The book: indistractable by Nir Eyal
Is the author smart/do they know things I don’t: Yes. And also the author’s enthusiasm for self-made motivational t-shirts and loving account of various apps to help maintain concentration are for sure useful course correctives to my deep inner desire to surrender to the tide of fate. But I am in my forties, and any time before thirty I would have responded to everything in this book with sunny condescension, and it’s not like my inner nineteen-year-old is so far beneath the surface. This is one of the best and worst things about being middle-aged.
Does the main idea seem true: That it is important to be able to focus on the things we have chosen ahead of time to focus on? Honestly, I don’t know. Sometimes it seems to me that the single best thing about being alive is the way our minds just churn away at whatever the world presents us with. In practice, though, this means I spend a lot of time trying to track down what people on the internet are mad about that day. So.
Single most awesome thing in the book: It’s a tie between the author’s truly admirable willingness to follow through on the consequences of what he’s saying (on best display when he advises parents not to interrupt their children in their scheduled video game playing) and the moment where he says, yeah, people aren’t meant to be happy.
Moment where I was like, oh boy, here we go again: He ruins the people-aren’t-meant-to-be-happy moment by ascribing it to evolutionary biology, which is my least favorite thing in the entire world. We can only guess at the mysterious levers that caused McDonald’s to start offering the Egg Mcmuffin all day; the idea that we can successfully decipher why humans are the way they are seems insane on its face.
Thing that seemed like it could be useful if I actually tried it, which I didn’t/Thing that actually did influence my behavior: He’s a big enthusiast for scheduling your time, which both enticed and frightened me. So in the middle of the most brutal week of my year I sat down and boxed out what I was going to do. By the end of the day most of the list of things had been replaced by other things entirely; on the other hand I had actually done some stuff that I meant to get done, which is not something I ever take for granted.
Thing That I Would Like To See The Numbers On, Sir: Supposedly his daughter both read and considered sleep studies in choosing her own schedule.
Thing That I Refuse To Believe, No Matter How Many Numbers You Show Me: There’s a very extended use of Tantalus as a metaphor. I don’t really think Tantalus is a warning against the dangers of distraction, although perhaps my previously held belief (Tantalus is a warning against cooking and serving your son for dinner) is overly literal.
Thing That I Have Way Too Many Thoughts About: About midway through the week I started reading this book I started to get the unsettled feeling that comes upon me when I start trying really hard to do the things that I’ve decided to do. It’s a kind of frantic, greyhound-at-the-start-of-the-race feeling, and I hate it. I do sometimes wonder if I would hate it less if I pushed through it, the way that if you keep working out regularly the misery subsides into comfort. I think indistractable itself would urge me to push on — after all the book takes mild aim at the concept of ego depletion, which posits will power as a finite, if renewable, resource. Instead indistractable at least implicitly makes the argument, which I also see a lot in the sports media I consume (I think about this (behind a paywall) article of Justin Bourne’s maybe more than I should), that what you need is not to give yourself a break but to develop rigorous habits, that that’s the path to excellence.
And that’s probably true in sports, and it may be true in other things, and yet. I refuse, I guess. I want, sometimes, in some ways, to be excellent, but more than I want to be excellent I want to not be chasing a goal at top speed, with the rest of the world tuned out. I want to be distracted. I want to stare into space; I want to be startled by the conversation two people near me are having. (I was going to say two people near me at a restaurant, and it hit me once again how far away that kind of life has gotten.) I want the world to give me things I didn’t ask for; I want to be valuable in ways that have nothing to do with the effort I commit to anything. And I believe that beauty and richness can spring from that; I believe that there’s a path to excellence that comes from being the recipient of generosity rather than effort of will.
I really am arguing with myself here. Eyal includes a picture in the book of his wife wearing an LED crown meant to indicate she is not to be interrupted, and what could be more charming and idiosyncratic than that? But when I am chasing my own effort I stop feeling capable of making space in my own head; I don’t know how I can ever say I have done enough. And so instead of trying any of the techniques in the book, midway through the week, I took off work a couple hours early and laid in bed, and for the rest of the week I didn’t worry about doing the things I should be doing, and I don’t know if it was good for me or bad for me, but it’s what I did.
I would like to see a world that gave us more, and Eyal definitely talks about the requirements of institutional support. But any self-help book is going to be about what you can, yourself, do to change the facts as given. And I can’t help but wonder what excellence would look like if instead the world around us bent.
Useful Counter-programming: Any article about Universal Basic Income; you can start with this one.
Next Week’s Book: Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg