A guide to fighting distraction from the man who helped tech become a distraction
Nir Eyal tries to convince readers that it is them and not their gadgets or environment that is the problem, and he does it rather well.
Author Nir Eyal
Shelves technology productivity non-fiction
Publisher Benbella Books, 2019
As far as Indistractable goes Matt Haig’s testimonial nails it; this book, he says, is what we need to ‘focus on what is important, rather than the dazzling, illuminated, unsatisfying distractions of modern life’. If there is just one thing you need to know about Indistractable this is it. I normally only review books that, to a good degree, evoke a considerable response in me—whether in a good way or not. To speak highly (or low) of such a book simply makes it particularly good (or horrible) for me.
Hardly any review of Mr Eyal’s latest book can avoid talking about the elephant in the room: his earlier best seller, nay tech-world bible, Hooked was the literal antithesis of Indistractable. Few authors can get away with such a 180º turn. While Hooked talks so effectively about how technology can be built to develop habit forming practices in users that it is among the most faithfully read books among software designers trying to rope users in and make them addicted to their product (think of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or some games you found yourself unable to put down), Indistractable does the exact opposite, explaining to people how they can refuse to be distracted by the things around them and focus on what matters.
Mr Eyal himself argues that it is not a 180º as much as ‘an insight that I have into both questions’. Yet, one cannot help but wonder if he is simply trying to redeem himself from the aftermath of Hooked1. Putting all that aside we had better look at Indistractable based solely on its merits and not with any perceived context. And I do think that, as it stands, this is a pretty good book.
Indistractable is divided into four parts (with a couple more flanking them). The shadow of Hooked appears to loom large on occasion with Mr Eyal insisting that the route to becoming indistractable is not about avoiding potential distraction but learning to handle ourselves better. Even if I am wrong about this being prompted by the author’s previous book, I tend to agree with this fundamental principle he enforces. A digital detox, he insists, is not the answer. He makes it a point, repeatedly, to take the blame away from gadgets and software. The antidote to getting distracted is to plan ahead and follow through on your intentions, he says and I agree, somewhat.
The four-step process involves mastering internal triggers, making time for traction, fighting back external triggers, and preventing distraction altogether with pacts. The term ‘distraction’ is defined as arising from the word ‘traction’ which refers to any action that pulls us towards our goal. This definition is important to keep in mind throughout this book as it sets the stage for what we can consider a distraction in the first place before we attempt to deal with it.
One of the arguments Mr Eyal makes to clarify why blaming technology will not do, which I particularly liked, involves a game of billiards. The coloured balls go into the pocket because of the cue ball, but the cue ball is not responsible. He points out that the real responsibility lies in the player whose actions are the root cause for the coloured balls to be pocketed; the cue ball was simply a proximate cause. Smartphones and other gadgets are proximate causes, he says. And, further, they offer us an escape from reality—particularly social media—which is fundamentally what distraction is: an escape from reality.
Anther cause for distraction is boredom, says Mr Eyal, but I find it hard to agree with his argument especially since I have myself called for people to allow themselves to be bored a lot more. However, I do agree that his other proposed reasons, such as our inherent negativity bias, rumination etc., can well be causes that prompt us to look for distraction. To deal with it then, we need ACT—Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Mr Eyal compares this to smoking and quotes an interesting study as an example. Flight attendants with a smoking habit were put into two groups and asked to go off on a three-hour and ten-hour flight and rate their craving. It was found that those on the ten-hour flight had much less craving after three hours than their counterparts on the three-hour flight. The reason for this was acceptance: the flight attendants had accepted that they were not allowed to smoke while on a flight and that they would not be able to smoke until they landed. So, after three hours, the group which knew they could smoke felt a greater craving than that which knew they could not smoke for another seven hours. It was not about how long it had been since they last smoke so much as how long they had left to be able to smoke.
The approach to acceptance comes down to four of its own steps: one, look for the emotion preceding distraction; two, write down the internal trigger; three, explore the negative sensation with curiosity instead of contempt2; and four, be extra cautious during liminal moments. Funnily, Mr Eyals cites impulsive searching on Google as an example of urges to accept before bringing under control. The next time you want an answer to something, do not whip out your smartphone and google it; be more mindful, pause, take note and then work on whether you really need to do it right then and now. This reminds me of another book called The knowledge illusion which does a good job of addressing why we like to Google: it gives us the feeling that we know something while in fact we do not know it, we just were able to access it—the access to knowledge is addictive because it is mistaken with the possession of knowledge. This is a uniquely 21st century problem. In any case, the first step is to acknowledge it and not blindly fight it.
