Here’s My Review of The Social Dilemma: No, Social Media Is Not “Hijacking” Your Brain

Here’s My Review of The Social Dilemma: No, Social Media Is Not “Hijacking” Your Brain

Over the past few weeks, people have asked me for my review of the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. It’s no surprise. One of the film’s central themes is that social media is like an addictive drug, and I wrote the book on habit-forming technologies: Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. I also have a personal connection to the film.

In August of 2018, I sat with the filmmakers for a three-hour interview. We discussed everything from the subject matter of Hooked and my second book, Indistractable, to the ethics of social-media use and how we can learn to live with the digital tools that pervade our lives. I was glad to share my perspective; it was a rich and engaging discussion.

Or, at least I thought it was. As it turned out, my commentary was excluded from the film. The filmmakers are free to do that, of course—and truthfully, this isn’t about me; it’s about people’s daily struggles with technology.

I spoke about those struggles in my interview with the filmmakers: we know that social networks and modern tools like email offer us a great deal, but we also know that we need to learn to live with them in a more sustainable way. The goal of my work, particularly of late, is figuring out how to strike that balance.

I don’t think I’m alone in this desire. In fact, I imagine that’s how the vast majority of the audience for The Social Dilemma feels. We use social networks to connect with others, but we’d like more time to disconnect from it all. We’re glad that Facebook lets us get in touch with long-lost friends and keep track of birthdays, but we’re concerned about filter bubbles, viral hate, and newsfeeds masquerading as news. We’re grateful for the instantaneous communication available through smartphones and email, but we don’t want those digital tools interrupting our efforts to communicate with our analog children and friends. In short, we value the good and want to limit the bad.

What I had hoped to see in The Social Dilemma was a sober, evidenced-based dissection of these complex realities. I was disappointed when the film instead advanced a narrative that depicted social media, YouTube, Google, and so many other tech platforms, tools, and companies as mind-controlling monoliths that are “hijacking” our brains, leaving us to do what they want with no resistance. I was also dismayed to see disregard for research that would have challenged its conclusions. Above all, I was alarmed that the film did nothing to inform its viewers what they could do to solve the problems it showcases.

Well…not exactly nothing.

As the film’s end credits begin to roll, the interviewees offer a few half-hearted solutions: delete the apps from your phone, shutter your social media accounts, and hope the government steps in to do something.

Huh?

female with confused huh expression
The key to using internet technologies more responsibly is to sit on our hands in a bunker of social-media isolation and wait for Congress to fix things? Really?

Those of us who use these tools regularly can be forgiven for rolling our eyes. Most of us don’t want to throw the social media baby out with the bathwater, and even more of us wouldn’t trust Congress to organize a one-car parade these days.

These aren’t realistic solutions to real problems, and, while it’s impossible to measure, my bet is that very few people in the viewing audience took any action after seeing the film. How could they?

The film is the effective equivalent of going to the doctor, receiving a disturbing diagnosis, and having the same doctor shrug his shoulders when asked about the treatment. Worse, imagine if the doctor actually had helpful medicine but didn’t tell you about it because he assumed you’re too lazy or incapable to take it. That’s malpractice and it’s exactly what the filmmakers did. They knew the antidote but didn’t share it with viewers. Why would they do this? Because what I told them didn’t fit the predetermined narrative of the film.

 illustration of doctor giving hopeless diagnosis

OMG! Are we in the Matrix?!

The way the film depicts things, we’re supposed to believe that we’re powerless pawns whose minds are completely controlled by algorithms, that social networks are too big to contain or control, that their insidious tendrils have wormed their way into every corner of human life, and that they have penetrated the depths of the human brain where they manipulate people’s wills with the coercive force of mind-altering drugs.

All of this makes for riveting drama in the mold of sci-fi horror classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Terminator, Alien, and Cloverfield. When we watch these films, the overall effect is a thrill-ride experience. Like a roller coaster, it’s something that feels dangerous even though in reality it’s safer than driving your kids to soccer practice. The illusion of danger makes these films entertaining. It makes The Social Dilemma entertaining as well.

There is, of course, a difference. What makes thrilling film experiences possible is an implicit agreement between us and the filmmakers—they agree to present a story that makes our hair stand on end, and we agree to ignore the ways the story skirts reality or fudges facts. The Social Dilemma’s clever twist is that we’re informed of no such agreement. It’s billed as a documentary. It’s supposed to be real. Despite that, the filmmakers use some of the same dramatic techniques as the films mentioned above. Chief among them is the illusion of being powerless.

social media users portrayed as voodoo doll

In the film, The Social Dilemma, people are portrayed as virtual “voodoo dolls” controlled by ominous algorithms. But are we really helpless victims, or is the film manipulating our emotions to have us believe we are powerless?

Feeling powerless is one of the things that makes horror horrifying. The protagonists are powerless to fight the monsters, and we’re powerless to help them: “Don’t open the door!” “Grab the gun!” “Forget the cat, you fool!” “Run!!!” The temporary feeling of powerlessness is part of what makes horror films fun (if you’re into that kind of thing). When it’s all over, you can breathe a sigh of relief that you’re not really as powerless as you felt.

The illusion of powerlessness depends on two things: stronger-than-life monsters and weaker-than-life protagonists. Seen in this light, it’s clear why the film couldn’t present reasonable, level-headed solutions to the problems that social media poses—it would have burst the dramatic bubble the filmmakers worked so hard to create.

If social media and its close cousins really are such powerful corrupting forces, if Mark Zuckerberg and other tech-industry leaders really are canny digital Darth Vaders, if social media and its ilk really are addictive drugs that hijack the brain, you really can’t finish the story with seven nifty tips for curbing your social media intake. When the monster is so monstrous and the stakes so high, the only appropriate dramatic finish is to call in the fighter jets and missile strikes—or the legislative analogues thereof.

