Nir Eyal teaches us how to harness the skill of the century… becoming Indistractable. He reminds us that distraction is an action that starts from within. He motivates us to take command of our personal development in a world that is frequently competing for our attention. He encourages us to recognize the external triggers that don’t serve us and how to be more mindful of those that do. He also shares what it takes to be competitive in an increasingly automated job market.
Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to build habit-forming products. His latest book, Indistractable shows us how to overcome distraction, and gain one of the most important skills of the 21st century. He runs a popular blog about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. His primary focus is on what he calls “behavioral design” which encompasses user experience, behavioral economics, and a dash of neuroscience. He’s taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Design. He has sold two technology companies and now help teams design more engaging products. For most of his career he’s worked in the video gaming and advertising industries where he learned, applied (and at times rejected) the techniques used to motivate and manipulate users. He writes to help companies create behaviors that benefit their users, while educating people on how to build healthful habits in their own lives. He received most of his education earning an advanced degree from the The School of Hard Knocks as well as an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He also wrestled for 4 years in high school and never won a match.
- Book Origin Story (3:59)
- Response to Hooked (7:59)
- Seeking Relief (15:25)
- My Daily Milky Way (33:40)
- Breaking Habits in Stuck Environments (35:31)
- Pharmaceutical Distractions (42:13)
- Where Are We Heading? (45:46)
- Did You Ever Find Out? (49:54)
- What Superpower Would You Want? (54:06)
Jason Ogle: Welcome to this very special episode! I’m incredibly honored to have Nir Eyal here. He is best known for writing Hooked and that is “How to build habit forming products.” But he has been at this for a long time. He’s been doing a lot of consulting that’s led him up to writing Hooked. And he’s especially really focused on the mind and which I love about Nir is he’s got a really good handle on how our brain processes things like you know, again our habits and distractions, which we’re going to talk a lot about today. I am more of a recent student of psychology in my own kind of studies and I’m super privileged to have this time with you Nir. So, welcome to User Defenders again Nir. I am super excited to have you on the show today.
Nir Eyal: I appreciate it. So great to be back.
Jason Ogle: We’re going to talk all about your brand-new book called Indistractable, which is an awesome title by the way, for a book. And I love how you really explain what you mean in the book about kind of being Indistractable and traction versus distraction. And I’m sure we’re going to get a lot more into that today, but I guess I want to kind of kick things off with – can you tell us the origin story for why you wrote Indistractable? I know that you do have a neat little kind of superhero origin story behind that?
Nir Eyal: Yes. So, there’s a lot of things. Let me start with the big picture and then I’ll kind of zoom into an exact moment in time when I knew I had to write this book. So, I wrote, Hooked several years ago that came out in 2014. And I wrote hooked because I wanted to help people designing products and services out there to build the kind of products and services that help people build healthy habits in their lives. Right? I didn’t write Hooked for Facebook and Google and the gaming companies, they already know these techniques. I wrote the book to help everybody else out there and building the kind of products and services that can help people exercise more or eat healthier, save money, be more productive at work. That’s really why I wrote hooked.
But then of course, I also noticed that many of the companies I was profiling in, in Hooked, like Facebook and YouTube and Slack and all of these companies that are so good at changing our behavior sometimes let some people go too far. And, I kept getting questions about this. And at first, I kind of thought, “Well, you know, it’s not that big of a problem.” But then I noticed that a few things were happening. (One) People kept asking me these questions about, you know, what do we do to get un-hooked? How do we unhook ourselves? And so, I started thinking, well, maybe I’d opened up Pandora’s Box, that maybe I was teaching people to build products that got people too hooked. And I noticed that, you know, one day myself, I was sitting with my daughter and we were playing and you know, I get to spend a lot of time with my daughter. And so, we had this afternoon where after a few hours of playing, we found this book on Things that Daddy’s and daughters could do together, all these activities.
One of the activities was to ask each other this question of “If you could have any super power, what super power would you want?” And, I wish I could tell you what she said, but at that moment, I can’t tell you what she said because I was distracted. I found myself on my phone scrolling away at something frivolous as opposed to listening to what my daughter had to share with me. And so, I blew this perfect daddy daughter moment because I was distracted. And so, that’s really when I figured out, “Hey, I got to figure this out. I have to understand what’s at the root of what I thought was a digital distraction problem?” So, that, that’s kind of the origin story.
