Review of Nir Eyal’s indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your life

In Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life,” Nir Eyal describes a 2014 study published in Science in which participants were asked to “sit in a room and think” for 15 minutes. Inside this room was a simple device that dispensed small electric shocks. When asked before the session, everyone said they’d pay to avoid being mildly shocked, yet when left alone with nothing else to do, 67% of the men and 25% of the women intentionally shocked themselves. If we would rather give ourselves a jolt than endure 15 minutes of boredom, how can we expect to resist a smartphone full of apps expressly designed to keep us engrossed?

In his previous book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” (2014), Mr. Eyal, who spent years in the video-game industry, detailed how app developers get us addicted to their products. Now the author offers some helpful behavioral and time-management strategies to help us re-engage with real life.

Our aversion to boredom might be universal, but the reasons for our tech addictions are very personal and “unless we deal with the root causes of our distraction,” Mr. Eyal asserts, “we’ll continue to find ways to distract ourselves.” That’s an important point that isn’t often made. Mr. Eyal borrows techniques from Jonathan Bricker, a psychologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, who recommends becoming mindful of the internal triggers that derail you, then writing them down. Are you plagued by feelings of anxiety, frustration, incompetence? Mr. Bricker encourages riding out those feelings before acting on the impulse to, say, check Instagram for likes. (Mr. Eyal makes himself wait a full 10 minutes before giving in to an urge.) Similar techniques when used in a smoking-cessation study proved effective: Participants who acknowledged and explored their cravings quit at double the rate of those in the American Lung Association’s best-performing program.

Once we’ve made peace with our own internal discomfort, it’s time to tackle the external triggers—the incessant notifications, the unrelenting messages and the stubborn google itches. Mr. Eyal preaches the gospel of timeboxing, a popular productivity technique for deciding in advance what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it, and then sticking to the schedule. After filling your calendar with boxes, you have a blueprint for how you intend to spend each day. “Keeping a timeboxed schedule is the only way to know if you’re distracted,” Mr. Eyal writes. “If you’re not spending your time doing what you’d planned, you’re off track.” Watching YouTube is fine as long as you’ve scheduled for it, but checking work email if you should be drafting that proposal isn’t.

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Writers are infamous for taking drastic measures to eliminate digital distractions, using antiquated machines to banish the internet altogether. The novelist Jonathan Franzen, for instance, used superglue to permanently block the Ethernet port on his obsolete Dell laptop. Mr. Eyal takes a Marie Kondo-style approach to eliminating digital clutter—unsubscribing from the newsletters he never reads and trashing the apps he never uses—but also likes to fight technology with technology, applying various apps and browser extensions to avoid or bypass attention bait such as ads, suggested videos and social-media feeds. For the less tech-savvy among us, Mr. Eyal has another suggestion: establishing pacts with friends or colleagues to stay focused on a task, leveraging a predigital form of social pressure that has largely disappeared in the age of the computer.

Yet Mr. Eyal’s tactics are easier to put into practice if you’re self-employed or in the C-suite; most office workers aren’t the masters of their own schedules. Even if you follow the author’s advice and convince your manager to support your timeboxing routine, impromptu meetings can wreak havoc on plans for focused work. And regardless of how understanding your co-workers may be, they might take exception to waiting an hour (or four) for a response to their messages. Timeboxers who attach a red do-not-disturb card (a cutout feature of the book) on their computers may earn harsher labels than “indistractable.”

Ultimately, it may fall on the younger generation to repair the damage we’ve done to a healthy work-life balance. Parents can prepare their children for the challenge by talking to them about the hazards of tech overuse—expectations of instant gratification, social isolation and, yes, unproductive distraction—but also by empowering them to set reasonable limits. “The more you make decisions with them,” Mr. Eyal writes, “the more willing they will be to listen to your guidance.” Of course, that can only happen if you, too, put your phone down.

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