The Social Dilemma is good drama, but good drama can trigger bad decisions. The reality of social media and its challenges is much more mundane than the film depicts. We are not powerless, social media is not a drug, and we are not pawns—unless we want to be.

No, you’re not in the Matrix

If my research has led me to any conclusions about technology, habits, and a balanced use of social media, it’s this: you are far from powerless. In reality, you can do a lot short of killing your LinkedIn account and nuking your Instagram handle. You can learn, as dieters do, that all things in moderation can actually work better than going cold turkey, that the mean between extremes is the path of progress.

Today, there are countless ways to reclaim your time and attention and find the right balance of social-media use, including a cottage industry of tools, like apps that cleverly limit the time spent on certain websites, and movements to disconnect for periods of time. Creative technologists and designers have built products to limit tracking, defeat the temptation of watching the next video on YouTube, and even block Facebook’s Newsfeed altogether. These tools work, and there’s nothing big bad tech companies can do to reach into your device and uninstall them. We can all take action and take steps to limit distraction and the bad aspects of social media, starting right now.

Why would we wait for politicians or the tech companies to fix this for us? If you hold your breath, you’re going to suffocate.

Our ability to take action to change our circumstances gives us hope and ultimately improves our lives. But freedom is precisely what we agree to check at the cinema door when we watch a horror flick. It’s also what we’re expected to disregard when we watch The Social Dilemma whose dramatic elements cleave too closely to the horror genre to ignore.,/p>

Films like this have to entertain and grab viewers, and perhaps the best way to do that is to fudge facts and go whole hog presenting a single point of view. You can quibble with that, but you can also understand the impulse—there’s a lot of great stuff on Netflix, and if you’re competing for attention with The Last Dance and The Crown, you’ve got to sell the sizzle and the steak. It’s a tough streaming world out there.

Acknowledging all that, viewer discretion is advised! If you decide to check your ability to make decisions at the door, don’t forget to pick it up again on the way out! Don’t forget that you are a powerful individual.

In a recent interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Tristan Harris, the main character in The Social Dilemma, restated a theme from the film saying, “We are all, three billion of us, forced to use technology platforms that are not aligned with the public or social good.”

Again, this is good drama, but it’s a bad description of reality. In reality, we are not “forced” to use social media. Even if we acknowledge that these services are valuable—even essential—for accomplishing various tasks, no one is forcing us to use them in excess or even in the way social-media executives intend.

The film is right that there are tech companies (including Netflix) that want to influence what you think, how you feel, and what you do. Ironically, they relish the metaphor that some people are “addicted to technology” the way others are addicted to drugs, and would love for you to buy into the illusion that you’re powerless to resist their content. Why? Because they know that when people think there’s nothing they can do about a problem, they stop trying to fix it. In psychology, this principle is called “learned helplessness.”

If you’re convinced you’re powerless to combat a sinister technology seeking to colonize your life, you’ll stay plugged in, waiting in vain for your senator to fix the problem. In reality, you could be fixing the problem yourself much more quickly and effectively. You could be taking steps to moderate your social-media use and teaching your children to do the same.

Is it effortless? No. It’s hard to hear your kids whining for more time online and it’s not always easy to stop scrolling sometimes. I get it. I’ve been there too. But like many good things in life, it’s worth the work. We can do this if we try. The trouble is, brainwashed by the disempowering message in The Social Dilemma, many people won’t even take the first step. “Why bother if it’s hopeless?,” they think.

Hacking Back Against Big Tech

If social media companies are indeed trying to “hack” our attention, who says we can’t hack back? Nothing prevents us from taking action right now to curb our social-media use except our own willingness to do nothing.

My hope is that viewers who finish the film and who are concerned about the effects of social networks explore real solutions.

One answer—the one that’s worked for me and I shared in detail with the filmmakers—is becoming indistractable. I call this the skill of the century, because it empowers you to take control of your attention and your life without having to beg for mercy from the tech giants. I embarked on my research and developed this method to solve my own problems with distraction, and you can use what I’ve learned to take action in your own life.

First realize that you’re more powerful than you think. Specifically, you’re more powerful than the technology you’re using.

How do I know? Because I literally wrote the book on how social media gets you hooked. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products was published in 2014, and it reveals the psychology behind Silicon Valley’s most sticky products. I know all their tricks, and I can tell you with assurance, these tactics are good, but they’re not THAT good.

Rather than The Matrix, a better film analog might be Indiana Jones. Think of the scene where Indiana is confronted by his sword-wielding nemesis. The swordsman’s skills and tricks are intimidating. But rather than getting overwhelmed with fear, all our hero has to do is remember he’s not powerless, take out his revolver, and shoot. Bang! Problem solved.

Like Indiana Jones, we’re far more powerful than the tech companies, despite their persuasive tricks.

Here are a few of the powers you have:

The power to master internal triggers

What really prompts you to compulsively look at your phone, or scroll a social media feed?

If you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize the trigger isn’t just what’s on your phone but also what’s on your mind. Our behaviors are not only triggered by external triggers, like pings, dings, and rings, but also by internal triggers like feeling bored, lonely, anxious, or stressed.

Whether the distraction is too much booze, news, food, or Facebook, the root cause is the same: a desire to escape emotional discomfort. It’s called an internal trigger, and when we understand the source of our need for psychological escape, we can do something about it.

I’m a fan of the methods developed by Dr. Jonathan Bricker of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. It’s a set of steps you can take to deal with internal triggers that can lead you astray, like the temptation to check social media when you decided to do something else. Here are the broad strokes:

  1. Identify the feeling or thought behind your urge: When you find yourself on the brink of distraction, find the internal trigger that is prompting you to do so. Are you feeling anxious, restless, maybe even poorly qualified for the task?
  2. Write it down: Bricker advises that you write down that feeling, along with the time of day and what you were doing when you felt that internal trigger. Keeping a log of distractions will help you link behaviors with their internal triggers. The better you become at noticing the thoughts and feelings that precede certain behaviors, the better you will become at managing them over time.
  3. Explore the sensation: Bricker advises getting curious about the sensations that precede distraction. Do you get butterflies in your stomach? A tightening in your chest? Bricker recommends that you stay with that feeling before following your impulse. He recommends trying the “leaves on a stream” method. Imagine yourself beside a stream, on which leaves gently float by. Place each thought and negative feeling in your mind on one leaf and watch them float away.

