I was almost too distracted over the past couple of days to write this review of Indistractable. But there’s some real “digital parenting” wisdom in it, so here we are, blog post done. For example, co-author Nir Eyal says, “Teach traction.” The opposite of distraction isn’t focus, as we typically think. It’s traction, which “comes from the Latin trahere, meaning ‘to draw or pull’,” Eyal writes. It’s what “draws us toward what we want in life.” So distraction, as we know, “means the ‘drawing away of the mind.’”
Now, you should know that Eyal – the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, the 2013 book that one reviewer said “everyone in Silicon Valley [was] talking about” (in a notably different public opinion climate) – knows a thing or two about the concerns that have since spawned a gazillion headlines, a scary (and/or delightfully bias confirming) documentary, and a whole “digital wellbeing” movement. But this is not a “prodigal tech bro” sharing his remorse. He tells interviewer Shane Parrish that he “really wrote this book for myself [because] I found myself using technology too much,” and he took his time. The book was five years in the research and writing (first published in 2019, the world seems even more ready for it now than then).
Not sitting ducks
Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life is not a parenting book, but Part 6 is about “How to Raise Indistractable Children,” and the author is a parent himself. Not all of us are into how-to books (I’m not, particularly), but what I like about this one is that Eyal cuts right to the core of many parents’ concerns about digital media and tech, e.g., turning brains to mush, a new kind of addiction or destroying a generation. Refreshingly, he doesn’t position “the digital” as causative. He doesn’t portray us all, including our children, as a bunch of crash-test dummies for platforms and device makers; he says “the tech is so much weaker than we are.” He gets at what we actually need to be thinking about. Yes of course we protect our children from harm and teach them to recognize manipulation. Yes, notifications and chirps and nudges are distracting, as is everything that isn’t what we truly want to be doing right now. But “the leading cause of distraction is not external triggers but internal ones,” Eyal told Parrish: “boredom, uncertainty, fatigue, anxiety. You need to know what feeling you’re trying to escape [because] distraction is the inability to deal with emotional discomfort.”
What he doesn’t mention in the book is that recognizing our emotions and feelings is one of the five basic competencies of social and emotional learning (SEL), which is being taught in more and more US schools, thankfully. So even if kids aren’t learning this skill from their parents, increasing numbers of them are learning it anyway. Maybe they can teach us.
Solid advice for parents
What Eyal offers fellow parents is some of the soundest advice for digital-age parenting around: “We need to reinforce [our kids’] belief in their own ability to overcome distraction.”
He cites the research of psychology professors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci as finding that “just as the human body requires three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) to run properly … the human psyche needs three things to flourish: autonomy, competence and relatedness. When the body is starved, it elicits hunger pangs; when the psyche is under-nourished, it produces anxiety, restlessness and other symptoms,” Eyal writes. Those are the things that really distract us – those internal triggers.
What kids really need
“When kids aren’t getting the psychological nutrients they need, self-determination theory explains why they might overdo unhealthy behaviors,” he writes, which could include excessive gaming, too much social comparison in social media as well as non-digital unhealthy behaviors. “Ryan believes the issue has less to do with devices and more to do with why some kids are more susceptible to distraction in the first place. Without sufficient autonomy, competence and relatedness [feeling that they’re important to others and others are important to them], kids turn to distraction for psychological nourishment.”
Just in the area of autonomy, for example, Eyal cites researcher Robert Epstein, who wrote the well-known 2007 article “The Myth of the Teen Brain” in Scientific American. Pointing to quite an autonomy deficit, Epstein wrote that, based on surveys he’d conducted, teens in the US are subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty US Marines and even twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons.” Definitely a cautionary note for helicopter (or drone) parenting.
Where indistractability’s concerned, so much depends on the individual child and their home and school context, of course. But all children need those three psychological “nutrients” that grow confidence and resilience. This makes huge sense to me – does it to you? So along with a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, exercise, play and social interaction, children also need these psychological nutrients.
