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In-distractable - Book Review

1 July 2024
Dr. Moria Levy

The book “In-distractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life” was written in 2019 by Nir Eyal, a known lecturer and entrepreneur, author of the best seller- Hooked (book review >>).


The book deals with one of the challenges that affect everyone: the ability to focus on what we want to do and not succumb to various distractions. Distractions are primarily related to the new digital world of social networks, smartphones, screens, and other digital means. Still, there are also many non-digital distractions, such as eating when stressed.


Topics of the book:
  • Understanding the roots of the difficulty

  • Avoiding going backward:

    • Dealing with internal distracting factors

    • Dealing with external distracting factors

  • Going forward:

    • Investing time in essential things

    • Early commitment

    • Supportive work environment

  • Tips for implementation regarding:

    • Children

    • Friends

    • Spouses


Eyal writes fluently and authentically, incorporating research and case studies.

In a world where digital distractions are growing daily, and other distractions are also not minor, almost everyone has something to learn. I have already learned and adopted it; it is highly recommended.


Understanding the roots of the difficulty

Distraction problems are more complex than we might sometimes want to think.

It's not just our willpower; it's not just avoiding technology. It starts from within us.

We need to both reduce the pull of distractions and invest in actions that move us forward.


Understandings:

  1. Whenever we allow a distraction to affect us, we alleviate internal dissatisfaction or discomfort, making it easier for us to be tempted and succumb to distractions. Distractions can stem from boredom, negative bias, ruminations, and especially the search for things that will give us pleasure.

  2. The key to change lies in understanding the pain of discomfort and controlling it.

  3. The solution to distractions is linked to smarter time management.


Avoiding going backward

Dealing with internal distracting factors

As much as most of us have self-esteem, we struggle to resist our inner urges. Moreover, abstaining from the habits we have become accustomed to, if they are indeed distracting, cannot be satisfied with contemplation and a decision that it will be so. Often, such conduct ends up with an even stronger desire to return to the undesirable behavior.


Possible coping tools

Bricker's Four Steps
  1. Identify the discomfort preceding the internal distraction.

    1. Example: A feeling of internal restlessness.

    2. Document the motivating factor (discomfort) in writing.

    3. Curiously explore the feelings internally. What is causing this for us? What is the significance of this for our understanding?

    4. Dealing with the moment, which is the "risk" time. For example, we can postpone the distraction for 10 minutes (if we still want to).


Harnessing the Imagination
  1. Imagine our pain as pleasant and cheerful, thus avoiding the need for less desirable behavior.

  2. Imagine the pain and try to focus on enduring it as a challenge.



Self-Belief in Our Willpower
  1. Be aware that there is no limit to the resource of willpower, and convince ourselves that there is no limit to our ability to will.

  2. Remind ourselves, in times of difficulty, that difficulties are part of our growth process.

  3. Talk to ourselves and give ourselves the advice we would give a friend if they encountered the same difficulty we are experiencing.


Dealing with external distracting factors

The scope of our external distractions today is very high.


Research shows that when we are distracted in the middle of a task, our natural response will be

  1. To react to the distraction

  2. To try to compensate with more vigorous activity but at the cost of high levels of stress and frustration.


Another study shows that ignoring distractions does not solve emotional distractions either.


Yet, external distractions can be positive if they draw us to do something that serves us and our values.


Tools for dealing with external distractions that do not serve us:

Signage

Signage on the desk (especially in shared spaces) or other identifying marks should indicate that we are now doing work that requires concentration and asking not to be disturbed but to return to us later.


Email Management

Recommendations (of course, depending on the role):

  1. Checking and dealing with email in fixed time windows, not too frequently.

  2. Initiating sending fewer emails will result in receiving fewer emails in response.

  3. Setting physical office hours 1-2 times a week and directing people to them. The postponement will cause people to manage alternatively.

  4. Postponing response to the shortest possible time (most tools can respond immediately while delaying sending).

  5. Constant filtering of unwanted messages (unsubscribing).

  6. On first reading, tag emails for handling, not by subject but by planned handling time (today, this week), and only handle those that require an immediate response. The rest will be handled according to the time windows defined above.


Managing Digital Chat Groups (e.g. WhatsApp)

Recommendations:

  1. Always stay for a short time (like a sauna).

  2. Setting fixed time windows for reading.

  3. Selectivity regarding the groups you are in.

  4. Writing in the group sensitively only if it is the optimal dialogue channel.


Managing Meetings

Recommendations:

  1. Predetermining an agenda for the meeting - what issue to discuss.

  2. Preliminary brainstorming in small groups as a tool to increase productivity.

  3. Selectivity regarding who is invited to the meeting is essential to ensure maximum value.

  4. Meetings without screens (laptops and smartphones).


Managing the Smartphone

Combined Recommendation:

  1. Uninstalling apps on the phone that we don't use.

  2. Denying access to social networks from the phone and leaving them only on the computer.

  3. Reorganizing the apps into three categories:

    1. Primary (5-6): With a defined purpose for a frequent task we need them for. E.g., navigation app, scheduling appointments.

    2. Aspirations: Helping to implement things we aspire to—e.g., sports coaching and reading books.

    3. Slot machines: Those we get lost in. E.g., Facebook.

    Eyal suggests arranging the primary and aspiration apps on the first screen, not the "slot machines."

