Brain Science – Episode #27

What does it mean to be Indistractible?

controlling our attention and choices

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Distractions will always exist – managing them is our responsibility. We often talk about the need for new information in order to change the old patterns of our brain. One of the best ways we can do this is through reading good books. In this episode, Mireille and Adam discuss the highlights of Nir Eyal’s book, Indistractible – how to control your attention and choose your life. In his book, Nir highlights this clear connection between people’s distraction and its relationship to psychological discomfort, otherwise known as pain. He says, “all behaviors, whether they tend toward traction or distraction are prompted by triggers, internal or external. When we learn how to recognize these “triggers,” there is opportunity for change. And changing in the direction that you desire, as based on what you value, is key to having the life you want to live.


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Mireille, today is different. We’re doing a book review/embedded book… Hey, we read a book, and that book is informing our conversation. This is less book review and this is just more discussion around the topics of the book. The book we’re talking about is called Indistractable, and it is by Nir Eyal and Julie Li, and the subtitle really sells the book, “How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life”.

I’m so excited. Yeah, I mean, who doesn’t want to be able to hone their attention better so that they’re less distracted by either what’s going on inside or what’s going on outside?

Yeah, and this is not a book review. Nir, if you’re listening to this, if ever you listen to this– hey, if you know Nir, recommend this podcast, which may just be fodder for him, because hey, he wrote the book… But we’re not reviewing the book, we’re just pulling out some of the best parts we thought were really informative, because we’ve been talking about distracts. We’ve been talking about procrastination, we’ve been talking about optimizing, what are you optimizing for, spending your time wisely, talking about the way social relationships play into our overall health and life and physical health and fitness, and I think this book is a great example of identifying what motivates us, what distraction is, how it plays a role; it’s got some cool stories in there, but I mean, this is such a great book. So if you’re listening to this thinking “That was on my bookshelf” or “I want to read it sometime”, pick it up, start reading it today, and learn what distraction is in your life.

For me, the biggest thing I took away was how distraction originates from this need to escape, and the thing you’re escaping from is psychological discomfort… And that’s just crazy to think the reason I’m distracted, the reason why I can’t get things done or in certain areas, as I examine my life, is like, “Well, I’m distracted and I’m trying to escape from physical or mental pain that is associated with that thing,” whatever it is, and it’s all about identifying those things. Name it to tame it comes into play here, and a lot of this– what I loved about the book is that a lot of it is like summarization of the things we’ve been really camping out on for a while now.

Yeah, it’s interesting… Being in the field of psychology and providing psychotherapy, helping people change their lives, change themselves for the better, I had a professor when I was in graduate school who talked a lot about the business format in this field, and it struck me so much at that time because he said, “Look, it’s not other psychologists or professionals that are your competition.” He said, “It’s everything else that makes people feel good.”

[04:18] So the amount that they could spend on getting treatment psychologically, they could buy a new car, they could go on a vacation, they could do a myriad of other things that would provide alternative benefits.

Yeah, that’s so true.

I have to consider that; that would be a competition. I would think maybe the competition will– yeah, I suppose, yeah. Competition is how I might spend my money to feel better… Because the whole point with mental health therapy and the things that psychologists do for their patients is - we’ve talked about this before - thinking differently, seeing your problems differently, from different angles. I’d never really considered that my choice would be therapy or feeling better by buying a car or–

Right? But think of all these other things that distract you away from the pain that you’re feeling. So people come to me out of this place of pain, of like, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve gotten to the end of my rope. I’ve exhausted all the skills, strategies, things I’ve known,” and usually even tried other things that haven’t provided the dividends that they desire. So it’s like, “Here’s the last-ditch effort.” But this is also why I tell people when I start working with them that my goal is ultimately to work myself out of a job… Because some people will think, “Well, they just want you to keep coming,” and it’s like, no, no, no, no, no. If you’re actually doing the work, which ironically involves pain, the goal is that you would have less pain because you’ve been able to work through the things that were causing the pain. So you feel different, i.e. happier, more content, more fulfilled, more connected.