This technique, which hinges on acknowledging the trigger, works not only for digital distraction, but also for smoking cessation. In fact, developing mindfulness of the internal triggers that cause people to reach for a cigarette is one of the most effective approaches to this problem. If it can work for something as addictive as nicotine, it can certainly work for frivolous apps. Afterall, app use is a behavior, not a substance entering the bloodstream.

As a way to start mastering internal triggers, I suggest the 10-minute rule. When you get tempted by a distraction, tell yourself, “I can give in to that distraction in just 10 minutes. Just 10 minutes.” For example, the next time you feel the urge to check Twitter, set a timer for 10 minutes, and don’t touch Twitter until the timer is up. During those 10 minutes, use Bricker’s techniques to surf the urge.

If after 10 minutes you still feel the urge, then go right ahead. However, you’ll likely be surprised to find that when the time is up, you won’t feel the urge anymore. That’s because these internal triggers are, by nature, ephemeral. They come and go in short-lived waves. Once you recognize this, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to ride out the wave like a surfer on a surfboard.

The power to make time for what really matters

We should be stingy with our time. This means deliberately making time for the things you say you want to focus on, like family, friends, hobbies—whatever you value.

Many top performers use a technique called timeboxing to do exactly this. Down to the minute, they know how they’re going to be spending their time. If 5:00pm to 7:00pm is family time, it’s listed as such on their calendars. Doing anything besides that is a distraction, because they’ve already decided family time is what really matters.

If spending time catching up with friends over social media is consistent with your values, schedule time for that too. Love playing video games? Great! Make time for it on your calendar as well. The time you plan to waste is not wasted time.

If you’ve never done it before, building your values into your schedule could be the most life-changing thing you do today. Here’s a complete guide to building your own timeboxed schedule.

Remember, you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. Everything is a distraction if you don’t decide in advance how you want to spend your time. There’s nothing wrong with spending time online as long as you spend it according to your schedule and your values, not the tech company’s.

The power to remove external triggers

Once you’ve done the preliminary work of figuring out how you will deal with your internal triggers and turned your values into time, you have the power to purge pesky external triggers—those distracting pings and dings—from your life.

Ironically, it’s in our work environments that we’re often the most distracted from doing our work. Notifications are a big part of this. So, take a good look at the notifications that you have activated, both on your phone and on your computer. How many interruptions do you have during the day? Are they all necessary? Probably not. In just a few minutes, you can change your notification settings so the technology serves you instead of you serving it.

We can also use tech to fight tech distraction and, like adjusting our notification settings, there’s nothing Zuckerberg or any of the other social media CEOs can do about it. Here are a few free technologies to help you hack back digital distraction:

  • SelfControl: I use this app every day and recommend it to everyone. It helps you block out distracting websites when you want to stay focused.
  • News Feed Eradicator for Facebook: This free browser extension does exactly what it says: it makes your News Feed disappear, so you can use the best of Facebook without getting pulled into the content vortex. You can do the same with almost any social network, including Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram, with the countless apps out there such as Feedless.
  • Distraction Free for YouTube: This is another free browser extension that scrubs ads and recommended videos from YouTube, so you watch only what you intended to watch.

The power to make pacts that prevent distraction

Finally, the last step to becoming indistractable is to prevent distraction with pacts. A pact is a decision you cement well in advance of the temptations that might come.

There are three types of pacts:

An effort pact is a kind of precommitment that involves increasing the amount of effort required to do something you don’t want to do. Effort pacts work by forcing you to ask, “Is this really worth it?”

For instance, in my household, we use an outlet timer to turn off our internet router every night at 10 pm. Of course, if I really wanted to, I could find a way to turn it back on, but that would require extra effort. The brief pause to consider whether I’d prefer to go to bed with my wife, versus scrolling social media, is enough to remind me of what’s really important.

A price pact puts money on the line. I recommend making a pact with an “accountability partner.” This means if you get distracted and fail to do what you said you’d do, you’ll have to hand over some amount of money to that person. This is another technique that has superb results in smoking cessation studies and can be adapted to help prevent us from getting distracted by our devices.

Finally, an identity pact is one of the most powerful ways to overcome distraction. By encoding your values into your self-assigned identity, you can empower yourself to make decisions based on who you believe you are. For example, people who call themselves “vegetarians” don’t have to expend much willpower to avoid eating meat. It’s just who they are, so it’s what they do.

I have an identity pact that’s free for you to use, if you want to join me. Instead of telling yourself you’re a person with a “short attention span” or an “addictive personality,” tell yourself, “I am indistractable.”

If you tell yourself you’re the kind of person who is easily distracted, it instantly becomes true. If you think the tech companies have turned you and your kids into “virtual voodoo dolls,” you’ll be right. However, if you believe that you are indistractable, you claim the power over your life that is rightfully yours.

Believe in your agency

We have the power to control our tech habits, but only if we believe we can. If we believe we’re not in control, we’re doomed before we start. Why try if we’re convinced the algorithms are more powerful than we are? Why have conversations with our children and coworkers if movies like The Social Dilemma tell us it’s pointless?

Those conversations aren’t pointless, they’re critical. Don’t let filmmakers, tech companies, or anyone else rob you of this freedom. You have a choice, if you want it. You can be indistractable.

