I came across Nir and his second book, ‘Indistractable,’ through the podcast ‘On the way to new work‘, which is usually in German, but some episodes with international guests are held in English.
Nir is an expert in habit building and designing products that stick. He served as a lecturer at Stanford and HPI, built and sold two companies, and now works as an investor, speaker, consultant, and, obviously, book author.
If atomic habits is a manual for managing your personal habits, Nirs first book hooked is a manual for managing user habits and designing a product that ‘hooks’ people. Facebook, Google, and all of these giant internet companies use psychological tricks to create more compelling and sticky products – why shouldn’t startups do so too?
And for all those who criticized Nir for writing his first book about how to make a product addictive, here comes the remedy: a book about how to become indistractable!
Summary of Key Ideas
The Antidote to Impulsiveness is Forethought
Unlike other animals, humans can imagine what the future may look like. They often complain about how distracting the world is. Still, they can do something about it: forethought enables us to plan ahead and avoid the distraction. You don’t have to wait until the chocolate cake is on the way to the mouth.
Indistractable people have principles, habits, and other systems in place that help with impulse control, making decisions, and planning ahead.
Like: “Repeating a mistake more than once is a choice.” – You got me once, but now I understand why and I will do something about it.
Forethinking is hard because it does not come naturally – it needs to be learned and trained. It employs system two thinking, making a conscious mental effort rather than responding affectively to a situation (which is part of system one thinking, see Thinking: Fast and Slow).
Today, we live in a world of abundance: as factfulness by Hans Roßling pointed out, more people die from eating too many than too few calories. There has never been a better time in history to be alive (given the global average standard of living). Yet, we need to learn how to deal with that abundance, with all the freedom and all the choices we could make. And there will be a divide between people who let others control their time and those who don’t (= who are indistractable), i.e. who have developed principles, habits, and systems.
Distraction is not a new phenomenon, and it is not necessarily provoked by digitalization and using mobile phones. Digital detox shifts the type of distraction, e.g. from surfing web pages to browsing through books.
What is the opposite of “distraction”?
It is not focus. It is traction.
Traction is an action that moves you closer to your values, to the things you like to achieve, and the person you want to become. DistrACTION is also an action we are taking ourselves, but which pulls us away from our goals, from what we planned to do, from becoming the person we want to become.
Any action can be traction or distraction based on one word: intent. You cannot call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from.
Carrying out what we planned to do creates traction. Responding to external or internal triggers prompts us into distraction. And distractions that get rationalized are dangerous: they lead us to do the easy rather than the important stuff (= that moves us forward).
External triggers (rings, dings, other people) account for only about 10 % of when we get distracted. 90 % are caused by internal triggers: uncomfortable emotional states, like loneliness, boredom, fatigue, anxiety, stress, etc.
Time management is Pain Management
Most often, we get distracted because we don’t know, how to deal with an uncomfortable feeling. Thus, you need to understand which discomfort you are trying to escape.
1) Master your internal triggers.
2) Make time for traction = productive time
3) Hack back the external triggers
4) Prevent distraction with pre-commitments (as simple as working with a colleague in an office, create an ‘effort pact’ – a commitment to stay focussed and work at the tasks at hand)
Tactics are what you do; strategy is why you do it.
Consistency over intensity: people doing extraordinary things don’t achieve them in a weekend but through regular action. People reach their peak of potential because of consistent effort.
Consistency and outstanding amounts of work/practice one achieves through flow.
Becoming who you like to become
People usually escape the discomfort caused by internal triggers through clicking, playing, drinking, and other distractions. Highly effective people use them to nudge themselves to train more and become better – like rocket fuel for traction.
Values are attributes of the person you want to become.
Planning ahead: How would the person you want to become spent the next week?
1) Caring about yourself: having a bedtime, time to yourself, etc.
2) Time for relationships, family & friends, schedule time with others (don’t give them a scrap of what’s leftover)
3) Time for traction (working on what moves you forward)
4) Time for reactive work (reacting to emails etc.)
Use a timeboxed calendar to make time for these different domains to become indistractable.
‘Being busy’ vs. ‘getting work done’ is like the concept of ‘being in motion’ vs. ‘taking action’ laid out in atomic habits.
Thoughts on “Indistractable”
I really liked his take on distractions, being actions we take consciously and their opposite being traction rather than focus. It also put time management into a new perspective – that it’s not only about planning when to do what but also how to deal with different emotional states and external or internal triggers.
The book gives you a little bit the impression that for being indistractable, your life needs to be planned out to the very minute (“if it’s not in my calendar, it’s not going to happen”) – how would you know otherwise whether you are ‘on track’ or ‘distracted’?
While I see the benefits of reserving time slots in your calendar for creating traction (i.e. work on projects moving you forward), planning out everything leaves little room for “being spontaneous” and reacting to changing circumstances.
Also, predicting your emotional and mental state throughout the day can be challenging. It may be a good idea to keep your options open to work on alternatives that would also move you forward if you are not in the mood to do what you planned for. In the sense of “sense and respond” rather than “predict and control” Reinventing Organisations. Just reserve time for traction in your calendar and then decide which project you like to work on most spontaneously.
Another idea would be to have two calendars – one for absolutely fixed appointments and one for appointments with yourself, which you could adapt flexibly to whether tasks get finished earlier or at some later stage.
All in all, the bottom line is one should find a level of planning one is comfortable with. It’s more like keeping up a productive mindset and spending time on traction rather than religiously following some predetermined plan. Here, “Indistractable” contributes several key ideas and some specific, often rather obvious, but also often ignored advice like “replying to fewer emails leads to receiving fewer emails,” e.g. for creating an indistractable workplace, raising indistractable children, or building indistractable relationships.
What to read next?
- Hooked – the first book by Nir Eyal, on how to get customers hooked on your product – make it sticky and build habits
- Deep Work by Cal Newport for creating traction
- Flow by Mihaly – a classic on what is flow and how to get into it/maintain it
- Atomic Habits for personal habit management
- Factfulness to learn more about the current state of the world we live in (and the abundance of options Nir described)