How to Win the War Against Daily Distractions


Nir Eyal’s talk on avoiding distractions so good, he might convince you to turn it off halfway through.

Look, none of us are immune to distractions. With a phone or other device never far from sight, it takes supreme effort to remain focused all the time. When we give in to temptation, it feels good. Not only is it far more enjoyable, but it’s far easier than the tasks we were otherwise working on.

So we watch a video on Youtube, then go back to our work. Some time later, we browse Facebook, then go back to our work. Some time after that, we text our friends for a bit, then go back to work. 10 minutes here and there. No big deal, right?

But what happens at the end of the day, when we’re looking back at what we’ve accomplished? We realise 10 minutes here and there added up, and we spent way more time than we can justify distracting ourselves from what we know is more important: work, family, life. We distracted ourselves from the things that really matter. So we go to bed feeling guilty, and promising ourselves that tomorrow we will be better!

Then we get up, and do it all over again.

Becoming indistractable is tough. So tough, Eyal refers to it as a superpower in his presentation as part of the 2018 Habit Summit, as seen above. But being indistractable is not impossible, and as we ebb closer to a decade which will see a tremendous rise in automation in the workplace, as well as continued reliance on personal devices in our homes, it will be a crucial skill for those who wish to keep their jobs, and their lives, in tact.

So how do we manage distraction?

It all starts with understanding the forces acting against us. The Ancient Greeks called it akrasia, meaning ‘to act against our better judgement’. The thing with akrasia is that simply knowing what it is doesn’t help you fight it. You have to be aware that it you are, in fact, acting against your better judgement. Eyal tells a story about his friend, a Harvard-trained psychologist, who woke up at midnight when her pedometer alerted her that if she walked around for a bit, it would offer her bonus rewards points. For the next two hours, she climbed 2000 stairs, because she had become so addicted to the device that it was in complete control of her actions.

Sounds crazy, right? Unique, yes, but not so crazy. How quickly do you react to an alert on your phone? How many episodes of shows have you sat through on Netflix because you didn’t have time to close it before the next one started?

We allow ourselves to be controlled by technology, but that is not the technology’s fault. It’s not the notification or the autoplay setting that is the problem; it’s how we react to it.

Distraction is as much an action as what we do to counter it.

With that in mind, Eyal reveals the three actions necessary to fight our urge to let ourselves be distracted. They are:

Note the sensation. Consider the friend from Eyal’s story. Do you think she would have been climbing her basement steps at 2am in the morning if she’d taken a moment to consider what was going on?

Crowd out with curiosity. We can’t suppress the urge to be distracted. That’s a game we’re all destined to lose. Instead, we must become curious about the sensation, and question why we are feeling it.

Surf the urge. Ride it out. After spending a few minutes confronting our desire for distraction, we can work through it…at least most of the time.

The only way it gets easier is through the development of habits, and the best way to develop habits is to schedule your days. Here’s how:

Plan your time (not the output). Dedicate time to each element of your day, but don’t focus on how much you expect to get done in that time. Nothing’s ever as straight forward as you expect, but by putting in the time, you know the goal will be hit eventually.

Get rid of low-value work. We’ve talked about it before.A few times, in fact. So much of what we tend to spend our time on is just busy work. No wonder we get distracted so easily! Outsource where necessary, dismiss it if possible, and focus on what actually matters.

Spend less time messaging. Simple. Don’t let stuff like e-mails and IM keep you from concentrating. View them at dedicated times, and only reply as required.

Eyal’s presentation offers plenty more in the way of describing the psychology of and solution for our love of distraction, so be sure to watch it in full, but it’s with the information above that real change begins. Get to it.

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