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Using Behavioral Architecture and Commitment Devices to Avoid Distraction

Have you ever had a morning when you woke up with the best of intentions?

You say to yourself, "Today is the day when I'm going to write the novel, paint something, etc., etc." An hour later you're scrolling through the Facebook newsfeed, uploading pictures of your breakfast to Instagram, and tweeting about the idiot who cut you off in traffic. What happened?

Most people don't realize how much their environment impacts their behavior.  Their behavioral architecture is setup for them to fail. If your environment is set up in such a way that distractions are easily accessible, you'll have a more difficult time resisting them. On the other hand, if they're impossible to access, you'll be amazed by easy it is to resist them.


Behavioral Architecture

Behavioral architecture is a term that James Clear uses to describe one of the nine environments that make up your life; your physical space. Look around the room where you're reading this right now.

1. How easy is it to access a source of distraction? If all you have to do is open your browser, or reach for your phone to check Facebook, the architecture of your environment is designed for distraction. If on the other hand, your phone is out of the room, turned off, or you have distracting web sites blocked with a tool like RescueTime, it's going to be much harder to access sources of distraction.

2. How do you feel in the place where you're reading it? Distractions aren't just digital. Anything that competes for your attention is a distraction. If the lighting in the room makes you sad, the chair your sitting is uncomfortable or the temperature is too hot, that's a distraction. All of these things reduce your cognitive bandwidth.

3. What behavior is associated with the space you're in right now?  You brush your teeth in the bathroom. You wash the dishes in the kitchen. You sleep in your bedroom. Every single environment has a behavior we associate with it. If one of your environments is a distraction- free setting in which you do deep work, eventually your behavior will get linked to that environment. If you're having a hard time resisting distractions, consider changing your environment .

The idea that your environment matters so much isn't just a bunch of New Age nonsense. Even Keith Rabbois, a venture capitalist, says the office space of a startup is one of the most important decisions they'll ever make. He can tell whether he'll invest in a company or not just by looking the space.


Commitment Devices

A commitment device enables you to commit to a behavior or decision in advance. When James Clear was working on Atomic Habits, he asked his assistant to reset his passwords for social media and to only give him the new password on weekends. Without the ability to access social media, he was able to focus on writing his book.

Commitment devices reduce accessibility to things you want to avoid.

1. RescueTime/Focus

My computer is set to automatically block digital distractions between 6 am and 8 am. Even if I give into my impulse to look at a distracting website, I get a message like the one below:

Using Behavioral Architecture and Commitment Devices to Avoid Distraction 1

2. The Kitchen Safe

Using Behavioral Architecture and Commitment Devices to Avoid Distraction 2

If you know anything about me, you know that I have a sweet tooth. Chocolate is one of my biggest vices. My sister kindly reminds me on a regular basis, "You can't just eat whatever you want because you go to CrossFit and surf. You just undo all the benefits of your workout."

While reading Nir Eyal's upcoming book, Indistractible, I discovered one of the best commitment devices in existence. The Kitchen Safe is basically a cookie jar that locks for a set period of time. You put whatever you're trying to avoid in the jar, set the timer to lock it, and you can't open it until the time is up. The only way to unlock it is to break it. People have used it to stop smoking or avoid foods that are bad for them. And if you're a real nut job, you can even put an iPad in their biggest one.

3. Phonecell.Me

Using Behavioral Architecture and Commitment Devices to Avoid Distraction 3

After discovering the kitchen safe, I started to wonder if there was something like this for cellphones and laptops.

After some Google searches, I discovered Phonecell.me. It's like a Kitchensafe, but for your phone. You put the phone inside, set a timer and you can't access your phone until the time is up.

Sidenote: I've been thinking of making one for the laptop to avoid using it after a certain hour. If you're interested, you can put your name on this list.

At its core, our inability to resist distraction is due to ease of accessibility. If you want to be less distracted, tap into the power of behavioral architecture and commitment devices.

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