Top Distraction Articles

This is How to be Less Distracted By Having Fun in Tedious Tasks

This is How to be Less Distracted By Having Fun in Tedious Tasks

Want to be Less Distracted? Try This: Find the Fun in Tedious Tasks

From comic books and radio programs to TV shows and Atari games, the world has always been full of things that distract us. Today, most of us blame our phones or, more specifically, social media, Words with Friends, or Netflix as the reason we can’t get anything done.

Yet these aren’t the real culprits. Instead, our distraction is usually driven by our desire to escape discomfort, including boredom, fear, and anxiety — or tasks in our work calendar that don’t sync with how we value our time (see How to Get the Most out of your Calendar). When you binge on The Office rather than doing your taxes, watching Michael, Pam, and Dwight is your (understandable) way of avoiding an activity you deem to be a tedious task. The secret to staying focused at times like these is not to abstain from The Office — you’ll just find another distraction — but to change your perspective on the task itself.

Ian Bogost studies fun for a living. A professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Bogost has written 10 books, including quirky titles like How to Talk About Videogames, The Geek’s Chihuahua, and, most recently, Play Anything. In the latter book, Bogost makes several bold claims that challenge how we think about fun and play. “Fun,” he writes, “turns out to be fun even if it doesn’t involve much (or any) enjoyment.”

Huh? Doesn’t fun have to feel good? Not necessarily, Bogost says. By relinquishing our notions about what fun should feel like, we open ourselves up to seeing our daily activities in a new way. Play can be part of any difficult task, he believes, and though play doesn’t necessarily have to be pleasurable, it can free us from discomfort — which, let’s not forget, is the central ingredient driving distraction.

Given what we know about our propensity for distraction when we’re uncomfortable, reimagining difficult work as fun could prove incredibly empowering. Imagine how powerful you’d feel if you were able to transform the hard, focused work you have to do into something that felt like play.

Is that even possible? Bogost thinks it is, but probably not in the way you think.

Don’t Sugarcoat It

We’ve all heard Mary Poppins’s advice to add “a spoonful of sugar” and turn a job into a game. Well, Bogost believes Poppins was wrong. He claims her approach “recommends covering over drudgery.” As he writes, “We fail to have fun because we don’t take things seriously enough, not because we take them so seriously that we’d have to cut their bitter taste with sugar. Fun is not a feeling so much as an exhaust produced when an operator can treat something with dignity.”

“Fun is the aftermath of deliberately manipulating a familiar situation in a new way,” Bogost says. The answer, therefore, is to focus on the task itself. Instead of running away from our pain or using rewards like prizes and treats to help motivate us, the idea is to pay such close attention that you find new challenges you didn’t see before. Those new challenges provide the novelty to engage our attention and maintain focus when tempted by distraction.

TV, social media, and other commercially produced distractions use slot machine-like variable rewards to keep us engaged with a constant stream of newness. Bogost points out that we can use the same techniques to make any task more pleasurable and compelling. He gives the example of mowing his lawn. “It may seem ridiculous to call an activity like this ‘fun,’” he writes, yet he learned to love it.

There is Novelty in Even the Most Tedious Tasks

“Pay close, foolish, even absurd attention to things,” he says. Bogost soaked up as much information as he could about the way grass grows and how to treat it. Then, he created an “imaginary playground” in which the limitations actually helped to produce meaningful experiences. He learned about the constraints he had to operate under, including local weather conditions and what different kinds of equipment can and can’t do. Operating under constraints, Bogost says, is the key to creativity and fun. Finding the optimal path for the mower or beating a record time are other ways to create an imaginary playground.

While learning how to have fun cutting grass may seem like a stretch, people find fun in a wide range of activities that you might not find particularly interesting. Consider my local coffee-obsessed barista who spends a ridiculous amount of time refining the perfect brew, the car buff who toils for countless hours fine-tuning her ride, or the crafter who painstakingly produces intricate sweaters and quilts for everyone he knows. Of course, these people don’t find these activities to be tedious tasks at all; to them, they’re the most fascinating and enthralling things in the entire world. But you can try bringing their mindset — their love of minutiae, their pride in mastery, their eternal yearning to do better — to some of your most dreaded tasks.

For me, I learned to stay focused on the sometimes tedious work of writing books by finding the mystery in it. I write to answer interesting questions and discover novel solutions to old problems. To use a popular aphorism, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” Today, I write for the fun of it. Of course, it’s also my profession, but by finding the fun, I’m able to do my work without getting as distracted as I once did.

Remember: Finding novelty is only possible when we give ourselves the time to focus intently on a task and look hard for the variability. The great thinkers and tinkerers of history made their discoveries because they were obsessed with the intoxicating draw of discovery, the mystery that pulls us in because we want to know more. Whether it’s uncertainty about our ability to do a task better or faster than last time or coming back to question the unknown day after day, the quest to solve these challenges is what can turn the discomfort we seek to escape into an activity we embrace.

Excerpted from the new book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal.

This article also appeared on Ted.com.

Top Focus Articles

5 Ways to Distraction-Train Your Mind

5 Ways to Distraction-Train Your Mind

Recently, the BBC asked me to provide a few tips for how to distraction-train our minds to manage distraction. Notice the phrasing. It’s not about how to eliminate distractions from your phone or your computer, but rather it’s about us. To regain control over our attention, our time, and our life, you need to first regain your brain. In this animated video, I provide some practical advice for how we can finally take matters into our own hands to fight distractions instead of waiting for the tech companies to fix the problem for us.

The following is a transcript of the video:

Do you ever find yourself trying to concentrate and you can’t seem to focus? Why are we so distracted these days? And is technology the root cause of the problem, or is there something deeper going on?

My name is Nir Eyal, and I’ve spent the last five years researching and writing about the deeper psychology of distraction.

When I found myself struggling with distraction, I decided to do what many people advise and got rid of the distracting technology.

I got myself a flip-phone without any apps. All it did was phone calls and text messages. Then I got a got processor from the 1990s without any sort of internet connection.

