indistractible, how to cultivate the only superpower you will ever need

 Reading time: 5 mins

I went to an evening lecture at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill the other night hosted by Dr Rangan Chatterjee who interviewed Nir Eyal – a former Stanford Business School Professor and author of his latest book: Indistractable – how to control your attention and choose your life.

Internal or External causes of distraction

I thought I would share some of my key takeaways from the interview as well as consider the similarities and differences between Eyal's recommendations with those that I have seen implemented successfully by others and myself more generally.

 

Eyal states that technology should not be viewed as the leading or even relevant cause of our distraction as in his view the distraction itself is something, as yet unaddressed, that comes from within us.  According to Nir this unresolved internal factor is the thing that must be addressed first rather than avoiding / minimising the use of digital technology itself.

 

Most people will agree that the pervasive use of digital technology is not only a permanent factor in our lives but also that it brings countless benefits to society and humanity as a whole.  It is as much of a force for good as was the advent of the steam engine and electricity before it.  However – as the data is now showing digital technology and especially social media is having a catalysing effect on people’s mental health and is, I believe, functioning like a distraction echo chamber on most people’s ability to concentrate.  Given the economic incentive model by which social media companies and their technology platforms have been designed then this shouldn't be a surprise. 

 

Eyal suggests that the technology in and of itself is harmless and that our internal unresolved problems are to blame however it didn't seem clear to me that this is able to adequately explain the significantly increased rates of anxiety, depression and suicide that are being experienced by the young and increasingly by those in middle age across the West.  Consensus is gathering around the idea that digital technology might be acting more like methylated spirits to the proverbial fire and whilst not the cause of the fire itself is surely the catalyst that takes an ordinary flame and turns it into a raging inferno.  For example no one would disagree that drugs like chrystal meth or heroin at any dose are severely toxic for people often leading to an erosion of their human condition and endless depths of depravity and suffering.  So whilst drugs in and of themselves are not always lethal to humans considering the fact that all of us have internal challenges and problems that require constant ‘inner work’ it would still be a brave person to suggest that the drugs themselves were not a significant contributory factor.  Finally, it is noteworthy that Nir slightly downplays his position from his first book "hooked" where he elaborates the formula for creating digital products that form highly addictive habits in people to where he has moved with 'indestructible' by taking the challenge back inside us.  It would seem that these different approaches are reflect two sides of the same coin how to be human in a technological world.

The 10 minute rule and other useful frameworks

That being said and keeping the above in mind there are some very useful notes and lessons that I took from Eyal's presentation and his book generally and hopefully they can be used as actionable ideas here that we could all benefit from.

Takeaways and sound bites

  • “Attention and focus are the raw materials of human creativity and flourishing.” 

  • “…distraction is just another way our brains attempt to deal with pain. If we accept this fact, then it makes sense that the only way to handle distraction is by learning to handle discomfort.” 

  • “…time management is pain management.”

  •  We don’t run out of willpower, believing we do makes us less likely to accomplish our goals by providing a rationale to quit when we could have otherwise persisted.

  • Our self image matters; the way we view ourselves profoundly impacts how we deal with distractions and unintended behaviours.

  • “We can cope with uncomfortable triggers by reflecting on rather than reacting to our discomfort.”

  • “Distractions will always exist, managing them is our responsibility.”

 

Nir makes a number of very interesting and practical recommendations for how we can all recapture our attention, prevent distraction and achieve our highest goals.  

  1.  THE 10-MINUTE RULE

“If I find myself wanting to check my phone as a pacification device when I can’t think of anything better to do, I tell myself it’s fine to give in but not right now. I have to wait just 10 minutes. This technique is effective at helping me deal with all sorts of distractions.”

 

I particularly like this advice as it is linked to the concept of delayed gratification and also for those of us who meditate it is a common practice to cultivate an open and curious mind that embraces the emotion regardless of whether it is positive or negative.  It is amazing how much less tempting a vice or distraction is once you allow the initial wave of emotion to pass.

 

According to Eyal the 10 minute rule allows time for what some behavioural psychologists call ‘surfing the urge.’ When an urge takes hold, noticing these sensations and riding them like a wave -neither pushing them away nor acting on them, helps us cope until the feelings subside.  “If we still want to perform the action after 10 minutes of urge-surfing,” says Eyal, “we’re free to do it! But that’s rarely still the case. The liminal moment has passed, and we’re able to do the thing we really wanted to do.”

 

  2.  WHAT MOTIVATES US, REALLY?

 

“For hundreds of years, we believed that motivation is driven by reward and punishment. The reality, however, is that motivation has much less to do with pleasure than we once thought. Even when we think we are seeking pleasure, we’re actually driven by the desire to free ourselves from the pain of wanting.”

The drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all our behaviour, everything else, Eyal says, is a proximate cause.  When we complain about our smartphones as a source of distraction, we fail to acknowledge the root cause.  According to Eyal the smartphone is merely a proximate cause. Similarly, when we blame our political opponents for the world’s troubles, we choose to overlook the deeper systemic reasons behind the problems.  Proximate causes have something in common –they help us deflect responsibility onto something or someone else.  I expressed my initial concern above and will elaborate further here.  The issue for me is that social media companies employ hundreds of highly paid and qualified PhD’s in subjects like social and cognitive psychology precisely to target and hack our sub conscious decision making and attention processes.  It is no longer the case that these can be just proximate causes as Eyal suggests because the profit optimising goal of the attention economy is to be able to influence us on an a priori basis so how can Eyal be so certain that these “unresolved issues” are not also a direct consequence of the social media mechanism at work and our desire to escape discomfort is exactly the trigger they target to influence most.  If done right this entails that we spend more of our time and attention on their platforms.  That said I am in absolute agreement with Eyal about the concept of taking ownership of our problems in all aspects of our lives rather than participating in a state of learned helplessness.  The goal here is to learn how to coexist with digital in a way that maximises the upside and minimises the downside for all of us.

 

  3.  TIME MANAGEMENT = PAIN MANAGEMENT

 

“…the motivation for diversion originates within us. As is the case with all human behaviour, distraction is just another way our brains attempt to deal with pain. If we accept this fact, it makes sense that the only way to handle distraction is by learning to handle discomfort. If distraction costs us time, then time management is pain management.”

 

Following on from the theme of our inherent desire to escape discomfort Eyal asserts that dissatisfaction and discomfort dominate our brain’s default state, but we can use it to motivate us rather than to defeat us.  Here I can readily agree with his sentiment – a recurring behavioural outcome I have noticed in myself seems to be that I perform and learn best when I am plunged into the deep end with little or no prior training or experience.  It doesn’t matter whether this is signing up for ultra-marathons, attending ivy league business schools, job interviews and job roles or sales and deal pursuits I have found time and again that the idea of a ’forcing function’ works best as I am forced to embrace the chaos and then find a way to execute my way out of it.

According to Eyal there are four psychological factors which explain why satisfaction is temporary:

  • BOREDOM: People prefer doing to thinking.

  • NEGATIVITY BIAS: Good things are nice, but bad things can kill you, which is why we pay attention to and remember the bad stuff first.

  • RUMINATION: Our tendency to keep thinking about bad experiences.

  • HEDONIC ADAPTATION: the tendency to quickly return to a baseline level of satisfaction, no matter what happens to us in life. All sorts of life events we think would make us happier actually don’t, or at least they don’t for very long.

The human proclivity towards boredom, negativity bias, rumination, and hedonic adaption conspire to make sure we never stay satisfied for too long.  And thus “If we want to master distraction, we must learn to deal with discomfort.” 

  4.  RE-IMAGINE THE INTERNAL TRIGGER, THE TASK AND YOUR TEMPERAMENT

Re-imagine the internal trigger

  • Look for the discomfort that precedes the distraction, focusing on the internal trigger. Most often, these urges will try to divert your attention away from difficult work.

  • Write down the trigger; the time of the day, how you felt…

  • Explore your sensations; get curious! Notice how it feels like and stay with the feeling before acting on the impulse.

  • Beware of liminal moments (when you transition from one thing to another throughout your day. For example: when you’re annoyed by the time it’s taking for a website to load, you open another tab or when you’re scrolling through social media whilst going back to your desk, only to continue scrolling after you’ve sat down).

 

Re-imagine the task

“People find fun in a wide range of activities that you might not find particularly interesting. Consider my local coffee-obsessed barista who spends a ridiculous amount of time refining the perfect brew. The car buff who toils for countless hour’s fine-tuning his ride or the crafter who painstakingly produces intricate sweaters and quilts for everyone she knows. If people can have fun doing these activities by choice, what’s so crazy about bringing the same kind of mindset to other tasks?”

 

In Eyal’s opinion we can master our internal triggers by re-imagining an otherwise dreary task, play doesn’t have to be pleasurable; it just has to hold our attention and one can add deliberateness and novelty to any task to make it fun. I can attest to how powerful the simple re-framing of these tasks can be; the punishment fitness group I created leverages gamification and points based incentivisation of physical training to ensure healthy competition amongst friends and colleagues.

 

AND FINALLY,…re-imagine your temperament

 

In a study conducted by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues… Dweck observed that signs of Ego Depletion were evident only in those test subjects . It wasn’t the sugar and the lemonade  that gave participants an extra boost.

People who did not see willpower as a finite resource did not show signs of ego depletion.

Eyal says that if we view mental energy as more like an emotion than fuel in a tank, it can be managed and utilized as such.This is a powerful point and speaks to the difference between glass half full and half empty people.We don’t run out of willpower. Believing we do makes us less likely to accomplish our goals by providing a rationale to quit when we could otherwise persist. What we say to ourselves matters. Labelling yourself as having poor self-control is self-defeating. Practice self-compassion; talk to yourself the way you talk to a friend. People who are more self-compassionate are more resilient.