Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
Nir Eyal

Ended: Nov. 28, 2019

In the future, there will be two kinds of people in the world: those who let their attention and lives be controlled and coerced by others and those who proudly call themselves “indistractable.”
Removing online technology didn’t work. I’d just replaced one distraction with another.
Even when we think we’re seeking pleasure, we’re actually driven by the desire to free ourselves from the pain of wanting. Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, said it best: “By pleasure, we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.” Simply put, the drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all our behavior, while everything else is a proximate cause.
All motivation is a desire to escape discomfort. If a behavior was previously effective at providing relief, we’re likely to continue using it as a tool to escape discomfort.   •    Anything that stops discomfort is potentially addictive, but that doesn’t make it irresistible. If you know the drivers of your behavior, you can take steps to manage them.
As is the case with all human behavior, 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.
Eons of evolution gave you and me a brain in a near-constant state of discontentment. We’re wired this way for a simple reason. As a study published in the Review of General Psychology notes, “If satisfaction and pleasure were permanent, there might be little incentive to continue seeking further benefits or advances.” In other words, feeling contented wasn’t good for the species. Our ancestors worked harder and strove further because they evolved to be perpetually perturbed, and so we remain today.
Negativity bias almost certainly gave us an evolutionary edge. Good things are nice, but bad things can kill you, which is why we pay attention to and remember the bad stuff first.
As David Myers writes in The Pursuit of Happiness, “Every desirable experience—passionate love, a spiritual high, the pleasure of a new possession, the exhilaration of success—is transitory.” Of course, as with the other three factors, there are evolutionary benefits to hedonic adaptation. The author of one study explains that as “new goals continually capture one’s attention, one constantly strives to be happy without realizing that in the long run such efforts are futile.”
Dissatisfaction is responsible for our species’ advancements and its faults. To harness its power, we must disavow the misguided idea that if we’re not happy, we’re not normal—exactly the opposite is true. While this shift in mind-set can be jarring, it can also be incredibly liberating.
•    Time management is pain management. Distractions cost us time, and like all actions, they are spurred by the desire to escape discomfort.   •    Evolution favored dissatisfaction over contentment. Our tendencies toward boredom, negativity bias, rumination, and hedonic adaptation conspire to make sure we’re never satisfied for long.   •    Dissatisfaction is responsible for our species’ advancements as much as its faults. It is an innate power that can be channeled to help us make things better.   •    If we want to master distraction, we must learn to deal with discomfort.
What affected their desire was not how much time had passed after a smoke, but how much time was left before they could smoke again.
Without techniques for disarming temptation, mental abstinence can backfire. Resisting an urge can trigger rumination and make the desire grow stronger.
A technique I’ve found particularly helpful for dealing with this distraction trap is the “ten-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 ten minutes.
It’s a curious truth that when you gently pay attention to negative emotions, they tend to dissipate—but positive ones expand.”
By reimagining an uncomfortable internal trigger, we can disarm it.   •    Step 1. Look for the emotion preceding distraction.   •    Step 2. Write down the internal trigger.   •    Step 3. Explore the negative sensation with curiosity instead of contempt.   •    Step 4. Be extra cautious during liminal moments.
“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
We can master internal triggers by reimagining an otherwise dreary task. Fun and play can be used as tools to keep us focused.   •    Play doesn’t have to be pleasurable. It just has to hold our attention.   •    Deliberateness and novelty can be added to any task to make it fun.
People who did not see willpower as a finite resource did not show signs of ego depletion.
•    Reimagining our temperament can help us manage our internal triggers.   •    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. Labeling yourself as having poor self-control is self-defeating.   •    Practice self-compassion. Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a friend. People who are more self-compassionate are more resilient.
The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
A study by Promotional Products Association International found only a third of Americans keep a daily schedule, which means the vast majority wake up every morning with no formal plans. Our most precious asset—our time—is unguarded, just waiting to be stolen. If we don’t plan our days, someone else will.
I know many of us bristle at the idea of keeping a schedule because we don’t want to feel hampered, but oddly enough, we actually perform better under constraints. This is because limitations give us a structure, while a blank schedule and a mile-long to-do list torments us with too many choices.
