Think back to this morning. Did you check your smartphone within 15 minutes of waking up? Nir Eyal would bet you did — with 79% certainty. Why? Because Eyal knows habits. The author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, and an investor and founder, he’s spent years studying how startups can build products that people don’t want to put down.
He’s also here to tell you that sometimes, you need to put those products down.
Eyal has seen an epidemic of tech employees who are so busy and distracted at work that they don’t have time to do their job. “The job of a knowledge worker is to come up with innovative solutions to non-routine problems," he says. "The problem is we can't do that unless we have time to think. We can't create those novel solutions to those problems unless we can sit down and actually chew over and come up with a creative solution to these problems.”
For his latest project, Eyal is imploring professionals everywhere to develop another kind of habit: a commitment to working when we’re working, and unplugging when we’re not. His belief is that it’s not a nice-to-have, but a necessity. As automation increases in the modern workplace, the kind of jobs that will continue to be valuable are the ones that require human focus and creativity. In his forthcoming book Indistractable: How to Master the Skill of the Century, Eyal takes on the persistent belief that distraction is simply something professionals needs to endure. And he makes a case for prioritizing the focused work that too often gets short shrift.
In this exclusive interview, Eyal shares concrete tactics every professional can and must use to take advantage of the benefits of technology, without letting it erode quality of life. He argues that the pings of modern life are just the tip of the distraction iceberg, and describes how to master the internal triggers that are sapping our focus. And he explains why building a culture where professionals can contend with and control distractions should be every founder’s top priority.
Distraction is not just the external triggers, like the pings, rings and dings we all receive. It's anything that keeps you from doing what you planned to do.
Before you can beat distraction, you need to understand where it’s coming from. And most of us are operating with an overly narrow definition. “We tend to think of distraction as something that's interrupting us — the pings and the dings of the world. But that's just one kind of distraction called an external trigger. If you think about it, most distractions come from within.”
The most prolific distraction-producer? Your own brain. Just ask anyone who has ever tried to meditate for 10 minutes. “I want you to do nothing but think of your breath. It turns out that that's really hard to do, unless you’ve practiced for a very long time,” says Eyal. “And even people who have practiced for their entire lives find this to be a struggle. Why? Because within about 30 seconds, your brain is going to distract you with some thought. ‘Oh, I've got to get this done later. Did I leave the stove on? My ear feels itchy.’ Your brain distracts itself.”
The tendency to get distracted, then, is human nature. And now, thanks to the modern distraction machines that we all keep right at our fingertips, that tendency has been amplified. To help sort through what’s keeping you from working how and when you want to, Eyal has identified three ways of managing distraction, with tricks for combating it.
Start with a technique that psychologists call implementation intentions, which is a fancy way of saying “planning out what we will do and when we will do it,” to schedule away distractions. “It's very hard for me to hear people gripe about how technology is distracting, that Facebook is hijacking their brains and all this stuff that’s happening and keeping us from doing our work,” says Eyal. “Then I say, ‘You know what? Can I just see your calendar?’ And it's blank. There's a meeting here and there, but that's no longer going to cut it. ”
In this day and age, if you don’t plan your day, someone or something else will.
The first step in his distraction-beating methodology, then, is to reclaim your calendar. Every minute of your day, from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep, should be scheduled. That’s not to say you won’t slip up and go off-calendar from time to time. Everyone does. “But if you don't plan your day, you're guaranteed to not get done what you wanted to get done.”
You may think you already know what you need to do and that writing it down in a calendar doesn’t make any difference. “Knowing what you need to accomplish and putting in the hours to get there are two different things. We’re biased toward thinking in terms of output — say, a completed project — but productivity requires diligent attention to input,” says Eyal.“There are a lot of exogenous factors that go into output. If my goal is to finish a big presentation, there's about a hundred things that might impact that output that aren't in my control. But what is in my control is the time I have every day and my attention. That's why it's so important to focus on time first, to first think of what you're going to do when.”
To start, fill your calendar with your ideal weekly template. The first thing you should block out (and the item that most often gets pushed in favor of an unchecked flood of emails, meetings, and coffee dates) is your focused work time. “If you know you need uninterrupted work time for your most important project — putting together a strategic plan, for example, or writing an important report or blog post — that has to go on your calendar in advance. Otherwise, it's going to fall through the cracks.”
Establish a routine — a regular weekly calendar — which offers several benefits:
Reduce cognitive load. When you don’t have to think about what you’re going to tackle when, you’ve eliminated one more barrier to getting down to work. “Sometimes people's day-to-day routine changes a ton. But what we want to do is to make sure that the most important things absolutely get done,” says Eyal. Block time for those high-priority items, the same time each day, and you won’t have to think about when and if you get to them.
