Review of Indistractable: What Are the Distractions Keeping Me From My Life’s Best Work?
Today, knowledge workers face an increasingly complex work environment. They juggle their time between emails, meetings, project deadlines, and client requirements. Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, terms this new mindset towards knowledge work as the “hyperactive hive mind.” Similarly, a University of Chicago study that assessed a group of 10,000 IT professionals found that while the total hours worked increased by 30% during the pandemic, productivity fell by about 20%. What is the reason for this discrepancy?
One way to approach the problem is to map out the technological advancements, both inside and outside the workplace, to account for this difference. The Social Dilemma, recently nominated for 7 Emmy Awards, adopted this approach that pinned the blame for productivity decline and rising mental illness on the technology platforms we use today. The documentary argues that the algorithmically powered companies (Twitter, Facebook, Google) manipulate human psychology solely for their benefit. It makes the case that human beings are powerless in front of these technology giants that have gained control of our minds, behavior, and thoughts.
On the other hand, Nir Eyal, in his book Indistractable, takes a refreshingly optimistic stance on the issue. Through a first-principles approach, he deciphers that the problem we face today runs deeper than technology. He provides the reader with practical tools to navigate this ever-changing world of technology. He shifts the responsibility from the platforms back to the individual. Through this essay, I want to highlight the insights I gathered from reading his book and how I am implementing them to overcome distractions that keep me from doing my life’s best work.
LinkedIn: A Professional Community
LinkedIn is one of the primary content streams that I use to stay updated on the developments in the start-up community and track exciting new opportunities. I enjoy reading articles, commenting on posts, and connecting professionally with people inventing the future. I never tracked the time I spent on the platform as I always viewed it as an essential component of my career, a springboard to get ahead of the rest.
However, on reading Indistractable, I undertook the time-boxing exercise encouraged by Nir to quantify my time during the workweek. To my surprise, I found that I was spending roughly 8 hours per week, or upwards of 1 hour per day on LinkedIn. I did not see this as a problem just yet, but I was curious to understand what specifically got me hooked to this platform. Was it the engineers at Microsoft preying on my human desire for professional growth, or was it something within me driving this behavior?
Reading the chapter on “Mastering Internal Triggers,” I found the answer. Nir eloquently explains that the technology platforms are merely “proximate causes of distraction and not the root cause.” He makes the case that human behavior is primarily motivated by the drive to release discomfort, so I had to look internally to find the distress driving me towards my LinkedIn usage. As I undertook the exercise, I found two driving motivators: fear of missing out on important news updates and the constant need to compare my position relative to my peers.
I undertook the exercise from Chapter 6 (“Reimagine the Internal Trigger”), and I have attached a screenshot of my journal entry below. It was a liberating process because I was able to understand, and therefore control, the underlying motivators of my behavior, as opposed to blaming LinkedIn for making their product more “addictive.”
Family: An Indian Tradition
In India, the family plays an omnipresent role in your personal story, career trajectory, and milestones. The tradition states that a family that lives together stays together. However, this has led to the youth depending on their family for meals, laundry, and everything else in between. Often, this dependence can detract the young from pursuing their best work in the form of external triggers. In my experience, the shift to remote work has only heightened this distraction. It has reached a point where I cannot focus for long periods because of interruptions from family members.
I turned to Indistractable to find a solution to the problem of deteriorating time in deep work. Once again, I found practical insight to tackle this challenge in Chapter 14 (“Hack Back Work Interruptions”). In this chapter, Nir highlights how open-office floor plans have led to distractions in the workplace. He underscores how frequent interruptions lead to mistakes that can cost companies a lot of money. Therefore, he urges the readers to defend their focus by signaling to people around them that they don’t want to be interrupted. A hack he suggests using is screen signs and clear cues like headphones.
Today, I use a combination of two things to signal to my family members that I do not wish to be disturbed unless there is a medical emergency: a yellow post-it note on my laptop and noise-canceling headphones. In the three weeks since I’ve implemented the two strategies, my time in deep work has increased by 20%, and I can have clear communication with my family members on my preferred terms rather than in a haphazard manner. It is a simple addition to the workspace that led to a win-win situation all around.
The book Indistractable is a call to action that combines cutting-edge psychology research with actionable ways to leverage the benefits of technology on one’s terms. The book emphasizes the significance of navigating and hacking triggers to generate traction compared to digitally abstaining from a world eaten by software.
That said, there are multiple paths for people to become indistractable. People like Cal Newport, who have chosen the path of digital minimalism, do have a valuable perspective to add to the debate on the process of becoming indistractable. I wish Nir had dwelled more on the proponents of the digital detox philosophy, which has gained a strong following worldwide. History is full of examples of prominent people who chose to retreat away from society (now, social media) to produce their life’s best work. More recently, people like Tim Ferris and Peter Thiel come to mind.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I hope to incorporate Nir’s toolkit into my daily life to coexist with the technology we are fortunate to have in our lives. I hope to continue on my lifelong mission of producing high-level output and becoming indistractable!