Business Treaveler logo

Travel news, reviews and intel for high-flyers

The Method You Need to Know to Combat Distraction

Timeboxing allows people to become more productive and enjoy downtime without guilt

by Nir Eyal

February 6, 2024

Nir Eyal / Illustration: Joel Kimmel

Scrolling through your Facebook feed, streaming your favorite television show, watching YouTube videos. While we enjoy these activities, we also feel guilty for doing them, because at face value they seem like distractions. But that’s not necessarily the case. These activities aren’t inherently bad, and there’s nothing wrong with them—as long as they are what you intend to do in the moment. Leisure can be good for you. It’s when you do things unintentionally that you get into trouble.

Likewise, activities that may seem productive can actually be distractions. Checking your work email may feel like progress, but when you need to focus on a big project, cleaning out your inbox is just wasting time. That’s why before you can begin fighting distraction, you have to know what distraction is.

A distraction is something we do that moves us away from what we really want. And while many people would say that the opposite of distraction is focus, it isn’t. The opposite of distraction is traction—an action that moves us toward what we really want. The main difference between traction and distraction is forethought. Traction is, essentially, doing what you say you will do.

You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from. To know what you got distracted from, you have to plan your time. In my research and consulting work, so many clients have told me that they struggle with time management. Yet when I ask them what they got distracted from—that is, what they planned to do at a certain moment—they can’t give a straight answer.

When I ask clients to show me their calendar so I can see what they intend to do, they often show me schedules full of blank space. They don’t keep a detailed calendar, so it’s no wonder that they get thrown off track by devices and apps or by the whims of family members, colleagues and friends. These people have high-level jobs yet leave themselves unguarded concerning their most precious asset: their time. The best step people can take to identify and thwart distraction is to build a timeboxed calendar that reflects their values and priorities.

Timeboxing is a powerful time-management technique that involves boxing out periods of time to work on distinct tasks, using apps on your smartphone or a simple print schedule maker with 15-minute increments for every day of the week. To make your calendar reflect the life you want to have, start by identifying your core values. Values are attributes of the person we want to be, such as being healthy, being a good parent or being spiritual. Next, categorize your values into three domains—work, relationships and yourself—to create an outline of where you spend your time.

Finally, identify the activities that fulfill those values and plot them into your timeboxed calendar. When my clients start using a timeboxed calendar, they reduce the number of distractions that take them offtrack. As a result, they become more productive and satisfied—both at work and at home.

With a timeboxed calendar, you’ll always know the difference between traction and distraction. If you find yourself doing what you planned, that’s traction. Anything else is a distraction. Timeboxing to identify traction and distraction has the added benefit of allowing you to indulge in your favorite activities guilt-free. If you timebox an hour every day to scroll social media or watch YouTube videos or TV, you can enjoy it knowing that it’s exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s not a “distraction.”

Nir Eyal is a behavioral design expert and the author of The Wall Street Journal bestseller Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.