Estimate time as a team. A detailed calendar becomes a valuable team tool to talk about priorities and resource allocation. This comes back to output versus input. Managers will often talk with their teams about what they need to produce, but they’re much less likely to get on the same page about the time it takes to get there. That’s a mistake. Managers and reports should sit down at a regular interval — weekly, even daily — to look at where their time is going.
“Studies have shown how awful we are at estimating how much time a task takes,” says Eyal. “So teams need to sync up with their managers and say, ‘Look, I'm going to spend six hours on this task today. Is that the right amount of time? Okay. Terrific. That time is not going to come at the expense of my kids or my family after work. I booked that time for this exact task.’ Syncing up is a very first critical step,” says Eyal.
Get rid of low-value work. A study in Harvard Business Review showed that 41% of what you do as a knowledge worker is spent on low-value tasks, or work you didn’t need to do. But the practice of blocking out time helps this cause, as calendars become perfect candidates for AI-scheduling assistants, like Clara Labs or x.ai. “There's all kinds of services out there that just look at your pre-apportioned time and only book meetings at that time of day. I've eliminated literally thousands of back-and-forth emails,” says Eyal. “That’s just one of the many benefits.”
Plan ahead to identify and address distractions. You can’t call something a ‘distraction’ unless you know what it’s distracting you from.
Planning your time is a crucial first step, but even a packed calendar won’t eliminate all distractions. You’ll also need to learn to identify, and ignore, the triggers that threaten to derail your thoughtfully scheduled plans.“The way we hack back triggers is by looking at all the pings, the dings, the things that prompt you to do things you don't want to do. The phone calls, the emails, the Slack notifications, a coworker tapping you on the shoulder,” says Eyal. “You've got to find ways to turn those off or you're never going to do focused work.”
That’s not to say you have to devise a complex system. Some of Eyal’s favorite tactics for tuning out distraction are the simplest:
Send a signal you’re in “Do Not Disturb” mode. Eyal turns to healthcare for an important illustration.“After heart disease and cancer, the number three cause of death in the U.S. is prescription mistakes: healthcare providers dosing out the wrong amount or wrong type of drugs to their patients. 400,000 people are harmed every single year through prescription mistakes,” says Eyal. “Most hospitals wrote this off as a fact of life, but a group of nurses at UCSF decided to figure out what was happening. The source of the problem was an external trigger: when someone was dosing out prescription, they were interrupted an average of 10 times per dosing session. The solution was simple: wearing red plastic vests while they filled prescriptions to signal to other colleagues not to interrupt them. With that solution alone, they reduced prescription mistakes by 88%.”
This tactic can work for any office worker, especially those in buildings with open office plans. “If in-person interruptions often happen to you, use a simple signage system that lets coworkers know if you’re not available,” says Eyal. “A green note on your monitor, for example, means that then can swing by. Red, and they should try again later.”
Declutter your screens. “It turns out that about two-thirds of people never adjust their notification settings on their phones,” says Eyal. “It literally takes 15 minutes to uninstall the apps that you don't need to bother you.”
A common refrain is that it’s hard to find time to do thoughtful work in the midst of the constant pings of email and Slack notifications. So take control of when and how those pings can reach you. “We don't want to always be in these communication channels,” says Eyal. “You've got to turn those off. You want to build time in your day for emails, for example. Time for Slack. Time for whatever it is that you do. If your job requires a lot of phone calls, then you plan that time in your day. You don’t need to be a sitting duck, responding to people in real time unless that actually is your full time job.”
Label email by urgency, not subject. When it comes to inbox hygiene, Eyal has perfected some specific tactics that have served him well. For starters, any email work you do on your phone should be limited to triage, not responses. Save meaningful correspondence for scheduled blocks of time in front of your computer.
Don’t get into the weeds, though, trying to categorize new emails by topic. Stick to a much simpler pair of labels: “today” or “this week.” Your goal with this first pass is simply to signal to yourself how urgent a new message is. “The biggest problem is if we don't label emails by when they need a response, we keep checking and checking and rechecking. We’re wasting time opening the email, reading it to know if we should respond, and then closing it again. Then we repeat the loop.”
Label emails once by when they need a response and you can tackle them systematically during one of two email time slots: a shorter daily session for urgent matters, or a longer weekly one for things that can wait. “Schedule three, four hours maybe one day a week when you flush out all those emails,” says Eyal. “Every Monday afternoon is my ‘Message Monday.’”
