Importance and Practice of being Indistractable

Importance and Practice of being Indistractable

Importance and Practice of being Indistractable

A quick survey among my colleagues to discuss how focused they are at work and what distracts them listed the following sources of distractions.  

  • Mobile phones 
  • Cricket/election score/covid Score 
  • Spouse’s phone (Add: Friends, Kids).  
  • Colleagues / Managers / Customers / Vendors 
  • Social Media 
  • Emails 
  • Too many open screens or windows!
  • Past event / Future event/daydreaming

It was also agreed by most that distraction is one of the biggest problems we are facing today, and it is leading to lower-quality output. It is also spoiling the quality of our relationships with our near and dear ones. Do you recall when you missed an important announcement in a meeting when you were glancing at your Facebook feed or when you missed the excitement on the face of your kid after a big achievement as you were busy checking emails on your handset? If yes,  you are suffering from the problem of distraction.  

To understand this problem and its solutions, we will take the help of 2 authors and who have written extensively on the subject. We will use concepts from 4 books written by them.  

Author 1) Cal Newport

 

Author 2) NIR EYAL

 

These four books cover most of the theory and practice of leading a distraction-free life.  

  • Deep work details the importance of focused work and the benefits of it.  
  • Hooked is about the strategies employed by social media platforms to hook us.
  • Indistractable and Digital Minimalism are easy-to-read books, that offer several tricks to focus on deep work in real life.  

Let’s review these books in brief and evaluate some strategies and hacks to reduce/manage distraction in our work / personal lives.  

While reviewing these books, we will also see how we can lead a much happier and healthier life by reducing distractions around us. 

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

The book focuses on the importance of deep work for professionals working in technology, R&D,  writing, design, engineering, and research domains. These and many more work domains need extensive knowledge and focus. The core concept of the book is: 

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Cal Newport emphasizes that to produce high-quality work, we need intense focus, and that focus can only come by eliminating distractions around us. He calls it deep work!  

Some key quotes from the book are appended below.  

“To remain valuable in our economy, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.”.  

“Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.”.  

He goes on to highlight that there are two core abilities for flourishing in the new economy:  

  • The ability to quickly master hard
  • The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

“To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.”

To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy.

Ability to get bored: 

He writes and I quote,  

“I’m comfortable being bored, and this can be a surprisingly rewarding skill”. 

To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable. 

Willpower:

In yet another area, he writes about willpower. I reproduced some text on willpower from the  book,  

“You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. Your will, in other words, is like a muscle that tires.”.  

“Willpower is limited, and therefore, the more enticing tools you have pulling at your attention, the harder it’ll be to maintain focus on something important.”.  

“Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it.” 

He says, that if you are constantly getting notifications on your cell phones, or are surrounded by any other distraction, then it will be nearly impossible for you to hold back for long. Once your willpower gets depleted, you will give in and get distracted. 

Plan and Commitment

He also covers the importance of plan and commitment in this book A few quotes from this section,  

“Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate the attainment of the  goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits.”  

“Hard but important intellectual work needs to be batched into long, uninterrupted stretches.”. 

“Without structure, it’s easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow—e-mail, social media, Web surfing. This type of shallow behavior, though satisfying at the moment, is not conducive to creativity.”. 

“The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits”. 

What we have discussed so far is the meaning and importance of deep work. However, to do deep work is easier said than done. Distraction is all around us, and eliminating it from modern life is not easy. We will now take the help of the other two books, ‘Indistractable’ and ‘Digital  Minimalism’, to get some practical tips and hacks to achieve deep work. However, before going there, let’s quickly review one more book – ‘Hooked’. 

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

This book is one of the best sellers and is written for product managers, entrepreneurs, and marketers. Books talk about how to get customers hooked on your product or service. While the book is excellent, why am I discussing it here? 

Well, if we understand most things that distract us today, social media, emails, video games,  web surfing, etc., are all new-age products. With the help of some concepts covered in this book, we will understand how these new-age products, especially social media and games, are designed to get us hooked and are causing huge distractions around us. While these habits are mentally satisfying, they are taking us away from ‘Deep Work’ and from our ability to learn new skills.  

Some quotes from the book Hooked,  

“A habit is when not doing an action causes a bit of pain.”. (When not checking your email or social media feed for a few hours starts to cause emotional pain, you are addicted.).  

“Reducing the thinking required to take the next action increases the likelihood of the desired behavior occurring unconsciously.” (Recall when you unconsciously reached out to your phone in the middle of an important meeting or work.).  

“Emotions, particularly negative ones, are powerful internal triggers and greatly influence our daily routines. Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation.” (mindless web surfing or playing games to kill boredom)? You are hooked.  

