“Distraction Starts from Within; It is Our Never-ending Search for an Escape from Psychological Discomfort.”

Interview: Nir Eyal

I've know Nir for years now. How do we know each other? I don't even remember! I'm a huge fan of his first book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, which I found very useful when I was working on my book Better Than Before, all about habit change.

I also attended his first conference, Habit Summit, which is where I met the brilliant folks at Aperio Insights who designed my quiz for the Four Tendencies framework. (Don't know if you're an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Take the quick, free quiz here.)

Now Nir has written a new book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, on how to fight distraction and create focus—at work, at home, with ourselves, with our children, with our colleagues. Indistactable goes far beyond the usual advice we read, like “go on a digital detox.”

From my own observation, this is a happiness stumbling block that many people face, so I couldn't wait to talk to Nir about happiness, habits, focus, distraction, and productivity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Nir: Before writing Indistractable, I hadn’t consistently felt the amazing feeling of accomplishing everything I planned to do in a day. I think very few people actually have felt that feeling and it’s such a wonderful sensation. There are few things as satisfying as an evening to do whatever it is you want to do without the guilt that something is left undone or you should be doing something else.

Most people, including me, before I wrote Indistractable, subscribe to what I call, “the myth of the to-do list,” which says,  “if I just put things on my to-do list, it will get done.” That bit of magical thinking doesn’t work and we end up moving our tasks from one day to the next, to the next. That’s because we haven’t dealt with distraction.

Living the life we want requires more than knowing what we need to do. It also necessitates making sure we don’t do the things that take us off track—that’s what being indistractable is all about. 

So for me, it’s not about just one behavior or tactic, it’s about understanding the entire strategy to becoming indistractable and then understanding what went wrong by referring to the Indistractable Model.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

We’re all familiar with the pings, dings, and rings that distract us and take us off track, like the buzzing of our phones. These are called “external triggers.” However, I was surprised by how much more prevalent and more pernicious the “internal triggers” are. These are uncomfortable emotional states we seek to escape and are a much more common source of distraction. 

Truly, distraction starts from within and it is our never ending search for an escape from psychological discomfort that is the root cause of distraction. We check Facebook because we’re lonely, email because we’re stressed, Google because we’re uncertain, and Instagram because we’re bored. We like to blame the technology, but these companies are powerless to change our habits if we don’t give them an emotional trigger to latch onto. In Indistractable, I teach readers how I learned to master these internal triggers as the first step to mastering distraction.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

Many people believe technology like social media and video games are addictive. That’s not false, but it’s not exactly true either. The truth is much more nuanced. The history of blaming things outside ourselves for making us, or our kids, act in funny ways goes back millennia. From the radio, to the novel, to pinball machines, people have always looked to new technologies as scapegoats for our problem behaviors. These are always proximal causes and are never the root cause of our overuse. 

Many things are potentially “addictive” (think alcohol and sex) but very few people get addicted. Likewise, while some people do become pathologically addicted to tech, the vast majority of people who think they or their kids are addicted, really aren’t. This isn’t just a matter of semantics. Calling ourselves “addicted” or thinking are kids are helplessly manipulated by their devices, makes it so! This attitude teaches “learned helplessness” and makes the problem worse. 

The biggest misperception is that we’re powerless. In fact, we are much more powerful to resist distraction than most people realize—we just need to learn how.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

For as long as I can remember, I hated exercise. I was clinically obese at one point and I couldn’t understand how anyone could make a habit out of working out. I’m happy to say that the process of becoming indistractable has helped me get in the best shape of my life. 

It started with the understanding that I already knew what to do. Let’s face it, we all know how to lose weight. We all know chocolate cake isn’t as good for us as a healthy salad. So why don’t we do what we know we should? Because we keep getting distracted!

I used several techniques I describe in Indistractable like “temptation bundling,” “multichannel multitasking,” and “price pacts” to make sure I didn’t get distracted from the time I knew I wanted to be in the gym. The results have been amazing!

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger

Most of the time I’m a Rebel, the rest of the time I’m a Questioner. Perhaps that’s why I’m a writer? I really love having my mind changed and enjoy helping others see the world from a new perspective.

[From Gretchen: In my observation, Nir is 100% Rebel! In fact, when I was writing Better Than Before and The Four Tendencies, he was one of my touchstone Rebels.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

In Indistractable I discuss how there are only three reasons why we get distracted. Either we got taken off track because of an external trigger, an internal trigger, or a planning problem. We discussed external triggers and internal triggers already, but planning problems are when we didn’t properly account for how we would spend our time. 

The fact is, if we don’t plan how we will use our time, someone will plan it for us. Unfortunately, about two-thirds of people don’t plan how they’ll spend their most precious asset, their time. 

Being indistractable doesn’t mean we’ll never get distracted, it means striving to do what you say you will do. Part of being indistractable is to make a schedule template for how you plan to spend our time and then adjust it from week to week to make sure you have time to live out your values. 

Whenever I find something interferes with my ability to do what I say I will do, I reassess how I spent my time in the previous week to find better ways to manage my internal triggers, hack back the external triggers, or adjust my schedule to make time for the things I want to do. In fact, I built a free online schedule maker to help people create their own weekly templates. Remember, you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from!

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

I repeat several mantras daily. Two of my favorites are: "The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook," William James said that. And, “Real success is being happy for the success of others,” I said that! 🙂

Note: If you buy a copy of Indistractable, don’t forget to get all the useful tools and resources (like the workbook and distraction tracker) provided free with the book at Indisractable.com.