Social Media distraction is real. It is said that 80% of the time people spend online has nothing to do with their work. However, the more modern workplaces become collaborative, the more distracted is their workforce. But according to Nir Eyal, author of the book Indistractable, it is not technology that is as much a distraction as it is colleagues who interrupt.
Some of the reasons can be attributed to the open design of the modern workplace. In 1939, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Johnson Wax Headquarters, the main office for SC Johnson & Son – an office that lacked any partition, but rather was divided up by thin white columns, filing cabinets, and oval desks (this design came up to reduce the clutter caused by cubicles).
Eyal, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and, now, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, quotes philosopher Paul Virilio: “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.” In his new book he talks about how, as humans, we perform better under constraints, and schedules give us the best framework to lead a more productive life.
Eyal spoke to Scroll.in about the future of work being invaded by technology, and how we can become the most productive versions of ourselves. He has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Design School and has had two successful exits from tech companies he has founded since 2003. Currently, he helps start-ups design more engaging products. Excerpts from the interview:
What is the future of work in an “indistractable” way?
The number one source of distraction in the modern workplace, for knowledge workers at least, is not the cell phone, not computers or emails or the slack channel, it is colleagues interrupting us and coming to our desk asking us to talk to them. We have a very distractible work environment.
As I talk about it in my book, learning to manage your attention, your time and your life, is really the skill of the century, as more distractions vie for our attention. It is imperative that we learn to do one thing at a time, and, as more jobs are automated, the ones that will remain and will matter are those that will require human ingenuity and creativity that will only come from focused work. Therefore, it is critically important we make time in our day for reflective tasks and not just execution tasks.
Describe your own day at work and the kinds of changes you have been making to increase personal productivity.
My life has completely changed since I started writing this book five years ago. I am in good physical shape, I have started eating healthier, I spend quality time with my daughter and have a better relationship with my wife. At work, I am efficient and do what I say I will. That is really a superpower these days.
In my own day, I follow a time box routine and every minute is accounted for. Of course, I do get distracted. However, I look at it as an experiment as my time is accounted for (remember we cannot call something a distraction unless we know what has it distracted us from). From week to week we can look at what we planned, what distracted us and what we did about that distraction.
There is a quote from Paulo Coelho that says, “A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.” In my own life, I have decided to be indistractable and there are three causes of distraction – an internal trigger, an external trigger or a planning problem. Your job is to understand which of these led to a distraction and take steps today to prevent yourself from getting distracted tomorrow.
What can workplaces do to reduce distractions, especially since social media is perfectly acceptable at work and we talk about connectedness at work?
There are so many things that we can do within companies and as I talk about it in the book, something we can do in an open floor plan office is to use a screen sign. Every copy of Indistractable comes with a red card that you can tear out and put on your computer as a sign to your colleagues, that, for that period of time, you are not to be interrupted.
Another thing we can do is, by using time box calendars, we can schedule syncs. This is a practice of sitting with your manager, showing them your timebox calendar and synchronising your schedule – prioritising your week can only take 15 minutes and your manager will love you for it (of course, it works well if your job is reflective).
At the workplace, distraction is a function of system dysfunction. At some point, company management has to address the issue and talk about the problem. In my research, I have observed that we do not talk about the problem, but if companies can have a culture where we can openly address these problems, we will find solutions for them.
It turns out that once companies can openly talk about distraction as a problem, they are able to solve many other related problems. In my book I talk about how when companies talk about distraction, they talk about customer satisfaction, employee retention…many other discussions happen when there is an open line of communication. It is not the technology, it is the culture.
Talk to us about internal triggers that we have to cope with. What are the triggers that make us distracted?
All kinds of internal triggers are part of the human experience, whether it is boredom, loneliness, fatigue, anxiety, uncertainty – basically internal triggers here are anything we look to escape. The solution is not to blame or shame ourselves, these are completely normal human responses – all we have to do is to take responsibility for these emotions.
Not for the fact that we feel them, but for what can we do in response to them. So, do we compulsively check our phone while feeling lonely, or do we compulsively watch the news when we feel uncertain or try to escape our own problems by watching someone else’s problems? These are things we have to come to grips with, because if we do not understand these internal triggers, we will always be distracted. So, the first step has to be to understand these internal triggers and what uncomfortable situation we’re trying to escape from.
Do you think we will be slaves of technology in, say, a decade?
Absolutely not. I am very optimistic about our relationship with technology. What has happened is that we have all of these wonderful miraculous technologies and tools and we are now learning that some of them have downsides. Philosopher Paul Virilio said, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.” There is no way that something as vast as interactive technology will not have shipwrecks, we are dealing with them, but that does not mean they cannot be fixed.
When was the last time you heard about a real shipwreck? Did we stop sailing ships? No. We made them better. I think in the next ten years, humans will do what we have always done, we will adapt our behaviours and we will adopt new technologies to fix the last generation of technology.
That is exactly what you see today, where people are calling out the behaviour of those using the phone at the wrong place or time. People using phones in social settings are being called rude – they are being asked if everything is OK. People are finding their relationships improve when they focus on each other.
So, we are really not slaves to technology and that mindset really does hurt us, because, if we believe we are powerless, it becomes true. The most important thing is we are not powerless. In fact the reason I wrote this book was to empower people to not be slaves to technology, to help them become indistractable, and to get the best of these technologies and not let the technologies get the better of us.