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Indistractable: How to overcome the distractions of modern technology

The author of a guide to designing addictive technology has turned his attention to reclaiming the ability to focus.

In 2013, Nir Eyal wrote the bestselling Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, which explains how to design addictive technology. Now, he has written a book about how to develop the superpower of immunity from distraction.

Indistractable is an engaging, practical and unexpectedly heartening guide to reclaiming your ability to focus. Eyal is an optimistic technophile and my instinctive reaction is that he lets technology off too lightly for its role in annihilating our attention spans. He says technology overuse and the resultant distraction are a symptom of dysfunctional work, school and home cultures, not a cause. Really? But he’s the Stanford University lecturer on applied consumer psychology presenting 250 pages of well-researched discussion, not me. He also has solutions.

His first insight is that distraction is our brain trying to avoid pain. Dissatisfaction and discomfort dominate our brain’s default state and we strive to avoid them. Recognising pain and rising above it is the first step to becoming indistractable. Here, Eyal refers to a technique called acceptance and commitment therapy, which disarms the discomfort by “stepping back, noticing, observing and finally letting the desire [to give in to a distraction] disappear naturally”. He also talks about waiting 10 minutes, surfing urges and recognising triggers – techniques used in substance-addiction therapy that “can help control cravings for distraction”.

Some myths are debunked: Mary Poppins was wrong with her spoonful of sugar. Instead of masking or avoiding pain, you should reimagine a hard or boring task as fun: “The idea is to pay such close attention that you find new challenges you didn’t see before.” Eyal quotes computing professor Ian Bogost, who urges us to “pay close, foolish, even absurd attention to things”. He practises “finding the fun” to keep focused.

Another myth is that self-control is limited (“ego depletion”, it was called). Instead, it’s all in the mind: people who didn’t see willpower as a finite resource weren’t found to be ego-depleted. Similarly, childhood “sugar highs” and a distinct “teenage brain” are myths, too.

Instead of to-do lists, Eyal recommends “time boxing”. “If we don’t plan our day,” he says, “someone else will.” The good thing about time boxing (allotting a set amount of time to activities each day) is that success is doing what you planned. You can watch a timetabled hour of YouTube cat videos and still be a winner.

The more we respond to triggers, the more we train our brain in a stimulus/response loop. Hello phone notifications. But it’s not enough to ignore your phone; its mere presence is a brain drain. Keep it out of view. Eyal provides plenty of such hacks and prescribes numerous apps to control your technology. My favourite hack, though, comes from author Jonathan Franzen, who plugged his internet cable with glue, then sawed off its end.

INDISTRACTABLE, by Nir Eyal (Bloomsbury, $33)

This article was first published in the November 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.