Every writer, no matter what stage they’re at in their careers, gets the same amount of time each week to waste or spend.
So can you accomplish more with what you have?
Nir Eyal is the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. He’s also an angel investor, productivity consultant, and former university lecturer.
- How timeboxing and constraints can help writers become more productive.
- Why he spent five years writing Indistractable.
- The problem with many popular productivity books today.
- What his ideal writing routine looks like.
Use Nir’s schedule maker to create your own timeboxed schedule.
And lots more – see more in my Forbes article here.
I start by asking Nir to explain one of the core ideas in his book: timeboxing.
Bryan Collins: So Nir, it’s great to talk to you today and I really enjoyed reading your book Indistractable. I picked up a lot of great tips that could help me focus, because I certainly find I get distracted, sometimes when I’m sitting down to write or to work. But one that really stood out was time-boxing. Could you explain a little bit about how that works?
Nir Eyal: Sure. So time-boxing is not a technique I invented. It’s one I hope to popularise, because the scientific literature about it is fantastic. There is a lot of evidence and many, many studies now, thousands of studies that have shown that sending what’s called implementation intention is a very effective way to do what you say you’re going to do. Basically setting the implementation intention. It’s just a fancy way that the psychologist described deciding what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. What the psychologist and peer review phase has verified is that if you plan ahead, if you decide what it is you want to do and what time you want to do it, you’ll become much, much more likely to actually follow through. And of course the sad irony is that so many of us complain about how we can’t get things done, about how distracting things are, about how it’s not our fault that we can’t focus. Because of technology and this and that.
Nir Eyal: And it turns out that by simply planning what we want to do and when we want to do it, we can overcome many of our distractions. And so that’s a very, very important step. And so what I advise is to have a template for what your ideal week looks like and what makes an ideal week. And a week that is based on turning your values into time. Instead of having a five-year plan or a vision board or some kind of grand scheme, why don’t we just start with what next week looks like? What would next week look like if you could live out your values to take care of your body, to take care of your mind, to take care of your loved ones, to take care of your work in a proper manner? Ask yourself how you spend your time in that week?
Nir Eyal: And so what we want to do is to block out every minute of our day. Don’t leave any white space. Because the fact is, if you have white space on your calendar, somebody is going to plan your time for you, unless you’ve decided in advance what you want to do with it. Because we can’t call something a distraction unless we know what it distracted us from. So we have to account for that time based on how we want to spend that time so that we don’t find ourselves wasting it doing something frivolous.
Bryan Collins: So if I’m time-boxing for the first time, am I looking at 50 minute increments or an hour or four hours or what’s the best way to consider a day?
Nir Eyal: That’s really up to you, less than 15 minutes is kind of too short. But in my calendar, it’s about 30-minute increments throughout the day. And just to be clear, you’re not just scheduling time for productive, so to speak, tasks. It’s not just work tasks. I want you to make time for taking care of your body, taking care of meditation or prayer if it is important to you, if time with your family or friends is important to you, if time watching TV is important to you. The time you plan to waste is not wasted time. It’s about planning that time with intent for however long you want to spend that time doing it. So for example, I’m not asking you to be very rigid and plan every single second based on 15-minute increments.
Nir Eyal: For example, on the weekend I might plan three or four hours to spend with my daughter or my wife and we call this planned spontaneity. And so we don’t really know what we’re going to do with that time. We may go to the park, we may go to the museum, we may play a board game. We don’t know what we’re going to do with that time, but I’ve held that time aside for them so that I know what I will not do with that time. I will not be on my phone checking work email. I will not be on social media. I will not be checking YouTube. I will be fully present with my family.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, I like that. I have a nine-year-old daughter, so that was something that stood out. I think you had a great idea about putting suggestions in the jar of things to do during time like that. I’m also curious-
Nir Eyal: Absolutely, that’s our fun jar, right?
Bryan Collins: Yeah. Yeah. Fun jar. That was a great idea. I’d love to say it to my daughter. She’s nine. The other thing that struck me is if somebody’s time-boxing for the first time, but they don’t have full control over their day, how should they time-box their week. For example, I’m thinking of a writer, who’s working already in the morning and then they have to go to work during the day and then they have other commitments that they don’t have full control over.