I’d start reading a book from my bookshelf. I’d tidy up my desk. I’d take out the trash even–just to avoid the thing that I didn’t want to do.

I had only focused on the external triggers–the pings and dings that were leading me toward distraction.

What I hadn’t focused on and what turns out to be a much more common source of distraction, are the internal triggers–the uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to escape.

When we’re lonely, we check Facebook.

When we’re uncertain, we google.

When we’re bored, we check the news, stock prices, sports scores–anything to not feel those uncomfortable sensations that we’re not ready to experience.

Here are a few techniques I discovered in my research that could help us stay on track.

1. Plan your day (but not with a to-do list)

First what you want to do is to make sure you plan your day.

Two-thirds of people don’t keep any sort of calendar–any kind of schedule in their day. Well, the fact of the matter is if you don’t plan your day, somebody is going to plan it for you.

Many of us believe in this myth of the to-do list. I used to think that just by writing things down they’d get done. But of course, I’d go from day to day to day recycling the bottom half of my to-do list because I wasn’t making time to do those tasks.

So the best place to start is not with the output of what you want to get done every day, but with the input of how much time you have to devote to every task.

2. Use social media and email at set times

So distraction has many consequences.

One of them is that we find that when someone is interrupted during a task, it can take up to twenty minutes for them to refocus on what they were doing. Many times we don’t even realize how much worse our output is when we…

[phone crush]

So check email in one solid block.

If you enjoy using social media, that’s great, but make time for it in your day so it’s not something you’re only using every time you feel bored or lonely.

3. Surf the urge

Researchers have found that surfing the urge is an effective way to master our internal triggers.

In a smoking cessation study, researchers found that when they taught smokers how to notice the sensation and be mindful of what they were experiencing, they become much more likely to stop smoking.

By surfing the urge and noticing what it is that we’re experiencing and allowing that sensation to crest then subside–kind of like how a surfer might surf a wave–we allow that emotion, that uncomfortable internal trigger, to crest and then pass.

4. Beware of “liminal moments”.

The next thing that we want to do is be careful of liminal moments. Liminal moments are these periods of time when we are transitioning from one task to the other.

So, for example, if you start checking your email on the way back from a meeting and you’re finally at your desk and you keep checking your email instead of getting to the task at hand, well not that liminal moment has turned into a distraction.

So be careful of those times when you’re transitioning from one task to the next.

5. Remember you’re not powerless.

A study of alcoholics found that the number one determinant of whether someone will stay sober after a rehabilitation program was not their level of physical dependency–it wasn’t what was happening in their body. In fact, it was what was happening in their minds.

The people who were most likely to stay sober were those who believed they had the power to stop.

So when we think that technology is hijacking our brains or it’s addicting everyone, we are making it more likely that we won’t be able to put technology distractions in their place.

So don’t believe this lie that there’s nothing we can do.

Clearly there’s so much we can do to help make sure that we get the best out of these products without letting them get the best of us.

This video first appeared on BBC.
If Tech Is So Distracting, How Do Slack Employees Stay So Focused?

If Tech Is So Distracting, How Do Slack Employees Stay So Focused?

How Slack’s culture kills distraction by building psychological safety, telling employees to go home, and using lots and lots of emojis.

If there’s one technology that embodies the unreasonable demands of the always-on work culture that pervades so many companies today, it’s Slack. The group-chat app can make users feel tethered to their devices, often at the expense of doing more important tasks.

Over 10 million people log on to Slack every day. Slack’s own employees, of course, use Slack—they use it a lot. And if distraction is caused by technology, then they should surely suffer the consequences. Surprisingly, according to media reports and Slack employees I spoke with, the company doesn’t have that problem.

How Slack’s Culture Kills Distraction

If you were to walk around Slack’s company headquarters in San Francisco, you’d notice a peculiar slogan on the hallway walls. White letters on a bright pink background blare, “Work hard and go home.” It’s not the kind of motto you’d expect to see at a Silicon Valley company that makes the very tool many people say keeps them at work, even after they’ve gone home.

However, at Slack, people know when to log off. According to a 2015 article in Inc. magazine that named Slack its Company of the Year, the slogan is more than just talk. By 6:30 p.m., “Slack’s offices have pretty much cleared out.” And according to the article, “That’s how [Slack CEO] Butterfield wants it.”

Like what you’re reading? This article draws on my book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. You can purchase it here and subscribe to my newsletter to receive more great articles.

Surely, Slack employees log back in when they get home, right? Wrong. In fact, they are discouraged from using Slack after they’ve left. According to Amir Shevat, Slack’s former director of developer relations, people there understand the norm is to know when to disconnect. “It’s not polite to send direct messages after hours or during weekends,” he adds.

Slack’s corporate culture is an example of a work environment that hasn’t succumbed to the maddening cycle of responsiveness endemic to so many organizations today.

Knowing When to Disconnect Is The Norm

To facilitate focus, Slack’s culture goes even deeper than its slogans. Slack management leads by example to encourage employees to take time to disconnect. In an interview with OpenView Labs, Bill Macaitis, who served as Slack’s chief revenue officer and chief marketing officer, states, “You need to have uninterrupted work time . . . This is why—whether I’m dealing with Slack or email—I always block off time to go in and check messages and then return to uninterrupted work.”

The fact that someone as senior as Macaitis makes uninterrupted work a priority and goes as far as scheduling time for email and Slack sends a profound message to his colleagues.

Shevat echoes Macaitis’s sentiment. At Slack, he said, “It’s okay to be offline.” He is religious about giving his coworkers his complete attention when meeting in person, “When I give someone my time, I’m focused 100 percent and never open a phone during a meeting. That is super important for me.”