So one of my favorite takeaways or things from this book is really– we talk so much about application; just knowledge in and of itself isn’t enough, but rather, what do you need to do in terms of action. The way in which the author writes this is so good for just like little nuggets, not just, “Hey, here’s the little data or explanation relative to why you’re getting distracted,” but one, here’s a mental framework to help you keep it in picture or in mind as you’re trying to do differently, and here’s a little nugget that you could do differently. So you don’t necessarily even have to read the book in one fell swoop. You could just sit down and read one section or one part, as the book is broken up into five different parts. And then one really cool thing that we’ll come back to at the end is that he includes actually a book discussion at the end. So if you wanted to actually get a crew of people, i.e. get connected differently and have conversations around how you could implement some of these things, it’s already templated for you.

I love that so much really about books, that you don’t have to read linearly. To get chapter five, you have to read chapter three. I mean, that makes sense in, let’s say, a novel or something like that, or a storybook or something like that; it totally makes sense. I mean, obviously, you need to follow along with the story. But in this case, if you just want to understand how you can make time for traction, you could just jump into part two and dive in some of the chapters there and use that as a guide point. And so honestly, I haven’t read the whole book. I’ve read parts of the book.

There was one part of the books that was like, “Hey, if you want to just jump ahead to this part to skip these areas, because you got these down or you just want to go right to doing…” I went right to doing, so I went to chapter five - How to Make Your Workplace Indistractable, and I was like, “I want to go right to the doing part of things because I’m gonna doer; I learn by doing”, and so I did that. But I still did go back and read some of the chapters and take notes and stuff like that, but I love when you can just jump into chapters that peek out at you and read those and get something from them.

Yeah, so he starts out by noticing that distractions will always exist, but managing them is our responsibility.

[08:19] Right. Like if you’re distracted by your phone, that might help you, but it’s not gonna cure the distraction forever. It may be a distracting point and something you use to, I guess, perpetuate your distraction, the discomfort you’re feeling there, but just putting your phone away or doing a detox. You always come back to it, it’s going to exist. So it’s something deeper that the root cause is beyond just simply, “Oh, this shiny device in my pocket buzzing”, or whatever. It’s the root cause is much deeper.

Right. I mean, I think about how many times I sit down at my computer to do work and then I have these pop-up thoughts like, “Oh, I forgot to do this thing. Let me check that super quick.” Because I’m at my computer, so I have all of this access at my fingertips and nothing else to provide constraints. So it’s like, unless I do anything deliberate like set a timer and see how fast I can get this work done, I’m prone to deviate away, because it’s like, “Oh, I’m just gonna close that file tab in my brain. Oh, let me close that one too”, and before I know it, I’m just clicking away, trying to somewhat get things off my plate… But I mean, I’m just going on little tangents left and right, and before I know it, I’ve sat at my desk at my computer for an hour and I didn’t get the work done that I needed.

Some of that comes down to prioritization and making lists and disciplines that bring you into those… But there’s always triggers, and we’ve said before - be your own scientist. So be your own scientist, in this case, might be “Become aware.” We say this word a lot, too - awareness is key. Become aware of the triggers that are drawing you away from or prompting you from. He talks about them in the book as internal or external; it goes much deeper, but the advice always is be your own scientist. So if you sit down, like Mireille did in her example, at your desk, and you get lost for an hour - well, what’s the trigger there? And then maybe the trigger for you might be, you really didn’t want to do the work in the first place.

How’d you know? [laughs]

Right?! And that’s the case for almost everybody, so it’s a universal answer. I didn’t want to do the work anyways, or it was too painful; I don’t want to deal with that, but that’s where I come back to the whole thing. For me, the one… If I read this book for one thing, it was for this - distractions originate from the need to escape psychological discomfort. For me, that connection is so profound, so profound, because that tells me that my phone isn’t the problem; that tells me it’s a much deeper issue, anytime I’m a scientist and I’m investigating my triggers or the different things that are happening and taking note of those things, because that psychological discomfort is not stemming from my phone. It’s stemming from other things to escape from– the keyboard there is ‘escape’.

