I recently interviewed Nir Eyal, tech entrepreneur, former Stanford lecturer, and author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Today, I’m sharing some of Nir’s insights on how leaders can avoid distraction in their work and in their operations to achieve better results.
What Is Distraction, Really?
When Nir first embarked on his journey to understand and write about distraction, he wasn’t quite sure what exactly it was. Through his research, he discovered that the best way to explain distraction is, to begin with what it isn’t. Most people assume the opposite of distraction is focus, but that’s not actually the case.
The opposite of distraction is traction.
Nir explained, “Both traction and distraction come from the same Latin root [tractus], which means to pull… So traction, by definition, is any action that pulls you toward what you said you were going to do—things that you do with intent, things that help you live your values and become the kind of person you want to become. Distraction is any action that pulls you away from what you plan to do, from your values, and from the person you want to become.”
Stop Throwing Stones at Every Dog That Barks
In Indistractable, he shares a common scenario that plagues many business leaders: You sit down at your desk to tackle a project, determined to get started right away. Nothing is going to stop you! But then, you decide to check a few emails before you jump in. Next, you check off the one thing on your to-do list that’s easy to do, and things spiral from there.
Suddenly, the day is over.
You’ve spent your time engaged in tasks that look and feel like work. Those tasks seem productive, but because they are not what you planned to do with your time, they are distraction in its purest and most dangerous form. Why? You’ve hijacked your best intentions by prioritizing urgent and easy tasks at the expense of the important stuff.
You may be wondering why these tasks count as distractions if they need to be accomplished at some point. It is the planning piece—the intent—that sets traction and distraction apart. Thus, anything can be done with traction or distraction. For example, as a business leader, managing your team and their needs represents a significant portion of your role. As a result, you may feel as if an open-door policy makes you available to properly support your team—and it does. But if you engage with everyone who drops by your office as soon as they arrive or respond to every Slack or text message within moments, you cede control of your time by allowing interactions initiated by others to become distractions. This, in turn, sacrifices the productivity that only comes when you allow yourself to focus deeply without interruption.
To further clarify this concept, Nir explains that there are two types of work: reactive and reflective. Reactive work occurs in response to external triggers—the pings, dings, rings, and people clamoring for your attention. Of course, as a leader, some portion of your day—even the majority of it—must be spent doing that reactive work. But to achieve any real progress over time, you have to make space for reflective work: the planning, strategizing, and deep thinking that only happens when you give yourself time to concentrate.
Winston Churchill once said: “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” It’s a fantastic analogy for the costly habit of too much reactive work.
Allocating Time for Reflective Work
Setting aside just forty-five minutes to an hour to think and plan without interruption can provide leaders with a real competitive edge, but most don’t do it. Instead, they prioritize the reactive stuff above all else—“throwing stones at barking dogs”—even if it means going nowhere, or heading in the wrong direction. As a result, they end up feeling stuck.
It’s exhausting. You feel like you’re running on a treadmill all day. You are wiped out, but the view never seems to change. Put simply, you won’t make meaningful progress if you don’t make time to think. After all, thinking leads to new ideas, creative solutions, better decision-making, and productive change.
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling exhausted just writing about it! So why do we continue to do this to ourselves?
The thinking inherent in reflective work is hard. “We are what we call cognitive misers,” Nir says. “Psychologists will tell you we don’t like to think. It’s so much easier to check the mail, check the channel, make yourself available, walk around the office to see if anyone needs anything. What you’re really doing, though, is avoiding the discomfort of having to do the hard work.”
So, what can you do as a business leader striving to elevate yourself strategically by getting out of the details?
Understand the Nature of Your Distraction
The first step, Nir says, is to understand what’s distracting you in the first place. We all have external and internal triggers—the messaging that comes from outside and within, respectively. While it’s easy to assume external triggers are driving you to distraction, in truth, distraction begins from within: “Internal triggers are uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to escape from. Plato first asked why we get distracted 2,500 years ago—why we do things against our best interest. The answer is, we are constantly trying to escape discomfort,” Nir said.
In Indistractable, Nir busts the myth that human behavior is driven by incentives—carrots instead sticks—rather, “the reason we do everything, the seat of human motivation, is one thing, and that one thing is the desire to escape discomfort. Even the pursuit of pleasure is about a desire to escape discomfort. Want, craving, lust—all of that is psychologically uncomfortable.”
“That must mean that time management is pain management,” he continues, “If we don’t understand the discomfort we are trying to escape, we’ll always be distracted by something—whether it is too much news, too much booze, too much Facebook, too much football, it doesn’t matter. None of these life hacks are going to work. There is no magic bullet. Instead, we have to understand: What are we running away from?”
Dig deeply to understand the discomfort at the root of your most costly distractions, and you’ll possess the key to unlock abundant traction in reflective work.
Technology Isn’t the Problem – You Are
To build an indistractable workplace, a process Nir describes in detail in his book, you must pay attention to the example you are setting—as well as the culture you’ve established.
In the five years he researched distraction, Nir found that the amount of distraction present in a workplace had nothing to do with the amount of technology used there. Rather, it had to do with the environment. “There was a remarkable study done a few years ago by two researchers at Oxford who found that the confluence of two workplace conditions cause anxiety and depression: high expectations and low control,” Nir said. “Anxiety and depression feel terrible, and as a result, people attempt to gain more control and bring things into alignment by responding to everything around them—the pings, dings, and rings.
The reactivity feeds on itself and creates a vicious cycle.
All of this aligns with my own research and dovetails with a model I share in my book, Creating a Culture of Accountability. Employees must have the agency (control) necessary to execute against high expectations. Without it, they can’t possibly be accountable to perform at their peak. Therefore, in addition to leading by example to help your team gain traction, you must also give them more (or even total) control over their time.
Think about whether you tend to text your team through evenings, or email late into the night (or on weekends) and expect a rapid response. If so, you’ve unknowingly established and embedded an agency-sapping norm into your culture. You’ll have to change your own behavior first to more fully engage your team and further improve their performance.
Turn Your Values Into Time
Nir defines values as “the attributes of the person you want to become.” He explains that to become indistractable, we have to turn our values into time—“We literally have to put time on our calendars to live out our values, because if we don’t, we’re just talking a good game.”
To do that effectively, he suggests a well-established technique called time boxing—setting an implementation intention in which you schedule what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. For example, if building deep personal connections with your team is important to you, you might schedule an hour of time on Tuesdays and Thursdays as your “appointment” to honor this value. But then, of course, you’ll have to keep the commitment to yourself!
Timeboxing helps you live out your values while avoiding distractions. Otherwise, it’s easy to simply go after low-hanging fruit—answering emails and checking off easy tasks without ever getting to the work that really requires your attention. According to Nir, it all comes back to prioritization: “You won’t be able to fit everything on your schedule. That’s by design. Again, you have to decide what’s important to do tomorrow, next week, and never.”
Traction, like any other meaningful pursuit, is attained by what you do, not what you say.
Be mindful that your tendency to seek distraction is natural, stemming from your innate desire to avoid discomfort. Over time, as you improve your ability to identify the root causes of your discomfort, to prioritize what’s important, and to ensure your time reflects your values, you’ll gain traction, elevate yourself strategically, and be better positioned to help your team follow your lead.
For more on Nir Eyal—including his books, workshops, and a free workbook on avoiding distraction—visit his website, www.nirandfar.com.
In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.
Being Smart is Not Enough (FS Blog)
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