Schedule office hours. It’s not just for professors anymore. In fact, Eyal has set up a feature on his website where anyone can book 15 minutes with him, totally free. It’s a refreshingly simple solution to Silicon Valley’s ubiquitous “can we grab a coffee” request. “After I published Hooked, I got a lot of phone calls. People were asking, ‘Hey, I would love to take you out for coffee,’” he says. “But, if I took all those coffees, I would have no time to do what I have to do.” Now, he blocks that time just like any other ongoing task.
“This is an amazing way to reduce the number of emails that you get every day. Here's what you do: You set up a time in your day and keep it on your calendar every single week. You can adjust it to as much time as you think you might need,” says Eyal. “For me, it's one hour every week. I make myself available, and people can just book that time. If somebody says, ‘I’d like to grab coffee with you,’ that's not a burning issue. They might have to wait a little bit. That’s okay.”
In fact, there’s value to the wait. Many urgent matters turn out to not be so urgent. People will often answer their own questions before they even get to you. “Life goes on. That super important thing gets resolved, or wasn’t that important after all,” says Eyal.
Take things offline. Blocking time for in-person communication can save a lot of time with your coworkers, too. “There are so many questions that we waste a ton of time answering over email. If we just sat together for five minutes, it would be much more efficient,” says Eyal.
So set aside a couple of slots each week when your door is open or your headphones are off. That way, when you get an email that’s spiraling into a waste of time for all involved, you can stop it. “You might just say, ‘You know what? I've got office hour time scheduled twice in my week. Why don't you stop by? My door's open from this time to this time. We can talk about it,’” says Eyal.
Getting the upper hand on distraction means identifying and understanding internal triggers — and how they connect to external distractions. “Products are designed to hook you by catering to some kind of negative emotion. When you're lonely, you check Facebook. When you're uncertain, you Google. When you’re bored, you might check the news. These instantaneous responses are what makes these products so habit-forming,” says Eyal. “Even after you remove all these distractions, if you don't hone in on internal triggers, you're always going to get diverted by something.”
To become “indistractable”, understand the underlying mechanism of internal triggers. “The body gets us to act by making us feel these uncomfortable sensations that we seek to escape. It’s called homeostasis. If you feel cold, you put on a jacket. If you feel warm, you take it off. All human behavior — distraction included — starts from an internal trigger,” says Eyal.
Here are a few simple ways that Eyal recommends we meet internal triggers head-on:
Note the sensation. Eyal recommends noting when you are distracted, then looking for the emotion that triggered it. “Maybe it’s, ‘Hey, you know what? I was working on this task. I got bored, and I got up from my chair and I went to talk to Steve across the hall,’” says Eyal. “By simply noting the reason, we can start to pinpoint the sensation and unpack the negative feeling.”
Crowd out with curiosity. Be inquisitive — versus judgemental — about your internal triggers. “What was the emotion that you were trying to escape? Was it boredom? Was it loneliness? Was it uncertainty? Was it fear that you couldn't do the task? Only when we hone in on that underlying emotion, can we start finding a different way to deal with that emotion than reflexively trying to escape from it altogether,” says Eyal.
As you pay closer attention to your triggers, be compassionate with yourself. Everyone avoids tasks from time to time. But if you start to identify patterns — tasks that you never want to start — consider whether there’s a larger story there. “You can use all these different tricks for a while, but eventually over time, if you really don't want to do the task, it might be time to look for deeper reasons why this might not be the right task for you,” says Eyal.
Even after you’ve made time for traction, gotten in front of external triggers and noted internal triggers, you still may need support to stay on track. Eyal emphasizes the power of pacts, and here’s how you can establish them effectively to reduce distractions:
Create a Ulysses pact. In a Ulysses pact, you make a deal of sorts with future you, locking yourself into a given task for a given amount of time. Just as Ulysses set up a series of constraints so he could hear the sirens’ song but still make it out alive, you can plan around your own weakness in the face of distraction.“While technology may have created a lot more distractions, the good news is that it’s also yielded some interesting tools to help achieve a kind of forced focus,” says Eyal. “For example, when I need to have focused writing time, I use an app called Forest, which blocks off my phone for a specific period of time.”
Find a focus partner. One of the challenges of the modern workplace is too much flexibility, and too little accountability for what you’re doing all day long. “Part of the problem that we have today with people working remotely or working in offices where you don't really know what everybody's up to is that goofing off looks the same as working hard,” say Eyal. So find a colleague and create that accountability. Sit down together, in person or virtually, and tell each other what you are going to get done for the next hour. Then, keep each other accountable to do that task.
