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Book review: Nir Eyal and Julie Li offer some fine-grained tips to stay focused

The unique self-help book excels in explaining why we get distracted so easily.

August 01, 2020 / 10:11 AM IST

Indistractable: How to Control
Your Attention and Choose
Your Life
by Nir Eyal with Julie Li

Bloomsbury Publishing

The American focus on self-help and self-improvement has resulted in a well-established genre of self-help books. As for this book, the prominent characteristics of the self-help genre are well represented here: scientific research simplified and made accessible for a lay audience, information that can be utilized to boost productivity, and a non-denominational, non-spiritual approach to personal change. This book, which defines and suggests solutions to one of the problems of this age, namely distraction, is compulsively readable and immediately usable. While reading this book, I was immensely impressed with its ability to make me introspect – partly, of course, because of its utterly useful contents, and partly because of the way in which it is written. Indistractable has an accessible style of writing, and plenty of entertaining or engrossing anecdotes that help the reader to imagine and visualize how to implement the advice in her own life.

Quite appropriately, Indistractable covers all aspects of our lives, such as our personal life, health, work and relationships. Most of the book is about cutting down distractions in our work life. The authors offer us fine-grained solutions to major distractions at work, such as email, meaningless meetings, and group work apps such as Basecamp, Slack, WhatsApp and others. But due attention is also given to distractions such as mobile notifications in personal life; the book tells us how to cut down on distractions in each of these aspects of our life with clever ‘hacks’. The ‘hacks’ are technological in some cases, psychological in others.

The book also excels in explaining why we get distracted so easily. While many of the triggers of distraction are technological (in my case, social media and WhatsApp), our psychology plays a major role too. The writers say that in many instances, our tendency to seek distraction – through time-draining activities such as mindless Internet surfing or spacing out when we do not intend to – conceals a root cause. This is something that we’re trying to unsee or escape from, whether it is a bad marriage, a painful or boring situation, or something else. The writers recommend taking the preliminary step of acknowledging the root cause that keeps us distracted. Then, going beyond personal factors, the writers say that distraction is also caused by aspects of the human condition. To quote, “… distraction is just another way our brains attempt to deal with pain”. What pain, you ask? The writers use modern science to state that we are hardwired to be in a state of dissatisfaction. Joy does not last. The feeling of dissatisfaction creeps into our minds after any positive or neutral feeling. Thus, we cope by letting ourselves get distracted.

Further, the writers say that the triggers for distraction can be internal (coming from oneself) or external (coming from the outside world). They offer detailed science-based explanations for the mechanism through which triggers set us off. Naturally, they suggest solutions for dealing with triggers: for instance, they mention having an urge to smoke when you are trying to quit the habit. Wrestling with the urge might backfire. What works better is “… stepping back, noticing, observing and finally letting the urge disappear naturally”. The writers helpfully provide a step-by-step process to analyse, understand, reimagine and let the unhelpful urge disappear. The book is clearly based on the idea that knowledge gives you power to change; I suppose this is true for many or even most people.


Many bits of advice mentioned in the book, particularly those about the human condition, the nature of the mind, and practices to eliminate distraction, are scientific proofs of what spiritual traditions such as Buddhism have known for thousands of years. What the book does is to secularize these bits of advice so that they can be followed by everyone regardless of religious or spiritual beliefs. This gives the book a universal appeal.

Suhit Kelkar is a freelance Journalist. He is the author of the poetry chapbook named The Centaur Chronicles.
Suhit Kelkar
first published: Aug 1, 2020 10:11 am

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