The author offers four ways we can help ourselves and our children become more indistractable:
- Become familiar with those internal triggers (write down what they feel and explore that with curiosity not contempt).
- Make time for traction (think with them about what they value and how they want to spend their time to serve that). [We parents need to honor that, Eyal writes. Agree.]
- “Hack back” at the external triggers like pings, notifications, etc., by asking themselves if the triggers serve their values and their needs in the moment and by practicing asking that frequently. If the trigger doesn’t serve them, they could make it a practice to turn on their phone’s Do Not Disturb feature.
- Prevent distraction with pacts they make with themselves and/or you, e.g., “I’ll charge my phone outside my bedroom at 10pm,” “I will give myself at least 30 min. of solid, device-free thinking or creating (not reacting) time every day – not using my phone as the timer” or “I’ll turn on Do Not Disturb while doing my homework or anything else important to me.”
That’s just a taste; there’s at least a chapter for each of those. The bottom line is, we have the opportunity to teach our children to recognize not just external but also internal triggers; to think about what their values are; not to be “blamers” (of technology, other people, outside forces) and “shamers” (of themselves, with labels such as “addicted personality,” “procrastinator” and other self-defeating self-images); but to be “claimers” (of responsibility – not for how they feel but for how they respond to what they feel and how to deal with discomfort in healthy ways). We can nourish their autonomy, competence and relatedness. Only when kids learn how to monitor their own behavior do they learn how to be indistractable, Eyl says.
My own distractions
Ok, my children are grown ups (and still use technology, so far without deleterious effect), so how did Indistractable help me with distraction? I really liked Chapter 20. As Eyal described his experience at work on his computer, it triggered me. I subscribe to all sorts of news outlets’ email newsletters, get bunches of meeting notifications and webinar invites and have a ridiculous number of browser tabs open, with a Google Doc, Sheet or deck open for each work assignment. But it’s all work, my distracto-brain says, right?! Yes, but no matter how “virtuous” (ha!) it is to read each news flash, invitation, article that pops into my in-box, whatever draws my attention away from the deep thinking I need to do for the task I’m committed to in this moment is a distraction. I’ve learned it takes self-knowledge, honesty and love (for self and the work) to avoid it. And sometimes I can. It really helps to be aware of the counter-arguments. And in any case, Eyal has some excellent hacks, including timeboxing plus “never read[ing] articles in my browser.” Check out Chapter 20 for how that works.
- “Meaningful gamification”: I noticed a fascinating parallel between Eyal’s internal/external triggers point and what I learned (almost a decade ago) about the intrinsic rewards of “meaningful gamification” vs the extrinsic rewards of mere gamification. I learned this from Prof. Scott Nicholson at a talk he gave at the 2012 Games+Learning+Society conference at the University of Wisconsin: He said that meaningful gamification (what actually changes behavior and causes learning) relies on intrinsic rewards (what inherently satisfies). If you rely on extrinsic rewards (candy bars, stickers, points, etc. – stuff added on), you can never stop; you create a kind of “addiction,” an expectation in the player that there’ll always be more to get out there in order to be satisfied. So by definition, satisfaction comes (or actually never really comes) from outside the individual. An extrinsic reward system creates a power relationship that’s about controlling the player. It decreases trust, Nicholson said. He added there are three requirements for learning, positive growth and behavior change: “competence, agency and relevance.” Sound familiar?!
- “Control paradigm“: a term used by four professors in Australia in an important 2019 book about the opposite of autonomy and agency in approaches to youth digital safety, inclusion and citizenship around the world (see also this 2013 post about internal vs. external safeguards)
- Another important book about Parenting for a Digital Future, based on talking with 73 families of diverse cultures, sizes, income brackets, ethnicities, religions, parenting styles and family makeups in the families’ own homes (not a clinical environment) – and a simple exercise for families inspired by that book
- About amazing young artists and activists demonstrating autonomy, competence and relatedness in an extremely difficult year (love them all so much) and this inspiring young activist and co-author finding her “standing place”
- “Wellbeing, digital or analog: A paper, a podcast“