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Why We Get Distracted — and How We Can Stop Without Swearing Off Tech

Everything is at our fingertips these days — for good and bad. If we’re not careful, distractions can deter us from success.

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Distractions are the death of good content. I can’t pen an email, much less a full-length article, without a quiet space.

Because I work remotely, I can get up and move. I can silence my phone. But when an editor calls, I forget all about the mental space I’ve made for myself. I take the call, knowing full well I could’ve waited until I’d finished the piece.

That’s why, before writing this one, I reached out to Nir Eyal. A behavioral designer and former startup founder, Eyal is the author of Indistractable, a book about learning to control your attention in the age of distraction.

What intrigued me about the book was its pragmatism. Eyal never suggested — in his book or in our conversation — that I abandon tech. In my line of work, both as a writer and as an NAACP unit lead, I simply can’t. Without a computer or a smartphone, I couldn’t do my job.

Eyal’s answer? Identify the source. “Is it an external trigger, an internal trigger, or a planning problem? It can only be one of those three things,” he says. “To do something about it, you have to know why it happened.”

Blame the Trigger, Not the Tech

Although Eyal admits even he struggles to reduce workplace distractions, he does spot three common sources: email, instant messaging platforms, and physical interruptions.

For most, the worst offender is email. Carleton University researchers claim the typical employee spends a third of her time at the office answering emails. Worse, the researchers went on to say, 30% of that time is spent answering emails that are neither urgent nor important.

Although I’ve gotten good at blocking off time to answer emails, I wind up losing a lot of it on Slack. Editors I work with are constantly sharing articles that, while interesting, aren’t necessarily critical. “Tell your editors you aren’t available 24 hours a day,” Eyal laughs. “That’s just how it works.”

Are Real-World Distractions Different?

Although I’m lucky that colleagues can’t tap me on the shoulder all day, I wanted to know: What about physical triggers? With my nieces, for instance, I don’t have the luxury of off-hours. Can I minimize those triggers without being a terrible aunt?

Here, Eyal suggests a few techniques. In his book, he points to an experiment conducted at Kaiser Permanente South San Francisco Medical Center. Nurses who wore “do not disturb” vests while dispensing medication decreased their medication errors by 47%. 

Any clothing item can work. Eyal’s wife wears a “concentration crown” to remind would-be interrupters to think twice before breaking her focus. Another option is to add a card stock sign, which Eyal includes in the back of his book, to your computer monitor. A stoplight icon is a good way to communicate your availability via your sign.

The Scoop on Internal Triggers

No matter how effective you are at eliminating external triggers, the truth is this: The toughest distractions are those that come from within.

Whether it’s mowing the lawn or crunching sales data, we all have tasks we don’t like. To cope, we distract ourselves. We might even do something “productive” to put them off. But when used for avoidance, even “healthy” behaviors like exercise can become distractions. 

Taking breaks isn’t the problem, Eyal makes clear. Issues arise when we let ourselves spend time in unintended ways. “There’s a big difference between diversions and distractions,” he argues. “Diversions can be great. Sometimes, we do need time for our brain to relax and chase ideas.” 

By all means, give yourself time to meditate, read, and even watch Netflix. But if you catch yourself doing the mindless scroll — what Eyal calls a “liminal moment” — ask what emotion you’re responding to. Rather than judge it, explore the emotion. Are you feeling tired? Angry? Jot down alternative ways to respond, and act on them the next time you notice the trigger.

Just as importantly, reframe onerous tasks. I can’t stand doing dishes, for example. To give myself something to look forward to, I make a game out of it. Just how much burnt-on crud can I get off my cake pans? I also focus on parts I like: the feel of warm water on my hands, the way my plates shine when they’re free of fingerprints.

What if you’re too tired to do it that day? Tell your brain to stop playing tricks. Eyal points out that ego depletion — the concept that willpower is finite — is likely false. A Perspectives on Psychological Science study of more than 2,000 individuals across multiple labs and continents found no evidence for the widely accepted theory.

Tech Distractions Aren’t Going Away

Whatever the science says about tech distractions, the fact is that they’re here to stay. As Eyal says, “We have to learn to get the best out of them without letting them get the best of us.”

Maximizing your devices means using them in pursuit of traction. The opposite of distraction, according to Eyal, traction describes any action that moves you closer to your goals. Any task can produce traction or distraction: It’s up to you to be intentional, know your triggers, and hold yourself accountable.

When we don’t put our goals front and center, it’s easy to be pulled away by shiny objects. Because shiny objects will never go away, we have to work to fight distractions. To be successful, that work is well worth it.

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