Most of us look at our phones too much and too often. We’re distracted by the sounds and vibrations of notifications. We like to be distracted because it makes us feel important and wanted, but such interruptions can damage personal and professional relationships. Today’s guest is Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable. He offers several frameworks to understand and control internal urges to avoid being distracted. It’s easy to blame your phone for distractions, but it’s time to gain traction. What and who is more important and to blame? Your phone or your family?
Nathan: It’s easy to blame your phone for distractions. You see those notifications, you hear the pings, you get the rush of someone wanting to talk with you, and then even though you're working or maybe you're spending time with people, you glance at your phone and completely disengage from what you were doing or what you had planned on doing, too. But when you really think about this, your phone isn't the problem, is it?Now, it’s a small and crude example here, but it’s really fascinating to me to dig deeper into the root cause of why we as humans actually like to be distracted. When we are distracted, it has the potential to damage relationships, your work life, your results, your own person. You get the picture. Let’s explore how we can become indistractable with Nir Eyal, Wall Street Journal bestselling of Hooked and the author of the new book, Indistractable.Nir has a ton of frameworks to help you understand and take control of your internal urges to be distracted. You’ll learn how to make time for traction, hack back some of those external triggers to focus on traction, and how to make packs with yourself to remain indistractable. Now, let’s get AMPed with Nir.Nir, thank you so much for being on the show today.Nir: My pleasure, it’s so good to be back. Episode number two here that I'm with you.Nathan: Exactly. I don't remember what number it was, but I know we talked to you about Hooked way back in the day.Nir: Yeah, so what does it mean. Tom Seleck? Who's the other?Nathan: Basically, yeah.Nir: Me and Magnum, PI? I don’t know.Nathan: Let's see. Andrea Fryrear I think is the only other one that we—Nir: Excellent. I'm in good company.Nathan: Exactly. Speaking of being in good company, we just talked about Hooked and now you've got another book out and I'm very excited to read it. I know it just recently came out. I am in the shoes where I am very curious to learn a lot more, which I think is probably good for our audience today. In case someone didn't catch your previous episode with us, can you give us a quick fill-in on your background and then tell us about your latest book, Indistractable?Nir: Sure. My first book, Hooked, was about how to build habit-forming products and that book is really about how we can use the same psychology that is used to build video games and social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, and all sorts of different products out there that we find to be very sticky and engaging. The book Hooked is really a deep dive into the deeper psychology around why we find ourselves using these products so much, so that we can learn from them and democratize some of these techniques. I wrote the book, it's coming up on its fifth year anniversary here.The idea was to really democratize these techniques so that people building enterprise software, B2B products, consumer web products, anybody who’s building a product that needs to be used habitually—something that people use every single day and that's becoming a larger share of businesses out there now with the rise of many SaaS companies out there—we need people to use the product regularly or we go out of business.For those types of products, it's essential that the company build the product to become a habit. Some people think that I wrote Hooked because I wanted to get people hooked to Facebook and the gaming companies. No, that wasn’t the point at all. It was for a business audience to help people make the products using some of the same tactics and that's exactly what's happened.I've been really, really proud of seeing how the book has permeated the product design community. Products like Kahoot, a company that went public a few months ago is the world's largest education software. They used the Hooked model to get kids hooked onto learning in the classroom. Companies like Paga have brought millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa online and given them bank accounts for the first time and change their habits around saving money.Companies like Fitbod. The fifth year edition of Hooked will actually have a case study about Fitbod which is a company that I started using their app shortly after I wrote an article a few years ago that was called, Why Your Fitness App Is Making You Fat, because I was so disappointed in how so many fitness apps out there were just awful and weren't helping anybody.I wrote this very scathing article and then a few months later, I found this app Fitbod. I said, “Oh my goodness, this is perfect. This is what we need.” I sent them an email and I said, “Did you by any chance read Hooked?” and they said, “Yes. We designed the product with the Hooked model in mind.” That's a product that's gotten all kinds of people hooked to going to the gym. It's kind of a provocative title, but it's not about addiction. It's about habits and we have good habits that we can use to help people improve their lives. That's kind