Screen Time for Kids: Give Them What They Need

Screen Time for Kids: Give Them What They Need

Society’s fear of technology destroying our children’s future has reached a fever pitch and many parents have resorted to extreme measures. 

A quick search on YouTube reveals thousands of videos of parents storming into their kids’ rooms, unplugging the computers or gaming consoles, and destroying their devices.

But here’s what these parents don’t understand: Technology isn’t the source of the problem, and enforcing arbitrary rules around tech usage isn’t the solution.

Rather, we must understand the root causes of children’s unhealthy relationship with technology if we are going to effectively help them overcome distraction.

Kids have Psychological Needs

Just as the human body requires three macronutrients to run properly (protein, carbohydrates, and fat), the human psyche has its own needs. According to a well-established theory of human motivation known as “Self-Determination Theory,” all of us require three things for psychological well-being. 

When kids aren’t given the psychological nutrients they require, they are more likely to overdo unhealthy behaviors and look for satiation elsewhere — often in virtual environments. 

Distractions satisfy deficiencies.

 

If you want to raise children able to deal with a world filled with distractions, these are the three important psychological nutrients you must ensure they receive:

hoto of young kid focused on laptop screen

1. Autonomy

It might sound like a horrible idea to some parents, but giving children greater freedom over their choices can actually be a very good thing.

According to one study conducted by two psychology professors, Marciela Correa-Chavez and Barbara Rogoff, Mayan children who have less exposure to formal education show “more sustained attention and learning than their counterparts from Mayan families with extensive involvement in Western schooling.”

In an interview with NPR, Dr. Suzanne Gaskins, who has studied Mayan villages for decades, explained that many Mayan parents give their kids a tremendous amount of freedom. “Rather than having the parent set the goal — and then having to offer enticements and rewards to reach that goal — the child is setting the goal,” she said. “Then the parents support that goal however they can.”

Most formal schooling in America and similar industrialized countries, on the other hand, is the antithesis of a place where kids have the autonomy to make their own choices. In her study, Rogoff notes: “It may that [some American] children give up control of their attention when it’s always managed by an adult.”

What parents can do: Instead of being the one to enforce strict rules on things like screen time, help your kids create their own boundaries. The goal is to get them to understand why their screen time should be limited. The more you make decisions with them, as opposed to for them, the more they may be willing to listen to your guidance.

 Child demonstrating competence with skateboard.

2. Competence

Think about something you’re good at, like cooking a delicious meal or parallel parking in a tight space. Competence feels good, doesn’t it? And that feeling grows alongside your ability to achieve success in life.

Unfortunately, the joy of progress is a waning feeling among kids today. Too often, kids are given the message that they’re not competent at what they do. Standardized tests, for example, are a major contribution to this problem, because they don’t account for the fact that different kids have different developmental rates.

If a child isn’t doing well in school and doesn’t get the necessary individualized support, they may start to believe that achieving competence is impossible. So they stop trying. In the absence of competency in the classroom, kids turn to potentially unhealthy outlets to experience the feeling of growth and development.

Companies making games, apps and other potential distractions are happy to fill that void by selling ready-made solutions for the psychological nutrients kids lack. They know much consumers enjoy leveling up, like gaining more followers or getting likes. These accomplishments all provide the fast feedback of achievement that feels good.

What parents can do: Reconsider the importance of structured academic or athletic activities, as well as the pressures and expectations surrounding them. Have a discussion with your kid about what they enjoy doing, and encourage them to pursue it in ways that give them a feeling competence.

Photo of two friends,hugging and smiling

3. Relatedness

All of us need the feeling of connection. We want to understand others and be understood ourselves. The opportunity to satisfy this need for relatedness in children is provided through play with others.

In today’s world, however, the very nature of play is rapidly changing. Whereas previous generations were allowed to play after school and form close social bonds, many children today are raised by parents who restrict outdoor play, due to baseless fears of “child predators, road traffic and bullies,” according to a survey of parents in an Atlantic article.

“For more than 50 years, children’s free play time has been continually declining, and it’s keeping them from turning into confident adults,” the author noted. Sadly, this downward spiral leaves many kids with no choice but to stay indoors, attend structured programs, or rely on technology to connect with others.

What parents can do: Make sure you give your child time to interact with other kids. Free play, without the direction of parents, coaches, and teachers, gives them the opportunity to connect and relate to peers. If they don’t find relatedness offline, don’t be surprised if they go looking for it online.

