Nir Eyal’s latest book Indistractable was published early this year and tackles one of modern time’s most pervasive issue: distraction. Beverly Landais FRSA, who recently attended an RSA talk by the author, identifies some of the practical steps we can all take to keep focused.
Are interruptions stealing precious time and taking your attention away from what you want to get done? Do you feel irritated and tense as you struggle to regain your focus? If so, you are not alone. Dealing effectively with the intrusions that disrupt your flow is a battle in a chattering continuously connected world. A common problem is how best to tackle the daily avalanche of email and other written communication. Then there are the meetings; great when they are focused on specific outcomes, a clear agenda with responsibilities allocated for follow up. But often meetings can become an excuse for inactivity as if talking is the same as acting.
Your focus can be disrupted by not being prepared or having difficulty in accessing the relevant information necessary to complete a task. Sometimes you may lack boundaries. The result is that your time leaks away as others choose to spend it. What about your team members and others? Are you actively managing relationships and communicating your goals, or do you allow your day to unfold according to whatever drifts by and snags attention?
The sheer effort of dealing with the constant disruptions to your day can be exhausting. Like fighting on all fronts at once: it can feel overwhelming. In his stimulating and thought-provoking talk Nir Eyal argues that, while technology is often cited as the source of our distraction and might indeed get in the way of more meaningful work, smartphones and apps are not at the heart of the issue. So what is going on and what can we do about it?
In his book, Eyal provides a practical four-part framework that breaks down how distraction works and what you can do to overcome it. He begins by explaining the nature of distraction and the unhelpful triggers that can cause it. These can be internal (boredom, feeling stressed) or external (pop-up messages, people ‘dropping by’ for a chat). Such triggers can lead us away from our goals. Eyal calls this misalignment of want we want to do and what we end up doing ‘distraction’. Conversely, the helpful triggers working to pull us towards what we want to do is termed ‘traction’.
Eyal explains that evolution has hard-wired the human brain to explore and be opportunistic. Our brain has a low boredom threshold; this means we are susceptible to distraction as we butterfly between fresh experiences. Even if without contemporary technology, we would still find ways to be distracted. Rather than fight our nature, Eyal suggests four ways in which we work with it.
1) We can change the way you think about triggers
Notice when you trigger into a distraction from your purpose. Awareness is the first step to doing something about these. You can replace these with helpful triggers that focus your attention where you want it to be. Eyal suggests creating challenges and rewards associated with a goal that stimulate and keep you on track.
2) We can plan ahead
Effective planning is essential if you want to achieve anything and how you spend your time is no different. Time can drip away or be used up by others unless you act. To avoid this, Eyal suggests ‘time-boxing’. This process involves thinking about how you spend your waking time in three aspects of your life: you, your relationships and your work. Deciding what is important to you is the first step. Next is to dedicate a specific time for a particular activity, and then scheduling it. This approach requires a mindset of a single focus on one thing at a time.
3) Hack back external interruptions
It is easy to feel you are at the mercy of external forces be it meetings, ad hoc catch-ups, email or pop-up advertising on your smartphone. There is a good deal you can do to minimise these interruptions. For example, emails come as a continuous flow for many people but you do not have to check it all the time; try to read and respond in batches. Use the ‘out of office’ message to explain when you will access your email, personalising the ‘do not disturb’ setting on your phone.
Likewise, you can uninstall apps you no longer need, rearrange any that cause you to scroll mindlessly, so they are harder to access and change the notification settings, so you are not needlessly disturbed. The extra effort will act as a deterrent. Reduce desktop clutter and remove redundant icons and try using the ‘focus’ mode when working a document. Communicate to others that you are working on something; Eyal helpfully provides a tear-out notice to put on your desk but do whatever works for you. How about syncing your schedule with your key stakeholders? This strategy is likely to save time for them as well as you.
4) You can make a pact
Commitments made in advance mean you are more likely to stick with your intention and follow through. Involving another person can be beneficial because the pact is mutually supportive. You can try ‘effort pacts’, which work by making unwanted behaviour more difficult to do. For example, you can choose to block access to websites during specific times using the app, SelfControl. Buddying up with someone to exercise or study is another example of a helpful pact that can help keep you on track.
Taking back control requires thoughtful planning, a structured approach and a generous dose of self-discipline. After all, everyone has the same amount of time. The difference is that productive people know how to use time efficiently by managing their attention and finding strategies for handling interruptions.
Indistractable is a hopeful and inspiring book crammed with ideas that are practical and straightforward to implement. Eyal’s written style is engaging, warm and compassionate. The final chapters contain many excellent suggestions for improving the quality of your life and those who matter to you through choosing where you focus attention. A recommended read.
Beverly comes from a senior business background and is a professional certified coach who works with people to help them be at their resourceful best. Find out more about Beverly's work on her website.