Yep. Yeah, so I love how he talks about and differentiates traction from distraction. He identifies traction coming from the Latin ‘trahere’ word meaning to draw or pull. So traction refers to the actions that draw us towards the life we want. I was thinking about tires having traction, and if you think about tires that get stuck in mud, they can’t quite get the traction to move anywhere, go anywhere you want. But that’s what distraction, on the other hand is, is where it’s derived from that same root word, but drawing away of the mind, drawing away from the mind. So it’s taking away, like – my tires are just kicking up mud, and I’m not moving or getting any traction to move towards the place I want to go. And that’s why it’s so frustrating, because I can’t really move the way I want to.

[12:18] Well listen, when I get in my car and I push the pedal for gas and the car doesn’t move, I get frustrated, because that’s what’s supposed to happen. When you push the button or flip the switch or turn the knob, that thing is supposed to work. And that’s what’s happening here. The resulting action is either aligned with your broader intention… So if you have “What am I optimizing for” and you’re taking action, it’s either traction, going towards the thing you’re trying to achieve, or misaligned and it’s distraction, taking away from what you’re trying to achieve.

Right. So it just makes me curious then to think about “Well, what is your goal?” and is it worth it to endure whatever pain comes alongside or with that goal, to endure it to get there?

Right? That’s hard, because so much I think about relative to exercise and working out and building strength, because it’s hard, and it doesn’t matter how many times you do it, it’s always hard in some way or another and you’re like, “This should be easy; the gas pedal should make me go” and yet it doesn’t. It reminds me like, “Oh wait, this is part of how it goes.” Whenever I’m trying to move towards a goal, there’s always obstacles or distractions, and therefore I have to be more deliberate and aware, so to speak, so that I’m going, “Oh wait, you know what’s happening right now, Mireille… You actually want to get this done, because when this is done, you get to do these other things that you really do enjoy” or “This is going to allow or free up other time for you to spend elsewhere. So let’s get this gig through.”

I too also like the framework that this operates or gives us traction or distraction. That is keying off of the name it to tame it. If you don’t have– so as you’re listening to this, thinking it’s either traction or distraction - now you have a mental framework to operate from when it comes to distraction; it’s like, that’s it - it’s either traction or distraction.

Yeah. I love how he puts this. He says, “Time management is pain management.” Ain’t that’s so true?

Right? Because if I can manage my time, I manage the discomfort that I feel. He goes into and identifies four psychological factors relative to pain. Because if we acknowledge that distraction is always this unhealthy escape from reality, this escape from pain… He says “These tend to be boredom, the negativity bias, rumination,” and what he references as, “hedonic adaptation”, otherwise known as the tendency to quickly return to a baseline level of satisfaction. “I want to get through this so that I feel better… Yesterday.”

The one that resonated with me on that list was rumination, which is our tendency to keep thinking about bad experiences. Or if you’ve ever chewed on something– this is quoting from his book… If you’ve ever chewed on something in your mind that you did or that someone did to you or over something that you didn’t have, but you wanted it, and you did it over and over and over again, unable to stop thinking about it, you just experienced what’s called rumination. I do that, I do that. So this name it to tame it thing, that makes sense to me. So now when I’m in those thoughts, if I catch myself as the scientist gathering data, if I catch myself ruminating, I’m like, “Adam, you’re ruminating. This is not a healthy pattern for you to do, and it leads to these things, so find a way to eject.” That’s my trigger, is find a way to get out of that, that thinking, that pattern of thinking, or at least identifying it. Like, “Listen, you’re ruminating right now over these things that you can’t control, you can’t do, and you can’t stop thinking about it. You’ve gotta put eject.”

[16:35] Right. So this is what I talk about a lot when working with patients, is recognizing those ways of thinking or behaviors, and going – not just the awareness, but like, why is this going on for me? What is a signal of ruminating to you? Is there something that you haven’t dealt with or is there something that you’re not settled with, and you’re like, “I need to go around this mulberry bush again and again, so that I feel at peace with it” or is it like we’ve talked about in other episodes relative to perfectionism, like “I don’t want to put myself out there in that vulnerable way, so maybe if I do it this way or say it that way or X, Y or Z, I can avoid critique or criticism.” I mean, there can be a myriad of things, but this is why it’s like, “Here’s the top layer of the onion. Let me peel back another layer to the onion.” So rumination is on the top, or we could even go distraction, rumination and underneath that– what’s under there? Can you lift up that rock and look?