Jason Ogle: I love that. And that’s so visceral. I think any of us who are dads or even moms, you know, can relate to this. You know, any of us who are parents and we have little ones that – it hits me in the gut because I’m guilty though. I raised my hand, man, I’ve done that many times, you know? And you know, when I have an Apple Watch now and so if I forget to set my do not disturb, then I get pinged. And it could be during like story time with the girls. And you know, even if I don’t just immediately look at it, you know, there’s that trigger, you know, that’s like constantly in my mind, like distracting me from that special time with my daughters of like, “Well who could that be? What could they want? Oh, what if it’s important, right?” Right? Like all these little things internally in our minds. And so, it’s unhealthy. And so, I totally, I feel that man in my gut. So, what a neat kind of an origin story for writing this book.
And I’m going to kind of follow up with maybe a bit of a tough question, but I do think it’s important and I do want to ask you. Because you know, you did write Hooked with good intentions. And I think I remember even reading in Hooked, you said “It’s not a super power if it can’t be used for evil.” And I thought that was just so eye opening to me and it’s so true. And it’s like, you know, even like Kranzberg’s First Law, “Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” It’s an amplifier. It’s whoever is using it. It’s just like many things in life, you know, that are intended for good, can be used for bad. So, I guess that’s my long-winded way of asking you, is this book Indistractable, is it maybe a response to kind of you know, how people have misused this superpower that you’ve taught us how to use? And is it sort of maybe even a cleansing of the conscience?
Nir Eyal: It started out that way. So, originally, I was going to call the book “Unhooked” because; it was supposed to be kind of a Mea Culpa, but then, you know, here’s what I did. I read everything I could possibly get my hands on in terms of why people are suffering, why I was suffering, I should say from this digital distraction problem. And every book I could find on this topic pointed the finger at the technology. And so, I thought, “Okay, well, clearly all these smart people think it’s the technology that’s causing this. So, they must be right. And so, let me do what tell me to do.” So, I did the digital detox. And I did the digital minimalism. And I did you know, get rid of all your devices. And I tried to purge all these stuff from my life. I got a feature phone with no apps. All it did was calls and text messages. And I stopped using my social media accounts. And I did what they told me to do. And guess what? It’s bullshit. It doesn’t work.
Here’s what happened. I sat down at my desk to write, which is the hardest thing I do. It’s, you know, professionally. It requires a lot of focus, a lot of concentration. You cannot be distracted and write something good. You have to focus. And I’d sit down on my desk to write and I think to myself, “Oh, you know what? There’s that book back there, I’ve been meaning to read. I should probably just flip through that real quick. And, Oh, you know what? The laundry really needs to be folded. I should probably do that. And oh, you know what? I haven’t called my parents in weeks. I should do that.”
Jason Ogle: [Laughs]
Nir Eyal: And what I found was this fundamental truth, which really changed my view of this entire problem, which is this fact that distractions start from within. That it’s not about the thing that is distracting us. It’s about why we get distracted in the first place. And so, that’s when I decided to open up the aperture of the question I was trying to answer, which started out as how do we manage digital distraction? Which is what basically every other book tries to manage, right? And how to, you know, stop using tech because tech is melting your brain. And what I realized is that that’s a really convenient excuse, right? It’s a really convenient excuse to say “It’s the technology’s fault.” Because, that feels a lot better than asking oneself, “What am I escaping from? What’s the feeling that I’m using a distraction to escape?”
Here’s the fundamental truth, that everything that humans do is done for one reason. And that reason is to escape discomfort. It’s called “The Homeostatic Response.” That when we feel physically uncomfortable, we act right. If you’re a cold, you put on a coat. When you go inside and you feel hot again, you take it off. If you’re hungry, you feel hunger pains and you eat. If you’re full, that doesn’t feel good, you stop eating. So, that’s the Homeostatic Response when it comes to physical sensations. And it turns out the same exact things happens to our psychological states. I talk about this a lot in Hooked and I think the same rules apply in, Indistractable that you know, when we are lonely, we check Facebook. When we’re uncertain, we go to Google. When we’re bored, we turn on television or we’ll look at the news or sports scores or stock prices, right?
There are lots of things to satisfy these negative internal states, these internal triggers. And so, if we don’t start with those internal triggers, we will always be distracted by something. And so that’s why the first step, I have this four-part model on there. I’m very partial with four-part models. This four-part model in Indistractable.