  4. Updating the apps' settings to reduce audio and visual notifications and minimize them.


Managing the Computer Desktop

Recommendations:

  1. Clearing the desktop - minimum files on it (up to 0).

  2. Calming the background, not adding a cluttered image.

  3. Storing all documents in one place (without investing time in the organization) and using search to find the required information (I think this recommendation is only relevant for those with very little digital information – in my opinion).

  4. Updating computer settings to turn off notifications by permanently switching to "Do Not Disturb" mode for 23:59 hours daily.


Reading Articles Online

Recommendations:

  1. Stopping continuous reading through the browser on the computer. Articles worth reading are transferred to a reading app and consumed according to the calendar’s schedule.

  2. Utilizing the ability to listen to articles in parallel with another task can be performed in parallel.


Managing Social Media Feeds

Recommendations:

  1. Understanding that the purpose of the Feeds is to distract us.

  2. Using the complementary capabilities of all the tools (and there are some, as detailed in the book) to reduce notifications.


Going forward

Investing time in essential things

Time is a precious resource that, if we don't plan for it, will be "stolen."


In his book The Happiness Trap, Harris defines values as how we want to be, what we want to insist on, and how we want to act with the world around us.


We should act according to our values concerning the three meaningful circles of life:

Ourselves, the people we are in contact with (family and friends), and the workplace.


Recommendations:

  • Thinking about values and what we want to do with our time is an initial conscious stage that allows us to understand that something is distracting us and preventing us from doing what is right in our eyes.

  • Deciding how much time we want to devote to each of the circles of life according to our values. Pre-planning the diary so that it reflects the desired. To succeed in the long run, it is advisable

    • To create a fixed pattern and not to set everything anew each week.

    • Monitor weekly whether we carried out what we planned while improving the pattern if necessary.

  • Investing time in all meaningful circles:

    • Ourselves: Caring for what is important to us, but also taking care of physical exercise, sleep, and healthy nutrition.

    • Family and friends: Plan meaningful time. Family and friends (yes - including friends) should not only get the leftover time after we have done everything we planned in other contexts.

      • A reminder of what a friend is - someone you can talk to, someone you can rely on, and someone you enjoy being with.

    • Work: Do not be overly pressured; plan when to stop working. Plan the schedule in detail, coordinating with your stakeholders to align expectations and enable activity that is in line with values.


Early commitment

When we pre-commit to ourselves, we have a significantly better chance of succeeding in resisting distractions and not being influenced by them.


The effectiveness of this method increases if we have already implemented the previous steps described in the book, both avoiding going backward (internal and external distracting factors) and in the future (investing in essential things).


Main types of pre-commitments

Investing Time
  1. Using apps that allow you to add affirmation actions when activated during times defined as "undisturbed.”

  2. Turning off notifications or the ability to activate social networks during focus hours.

  3. For people working from home: Setting fixed times to work in a shared space with another person.


Financial Cost

Putting money aside (with a third party) that will be returned with a nice bonus if a task is completed (e.g., refraining from smoking for six months). Note: Giving the bonus alone, without the pre-commitment, does not yield the same results, or even close (see Value Theory: Avoiding loss aversion, in Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow).


Emphases:

  • Not suitable for changing behavior resulting from an external distraction that cannot be avoided.

  • Suitable for short tasks only.

  • Requires courage.

  • Requires self-forgiveness (in case we fail the task).


Identity

A slight change in self-esteem can significantly impact our conduct.

  1. Self-using terms like "I don't want to" (in the context of distraction) instead of "I can't.”

  2. Self-convincing in our ability to be "in-distractable". Moreover - sharing this with others will deepen the commitment.

  3. Adopting habits and rituals that reinforce the "in-distractable" image.


Supportive work environment

Unsurprisingly, the work environment can potentially influence distractions for better or worse.


Supporting factors at the organizational level:

  • Psychological safety for the employee in the workplace

  • Work-life balance

  • Openness to feedback and discussion of concerns

  • Managers who serve as role models in focused work without distractions


Tips for implementation regarding

Tips for implementation with:


Children

  • Understanding that it is neither possible nor advisable to prevent children from being exposed to technology and that not all distractions are technology-related.

  • Understanding children's internal distracting factors.

  • Involving children, according to their age and understanding, in thinking about the challenge, opportunities for improvement, and deciding how to reduce distractions. Decision-making autonomy is essential for all of us, including children, and is a reinforcing factor for their success in implementation (conversely, excessive rules push away).

  • Assisting children in dealing with external distracting factors (that do not serve them well); gradually strengthening the skill (not all at once).

  • Discussing values with children and proper time investment, including implementation planning.

  • Assisting children in making commitments to reduce the impact of distractions.


Friends

  • Not getting dragged into investing in distractions when they start doing so (it's even okay to ask when someone is engrossed in their phone - "Is everything okay? I noticed you're engrossed in your phone").

  • Setting a positive example for yourself in conduct among friends.


Spouses/Partners

  • Understanding the cost of clinging to external distractions is essential to the relationship and intimacy.

  • Setting mutual boundaries and creating distraction-free time for the relationship.


Summary

As with any book on a critical topic that affects all of us and our essential habits, we have all already thought about the need, some consciously and some unconsciously. A reasonable working assumption is that everyone has accumulated knowledge and even partial success in dealing with internal and external distractions.


Nevertheless, the book organizes what we may know and renews small practical ideas for everyone. The title, To Be In-distractable, To Control Our Attention and Choose Our Life, represents the importance of the topic. We need to lead our lives, not be led.

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