of a short, short summary of why I wrote Hooked.Nathan: Nice. I love that and it makes sense. As working at a software company right now, I definitely can relate to that, building daily habits that use software is very, very important.Nir: And very hard, it's not easy. Some folks, they look at these techniques and they say, “Oh my gosh, this is mind control. This is addiction.” No it's not. It's totally not. It's really hard to get people to change their behavior. Nobody's getting addicted to enterprise SaaS software. That’s nobody's problem. That really is what that book is meant for.Nathan: Definitely. You mentioned the idea of going to the gym and from what I've read with interviews with you at the Indistractable, some of that stuff has played a role in you writing this book, I believe, right?Nir: Yeah. That is a big part of it. Shortly after Hooked was published, I found that I was constantly distracted. I feel weird saying this because it feels like I'm complaining, but I'm not complaining. I'm just telling it as it happened. When I wrote Hooked, nobody ever heard about me. It was my first book. I wasn't getting any phone calls or emails about speaking at conferences or doing much consulting work. I was just teaching at Stanford at the time and I wasn't very busy. I had plenty of time on my hands to write this book, but then once Hooked came out and the methodology started to spread and people started hearing about it, then I got busier. I got more emails and more demands on my time. I had little time to do the thing that made me successful in the first place, which was to research and write about what I was discovering.Not only did it affect my work life, it affected my personal life. I remember I was sitting with my daughter one afternoon. This was maybe a year after Hooked was published and we had this beautiful afternoon together. We had plenty of time to just bond, to just spend time together, father and daughter. We had this activity book of different questions and activities that daddies and daughters could ask each other to bond and get closer. One of the questions in the book, I remember it verbatim. I'll tell you what happened in a second here, but I remember the question verbatim. The question was, “If you could have any super power, what superpower would you want?”I remember the question, but I don't remember what my daughter said, because when she answered, I was busy looking at my phone, and I told her, “Just one second, honey. I just got to do this one thing here on my phone,” because an email or Slack channel or whatever was going on on my phone. I don’t even remember, but I do remember when I looked up from my phone, she got the hint, and she left the room. She went to go play outside. She got the message that whatever was on my phone was more important than she was. If you think that's bad, by the way, I heard you groan there.Let me tell you, I told a friend of mine the same story and he was curious. He asked his daughter, what super power she would want and she said immediately, “I would want the power to talk to animals.” He said, “Talk to animals? Wow, that's interesting. Why do you want to talk to animals?” and she said, “So that when you and mommy are on your computers and your phones, I’ll have someone to talk to.”Brutal, so that's when I decided I need to figure this out for myself. I used those types of products—the social media companies and the gaming companies—as examples of how we can democratize these techniques for SaaS companies and for companies that use this stuff for good, but I didn't really address the issue of what about these companies that are using these techniques. In some cases we over do it.I wanted to really research what's going on because the chorus in the media these days and the popular perception is that technology is doing this to us. I took the advice of many books—as you know, there's been dozens of books over the past few years—that say, “Technology is melting your brain. Technology is at fault.”So, I decided to do what they said. I said, “Oh my gosh. Maybe it really is the technology's fault.” I got rid of my smartphone, I got rid of my iPhone, I got a flip phone that did nothing but send text messages and receive phone calls. No apps, no email, none of that stuff. Then I got myself a word processor from the 1990’s. They don’t even make these anymore. Some library was selling it on eBay. I found one of those and that didn't have any internet connection. I sat down, I said, “Okay, now I'm going to focus, now I'm going to do what I say I'm going to do. I'm going to actually get to work.”I would see that there's this book on the bookshelf that I've been meaning to look at, or let me just reorganize my desk, or take out the trash, or do the laundry for God’s sake. I would find all these reasons to procrastinate. That led me to the conclusion that it's not really the technology that's doing this to us. The more I research this topic of distraction, I realize that technology is the proximal cause, it's not the root cause. The root cause goes much deeper and I think it's actually much more interesting. It's a problem that humans have faced forever at least since 2500 years ago when Plato talked about this very same problem.2500 years ago, people were complaining about how distracting the world was. If the problem is nothing new then that means that it can't be technology that's doing it to us. There has to be a deeper reason. That's what I wanted to explore with