Reimagine the task. You can also make your task itself more appealing, more engaging, by looking at it in a different light. “My friend Ian Bogost is a professor at Georgia Tech, and he studies play. It's fascinating. He wrote a book called Play Anything. What he said is that you can make any task into play and to make it fun by looking for the variability inside the task.“Even if a task at first seems boring, look for the variabilities. Look for the uncertainty,” says Eyal. “Look for what might be different. You might time yourself. You might see if you can do it a little differently. You might see if you can do it a little bit better.”
There are some industries, of course, where demanding and inflexible hours are unavoidable. “If you're a physician, the way the system works to be a doctor, you have these on-call hours. It's very difficult to say no, no, no, I don't want to work those hours,” says Eyal. “Sorry. That's just the way that industry works. Anyone who’s applied to med school knows that’s how it works.”
Too many companies, though, wrongly claim that they can’t do anything about their always-on culture, that it’s simply the way things are now. “They don't hire more people. They don't have discussions around how can we have a better tech-use culture. Frankly, they’re just scared and unimaginative,” says Eyal. “Once you figure out what people want, then it's about having the discussion to solve the problem. Just like any other business problem. You come up with a solution and you try it. You see how it's working for folks. If it's not working, you try the next possible option.”
Resist the urge to skip straight to the solution, though. There’s no one-size-fits-all fix, no way to get out of doing the work. “Some productivity gurus out there will say what everybody needs to do is implement no-email Fridays. Or no-meeting Wednesdays,” says Eyal. “That's also foolish. It skips to the outcome without the critical step of changing the company culture. The solution has to come organically by involving others and figuring out the best thing for your company.”
So open a dialogue. Engage the team, and begin listening to what people actually need to do well at their jobs. One change likely won’t do it. What you’re after is a holistic culture shift. “People have the best intentions. They want to do well at their job. They want to be seen as a hustler, so they will show others that they're always on,” says Eyal. “Unless you put the brakes on that and say, ‘Look, this is not what's rewarded here,’ it will perpetuate no matter what the technology is.”
To get started, convene your leadership team and start hashing out the kind of company you want to be. The questions you need to ask aren’t complicated, but they are crucial:
What kind of life do we want here?
How are we going to use technology?
When are we going to be off? When are we going to be on?
More often than not, as you talk to leadership, and eventually the broader company, a consensus emerges. Maybe people want one or two days a week free from technology, or maybe they want offline hours every day. The solution might simply be making it okay to not respond to email right away, or creating a culture where it’s understood that people are blocking hours out in their calendar to accomplish focused work.
Whether you’re in the early stages of culture building or simply course-correcting, fixing a culture of distraction should be a top priority. “Let me tell you, it behooves you. Few things that you can do are more important than retaining your best people,” says Eyal. “If you don't do something about your relentless, hard-charging culture, it turns out that not only do people perform non-optimally, they also tend to leave.”
When you foster a culture of focus, on the other hand, you’re not only doing right by your team, you’re also making a smart business decision. “The outcome of giving people space to do what they say they're going to do is that you get more deliberate action. You don't get people running around reacting to stuff. You get people reflecting on what's actually important.”
If you want novel solutions and employees that stick around, give people time to disconnect.
Left unaddressed, distractions can be perilous for startup teams. Try his four-step model to better manage distractions: make time for traction, hack back external triggers, note internal triggers and reduce distractions with pacts. First, get traction by planning your way out of scheduling distractions by mapping out your ideal weekly template and use tech tools to unload low-value work like scheduling meetings.. Then, control external triggers by signaling your schedule to co-workers, disabling notifications on your devices and labeling email by urgency, not subject. Try taking things offline when need be and use office hours to compartmentalize requests. Then, address internal distractions by noting sensations and finding healthier ways to manage them. Finally, form pacts such as creating a Ulysses pact with your future self or finding a focus partner to help with accountability.
“Here are a few key reminders: First, with all the distractions around and within us, we will all fail at some point on the path to becoming indistractable. Practice self-compassion. Studies show that people who are more self-compassionate are more likely to reach their long-term goals. Be kind to yourself as you would a friend. Second, take time away. If you’ve simply accepted that you can only do real thought work at night — that the workday is for meetings and emails — stop. You’re doing a disservice to yourself, your work, and everyone else in your life. When we do that, we're essentially stealing that time from people who are important to us,” says Eyal. “Remember: if we want to have sustainable careers, we need important people in our lives that help sustain us. If your life really is all about work and nothing else is important to you, then great. Fill it up with work. But if that's not the case — if you have other things in your life that are important to you—those things also deserve scheduled time in your day, as do you.”