Yeah. What is it, dummy?

Right?! [laughs] Yeah. No, it could be so many different things, but that’s why it’s so valuable to investigate and examine in greater depth instead, of just getting upset with yourself of like, “Gosh, Adam, here you’re doing it again. What’s wrong with you?!” and now you’re stuck criticizing or condemning yourself for something that is very common, but it’s just a signal or an indicator light of something else.

Yeah, it is around unsettled when I find myself doing it. In all honesty, there’s times when actually rumination can be positive, because there’s a variation of rumination where I’m examining a scenario, maybe an unsettled scenario, whatever it might be, and I’m just looking at all the different facets of what really happened to get a more clear perspective, or maybe even a multifaceted perspective on whatever the series of events were, whatever the conversation was, whatever the scenario was. So there’s positive things that can come from it; it’s when it’s uncontrollable.

The keyword in his book says, “Unstoppable. You can’t stop.” That’s where I’m like, “Pump the brakes. Do what you say. What’s going on here? Where is this originating from?” And going back to time management being pain management, in his book– I’m gonna quote from his book. “If distraction costs us time, then time management is pain management.” I’m trying to avoid pain here. I want to use my time wisely, and rumination isn’t exactly always wise use of my time.

Right. Yeah, and so both sides of the coin would be looking at what’s feeding the ruminating, but at the same time, looking at how can I set up some guardrails so that I’m not spending my time in that way, so that it’s less painful?

What about motivation? I mean, we’re all motivated by something. If we’re optimizing for something, we want to go a direction for a reason; in his book, he says, “The drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all of our behavior, while everything else is an approximate cause.” Now we’ve said before, every choice you make is essentially not to die, which would be discomfort; it’s uncomfortable to die. So that means that all of our choices essentially take us to a path of comfort or discomfort.

[20:16] Yeah. Well, motivation is to have comfort, but I have to say, there’s a myriad of things relative to that, because our experiences or biases or ways in which we’ve been conditioned relative to comfort or discomfort is also a facet of that. I mean, who has the same pain threshold or motivation? Well, everybody’s had different experiences, everybody’s got a different personality, genes and on and on, and so recognizing that discomfort is a part of that, but that discomfort, to some degree, is learned, assigned. If I believe–

That’s true.

I mean, part of this too, having been in athletics throughout my childhood, it was being able to differentiate different kinds of pain. Like, “Am I hurt? Am I injured? Do I need to stop training? Or am I uncomfortable and this is unpleasant, because I feel like I can’t breathe because I’m pushing my body as far as it can go, or my muscles etc.?” So understanding the discomfort that I’m feeling doesn’t mean I need to cease. It just means it’s hard and uncomfortable.

Yeah. I love that the distinction about pain though; it’s like, “Are you injured or you’re just hurt?” Because if you’re injured, you’ve gotta stop. Yeah, you’ve gotta go get medical help. But if you’re hurt, it’s in many cases psychological. So I do like the drive here. It’s like, discomfort and comfort is learned, and based on our bias.

Sure, and so what have you repeated and what have you done over and over that tells you this is uncomfortable? And I would say that there’s a lot of associations. If I’m looking at the way in which emotion and memory work together by past experiences, my brain is going to be motivated differently, because one thing was more unpleasant than another.

