How to Limit Distraction

Illustration: Getty Images

When his then 6-year-old daughter asked him what superpower he would choose, Nir Eyal didn’t respond. His eyes were glued to his phone, and his daughter took that as a sign that he wasn’t interested in talking. If he had a chance to relive the moment, Eyal says, he knows what his superpower would be: the ability to be “indistractable.”

Of course, Eyal is not alone. Some 85 percent of U.S. smartphone owners say they check their device while in conversation with family or friends, while 94 percent of working adults report using their smartphone for personal reasons during work hours, according to Deloitte’s 2017 and 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Surveys, respectively.

As CEO of a social media advertising company, Eyal, MBA ’08, once specialized in motivating and manipulating users to stay hooked. His first book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, explored the intersection of user experience design and psychology. But Eyal eventually left his corporate position in order to use his knowledge in a different way. As a lecturer at the Graduate School of Business and at the d.School, and also as an author, Eyal began helping people control their use of technology and teaching companies to encourage healthy consumer behavior.

In his 2019 book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, Eyal provides readers with a model and techniques for being intentional with their time. His four-step method helps readers understand why they’re distracted, plan time for what’s important to them, align their use of technology with their goals and keep themselves accountable.

STANFORD: What was the inspiration behind Indistractable?

Eyal: It was very much a personal book. I was struggling with distraction myself, and I tried other books out there on this topic and they kind of all said the same thing: “Get rid of your technology. Technology is the problem. It’s all about the technology.” And I just found that to be very alarmist and not practical. We need this stuff. You get fired from your job if you don’t check email. Social media is amazing. My career is built on using these tools. And so, I don’t think it’s practical to just say, “Well, stop using it.” I wanted to figure out a way to use [these technologies] in a way that benefits me as opposed to feeling like I serve these tools. I wanted to dive deeper into why I really got distracted, because I would get distracted by reading a book or organizing my desk or taking out the trash when I was supposed to write. I would still find distractions that had nothing to do with technology.

In what aspect of your life has the indistractable model been most helpful?

Eyal: I think my relationship with my daughter. Let’s be honest, being with a child for prolonged periods of time is boring. So I would check my phone to escape boredom, but I didn’t realize what I was doing. I would rationalize “Oh, my work needs me” or “What if something happened?” when really I wasn’t dealing with the fact that I needed a break. But I could’ve handled that in a much healthier way, as opposed to my daughter paying the price. I could’ve learned ways to cope, and that’s what I’ve since done so I’m not showing her that she’s less important than what I’m doing on my phone.

What would you say to anyone who’s skeptical about implementing the indistractable model?

Eyal: Perfect is the enemy of the good. I think a lot of people are like, “I can’t do everything, so I’ll do nothing.” That’s not what being indistractable is about. Being indistractable means you strive to do what you say you’re going to do. It doesn’t mean you don’t get distracted. I still get distracted from time to time. But the idea is now I know why I get distracted.

There’s that Paulo Coelho quote: “A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.” I think a lot of us need to face that fact. If you get distracted once, no foul. But if you keep getting distracted again and again and again, now you’ve made a decision. Now it’s on you.

The idea is that you don’t have to do everything in the book. If you do one simple thing—plan your day, use a screen sign, hack back technology, turn off notifications—you are indistractable, because the definition of becoming indistractable is to strive to do what you say you’re going to do. You can just do whatever suits you and then, when you’re ready, try another tactic.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about distraction?

Eyal: That it’s an external thing. That’s one source of distraction, but it’s not the only source of distraction. Most distraction starts from within. It’s our inability to cope with discomfort. We jump to blame the outside thing as opposed to thinking, “Well, why are we really in need of these outside things?”

You talk about the incongruity between how people value their possessions and how they value their time. Why do you think people don’t appropriately value their time?

Eyal: Because it’s intangible. We think, “Tomorrow always comes. There’s always more time.” But there isn’t. We live today and it’s gone. You can’t live it again. We have a finite number of days. You can have an infinite number of dollars in your bank account; you only have so many days to live. So we should be more careful with our time.

How can you best put yourself in a social environment that’s conducive to becoming indistractable?

Eyal: This is where the idea of social antibodies is really important. My dream is that people will talk about themselves as indistractable—that it will become a new norm, just like today, when people say, “I’m a nonsmoker.” I hope that will happen with distraction. People will find friends that respect their time, that have certain norms and practices.

When I first taught at Stanford, in 2012, I would see a lot of students using their phones. As the years went by, I would see a lot fewer of them doing that, especially with each other, because now it’s considered rude. I think younger people are having an easier time. They’re starting to inoculate themselves with these antibodies to these antisocial behaviors. I’m hoping that will perpetuate throughout society.

What are some applications that can help people prevent distraction?

Eyal: There’s a few. SelfControl on my laptop; Forest on my phone;, which I’m an investor in. I think tools that change the technology in a way that serves us are underutilized. For example, when I use Facebook—I like Facebook; I don’t like the feed. You can install a free Chrome extension called News Feed Eradicator for Facebook and it gets rid of your newsfeed. So if I want to see how a friend is doing, I can go to their page. I don’t need to see that stupid feed.

It’s the same with YouTube. Why do we let YouTube show us all these stupid videos on the side? Those things are there to keep us engaged. There’s a free Chrome extension called DF YouTube that scrubs out everything, so all you see is the video [you’ve selected to watch]. All these tools are free. We just have to use them. That’s actually a great hack: hacking back technology. The [companies] can’t stop us from doing that stuff. It’s like a little cat-and-mouse game. I don’t think people know how powerful they are.

Andrew Tan, ’22, is an editorial intern at Stanford.