Hack Back Group Chat

  • Jason Fried: “Treat chat like a sauna — stay a while but then get out…it’s unhealthy to stay too long.”
  • “Real-time communication channels should be used sparingly. Time spent communicating should not come at the sacrifice of time spent concentrating.”

Chapter 17: Hack Back Meetings

  • “The primary objective of most meetings should be to gain consensus around a decision.”
  • The meeting organizer must provide two things: 1) An agenda of the problem being discussed and 2) A solution in the form of a brief that explains the problem, reasoning and recommendation (no more than 1-2 pages).
  • Brainstorming is best done individually or in small groups.
  • Meeting participants must be fully present and engaged (not distracted on their devices). Only device in use should be the presenter’s.

Chapter 18: Hack Back Your Smartphone

  • Step 1: Remove the apps you do not need. Uninstall the apps that don’t align with your values or that cause distraction (examples: games, social media, news, video, etc.).
  • Step 2: Replace when and where you use distracting apps. For instance: use social media on your desktop machine (and presumably timebox or set other limits on this activity as well). Another example: get a wristwatch so you don’t have to pull out your phone to look at the time.
  • Step 3: Rearrange: Move apps off your phone’s home screen (create more friction).
  • Step 4: Reclaim: Change or disable the notification settings for each app. Be very selective about which apps and/or contacts are allowed to disturb you.

Chapter 19: Hack Back Your Desktop

  • “Our brains have a tougher time finding things when they are positioned in a disorganized manner, which means every errant icon, open tab, or unnecessary bookmark serves as a nagging reminder of things left undone or unexplored.”
  • “Removing unnecessary external triggers from our line of sight declutters our workspace and frees the mind to concentrate on what’s really important.”
  • Disable desktop notifications.

Chapter 20: Hack Back Online Articles

  • “A simple rule fixed all my tab troubles and has helped me steer clear of mindless web browsing: I never read articles in my web browser.”
  • “Make a rule: Promise yourself you’ll save interesting content for later by using an app like Pocket.”

Chapter 21: Hack Back Feeds

  • Social media feeds with endless scrolling are designed to keep you engaged.
  • Use browser extensions like News Feed Eradicator which obscures the news feed while still giving you access to the other useful aspects of Facebook.

PART 4: PREVENT DISTRACTION WITH PACTS

Chapter 22: The Power of Precommitments

  • Writer Jonathan Franzen’s extreme example: “He uses a heavy, obsolete Dell laptop from which he has scoured any trace of hearts and solitaire, down to the level of the operating system. Because Franzen believes you can’t write serious fiction on a computer that’s connected to the internet, he not only removed the Dell’s wireless card but also permanently blocked its Ethernet port. ‘What you have to do,’ he explains, ‘is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue and then you saw off the little head of it.”
  • “Focus not only requires keeping distraction out; it also necessitates keeping ourselves in.”
  • “The last step to becoming indistractable involves preventing ourselves from sliding into distraction. To do so, we must learn a powerful technique called a ‘precommitment,’ which involves removing a future choice in order to overcome our impulsivity.”
  • The story of Ulysses sailing his ship through the land of the Sirens in the Odyssey is an example of a precommitment. Ulysses has his men fill their ears with beeswax so they cannot hear the Sirens. Ulysses wants to hear the Sirens song so he has his crew tie him to the mast of his ship and orders them not to set him free no matter what he says. The crew follows Ulysses commands even when their captain is rendered momentarily insane by the Sirens. This is known as a “Ulysses pact”, a decision intended to bind oneself in the future.
  • “Precommitments are powerful because they cement our intentions when we are clearheaded and make us less likely to act against our best interests later.”
  • The precommitment should be made AFTER you have addressed the other items in the Indistractable Model: Internal triggers, making time for traction and external triggers.

Chapter 23: Prevent Distraction with Effort Pacts

  • An effort pact is a type of precommitment that creates additional friction or obstacles to giving into a distraction (example: a program that blocks certain websites or internet access on a predetermined schedule).
  • “An effort pact prevents distraction by making unwanted behaviors more difficult to do.”

Chapter 24: Prevent Distraction with Price Pacts

  • A price pact involves a monetary penalty for engaging in undesirable behavior or activities.
  • Studies have shown that penalties are more effective than rewards (e.g. New England Journal of Medicine study that compared the two). Loss aversion is more powerful force than seeking gains.
  • Author uses a “burn calendar”. His choice: Exercise and burn calories daily or burn a hundred-dollar bill taped to the calendar.

Chapter 25: Prevent Distraction with Identity Pacts

  • “Identity greatly influences our behavior. People tend to align their actions with how they see themselves.”
  • Aligning your behaviors with your identity is a powerful way to compel action. For example do you want to write or are you a writer? Self-identification with the later is, according to research, the more powerful idea.

PART 5: HOW TO MAKE YOUR WORKPLACE INDISTRACTABLE

Chapter 26: Distraction is a Sign of Dysfunction

  • 2006 meta-analysis by Stansfield and Candy at the University College London found that certain work environments cause clinical depression. Two conditions increased the likelihood of workplace depression: job strain and effort-reward Imbalance.
  • Job strain: “…found in environments where employees were expected to meet high expectations yet lacked the ability to control the outcomes.”
  • Effort-reward imbalance: “…in which workers don’t see much return for their hard work, be it through increased pay or recognition.”
  • Lack of control is behind job strain and effort-reward imbalance.
  • “Tech overuse at work is a symptom of a dysfunctional company culture. More tech use makes the underlying problems worse, perpetuating a ‘cycle of responsiveness.’”

Chapter 27: Fixing Distraction is a Test of Company Culture

  • Workplace must be able to have open, honest dialogue about key issues.
  • “Knowing that your voice matters, and that you’re not stuck in an uncaring, unchangeable machine has a positive impact on well-being.”

Chapter 28: The Indistractable Workplace

  • “Indistractable organizations, like Slack and BCG, foster psychological safety, provide a place for open discussions about concerns, and, most important, have leaders who exemplify the importance of doing focused work.”

PART 6: HOW TO RAISE INDISTRACTABLE CHILDREN

Chapter 29: Avoid Convenient Excuses

  • “Techno-panics are nothing new. From the book, to the radio, to video games, the history of parenting is strewn with moral panic over things supposedly making kids act in strange ways.”
  • Tech isn’t “evil”: Use it correctly and it is beneficial. As in all things, moderation is key. Be aware of the problematic side effects from overuse or poor use.
  • Teach your kids to be indistractable. It will be an increasingly important skill in the future.

Chapters 30-33: Kid-Centric Approach to the Indistractable Model

  • Teach kids to understand their internal triggers
  • Teach kids to make time for traction
  • Teach kids how to manage external triggers
  • Teach kids how to make their own pacts

PART 7: HOW TO HAVE INDISTRACTABLE RELATIONSHIPS

Chapters 34-35: Applying the Indistractable Model to Friends and Lovers

  • Distractions and interruptions negatively impact our relationships.
  • Develop new social norms among your peer group by making it less acceptable to use devices in social settings.
  • Reclaim time for togetherness with your partner.