Indistractable.Nathan: One of the questions I want to ask you is, why is it such a big problem? But I really like that you used proximal versus root. Could you explain a little bit more about that?Nir: Sure. A good metaphor for this is a game of pool. In the game of pool, the goal is to take a stick—by the way, I'm probably not using the right terminology, so excuse me. There's going to be some professional pool player that tells me I'm using the wrong terminology but I'll try—and you have the white ball. Then, the white ball hits the colored ball into a pocket. The ultimate goal is to pocket one of the colored balls. If I ask you, “What makes the colored ball go into the pocket?” The proximate cause would be the white ball, because the white ball strikes the colored ball, therefore hitting it into the pocket.That's not really true, is it? Is that the root cause of why that ball goes into the pocket? That's just the proximate cause, what's the root cause? Is it the stick perhaps? Not really. That's the tool that the player uses to initiate the action. The root cause of why the colored ball goes into the pocket is the players intention. Because if you exclude that one factor, then nothing happens. If you don't have a player there, then nothing happens. So, the player is the root cause of why the colored ball went into the pocket.When it comes to distraction, we love to place blame on the proximate causes. The thing that's in our hand, the thing that we're using at the tips of our fingers. That's what we see and so that's what we blame. This is called motivated reasoning. We want something to blame. We want something to pin responsibility on top of, but it turns out that the problem is actually much deeper. The root cause of the problem is not the tool because if you look back at the annals of history, you see that people have been blaming all sorts of distraction. When I was a kid, it was video games and television. Before that, it was the radio and comic books. All the way back to the written word. Socrates talked about how terrible a technology the written word is because it would “enfeeble men's minds.”So, we've always been scared of these new technologies and we tend to blame them, but they're just the proximal cause, not the root cause. If we don't address the root cause, we’ll always be distracted by something or another.Nathan: Makes a lot of sense. Obviously, you'd use the words “player’s intention” with using a stick to hit the cue ball to knock one of those colored ones in. How do we understand what our intention is and how we get into that distracted mode? I just like to learn a little bit more about that.Nir: Let's talk about the root cause here and what's going on. First, let's start with this ancient question of why do we do things against our better interest. This is what Plato called a akrasia. This tendency that we all have, and he identified it 2500 years ago, to do things against our better interest. To understand that, let's talk about the definition of distraction. What do we mean by distraction? The best way to understand distraction is to understand what is the opposite of distraction. The opposite of distraction, most people will tell you, is focus. The opposite of focus is distraction, distraction is to focus.No, not true. The opposite of distraction is not focus, it is traction. If you look at the entomology of both those words, they both come from the same Latin root trahere, which means to pull. Traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do. Traction and distraction both end in the same six letter word, action. Traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do, things that you do with intent. The opposite of traction is distraction, anything that pulls you away from what you do, things that you don't plan to do with intent.Now, we have traction a distraction on the right and to the left. What motivates us towards traction or distraction is two things. We either have external triggers, the things in our environment, the pings, the dings, the rings, all of these things in our environment that either prompt us to traction or distraction or we have what's called the internal triggers. Now, we are starting to talk about the root cause of the problem. Because it turns out that most distraction doesn't originate outside of us. It's not just the pings, dings, and rings. Most distraction starts from within. If you get to the root of why we do anything, let’s really start from first principles here. If we want to understand why we do things against our better interest, we have to answer why do we do anything?The reason that we do everything that we do, most people will tell you the nature of human motivation. They’ll give you some version of carrots and sticks. This is called Freud's pleasure principle. Unfortunately, it's not true that we do not act in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, but actually, everything we do is about avoiding discomfort. Everything we do. Even the pursuit of feeling good is itself psychologically destabilizing. That means if all behavior is inspired by a desire to avoid discomfort, that means that time management is pain management.We need to realize that the reason we get distracted, the reason we procrastinate, the reason we go off track is because we are looking to escape some kind of uncomfortable feeling. Like baby sucking their thumb. We are using our devices as digital pacification devices. That doesn't make them sinister, it