Building “indistractable” teams with Nir Eyal

Four takeaways from the best-selling author on what being indistractable means, and how to foster a culture that promotes it

Colorized illustration of Nir Eyal
Image Credit: Patrick Leger

Distraction unfortunately plagues workers probably more than anyone would like to admit. According to a study by Udemy, an online learning platform, nearly 3 out of 4 workers report feeling distracted on the job, and 16% report feeling constantly distracted.

While workplace distraction abounds on an individual level, whether it’s caused by a chatty coworker or another notification, it affects teams too. From agenda-derailed meetings to emails demanding unnecessary immediate attention, all this busywork takes us away from our real work. Distraction doesn’t merely rob us of time: A Michigan State University study found that even brief interruptions can double our error rate.

If we live in a distraction-filled world rife with avalanches of email and open office plans, is a distraction-free workplace achievable? Best-selling author Nir Eyal says yes in his latest book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. He defines being “indistractable” as “doing whatever it is you say you want to do with your time.”

We sat down with Eyal to talk about why being indistractable is the “skill of the century” and his key takeaways on how to build indistractable teams.

1. Being indistractable is a core skill to help you do whatever you want to do in life

Nir Eyal: Being indistractable is really the skill of the century. Because while distraction is not a new problem, I think these days if you are looking for a distraction, it is easier than ever to find.

As technology becomes more pervasive and persuasive, this problem will only become more of an issue. Learning this skill really is a macro skill to help you do whatever it is you want to do in life.

2. Distraction is often a cultural problem, not a technical one

NE: The technology itself gets blamed for the problem a lot. It’s not the technology itself, it’s the environment. In the wrong workplace culture, technology is an accelerant leading to distraction.

There’s no correlation between technology and distraction. There is a correlation between a crappy workplace culture and distraction. If in every meeting people are on their laptops and management is on their phone, then everybody gets the message: The most important thing is to be constantly connected.

We’ve become slaves to the urgent at the expense of the important. That is not something that is technology’s fault, that is culture’s fault.

If your boss calls you at 6 p.m. on a Friday night and says, “Hey, I need you to do something,” is it the telephone’s fault? No, it’s your boss’s.

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3. Start with yourself

NE: The best thing you can do if you want to change your company is to change yourself. Then that example will be seen by others. When your work performance improves, when you’re happier in your job, these kinds of things will be visible to other people who you work with. And of course they’re going to get curious what are you doing differently? So the first step is to do this for yourself first, and to see what techniques work and don’t work for you.

Tips from Nir: Getting a grip on workplace communications

There are things that you can do right now that don’t involve the whole company to help you better manage emails and messages at work.

1. Keep a timebox calendar

You’re not checking email or messages all day long because you have a designated time block to look those over. 

2. The two labels technique: Reply today, reply this week

What the studies find is that where we waste the most time on email is not the checking or replying, it’s the rechecking. It’s the constant, “What did that email say again?” That’s where we waste 90% of our time. 

What you want to do is to only check emails and messages two times. The first time your job is to answer one question: When does this need a reply? And then you’re going to just simply do one of the following things: If it doesn’t need a reply, delete it or archive it. 

If it needs a reply right this second, well, then you have to reply right now. But that’s probably relevant to only 1% of the emails and messages you receive.  

4. Create a safe space to talk about challenges

NE: As opposed to trying a companywide initiative, if you work in a team setting, then what you can do is to start having some discussions around, “How can we fix this problem?”

When people have that setting, where people can talk about these issues, distraction becomes just one of many issues. If employees have a place to talk about these things and how they can make them better, they know that the company culture embraces these types of critiques and makes the company better based on employee feedback.

That’s fine if that occurs in a Slack channel. It’s fine if it occurs in a physical space. The important thing is that it’s happening.

Sit down together with your team and say, “Look, I’ve read this book Indistractable. I’ve adopted it into my life. “Don’t even call it a big change or initiative. Just call it a book club. There’s a list of questions in the back of the book that you can use to start a conversation with your team.

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