“To hold our attention, products must have an ongoing degree of novelty.” (Now you know why your social media feed is different each time you log in to Facebook or Instagram.)  

Most social media platforms/games are designed around the concept of variable rewards.  These rewards come in three types: the tribe, the hunt, and the self.

 

  • We have a social obligation to answer our emails (the tribe). 
  •  We are also conditioned to know that an email (or a social media feed), may tell us information about a potential business opportunity (the hunt). 
  • Finally, our email seems to call for us to complete the task of removing the unopened item notification in a sort of challenge to gain control over it (the self).

Interestingly, these motivations go away as soon as we’ve opened all our emails and the mystery disappears. We’re addicted to checking email while there is still variability of reward and once that’s gone, emails languish in our inboxes.

One Mr. B.F. Skinner did some experiments on animals over 50 years ago and discovered that variable rewards are a powerful inducement to create compulsions. Today, technology companies are creating new habits by continuously cycling users through the Hook Model— and variable rewards fuel the chain reaction.

So, by now, we have learned the value of deep work and also that we are surrounded by products that are designed to get us hooked and take us away from deep work.  

It’s all deep psychological research on human behavior that is used by these new-age companies to keep us hooked. While these businesses are huge wealth creators for their founders and investors, we, the users, are victims of habit-forming products that keep us away from high-quality work and learning opportunities.  

Let’s now look at some practical tips on how to solve the problem:

Indistractable

NIR Eyal’s opening remarks in this book: 

“For over a decade, I’ve helped tech companies build products to keep you clicking. I wrote Hooked for companies that wanted to help their customers build healthy habits, like going to the gym regularly and eating right.  

But in the process of researching the book, I found that some products drew some people in  too much, including me.” 

This opening remark says it all. The author confesses that some businesses have gone too far and have made an entire generation distracted and shallow.  

Core Concept

Distraction is opposite of traction.

Simple, isn’t it? Anything that takes us away from what we want is a distraction. Let’s take an  example: 

11 AM At Work: You are about to finish a critical task at hand and get a text message from your dear friend or spouse, planning a dinner date. This is a distraction from what you want to achieve at that time.  

8 PM, on dinner date: You are enjoying a romantic dinner with your partner and get frenetic text messages/calls from your office colleagues who have just figured out a bug in the task that you completed earlier in the day. 

So, what is traction at 11 AM becomes a distraction at 8, and vice versa. Also, you might have noticed from this example that allowing distraction at work may lead to distraction during pleasure time. 

The indistractable book recommends a four-part process to manage distraction! Let’s review them. 

Master Internal Triggers

‘Solely blaming a smartphone for causing distraction is just as flawed as blaming a pedometer for making someone climb too many stairs’ 

Before we blame external triggers, we have to master our internal triggers. Based on my own experience, mastering internal triggers is the hardest part of being indistractable.  

According to the author, we get the urge to distract from the task at hand due to discomfort from our current state. He writes,

“Even when we think we’re seeking pleasure, we’re driven by the desire to free ourselves from the pain of wanting.”

He then reviews four psychological factors causing dissatisfaction (or discomfort) in us:  

  • Boredom 
  • Negativity Bias 
  • Rumination 
  • Hedonic Adaptation 

If we want to master distraction, we must learn to deal with discomfort. He suggested a two-step process to manage internal triggers.

 

  1. Reimagine the internal trigger:

Reimagine the task

“Fun is looking for variability in something other people don’t notice. It’s breaking through  the boredom and monotony to discover its hidden beauty!” 

He is suggesting finding fun and variability in the task at hand, however boring or repetitive it is. Find new patterns, new symbols, and some variability in the work. That will help kill the boredom. 

“Unless we know what, we want to achieve at this hour, we can’t differentiate between traction and distraction. You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it is  distracting you from!” 

To make time for traction, we need to “Time-Box” our day. Just like how many of us used to have a school timetable in our childhood. Schedule every minute of your day. Once a task is on your calendar, you will know if your current work is traction or distraction.  

Once you have time-boxed your day by blocking your calendar, please ponder if your calendar reflects your values. (For example, if you are in design and 50%+ of your time is spent on planning and scheduling-related work, is it consistent with your values?).  

As you develop the habit of time-boxing your day, continue to reflect and keep refining your schedule to be consistent with your values! 

External Triggers.

Having understood our internal triggers and made time for traction, we now need to learn to manage external triggers. As our willpower is limited, these triggers can derail our best plans.  

‘Today, much of our struggle with distraction is our struggle with external triggers’

External triggers can rip us away from the task we planned to carry out at that time.  Researchers have found that when people are interrupted during a task, they tend to make up for lost time by working faster, but the cost is a higher level of stress and frustration.  