On a similar note—beware I do not know how scientific this is—trying to will our way through distraction i.e. planning to simply control distraction through our will power will be futile because, says Mr Eyal, will power is an emotion like any other: it ebbs and flows based on the environment you are in. So if will power is what you plan to use, do not fall for the idea that you ran out of it, know that your environment and lots of other subsidiary factors can affect, exhaust and even replenish it.
There are a couple of mathematical bastardisations in the book, much like in a corporate motivation book3. One of these is B=M+A+T which is supposed to stand for Behaviour being a combination of Motivation, Ability and Trigger. The reason this equation stood out is because, following this, Mr Eyal talks about how this formula led Mike Krieger to develop the infamously addictive Instagram. The app has a motivation in the form of its social offerings; ability in the form of prompting next steps for users with likes, infinite scrolls and such; and triggers such as notifications—the ‘pings, dings and rings’ as Mr Eyal refers to them so often in this book. The environment Instagram created in this way routinely makes our will to resist it flail.
Speaking of our environment, an interesting point made in this book involves keeping our environment tidy in order to keep our mind sharp and undistracted. Apparently, a study by Princeton researchers4 showed that the more clutter we have in our view, the poorer our performance of tasks gets. So keeping our environment tidy is, among others, a key external trigger that we can exploit to make ourselves indistractable. This applies as much to the digital world as to the physical.
After discussing identifying internal and external triggers, and traction and distraction, all of which tell us how we can deal with distractions, Mr Eyal discusses how we can prevent ourselves from sliding into distraction. In the final chapters of his book he recommends using pacts or pre-commitments to ‘remove future choice and overcome our impulsivity’. I particularly liked this idea. This is something that can be used along with techniques like calendar blocking. He starts off with the story of Ulysses where the titular character demanded that his deck hands tie him to a pole with ropes until his ship crossed a particular island from where singing could be heard—songs that could deviate and sink ships. In effect, although the song (which was supposed to be beautiful by the way) could distract him, tying him made it physically impossible for him to give in to that distraction.
Of course not all of us can tie ourselves up, and tying is, more often than not, not even a real solution to the distractions most of us face (how many open tabs do you have right now and how many do you need?) the spirit of Ulysses’s story is that he used the idea of pacts to force himself to focus. Named after the man himself, a Ulysses pact is a freely-made decision designed and intended to bind oneself in the future. Mr Eyal cites fixed retirement accounts, medical planning and the like as real world examples where we already use pacts: we promise to do something setting it up so the cost of not doing it is harder to bear than actually doing it.
Mr Eyal recommends we cement intentions when clear-headed with effort pacts which make distractions harder to reach, price pacts where we set aside money that we lose if we do not finish a task and identity pacts where we think of actions as our identity rather than actions that we need to choose to do. This last one especially can do with an explanation and the one Mr Eyal gives is interesting, not to mention particularly relevant to me: do not think, he says, of what you can or cannot do; think instead of what you are—I am indistractable—and strengthen this by teaching others because teaching empowers us to improve ourselves while helping others5. In what sounds like clever marketing he even encourages us to share this book with others as a form of teaching—well, Mr Eyal, consider this review my teaching.
Overall this is an interesting book filled with actionable advice, sometimes even specific apps or technologies we can use to help our journey towards becoming indistractable. It is hard to say how applicable such unusually specific suggestions are; app recommendations do not make for a particularly evergreen read, moreover it makes the book sound like a blog post. Perhaps it does aim to leave paper for the web at times since Mr Eyal has a web page set up for this book where worksheets and downloads are available: these are tools of the sort that I have seen before but rarely found real benefits from so I will refrain from commenting on them.
This book is more practical than philosophical, even a bit too practical at times—if something can even be that one wonders, but then I find that any other description of this book falls short. If you want more perspective on how to save yourself from distraction, this is a good book, but, despite its planned division into four parts, it offered to me, in the end, more insights into how triggers around us—especially technologies—work us than anything else, and followed it up with some handy but nonetheless popular solutions that lay blame primarily on anything but technology.