Shevat also revealed how Slack employees stay offline outside office hours. Slack has a Do Not Disturb feature that users can turn on when it’s time to focus on what they really want to do, whether it’s working on an important project or spending time with family or friends. Shevat told me that if an employee tries to send a message when they shouldn’t, “you will get hit by the Do Not Disturb feature. If it’s after hours, it turns on automatically, so you don’t get direct messages until you get back to work.”

Most important, the culture at Slack ensures employees have a place to discuss their concerns. Several studies have found companies that make time to discuss their issues are more likely to foster psychological safety and hear the looming problems employees would otherwise keep to themselves.

Dealing with distraction starts by understanding what’s going on inside us. If employees are unhappy, they will find ways to address their feelings one way or another—whether in a healthy way or not. Ensuring employees have a forum to voice problems to company leadership helps Slack team members relieve the psychological strain found in toxic work environments.

But how does a company as big as Slack make sure everyone has a place to feel heard? This is where the company’s own technology comes in handy. The group-chat tool facilitates the regular discussions needed to foster psychological safety while coming to consensus quickly. How do they do it? Though it may seem inconceivable, Shevat credits emoji.

Slack Channels For Everything

At Slack, there’s a channel for everything, he says. “[There is] a channel for people who want to get lunch together, a channel for sharing pet photos, even a Star Wars channel.” These separate channels not only save others from the sort of off-topic conversations that clog up email and make in-person meetings unbearable—they also give people a safe place to send feedback.

Among the many Slack channels, the ones company leadership takes most seriously are the feedback channels. They are not just for sharing opinions on the latest product release; they are also for sharing thoughts about how to improve as a company. There is a dedicated channel called #slack-culture and another called #exec-ama where executives invite employees to “ask me anything.”

Shevat says, “People will post all sorts of suggestions and are encouraged to do so.” There’s even a special channel for airing your “beefs” with the company’s own product, called #beef-tweets. “Sometimes comments can get very prickly,” Shevat says. But the important thing is that they’re aired and heard.

Here’s where emoji can come to the rescue. “Management lets people know they’ve read their feedback with an eyes emoji,” explains Shevat. “Other times, if something is handled or fixed, someone will respond with a check mark,” Shevat explains.

Of course, not every conversation at every company should take place in a group chat. Slack also conducts regular all-hands meetings where employees can ask senior management questions directly. No matter the format, giving employees a way to send feedback and also know it’s been heard by someone who can help lets employees know they have a voice.

Whether employees’ feedback is heard during small group meetings, company-wide meetings, or over group-chat channels isn’t the point; what matters is that there is an outlet that management cares about, uses, and responds to. It is critical to the well-being of a company and its employees.

The Future of the Indistractable Workplace

There’s always a risk when pointing to specific companies as exemplars. Jim Collins’s bestsellers Good to Great and Built to Last included profiles of some companies that didn’t end up lasting very long and others that turned out to be not so great.

Certainly, working at Slack isn’t perfect. Some employees I spoke with told me they’d had bad experiences with heavy-handed managers. As one former employee said, “They really did try to be a psychologically safe company. It’s just that not everyone was equally skilled at maneuvering some of those nuances.” Creating the kind of company where people feel comfortable raising concerns without the fear of getting fired takes work and vigilance.

For now, the strategies Slack uses seem to be successful. On glassdoor.com, the company has an average anonymous review of 4.7 out of 5 stars, with 93 percent of employees saying they’d recommend the company to a friend and 97 percent approval of CEO Butterfield.

As Slack begins a new chapter as a public company, it’s worth noting that, regardless of future profit margins or returns to shareholders, the company shows concern and commitment to helping employees thrive by giving them the freedom to be indistractable.

Nir’s Note: This article originally appeared in Fast Company
Learn How To Avoid Distraction In A World That Is Full Of It

Learn How To Avoid Distraction In A World That Is Full Of It

Distraction is a curse of modern life. Between our cell phones and computer screens, not to mention our kids and coworkers, our attention is constantly being diverted. It can become difficult to focus on any one task—or any one person—for very long.

If anything, the world is becoming a more distracting place. Technology is becoming more pervasive and persuasive. But hoping tech companies change their ways and your boss finally learns to respect your time may take longer than you’re willing to wait. Better to equip yourself to manage distraction with strategies you can implement right away. Afterall, although distractions aren’t necessarily your fault, managing them is your responsibility.

In this post, I discuss why distractions are so harmful, where they originate, and key techniques that will help you finally overcome distractions for good. This guide is a brief introduction for how you can become indistractable.

1. What is distraction and why is it harmful?

Let’s start with the definition of distraction. Distraction is “the process of interrupting attention” and “a stimulus or task that draws attention away from the task of primary interest.”1“Distraction” (n.d.) In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/distraction In other words, distractions draw us away from what we want to do, whether it’s to accomplish a task at home or work, enjoy time with a loved one, or do something for ourselves.

If distraction becomes a habit, we are unable to sustain the focus required for creativity in our professional and personal lives. Worse, if we are constantly pulled away from friends and family by distractions, we miss out on cultivating the relationships we need for our psychological well-being.

In short, a distraction is any action that pulls us away from what we really want to do.

Do you recognize any of these unhealthy distractions?

  • Looking at notifications that pop up on your phone—even during conversations with family, friends, or colleagues
  • Interrupting focused work to check email
  • Chatting with coworkers who pop by your desk when you intended to do focused work
  • Scrolling through your social media feeds when you planned to read a book

Let me add to these distraction examples with one from my own life.

One day my daughter—my only child—and I were playing games together in an activity book designed to bring daddies and daughters closer together. We asked each other the question, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”

I wish I could tell you my daughter’s answer, but I can’t, because I wasn’t really there.

“Daddy?” she queried.

“Just a second,” I grunted, “I need to respond to one thing.” My eyes were glued to my phone, my fingers tapping away.

By the time I looked up, she was gone.

I had just blown a special moment with my daughter because I had allowed something on my phone to distract me.