And the first step is to learn to manage these internal triggers. That if we don’t figure out what it is we’re escaping from something, we’ll always distract us. And guess what? Things have been distracting people forever. Plato and Socrates talk about the nature of a crazy, this was 2,500 years ago. They were complaining about how distracting the world is and how this modern technology of writing was the worst thing ever. And it’s going to melt people’s brains like literally. That is what Socrates warns us about. Is how the written word is a terrible technology. And of course, you know, you fast forward to, novels were supposed to be the worst thing ever. And radio was supposed to melt kids’ brains. And of course, television caused couch potatoes. And you know, every new technology we tend to have this moral panic and we blame the technology because it’s so uncomfortable to take a look inwards and ask ourselves, “What are we escaping?”
In my case, I’ll tell you exactly what I was escaping. Many things that I was escaping in my life. When I was with my daughter and I was checking my phone as opposed to being with her. I’ll be honest with you, there’s only so much toddler time that I could take. I needed a break, but I should’ve learned to handle that in a healthier manner than to be on my device and snug my daughter. And, I should have learned to handle that in a better way. And so that’s really the first section of in distractible is teaching folks. And the way I taught myself how to manage these internal triggers. How do we put these uncomfortable emotional states in their place and deal with them in the more healthful manner? And I’m just going to say a little disclaimer, not with meditation.
Nir Eyal: And not that meditation is bad, but I am sick to death of people telling me to go meditate. I don’t want to fucking meditate.
Nir Eyal: I’ve tried it many times. It’s not my thing. And I think many people agree with me that it’s not their thing either. If it is your thing, awesome meditate away, if it works for you. But that is not the kind of advice I give in this book.
Jason Ogle: [Laughs] so much good stuff in there Nir. The homeostatic response, that was so eye opening for me when I read this in your book and it explained so much to me. It helped me understand so much of why I do what I do. You know, like the whole idea of how our bodies are just – they’re designed for stability. They’re designed to kind of always been that wellness state. I think the Greeks call it “Eudemonia.” So, of course in this society that we live in, we’re trained in our, you know, digital economy, especially if we’re bored, you know, as you touched on, “What’s the cure for that? What’s the cure for the disease, if we will? It’s, we’ll pull out the phone. Pull out our phone and just check Facebook, check Twitter, check the news.”
It kind of brings us into that homeostatic phase where we don’t allow ourselves to be bored anymore. And I think that’s unhealthy. I know it is. You know? And I was thinking about like Abraham Lincoln, you know, when he gave the Gettysburg address, I can’t read like the first, like maybe 25 words before I get stinkin’ board. I think they were in there for seven hours. People were in there for seven hours. They didn’t have smartphones. They were listening attentively at least I think they were for the most part. Maybe they got bored after the fifth hour. But I mean, my goodness, our attention spans are so short now. So, I’m just kind of venting with you a little bit about this, but again, the eye-opening nature of the Homeostatic Response that like really changed my thinking about all this. And it was because, thanks to your book, you know, how you go into the psychology behind it too. And so, I just really appreciate that level of insight that I gained reading Indistractable and kind of understanding more why I’m so kind of a quick to try to ease my pain. What the general root of our pain? What are we seeking relief from? Is it, I mean, boredom? Yes. But, what else is going on that we’re doing this?
Nir Eyal: We are hardwired to be this way. And this is why I think it’s so important to understand this because the knee jerk reaction is to blame the thing that distracts us, right? As humans have always done whatever it is that is causing the pain, whatever the thing that is most visible in front of us, that’s the thing that we blame. But we know what we call that, that’s called a scapegoat, right? That’s the reason the world is the way it is. It’s because of some scapegoat. And today, there are lots of scapegoats for our problems in society because it’s very convenient to blame somebody else for your problems as opposed to blaming ourselves and looking deeper inside. The fact is you are built to be discomforted. The human species is not designed to be chilled.
Nir Eyal: Right? Because think about it, you know, our ancestors that had the genetic variation, let’s say hypothetically of chilling, right? Of just hanging out, they got eaten or beaten, right? And so, that was not an evolutionary adaptation that you would want to have trying to survive for the vast majority of human history for the past 200,000 years. You know, what you needed was a species that was never satisfied, that always wanted more. I mean, it’s that same animal instinct to keep striving, to keep achieving, to never sit still. This is what got us to the moon. This is what helped us, you know, conquer the planet. This is what helped us achieve scientific revolutions and relive revolutions and understanding about our world is always this restless drive to do more. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think we should be very thankful for that drive. But it also means we need to know how to harness it and not let it get the best of us.
