June 13, 2020

Why you need to be indistractable, a practical book to help you get there

By Paul Laughlin

The latest leadership book that I’ve finished reading is once again focussed on personal productivity, it’s “Indistractable” by Nir Eyal.

Loyal readers may recall that I previously recommended Nir’s very successful book “Hooked”. In that, he helped product designers (and everyone else) recognise how psychological techniques can be used to get us hooked into using products. Well in this book he focusses on the remedy.

As well as being a best selling author, Nir Eyal also teaches at Stanford University, blogs and invests in habit-forming innovations. So, it is no surprise to find in this book that Nir both writes well and knows this industry.

Why do I describe this as a ‘leadership book’ when it’s really aimed at everyone. Simply because being distracted can be such a fatal flaw in leaders that it will prevent them achieving their goals. If you want to make the difference you seek for your team & customers, you need to overcome distractions.

A four-part framework to tackle distractions

Let me start by praising the design of this book as a product. It has accessible short chapters, a clear structure and tons of quick well presented summaries. Together with the accompanying downloads & card at the back (more on that later), they make this a great book to come back to for reference.

After the expected introduction, making the case for how much distractions are an issue for people today, Nir shares his core model. This is a framework representing four key actions needed to tackle distraction. It helps provide the primary structure for the rest of his book.

Those four actions (or areas for focus) are:

  1. Master internal triggers
  2. Make time for traction
  3. Hack back external triggers
  4. Prevent distraction with pacts

The majority of the rest of the book shows you how to take action in each of these areas. Nir then closes the book with 3 application areas, which I’ll summarise later. Let me quickly preview what you can expect in those 4 parts of this very engaging and applicable book.

How to master your internal triggers

This is the most psychological and internally focussed part of this book. It feels like starting by becoming more aware of yourself and work you can do internally. He begins by making a case, based on research, for the cause of our distractions being your desire to escape discomfort (e.g. stress, boredom, difficult emotions, etc.)

Nir goes on to use Mindfulness type techniques to help raise your self-awareness around that trigger event (discomfort). Learning to not resist (or judge) your urges but observe them & let them pass. Together with reimagining your trigger, desired task & temperament in ways that serve you better.

If that sounds worthy, or hippy, don’t be put off. This part is full of practical tips & techniques to try. Plus there is growing psychological research as to the effectiveness of this approach to addressing your distraction addiction.

Make time for traction

This is a much needed call to be clear on what matters most, what you want to achieve. As Nir says, you can’t claim to be distracted if you don’t know what you’re being distracted from.

Most of this part of the book is focussed on techniques that will help you prioritise better and manage your time in line with your priorities. Nir makes the case for ‘timeboxing’, diarising time for you, protecting time for relationships and synchronising your calendar with key stakeholders.

Much of the practical wisdom in this book reminded me of two books that helped me improve in this area. The first is “Living Forward” by Hyatt & Harkavy, the second is “18 Minutes” by Bregman. The former helps you step back and clarify your priorities, the latter helps you with a time management approach that works each day.

Nir does a good job at pulling together in short chapters some of the best practice out there on this topic.

How to hack back your external triggers

Next, he moves onto your environment. Do you allow yourself to continue to be surrounded by things and people who will distract you? This feels like perhaps the most practical part of the book and gets usefully specific with regards to technology.

Lots of the thinking here reminded me of the great advice that I found in “Atomic Habits” by Clear, but this book focuses even more on your devices. In that regard it usefully builds on the challenge in “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport, whilst perhaps being more achievable.

After stepping you through how to identify things around you that may trigger distraction, Nir also provides useful ideas for negotiating with others. Agreeing on ways you can avoid being disturbed. Then he turns his attention to what is probably the biggest Achilles heel for most leaders, technology.

In chapters that provide more specific advice and examples than I have seen in any other book, Nir outlines suggestions for overcoming distractions from:

  • emails
  • group chat/messaging
  • meetings
  • apps & notifications on your phone
  • apps, & notifications on your desktop/laptop
  • social media
  • all devices (inc. apps to help you read later & focus better)

There are too many to list here, but this book is worth it for this section alone. The ‘card’ I mentioned earlier, is a red tear-out part at the back of the book. It folds to make a sign for others to not disturb you. A delightfully low tech solution that works.

Prevent distractions with pacts

When sharing our reviews in a book club I enjoy, I mentioned that I found this the scariest part of the book. Taking actions in all four parts of Nir’s model feel useful, but the accountability proposed here makes me nervous. Although he does make a strong case for why it works.

At the least threatening, plan ahead for when you are likely to be distracted and adjust the environment or just make it easier to not do so. Then he goes on to make the case for different types of pre-commitments (with something to lose) or pacts that can help you stay focussed:

  • Effort pacts (unwanted behaviours are more difficult)
  • Price pacts (you have money to lose)
  • Identity pacts (you would be going against who you are)

How will you apply this thinking in your life?

As mentioned earlier, Nir ends this book with 3 chapters reviewing application areas for these techniques. Each is also packed with psychological insights and asides that will help you challenge some of your assumptions. he reviews:

  • How to make your workplace indistractable
  • Raising indistractable children
  • Having indistractable relationships (inc. your love life)

Well worth reading as there are several ‘nuggets’ to be found in those chapters too. But I don’t want to distract from you understanding the 4 part model to be indistractable as the core of this book.

So, what will you do now? Do you plan to read this book? Even if not, what could you do to take action in at least one of those areas?

Have you taken time to observe & better understand your internal triggers? How could you make more time for traction on what matters most? Are you hacking back your external triggers, including technology? Could you be brave and prevent distraction with pacts, at least effort pacts?

I hope that review helps you & look forward to hearing what actions you have taken as a result. May you become indistractable.