Don’t think about a pink elephant right now.
This never works. Similarly, if you want to avoid a distraction, using brute force might not work. Trying to not think about the distraction might just make the urge stronger.
Here’s what you can do instead.
The Indistractable Framework
Nir Eyal wrote Hooked, which explained how to build habit-forming products. The techniques described in Hooked are affecting your life in some way right now. Ever tapped a notification, refreshed a feed, or tried earning a badge?
You’re happy that you’re using some apps consistently. (The Five-Minute Journal app comes to mind for me.) The other like 95%, not so much.
Eyal recently released Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. It’s a great book about fighting against all the distractions in your life.
The framework in it has 4 parts:
- Internal triggers 🌟
- External triggers
You’ll want to make time for traction, remove distraction, recognize internal triggers, and hack away at external triggers.
I’ve starred internal triggers because I think that focus is what separates this book from other self-development books.
Why internal triggers?
It’s easy to see how having an infinite stream of photos and videos of friends a tap away can be distracting. It’s not as easy to recognize that you’re distracting yourself from some negative feeling.
It doesn’t have to be existential pain deep inside you. Often it’s just a slight discomfort that leads to distraction.
You can often trace distraction back to four psychological factors. From Indistractable:
“Boredom, negativity bias, and rumination can each prompt us to dis- traction. But a fourth factor may be the cruelest of all. Hedonic adapta- tion, the tendency to quickly return to a baseline level of satisfaction, no matter what happens to us in life, is Mother Nature’s bait and switch.”
But it’s probably just boredom.
1. Start with why (but don’t go too far up!)
When you feel the urge to dive into distraction, ask why. Maybe just once or twice. Finding your capital-Why is great, but you can save it for another day. Today, you’re just trying not to grab your phone.
And it’s really because you’re avoiding something. From Indistractable:
“A common problem I have while writing is the urge to google something. It’s easy to justify this bad habit as “doing research,” but deep down I know it’s often just a diversion from difficult work.”
I wrote some things down that were whispering to me while writing the outline for this post.
- Hey maybe I should order that bike pump (as if this can’t wait)
- Oh yeah the bike shop is open maybe I should just go there instead (as if it’s going to close while I’m writing)
- I should go grab a snack (this can wait also)
- Need to use the restroom (not really)
- Now’s a good time to check email (it’s almost never a good time)
While I made it to the end of my time block, during the break (supposed to be 5 minutes), I decided to take 20 minutes to dig through a bunch of junk to find batteries for an old camera. I didn’t want to use it today or anything.
At a certain point, I should’ve asked why I was looking for it, realized it could really wait, and got back to writing after my break.
2. Write it down (and make it concrete)
Writing down an urge allows you to capture it, give it some shape, and start asking it questions.
“Why are you pulling me away from my work?”
“Why am I talking to you.”
“Oh no you’re actually me.”
Reflecting on how you’re feeling in the moment might be new to you. Now’s the time to practice.
3. Spend time with sensations
If you write your urge down a few times, you’ll be better at recognizing the physical sensations tied to your thoughts. You can inject some logic and see how illogical it can be to give into a distraction right at that moment.
(For example, no I didn’t need to drop everything right at that moment to go to the bike shop.)
Even better, you cast a vote for yourself each time you capture and fight through an urge. If that same urge toward distraction comes up in the future, you’ll know that it will subside with some time.
4. Anticipate the urge and surf it
When you catch yourself doing something that will take “just a second”, consider how much time it’s actually going to take. Are you walking into a room and grabbing something, or are you walking into a room that has an infinite number of portals pulling you away?
One thing that’s stuck with me from reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work a few years ago is to try your best not to grab your phone when standing in line. Each time you do, you’re practicing being bored. (Read more about embracing boredom here.)
Standing in line is a liminal moment. There are plenty of others. From Indistractable:
Liminal moments are transitions from one thing to another throughout our days. Have you ever picked up your phone while waiting for a traffic light to change, then found yourself still looking at your phone while driv- ing? Or opened a tab in your web browser, got annoyed by how long it’s taking to load, and opened up another page while you waited? Or looked at a social media app while walking from one meeting to the next, only to keep scrolling when you got back to your desk?
If it has an endless feed, links to other articles, or previous items you might have left open, take 10 minutes before you open it up.
The harm comes in the consistency over time. It might truly be harmless to open it up in that moment. For that single time. But dozens of times a day, day after day adds up. You’ll condition yourself to never have a silent moment in your day. Any amount of boredom is unbearable.
If you’re working and you stop to think through a problem, you’ll be prone to just distract yourself with something else instead. Small lull in a conversation with a friend? You’re playing with your toddler and you remember something from work…?
Surf the urge. It’ll go away soon enough.
With some practice, you’ll be able to recognize and eliminate internal triggers (or at least minimize them just a little bit).
- Indistractable Framework: traction, distraction, internal triggers, external triggers
- Internal triggers are the step before the distraction
And the steps to reimagine your internal triggers
- Step back when you get distracted. Find out what the source is (boredom, shying away from work…)
- Write your distractions down to help recognize the feeling and to see patterns
- Spend time with the sensations to see how they progress and eventually go away
- Anticipate the urge and surf it. Learn where the liminal moments are through your day and make extra effort during these moments to apply the techniques
Now go off and be less distracted. And definitely don’t think about how great it’d be if you shared this post with a friend.