In the future, there will be two kinds of people in the world: those who let their attention and lives be controlled and coerced by others and those who proudly call themselves “indistractable”. 1
The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought.2
Eyal starts by telling readers a story that could happen in anyone’s home. His daughter asks him what his superpower is as they play a game together, only he’s to focused on replying to one more thing on his phone. By the time he comes out of his daze to ask what the question was, she’s gone an the opportunity for connection with his daughter is gone3. From there like many he dropped all tech only to find that the tools themselves weren’t so much the problem, he was4.
His journey to be present in his life and everything he learned while researching and implimenting rules in his life has resulted in this book.
Eyal breaks the book up into seven parts.
Let’s take a look at each of these sections, but I’m going to spend more time on the ones that I think Nyal covered better than other similar books.
The core idea as Nyal talks about mastering our internal triggers is that we are either moving towards traction, or away from it with distraction. Traction is the place and life we want to live. When you pull your phone out to scroll an endless feed, the question to ask yourself is if that action is moving you towards the place you want to be, or away? If it’s away, why are you doing it in the first place?
To answer this the book makes a fairly bold claim.
Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always on unhealthy escape from reality.5
Nyal believes that any distraction is because we don’t want to face the life we have in front of us so we’re looking for a way out. With a definitive claim like that I always want to see any research the author has used to come to the conclusion, but the author doesn’t provide any in this case. I find the idea interesting, but I would strike the always from the sentence without a stronger foundation for it to stand on.
Nyal also confronts the generally accepted idea that we have a limited amount of decision making power in the day. He specifically calls it a story we tell ourselves7. He backs this up with two studies8, but an interesting further line of inquiry would be to see if he cherry picked those studies or if they really are newly definitive studies in the field that change the studies of the past that showed we do have limited decision making power.
I did like his assertion that if we say we have no power over something, we really don’t have power to change it9. This would be like someone that spends money easily (this is me) saying they have no power over the act. That is a lie, and at my house we took actions to ensure that I have no credit so I can never spend any money we don’t have. I also don’t have access to a bunch of our funds so that if I spent through the cash we’d still be able to keep going. This foreshadows some of the steps that Nyal will recommend we take later in the book.
As Nyal starts to tell readers how to move towards traction, he starts by talking about how we guard our “stuff” with passion, but forget about our time and treat it with negligence10. We do this despite the fact that more money can be earned and we could repurchase stuff again, but no matter how much money you have no more time can be acquired.
He also introduces an interesting idea around being distracted as a result of doing things that don’t sync with your values. You simply don’t care enough to put in the effort.
If we chronically neglect our values, we become something we’re not proud of — our lives feel out of balance and diminished. Ironically, this ugly feeling makes us more likely to seek distractions to escape our dissatisfaction without actually solving the problem. 11
The solution to all of this is to start timeboxing1213. By starting to control the inputs, you can affect the outputs. Working to control the outputs first is only trying to deal with the problem after it’s a problem. Nyal goes as far as scheduling the time for his important relationships so that you don’t give them the little bits that are left at the end of your day14.
As you timebox there are two questions to ask yourself weekly15.
Finally, don’t forget to change your schedule as life changes. My wife and daughter’s skating schedule changes every season, and I redo my work schedule every single season to match up with what is going on. It would be futile to try and keep a schedule that simply doesn’t work anymore.
The third part of the book is where I really think that Nyal’s work shines as these next short chapters provide useful information to deal with specific types of distraction in your life. In fact the critical question in chapter 13 is one I’ve been asking myself regularly in the weeks since reading the book.
Is the trigger serving me, or am I serving it?16
Is the notification you got serving you or serving something else? Did you really need the information conveyed at this moment?
I’ve long thought this about my phone, it’s there for me to use not for everyone else to have access to me. Many of my friends know that it may take a day or two for me to get back to a text message.
Nyal wants us to cut any external trigger that doesn’t serve us, that doesn’t push us towards traction.
After that critical question, the book offers us ideas on how to get focused time at work for ourselves and our coworkers17. How to not fall into the reciprocity trap and reply to everything on social media18. We’re encouraged to treat group chat like a sauna, get in for a bit then get out19. Meetings should only be called if you have an agenda beforehand and a few page report discussing the problem and proposing solutions20.
On the personal technology front, Nyal gives us a four step process to walk through to cut our reliance on our phones.
Regarding your computer desktop, Nyal says thatwhen our digital desktop is disorganized we are more likely to click to distraction because we want to avoid the reality of the clutter we have to wade through.21
Maybe my favourite advice comes in his chapter on email22 where he asks us to touch email twice. First, to sort it into “Today” or “This Week” email by folder or tag. Then you have 30 minutes to deal with today email scheduled into each day and a an hour or two scheduled at some point in the week to deal with “This Week” email23. He also advises you schedule sending an email as late as possible. If there are no consequences to sending it tomorrow, schedule it to send tomorrow.
One thing I would have liked to see the book address around email is what to do about an hour schedule for email, but two hours of messages to deal with. I guess we simply schedule differently next week, but that option isn’t mentioned at all.
According to Nyal, we need to make pacts with ourselves if we want to avoid things we don’t want to do. My pact above around spending is called a Ulysses Pact, where I bind myself with today’s decisions to a future course of action[^Page 139]. Other pacts could be increasing the effort in watching TV by removing the batteries from the remote, or unplugging everything so you have to hook it back up.