And so, by understanding that, wait a minute, there’s nothing wrong with being uncomfortable, but that is the natural human state. You know, we are so fixated. There’s been so much self-help malarkey out there telling people that they’re always supposed to be happy all the time. Our natural state is not happy. That is a fleeting to remind us about what you’re striving for. But nobody, unless you’re, you know, on some kind of psychotropic substance is always happy, right? When you ask people in the moment, “Yes, those are all generally happy, most people.” But they’re not like, you know, euphoric all the time. That’s not how our species is designed. Our species is designed to, in fact, quite the opposite to be always uncomfortable. So, we should manage that. We should understand that when we are feeling these uncomfortable emotional states like boredom, like fatigue, like uncertainty, like worry. Those are just internal triggers that can prompt us to action. If we can harness those actions, those prompts to action in the right way will be better for it. So, as opposed to, you know, turning to something like the television set or another glass of wine or you know, you name the potential alleviator of discomfort, we can harness that discomfort, those internal triggers to do us good. To use it in a positive manner.
Jason Ogle: Yes. I loved that takeaway as well Nir in your book. It’s about us, we’re always wanting to be better. And I think it comes from that, that stems from that, what you mentioned that kind of discontentment that we – like you said, “We’re always going to kind of feel that way.” But, I’m glad that exists because as you mentioned, some of our greatest achievements and innovations and lifesaving and life-giving technologies have come through this route of dissatisfaction. So, I think there’s actually a really good side of that that none of us really talk about. You know, I think we just need to learn how to temper, you know, right? Find kind of that balance, that homeostasis in our desires as well.
Nir Eyal: Yes. And knowing when to turn it off and when to turn it on. Right? Like there are definitely times when that’s a very useful response. But of course, when it gets the best of us, when we do things that we later regret than it didn’t serve us.
Jason Ogle: Yes.
Nir Eyal: And so, that kind of takes me to the next step of this model that I provide, this four-step model in Indistractable, I’ll give you the four steps kind of as an overview.
So, Step One is to manage internal triggers. And I’m giving you the 30,000-foot overview here. There’s a lot more depth to it in terms of, you know, I give you very practical, actionable strategies that you can use to actually do what I’m proposing. So, step one is to manage the internal triggers to recognize that distraction starts from within. That if we don’t understand these internal triggers and have coping strategies for them, we will always get distracted by something always. So that’s the first step.
The second step is to make time for traction. So, I give this kind of spectrum, right? That there’s two sides of our actions. Our actions can either be act of traction or act of distractions. So, traction is doing something that moves you towards what you want in life. If you notice traction and distraction both end in the same word, they both end in the word action, right? So, traction or things that you want to do, things that move you forward to what you want. Distraction is the opposite of that. Distraction is anything that moves you away from what you really want. But how do we know the difference between the two? The fact is, in the moment, we can’t rely on our feelings.
When you’re, you know, scrolling endlessly on Instagram or Slack or you know, doing something or email or doing something that you don’t want to do in-retrospect, in the minute it feels like, “Oh, this is productive.” Right? “This is something that, you know, email. Email, I need to do that. That’s for work.” Right? It feels productive, but at the moment, if that’s not what you wanted to do, then it’s a distraction. It’s not an act of traction. So, how do we tell the difference? The only way to tell the difference between traction and distraction is intent.
You know, the first thing I asked folks, when I hear about how distracted they are, you know, they say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t concentrate on anything. You know, the Twitter and the Facebook and whatever. The president tweeted today, or whatever’s happening in the news, oh, everything’s so distracting all the time.” And my question to them is, “You know, look that’s awful and I’m really sorry that you’re struggling with this. Can I see what it is that you got distracted from?” Right? “What did you plan to do that then these things, these technologies took you away from?” And they sheepishly take out their phones and they show me their calendar. And almost every time without fail, there aren’t nothing on that calendar. It’s blank. Or maybe there’s like a dentist appointment or something, right?