doesn't make them evil. They're wonderful technologies if we use them in the right way, put them in their place, and we don't use them to avoid feeling something. When we’re lonely, we check Facebook. When we're uncertain, we Google. When we’re bored, we check ESPN, or stock prices, or sports scores, or Reddit, whatever. If we are using these things impulsively, without using them the way we want to, they can become something that feels like they are controlling us.But that doesn't mean we're powerless. In fact. we have more power than the tech companies ever will, if we take some simple steps starting with mastering the internal triggers. There are many tactics that I describe in the book that we can use to make sure that we can get the best out of technology without letting it get the best of us, by first and foremost, understanding how to channel our discomfort into traction as opposed to distraction. That's step one.Step two is to make time for traction. Most people, ⅔ of Americans do not keep a calendar. How can we complain about getting distracted when all we have on our account is a bunch of white space, because we know what we're going to do with that white space. It's like leaving $100 bill on a busy city street and expecting it to stay there. If you don't plan your day, somebody's going to plan it for you, just like some is going to take the $100 bill unless you put it safely in your pocket. You have to plan your time. You cannot call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. There’s a lot of techniques for how to do that. It uses very old research. Nothing in the book is my personal pet project. These are techniques that have been verified by peer review studies for decades now.The third step is to hack back at the external triggers. I use the term “hack back” because we know that technology companies use these techniques to hack our attention, but that doesn't mean we can't hack back. That we can alter technology in a way that serves us as opposed to us serving it. Not only that. It turns out that way more distraction is caused by our environments. For example, the open floor plan office. Huge source of distraction for many knowledge workers. Every copy of the book comes with a screen sign that you can tear out, fold it into thirds and put on your computer monitor that tells your colleagues, “Hey, I'm indistractable right now. Please come back later.” That's just one technique out of many, many that we can use to hack back external triggers.Then finally, the last step is to prevent distraction with pacts. This is where we use some kind of pre-commitment to keep ourselves in. Hacking back external triggers is to keep distractions out. This is about keeping ourselves in and focused on our task. Ironically, many of the solutions come from using technology to fight technology distractions. That's the four basic steps. Master internal triggers, make time for traction, hack back external triggers and prevent distraction with pacts.Nathan: Nice. You know, Nir, I think that it would be great to just walk through maybe one of your tactics for each of these areas. If we’re thinking about internal triggers, what would you recommend as a framework to try to make sure that your internal triggers are, I guess, firing correctly?Nir: There are many things we can do. There are three basic techniques that we can use to master the internal triggers. The first is to re-imagine the trigger, the second is to re-imagine the task, and the third is to re-imagine our temperament. Basically, I'll give you a very, very brief rundown. Re-imagining the trigger is all about seeing this discomfort in a healthier manner and learning tactics to cope with it, as opposed to giving in to distraction immediately, we are using that discomfort to lead us towards traction.There's really only two answers here, we can either fix the source of the problem, whether it's a troubled home life, whether it's something happening at work, whether it's an unhealthy company culture. About half the book is about those environments and how we can change them, how we can raise indistractable kids, how we can change our workplace culture, et cetera. There's lots about what you can do about the environment.Then, the other solution is to fundamentally learn new ways to cope with that discomfort. I call upon some many strategies from acceptance and commitment therapy that we can use to help us learn to cope with that discomfort in a healthier manner. Not to beat ourselves up, not to say that we shouldn't feel these things. Many people, they either blame the technology or they shame themselves and say, “There must be something wrong with me.” Neither of those are true. It's really about learning tactics to cope with that discomfort.Then, we can re-imagine the task. There are all sorts of techniques that we can use to learn to make a particular task less uncomfortable. Not in the Mary Poppins method of using a spoonful of sugar—that stuff doesn't work—but in fact, we can learn to re-imagine the task so that it becomes more interesting for us and therefore less uncomfortable.Then finally, we can re-imagine our temperament. This is probably the most important of the three. So many of us are caught in this negative self talk loop, where we tell ourselves, “You see, I must not be cut out for this. This is very difficult for me. Maybe I'm not good enough. Maybe I have a short attention span. Maybe I have an addictive personality,” and look, some people