On its own, that incident isn’t such a big deal. However, the scene repeated itself several times. If I was going to live the kind of life I wanted, I knew I had to change, and chances are, you do too.

2. What is the opposite of distraction?

If you don’t want to be distracted, presumably you want its opposite. But if you search “distraction antonym,” you will find that “distraction” doesn’t have an exact opposite. Merriam-Webster does suggest several “near antonyms” like assurance, certainty, confidence, and conviction.2“Distraction,” (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster Thesaurus. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/distraction That doesn’t really help when your goal is to move away from distraction—toward what? I propose adopting the term “traction” as the opposite of distraction.

Traction is any action that moves us towards what we really want.

Any action, such as working on a big project, getting enough sleep or physical exercise, eating healthy food, taking time to meditate or pray, or spending time with loved ones, are all forms of traction. Traction is any action you do with intent. It’s doing what you say you will do.

3. What causes distraction?

All human behavior is cued by either external or internal triggers.

External triggers are cues from our environment that tell us what to do next. These are the dings and pings that prompt us to check our email, answer a text, or look at a news alert. Competition for our attention can come from a person as well, such as an interruption from a coworker when we are in the middle of doing focused work. Even an object can be an external trigger: your television set seems to urge you to turn it on by its mere presence.

Internal triggers are cues from within us. When we’re hungry, we are cued to get something to eat; when we feel a chill, we put on a sweater. When we’re stressed or lonely, we might call a friend for support. Internal triggers are negative feelings.

Since all behavior is prompted by either external or internal triggers, then both the actions we intend to do (traction) as well as those that veer us off course (distraction), originate from the same source.

4. Four strategies for becoming indistractable

If you are ready to take back your life from incessant distractions, you need to follow four steps to become indistractable:

  1. Master internal triggers.
  2. Make time for traction.
  3. Hack back external triggers.
  4. Prevent distraction with pacts.

Like what you’re reading? This article draws on my book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. You can purchase it here and subscribe to my newsletter to receive more great articles.

A. Master internal triggers.

In order to overcome distractions, you need to understand what drives your behaviors—what prompts you to compulsively look at your phone or read one more email.

The root cause of human behavior is the desire to escape discomfort. Even when we think we are seeking pleasure, we’re actually driven by the desire to free ourselves from the pain of wanting.

The truth is, we overuse video games, social media, and our cell phones not just for the pleasure they provide, but because they free us from psychological discomfort.

Distraction, then, is an unhealthy escape from bad feelings.Once you can recognize the role internal triggers like boredom, loneliness, insecurity, fatigue, and uncertainty play in your life, you can decide how to respond in a healthier manner. You can’t control how you feel, but you can learn to control how you react to the way you feel.

To start, you can change how you think about those bad feelings that can lead to distraction.

Studies show that not giving into an urge can backfire. Resisting a craving or impulse can trigger rumination and make the desire grow stronger.3Winerman, Lea. (2011) “Suppressing the ‘White Bears,’” American Psychological Association. Posted October 2011. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/10/unwanted-thoughts.aspx When you finally give in, relieving that tension of wanting increases the reward, possibly creating a bad habit. Thankfully, there are smarter ways to cope with discomfort.

Dr. Jonathan Bricker, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, has developed a set of steps we can take when faced with a distracting temptation. His techniques help patients reduce health risks through behavioral change.4 Hutch, Fred. “Jonathan Bricker, Psychologist and Smoking Cessation Researcher” Accessed February 4, 2018. Retrieved from … Continue reading

  1. Identify the feeling or thought behind your urge: When you find yourself about to get distracted become aware of the internal trigger that is prompting you to do so. Are you feeling anxious, restless, maybe even poorly qualified for the task?
  2. Write it down: Bricker advises that you write down that feeling, along with the time of day and what you were doing when you felt that internal trigger. Keeping a log of distractions will help you link behaviors with their internal triggers. The better you get at noticing the thoughts and feelings that precede certain behaviors, the better you will become at managing them over time.
  3. Explore the sensation: Bricker advises getting curious about the sensations that precede distraction. Do you get butterflies in your stomach? A tightening in your chest? Bricker recommends that you stay with that feeling before following your impulse. He recommends trying the “leaves on a stream” method. Imagine yourself beside a stream, on which leaves gently float by. Place each thought and negative feeling in your mind on one leaf and watch them float away.

In addition to Bricker’s steps, there are several other tactics we can use to master the internal triggers that lead to distraction. I detail every technique I use in my book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. I’ll also be sharing more of these methods through my newsletter. Subscribe here to make sure you don’t miss more great articles.

B. Make time for traction.

In this day and age, if you don’t plan your day, someone else will! Without knowing what it is you want to do with your time, everything is a potential distraction. To make time for the things that really matter, follow these steps.

Turn your values into time.

Many people talk a good game about what’s important to them like their families, their health, and their friends, but when it comes to investing time in these areas of their lives, they get distracted and don’t follow through. They don’t live up to their values because they don’t make time for them in their day.

Values are the attributes of the person you want to become.

Examples of values might include being a contributing member of a team, being a loving parent, being in an equitable marriage, seeking wisdom, taking care of your physical fitness, or being a generous friend. Many people might subscribe to these values, but without making time to live them out, they’re just empty aspirations.

Timebox your schedule.

The most effective way to make sure you’ll make time for your values is through timeboxing. Timeboxing means deciding what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it.5Gollwitzer, P. M.(1999) “Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans.” American Psychologist, 54, 493−503. The goal is to create a template for how to spend your time each day, eliminating all white space in your calendar.

It doesn’t matter what you do as long as that is what you planned to do. Go ahead and scroll through social media, but at the time you set aside for it—not at the expense of other things you planned to do, like spending time with your family.

Decide how much time you want to devote to each domain of your life, according to your values. Make sure that you schedule enough time for yourself and for your relationships. After all, the most important people in your life deserve better than the leftover time in your day.