So, the fact is, here’s the thing, you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. Only about 10% of people keep a calendar. I don’t want to hear that technology is distracting and addictive and hijacking your brain. If you didn’t put on your calendar what it is you plan to do with your time. You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. And that means in this day and age, if you don’t plan your time, somebody else will. And I mean down to the minute, we need to start using this technique called “Time boxing.” Where you put time in your calendar for what it is that’s important to you in your life, to help you live out your values. Time with your kids, time on yourself, on your body, on your mental, on your physical wellbeing. Time of course at work, what you plan to do with that time. The fact that 90% of people out there don’t keep a strict calendar and probably even fewer keep a time box calendar is a huge source of the problem of why we get distracted. So, I’d have several chapters in the book on exactly how to do this. It’s more complicated than people think. But once you start this technique of planning out your day, it’s a life changer. So that’s the second step, is make time for traction.
The third step is to hack back external triggers. So, external triggers are these things in our environment. Unlike internal triggers which are inside our heads, external triggers are the pings, the dings, the rings that prompt us to get distracted. They are not the distraction. We tend to think of, you know the iPhone buzzing as the distraction. No, no, no. The distraction is the action that you took in response to that external trigger. If the external triggers serve you. For example, if your alarm clock rings, that’s an external trigger, but it serves you because it helps you act according to what you wanted to do with intent, which was to wake up and head to the gym or do whatever you wanted to do that’s helping you with traction. So, the idea is to ask ourselves “Which external triggers are serving us and which are we serving?”
And to remove those external triggers that aren’t serving us by hacking back. A big part of what I talk about in Hooked is around how do we as product designers shape these external triggers? And the fact is, that that product designers have gotten so good at inserting these external triggers throughout our environments that we have to take steps to hack back. The good news is, is that this isn’t anywhere near as difficult as we think, right? I don’t want to hear about technology being addictive and hijacking your brain, if you are one of the two thirds of smartphone owners who never adjust their notification settings. Did you hear that right? Two thirds of people with a smartphone never bothered to take 10 minutes to change those goddamn notification settings so that their phones aren’t buzzing and pinging them all day. And so, we’ve got to manage those external triggers. Just takes a few minutes. I actually have a chapter in the book where I literally show you how to hack back all your external triggers on your phone in about 50 minutes. It’s really takes very little time. You do it once and, again, it’s a life changer.
But the external triggers on your phone is only part of the problem. You’ve got the external triggers on your desktop. And I think, the real elephant in the room are the external triggers in the workplace. You know, the open office floor plan is a curse when it comes to trying to do focused work. Because you know, Bill from accounting stops by and wants to talk for just a quick sec and then your boss comes by and wants to chat it up. So, part of what we have to do is to remove those external triggers to hack back all of these external triggers in our environment so we can do what we planned to do to get that focus work done, to spend time the way we intended to spend it. Everything else is a distraction.
And then finally, the fourth step. So, the first step just to review really quick is manage internal triggers. Step two is to make time for traction. Step three is to hack back external triggers. And Step Four is to prevent distraction with pact. And so, the idea here is that we can use these tools, many of them free out there to do what’s called using a “Pre-commitment Device.” A Pre-commitment Device basically keeps you from doing something you don’t want to do. So, the beauty of the free market we live in, not that it’s perfect, but one of the things that does really well is give people the products and services they’re looking for. So, when people, a few years ago started complaining about technology being too distracting and taking up too much of their time, thousands of budding entrepreneurs answered the call. And they have made for us these apps and services to help us stay focused.
So, every morning I write, that’s what I do for a living. And it’s really hard work. It’s hard to stay focused. And so, what I have to do is I use one app on my phone called Forrest. I open up this app, it’s free. And there’s a little virtual tree that is planted when I push one button. If I pick up my phone during the given period of time that I’ve set that little virtual tree dies. Now it’s just a stupid little virtual tree. Who cares? Right? But it’s enough to remind me that I’ve set a pact with myself, that I’ve made a pre-commitment to not do anything but the thing I want to do right now.