It doesn’t so much matter what you do with your time; rather, success is measured by whether you did what you planned to do. It’s fine to watch a video, scroll social media, daydream, or take a nap, as long as that’s what you planned to do. Alternatively, checking work email, a seemingly productive task, is a distraction if it’s done when you intended to spend time with your family or work on a presentation. Keeping a timeboxed schedule is the only way to know if you’re distracted. If you’re not spending your time doing what you’d planned, you’re off track.
How much time in each domain would allow you to be consistent with your values? Start by creating a weekly calendar template for your perfect week. You’ll find a blank template in the appendix and a free online tool at
•    You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from. Planning ahead is the only way to know the difference between traction and distraction.   •    Does your calendar reflect your values? To be the person you want to be, you have to make time to live your values.   •    Timebox your day. The three life domains of you, relationships, and work provide a framework for planning how to spend your time.   •    Reflect and refine. Revise your schedule regularly, but you must commit to it once it’s set.
•    A lack of close friendships may be hazardous to your health. Ensure you maintain important relationships by scheduling time for regular get-togethers.
The Fogg Behavior Model states that for a behavior (B) to occur, three things must be present at the same time: motivation (M), ability (A), and a trigger (T). More succinctly, B = MAT.
It’s telling that the CEO of a group-chat company advises limiting the use of its product. And yet, many organizations that use these services encourage employees to lurk in the group-chat sauna all day long. This is a corrosive practice that individuals can’t always change on their own.
Real-time communication channels should be used sparingly. Time spent communicating should not come at the sacrifice of time spent concentrating.   •    Company culture matters. Changing group chat practices may involve questioning company norms. We’ll discuss this topic in part five.   •    Different communication channels have different uses. Rather than use every technology as an always-on channel, use the best tools for the job.   •    Get in and get out. Group chat is great for replacing in-person meetings but terrible if it becomes an all-day affair.
How can we make meetings more worthwhile? The primary objective of most meetings should be to gain consensus around a decision, not to create an echo chamber for the meeting organizer’s own thoughts. One of the easiest ways to prevent superfluous meetings is to require two things of anyone who calls one. First, meeting organizers must circulate an agenda of what problem will be discussed. No agenda, no meeting. Second, they must give their best shot at a solution in the form of a brief, written digest. The digest need not be more than a page or two discussing the problem, their reasoning, and their recommendation. These two steps require a bit more effort up front, but that’s exactly the point. Requiring an agenda and a brief not only saves everyone time by getting to the answer faster but also cuts down on unnecessary meetings by adding a bit of effort on the part of the organizer before calling one.
Brainstorming can also be done before the meeting and is best done individually or in very small groups. When I taught at the Stanford design school, I consistently saw how teams who brainstormed individually before coming together not only generated better ideas but were also more likely to have a wider diversity of solutions as they were less likely to be overrun by the louder, more dominating members of the group.
To stay indistractable in meetings, we must rid them of nearly all screens. I’ve conducted countless workshops and have observed a stark difference between meetings in which tech use was permitted versus those that were device free, and meetings without screens generated far more engaged discussion and better outcomes.
•    Make it harder to call a meeting. To call a meeting, the organizer must circulate an agenda and briefing document.   •    Meetings are for consensus building. With few exceptions, creative problem-solving should occur before the meeting, individually or in very small groups.   •    Be fully present. People use devices during meetings to escape monotony and boredom, which subsequently makes meetings even worse.   •    Have one laptop per meeting. Devices in everyone’s hands makes it more difficult to achieve the purpose of the meeting. With the exception of one laptop in the room for presenting information and taking notes, leave devices outside.
cluttered desktop doesn’t just look ugly; it’s also costly. For one, there are cognitive costs. A study by researchers at Princeton University found people performed poorly on cognitive tasks when objects in their field of vision were in disarray as opposed to neatly arranged. The same effect applies to digital environments, according to a study published in the academic journal Behaviour & Information Technology.
Removing unnecessary external triggers from our line of sight declutters our workspace and frees the mind to concentrate on what’s really important.
