Distractions Ain't Got Nothing on You: 6 Ways to Focus (and *Stay* Focused)
May 15, 2018
Every day, I play defense with distractions.
I wake up and get sucked into Instagram, scrolling carelessly for at least 20 of the 45 minutes I set aside to get ready for work.
I get to work and try to resist the ding dings of Slack and my email inbox to no avail, getting sidetracked for 15 minutes as I try to find the perfect Tina Fey GIF response. (It's usually this one, by the way.)
And when I do complete a task? I treat myself to a “peek” at Facebook—but end up having to dig myself out of a deep dive into my cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s new friend’s puppy’s Instagram account (corgi, of course).
By the end of the day, my work gets done—but mentally, I’m exhausted from constantly trying to rein in my focus and attention.
Even when we know a distraction is keeping us from what we really should be doing, it’s hard to resist technology that’s often designed to suck us in and steal our time.
Thankfully, there are people like Nir Eyal to help us out.
The ‘Indistractable’ Superpower
Nir Eyal is to distractions as Coach Taylor is to football—a wise, reassuring force that helps dig people out of their deepest distraction dilemmas.
Eyal specializes in consumer psychology and behavioral design, and his first book, Hooked, was all about building habit-forming products (think: your daily Instagram session). Now, he’s exploring what people can do when a tech habit becomes too all-consuming.
In a recent talk at the 2018 Habit Summit, Eyal said he sees the power to be “indistractable” as the skill of this century—and he believes we all are capable of resisting distractions.
“Psychologists tell us that the number one determinant of whether someone changes their behavior is their belief in their own power to do so,” Eyal says in his talk. “We all have the power to manage distraction, and we can all become indistractable.”
"The number one determinant of whether someone changes their behavior is their belief in their own power to do so.”- Nir Eyal
He shared six tips in his talk on how we can start to flex our indistractability. Here, we break down his best advice:
1. Surf Your Internal Triggers
From his research, Eyal learned that we often turn to distractions as an escape from uncomfortable feelings—things like loneliness, boredom, and fatigue.
“Most distraction starts from within,” he says. He calls these “internal triggers,” and it explains, for example, why we always tend to reach for our phones while waiting in line.
We often turn to distractions as an escape from uncomfortable feelings—things like loneliness, boredom, and fatigue.
I’ve experienced this firsthand.
The times I let myself get most distracted are when I’m working on a daunting new project—something I’m scared to start. Instead of exploring why the task intimidates me, I self-soothe with Instagram and Twitter. While it’s a momentary relief, dancing around the task with distractions only makes the barrier to start even greater.
While we can fix some of these internal triggers, some feelings can’t just be fixed—so we have to learn how to cope and carry on.
Eyal’s strategy: Give yourself time to get curious about a sensation rather than turning to a distraction. It’s a tactic psychologists call “surfing the urge,” and Eyal likes to imagine our curiosity as a surfboard, one that lets us “ride the wave" of an uncomfortable feeling until it passes.
He created a 10-minute rule to encourage himself to “surf the urge.” “I tell myself I can give into any urge and any temptation as long as I wait 10 minutes and get curious about that sensation until it passes,” he says.
2. Own Your Time
Eyal says he often works with clients who say they’re “too distracted” to get anything done. His response: Show me your calendar. “Oftentimes they show me their calendar, and there’s nothing on it—just big white spaces of time,” he says. “The fact is, if you don’t schedule your day, someone else will.”
“If you don’t schedule your day, someone else will.”-Nir Eyal
To avoid losing the day to distractions, Eyal suggests using “implementation intentions,” which basically means planning out what you’ll do and when you’ll to do it—a process which will make you more likely to do it.
Try using your calendar to block out each hour with what you need to tackle, focusing more on how you’ll focus your time rather than the exact output you want out of that hour. “Studies have shown that people are awful at estimating how long something takes to do,” he says.
And if you fall off track? No sweat—the goal isn’t to stay on schedule every single minute but to have a guide that at least shows you the ideal path to take. “By having a template every week for what we would ideally like to do with our time, we become much more likely to stay on track,” Eyal says.
3. Make It Known You’re In the Zone
According to the New York Times, the average office worker only gets 11 minutes between each interruption—and it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain focus after getting distracted.
To combat this interruption-distraction cycle, Eyal suggests creating a physical sign to show people that you’re not open for an interruption. One idea: Place a sign on your desk that says, “Right now I’m doing busy work.” It might seem a little silly, but if it buys you back more focused time? It’s worth it.
Or, you could have a little more fun with it. Eyal works from home with his wife, Julie, and he says she wears a light-up crown (apparently a steal on Amazon) when she’s doing concentrated work. It’s called her “concentration crown,” and it cuts down on Eyal distracting her when she’s in the zone.
4. Question a Distraction’s Benefit
Just as we have “internal triggers,” we also have “external triggers” that push us into distractions—they’re the ba dings of a new text message or the email notification popping up on our browser.
Eyal says if an external trigger leads us to traction—aka moves us forward—that’s great. But if it distracts us, that’s when we have to question it.
Next time you get distracted by an external trigger, ask yourself: Is this distraction serving me, or am I serving it?
Is this distraction serving me, or am I serving it?
If it’s a tweet that gets you inspired, then it’s serving you. But if it’s a message that promotes anxiety or takes you down a deep rabbit hole with no clear end in sight, you might be serving it.
5. Make It Difficult to Get Distracted
One tool that helps Eyal is making a pact with himself to not get distracted—and setting up his environment to help him accomplish that goal.
He uses free apps like SelfControl and Forest to block social media sites or freeze his phone when he needs to focus. These tools keep him honest, and they actually prevent him from going back on his word.
He also cleans up his computer and phone to be less distraction-inducing.
Consider how you might be enabling distractions. A perfect storm for distraction might look something like this:
●︎ Push notifications enabled around the clock
●︎ Little red alert dots across your smartphone
●︎ Distracting sites constantly displayed on your bookmarks bar
●︎ Your email or Slack channel in a permanent window on your screen
Turn off or hide as many external triggers as you can to make it harder to get distracted.
6. Practice Self-Compassion When You Fail
“We all inevitably fail on the path to becoming indistractable,” Eyal says.
Instead of shaming ourselves when we get distracted, we’re actually more likely to become indistractable if we treat ourselves with compassion. “Studies have shown us that people who are more self-compassionate are more likely to reach their long-term goals,” Eyal says.
If you find yourself on Facebook or Instagram when your calendar clearly says you should “Prep for meeting,” don’t beat yourself up. Try talking to yourself like a friend and gently easing yourself back to focus.
And, if it helps, know that humans have struggled with distraction since the days of Socrates and Plato, about 2500 years ago. The two coined a term “akrasia,” which Eyal says is the “tendency all of us have to do things against our better judgment.”
Humans have struggled with distraction since the days of Socrates and Plato.
Sure, Plato and Socrates weren’t, say, sneaking a Tinder session in during a meeting, but they apparently dealt with their own distractions in ancient Greece, too.
“The fact that people have been struggling with distraction for that long should give us some solace,” Eyal says. “This is not a new problem.”
Distractions and interruptions happen, but with compassion and Eyal’s tips at our fingertips, hopefully it can happen on a lesser scale, maybe derailing a few minutes of our time rather than a few hours.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve earned a few minutes on Facebook to stalk a high school friend’s wedding—but then, I’m blocking the site for the rest of the day.