One of my favourite ways to starting to make a pact with yourself is an identity pact24. This is where you start telling yourself that you aren’t the type of person to do something you don’t want to do. Something like: “I’m not the type of person that watches TV all night, I read books.”
It make take a while for that type of pact to work itself out in your life, but telling yourself who you are is part of the path to getting there.
Checking email or chiming in on a group-chat thread provides the feeling of being productive, regardless of whether our actions are actually making things better. 25
Part five is all about how to make your workplace somewhere that work gets done. Nyal says that we don’t check email at all hours because of technology, we do it because there is a problem with office culture that says we need to be on all the time. He also cites research that shows successful teams at Google had psychological safety. That means they could felt safe disagreeing with the group, or highlighting a mistake they made and asking for help.
If your team doesn’t have this, then you’re building a failing team.
One of the biggest things that parents complain about is the use of devices by kids. We almost all think that they use their devices too much. Nyal accurately cites that parents brought the problem on by giving them a device in the first place26. Whether it’s for unfounded concerns about safety27 or giving into demands of children, parents support the device habits.
Just like there is no such thing as a sugar high28 devices are responsible for so little of the negative outcomes we see in children that it’s worse to skip breakfast.
Yes, two hours a day of device use has less impact on teenage outcomes than skipping breakfast or not getting enough sleep29. As we saw in Kids These Days, kids don’t get any time to themselves and they crave autonomy30. With their life scheduled so fully with rules, the turn to devices where they can achieve mastery and autonomy and feel successful. They can call the shots online, where many kids get no say in what they do in the rest of the week.
If you want your kids to get off their devices, let them go outside without adult supervision so that they can connect with their peers. Of course that means their peers will also need to be allowed outside without adult supervision.
As you try to deal with device time, make sure that you don’t focus on the device itself, focus on the behaviour that happens as a result31. Instead of blaming the phone say “It’s not your phone’s fault you don’t talk to us at dinner.” They can own and change the behaviour outcomes and blaming the tool only gives the tool the power over the interaction.
The final section of the book details how to have relationships that are engaged. Nyal cites research showing that one person reaching for their phone at an event will trigger others to go for their phone. It’s a social contagion, which we read much more about in Connected.
Nyal offers an alternative to just calling out the offending phone person, ask them if everything is okay. In truth, something may be happening that they need to deal with, but if they say no nothing important is happening you’ve cued the group into it not being okay to be on your phone. If there is an emergency, you can offer support and build the relationship deeper.
The author also has another great question I’ve been asking myself, what do I value about any event32. It made me think of watching movies with my wife, where I don’t actually care about the movie. The part I value out of that interaction is cuddling and talking a bit during the movie. When devices come out the entire event feels like a waste of time to me, time we could be connecting. I’d rather leave and do something else entirely than sit and have a movie playing while devices are out.
It’s been an interesting exercise to go through for many of the things I engage in during a week.
As I started this book I wasn’t sure what Eyal was getting at. In many ways it seemed to cover the same ground that Cal Newport has in Digital Minimalism and James Clear did in Atomic Habits. Yes, Eyal combined the two ideas, but his look at those topics wasn’t as deep because he had more ground to cover.
As I finished the book out I now feel that Nyal covered some new ground barely touched by Newport and Clear.
First, I like how Nyal deal with looking at how your time fits with the things you value. Does watching TV or social scrolling fit with outcomes you value? Are those behaviours leading you towards traction on your values? If not, why are you doing them?
Second, parts 3-7 are bite sized chunks of help. Need some tips on email, chapter 15 has you covered even if your not going to read the whole book.
Third, Nyal gives practical examples of how to use his ideas with your kids and relationships. Newport and Clear don’t expend much effort on these two areas.
Fourth, I love timeboxing and think that Nyal did a better job here than Newport did in Digital Minimalism. I don’t remember Clear touching it really.
Now Newport and Clear do cover some other points better. Clear deals with triggers in a more detailed way giving you more tools to use to deal with what triggers your behaviours you don’t want.
Newport handles detox better so that you can make decisions about your distractions. This is not something that Nyal looks at in any fashion. Newport talks about clearing the decks of all distractions so you can make clean decisions without being influenced by being trained into distraction. The framework Newport provides in Digital Minimalism is amazing to help filter what is actually needed for tech and distractions in your life.
The definitive work on this area as i see it now would combine the strengths of these three books into a single tome.
If your biggest struggle is with family and relationships start with Nyal. If it’s work, look to Newport. If you’re looking for general habits work start with Clear.
Either way, they’ll all be helpful.
Page 3 ↩︎
Page 6 ↩︎
Page 7 ↩︎
Page 23 ↩︎
Page 37 ↩︎
Page 45 ↩︎
Page 46 ↩︎
Page 48 ↩︎
Page 53 ↩︎
Page 46 ↩︎
Page 56 ↩︎
Page 66 ↩︎
Page 57 ↩︎
Page 85 ↩︎
Chapter 14 ↩︎
Chapter 15 ↩︎
Chapter 16 ↩︎
Chapter 17 ↩︎
Page 118 ↩︎
Chapter 15 ↩︎
Page 98-100 ↩︎
Chapter 25 ↩︎
Page 167 ↩︎
Page 205,206 ↩︎
We’re all way safer than we’ve ever been ↩︎
Nyal highlights studies on Page 186 that show parents are the problem with sugar. We judge our kids more harshly for the same behaviour that was fine before they ate any amount of sugar ↩︎
Page 188 ↩︎
Page 193 ↩︎
Page 199 ↩︎
Page 225 ↩︎