•    Surprise! You can multitask. Use multichannel multitasking like listening to articles while working out or taking walking meetings.
•    An effort pact prevents distraction by making unwanted behaviors more difficult to do.   •    In the age of the personal computer, social pressure to stay on task has largely disappeared. No one can see what you’re working on, so it’s easier to slack off. Working next to a colleague or friend for a set period of time can be a highly effective effort pact.   •    You can use tech to stay off tech. Apps like SelfControl, Forest, and Focusmate can help you make effort pacts.
•    A price pact adds a cost to getting distracted. It has been shown to be a highly effective motivator.   •    Price pacts are most effective when you can remove the external triggers that lead to distraction.   •    Price pacts work best when the distraction is temporary.   •    Price pacts can be difficult to start. We fear making a price pact because we know we’ll have to actually do the thing we’re scared to do.   •    Learn self-compassion before making a price pact.
Identity greatly influences our behavior. People tend to align their actions with how they see themselves.   •    An identity pact is a precommitment to a self-image. You can prevent distraction by acting in line with your identity.   •    Become a noun. By assigning yourself a moniker, you increase the likelihood of following through with behaviors consistent with what you call yourself. Call yourself “indistractable.”   •    Share with others. Teaching others solidifies your commitment, even if you’re still struggling. A great way to be indistractable is to tell friends about what you learned in this book and the changes you’re making in your life.   •    Adopt rituals. Repeating mantras, keeping a timeboxed schedule, or performing other routines reinforces your identity and influences your future actions.
Jobs where employees encounter high expectations and low control have been shown to lead to symptoms of depression.   •    Depression-like symptoms are painful. When people feel bad, they use distractions to avoid their pain and regain a sense of control.   •    Tech overuse at work is a symptom of a dysfunctional company culture.   •    More tech use makes the underlying problems worse, perpetuating a “cycle of responsiveness.”
The researchers found five key dynamics that set successful teams apart. The first four were dependability, structure and clarity, meaning of work, and impact of work. However, the fifth dynamic was without doubt the most important and actually underpinned the other four. It was something called psychological safety. Rozovsky explains,
The term “psychological safety” was coined by Amy Edmondson, an organizational behavioral scientist at Harvard. In her TEDx talk, Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” Speaking up sounds easy, but if you don’t feel psychological safety you’ll keep your concerns and ideas to yourself.
Indistractable organizations, like Slack and BCG, foster psychological safety, provide a place for open discussions about concerns, and, most important, have leaders who exemplify the importance of doing focused work.
Another classic excuse in the parental tool kit of blame deflection is the “common knowledge” that teens are rebellious by nature. Everyone knows that teenagers act horribly toward their parents because their raging hormones and underdeveloped brains make them act that way. Wrong. Studies have found that teenagers in many societies, particularly preindustrialized ones, don’t act especially rebelliously and, conversely, spend “almost all their time with adults.” In an article titled “The Myth of the Teen Brain,” Robert Epstein writes, “Many historians note that through most of recorded human history, the teen years were a relatively peaceful time of transition to adulthood.” Apparently, our teenagers’ brains are fine—it is our brains that are underdeveloped.
Just as the human body requires three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) to run properly, Ryan and Deci proposed the human psyche needs three things to flourish: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When the body is starved, it elicits hunger pangs; when the psyche is undernourished, it produces anxiety, restlessness, and other symptoms that something is missing.
When considering the state of modern childhood, Ryan believes many kids aren’t getting enough of the three essential psychological nutrients—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—in their offline lives. Not surprisingly, our kids go looking for substitutes online. “We call this the ‘need density hypothesis,’” says Ryan. “The more you’re not getting needs satisfied in life, reciprocally, the more you’re going to get them satisfied in virtual realities.”
Remember, their schedules (like ours) should be assessed and adjusted weekly to ensure that their time is spent living out their values.
Phubbing, a portmanteau of phone and snubbing, means “to ignore (a person or one’s surroundings) when in a social situation by busying oneself with a phone or other mobile device.” The dictionary assembled experts to create the word in order to give people a way to call out the problem. Now