Preface: The impetus for this article (and if I’m being honest, the reason I read the book in the first place) comes from one of my favorite newsletters of late, 1729, which pays out readers in crypto (like me) to accomplish tasks (like this one.)
“It’s due in 52 minutes.”
“Well, how many words do you have written?” I asked my client through my Airpods, walking through New York’s East Village on the way to a coffee shop to get my own writing done. My 17-year-old fitness client asked me frantically for help with his school paper. (When you do fitness coaching for adolescents, it really turns into everything coaching.)
“Dude, I have nothing,” he replied.
“I told you to set aside time last night.”
“I know. But I don’t know… the night just slipped away from me.”
Upon further interrogation, I found out that during the time he should have been writing his paper he spent a combined 47 on TikTok and Instagram. The Arnold Palmer of distractions.
As a human being in the 21st century, I won’t scoff at my client for this. While I do find I’m generally well put together in terms of productivity, I go through Youtube, Instagram, and Bumble (my preferred dating app, and a story for another day), at inappropriate times to the chagrin of my work.
From myself to my clients, staying off our phones remains a consistent challenge of everyday life. I often begin my pitch to clients to limit phone usage before bed for the purposes of helping them sleep better and therefore recover from their sports and workouts.
Almost invariably, this leads to a discussion of productivity and phone usage, which explains why they struggle to complete the work which they claim to be most important to them. For me and for them, this was a book I hoped to take away concrete strategies from. As Nir Eyal states in the introduction of the book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, “if you are not equipped to manage distraction, your brain will be manipulated by time-wasting diversions” (2).
While a full critique of this book would require my snobbish, New York elitist look at why many of his anecdotes are unengaging and his rhetoric fallible and unconvincing at times (like chapter 3 on motivation), that’s not what this category of nonfiction book gets written for. It exists to uncover actionable steps and overarching concepts. On that front, Eyal comes through. Here are my tactical takeaways from Nir Eyal’s latest book, Indistractable.
Don’t Rely on Willpower
This is a subject I’ve written about previously within the context of helping people first make it to the gym and develop a habit. Eyal writes, “willpower ebbs and flows in response to what’s happening to us and how we feel” (47). In life, willpower and motivation inevitably wanes. To succeed, whether in going to gym or doing our work, we need systems in place so we succeed in spite of lapses. That, in the context of getting off our phones, requires specific tactics.
In her memoir My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff shares how her job as an assistant at J.D. Salinger’s literary agency often required answering calls from the reclusive writer himself. When he called, Salinger would ask Joanna if she was writing. “Writer’s write, Joanna. You’re a writer, aren’t you?”
Writing is often one of those tasks we find ourselves easily distracted from. Yet, all the greats have found the time to block out crucial writing time. Mirroring Salinger’s advice with his actions, Ernest Hemingway was known to be unapproachable in the mornings when he wrote, yet remarkably available in the afternoons. Great writers have perfected timeboxing and have guarded their writing time as sacred.
This is where I think Eyal’s timeboxing concept has the most application. What are your most important tasks? The ones that, if nothing else gets done, the day will still be a success? For me, that’s my 9:30am-10:30am writing block.
Timeboxing is blocking out that specific time for that specific task.
There’s also another place where I’ve found timeboxing critical: your least enthusiastic task. In the last year, I have blocked out my writing time in the mornings. Yet, I found myself putting the boring but necessary work.
This often included freelance email writing, and editing podcasts (the bane of my existence) which, without specific times dedicated to them, I would find every excuse to put off.
Another benefit to Timeboxing, especially the uninteresting tasks, is it supports Pareto’s Principle, which was popularized in The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. The amount of time a task takes swells in proportion to how much time we have for it. By timeboxing, I encouraged myself to finish tasks within the box, rather than allowing them to stretch into all-day ventures.
Fundamentally, however, I think Eyal overuses the timeboxing concept. He writes, “The goal is to eliminate all white space on your calendar so you’re left with a template for how you intend to spend your time each time.” I think this inversely. I use timeboxing to preserve my white space.
Living by a calendar life won’t work for some people. I can’t schedule “down time.” I’ll just take my downtime when the calendar is open. I don’t “schedule important relationships” as Eyal suggests. My default is doing the things I want to do, like spending time with my favorite people.
In some ways this is a distinction of preference and personality, and in practical application makes no difference. Personally, when I’ve been less concerned about time most of my day, then life is more relaxed and enjoyable. I can breathe, smell the flowers, head to the park and enjoy my book because there’s nothing that needs to be done at that moment.
Also, in my experience timeboxing loses power the more I use it. If I have five, 1-hour timeboxes, they’re not going to feel like the sprints where I can tune everything else out. If I have two, I’m much more likely to actually stick to them and do my best work.
Do Not Disturb as Default
Eyal recommends keeping the do not disturb setting on your phone, which I’ve kept as my default for years. Notifications are one of the most difficult distractions to overcome. Even if you have the willpower to not look at the phone when the ping goes off, it pauses your flow, and leaves your thoughts lingering on what it might be. The solution is to get them out of our sight and earshot as much as possible.
At night, I have my phone on airplane mode through my morning workout until I finish my writing block, then I put it back on at night when I finish my day and pick up my book. Some days that’s as early as 9pm, other days, especially if I’m out, it’s later. I also have my phone charger away from my bed, so there’s no temptation for notifications around bedtime.
