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 actual