Nir Eyal: Well I would argue you do have control over that time. Well, probably more control than you think, in that what we have to do is to sync our schedules with the stakeholders in our life. So the first step to time-boxing is, of course, accounting for that time, deciding what you want to do with it. The second step is to sit down with the various stakeholders in your life, your domestic partner, your boss, and to synchronise your schedule with them so that you’re on the same page about how you spend that time. And so you do actually have more control of that time than you think. For example, if you sit down with your boss and you say, “Look, boss, this is what I plan to do with my day. Did I account for everything that I need to do? And here’s the stuff I don’t have time for. Help me reprioritise how to spend that time.” And let me tell you, your boss will love this.
Nir Eyal: Bosses don’t ask people to do this, because they don’t want them to think that they’re being micromanaged. But your boss is desperate for you to do this. If you can sit down with them and synchronise that schedule. And the idea here is when you do that, you’re reserving time for the most important tasks, one of which is time to think. So many people, we are constantly reacting all day long to our environment thinking we have no control. Because the emails say this and the phone calls are pinging us and the meetings that are been scheduled for us, we have no control over our time. But that’s principally because we haven’t carved out the time to do things that we need to do, like time to strategise or time to think, time to be less alone to come up with good ideas for God’s sake and so that time has to be planned ahead.
Nir Eyal: Now some jobs are purely reactive jobs. If you work in a call center, your job is to answer the calls. It’s a purely reactive job, but most jobs out there in the knowledge work sector require a bit of reflection, but we treat every job like it’s a reactive job. And so the problem, of course, is that we prioritise the urgent at the expense of the important. So if you don’t have time to actually think about that important long-term stuff that requires you to concentrate, well you’re going to be a lot worse at your job. Your company will suffer because you haven’t made time for those tasks as well in your day.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, some strategies that I think are recommended in the book were checking email at predefined periods and the same for our instant messaging tools like Slack and also you had to go to one about office hours as well. If you think it takes longer to change from the reactive mindset to what you recommend in the book?
Nir Eyal: Well, the idea behind becoming indistractable is to be the kind of person who strives to do what they say they’re going to do. You don’t have to do everything all at once. You don’t have to do, every technique in the book. I want to give you a lot of arrows in your quiver so that you can use them at your will to become more indistractable. But really it’s about taking one step at a time. So for example, one of the banes of most office workers’ existence these days is email, right? We constantly feel we have a barrage of email and if it’s not email, it’s Slack messages or phone calls or whatever it might be that’s pinging into us. So, setting a time in your day when you are not to be interrupted when you will not be responsive is a terrific first step and maybe that’s only 30 minutes, 45 minutes an hour, to give you time to actually think. It’s amazing.
Nir Eyal: I’ll be very honest with you, I get paid thousands of dollars an hour to help people with their personal productivity and let me let you in on a little secret. 9 times out of 10 all I do is listen. All I do is listen and people can fix their own problems because by paying me all this money, they’ve given themselves permission to think and that’s something anybody can do for free. Right? You can do that yourself by just giving yourself time to think through your work issues, your home issues, your life issues, time to strategise is the competitive advantage of this century, because nobody is giving themselves that time.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. It feels like there are more inboxes than ever. I definitely agree that finding time to think is so important. You said there, you coach people about personal productivity. So I was reading another book about productivity a while ago, and the author was making the point that the more productive you become, the more work arrives. So it’s an endless game, so to speak. Is that something you’d agree with?
Nir Eyal: Yeah, absolutely.
Bryan Collins: It is.
Nir Eyal: Not only do I agree with it, I’ve experienced it. And the reason I wrote this book was that five years ago I published another book and my first book was very easy to write, because nobody was calling me. I wasn’t kind of a known author. And then my book did very well. I sold a quarter-million copies and I started getting a lot of phone calls and consulting engagements and speaking engagements. And now I had no time to do the one thing that one, I really enjoyed, and made me successful, which was to research and write. And so I was very distracted. And so I wrote indistractable first and foremost for myself, because I was struggling with this problem and figured I needed a solution for it. And so I think that’s absolutely the case, that as people become more successful, they oftentimes don’t have time to do the things that made them successful in the first place.