How do you feel about screen time and your children? Have you taken steps to help your kids manage their time and attention effectively?

How to Raise Distraction-Free Kids

How to Raise Distraction-Free Kids

Nir’s Note: This interview with my good friends Vanessa Van Edwards first appeared on her blog, Science of People. She did such a great job summarizing our interview that I wanted to share it with my readers as well. Check out Vanessa’s site and let me know what you think of this article on raising indistractable kids in the comments section at the bottom.

One of the best gifts we can give our children is the gift of focus. When kids know how to focus their attention they are…

  • Protected against distractions
  • Can better control their time
  • Focus on what matters

Distraction Myths

There are a lot of things that are simply not true about distracted kids. Starting with possibly the most common one…

Myth #1: Technology melts kids’ brains

This is definitely not a new myth. Our parents– and even our grandparents– have been talking about how Super Mario, metal music, radio, and even MTV are causing kids to lose their minds.

What does the science say? 2 hours a day of TV, video games, or whatever your kid likes to do is perfectly fine…as long as it is purposeful (more on that below)!

So it’s not technology itself per se, but too much technology (like too much of anything!) and the wrong kind of technology that really hurts us.

Myth #2: Sugar makes you hyper

I heard this at every birthday part I ever attended, “You have a sugar rush!” It turns out sugar rushes are a complete myth.

In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says this myth all started back in the mid 1970’s when a doctor took away the sugar from a single child’s diet, and that child’s behavior improved. However, dozens of follow-up studies have tried to replicate this result and none have succeeded.

But here’s the really surprising part: Nir shared a study that found the only people who experienced any change in behavior were the parents themselves.

Here’s what happened:

  • Researchers told parents their kids ate sugar (they didn’t).
  • They asked the parents to observe their kids’ behavior.

The result? The parents were frantic and apologized for their kids’ wild behavior! In other words, parents’ perceptions of their children’s behavior changed, even if their child was acting completely normal!

Classic placebo effect at its finest.

Psychological Vitamins: The 3 Things Our Children Are Missing

Let’s answer the question we’ve been waiting on: Why do kids use so much technology nowadays?

Nir mentioned a theory called the Needs Displacement Hypothesis. In short, when we don’t get our needs met in-person, we look elsewhere: technology.

No friends? Make digital friends. Too stressed from school? Watch TV. Not enough play time? Play a video game!

But what exactly are the needs our children are missing?

There are only 3: competency, autonomy, and relatedness. Nir calls these needs Psychological Vitamins.

Vitamin C: Competency

Around the time of the first iPhone boom (circa 2007/2008), there came an increase in standardized testing and after that, programs like No Child Left Behind and Common Core were started.

Research from the University of Virginia even shows that kindergarten teachers, compared to 15 years ago, spend much more time teaching academics rather than play and art. Some children are even tested 3 to 4 times a year!

The big problem? These tests and programs can make kids feel like they are incompetent. Anyone who scores below average (50% of all kids!) are told they are not competent enough. Thus, they turn to Roblox or Minecraft to feel like they can achieve something. According to Concordia University, some games can even set expectations that successfully mirror the same sorts of social expectations we can find in real life!

Vitamin A: Autonomy

Autonomy is when a child feels they can make their own decisions. In fact, we are in one of the most regulated and controlled times in all of history, making our kids the opposite of autonomous— dependent. There is very little free play for most kids today.

Nir mentions that there are only 2 places where we are so dependent on rules and regulation: school and prison.

The truth is, when kids come home, they want to run around and laugh and play. But we have taken free play away because we are afraid of ‘stranger danger’ and child abductions.

“Since about 1955 … children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities” — Dr. Peter Gray

Vitamin R: Relatedness

Kids need friends and people to care about them, and they also need to care about others. So when they don’t get their relatedness vitamin, they go online to bridge that longing for connection.

Technology in this case serves as an alternate means to connect. TV shows let kids feel like they connect to their favorite characters, video games allow kids to make friends in the digital world, and books transport kids into an alternate world where they feel empathy for the characters.

The bottom line: Technology is the symptom, not the cause. It’s not necessarily bad, as it can offer an alternative to the 3 vitamins kids are lacking. It’s only when technology is the biggest source of competency, autonomy, or relatedness that technology actually becomes a problem.

How Do We Raise Indistractable Kids?

Here are the top 7 tips to raise kids that know how to focus and are distraction-free.

#1: Leverage technology for free play

The greatest gift for children’s wellbeing, according to Nir, is to let them play. More specifically, let them free play.