do have a pathology, where they do struggle with addictive disorder, OCD, ADHD. Some people do actually have those things. It’s about 1%–5% of the population.So, most of us, there's nothing that makes us biologically incapable of coping with these things. What we need to do is to stop this negative self-talk that far too many of us believe a self-limiting thought process that keeps us from doing our best work. Let me give you one good example. A few years ago there was this idea called the ego depletion. Ego depletion is this idea that willpower is a limited resource. That the more you use up willpower, the less you have of it. Kind of like using gas in a gas tank. There are actually several studies that confirm this phenomenon. Except for the fact that years later, several psychologists decided to dig into this research and they wanted to replicate the studies. These studies couldn’t be replicated.What we're seeing today is that ego depletion isn't real, except for the fact that there is one group of people, and this work was done by Carol Dweck at Stanford. She found that there is in fact one group of people who do exhibit ego depletion, but in fact, they do behave according to this idea that willpower runs out like gas in a gas tank. You come home from work and you say, “Oh my gosh, I'm spent. What a hard day at work. I have no more self control. No more willpower. Give me that Ben and Jerry's and I'm going to watch Netflix.”The people who were affected by ego depletion were the only people who believed that it existed. This is really important because what's happening today by us believing what we hear so much these days that technology is addicting you, that it's hijacking your brain, that it's making you do things you didn't want to do, we believe this narrative, and it is a self-defeating belief. In fact, it's called learned helplessness. When we believe there's nothing we can do about the problem, we don't even try.We see this in the case of alcoholics. We know that the number one determinant of whether an alcoholic will recover after rehab is not their level of physical dependency. It's not what's going on in their body. It's what is going on in their brain. The number one determinant is their belief in their own power to change.We have to re-imagine our temperament. We have to stop the self-limiting beliefs like that our willpower is a finite resource , like that were all getting addicted to technology because in fact, that makes it true. That's what reimagining your temperament is all about.Nathan: I love that. Thanks for being so thorough, too. I like these examples. I learn from examples best. Definitely following through with those. Nir, you said earlier, plan your day or someone will plan it for you, 100% agree with that. I've been there and I think you have a framework that you talk about called time boxing that could help with that. Could you walk me through that? That’s basically making time for traction, am I correct?Nir: Yeah. The first episode is to master the internal triggers. The second step is to make time for traction. That's all about this idea that if you don't plan your day, someone else will. The idea here is that you want to turn your values into time. So many of us, myself included—by the way, I'm patient zero here—I have never been one that has a lot of willpower, a lot of self control, I hate those turns, because it makes me cringe. I used to be clinically obese and people would tell me, “Well, just use some willpower. Stop eating so much,” that doesn't work.In the moment, willpower breaks down. So, we don't want willpower. We want a plan. We want a system that helps us do what we say we're going to do. This idea of turning your values into time stems from this thought that instead of starting with a big hairy goal, what you want to do is to just plan your day. What you do is you plan your day according to your values. You ask yourself and these three life domains of you, your relationships, and your work, how do you want to spend your time? Meaning, how do you want to live up to your values?Values are defined as the attributes of the person we want to become. Could I look at your calendar in advance, not what you did, but what you plan to do, and could I say just by looking at that, what your values are? If taking care of your health is important, do you have time to exercise and get good sleep? If investing in your relationship is important. Do you have time with your family, with your best friend, is that on your calendar or do you just let it happen whenever it will? Do you have time for focused work in your day if that's important to you?Now, I'm not telling you what your value should be, but I'm saying if these things are important to you, you have to make time for these things in your day or they're just not going to happen. We know what happens with white space. Your boss will take at that time, your kids, something that's happening in the news, something is going to eat up that time unless you decide what you're going to do with it.Nathan: Nice. Makes perfect sense to me, Nir. Your third step is hack back external triggers. Tell me more about what are some of the frameworks for managing that.Nir: Hacking back external triggers is partially the stuff that everybody thinks about. Hacking back your phone, hacking back here computer, removing those external triggers, that's obvious and I spent a few pages on that, but that's kind of kindergarten stuff. In terms of ⅔ of people