Another technology that I use, I liked so much, I actually invested in the company is a product called Focus Mate. Focus Mate, remember Chat Roulette a few years ago. Remember that product, Chat Roulette? So, it’s just like Chat Roulette, but it’s for getting work done and it doesn’t have all the dirty, nasty stuff that used to happen on Chat Roulette. Basically, here’s how it works. You book a time with a Focus Mate on this site, focusmate.com, and you set a time that you’re going to do work together. So, you say, “Okay, 9:00 AM…” You’re matched with another person that you may or may not know. Usually you don’t know that person. And then you see them through a video screen on your computer. And then you say, “Hello, I’m so and so. Here’s what I’m working on.” You introduce very, very quickly. You supposed to do it in less than two minutes. And then you get to work for 50 minutes. And just the fact that you have somebody else watching you and working alongside you is incredibly helpful to help you make a pact, make a pre-commitment to get done what you need to do.
Now, it’s very important that I emphasize here that that’s the last step, that after you’ve learned to manage your internal triggers, after you’ve made time for traction, after you’ve hacked back the external triggers, the last step as the last resort is to prevent distraction with pact. But if you use these four techniques, this is how you become in distractible. This is how we put distraction and its place and make sure that we do the things we really want to do.
Jason Ogle: Oh man. So, much good stuff in there. And thank you for explaining the Indistractable model. You like just answered a lot of the questions that I was going to ask you in explaining the model.
Nir Eyal: I’ll give you another example of what I do. So, I guess it was about two years ago, I decided it was time to get into shape. So, I’m 41 now and I could see 40 approaching at the time. And I said, “You know what? I really need to start getting in shape.” I actually used to be clinically obese. And so, you know, changed my diet and that was a very transformative time in my life. And then I said, “Okay, it’s time to hit the gym.” Right? And I’ve never been physically active in the least. I mean, I joined the high school wrestling team because I wanted to try and get in shape, but I never one a match. I mean, it was terrible. I was the worst.
Nir Eyal: I was just like the most un-athletic person that you’ve ever met.
Jason Ogle: At least, you didn’t get a cauliflower ear too bad!
Nir Eyal: No. Because I never actually like was sent out to wrestle anybody. I just went to practices because I was so horrible. But anyway, so I decided I need to start hitting the gym. And you know what? Anybody who’s successfully into athleticism will tell you is that it’s consistency over intensity. That if you are a weekend warrior and you’re out there in the gym and you’re sweating up like crazy, just like many people do after New Year’s, and then, you know, a couple of weeks later they stop because they get burned out. So, I knew that I had to do this for the rest of my life.
And so, what I did, I implemented what’s called “The Burn or Burn technique.” I made this up. “Burn or burn technique.” The Burn or Burn Technique works like this. Every morning when I step into my closet to get dressed, I have a calendar and on that calendar I have attached to it a pen, $100. And then right above my calendar there’s a shelf right above it. I have a lighter. And here’s what happens every single day. I have a choice to make when I see that calendar. I can either go to the gym and metaphorically burned some calories. Or if I don’t do what I said I’m going to do, I have to burn the $100 bill.
Jason Ogle: Oh, my goodness.
Nir Eyal: Okay? So, a lot of people say, well, you say, “Oh my God, you’re burning a $100 bill. That’s crazy.” It’s been two and a half years now. I’ve never burned the $00 bill. Why? Because, I go to the damn gym, right? I do what I say I’m going to do. And that’s a little bit of enough motivation to see that it has to be taped. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’ll spend it on charity or I’ll give it to a friend.” No, no. You have to physically burn it up. And I know that’s illegal, but whatever, skip that fact. Because again, the goal is to not actually burn it. The goal is to go to the goddamn gym and do what you promise yourself you’re going to do.
So, this is a great example of a, another pre-commitment device, a price pact, that I’ve made myself this promise and I can see it every day what I need to do. And you know what the amazing thing is? That after a few years of doing this, I love going to the gym. I used to hate it. Now I actually really enjoy it. It’s become part of my routine. And so, it’s a joy I would pay to go because I enjoy it so much.
Jason Ogle: Wow. Those are such great examples of really using internal and external triggers to your advantage. Like, I think there’s, you know, like we discussed earlier, there’s good and bad, right? And it’s really up to you as to what you make of those. And so, I just love the pact, the examples that you mentioned, like those are super like helpful ways to kind of, like you said, “Hack back on those triggers that they already are going to exist anyway and they’re going to attempt to distract us.” But when there’s skin in the game like you said, and you make pacts, there’s skin in the game, it just gives you that extra motivation that you need.