I think I’ve shared this, but I remember when I was training and I was an adolescent at the time living in the desert climate, and we used to train beyond school hours during the summer. So I would have trained for about four to five hours, and then before we could eat lunch, I had to go outside and run for a few laps in 105F to 115F degree heat. And so I never enjoyed running for the longest time, because the association was discomfort. I’m like, “This sucks. I just want to eat. I’ve trained, I’ve depleted my energy stores. I just want to chill out.” But I couldn’t. And so running in and of itself isn’t a negative, but recognizing, “Okay, if I’m not prone or I don’t necessarily want to run or be outside in that way, hey, it’s likely relevant or relative to experiences I had in the past wherein I didn’t like it.” So now I’ve labeled that as discomfort or painful, and now aversive, which I want to not feel. So maybe even another way of thinking of distraction is looking at what we don’t want to feel.

The opposite, yeah.

[24:01] We’re talking motivation. What motivates me? Well, making progress, feeling good, feeling like there’s more of what I want.

It happens a lot too in many successful things - the one way to think about a framework to use is not what do you want to be, it’s what do you not want to be? So in this case, what do you not want to feel?

If running– I couldn’t imagine running in the summertime here in Houston, because it’s so humid. I think it was 87F yesterday temperature-wise, but the humidity was so high that the weatherman said it actually felt like it was near the hundreds… Because it was 87F degrees, but the humidity took it way up there in terms of felt heat. So I’m not going to be motivated to go out there and run. That’s not pleasurable to me, that’s not comfortable to me.

That is not comfortable.

That is discomfort for me, so I’m going to avoid that. But the framework, the mental framework to consider though, whether you’re building something, whether you’re making something, building a company, building a life, defining your life, what you optimize for, identifying your values, what you want to go towards, what’s valuable to you, is sometimes what do you not want to be, versus what do you want to be. That might be easier to identify those things.

Yeah, and I think for people to recognize - motivation is always going to involve some other aspects that we find aversive, uncomfortable, all of those things we would like to avoid, hence why we’re distracted away from what we’d like to do. And this is why I work with people and try to help them recognize desire. What we’re talking about with motivation, like “Well, how bad do you want it?” And not like you have to be so gritty, “I want to get this thing so bad”, but where is your desire alongside the discomfort? Because I want that to be part of the equation as well, that you recognize, “Hey, I still want this. I don’t like this aspect of it, but I’m going to do this thing that is uncomfortable and aversive and work hard to get traction and minimize distraction, because I really want to make headway towards my goals.”

Yeah. Well the key there is goals, and to have goals, you have to have values, and so you have to understand what you actually value, which is very difficult, I suppose. There are some people who don’t seem to have a way, and will even self-admit, “I don’t seem to have a way, career-wise, a trajectory.” So they either need, as we’ve said before, a tribe to associate with. We can talk about the way that our relationships and social interactions play into our health and mental health and physical health etc, but it comes down to finding out what it is that I value, and what it is that I see as valuable. So if “time management is pain management”, and distraction is moving towards or away from discomfort, then that means I’ve got to identify the things that I value, so that I can align my life and all the traction I want to go towards the things that I find valuable.

Yeah, I loved this. In the book Indistractable, he quotes Russ Harris, who is the author of The Happiness Trap. He describes values as, “How we want to be, what we want to stand for, and how we want to relate to the world around us.” We’ve talked about perspective a lot throughout our conversations, but that really is zooming out of the lens to see more panoramic. What is the broader stroke that I want to have from my life so that it literally provides the guardrails or template for my choices and actions?

[28:13] I love the question you have here in the notes - what is keeping you from your top speed? I love that. That’s what you’re talking about - these guard rails, these fences, these containers, helping you to define this path.

He goes on to say a value is like a guiding star; it’s the fixed point we use to help us navigate our life choices. And so recognizing not just what we want to do, but why we’re going to do it. Why did I go to school for as long as I did? Because there’s a fair amount of discomfort relative to that process, and even after that. But I care about people. It was something I really wanted to learn about. So no amount of discomfort deterred me along the way, even when I understood the lower levels or the base levels of the onion that drove me to pursue this line of work. And I really think that’s what helps so many of us in whatever we’re doing. If we can go, “Well, do I really care about this? Is it relative to my career, my relationships, where I live, who I surround myself with?” Why? Why are you doing *that*?