What is free play?

According to Dr. Gray, free play is play a child undertakes him-or her-self and is self-directed and an end in itself, rather than part of some organized activity.

Essentially, free play is letting kids play freely with their peers without the watchful eyes of parents, teachers, and coaches.

Free play lets kids learn their “place” in the world. It’s the magical time where kids learn how the world works and that the world doesn’t revolve around them. And it’s especially important to do all this without the watchful eye of teachers because kids need to find out what’s right and wrong on their own.

Nowadays, time for play is at an all-time low. Today, you don’t hear kids playing around the neighborhood. Today, kids don’t have an opportunity to go to the park and run around without being protected and monitored 24/7.

But here’s the silver lining: we can use technology to create free play.

For example, Nir’s daughter, Jasmine, has been homeschooled for years now. They use online software like Zoom to play cards with her friends, make time for chitchat, and play!

Essentially, Jasmine has easier access to free play by using the right technology.

#2: Filter for creation vs consuming content

Nir compared technology to swimming pools. Swimming pools are dangerous, and thousands of people drown in them every year. Yet we continue to use them, and we teach our kids how to swim. While dangerous, they are also wonderful for exercise and play.

Technology can also be both dangerous and wonderful. Like a pool, we need to make sure the technology our kids are using is safe and beneficial. All tech should be screened for helpful content–ideally that promotes the 3 vitamins.

Creation content are videos, books, and TV that teaches skills, educates, or provides valuable information. Ideally, this is age-appropriate for the child (ie. not too difficult and not too easy, but just slightly challenging). Here are some examples:

Learn origami:
Learn the 5 senses:
Learn Spanish:
Should we eliminate all consuming content from our children’s technology diet? I’ll answer that in my next point…

#3: Make time for traction

Traction is any action that pulls us toward what we want to do. These actions are done with intent.

Distraction, on the other hand, is any action that pulls us away from what we want to do.

If your child wants to play video games, 2 hours or less is fine as long as it’s scheduled and meaningful. However, playing video games to escape from their responsibilities is a distraction.

Do you see the difference? Technology is perfectly fine as long as it’s purposeful.

Scheduled time allows us to take control of our time.

But we can’t just impose a schedule on our kids— or ourselves, for that matter— because of a little psychological theory called Reactance Theory.

What is Reactance Theory?

This behavioral model states that when a person experiences a loss in their freedom, they will react with anxiety and distress. They may even react by performing the opposite action than their desired behavior.

What is Reactance Theory?
This behavioral model states that when a person experiences a loss in their freedom, they will react with anxiety and distress. They may even react by performing the opposite action than their desired behavior.

#4: Set your timer

How do you hold your child accountable for keeping on schedule? Here are a few ideas:

  • Set a kitchen timer.
  • Use Alexa / Google Home to set a timer. (Maybe even have your child set this!)
  • Use the built-in timer or Screen Time on your phone or iPad.

But the most important thing here is to let your kid do it him- or her-self.

You cannot put in hard rules for your child to follow— this creates ‘little cheaters’ in the long run. Instead, teach them to set the timer on their own and follow it.

But the most important thing here is that you have to set your own timer. Nir calls this the ‘hypocrisy antenna’ and they are built-in to all kids. Essentially, they can sniff out when someone is being a hypocrite, so you can’t just tell them to be accountable and not be accountable for your own time.

Pro tip: Try verbalizing your own time schedule around your kids. For example, if you really want to browse Instagram some more but need to make time to spend with the family, say this out loud. Kids will pick up on this!

#5: Synchronize your schedules

Every Sunday night, Nir sits down with his wife and they take a look at their schedules. They used to fight about household responsibilities, but with schedule syncing, no more arguments!

Try doing the same with your family. Sync schedules with your family members so everyone knows who’s busy and when.

Side note: Don’t interrupt your child during his / her technology time, either. That’s the last thing they want!

#6: Pull back on external triggers

External triggers are all the outside forces that distract us and pull us away from our goal, such as phone notifications and TV.

And we are all slaves to external triggers, unless we consciously decide to control them.

For example, when I have free time in the evening, I often wait for someone to call or see if there’s anything new trending on Netflix. These are all external triggers that can pull me in any which direction. This means I am not in control of my own time.

I have removed all technology before bed. Try this with your kids and identify their own external triggers. This will let you know what is pulling your child towards distraction.

Teaching your kids how to handle their own external triggers is one of the best skills you can give them.

#7: Create an effort pact

This is the step that has to come last, after everything else is in place. An effort pact is something that creates ‘glue’ between a child and something that they don’t want to do.

In other words, you need to create a way for your child to know how to be focused on their task at hand, like doing homework.

Here’s an idea: use an app called Forest. This app lets you set a timer, and when you hit the ‘Start’ button, a tree is planted! But the thing is, if you pick up the phone, the tree dies. Essentially, this lets your child go through a productive, focused session of work.

Bonus tip: Wear a concentration crown

Now that we know how to keep our kids indistractable, how do we keep them from distracting us during times of focused work? Nir came up with the fabulous idea of a concentration crown.

Every time you want to be focused put on the most ridiculous hat you own— like a pirate hat or one with elf ears. This signals to others that you should not be disturbed! (Eventually it will start getting you in the zone faster too).

Once you set the ground rules that anyone wearing this crown cannot be disturbed, you’ll have your own little safe haven for focused work sessions, and no more trouble focusing!

In the end, technology can absolutely create a more focused, smarter, and more productive child. It all comes down to how you use it to your advantage.

Did you learn something new in this session?

And be sure to check out Nir’s free 80-page workbook filled with exercises and his book, Indistractible, to take control of your life and master your distractions!

[Survival Tips] Homeschooling During Coronavirus Closings

[Survival Tips] Homeschooling During Coronavirus Closings

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, some 850 million children are suddenly learning at home instead of in traditional classrooms. My family has had practice homeschooling for the past five years, so I thought it would be helpful to share some tips and tactics to help get through this new reality.

If you or someone you know is trying to figure out how to homeschool or school-at-home, you may find this recent article I wrote for the New York Times to be helpful:

In the meantime, my thoughts are with each and every one of you and your loved ones during this challenging time.

Is Tech Ruining Kids? How to Safely Manage Screen Time

Is Tech Ruining Kids? How to Safely Manage Screen Time

We have to help our children manage screen time — not outlaw it

Our fears about what technology and smartphones are doing to our kids has reached a fever pitch. Articles with headlines like “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and “The Risk Of Teen Depression And Suicide Is Linked To Smartphone Use” have, ironically enough, gone viral online.

“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” writes Dr. Jean Twenge in The Atlantic. “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

Convinced by the ominous headlines and fed up with their kids’ tech distractions, some parents have resorted to extreme measures. A YouTube search reveals thousands of videos of parents storming into their kids’ rooms, unplugging the computers or gaming consoles, and smashing the devices to bits in order to teach their kids a lesson.

I can understand parents’ feelings of frustration. One of the first things my daughter ever said was, “iPad time. iPad time!” It became a common refrain, and if we didn’t comply quickly, she’d increase the volume until we did, raising our blood pressure, and testing our patience. As the years passed, my daughter’s relationship with screens evolved, and not always in a good way. She was drawn to spending too much time playing frivolous apps and watching videos.

I’ve seen other parents struggle just like we do. On more than one occasion, we’ve met up with friends and their kids for dinner, only to find ourselves sitting through awkward meals as their kids tap-tap-tap away at their phones.

The Problem with Common Knowledge and Convenient Myths

It’s easy to understand why many parents might think tech is the source of the trouble with kids these days. But is tech really the problem? Was it really my daughter’s gadgets that were compelling her to seek out distraction, or was something else going on?

Parents often turn to convenient myths to explain away the bad behavior of their children. For example, every parent is taught that kids become hyperactive when they eat too much sugar. We’ve all heard a parent excuse their kid’s bratty behavior at a birthday party by blaming the ominous “sugar high.” But the concept of a “sugar high” is bunk. A 1995 meta-analysis of sixteen studies “found that sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children.”

Still, parents see what they want to see. A study found that mothers, when told that their sons had been fed sugar, rated their child’s behavior as more hyperactive — despite the fact that their child had been given a placebo. In fact, videotapes of the mothers’ interactions with their sons revealed that they were more likely to trail their children and criticize them when they wrongly believed they were “high” on sugar.

Parents subscribe to other common myths too. Take the “common knowledge” that teens are rebellious by nature. Everyone knows that teenagers act horribly towards their parents because their raging hormones and underdeveloped brains make them act that way. But studies have found that teenagers in many societies, particularly pre-industrialized ones, don’t act especially rebelliously and, conversely, spend “almost all their time with adults.” In one article, “The Myth of the Teen Brain,” Robert Epstein writes, “many historians note that through most of recorded human history, the teen years were a relatively peaceful time of transition to adulthood.”