Nir Eyal: And that’s a real problem, because again, we start prioritising the urgent stuff as opposed to the important stuff. And so that’s why it’s so important to become indistractable so that we can do the things we know we really should be doing.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. I remember you said in the book, about it taking five years to write it. So that’s quite a long time to work on a book.
Nir Eyal: That’s right. And it took me five years because I was so distracted.
Bryan Collins: So what did your-
Nir Eyal: It wasn’t until I did-
Bryan Collins: I was just going to ask, what did your indistractable writing routine look like when you got there?
Nir Eyal: Well, yes. So today, it took me so long to write this book because it wasn’t until about three years in that I could finally cement in my mind and in my daily life, these practices that are based on thousands of studies. There’s 20 pages of citations at the end of the book. Everything in the book, is backed by peer-reviewed studies. And so once I discovered these four fundamental elements of what it takes to do what you say you’re going to do, what it takes to becoming indistractable, then my productivity soared, right? Then I could become this kind of person who lives with personal integrity. And I started doing what I said I would do every day, not just in work, but also with my health. I would for years, I would say, “Oh, I’m definitely going to work out today,” but I wouldn’t, or, “I’m definitely going to lose weight today,” but I wouldn’t, “I’m definitely going to be with my daughter, be fully present,” but I would get distracted. So, this macro-skill of becoming indistractable, benefited me in all domains of my life.
Bryan Collins: I think you said you spend about three hours a day writing, or at least that’s what you were doing when you were working on the books. So now that it’s out, have you shifted that routine?
Nir Eyal: Oh, so now I’ve actually, now I’m in a book promotion mode. So I changed how I spend my mornings to now mostly do interviews like this one. But then again in January, I’ll switch back to writing mode. So, I let myself have a few months to promote the book, and then I’ll get back to writing. And I think this is an important point that when you make a time-box calendar, it’s not set in stone. It’s not something that you do once and say, this is my calendar for life. No, no, no. Quite the opposite. It’s an iterative process. So every week you sit down with your time-box calendar and you assess how you want to spend your time in the week ahead and you adjust it accordingly. It only takes about 15 minutes. It’s very easy to do. But that time that you spend to decide what you want to do in the week ahead is critical to make sure that if your priorities change, if the things that you value change, that you have time for them in the week ahead.
Bryan Collins: So what happens if something pops up that upends the whole day. Let’s say, let me think of an example. A couple of weeks ago, my car was stolen from the house. So that upended my-
Nir Eyal: Oh, wow!
Bryan Collins: Yeah. Yeah. It was a bit stressful at the time, but it upended actually the whole week. So, I’m just wondering how do you plan for something like that? Maybe that’s an extreme example, but I suppose the smaller one could be, thinking of work.
Nir Eyal: Well, first of all, I’m sorry. That’s awful. I’m really sorry to hear that. Did you get your car back?
Bryan Collins: I did not. No, I did not. The police are investigating it. So yeah, it was a bit unfortunate. It could’ve been worse. It was taken during the night.
Nir Eyal: Sorry to hear that.
Bryan Collins: Thank you. Thank you.
Nir Eyal: Oh geez. Well, I think that’s actually a great example of this point that I make in the book that becoming indistractable doesn’t mean you never get distracted. It means you strive to be the kind of person who does what they say they’re going to do. And so, even I get distracted from time to time for things, maybe not quite as tragic as a stolen car, but things do happen in life that you can’t predict. Because remember there are only three potential sources of distraction. It’s either an external trigger, an internal trigger or a planning problem. And so, the idea is not to beat yourself up if something really goes off track. The idea is to not let that thing keep happening. So if your car gets stolen, that’s horrible. But hopefully, that doesn’t keep happening in your life.
Nir Eyal: Hopefully, that’s something that is a one-time thing and it doesn’t continually occur. And it’s what I find is a much more pernicious source of distraction is not the one in a million thing that’s happened. It’s the things that happen day in and day out and we actually could do quite a bit about if we tried. So there’s this great Paulo Coelho quote. He said, “A mistake repeated more than once, is a decision.”
Bryan Collins: Yeah, oh I like that.