with a smartphone never change their notification settings, that's crazy. How can we possibly complain about our phones being too distracting when we haven't even taken 10 minutes to turn off those stupid notifications that distract you? Only leave the ones that serve you. Don’t let these external triggers. Only keep the ones that serve you as opposed to keeping the ones that you feel like you're serving.That's kindergarten stuff—your phone, your laptop. What I think is a much more common source of these external triggers that lead to distraction are things that we don't really think about. Things like meetings. What a huge waste of time meetings can be? Group chat like Slack. Email, oh my God. Between email and meetings, the average knowledge worker only has about an hour-and-a-half every day to do everything else they have to do.That means that there's no time for thinking anymore. We’re constantly reacting and there's no time for reflecting. Where do we get real work done? We do it at home. We do it on nights, we do it on weekends, and we pay the price, our kids pay the price, our families, and friends pay the price. The idea here is by hacking back these external triggers that don't serve us—in group chat, in meetings, in emails—we can make sure that we only keep the ones that really serve us.I'm not saying don't use these things, but what I want to do is to help teach people to use them in the proper way. For example with email, using these tactics, people who have used the book have reduced the time they spend on email by up to 90% by doing some very simple tactics based on consumer psychology that can dramatically reduce the amount of time you spend every day on emails that many are just a huge waste of time.Nathan: I love that. Actually, I don't really use email too much. That sounds crazy to people, but it makes total sense to try to not waste time on things that aren't really part of your values. I really enjoy that. Nir, you had mentioned the last step pacts and pre-commitment. Fill me in on some frameworks for that.Nir: Sure. A pact is this ancient technique, at least 2500 years old, it's very well studied. The idea here is that you are making a promise to yourself or to somebody else and there are three types of pact. There's a price pact, an effort pact, and an identity pact. What you're doing is basically deciding in advance what you're going to do when you are likely to get distracted.An effort pact is about putting some bit of work, some bit of friction between you and a distraction. A price pact is making some kind of cost associated with that thing you don't want to do. An identity pact which is probably the most powerful, is about creating some kind of identity that you want to be consistent with.For example, not to not to pick on these folks, but I used to be this. There's a joke that goes, “How do you know someone’s a vegetarian? Don't worry, they'll tell you.” I was a vegetarian for five years. You can substitute anything you want. Whether it's, “How do you know someone's keto?” or, “How do you know someone goes to CrossFit?” you can substitute any kind of identity here. The idea, though, is that when we have some kind of identity, it helps us stay consistent with what we want to do.I'm not a fan of willpower, I'm not a fan of self control because that gives out in the moment. Studies have found that when people have an identity, particularly when these studies focus on religion or when people become a noun—people don't say, “Oh, I don't eat meat.” They say, “I am a vegetarian.”—it's an identity. It’s a noun. It turns out that when you call yourself a noun, you don't have to struggle anymore.When I was a vegetarian, I didn't say every day, “I wonder if I should have that ham and cheese sandwich.” No. I was a vegetarian something I did not do. A devout Muslim doesn't say, “I wonder if I should have that alcohol today, if I should have the gin and tonic.” No. A devout Muslim does not drink alcohol. Done. It’s part of their identity. There’s no need to use self-discipline and self-control, it’s just who they are. That's what we can do and this is why I called my book Indistractable because that should be our moniker. Now, we have an identity that we can use that reinforces the kind of people we want to be. Indistractable sounds like indestructible and that was very intentional.Nathan: I love that. I am indistractable.Nir: There you go. Welcome to the club.Nathan: Well Nir, I think I have a long way to go. Your book would be a great place for me to read and I think that's a good place to end this is definitely go out there, find Nir’s book, it's out there, Indistractable. You just got a really big Cliff’s Notes version of this stuff.Nir: That's right. The idea here is that you don't have to do all this stuff at once. Becoming indistractable is not something you achieve. You don't have to check out every single box. Anything that you do is additive. Becoming indistractable means that you are the kind of person who strives to do what they say they're going to do. That's really the big idea here is chipping away at the small acts that you can take for the rest of your life. Just like being creative. You don't ever stop learning to be creative. You exercise being creative so that you can live a better life. The same goes for becoming indistractable.Nathan: Love it. Great advice. I think that's a perfect place to end this episode. Nir, thanks so much for being with us today.Nir: My pleasure. Thank you.