Photograph: Arti Agarwal

Distraction: A War With Yourself

Can we really become indistractable?

I wanted to start with the most obvious irony for this particular post: I have literally postponed writing this for almost three weeks. So, in a sense, this post is the result of a study with sample size one. The “general” reason is that I am distracted, have 20 things on my plate, have not had much sleep, am in too much pain etc (as we’ll see in more detail later) — but in summary, it boils down to just that I am being terrible at managing my distractions, whatever they may be.

For almost a month now, I have had atleast 10 items on my to-do list, and if I had tried to strike off even one item from the list per day, I would have been finished with it 3 weeks ago. When I am in my “flow,” I can work at superhuman efficiency. But I seemed to have lost my “flow” and was struggling in vein to get it back. So I decided to do something about it. Something I would not typically do: read a book on the subject. This post is a summary + critical analysis of the subject matter of the book “Indistractable” by Nir Eyal.

Why We Do What We Do

To understand why you do what you do should probably be labelled as the ultimate knowledge any person can have. Most of us know only ~10% of the reasoning behind why we do what we do. In the back of my head, I know I have many answers to the problems I am facing. They are like a bunch of n number of keys. The only problem is that I don’t know which key works in which lock and when I am warring with myself in trying to manage my time better — especially when a big chunk of my time is unusable due to immense physical pain — I get stuck in an endless loop of trying different permutations and combinations of locks and keys and giving up in the end. I don’t know which answer is the right answer to my problems.

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Fighting distraction is like a war with yourself. It’s a war, because for some time now I have realized that the most important puzzle piece is knowing what is a distraction for you, and what is a goal (something you want to do, achieve, have). Like defining which is a flowering plant, and which is a weed. For example, to me running is usually something I want to do, I need to make time for it, and show up for it in the right way. Running runs my life. But if I do the same thing to escape from writing my book or finish some other work that’s pending, then it is a distraction. The identification of what we want to find time for matters. Defining what we want time for is literally designing your life as per you.

It’s very easy to give justifications for why you played the music, why you decided to clean the house, why you wanted to go for a walk etc. Everything has a valid excuse. But if the net result at the end of a day is still zero items off the to-do list of your own making, something’s off somewhere. The definitions are wrong somewhere. Time is not being spent optimally, leading to frustration, low mood, lack of self belief, and eventually lack of motivation to even try. That is where I was when I finally decided to pick up the book.

This post is also a sort of my personal journey reading the book “In-distract-able” by Nir Eyal. When I started reading the book, I knew I wanted to manage some of my distractions. But as I dug into it, I realized that it is a stirring book which takes you deep into yourself. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but one line from the book actually made me cry, it struck such a cord with me:

“Even when we think we are seeking pleasure, we’re actually driven by the desire to be free of the pain of wanting.”

I wanted the items off my list. Not all of them were super important or would give me immense joy. They were just things I needed done, off my head, leaving me free for leisure.

Most of our lives are spent not in planning for pleasure or joys, but rather in planning how to avoid pain. We do not want to get hurt. We have gotten hardwired to avoid anything we perceive as “pain.” There’s a reason why we call someone or something annoying as a “pain in the ass” — because to us that thing is almost as if it is pain. We don’t want to deal with it.

Real pleasure is very brief, usually transitory, and can also be cloying. Whereas pain tends to create a semi-permanent place in our lives. It just tends to stick there. That is why we hate it more, try harder to avoid it, and obsess over it more.

Distractions, are essentially, our fight with everything we have consciously or unconsciously labelled as “pain.” We don’t do certain things (& while away time on other useless activities) either because they are pain to us, or remind us of something painful — some thought, result, incident, etc. The author explains this in a lot more detail in the book, but since I don’t want to give away spoilers, I am leaving out the structure proposed by the author.

Photograph: Arti Agarwal

What Triggers You, Controls You

I have often noticed, that even when in my worst phases of being “out of the flow,” when a deadline hangs on my head, I am somehow able to fight any and every distraction and get the thing done. Probably one of my superpowers. But I also wanted to reverse-engineer that through the techniques given in the book, to make them usable in situations which are not quite as dire.

One of the techniques given in the book is managing “internal triggers”. What moves you to not do what you think you want to do? This is something I personally wanted to address for a long time. So, for the last 10 days, I decided to start journaling my day, just to get a better sense of self awareness, and to not get carried away in a high tide of some emotion. Emotions tend to keep coming back again and again like sea waves. Writing them down helps me to keep a lid on that. It also helps me precisely identify the feeling of “pain” associated with different tasks or just different aspects of my work which impel me to avoid the task at hand and fritter time away in things that would add up to nothing in my life.

After a few days of journaling, I was able to identify the reasons for my sagging self-motivation. But I did not need to motivate myself to overcome it. The surprising thing is, that the moment I identified the reasons and just decided to sit with myself silently for a few minutes every day, without doing anything, just sitting with awareness (you can call it meditation), that heaviness in my mind went away. I did not “solve” the problem. The problem effervesced away. It lost its weight in my life. After just one week, I could finally sit at my desk again, and start to get some work done.

Photograph: Arti Agarwal

Managing (Actual) Pain

The book is filled with useful hacks to claim your desktop, phone, online presence, finding time for your friends and family etc. It gives ideas on how to make your workspace clutter-free. In my particular situation, these suggestions don’t apply as-is. I have been working from home for almost 11 years. My home is laid out like a mini-library + cafe + multimedia art gallery + terrace garden + work desk 1 + portable work desk 2 + art studio. It is designed for work.

But there is something I did need to do for managing actual physical pain, which was the biggest obstacle for my work. The author has claimed, rightly, that managing pain is managing time. In my situation, that is true very literally.

When I hit the wall (not literally) about 2 months ago, to the extent that just sitting at my desk for half hour was giving me excruciating pain, I knew something had to be done, apart from medical treatment. My bad working hours and non-ergonomic arrangements had ruined my health to the point that I could not work. I could not even sit and read.

To reclaim my time and life back, I decided to manage this pain and hence my time differently. I put a complete stop to working in odd postures. I bought a contraption to raise the angle of my laptop screen so it is at eye level. I arranged my living room so that if I have to watch something for long — a documentary, a series of videos, lectures, whatever — it is only on my TV screen which is again, at the right angle. I arranged my keyboard to be at the right height so my arm is not raised at 15 degrees while I am typing. I created 2 spaces in my home with mats, so I can do yoga for 5 minutes whenever I feel the pain coming back, just to relax the muscles and correct my posture. I also set aside 2 guilt-free hours per day for running and yoga or some other sport.

These may seem small, innocuous changes, but the difference was immense. I was, getting better with the medical treatment, but these small steps enabled me to sit and read or type. Considering that my work is centered on writing, reading and researching, this was a huge plus. I could do what mattered the most without hurting myself.

I wanted to touch upon 2–3 of the personal revelations I had from the book and the techniques I directly implemented for myself, rather than a summary of everything the author says. Not everything may work for everyone. But the book did help me get back on my feet and find the leaky-holes in my boat. After a 3-month hiatus on Substack, I decided to break the ice with this post in order to announce my comeback & also share some inspiration and useful tips with anyone else who might be feeling stuck.

Economics, data science, technology, innovation. Author of “Cownomics.” IIT, MIT Alum. Publication: Holler at