Book Review: Indistractable by Nir Eyal

This isn’t a book about smartphones.

I mean, yeah, there are some tips and tricks to help you optimize your smartphone use, one of which I wrote up in Lifehacker last week, but Nir Eyal’s Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life isn’t really about why phones are bad or why the internet is destroying our attention spans or any of that.

It’s about knowing what you want and then knowing how to go after it.

When I first wrote about Indistractable for Lifehacker, I got the title wrong. (NOT IN THE FINAL DRAFT, JUST THE FIRST ONE.) I called the book “how to choose your attention and control your life.”

Because that’s what Indistractable is really about. How to make active choices regarding what we pay attention to, based on the standard Eyal sets in the very first chapter:

Distraction stops you from achieving your goals. It is any action that moves you away from what you really want.

Traction leads you closer to your goals. It is any action that moves you toward what you really want.

The rest of the book is all about strategy and tactics, and you can go read it for its very excellent strategy and tactics, but I’m going to swerve away from a discussion of Indistractable‘s actual contents (which are great, go read them) and towards the question Vaxtyn asked at the end of last week’s book review:

Any recommendations for someone who is struggling with the “where you want to go” part of the equation?

Boy howdy.

There have been periods in my life during which I didn’t know where I wanted to go next; all I knew was that I didn’t like where I was. What got me out of that was, literally, trying a bunch of different stuff—I took a cooking class, I took a language class, I went to a bead shop and bought a bunch of jewelry-making supplies, I tried starting a Mad Men recap blog. (This should tip you off to how long ago this was.)

I was in the tail end of my twenties, working as an executive assistant. I wanted to keep my job because I was good at it and because it was bringing in enough money for me to save my first $10K, open a Roth IRA, and invest in my first Vanguard lifecycle fund. But I didn’t know if I wanted to keep it forever. I’d read that famous Paul Graham article about makers vs. managers and I knew that I was a maker.

I just didn’t know what to make yet.

So I went to hacker spaces and tried learning how to code; I went to Quantified Self meetups; I did a bunch of project management training workshops because my boss thought I might like to move into project management someday (I didn’t, but I loved using the framework and principles on my own projects). I tried to write three or four different novels. I read books like Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft, Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star, and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way in the hopes that they’d help me figure out what I was meant to be doing with my life.

Then I went to a They Might Be Giants concert and saw Jonathan Coulton play a Zendrum.

I had no idea who Jonathan Coulton was. I almost skipped his part because the last TMBG concert I’d gone to had included a really dull opening act. But there he was, singing funny, thoughtful, sad songs on what appeared to be a cross between a guitar and a Super Nintendo controller, and I wanted to do that.

So badly that I could hardly wait for the concert to be over because all I wanted to do was get back home and start doing it.

There wasn’t enough room in my budget for the Zendrum, so I bought a guitar instead.

The point of this story—well, there are three points. The first point is that it took me a long time to fall in love with a creative activity that I actually wanted to practice. Like, two years of creative dating before I found a guitar to go steady with.

The second is that I kept my creative work and my money-earning work separate. When I did eventually decide to try to make my funny-thoughtful-sad songs the primary source of my income, I ended up in $14,000 worth of credit card debt. IN A YEAR. (I also sold $20,000 worth of CDs, in case you were curious. It wasn’t a total folly; it just wasn’t monetizable in the way I’d hoped it could be.)

The third point is that once I found THE THING that I wanted to spend more time doing, finding the time itself was relatively easy—though using tricks like the ones Eyal suggests in Indistractable helped, a lot.

Also, you can see how all of this stuff helped feed into what I do now (personal finance writing and lifehack writing, both of which I love) while simultaneously teaching me that THE WORK and THE LIFE and THE MONEY are all separate things.

And—if you want to throw a fourth point in there—it’s worth noting that earlier this year I was trying very hard to write PORTAL FANTASY BOOK and it felt like a huge huge huge slog and other priorities kept coincidentally popping up, and then I woke up one morning and thought “I have a brilliant idea for a MYSTERY BOOK” and finding the time to work on the project became easy.

So. That’s my answer to Vaxtyn’s question. (It’s also my review of Indistractable. Go read it.)

What about yours? ❤️

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