Nir Eyal: If you don’t do something about the problem and it keeps happening again and again, well you are deciding to let that problem keep happening, to let that distraction keep happening in your life. And so the idea is that if something distracts you once, okay, not your fault. But if it distracts you twice, three times, four times, for me it would happen day after day, week after week, I would keep getting distracted by the same stupid thing. Well, now that’s my fault. That’s my responsibility. I have to do something about it. By either removing the external trigger, hacking back, what we call, finding ways to master the internal triggers or fixing the planning problem, right? Planning, if something continues to distract you. For example, let’s say you show up to work late and you’d say, “Well, it was the traffic that did it to me. It’s not my fault. Traffic was bad.” Well really? Is traffic bad only once a year? No, traffic might be bad many times per year. So what do you do?
Nir Eyal: I can imagine if you had a job interview and you had to be at the job interview at 9:00 AM, would your employer say, “Oh yeah, I understand you were 30 minutes late because the traffic was bad.” No, they would say, “Why didn’t you come earlier?” And so we can plan around these types of things by making sure that we don’t keep getting distracted by planning ahead.
Bryan Collins: And what you described there actually is, there’s a fantastic graphic in the book that represents the concepts internal traction, external distraction. Did it take you long to come up with that visual representation of the key ideas in the book?
Nir Eyal: It’s funny that you should say that. This picture, the visual representation, probably took me longer than writing all the words in the book. Because getting that picture, and it’s hard to describe, through my voice as opposed to the visual. But basically it’s to the right, you have an arrow pointing towards traction. To the left, you have an arrow pointing towards distraction. And then you have two arrows pointing from the top and the bottom into the center that are external triggers and internal triggers. And so with these four steps, these four points on the compass, so to speak, you have the fundamental understanding of the problem of distraction and how to become indistractable. These four steps of mastering the internal trigger, making time for traction, hacking back the external trigger and preventing distraction with tact.
Nir Eyal: But the hard part was filtering out all the noise. There’s so much bogus stuff out there about how to be productive that is not supported by scientific evidence. And I didn’t want to include any of that stuff in my book. I only wanted to distill down the really important elements that are also backed by good science.
Bryan Collins: Yep. And you actually structured the book around the graphic as well. Did you do that at the start or during the editing process?
Nir Eyal: Yeah, so it took me three years to collect all the research and to sort out in my own mind what’s important, what wasn’t important, and what were the good studies, what were the not so good studies. And then, once I had the model of those four steps and I understood the proper order to do these steps, then I could go about actually writing the rest of the book.
Bryan Collins: Okay. Okay. Yeah. That’s a good way to write a book. Yeah. It’s just, it’s unusual because a lot of books like this are broken into three acts whereas your focus is four audios. It was quite a great way to present scientific information.
Nir Eyal: Thanks. Yeah. Yeah. So half the book is about things that you can do yourself. How you can become indistractable. But then the other half of the book is about this wider context of, I understand that we operate in various environments. So, if your boss demands that you do a project at 9:00 PM on a Friday night, you have to do that project or else you’ll get fired, no matter how indistractable you want to be. And so that’s why there’s a whole section about how to build an indistractable workplace, how to raise indistractable kids, and how to have indistractable relationships. And they all, all three of those sections deal with these outside environments, but also use the same exact four steps to help us, become indistractable in those various circumstances.
Bryan Collins: And was there any prevailing wisdom about productivity that you came across that you just decided, isn’t actually true?
Nir Eyal: Oh, so much. Yeah, so much. I mean, the book is full of me turning over the apple cart. One of the examples, this idea that many people subscribe to, unfortunately, it’s not backed by good scientific evidence. This idea of ego depletion, which is a fancy term that psychologists use for describing this phenomenon that we run out of willpower, and you’ve probably heard this in one sense or another, that at the end of the day, if you’ve had a tough day, I would say this to myself all the time. I’d come home from work and I say, “I’m spent, I have no more willpower give me that pint of ice cream and I’m going to sit on the couch and watch Netflix because I’m spent,” even though I have a hundred things I need, I should be doing, I can’t anymore. I have no more willpower left.
