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This behavioral designer’s top brain hacks for beating distraction

Author Nir Eyal shares a few tactics for controlling the “internal triggers” that lead our minds to wander while we’re trying to focus.

This behavioral designer’s top brain hacks for beating distraction
[Photo: guruXOOX/iStock]

Think back to this morning. Did you check your smartphone within 15 minutes of waking up? Nir Eyal would bet that you did–with 79% certainty. Why? Because Eyal knows habits. The author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, and an investor and founder, he’s spent years studying how startups can build products that people don’t want to put down.

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He’s also here to tell you that sometimes, you need to put those products down.

Eyal has seen an epidemic of tech employees who are so busy and distracted at work that they don’t have time to do their jobs. “The job of a knowledge worker is to come up with innovative solutions to non-routine problems,” he says. “The problem is we can’t do that unless we have time to think. We can’t create those novel solutions to those problems unless we can sit down and actually chew over and come up with a creative solution to these problems.”

As automation increases in the modern workplace, the kind of jobs that will continue to be valuable are the ones that require human focus and creativity. So in a forthcoming book Indistractable: How to Master the Skill of the Century, Eyal takes on the persistent belief that distraction is simply something professionals needs to endure. He argues that it’s possible to master the internal triggers that are sapping our focus, but we first need to understand where distractions come from. “We tend to think of distraction as something that’s interrupting us–the pings and the dings of the world,” he explains, “but that’s just one kind of distraction called an external trigger. If you think about it, most distractions come from within.”

The most prolific distraction-producer? Your own brain. The tendency to get distracted is human nature, but now, thanks to the modern distraction machines that we all keep right at our fingertips, that tendency has been amplified. To help sort through what’s keeping you from working how and when you want to, Eyal has identified a few ways of managing distraction, with tricks for combating it.

Note internal triggers, then get to the source

Getting the upper hand on distraction means identifying and understanding internal triggers–and how they connect to external distractions. “Products are designed to hook you by catering to some kind of negative emotion. When you’re lonely, you check Facebook. When you’re uncertain, you Google. When you’re bored, you might check the news. These instantaneous responses are what makes these products so habit-forming,” says Eyal. “Even after you remove all these distractions, if you don’t hone in on internal triggers, you’re always going to get diverted by something.”

To become “indistractable,” understand the underlying mechanism of internal triggers. “The body gets us to act by making us feel these uncomfortable sensations that we seek to escape. It’s called homeostasis. If you feel cold, you put on a jacket. If you feel warm, you take it off. All human behavior–distraction included–starts from an internal trigger,” says Eyal.

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Here are a few simple ways that Eyal recommends we meet internal triggers head-on:

Note the sensation. Eyal recommends noting when you are distracted, then looking for the emotion that triggered it. “Maybe it’s, ‘Hey, you know what? I was working on this task. I got bored, and I got up from my chair and I went to talk to Steve across the hall,’ ” says Eyal. “By simply noting the reason, we can start to pinpoint the sensation and unpack the negative feeling.”

Crowd out with curiosity. Be inquisitive (not judgmental) about your internal triggers. “What was the emotion that you were trying to escape? Was it boredom? Was it loneliness? Was it uncertainty? Was it fear that you couldn’t do the task? Only when we hone in on that underlying emotion, can we start finding a different way to deal with that emotion than reflexively trying to escape from it altogether,” says Eyal.

As you pay closer attention to your triggers, be compassionate with yourself. Everyone avoids tasks from time to time. But if you start to identify patterns–tasks that you never want to start–consider whether there’s a larger story there. “You can use all these different tricks for a while, but eventually over time, if you really don’t want to do the task, it might be time to look for deeper reasons why this might not be the right task for you,” says Eyal.

Reduce distractions with pacts

Even after you’ve made time for traction, gotten in front of external triggers, and noted internal triggers, you still may need support to stay on track. Eyal emphasizes the power of pacts, and here’s how you can establish them effectively to reduce distractions:

Create a “Ulysses pact.” In a Ulysses pact, you make a deal of sorts with future you, locking yourself into a given task for a given amount of time. Just as Ulysses set up a series of constraints so he could hear the sirens’ song but still make it out alive, you can plan around your own weakness in the face of distraction. “While technology may have created a lot more distractions, the good news is that it’s also yielded some interesting tools to help achieve a kind of forced focus,” says Eyal. “For example, when I need to have focused writing time, I use an app called Forest, which blocks off my phone for a specific period of time.”

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Find a focus partner. One of the challenges of the modern workplace is too much flexibility, and too little accountability for what you’re doing all day long. “Part of the problem that we have today with people working remotely or working in offices where you don’t really know what everybody’s up to is that goofing off looks the same as working hard,” say Eyal. So find a colleague and create that accountability. Sit down together, in person or virtually, and tell each other what you are going to get done for the next hour. Then, keep each other accountable to do that task.

Reimagine the task. You can also make your task itself more appealing, more engaging, by looking at it in a different light. “My friend Ian Bogost is a professor at Georgia Tech, and he studies play. It’s fascinating. He wrote a book called Play Anything. What he said is that you can make any task into play and to make it fun by looking for the variability inside the task. “Even if a task at first seems boring, look for the variabilities. Look for the uncertainty,” says Eyal. “Look for what might be different. You might time yourself. You might see if you can do it a little differently. You might see if you can do it a little bit better.”

Finally, Eyal offers a few important reminders. “First, with all the distractions around and within us, we will all fail at some point on the path to becoming indistractable. Practice self-compassion. Studies show that people who are more self-compassionate are more likely to reach their long-term goals,” he says. “Be kind to yourself as you would a friend.”

“Second,” Eyal continues, “take time away. If you’ve simply accepted that you can only do real thought work at night–that the workday is for meetings and emails–stop. You’re doing a disservice to yourself, your work, and everyone else in your life. “When we do that, we’re essentially stealing that time from people who are important to us,” he says. “Remember: if we want to have sustainable careers, we need important people in our lives that help sustain us. If your life really is all about work and nothing else is important to you, then great. Fill it up with work. But if that’s not the case–if you have other things in your life that are important to you–those things also deserve scheduled time in your day, as do you.”


A version of this article originally appeared on First Round Review. It is adapted with permission.

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