Our days are filled with distractions and noise. So whatever our other skills, we must hone our ability to focus better – or as best-selling author Nir Eyal puts it, become indistractable.
“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,’” he writes in his book Indistractable.
The notion of distraction is routinely tied these days to our smart phones and the influence of social media. But he takes a broader tack since we can be distracted in many other ways, notably our own mind. He relates how he tried to sharpen his focus by buying a 1990 word processor without an online connection yet still found himself easily finding distractions unrelated to his work.
He divides our days into two categories: traction and distraction. Distraction impedes us from making progress towards the life we seek. Traction – from the Latin trahere, “to draw or pull” – takes us towards what we want in life.
How much of your day is traction? How much of your day is distraction?
To increase the former you can try – you probably already are – various productivity hacks. But he suggests digging deeper. If traction takes us towards what we want in life, we need to consider what it is we want – and that extends beyond the day’s to-do list, which could be diversions from bigger goals. “Instead of starting with what we’re going to do, we should begin with why we’re going to do it. And to do that, we must begin with values,” he says.
That can help deflect the external triggers that pull you away from intentions, taking you from traction to distraction. Specifically, focus on how you allocate your time in three key life domains: you, your relationships, and your work. He stresses that although some values carry over into all facets of our life, most are specific to one area. You want to be a contributing member of your team at work. But you also want to be a loving spouse or parent. And you may be intent on being physically fit or keep active in a hobby or community group. The trouble is we don’t make room for our values and can easily spend too much of our time in one area of our life.
Determine your values and then start scheduling your time – beginning with your own needs – to achieve your intentions. “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 intend to spend time with your family or work on a presentation,” he notes.
Something that will be hard – but that he insists is essential – is to schedule time for yourself first. “You are at the center of the three life domains. Without allocating time for yourself, the other two domains suffer,” he notes. Next, schedule important relationships. He plans a special date with his wife twice a month. Finding he was being distracted by unexpected events in other parts of life and not spending enough time with his daughter, he blocked out time in his schedule every week to be with her. To make good use of that time, they spent one afternoon writing down over a hundred things to do together in town, each one on a little strip of paper. Those went into a “fun jar,” and every Friday afternoon, they pull out something to do from it.
As well as taking time to schedule around values, once a week spend 15 minutes reflecting on how you can get more traction in the days ahead. Ask when in your schedule you did what you said you would and when you got distracted. Then figure out what changes you can make to your calendar to better live your values – to be more indistractable.
Joe McCormack, managing director of the BRIEF lab, an organization dedicated to teaching professionals how to think and communicate clearly, shares sobering imagery in his book Noise: our minds are like spinning beach balls. By that, he means the spinning icon on a computer that indicates the processor is running, but not much is happening.
Originally he was going to call his book In One Ear and Out the Other. That relates to a notion he calls the “Elusive 600”: research showing our brain processes about 700 words per minute but the average person speaks or reads 150 words per minute. So your brain over-processes as it looks for something to fill that 600-word gap. We might think about how vital this person’s comments are and listen intently. Or we might start to think about plans for lunch. We might tune out.
He says the Elusive 600 can be a blessing or a curse. “It’s as if you are having an ongoing conversation with your brain. When it goes unchecked, the Elusive 600 is like letting a squirrel free in your attic. It runs around, wreaking havoc. You have to capture and control it,” he writes.
That requires awareness management – mindfulness. He urges you to keep things simple: understand what is essential and focus on that. Don’t fear missing out. He urges you to take a silent retreat, allowing some peace and serenity to define what matters for you. (And book the retreat time now, he says, rather than putting it off.) Try more consistently to write things down as they come up – tasks, ideas, and other people’s comments – so they are captured rather than roaming around in your brain and in a position to be evaluated for importance. Make your friends, family and colleagues aware of your intention to simplify and focus on the essential – as he put it, “make a private, then a public pact.”
Learn to listen better. Journalists, therapists and interrogators are professional listeners. They aren’t just listening to someone, he points out, but listening for something. “The distinction is important because they listen with pointed purpose and deep interest,” he observes.
Eyal also shares many practical tips after making his point on values. They include:
- Place a card on your computer monitor or door to indicate when you don’t want to be distracted, explaining the reasons to colleagues. But as with McCormack, he suggests you talk with colleagues first about this, explaining your purpose and suggesting they may want to do the same. His wife bought a headband on Amazon that she calls her “concentration crown” that lights up with LEDs, signalling “please don’t interrupt.” Perhaps too outré for a government office – or maybe a trendsetter.
- Checking email is not a problem. It’s the compulsive re-checking. Curb that.
- Only touch an email twice. The first time you open one, tag it by when it needs to be responded to – “today” or “this week.” Only respond immediately to super-urgent messages.
- Slow down the email cycle by delaying your message’s delivery.
- Work to change meeting culture so they aren’t held to help colleagues avoid solving a problem for themselves. Insist that any call for a meeting include a proposed action, with the meeting intended to gain consensus.
- Rearrange your smartphone apps to follow the prescription from Tony Stubblebine, editor of Better Humans: first you should see primary work tools, then aspirations like meditation apps or books to read, and finally the slot machine apps you get lost in like email and Facebook. Better yet, eliminate many of the latter and only use them in scheduled sessions on your desktop.
Distractions and noise aren’t going away. You won’t defeat them, but the ideas in these books will help defend yourself better.