Heidi Cohen Interviews Nir Eyal
Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
Heidi Cohen: What inspired you to dive into this topic of “lack of focus”?
I was surprised that you reference research on lack of attention dating back to the early 1970s, pre-dating PCs by a decade.
Nir Eyal: To be honest, I was trying to solve my own problem. I noticed it most powerfully when I was with my daughter. She asked me to do something, and I told to hold on a second because I had to check something on my phone.
It hit me that I was allowing myself to become distracted by some insignificant email—and that it was pulling me away from one of my most significant relationships. That’s when I set out on a quest to figure out how to defeat distraction once and for all.
Heidi: Related to this question:
What is your perspective on the research about humans having the attention span of a goldfish? ( While this is an unattributed claim not based on any actual research, it is associated with Microsoft Canada research. I explain it in Audience Attention.)
Nir: I think that’s a useful image, but I also don’t want people to feel like it forecloses the possibility that you can improve your ability to pay attention and avoid distractions. Hopefully what people walk away with from the book is confidence that they can tackle this issue—and that the research can help them do that.
Heidi: Let’s discuss the issue of how we spend our time as humans and its importance. I love your reference to Seneca and the notion that “How we spend our time is how we live our lives.” It reminded me of the Harry Chapin song, “The Cat’s In The Cradle”.
As I read Indistractable, I wondered how come we aren’t more conscious about the value of the time each of us has especially when none of knows how much we have available?
Further each of us feels that we have time to waste whether it’s waiting for someone or something, turning to our devices (including TV) or avoiding other experiences. How come we don’t learn to use it better? To this end, do we need to change our language?
Nir: What became clear to me in my own struggles with distraction was that, if I could figure out a fix, then the value of each minute of my time would go up. Because I’d be using each minute in a focused way, it felt like a force multiplier for my life. And just to be clear, that doesn’t mean every minute has to be focused on knocking an item off my to-do list.
I schedule time for “social media”—and all it means is that, during those periods, I’m not distracted by other things. I think the less distracted you can become, the more value each moment of your life has. And then you also learn to appreciate how to use and deploy that time better, in whatever you want.
Heidi: I felt that Indistractable was the user-manual I needed to understand how to implement the theory in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and the strategy laid out by Cal Newport in Deep Work. What do you think of that assessment? If you disagree, would you please expound on that?
NIR: That’s quite the endorsement! At the heart of it, I wrote the book because I was trying to solve my problems with distraction. And at the end of that journey, I realized that what I had learned could help others too. So if it is a book that you read and then take action on, I’m thrilled, because that’s what I set out to do.
Heidi: Let’s dive into the specifics a bit more – Time-Boxing
While Cal Newport discusses this approach in Deep Work, I’ve found it VERY difficult to put into use. I make schedules with time blocks but I don’t understand how to breakdown big amorphous projects like writing a book. In part, I don’t get how to define it upfront so that it can be broken into manageable chunks. How do I even start to do time-boxing so that my Monday (for example) doesn’t look like this?
|9:00am – 12:00pm||Write article on sustainable content marketing|
|12:00pm – 12:30pm||Break|
|12:30pm – 1:30pm||Answer email/respond to social media|
|1:45pm – 3:15pm||Continue article on sustainable content marketing|
|4:00pm – 6:00pm||Continue article on sustainable content marketing|
Would you go a bit deeper into how readers can use time boxing for open ended projects such as writing a book or other creative pursuits?
NIR: I think time-boxing is crucial because it allows you to make time for “traction”—the opposite of “distraction.” Using a time-boxed schedule is both effective and it’s a way of knowing when and if you’re distracted. If you aren’t doing what you said you would, you’re distracted—but listing what you say you’re going to do is the first step.
What I recommend and what I’ve done myself is to take some time to map out how much time I want to spend in each area of my life—work on myself, time with friends, time with family, etc. And I’ve created a template you can use to do just that (https://nirandfar.com/schedule-maker/.)
It’s also important to take some time each week (15 minutes) to review and reflect on your time-boxed calendar. Ask yourself: did I do what I said? And then: are there things I could change or alter that would help me better live out my values? Think of each week as an experiment, and think of these sessions as time when you see if the tests worked.
Heidi: Writing and Creative Projects
As someone who spends a lot of time writing and developing strategies for work, I find it difficult to time-box my “deep work” like writing. Also, if I don’t write first thing in the morning or when the inspiration strikes, the process feels like I’m walking in the desert without landmarks or borders. Even worse, the work time just continues to expand and expand. What do you recommend that I do since based on my teaching experience, I know that my readers face the same challenges?
NIR: I think the process begins a bit deeper. For me, what worked was getting a real handle on why I was getting distracted in the first place. I knew that if I started with the tactics (like setting up my schedule or eliminating technology), then I’d just find other ways to distract myself.
So I focused on what I call “mastering internal triggers”—what discomfort was I trying to avoid using the distraction of social media or my phone? Then I was able to manage those distractions and build my work habits around them. But if I were in your shoes, I’d think hard about what works for you in the morning (what internal triggers do you feel work in your favor?) and why it feels harder later on (what internal cues are you getting that distract you?) That’s the first and arguably the most important step.
Heidi: Work Breaks
How should readers integrate taking breaks? For example, when I get into deep focus, I can sit at my computer for several hours. Yet I know that the research shows that this is bad for both my mind and body.
NIR: I think the breaks question is important in context: as long as a break is something you plan for and is consistent with the values you have for your work, go for it. I take breaks. But what I make sure of is that my breaks are not interruptions—I’ve chosen a chunk of time to allow my brain to breathe. It’s not some external force that led to a tear in my schedule—I chose. That’s the key: making sure that even your breaks are choices you’ve made, not forced on you by external triggers.
I identified with your comments in Indistractable regarding fooling yourself into thinking you’re doing “research” when you’re really avoiding working. How do you recommend that readers manage to do research, especially when they need it without going too far astray?
NIR: Schedule it. And then schedule the actual work. Here’s what I mean. There are projects I’ve worked on that require research and require writing. So if I take a step back and think about the internal triggers, I might feel thrilled about the research and nervous about the writing. At that point, I ask myself why I’m fearful about the writing, and I get to the root causes of why I might end up doing more research than “work” or “writing.”
In the book, I outline some strategies to deal with what might come up for when you do this kind of reflection. Tools like new labeling, self-compassion, and changing some limiting beliefs can make a big difference. And they can help you avoid the trap of not working when you should be working.
Heidi: Work Space
Since many people work remotely and may not have the luxury of a separate office or room, what do you recommend they do to reduce distractions? This brings to mind memories of my mother studying for her Masters and spreading her books, notes and typewriter on the dining room table after dinner.
NIR: I wrote a whole chapter titled “Hack Back Work Interruptions” for just this problem. I won’t sugar coat this: I think open office floor plans are a problem. But if you can’t avoid them entirely, get creative about dealing with the distractions they bring. The hard cover copy of the book includes a little piece of cardstock that has the words “I NEED TO FOCUS RIGHT NOW, BUT PLEASE COME BACK SOON” on it. That way, even passersby know that you’re in the zone, and you need to focus. It might make you feel a bit awkward using it at first, but I can’t tell you the difference it’s made for me.
Heidi: Writing Tools – Tech or Non-Tech
Recently I read an Austin Kleon post where he spoke about writing by hand to slow your mind down as you write. When I started doing this, I found that it helps me to avoid digital rabbit holes. Does your research or work show that using digital devices changes or reduces our creativity? What do you use for different aspects of the process of creation?
NIR: I think that all the focus on the devices themselves puts the attention on the wrong problem. When I was researching this book, I came in with the view that the tech was the issue. So I gave it up, in different ways. I got a manual word processor. I tried different phones. And then I found myself gravitating to my bookshelf as a way of avoiding the work I was supposed to be doing.
I replaced a high-tech distraction (my phone) with a low-tech distraction (my books). I don’t think we can say that digital devices enhance or detract our creativity writ large. I love my devices. I wrote my book on a computer, and I’m glad I had it instead of a typewriter or parchment and quill. The issues about distraction are a level deeper than the technology that we perceive distracts us.
Heidi: Nurturing Our Inner Child
What do you recommend that readers do to nurture and/or give permission to their “inner child” such as the practice of writing morning pages as Juila Cameron recommends in The Artist Way. What are your special practices and tips?
In Indistractable, you discuss ways that parents can help their children learn to value and manage both time and device use. While I don’t have children, this made me I think about how I learned to study and later to work. To this point, how can students and adults learn or more likely re-learn more effective time management and related device management?
Further, how do we re-learn how to set boundaries for work, relationships, exercise, health, spirituality and other aspects of a healthy life?
NIR: This is such an important question. The way I think about it is the following: you have to turn your values into time. You have to create a schedule that’s not oriented around your daily to-do list, but is instead focused on the things you value most. That could be family, friends, work, anything. But the point is to create a schedule that is married to these domains—to the things you say you don’t want to be distracted from.
I also recommend eliminating all white space on your calendar, so all you’re left with is a clear template for how you want to spend each day. That doesn’t mean you don’t rest—it just means that “Rest” appears as a slot on the calendar. Then you can review and ask yourself, did I do what I said I would do today? That’s a good place to start, and a great way to set boundaries and learn what works and doesn’t for you.
Heidi: What are 1-3 books that inspired your work/career? How did they influence you? Your selections can cover any topic.
- Moby Dick – Quintessential novel about obsession and the drive towards distractions.
- Factfulness – A great reality check on what’s really going on in the world.
- Lost Connections – Uncovers the real causes of addictions.
Heidi: What’s something unusual or fun that most people don’t know about you?
NIR: I’m a barefoot runner. I was inspired by the book Born To Run, and I found that running with no or minimalist footwear helped me and made running so much more fun.
- Name: Nir Eyal
- Blog: NirAndFar.com
- Books: Hooked and Indistractable
- Twitter: @nireyal
- LinkedIn: nireyal
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