The How-To Guide for Indistractability
Sticking to goals is hard. Luckily, there are tricks we can use when we wobble off course.
This piece is part of a week-long series on how to battle distraction, co-edited by Nir Eyal, the author of the new book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
In an era of screens, few of us are immune to distraction. Our mental bandwidth is chewed up by the churn and burn of social media streams, lightning-quick news cycles, and the effort of keeping up with more people than we could possibly truly know.
As a psychologist in general practice and a researcher in cyberpsychology, I work to help people get back in touch with the stuff that really matters to them, to become aligned to their values, and build habits that draw them back to their purpose.
There’s a growing sense that digital distractions are pulling us away from the things that really matter. On your deathbed, it’s more likely you’ll wish you’d shared yourself more wholeheartedly with your family, rather than having spent hours engaging in an inane tweet war with an airline over a canceled flight.
And yet, the wholesale diversion of attention — with the pings and beeps of notifications, likes, comments and the cycle of checking and reply — is the business model of many tech companies. Slowly but surely, consumers are getting savvy to the cognitive hijack tactics we’ve fallen prey to over the last decade. The jig is up.
How do we vaccinate ourselves against distraction without throwing our devices overboard?
Though we can typically recognize what matters most to us, carving out time for that practice and sticking to it often trips us up. We find ourselves backsliding away from the things that matter.
So how do we vaccinate ourselves against distraction without throwing our devices overboard? I’m going to share some ideas to help you develop sticky goals and skills to use for when you wobble off course.
Without sticky goals, a sturdy purpose, and a sense of hope, it’s devastatingly easy to be sidetracked by the tsunami of the internet and its steady stream of news articles, BuzzFeed quizzes, and memes. Deleting distractions isn’t always necessary (or possible), but managing them is, especially if you want to preserve your job, your relationship, and possibly your mental health.
Few of us learn to set goals well, and fewer still carve out regular time in our busy lives to explore the mental space of possibility and potential. Thinking about what you want, what you desire, and what you believe you deserve can be challenging and even uncomfortable. We get tangled in the clichés of New Year’s resolutions, the perfect flat lay photo of #todaysoffice and pseudo-goals (things we think we should be aiming to do, like losing weight or drinking less booze). As a result, we end up with goals that aren’t authentic, attainable, or attractive.
Distraction is the inbred sibling of procrastination.
Working out what really matters is about clarifying your values and acting in ways that align to these values. It’s about orienting yourself toward people, activities, and habits that are moving in the same direction as you wish to travel. Values help shape our goals, and can motivate us to do the stuff that matters.
Goals need to feel authentic, not an appropriated version of stuff that Instagram tells you should be your life’s bullseye. Make them specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and bake in review periods. Frame them with positive language that resonates, and anchor them to a core-desired feeling,not just a metric.
There’s a difference between fantasy (that list of things you’d do with the winnings from the $63 million lotto) and more concrete life goals (like saving up to take a year off work to travel around Australia). Neither are likely to happen unless you take the first steps, develop a sustainable, values-driven plan, and learn to wrestle with the unpleasant parts of yourself and the process of doing the stuff that really matters.
Distraction is the inbred sibling of procrastination. Procrastination is more than simply delaying, waiting, or percolating ideas. It keeps us from being aligned to our values and makes us feel worse in the process. Research shows that procrastination impacts our overall well-being, creating more stress, anxiety, and depression.
Long considered a problem of time management, procrastination is really about mood management and our ability to adaptively regulate our emotions to tackle an objectionable task.
No app is needed, no login is required, no terms and conditions must be agreed to.
To overcome procrastination, try to sit with the sensation: fear (often veiled as task-avoidance), ickiness, dissatisfaction, and the urge to escape. We want to feel good, so sitting with discomfort and hard cognitive work can feel like a serious strain. Like anything worthwhile, this takes practice and conscious effort.
Need more tools? Here are some of my greatest hits and tips when it comes to working with resistance, procrastination, and distraction. They’re purely about working with your mind, defense mechanisms, and your excuses. No app is needed, no login is required, no terms and conditions must be agreed to. Try these:
Manage digital distractions without digital detoxing
I call BS on digital detoxing just the same way as I do with finding work-life balance. It’s not about unplugging per se, but plugging in with intention and intelligence. Applying the three M’s of digital nutrition — mindful, meaningful, and moderate — to your interaction with devices can help steer you back toward your targets, compassionately.
Exercise self compassion when you get distracted and procrastinate
Sure, you can beat yourself up for failing to coerce the part of you that wants to run and hide into perfect concentration in the face of almost complete digital colonization. Alternatively, you can gently guide yourself back on track and reflect on what’s triggering you with the same kindness you would a good friend. Guilt and shame aren’t forces of inspiration, so forgive yourself and reset your compass. Give some of these activities a go.
Connect with your future self
Create a vision of yourself having taken the action, completed the task, or realized the dream. Practice being that version of yourself and how you feel at that time. Anchor in those feelings, visualize, and rehearse them regularly, especially when starting a task that you’re not looking forward to doing. Olympic athletes do this for every step or stroke of their race right through to the winner’s podium. When you feel the distraction and urge to deviate off task, use that vision as a magnet to draw yourself back on track.
Accept you’ll never be in the right mood and just (re)start.
Telling a procrastinator to “just do it” is like telling an angry person to “calm down”: ineffective and annoying. To activate the goal behavior, it’s best to address the underlying mood and cognitions that are blocking you. We tend to anticipate that our mood will change at some point in the future and wait for that to happen to commence the action. But time marches on while you passively wait for your feelings to shift. The best way to move them is ignore them (not something a psychologist would typically recommend!), put them on a metaphorical shelf (they’ll be there later if you need them), or outwit them.
Have a real talk with your resistance
Have a radically honest, empty-chair conversation with yourself. Become aware of your psychological snarls and get out of your own way. Appraise the excuses, justifications, or rationales you develop to delay the completion of the task. Get real with what the true cost of the postponement is to your overall happiness and wellbeing (increased stress, guilt, not truly being able to enjoy yourself while a deadline looms). Examine the barriers you perceive are stopping you and rebuke them with critical thought. Hear yourself argue for excuses aloud and notice how flimsy they sound when spoken.
Strengthen your Executive Functions
Executive Functions are not some kind of mental secretary waiting to take over the boring admin tasks in your brain — they’re a set of mental processes which are usually discussed in terms of deficits seen in people with disorders like ADHD or autism. These functions include activation, focus, and effort. They are the soft skills that can be developed through explicit learning and practicing strategies, which helps build cognitive habits.
Many people report the reason they’re stalling is that they need help to complete tasks or lack the expertise to accomplish them. Don’t get stuck — get help! Try the following:
- Ask your network on social media for advice or recommendations
- Outsource the tasks using a crowd-sourced platform (like Airtasker)
- Set up a trading system — offer to exchange your skills with someone who has the knowledge you need
- Use apps like SuperBetter to help build your resilience by unlocking your “heroic potential!”