Yeah. That’s something happened to me over the weekend, actually. I was gonna do something - without any context, so I’ll just be very vague. So forgive the vagueness, but I had something on my mind that was very– I had a lot of passion involved in it, and a lot of brain space involved in it, and I was stuck on this thing. I’m like, “But why? Why am I gonna do this thing? Why am I gonna say this thing to this person or share this insight with this person? Do I care?” Back to that “What am I optimizing for?” Well, this is a weekend. My weekends are 100% play with my family. Play, sleep… It’s just more like play 12, sleep 12. I don’t know. I’m just kidding, I don’t sleep 12 on the weekends, but just trying to do some quick division there on 24 hours… But there’s definitely no work on the weekend, so I’ve gotta divide my time otherwise… And I didn’t want to include that in my time. But I thought about it and eventually did it, but I had to gut-check. Why are you doing this? Why does it matter to you? Why do you care? Do you care? “Why” was the key question there. Why? And I think when your why–

Yeah. But what you did is in that moment, you zoomed out and you were able to ask yourself that fundamental question “why”, and then go, “Am I going to make time for this, because do I or don’t I value this thing?”

Well, back to this - time management is pain management. If I placed my time in that, sure, I may not endure actual literal pain, but as a variation of that, maybe the pain is taking away from the amount of time I dedicate to family time on my weekend. So that is painful to me. To get ten years down the road and say “That one weekend I missed the coolest moment of my newest son’s life.” Dude’s sitting up now. I could have missed him sitting up for the first time on his own. He’s a baby, six months old. I could have missed that moment if I put my time elsewhere. And sure, it may be a small thing or whatever, but it’s these trade-offs we make in our life, and we start doing things we don’t actually care about. And you get so far down the line, it’s Mireille back at her computer for the first hour, wasting time. And there’s excuses, sure, but I’m just using that as an example… That’s what we do - we wake up a timeframe later. It could be sometimes years later. What was I doing? Did I really care? Why? Could I ask Why earlier? Should I ask why earlier. Am I [unintelligible 00:32:11.28] on something here? I don’t know. We’ll see.

[32:14] Another analogy to think about is an anchor, and that our values really anchor us so we don’t drift too far by the things like pop-ups that distract us. I think about this with my kids when they’re on technology more now than they’ve ever been with changing times, and they’re so distracted by the pop-ups on the other side, and I’m like, “Stop looking at those things.” But I’ve learned to train my mind to filter out things that aren’t relevant to where I’m trying to go or what information I’m trying to capture. So I’m like, “I’m here to do a task, to finish this assignment, and I don’t want to be deterred by whatever ads you’re trying to sell me right now.” But the less mature mind and the brain that’s still in process is like “Well, I’m curious about that. What about this?” So when we make time, we really– I love the way that this philosopher… There was a stoic philosopher Heracli– what word was that? Heracles - is that how you say it?

I don’t know how to say that, honestly. I thought about it, too.

He talks about this interconnected nature of our lives with concentric circles. So thinking about the smaller circle embedded in a bigger circle, and then a larger circle etc, and he put the mind and body at that center, like yourself. You have to start by managing – like, you value yourself, followed by the broader circle of your close family, and extended family, and then your tribe, and then other inhabitants of like your community, finishing with the rest of humanity, and you can put work in that broader circle as well. So that you go, “I’m valuing myself.” And this is why things go off-kilter. I mean, I see this a lot. There’s always demands for work. I mean, I think that’s part of the nature, it’s continuous. Part of what I appreciated about school was I could get to the end and I was like, “I’m done.” It’s completed and there’s a clear finishing point, whereas work, it’s unrelenting. So it’s managing or putting those guardrails up, to go “I’m not going to respond to things. I’m going to set up some ways that can keep me more boxed in relative to when I’m available, who I’m with and what my time is going to look like.”