Then, create a weekly calendar template for your perfect week. You can find a free blank template and tool a here. Next, include 15 minutes per week to reflect and refine your calendar. Ask yourself: When did I do what I said I would do, and when did I get distracted?

If you became distracted, note the trigger and decide what strategy you will use the next time it arises.

Also ask: Are there changes I can make to my calendar that will give me the time I need to better express my values?

This gives you the opportunity to change things that will make your calendar easier to follow in the next week.

Synch with Stakeholders.

Now that you have your ideal weekly template, it’s time to make sure the important people in your life are in synch.

Sit down with your family and make sure you’re aligned on how you intend to spend your time. Make sure to discuss who will handle which household responsibilities and when you’ll have some time for fun together.

At work, clarify with your colleagues how you intend to spend your work week so there are no surprises. A quick meeting to go over your schedule is a fast and highly effective way to align expectations regarding how you’ll spend your time.

Of course, not every company has a corporate culture that respects people’s time. I discuss why distraction is often a symptom of a dysfunctional workplace, and how to fix it, in my book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.

C. Hack Back External Triggers.

Tech companies use external triggers to hack our attention. The pings and dings from our devices often distract us by pulling us away from what we really want to do. We may try to ignore those triggers, but research shows that ignoring a call or message can be just as distracting as responding to one.6Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., and Yehnert, C. (2015) “The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 41/4, … Continue reading

Not all external triggers are distractions, however. If used to help you accomplish tasks, external triggers can remind you to do what you planned. While by definition there is no such thing as a good distraction for anxiety, an external trigger that reminds us to take a break can serve as a diversion that has been shown to ease physical pain or help control unhealthy cravings.

The right approach is to ask whether the external trigger is serving you, or are you serving it. If the prompt leads you to traction, keep it. If it leads you to distraction, eliminate it.

Hack back your smartphone.

Whether it’s to keep in contact with family, navigate around town, or listen to audiobooks, this miracle device in your pocket has become indispensable. It can also be a major source of distraction, but you can take back your smart phone in four steps:

  1. Remove the apps you no longer need.
  2. Remove apps that you like, but that you can use on your computer instead.
  3. Rearrange the remaining apps on your phone to reduce visual clutter.7Stubblebine, Tony. “How to Configure Your Cell Phone for Productivity and Focus,” Better Humans, posted on August 24, 2017. Retrieved from … Continue reading
  4. Adjust your notification settings for each app.

Hack Back Your Feeds.

When it comes to distraction social media plays a huge role. Sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit are designed to send you endless external triggers. Facebook’s infinite scroll is particularly devilish, but you don’t have to fall prey to it. Several new tools are available that either eliminate the news feed (News Feed Eradicator) or unlock it only after you’ve done other, more important tasks (Todobook).

These tools work across several platforms, allowing you to use apps the way you want, rather than the way their companies want. (For more of my favorite tools for hacking back, see here).

D. Prevent distraction with pacts.

The antidote to impulsivity is forethought. The last technique for becoming indistractable is to make a “precommitment”—removing a future choice—in order to overcome distraction.8Kurth-Nelson, Zeb and Redish, A. David. (2012) “Don’t Let Me Do That!—Models of Precommitment,” Frontiers in Neuroscience 6/138. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2012.00138

Examples of precommitments include advanced healthcare directives, retirement accounts that penalize us for early withdrawal, and “till death do us part” marriage vows.

They are decisions we cement well in advance of the temptations and distraction we know might come. As such, this is step should only be taken after we have followed the other three steps and learned to manage our internal triggers, made time for traction, and hacked back the external triggers that pull us to distractions.

There are three types of pacts.

An effort pact is a kind of precommitment that involves increasing the amount of effort required to do something you don’t want to do. Adding additional effort forces you to ask if a distraction is really worth it and usually you decide that it isn’t. There are numerous apps designed to help you make effort pacts with your digital devices. (Good examples include SelfControl, Forest, and Freedom, but there are many others.)

A price pact puts money on the line. If you stick to your intended behavior, you keep the cash. If you get distracted, you forfeit your funds. This kind of technique has had astounding results when used to help smokers quit.9Halpern Scott D. et al. (2015) “Randomized Trial of Four Financial-Incentive Programs for Smoking Cessation,” New England Journal of Medicine 372/22, 2108–17. Retrieved from … Continue reading I used a price pact to finish the first draft of my book, promising my accountability partner $10,000 if I did not finish the draft by my deadline. I kept my money and finished writing my book.

Finally, an identity pact is another way to change your response to distractions. Your self-image has a profound impact on your behavior. By taking on a new identity, you empower yourself to make decisions based on who you believe you are. Consider how people who call themselves “vegetarians” don’t have to expend much willpower to avoid eating meat.

To become indistractable, you can stop telling yourself you are a person with a “short attention span” or and “addictive personality” and instead tell yourself, “I am indistractable.” If you tell yourself you are the kind of person who is easily distracted, it instantly becomes true. However, if you believe that you are indistractable, you empower yourself to respond more healthily to whatever distractions get in your way.10Patrick, Vanessa M. and Hagtvedt, Henrik (2012)‘‘I Don’t’ versus ‘I Can’t’: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior,’ Journal of Consumer Research 39/2, 371–81. … Continue reading

We Can Do This

Becoming indistractable is not some mysterious formula, it’s as easy as following four steps. Mastering your internal triggers, making time for traction, hacking back your external triggers, and preventing distractions with pacts, are powerful tools that can reshape your life.

The world is splitting into two types of people: those who allow their attention and their lives to be manipulated by others, and those who proudly call themselves indistractable.

When you become indistractable, you influence others to do the same. You can influence colleagues and coworkers to try these techniques. You can inspire your friends and family to pursue the lives they envision. You can help your children learn what is sure to be the skill of the century, the power to become indistractable.

Nir’s Note: This article was written in collaboration with the NirAndFar.com team.

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