And we’ve been blaming tech for negatively impacting our children for centuries. As Vaughan Bell wrote in Slate, the Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner worried about handheld information devices causing “confusing and harmful” consequences in 1565. The devices he was talking about were books. An 1883 medical journal predicted a new trend that would “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.” The article was referring to public education. And in 1936, kids were said to have “developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the [radio] loudspeaker,” according to Gramophone, the music magazine.

“Each successive historical age has ardently believed that an unprecedented ‘crisis’ in youth behavior is taking place,” the Oxford historian Dr. Abigail Wills wrote for the BBC. “We are not unique; our fears do not differ significantly from those of our predecessors.”

So is tech really “hijacking” kids’ minds or “destroying a generation?” Many experts believe that the truth about tech’s impact on our children is more nuanced than we acknowledge. In a rebuttal to the article that claimed children were on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades, Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh wrote in Psychology Today that “there is good reason to think that smartphones and social media may have positive effects as well as negative effects.” Cavanagh continued, “Emerging evidence indicates that like every other question psychologists can think to ask about human behavior, screen use and its association with psychological well-being varies based on a multitude of contextual and personal variables — for instance, how you use media, when you use it, and what else is going on in your life.”

In 2017, Dr. Christopher Ferguson published an article in Psychiatric Quarterly in which he found only a negligible relationship between screen time and depression. Ferguson wrote in an article in Science Daily, “Although an ‘everything in moderation’ message when discussing screen time with parents may be most productive, our results do not support a strong focus on screen time as a preventative measure for youth problem behaviors.” As so often is the case, the devil is in the digital details.

A closer read of the studies linking screen time with depression finds correlation only with extreme amounts of screen time. Teenage girls who spent over five hours per day online tended to have more depressive or suicidal thoughts, but common sense would have us ask whether the kids who have a propensity to spend excessive amounts of time online might also have other problems in their lives. Perhaps five hours a day on any form of media is a symptom of a larger problem.

Even at these extreme levels of use, a study conducted by Dr. Andrew Przybylski at the Oxford Internet Institute found a very minor correlation with decreased well-being. “We’re talking about a very small impact,” stated Przybylski. “It’s about a third as bad as missing breakfast or not getting eight hours sleep.” Furthermore, the same study found too little screen time, an hour or less, was also correlated with negative well-being when compared to teens who engaged in moderate amounts of screen time.

When kids act in ways we don’t like, parents crave a scapegoat. It’s easy to blame sugar, or technology, or whatever other culprit lurks nearby. We want to believe that kids do strange things because of something outside of their control, which means that those behaviors are not really their (or our) fault.

Help Kids Learn How to Manage Screen Time

Of course, technology plays a role. Smartphone apps and video games are designed to be engaging, just as sugar is meant to be delicious. But like the parent who blames a “sugar high” for their kid’s bad behavior, blaming devices is a surface-level response to a deeper question. Easy answers avoid having to look into the dark and complex truth underlying why kids behave the way they do. We can’t fix the problem unless we look at it clearly, free of media-hyped myths, to understand the root causes.

When it came to my own daughter, my wife and I wanted to teach her techniques to manage the time she spent on her devices. The risk of too much gadget time is not some sinister brain-melting nonsense, but rather the opportunity cost of engaging in other activities she enjoys, like spending time with friends or playing at the park. She could decide how much screen time was right for her. We taught her the four steps to becoming indistractable and most importantly, modeled a healthy relationship with technology by becoming indistractable ourselves.

This article also appeared on Medium.com.

The Most Important Skill of the Future is Being ‘Indistractable’

The Most Important Skill of the Future is Being ‘Indistractable’

How the difference between traction and distraction could transform your productivity

I know how distractions work from the inside. For over a decade, I’ve helped tech companies build products to keep you clicking. In fact, I wrote the book about it in 2014: Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. I wrote Hooked for companies who wanted to help their customers build healthy habits, like going to the gym regularly and eating right. But in the process of researching the book, I found that some products drew some people in too much, including me.

I remember sitting with my daughter one afternoon doing activities from a book written to help daddies and daughters bond. One exercise consisted of asking each other the following question: “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” Between the moment I asked the question and when my daughter could answer, I felt a buzz in my pocket. A work email diverted my attention.

“Daddy?” she queried.