Absolutely. It’s controlling the inputs, not the outcomes. In his book, he’s got similar concentric circles, which is where we’re framing this from, where it’s like you’re in the middle there. It’s life domains, as described in the book, life domains. You’ve got concentric circles, you’ve got you in the middle, you’ve got relationships, and you’ve got work. And I can’t help but go back to essentialism, because that chapter stood out to me so well. Protect the asset. You’re not you unless you’re you. And while he may have talked about sleep and a couple of particulars, it’s still this idea of life domains, protecting the asset. If you don’t take care of you, that means mentally and physically, relationally, in all these ways, you will not be the you you need to be for the you you need to be for others. I don’t know, but you know what I mean. You’ve gotta be you. People like you for you, and if you’re not you– I’m gonna stop saying you.

[laughs] But I like to think of so many of these things relative to management, and I don’t like the word ‘control’, because we don’t have full charge or full control over ourselves or our lives, and that’s what this gets at, of going “I can only manage what I’m doing. What have I got? What’s in front of me today? What are the most essential tasks? What am I trying to optimize around?” and then it helps me also emotionally navigate the outcomes of going, “You know what? I didn’t get to do that other professional thing I wanted to do, or help out in my community in this way, because it meant I had to change up those values so that I could allot my time over in this way, and that really wasn’t what I cared most about.”

[36:30] So there’s so much more a way in which managing our distraction or getting traction involves being deliberate, not just haphazardly, or today, or occasionally, but repeatedly over time, over and over again.

I love at the end, when he’s talking about some of these tools, and one of the things he talks about is fun and play. So we’ve talked about motivation and distraction. These are actually tools we can use to keep us focused. Hallelujah!

Well, fun and comfort are associated. I mean, if I’m comfortable, I’m having fun, to some degree. So I would say, yeah, have fun and play. Plus, we know that play is an activity you can get lost in, the state of flow comes into play there, you can learn easier in play; there’s lots of things that happen in the fun and play scenarios.

Yeah, so I love it. Ian Bogost is a professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, and he’s written actually a number of books relative to challenging and changing this way in which we think about fun and play, and he writes, “Fun is the aftermath of deliberately manipulating a familiar situation in a new way.” Let me say that again. “Fun is the aftermath or is the effect of deliberately manipulating a familiar situation in a new way.” You want to focus on the task itself that you are paying so much close attention that you find new challenges you hadn’t seen before, and that these new challenges give us that novelty to keep our attention when we’re tempted to be distracted.

I have a perfect example.

Yeah, I’ve been playing– so I have a Nintendo Switch, and I’m not much of a gamer, I swear I’m not. I play maybe one or two games, almost never. I’m not much of a gamer. I do like games though. But I’ve been playing Donkey Kong, and if you’ve played Donkey Kong on Nintendo Switch or even the Wii U, it’s an awesome game. I’ve beat the game end to end, and now I’ve unlocked hard mode. So this aspect of familiar, I’m replaying the whole game again in hard mode, because well, hey, it’s familiar, and now I’m seeing new challenges because I only have one hit point, I can’t get hurt essentially, or I end that try. But it’s such a cool thing to think of that as this aspect of fun being the familiar, and the fun tying into deliberately manipulating these familiar situations in new ways. And that may not be an on-point example, but that’s what I saw for me. The game is more fun now because I’ve unlocked hard mode, and now in hard mode I can go back and replay the game. It’s familiar, but I’m seeing new things and new challenges in the game that I hadn’t previously seen.

That’s awesome. That’s so cool. Have you heard of this other conference, too? Did you know that there’s a boring conference? There is.

No. I would be so bored.

[39:51] [laughs] I learned about this years ago; I forget what other book I’d been reading… But yes, people actually go and investigate the mundane, ordinary, obvious things that you might see as trivial or pointless, but become fascinating when you look deeper. Wouldn’t that be so fun?

I should have actually known about this, and I’m sad I didn’t, because that’s what the book, The Design of Everything, that book that most designers have read or should have on their bookshelf at some point in their life - it’s like you’re examining the design of a chair; everyday, boring objects. Now, there’s so many different designs for chairs. The design of a tea kettle, or teapot. There’s so many different ways you can do that, but it’s boring, right? But you can really be very creative, I suppose. The designer behind Braun– I forget his name at the moment, but we’ll look it up and put in the show notes… But designing these simple things, these mundane things, boring things for that matter, can be quite fun, and I should have known about this conference, because that reminds me of the design of everyday things. The point was these are everyday items. How do you design them differently? How do you look at them differently?

