Book Review: Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life

Note: This review refers to the audiobook edition.

Perhaps Nir Eyal feels as if he has to right the wrongs that were enabled by companies taking the concepts in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products too far. Or perhaps he sees the value in playing the mercenary in the epic battle for attention between companies’ and consumers’ interests. In either case, his latest book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life leverages five years of reviewed research and personal experience to help adults, organizations, and kids defeat distraction. I focused mostly on the first cohort.

A few defining early points lay the groundwork for Eyal’s process. First, while I tend to think of the opposite of distraction as “focus,” Eyal defines it literally as “traction,” referring to the original word root. Much of the book then lays out how we must make time for traction with techniques such as time blocks and prevent distraction with techniques such as pacts (Many of Eyal’s tips for preventing distraction will be familiar to those who have read Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, who curiously are not among the many credited authors and researchers.) In addition, he discusses how to master internal triggers and hack back external triggers, be they the latest Facebook notification or a chatty coworker.

Second, we tend to think of distracting behavior as fun pursuits when we are trying to get work done, but Eyal points out that what is distracting depends on what we’re trying to accomplish. In other words, if we have blocked out time to play video games because that’s how we want to spend our time, then tending to a work email may actually be the distraction.

The discussion on external triggers discusses many of the kinds of tools that this website is devoted to; many will be discussed in future posts. However, Eyal is careful not to blame technology for distraction. Indeed, early in the book, he describes several failed experiments he undertook in technological prior restraint, such as switching to a flip phone; these were either too restrictive or ineffective without the other parts of Eyal’s framework. Rather, he is focused on achieving balance using tech to your advantage. Some of the methods he discusses involve, for example, circumventing ads, which is ethically gray and could break down the line if publishers see them as a threat.

Many audiobooks have companion downloads to, for example, illustrate concepts that can’t be conveyed via audio, but Eyal has done his listeners a great service with an 80-page PDF workbook at his website that summarizes key points in the book, an especially thoughtful aid for books like these where it can be tough to remember.

Indistractable is a trove of well-presented research and techniques that elevate the quest for focus beyond crossing off the next to-do item to a skill critical for achieving the kind of life you want. It’s definitely worth a read or listen.

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