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

I wish I could tell you what she said in that moment, but I can’t. While she was telling me her dream superpower, I was busy staring at my phone. By the time I looked up, she had left the room.

I’d blown a perfect daddy-daughter moment because I was distracted. At that moment, I knew I needed to learn how to manage distraction. I wanted to get the best out of my tech gadgets, without letting the tech gadgets get the best of me.

If you asked me what superpower I’d want, I know the answer: I want the power to be indistractable. It’s the skill of the future.

We bemoan the fact that technology is becoming more pervasive and persuasive and complain that our devices are “hijacking” our brains. On top of all that, we just can’t seem to disconnect from work.

Hoping and waiting for tech companies to change their products or for your boss to finally learn to respect your time may take longer than you’re willing to wait. Although distractions aren’t necessarily your fault, they are your responsibility. It’s time to equip yourself to manage your distractions.

Let’s start with a definition of distraction.

According to the American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology, distraction is “the process of interrupting attention” and “a stimulus or task that draws attention away from the task of primary interest.” 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 may be unable to sustain the focus required for creativity in our professional and personal lives. Worse, if we’re constantly pulled away from friends and family by distractions, we miss out on cultivating the relationships we need for our psychological well-being.

Digital distraction might manifest in 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, or scrolling through your social media feeds when you planned to read a book.

The opposite of “distraction” is “traction.” Traction is any action that moves us towards what we really want. Tractions are actions done with intent. 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 if they are done intentionally. Traction is doing what you say you will do.

Schedule Maker Traction vs Distraction

What prompts us to traction or 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. That can mean 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. 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 that come from within. 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. Even the desire to feel pleasure is itself a state of uncomfortable craving. Internal triggers are negative feelings.

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

Now we can draw a complete picture of what I call the “Indistractable Model”:

The Indistractable Model: Internal Triggers, External Triggers, Distraction, Traction

Step 1. 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 also 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 the bad feelings that can lead to distraction. Studies show that not giving into internal triggers can backfire. Resisting a craving or impulse can trigger rumination and make the desire grow stronger. When you finally give in, relieving that tension of wanting increases the reward, reinforcing 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.

  1. Identify the feeling or thought behind your urge: When you find yourself about to become distracted, 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.

Step 2. 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.

  1. Don’t pick your goals, pick your values: 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. Only you can decide which values are important to you.
  2. Turn your values into time: Many people talk a good game about what’s important to them — family, health, 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.
  3. Timebox your schedule: The most effective way to make sure you’ll make time for your values is timeboxing. Timeboxing means deciding what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. 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 you do what you planned to do. Go ahead and scroll through social media, but at allotted times — 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 schedule-maker tool here. Next, include 15 minutes per week to reflect and refine your calendar for the week ahead.

Step 3. 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.

Not all external triggers are distractions, however. If used to help you accomplish tasks, external triggers can remind you to do what you planned. The right approach is to ask whether the external trigger is serving you, or whether you are serving it. If the prompt leads you to traction, keep it. If it leads you to distraction, eliminate it.

External triggers are all around us. One of the most potentially troublesome sources of unhelpful external triggers is, of course, our smartphones. 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 smartphone in four steps:

  1. Remove: Uninstall apps you no longer need.
  2. Replace: Shift where and when you use potentially distracting apps, like social media and YouTube, to your desktop computer instead of your phone.
  3. Rearrange: Move any apps that may trigger mindless checking from your phone’s home screen.
  4. Reclaim: Adjust your notification settings for each app to make sure only apps worthy of interrupting you can send external triggers.

Make sure to also “hack back” external triggers in other environments, both online and off. Whether the external trigger comes from a notification on your phone or laptop, or the interruption is a coworker taking you off track when you planned to do focused work, the consequences are the same.

Step 4. Prevent Distraction With Pacts.

Finally, the last step to becoming indistractable is to prevent distraction with pacts. This technique involves making a “precommitment” — removing a future choice — in order to overcome distraction.

Precommitments are decisions we cement well in advance of the temptations we know might come. As such, this step should only be taken after we have followed the first 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 the extra effort. There are numerous apps designed to help you make effort pacts with your digital devices. (Good examples include Self Control, 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. 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 deadline. Fortunately, 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 an “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.

The Most Important Skill of the Future

Becoming indistractable is not some mysterious formula. It’s as easy as following the four steps above. Mastering your internal triggers, making time for traction, hacking back your external triggers, and preventing distractions with pacts are all 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 also appeared on Medium.