Nir Eyal: This pack stuff is the fourth step. So, it’s super important that everyone listening understands that is not the first line of defense. You have to do the other things first or you’re going to get into trouble. [Laughs] okay?
Jason Ogle: Yes. Thank you for putting that out there because that is super important. You tell a really cool. Interesting story in the book about your daily Milky Way story when you are an educator.
Nir Eyal: Yes.
Jason Ogle: Can you tell that story really quick and then I want to follow it up with a question?
Nir Eyal: Yes. So, really quick. So, the idea there is when I’m explaining the concept of external triggers and how we have to hack back these external triggers, I talk about, you know, I took a year off between high school and college. I did a gap year after high school where I was an AmeriCorps volunteer. It’s kind of a domestic peace corps. So, I taught in a middle school and an underprivileged school in Atlanta. And in the teacher’s lounge every day, for an entire school year, there was this vending machine that was served as an external trigger. It was a call to action. It was a prompt that told me, “Hey, milky way, right over here.” And I would eat one every single day at the same exact time right after lunch. That was my daily ritual because of this external trigger in my environment, prompting me to action. You know, the end result was another, you know, three cavities that year and another, you know, five, 10 pounds of fat that I gained because I hate those Milky Way’s every day. But that’s an example of how…
Jason Ogle: [Laughs] Milky Ways are so good.
Nir Eyal: [Laughs] They’re so good!
Jason Ogle: I have a question about this though. It’s like, you know, a lot of us are in environments that we really can’t control. We can’t control our workplace especially, I work somewhere where donuts and bagels are brought in every single Friday. And for a while at our old office, we had a soda fountain. And so, the candy is always right in front of my desk. The table was always right in front of my desk. So, I guess I developed some willpower. But I’m just wondering like, you know, what do we do in environments? Like I’m in an open office space now, you touched on earlier. Those are super distracting environments and somehow somebody in Silicon Valley thought that they were the best way to make products, but they’re super distracting. So, what do we do? Like what are some tips you can offer to help us, you know, maybe break unhealthy habits that are occurring in environments we can’t easily change?
Nir Eyal: Yes. So, there’s a few things we can do. So, you know, first and foremost is, is following this model around, managing the internal triggers. It’s amazing how often we – you know, just because we’re talking on the topic of food here. It’s amazing how often we eat, not because we are hungry, but because we fear being hungry. A great example of this is the Snickers commercial. And you’ve probably seen this where they talk about, you know, you’re not yourself if you’re hungry. “And so, don’t be hungry. You know, like you’re going to die if you’re hungry for 20 minutes.” You know, like that’s the worst thing in the world. But of course, you can think about it, right? Like, “Oh you know, our mothers used to tell us. Take a snack because you might get hungry later.”
So, what we have done is conditioned ourselves to eat even when we’re not hungry. So, this is a great example of how we have to understand that internal trigger. Are you actually eating because you’re hungry or are you eating because you’re trying to manage the discomfort of an emotion? Right? I know that for me, when I was really struggling with my weight, and again, I used to be clinically obese, that was my problem. I was eating because I felt sad. I was eating because I was bored. I was eating for a hundred different reasons, only one of which rarely was that I was hungry. Which is the only legitimate internal trigger to actually eat something, right? So, that’s the first step. Understanding those real internal triggers. If you’re using it as an escape to an uncomfortable emotion, guess what? It’s not the Snickers that’s doing it to you, it’s what’s going on inside. Remember, distraction starts from within.
The second step is to make time for what you really want to do. So, a big reason why people eat the wrong stuff is because they haven’t properly planned to eat the right stuff, right? So, if I had a more healthful dessert that wasn’t going to spike my blood sugar, and you know, I know that snickers were bad for me, I wouldn’t have had the daily Snickers. And this is the thing. So much money is made on dieting books and business books and self-help books that basically tell you what you already know. You know what to do. We know how to lose weight. Who out there thinks that chocolate cake is healthier than a salad? Nobody knows. Everybody knows how you lose weight, but we don’t do it. And so, that’s why I wrote Indistractable. It’s not to tell you what to do. I don’t care what your goals are. That’s up for you to decide based on your values and what’s important to you.
What I want to help you do is whatever it is that you want to do, I’m going to make that possible by telling you how to not get distracted. Distraction is the real problem because you don’t have a lack of knowledge. You simply don’t have the abilities and the skillset to remove distraction.