Nir Eyal: And there was actually a psychologist who studied this phenomenon and got some traction with it, published a bunch of papers, but then as is oftentimes the case in the social sciences, a group of psychologists said, “You know what? This sounds a little fishy. Let’s replicate these studies.” And when they tried to replicate the studies, they could not replicate them. They found that in fact, ego depletion does not exist. You do not run out of willpower like gas in a gas tank. That’s not how willpower works. But there was a group of people who actually did exhibit ego depletion, who actually did run out of willpower like gas in a gas tank. And those people, interestingly enough, the only people who did display ego depletion were people who believed in ego depletion. So if you believe that you were spent, that you’ve run out of willpower, it became so.
Nir Eyal: And so. This is such an important lesson. Because the way we see ourselves, the way we think about our temperament can have a profound impact on our behaviours. And so this is why I’m on this crusade to fight against this idea that technology is addicting us, that it’s hijacking our brain, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Because ironically, when we believe that rubbish, it makes it true. We don’t do anything about the problem when we think we can’t do anything about it. It’s called learned helplessness. And so that’s really what I’m trying to fight against are these, this way that we construct our self-image in such a way that we really don’t serve ourselves. We harm ourselves by imagining our temperament to be something that cannot change, that we are helpless to do anything about. It’s a very pernicious way of thinking.
Bryan Collins: So is it a case that you just need a change of pace or a change of what you’re focusing on, rather than a break if you’re feeling…?
Nir Eyal: Oh, in terms of ego depletion. Yes. The solution is not to think of willpower as a limited resource. Instead, what we need to do is to think about resource, what it really is, according to Michael Inzlicht, a researcher who looks at this very question, he says that, “Willpower is not a resource. Willpower is an emotion.” So just like it would sound ridiculous if I said, “Oh, I was so angry at you, and then I ran out of anger.” That doesn’t make any sense. Or, “Oh, I was having a great time, but then I ran out of happy.” That doesn’t make sense. And so the same goes when it comes to willpower, that we don’t run out of willpower, it’s an emotion and emotions tend to crest and then subside over time, but you don’t run out of them. They’re just feelings. And so that’s a much healthier way to manage a lack of willpower. And I talk in the book about how to do that.
Bryan Collins: I believed that study, when I read it originally. But you’ve certainly changed my mind.
Nir Eyal: Yeah, we all did.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. Do you have an ideal early morning routine at the moment or do you even believe an ideal early more routine is important?
Nir Eyal: Well, I believe in an individual morning routine. I don’t like this sense that many people have, that there’s only one routine that works for one person and if it works for them, it has to work for everyone. I don’t think that there’s a magic formula. I think that we each individually can come up with our own best routine. And the reason this is so important is that if we stick to a very fixed sense of what we have to do, it makes us too rigid in terms of being flexible week over week to change that routine. So, many people say, “Oh, I’m a morning person or I’m a night owl and there’s no way I can be productive at any other time of the day.” Well, that’s another self-limiting belief.
Nir Eyal: And even if it is true, even if you have some slight tendency, as the scientific evidence shows that there might be a slight, slight tendency to be one way or the other, would you want to be that rigid? Would you want to make yourself think that you are incapable of doing things any other time of day? And so I think it’s important to test for yourself what’s effective at different phases of your life. So week over week you might try one thing one week and then try something else the next week to see what suits you best without thinking that, “Oh, I can only do one plan, because that’s what the expert told me it should be,” that’s a very rigid plan. However, the time to be rigid is not in formulating a plan. It’s when it is already formulated. So once you decide how you want to spend your mornings, how you want to spend your time, then you have to follow through, right.
Nir Eyal: Once you’ve made your calendar then you have to stick with it. But to say that there is only one perfect morning routine, I don’t know if it is so effective, it really needs to be come up with by the individual.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. That’s a little like what Daniel Pink proposed in his book when he talks about experimenting about when you should do something. So finally, where can people find your book Nir, or more about you?
Nir Eyal: My book is available. Yeah, it’s available wherever books are sold. It’s called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. And if you go to my website indistractable.com there is a complimentary workbook of 80 pages, an 80-page workbook that I couldn’t fit into the manuscript, so you can get that there for free. There’s also a video course available if you get the book that comes along with it, and that’s all at indistractable.com.
Bryan Collins: That’s a lot of extra bonuses. I’ll be sure to check those out. It was great to talk to you today Nir.
Nir Eyal: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
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