Apr 27 • 20M

#54: How to stay focussed

🔉A podcast interview with Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable

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exploring the reasons we do what we do
Episode details

HELLO! We’ve made a podcast! 🥳🥳🥳🎙️🔉

For this 20-minute pilot episode, I spoke with Nir Eyal, a writer, consultant and former marketing lecturer at Stanford, about how to stay focused on what matters to us

Eyal authored Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, and many tech companies1 turn to him to create products that people cannot put down. Then he wrote the antidote: Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Lifethat’s the book we focus on in this interview.

There are MANY books out there about productivity and time management, and Indistractable also offers tips and hacks. But this interview is not about shilling techniques. Instead, we discuss why we get distracted in the first place, so we can find ways that work for us.

Eyal and I talked about:

  • What being ‘indistractable’ means to him, and why it matters

  • Why he schedules spontaneity

  • An alternative to blaming others and/or shaming ourselves for our lack of focus

  • Time management as pain management

  • Distraction and intrinsic motivation

  • How school may rob children of basic psychological nutrients, and how to help them

  • Doing one thing at a time, and making the tools work for us

I hope you’ll like this format! You can listen directly in your browser (click the play button above☝🏾) or use an external app2. If you prefer words on your screen, I’ve included excerpts from our Q&A below, and a complete transcript of the interview here.

With a *big* merci to sound engineer and composer Hugo Rabes 💫🎧

May I introduce you to Nir Eyal

Let’s start with the basics. What does it mean to you to be indistractable? 

Being indistractable means you are as honest with yourself as you are with others. […] It means striving to do what you say you're going to do, whether it's to exercise, or eat right, or be fully present with their family, or finish that big project at work or save money.

Distractable people live their life with regrets. They look back and they say, Why was I working on stuff that didn't help me move my business forward? Why was I not fully present with my kids, and I was worrying about drama, or television or Facebook, as opposed to being with people I love? 

[…] The media is never going to tell you, you've had enough news, you've had enough Netflix, you've had enough Facebook. Their interest is to get you hooked. And I know how to get you hooked. I wrote the book on it! And I know all their tips and tricks. But I can tell you that they're good, but they're not that good. That we have the ability to take back our time and attention, if we so choose.

If I play devil's advocate—how about being approachable, being available, being flexible?

I recommend that people do spend time to be available to their business colleagues, to their children, whatever the case might be. But that time should be planned in advance. Because if you don't plan that time, your entire day becomes a distraction. 

So my daughter and I, for example, we have… scheduled spontaneity. Now that sounds like an oxymoron. How can you schedule spontaneity? But the reason we do that is that we have a big four-hour block of time to be together… We might go to the museum, we might go get some ice cream, we might go to the library. We're not sure what we're gonna do. 

But I know what I will not be doing: I will not be checking my cell phone, I will not be on social media, I will not be answering work emails. I will be with my daughter, I will be fully present with her. So that has to be scheduled, because she also knows that when I'm doing my work, that’s the time when I can't be distracted, when I can't be interrupted. Many people, the problem is they try and do everything all at once. And that satisfies nobody.

You say you tended to blame everybody and everything else, and also felt shame about yourself and your inability to focus. Where's the happy medium?

There's a third way! So there's the blamer. The blamer says… It's social media. It's my boss, it's my kids. It's all this stuff outside of me. And of course, that's a victim mentality. That doesn't help you actually do anything about it. The shamer takes it on the inside. They shame themselves. It's not: What I do is wrong. It’s: I am wrong. […]

So the third way is to not be a blamer, to not be a shamer, but to be what we call a claimer. A claimer claims responsibility, not for how they feel, but how they react to those feelings. So many people conflate a feeling with something they can control. And that's not true. You cannot control an urge. If you have the urge to check your phone, an urge to eat something unhealthy, an urge to smoke a cigarette, you don't control that urge […]. What you can control is how you respond to the urge. It's about having that toolkit ready to go. So that when distraction and those uncomfortable urges rear their ugly head, we know how to fight them.

You talk about the fact that time management is pain management, right? We're trying to avoid pain, but we're not really dealing with the thing in the first place. Maybe if I'm distracted, it's because I'm unhappy. Maybe I'm not in the right place. Maybe I'm not doing the right thing. And I should deal with that in the first place rather than trying to just do time [boxing]3.

Absolutely. That is the internal trigger. Why can't I sit with my child without looking at my phone? The internal trigger is: Why am I constantly wanting to do everything but the work that I get paid to do? The internal trigger is: Why am I trying to escape being around other people by having a drink? […] It's absolutely the real deal. The uncomfortable work that many of us don't want to do: What am I trying to escape? 

Distraction is always an escape from an uncomfortable sensation, boredom, fearfulness, stress, anxiety, fatigue, loneliness. That’s step number one. Whether it's watching the news to worry about somebody's problems, 3000 miles away, or, you know, a drink, or football or Facebook, it doesn't matter. You're always going to find a distraction. Unless you know what that deeper real problem is. And that's where we have to start.

[… W]e need tools to deal with those sensations in a healthy way that lead us towards traction, rather than trying to escape them with dis-traction. So that's why it's not about the activity itself. Right? Work can be a distraction, it can also be very productive. Social media can be a distraction, it can also be great. It's about whether we do those things with intent, whether it's traction, and it's according to our values, or it's a distraction that pulls us away from what we really want.

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Can we talk briefly about some of the tools you mentioned in the book? I can spend hours making a really pretty colour-coded schedule, but then I will never do anything with it. 

The tips and tricks, that's the tactics. What's more important is the strategy. Once you understand the strategy, you can understand you can come up with your own tactics or tactics, or what you do. Strategy is why you do it. 

In terms of your comment of, Oh, you know, I make a schedule, then I don't stick with it: it's a practice that gets easier with time. So I would start by planning just one day, maybe even a weekend. And it doesn't have to be down to minute increments [...].

And then see what that feels like. The right mindset is not to be a drill sergeant. The right mindset is to be a scientist, a scientist makes a hypothesis, runs an experiment, and then sees the result and then runs another experiment. It gets easier and easier over time.


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You can listen on apps including Google Podcasts and Podcast Addict–not Apple Podcasts or Spotify, for now. If that option is important to you, do let me know in the comments or reply to this email from your inbox.


On the podcast, I say “time blocking” instead of time boxing. Sorry!