With this I want to finally bring Hooked back to the picture, because I think that while technology is not the only problem we have, it is part of the problem and it most certainly is not entirely blameless. When Mike Krieger designed an app adhering to the principles of B=M+A+T with the express intention of keeping us on the app for as long as possible, and when Facebook and Twitter and Google (especially with YouTube) have worked so hard for so long to make sure their apps can retain users and increase the time they spend on their apps and websites—not for social engagement, rather for increased exposure to ads and for the subsequent revenue that flows from this—and when there is talk of legislation to ban techniques like infinite scrolling which literally make social media and other websites endless wells, it is obnoxious to claim that software developers and tech companies are blameless.
Thankfully we have, of late, seen some companies accept and address this issue. Mr Eyal’s recommended ACT is probably something tech companies can benefit from too. Apple introduced a host of features to prevent overuse of devices—and in turn of certain other tech products like social media—and smaller companies like DuckDuckGo and Mozilla have been fighting with similar interests in mind although their size and reach seem to restrict each other. Technology is to blame in part but technology can also provide answers and work on making products less about user retention and more sincerely about user experience and value gained, which will deal with distractions too.
In the final bits of the book is an interesting set of chapters that talks about helping children with distractions and making sure they can keep things under control. The same is then extended to society as a whole; Mr Eyal talks about two especially interesting ideas while comparing uncontrolled gadget usage in otherwise unconventional situations to smoking. Smartphone overuse, for example, he prophecies will one day be looked back at like smoking was in the 60s. We should develop a ‘social antibody’ to this, he says, urging people to decently, often indirectly, nudge others to make them aware of their smartphone usage so they can rethink their decision to use their device in that particular situation. We need to make people aware when they are phubbing he says, using the portmanteau created by Australia’s Macquarie dictionary to mean snubbing someone by using your phone in their presence.
However, what turned my thoughts about the book from decent to doubtful was this bit in chapter 29, during the final quarter of the book, when Mr Eyal says the following:
Of course technology plays a role. Smartphone apps and video games are designed to be engaging, just as sugar is meant to be delicious. But like the parent who blames a ‘sugar high’ for their kid’s bad behaviour, blaming devices is a superficial answer to a deep question.
While I agree that the ‘sugar high’ is a myth—and science has said as much—what I find troubling is Mr Eyal’s outright refusal to say that smartphone apps and video games are designed to be addictive and therefore distracting. ‘Engaging’ is one of many intentions, but rarely is it either the primary one or the most critical. Softening the blow hurts more than helps Mr Eyal’s case. It would have been great to see Mr Eyal admit the addictive quotient built into these things rather than insist that technology can never be a root cause. It would have been great to see him accept technology’s flaws and then point to counter examples of how technology can be useful in broader terms than just suggesting specific apps that may soon become irrelevant (knowing technology years). It would have been great to see this book teaching people to reign themselves in while also being a prominent voice to call tech companies out on their nastier habits.
Despite leaving me with mixed feelings, this book does have something for everyone and is certainly worth a read if you have time to spare. After all, knowing how our enemies work is half the battle won.
The word is, not only did Mr Eyal work with several tech companies and help them build products, he has also of late defended his methods as useful outside tech too (such as in helping someone build positive habits like exercise) and, in 2018 commented about how simply turning off addictive apps can help. I have not read Hooked myself so I cannot make any comments on it, but Mr Eyal’s path from Hooked to Indistractable has been an interesting one. ↩︎
This is a comma on thread throughout the book: go easy on yourself when you fail or when something is negative because that will allow you to get back on your feet faster than if you were hard on yourself. ↩︎
Such gimmicks are why I used to detest a certain class of self-help books, but Indistractable thankfully has a lot more to offer that more than offsets its embrace of silly maths. Classics like Who moved my cheese and Jonathan Livingston Seagull do not resort to low measures. ↩︎
This is a high point in the book, a great explanation of why we need to teach others something even if we are not perfect at it ourselves. As a teacher myself I am intimately familiar with the imperfection Mr Eyal speaks of (and he is a teacher too). But, to say nothing of the fact that we may never be perfect, teaching what we do know well enough empowers us to become better learners (or even just learners in the first place) while also helping others. ↩︎