Technology’s invasion into our daily lives has unleashed a vast array of books and literature that tell us how to keep our gadgets from dominating us. Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal is one such book. It explores the psychological foundations for distractions and suggests techniques that help us regain control.
The author is a bestselling writer, consultant and lecturer, specializing in the intersection of psychology, technology and business. His works appear in major media. Thus, he has all the credentials to deal with this matter.
To the Catholic struggling with the uncontrollable urge to engage in social media and internet searches, Indistractable might appear to be a godsend. It could even be considered spiritual reading, although it has no religious content. We are all looking for ways to focus on those spiritual truths that will truly satisfy us and bring us closer to God. If a secular author can wean us from our devices long enough to turn heavenward, so much the better. We need all the help we can get.
Bound to be Frustrating and Disappointing
Thus, the tendency is to think of these books as purely technical guides. There is some basis for this expectation. Books like Indistractable do provide helpful hints on how to curb bad habits. They provide a kind of internet detox by outlining clever methods to cut down the time spent online. The experiences of those who have managed to rein in their distractions can be encouraging. Their time management techniques are beneficial to social media addicts and undisciplined tweeters.
However, such instructions are bound to be frustrating and disappointing to those seeking lasting spiritual progress. What makes these guides so limited is that they almost always contain philosophies and errors that promote a wrong notion of human nature. Building on this faulty foundation, they are guaranteed to fail.
Three main problems make these works impracticable.
A Naturalistic Perspective, a Mechanistic Outlook
The first problem is that they are limited by a naturalistic perspective that does not address any spiritual or supernatural aspect of the problem. Their materialistic mindset reflects an individualistic world where all work for self-interest. It is a mechanistic outlook, through which solutions are the results of techniques and systems, not moral choices.
Such a conclusion is based on an evolutionary notion of humanity. The authors claim we are distracted because it is the product of millions of years of evolution. Indeed, Dr. Eyal traces the problem to our evolutionary past when we developed “tendencies toward boredom, negativity bias, rumination, and hedonistic adaptation [that] conspire to make sure we’re never satisfied for long.”
Thus, he claims, solutions must work inside this evolutionary framework through methods of channeling the negative energies of our distant past to something positive. It is a closed universe in which we are alone to search for ways to serve our self-interest.
This naturalistic outlook does not consider those metaphysical, moral and supernatural motivations that have always driven people to do incredible things. Our universal desire for the good, true and beautiful things often inspire us to act beyond self-interest. Above all, we can expect no divine help or grace to move us to work together with God to achieve amazing accomplishments.
By limiting themselves to naturalistic viewpoints, secular authors embrace at best the narrow and stifling horizons of a soulless and pragmatic world. They do not perceive that they lose the best of reality and the most efficient means to fight distractions.
A Wrong Notion of Human Action
The second problem involves the nature of human actions, which is related to the first problem.
To the secular author, all human actions are morally neutral. Dr. Eyal believes that “Simply put, the drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all our behavior, while everything else is a proximate cause.”
Thus, what determines the worth of an action is not if it is right or wrong, but its usefulness to relieving discomfort. As long as activities are pursued with intention and planning, it matters little what is done—even if it be “scrolling through celebrity headlines or reading a steamy romance novel.”
From this perspective, there are no moral acts that correspond to violations of the demands of conscience or the laws of God. “All motivation is a desire to escape discomfort.” Relief is found in pleasure and comfort, which is a recipe for mediocrity.
The most sublime acts of history involve heroism and self-sacrifice for higher ideals. These authors exclude these powerful motivations from the normal course of human action. Indeed, our greatest satisfactions often come from abnegation and overcoming suffering.
Built on Good Intentions
The final problem with works like Indistractable is the emptiness of their solutions.
In today’s impulse-driven world, ordinary measures and techniques are not enough to sustain resolutions over time. It often takes heroic action to overcome our obsession with distraction. We need sublime and extraordinary goals to spur us forward.
Thus, internet detox books resemble diet books that build upon good intentions and trendy fads. Indistractable, for example, even has a cut-out sign in the book’s center, which a person can post to signal “a state of indistraction” to nearby people. It has calendars to schedule times to exclude distractions. We are encouraged to use clever tricks to think of arduous tasks as things that can be fun and exciting.
Such tricks might work in the short term but will eventually fail in most cases. Our fallen nature conspires against us and often overwhelms the best intentions. Our self-interest can unleash the most devastating passions that will sweep away good resolutions. In works like Indistractable, the dissolute quest for excitement is replaced by a more disciplined individualism.
A Spiritual Vacuum
Indeed, the negative goal of avoiding discomfort caters to our deficiencies. It creates a spiritual vacuum that is filled with material things. Such a situation can never satisfy.
Positive goals like the pursuit of the good, true and beautiful are suited toward our nature. They require effort to fight against the effects of our fallen humanity. Spiritual aspirations, like sanctification, fill us with admiration and light. Our souls are attracted to these movements since they bring us closer to the God for whom we are made.
Only a proper understanding of fallen human nature can effectively combat distraction. Only an ardent desire for perfection can catapult us to the spiritual heights needed to conquer the lonely void that so haunts postmodern humanity. We can then find in God the object of our longings that drives away all distractions.