This helps everything from productivity to sleep, and I encourage (not so gently) all my clients to keep DND on.
Eyal recommend’s wearing a watch, a practice which I’ve adopted in the last year to limit pointless glances at my phone that end up in Instagram spirals.
During work, I’ve started keeping my phone out of reach. The challenges arise when I need my phone for a work thing, like sending a file via airdrop, or pulling up an article. I like Neil Strauss’s advice here, to, as ideas pop up, write them down on a separate notebook while you work to deal with after your writing period.
Email batching. We all learned about this from Tim Ferriss years ago. But what about Instagram stories? A justification I had been making for using instagram all the time is that I’ve curated my IG to only show me good content. A lot of learning breakthroughs and discoveries for me have come as a result of Instagram. But, as Eyal recommends, I can batch (and even schedule, but I won’t take it that far) Instagram use just like email. It’s okay to be present with Instagram and spend 10-15 minutes on it. The problem is constantly using it for a minute or two here and there, disrupting whatever flow you had on the task at hand.
“It’s for Mrs. Puff” Mr. Krabs yells to Spongebob to run to the store to grab a gift for his new crush in the season two episode “Krusty Love.” Yet, he also told Spongebob that, no matter what he says, to not spend his money. Eventually Spongebob caves in, Mr. Krabs yells at him, and the cycle repeats. It turns out, this is a failed version of a Ulysses Pact, “a freely made decision that is designed and intended to bind oneself in the future” (137), which Eyal recounts in one of his finer moments as a wordsmith in the book
This is why personal trainers have jobs, to be honest. It’s my job to keep my clients accountable for the things they said they want to do when their rational self was talking. Other pacts, like financial pacts, rely once again on the principle that we can’t rely on willpower: we have to set up our lives so it doesn’t matter.
One simple example of a pact is the Forest App, which Eyal recommends, and I immediately bought for $1.99. In the app, you set a timer, and if you use your phone for extraneous activities during that time, your virtual forest suffers for it. It’s simple, and not perfect, but it provides just enough extra motivation to prevent yourself from breaking your commitments.
Take a Growth Mindset
This is one of my key life philosophies. Learning how to limit distraction is a skill. Without this, Eyal’s book (or any personal development book) would have no place.
As you try to implement the above methods, feel free to do so systematically. In fitness coaching, this is one of the most common (and frustrating) things I see in the industry. People promise fast results and motivated trainees jump into training fives times a week. You should NOT train fives times a week until you’ve built the habit of going twice a week. It’s okay to taper into it and grow into the strategies.
For applying timeboxing, do not all of the sudden block off every second of your life. What’s the most important task? Start with that. Maybe it’s your workout. Maybe it’s your writing. Maybe it’s the school assignment you’re just putting off.
The same goes for phone use. Don’t download 14 productivity apps like Forest and Freedom at once. Try them one at a time and accept that growth and progress happens incrementally.
A moment where Eyal showed the power of a growth mindset at its finest comes with his identity concept. He quotes a study on voters saying, “those shown the survey about being a ‘voter’ were much more likely to vote than those who were asked how likely they were ‘to vote’” (156).
When we identify with something, we tend to adopt it. “To be” is a powerful verb, no matter how much your English teachers want you to get rid of it. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare (to be or not to be), it’s good enough for the rest of us.
I’ve played around with saying “I don’t browse through social media” or “I am not a person who wastes time on their phone.” By creating this identity, I notice already my relationship to these addictive apps shifting.
Identity pacts also help us with decision fatigue because it creates a categorical “no.” For example, I don’t drink on nights out. I never have to make a decision when friends invite me out whether I’m going to consume alcohol. I had made the one decision that eliminates one thousand. No indecision on my end, and a guarantee for the choice I know deep down I really wanted to make.
J.D. Salinger, I think, would agree with this impact. “You’re a writer, Joanna. Writer’s write.”
There are many more intellectual takeaways from me for this book. Yet, this review is already getting too long, which speaks to how, even if I didn’t agree with Eyal every step of the way, and I would modify some of his suggestions and frameworks, the book clearly spurred new thinking. In terms of a nonfiction book of this genre, that’s the best praise I can give it.
Final Thoughts on Indistractable
Eyal has done a nice job compiling a lot of strategies into a short, easy to read book. If nonfiction books like this one are an absolute bore for you like they are for me, I’d recommend grabbing it in audiobook format, or even just talking to somebody like me who has not only read the book, but immediately had the testing grounds (thank you, clients) to see what really works in the real world and what tweaks and expansions need to be applied for your specific situation.
As Tim Urban put brilliantly in his article on Wait But Why, we don’t have unlimited books to read. While I enjoyed this book and got a lot out of it, I wouldn’t tell everybody to go get it. Every book you choose to read has opportunity cost: the one you didn’t. Now, I’m an anomaly because I read most of the day and therefore read everything, but if you struggle to read and find it boring, this isn’t one that will particularly grab you. Although if you’re interested in this subject specifically, then definitely pick it up.
If productivity and phone usage is something you struggle with, and even if you know what to do but just can’t follow through on it, send me and Instagram DM to chat or read my coaching page to see how I could help you out in a more formal coaching settings (one with financial pact for you, which will make you more likely to follow through on these).