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Indistractable

Updated: Feb 22, 2021


I've just listened to an interview with Nir Eyal, and I'm really keen to read his books/try out some of the techniques he highlights in being more focused/effective.


Many people are familiar with The Social Dilemma, and Nir offers a really interesting counter perspective:


Blaming social media is an easy scapegoat, and we're all far more powerful than the technology. We can delete apps, turn off notifications, schedule our time. Back in the day, the written word itself was demonised as a distraction.

They both agree (as do I) that social media has a lot to answer for, but ultimately we're all responsible for our own actions and discipline, and we can choose how we spend our time.


I really recommend giving their discussion a listen, but I've also tried to capture the main things I took aways from the exchange here:

1) Don't use "TODO" lists, but rather your calendar to explicitly schedule time

2) Measure success in terms of time spent on task

3) Don't abstain from your vices/habits, but just delay them 10 minutes

4) Syncing calendars (agreeing time spent with your boss/stakeholders)

5) In debates/discussions, ask each other "how much do you care?" or apply a weight



#1: Scheduling Tasks rather than TODO Lists


I really liked this point. There are a number of problems with using TODO lists; the first of which is that they're unbounded. You can always just say "sure, I'll just add that to my TODO list" without any real back-pressure for your capacity.


They also encourage suboptimal work practices. You sit down to start picking tasks off your list, planning on making great progress on something, but first check your emails or reply to a chat message. Those feel like work tasks, but they're probably not the priority, and pretty soon you've wasted time which was meant to be spent on another priority.


By scheduling our tasks, we can make explicit our priorities and spend more time working deliberately rather than reactionary. e.g. make progress on X for 45 minutes, reply to messages for 5, and have a 10 minute break.


#2: Measure Success as Time Spent on Task


I found this a really useful insight - that our measure for success/efficiency should be thought of as simply working on what we've planned to work on. By approaching our work this way, we allow ourselves to be less distracted, and good productive work should then come as a result.


This also reminded me of Jim Collins's "Hedgehog concept", where in Good To Great he talks about measuring "success in terms of X".


I'm sure I'll do a write-up of "Good to Great" in a separate blog, but Jim's point was that the "per unit X" really defines your values/goals. As once example, Walgreens made the decision to measure success in terms of income per visit, not per store or even per square block. That particular choice of "per X" meant that Walgreens was optimising convenience for the customer - even at the expense of sometimes opening multiple stores within the same square mile.


In this case, the "per X" hedgehog concept seems to be measuring success by deliberate time spent on task, which seems to me something worth trying.



#3 Delayed Gratification over Cold Turkey


In the context of forming better habits, Nir discussed the importance of not shaming yourself after procrastinating or giving in to a particular vice.


The point being that, if you're just trying to stop smoking, or eating snacks, or spending too much time on social media, video games, whatever, then that creates unrealistic expectations. You get away with it for so long, building up more and more frustration, which is inevitably only released when you finally capitulate and give-in.


That kind of behaviour only reinforces bad habits: the message is that the only relief is from doing the very thing you're trying to cut out.


In studying our"homeostatic response", we've learned how our brains are always simply trying to avoid discomfort. Nir's proposed approach then is, instead of just saying no, we should just delay the gratification by 10 minutes. We can use that time to either carry on doing what we're supposed to be doing, or to reflect a bit on the triggers or emotions which preceded the desire to check our phone, smoke the cigarette, whatever.


That certainly sounds logical to me and something worth trying. It also seems similar to the concept of making desired behaviours easy and undesired behaviours hard.


#4 Syncing Calendars


Another insight was the idea of syncing up with your boss/stakeholders for 15 minutes at the beginning of the week. Basically show them your calendar and say "this is how I'm going to spend my time", as well as "here are the things which I didn't have time to schedule -- is there anything on this list which should be priority over what I've just told you?"


#5 How Much Do You Care?


They ended the podcast with this little nugget based on keeping a happy/healthy marriage. When arguing with your spouse about something, a helpful strategy can be to stop and both say how much on a scale from 1 to 10 you actually care.


It could be that one person is just enjoying the discussion, or otherwise interested in the debate. It can be insightful to know that one person is really interested/passionate about something, which can be a great signal for the other to back down.



Oh, The Irony!


I wrote this on a Sunday, really keen to put these things in place come Monday. As keen as I was, I ended up making small edits on Monday, which is not what I planned on doing!


Still, I guess that's how it goes -- just keep revisiting/trying to improve. How about you? Do you have good habits, discipline or ways of thinking about how to effectively plan/spend your time? If you've seen it, what was your reaction to The Social Dilemma? How do you think about how you spend your attention? If you have any thoughts or recommendations, please comment or get in touch!

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