I just love this, because the cure for boredom is curiosity, and there’s not a cure for curiosity. This is what we talk a lot about and what I want people to do, generally speaking, is be curious about themselves, others and their world… Because when we stop taking things at just face value/surface level, we’re able to discover so much more dimension and joy and good feelings and pleasure.

One last thing that he talks about as an idea for distraction is creating a fun jar. He puts this in the lane relative to parenting. He wanted to be an involved dad, so he created this fun jar wherein he created five to ten activities, and were put in that jar, so that when it was time to spend– again, he scheduled the time, because he valued that time with his daughter, and then they could pull something out from this fun jar so that they already had an idea.

Yeah, there’s so many tentacles to that, because it gives the child– if this is a scenario, a father-mother-child scenario of activities together and scheduling that time and being intentional with it - it’s like, the kid, the child gets some control, too. There are predetermined opportunities and there are five to ten really fun activities you do together, but the kid gets the pull it out and have a part of the choice; they get to choose what goes in it. There’s so many like life lessons in this than just simply the fun jar itself alone… But yeah, for sure, this fun jar is like– I’m going to do this. We kind of do it in a way, but we didn’t make it a little jar. But I think making it a little jar, writing the things on there with your child, and even that being an activity… They get the write something out, they get to practice their handwriting, or whatever it might be. Making it fun. Maybe coloring them, designing them, making your own… But this idea is so cool.

So this goes back to even managing those inputs, so that at the end of the day you might be really tired and it would seem better to just lay on the sofa or watch a movie together or whatever. However, it’s preplanned, there’s guardrails already in place, and then here’s the thing, you go and do it, and you discover that while you might have been tired or bored or whatever, you actually had fun and created memories with, in this case, his daughter, to last.

[43:53] Yeah. It just shows you that living the life– summarizing chapter one, basically… Living the life you want to live requires not only doing the things that are right, but avoiding the wrong things, and I think that it takes intention and a lot of things to understand and define that… But this jar and these things, it’s the right thing to do with your kids, it’s a fun thing to do with your kids… But living that life you want to live, you’ve got to identify not just the right things, but identify the wrong things you don’t want to do, so that you can use your time wisely.

Yeah. That’s why I think this book is just super encouraging in going, “Look, distractions aren’t in and of themselves villains or bad, but rather, looking at where do you want to go and what’s important to you, and then do the things that you’re spending your time doing take you closer to or farther from the things you value.” Because we go through different life stages, and things that we’re focused on, generally speaking, as a kid, are different than our 20’s, different than our 30’s and 40’s and different from 50’s and 70’s, but generally speaking, I think when people get further on in life, they’re doing more reflecting and they’re looking back and go, “Did I build what I wanted to build?” So to start that process sooner and look at going, “Here’s what I was optimizing for and this is why I made those choices”, it helps me reconcile a lot, and looking back to go “You know what - I didn’t have this opportunity or this thing didn’t come to pass” and going, “Yeah, but I wasn’t really vested there. I was vesting over here, and that really resonated with me at the time that I had to make those decisions, and I did get those things.”

In managing our attention, it is about managing pressures, and there’s always going to be pressure - pressure from the inside relative to our expectations, goals, desires, and pressures from the outside and what’s coming in and what needs to be done or what everybody else is doing. But if you can start by going, “How can I look at the things that I value?” and let me put those– you could even do an activity where you just brainstorm in those circles and go, “What’s important to me? How could I go about managing myself differently? What’s one thing I want to do better at?” Maybe it’s sleep, maybe it’s managing my physical body, maybe it’s creating other relationships, because I don’t have those things, because I recently moved, or something else changed… But look at each of those circles and go, “Can I articulate what I value?” and if you don’t know yet, that’s okay too. Go try some things on, go looking, so that you can begin to examine the direction you’re headed, and then evaluate whether the things you’re doing, the ways in which you’re tracking your time are moving you towards that or away from it. That’s how you get to have the life you want to live.


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