Is the world more distracting? Sometimes it seems that way. With our digital devices buzzing, world events demanding our attention, and more things to entertain us than ever before, it certainly seems harder to focus on what’s really important. And yet, focus is exactly what it takes to get things done and get ahead.
Distraction might appear more available than ever, but it is nothing new. Over 2,000 years ago, Socrates and Aristotle debated the nature of “akrasia,” (pronounced uh-crazy-uh), our tendency to act against our better judgement. To the ancient Greeks, mere mortals were prone to distraction due to our weakness of will. Easy for them to say — Socrates and Aristotle never had to resist binge-watching “Game of Thrones.”
In this Golden Age of distraction, what does it take to focus? How do we do what we must so we can have the lives we really want? Instead of blaming our puny attention spans, we should dig deeper to understand how certain products affect us.
I’ll use my own struggle as an example.
I decided to plot certain products and services on the matrix below. On one axis is the question of whether the product is harmful to my life. On the other, I asked myself whether I could stop using the product or whether I was dependent. With this two-by-two tool, I can begin to classify certain products and decide how to put them in their place. You can do this, too — and you probably should.
The top left quadrant is an easy one. Things that aren’t harmful and I can easily stop using are what I call “Goods.” The vast majority of the products and services I use fit into this category. Goods are not problematic. In fact, I wish I used some of these things, like my gym membership, meditation app, or water bottle, more frequently.
In the upper right are “Necessities.” These things are not harmful but I can’t stop using them without serious consequences. For example, food, clothing, and shelter all fall into this bucket. As much as I wish I didn’t have to shove nutrients into my face hole to stay alive and that societal norms allowed public nudity, unfortunately, that isn’t the case. I can’t stop consuming these things even if I wanted to.
One might also argue that having a connection to certain technologies like an email account or Google has also become a necessity. Disconnecting won’t kill you, but neither would walking around the office in the buff. Rather, society expects certain things of us (like being web proficient and accessible through email) and we would find it difficult to live, work, and sustain personal and professional relationships without these services.
It’s interesting to note that this category can become harmful, depending on the degree of use. For example, eating too much food or spending too much money on clothing can have negative consequences, but there’s nothing inherently bad about these products when used in the right amounts.
To make sure we don’t over-use, we set budgets, listen to our bodies’ satiety, and set limits. The key is to monitor and moderate our use. When it comes to necessities, most people find self-regulating relatively easy. It’s the next category of products that presents a bigger challenge.
I love sweets, I love Facebook, and I love YouTube. But as much as I love these things, they don’t love me back. For me (but not necessarily you), these products are harmful. Your harmful distractions might include other indulgences, like being a sports fanatic, a romance novel reader, a Netflix binger, a political news junkie, or worse. In any case, it’s not for me (or anyone else for that matter) to point fingers at whatever poison you pick.
What all distractions have in common is that they have the potential to keep us from living the life we want. When I think about what I want to accomplish with my remaining time on this planet, certain things just aren’t helping me.
If I could wave a magic wand and no longer want to use these products, I would. Unfortunately, there is no such craving-killing spell. The reality is, I do want to consume these things. They’re fun! They’re entertaining! They’re delicious! But they’re also driving me akrasia. The tendency Socrates and Aristotle warned us about lives right here.
Why do we do things against our better interests? For the most part, when a product doesn’t give the customers what they want, they stop buying it. You wouldn’t keep buying apples at a grocery store that sells rotten fruit. But distractions are sneaky. We use them despite knowing they aren’t doing us any good. Distractions trick us into hurting ourselves by dulling our awareness of the price we’re paying. They feel good now, but we feel bad later.
However, as seemingly sinister as distractions might be, the responsibility to quit them is on us. Though I’d like to say I’m powerless against the pull of Facebook, YouTube, or sweets, that’s not really true. “Distractions” are defined as behaviors that harm us but that we can stop doing, if we choose.
How do we put distractions in their place? The answer is: we realize and reduce.
The first step is to call these products what they are. Distractions are bad habits. For me, a scroll of the newsfeed, a sweet snack after a meal, or a video binge after work are all things I do just ’cause.
By definition, habits are impulses to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought. Therefore, the solution starts with bringing consciousness to an otherwise unconscious act. When I asked myself the uncomfortable questions, “Is this product serving me? Does it help me do what I really want?” I answered with a sheepish, “No.”
Over the past several years, I’ve dissected what makes products habit-forming and compiled what I learned into my book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” I discovered habit-forming products take users along four basic steps that keep us coming back: a trigger, an action, a variable reward, and an investment.
It’s not that candy makers and tech companies are evil; it’s that the market rewards them for making products people want. By and large, that’s a good thing. However, the result is more engaging Facebook feeds, more engrossing YouTube videos, and more delicious desserts.
In a world where the features that make a product better also makes it harder to resist, the answer lies in the ability to spot these hooks and deliberately break them where they don’t serve us. When we understand how products hook us, they lose some of their power. Getting unhooked starts with removing the triggers, making the action more difficult, delaying the rewards, and consciously not investing.
For the specific techniques I used to unhook myself from technology, see this video.
Our world is full of products designed to hook us. However, only we can decide if they serve us. Once we divide helpful products from harmful, our distractions can be dealt with and controlled.
Unfortunately, there’s one category of product people can’t control.
When a product is harmful and users want to stop using it, but can’t, the product is more than a distraction; it’s an addiction. A relatively small percentage of people suffer from true addictions, but the consequences of these compulsive behaviors can be serious. Whether it’s an addiction to gambling, pornography, video gaming, shopping, or alcohol, people caught in the cycle of abuse harm themselves and, often, those closest to them.
The defining characteristic of addictions – that the user is unable to stop despite the harm caused – points to something deeper. It’s not just that the product is designed to hook the user, it’s that despite knowing the consequences, users can’t put it away even when they try. The user is no longer in full control; without help, it’s nearly impossible to quit. Recovery usually involves understanding the deeper psychology driving the addiction — a task most addicts find difficult, if not impossible, to resolve on their own.
Addictions are serious. It’s important that we don’t trivialize the experience of someone struggling with actual addiction by comparing it to our Facebook or sugar habits (unless, of course, you truly are addicted).
For thousands of years, people have struggled with distractions that keep them from living the lives they imagine. Today, people find themselves attached to their mobile phones, but history shows us it’s only the latest in a long list of hindrances. A few decades ago, people complained about the mind-melting power of television. Before that it was arcade games, the telephone, the pinball machine, comic books, the radio, even the written word.
Not only is distraction here to stay, it will likely become harder to ignore as technology continues to make things even more engaging. However, that’s not necessarily a problem — it’s progress! We want products to improve, but we must also stay vigilant, asking whether “better” products bring out our better selves.
To ensure that technologies and products serve us, instead of us serving them, it’s useful to take a quick inventory of the products we use most (the list is probably in your browser history or home screen on your phone), classify these products, tackle each accordingly – and then get on with building the life we want.
What do you think? Are these classifications helpful? How do you deal with your distractions, addictions, and necessities?
Nir Eyal works on, writes, and teaches about products that move people. He’s the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming. For more insights on using psychology to change behavior, join his free newsletter.