How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life

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Nir Eyal is the bestselling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. He is an entrepreneur who has started three companies, two of which have been acquired. He has also taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.

Nir didn’t plan on being an author, he actually started researching and writing to solve some of his own problems and answer questions he had. And that research has turned into his books. But it is something he loves doing, and he’s able to do it because his first two companies have provided the financial security he needs to do so.

As Nir shares, “Now would I give someone advice, "Hey, you know if you want to succeed, go be an author". No. You're just bad at math. It's a terrible business, because it's, you know, the odds of success are puny. Actually the same with startups, though, right? Like the number of startups that succeed. If you start a company, let me tell you, if you start a startup, because you want to get rich and famous, you're stupid. The odds are stacked against you. You're just bad at math. You have to start a company because you have no choice. It's something that is burning inside of you. It's so much easier just to go get a job, just get a paycheck, right? To start a company is so freakin hard. You have to do it because you have no choice. Because if you don't do it, you will regret it.”

You can watch the video of our full discussion below or just listen to the audio version as a podcast. If you want more content like this you can subscribe to our Youtube channel.

Four key steps to become indistractable

These days--with smartphones, social media, a pandemic, and constant connectedness-- it is so easy to get distracted. But in order to reach your full potential, especially as an entrepreneur, it is critical that we become indistractable. 

Nir says, “Distraction is not the opposite of focus, the opposite of distraction is traction. Traction is any action that pulls you closer to what you intend to do, things that move you closer to your values and help you become the kind of person you want to become. So anything you plan to do with your time is traction, anything else is distraction.”

In his years of research and writing for his 2019 book, Nir found that there are four key steps to becoming indistractable. 

  1. Master internal triggers and realize distraction begins from within 
  2. Make time for traction
  3. Hack back external triggers
  4. Prevent distractions with pacts 

The first step, which is the most important one, is realizing that we can’t blame phones, computers, or social media for distracting us. The root cause of distraction comes from within us--we are bored or lonely or anxious or tired, etc...So we have to learn how to master these emotional triggers in order to stop getting distracted. 

“Time management requires pain management, that if you don't understand that discomfort you are trying to escape--for entrepreneurs, most of the time, it's uncertainty, right? That as entrepreneurs, we constantly feel “what am I supposed to be doing with my time?” “What's going on with my business?” “Are my employees busy?”. But those are feelings. That's not reality. That's a perception of reality. And so if we don't get those emotions under control, if we don't know how to master those internal triggers, they become our masters. And that's when we go off track. That's when we do all kinds of stuff, working our guts out on the wrong stuff, because it makes us feel good.”

Time management tips for entrepreneurs 

This past year has been a tough year for time management. When both parents are working from home full time, plus you have young kids at home all day as well, things can get hectic. Home life and work blend together, everyone is stressed out, schedules are out of whack. And all of these feelings and emotions that come along with this pressure are what cause us to be distracted from actually getting things done. 

Nir shares his advice for how to make things more manageable and less crazy. He says we have to plan our time. If you don’t plan your time down to the minute, someone else is going to plan it for you. And if you are thinking “there’s no way that would work for me”, Nir says just give it a try. This is particularly important if you have kids at home too, because they need structure. 

This method is so much more successful than running your life on a to-do list. Why? Because to-do lists are endless, there’s always more you could be doing. And when you have a time boxed schedule you can share it with your spouse, your boss, your employees and your coworkers which allows everyone to see what you are doing with your time and it allows you to sync up schedules when you need to.

Most people do things in the wrong order

As Nir shares, we have to turn our values into time. Values are attributes of the person you want to become, so you have to ask yourself, “how would the person I want to become spend their time?” And we can really break down out time into 3 domains:

  1. You
  2. Your relationships
  3. Your work

But most people have this list backwards, they start with work and then let everything else fill in the details. 

Nir shared a perfect example of this. He said, “When a company goes out of business the debt holders get their money first, then the equity holders, then whatever scraps are leftover that's what the residual benefactor gets. And a few years ago, my wife turned to me and said, Nir, you have made me into the residual benefactor. I get whatever scraps of time are leftover after the business, after the kids, after your friends, after your workout, then I get a little bit of time here and there. And she was absolutely right. I was guilty as charged.” 

So you have to first start by sitting down and asking yourself how you need to spend your time based on the attributes of the person you want to become. Do you need to spend time educating yourself, reading, exercising, meditating? If so, is that on your schedule? You can add fun things too-- like playing video games, horseback riding, playing chess, etc…

Add the things surrounding relationships. Do you need to add date nights, or Zoom calls with friends, or Sunday night dinners. What do you need to add to your schedule to keep up with your relationships?

And then last is the work stuff. And there are two kinds of work--reactive work and reflective work. “Reactive work is how most people who don't get things done spend their entire day--reacting to phone calls, reacting to emails, reacting to notifications, reacting to their kids tapping them on their shoulder--that's reactive work. And everybody's day needs to involve some element of that, everybody's job has some element of reactive work. The problem is, most people make no time for reflective work.”

Reflective work is where you plan, strategize, get creative--and you can only do that kind of work when you are not distracted. 

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