Research:  

  • Receiving a cell phone notification but not responding to it was just as distracting as responding to a message or a call. (Journal of Experimental Psychology ).  
  • The mere presence of one’s smartphone may impose a “brain Ddrain (University of  Texas).  

Not all external triggers are harmful, and not all external triggers can be turned off. 

Question: Is this trigger serving me, or am I serving it? 

Switch off notifications, if you are serving triggers!

Let’s see how we can manage some interruptions:

Hack Back Work Interruptions

We all work in an open office setup where it is very difficult to lock yourself in a private room.  The author suggests that you use a card (or something similar) to convey to colleagues that you are distractable at this time.  

Whenever you have to achieve something that needs deep work, put this card on your workstation and let people know that you should not be disturbed when this sign is displayed.  

Hack Back Email 

This is easy. There are multiple ways to manage this: 

Schedule – Sync time! 

Download intermittently and go offline! 

Think if you need to reply immediately.  

Can you talk rather than exchange 5 emails on a simple topic? 

Hack Back your Smart Phone 

  • Remove
  • Replace
  • Rearrange
  • Reclaim

Some Examples,

  • My colleague, Ritesh, has two different mobile phones, one each for personal and official use. He keeps his phone in the car and checks it only during lunch breaks and after office hours. In short, he leaves all non-official distractions in the car itself.  
  • While I am not as strict as Ritesh, I don’t have any social media apps on my phone and have muted almost all notifications on my handset. I also prefer to keep my phone away from me in important meetings. (either inside my bag or just outside the meeting room).  
  • Distraction while driving could be fatal. Therefore, I ensure that my handset is in drive mode while I am driving. Drive Mode stops all but permitted notifications on my phone. The permission for drive mode is different from the standard notification setting on the phone. On iOS devices, drive mode can be set to be enabled automatically when the phone gets connected to the car’s multimedia system. 
  • I also use screen time to limit the usage of each app and have defined limits to how much time I am allowed to use each app.  
  • Lastly, my phone settings are enabled to automatically switch off all notifications and disable most apps from 10 PM until 06:30 AM. I have a few exceptions in the setting to ensure that any urgent or important call doesn’t go unanswered. Rest assured, everything gets blocked automatically.  

Hack Back your Desktop

How may files on your desktop?

Do you have all your files on your desktop? Files that are not currently needed should be stored in proper folders. Additionally, you can arrange files that are pending some action from you before being filed away, as below,  

Urgent and Important

Not urgent but important

 

Urgent but not important

Not urgent and not important
Or

Due urgent
Due this week
Due next week

Other Tools

I also use Self Control App on my laptop and have installed a Chrome extension called ‘Stay Focused’ on my browser. These apps make select websites un-available for specified duration. I normally enable these apps when I have to do Deep Work. After enabling them even if I get strong urge to check my social media feed, news or stock prices, I can’t! I get blocked completely.

More tools and tricks are available at the links given at the bottom of this document. 

If the above hacks and tricks don’t work for you, then get into pacts with your friends, colleagues, or family and pay a penalty for each violation. This is an old hack and works for most!  

To conclude, we are not arguing that one gives up the latest in technology and goes back to old ways of doing work. We should embrace the latest technologies to gain efficiency and remain connected in this digitalized world. Emails, / Social Media / Smart Phones, etc. will all remain an integral part of our work and personal lives.  

We need to accept that there are distractions around us, and our connected lives are only amplifying these distractions. While we can’t eliminate them, by managing these distractions, we can reclaim our time from doing shallow work to doing deep work. 

Finally let’s recall that:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

High-quality work needs intense focus, and that can only be achieved by mastering our internal triggers and managing external triggers.  

Indistractble is therefore the art of living in the moment and getting intensely focused on work (or pleasure) at that moment. 

Hope you enjoyed reading this article. I do hope that you are already following an  Indistractable life; however, if you feel that there are areas for improvement, please explore the above tricks and also explore the additional resources listed below.  

Further Reading:

https://www.nirandfar.com/skill-of-the-future/

https://betterhumans.pub/how-to-set-up-your-iphone-for-productivity-focus-and-your- own-longevity-bb27a68cc3d8

Link to some of the tools discussed in this article:

http://selfcontrolapp.com

https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/stayfocusd/laankejkbhbdhmipfmgcngdelahlfoj i

Above tools surely work on Apple devices. However please check compatibility with your OS. Most OEMs (Apple, Windows, Google) have now started to bundle these apps in their main OS itself. Check for settings on your device and enable your indistractable life.

Thank you!

–     Ashish

[email protected]

Category: Personal Development
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