So, then the next thing we would do is to change those external triggers. So, for example, when it comes to food in our environment, you know, we can’t always control every environment that we’re in, but there’s many we can control. So, for example, I talk about in this book, this technique I call “Progressive Extremism.” That starts off with, you know, deciding something that you are not going to have anymore, which sounds kind of crazy, right? That sounds so extreme. But it has to be something simple that you can give up. So, I’ll give you an example for me. I didn’t go straight into, “Oh, I’m never eating you know, refined carbohydrates ever again. I’m never going to eat sugar.” That’s too much of a leap. And everybody does that you know, around New Year’s. “I’m never eating this.” Or even worse is “I’m going to go on this diet for the next 60 days and then I’m going to look green. I’m going to do P90X or I’m going to do this temporary thing.” And this is the reason why diets don’t work is because they’re temporary, right? You do P90X. What do you expect to happen on day 91? If you go back to your old habits, you’re going to regain the weight. You are going to go back to your old habits, your old ways of being.
So, the idea is to remove one thing from your life forever, right? But this new healthier lifestyle, this healthier way of doing things, this new healthy habit that you’re adopting. But it has to be something easy. So, for me, for example, one of the first things I removed was sugary sodas. Still have diet, that’s okay. But I started with no sugary sodas in the house. That was the rule. So, I removed the external trigger of having sugar sweetened soda in the house. Okay. I could still have it outside, could still have diet. And then when I was writing – that was very easy. That was no big deal. And then I took the next small step, which was, “You know what, I’m not even going to have diet soda in the House. I can still have it when I travel or when I go out just not in the house.” So, I removed those external triggers that didn’t serve me.
So, I described this with a lot more depth. So. I’m trying to make it short here. A lot more depth about how you can remove these external triggers that don’t serve you in your life, whether it’s around food, whether it’s around other distractions. When it comes to the workplace, for example, the open office, I actually give a link to print out this little sign that we can put on our desks or on our computer monitors that say “I’m Indistractable right now.” Right? I know a lot of people say, “Oh, I wear headphones.” That’s rubbish. People don’t know if you’re just listening to a podcast or music and they still interrupt you. You know, that’s true. But when you put a sign with a big red, you know, paper that says, “I’m indistractable right now. Don’t bother me unless it’s an emergency.” People get the hint. And so that’s another way that we can re hack back these unwanted external triggers.
Jason Ogle: So, good. Defenders, this is such a good book. You’ve got to get the book. And I’m serious, it’s really, really good. And Nir did such an incredible job of citing his resources of everything he mentioned. I was just blown away when I was reading through it. And I mean there’s links to everything you site. It’s like completely factual and scientific. All this stuff you put in your book. So, thank you for that by the way.
But you tell a story about the pharmaceutical industry and that’s really – you know, this is when life and death situations come in and distractions. When pharmacists are being distracted, filling prescriptions. It’s really a big problem.
Nir Eyal: Yes. No, let me mention it really quick because I think it’s really illustrative of the point. So, it turns out that if I were to ask you, okay, pop quiz, “What are the three leading causes of death in the United States?” I’ll give you the first two. Number one is heart disease. Number two is cancer. What’s number three? Right? Most people would think, “Oh, it’s car accidents or Alzheimer’s or stroke.” Not even close. If it was a disease, the number three cause of death in the United States of America would be prescription mistakes. People in hospitals receiving the wrong medication or the wrong dosage of medication. Okay. 200,000 people are affected by a completely preventable human error. So, for most hospitals in America, they just believe that this is, “That’s what happens. Nothing we can do about it.”
Until a brave group of nurses at UCSF in San Francisco decided to tackle this problem. This group of nurses wanted to figure out why was this happening? Why were practitioners giving people the wrong dosage of medication? What was going on? What was causing all these prescription mistakes? Because remember this isn’t people, you know, taking the wrong medication at home. This is inside the hospital. So, a hospital worker is to blame.
Jason Ogle: A safe place. What we know as a safe place for our recovery.
Nir Eyal: Right? Where people go to get better. And so, yes, a terrible problem. And so, what they did after they studied this problem, they found a way to reduce prescription mistakes by 88%. They almost eliminated the problem and when they got down to what was causing this problem, they realized the problem was distraction. That when nurse practitioners were dosing out medication, they were constantly interrupted by physicians, by fellow nurses, by patients. They were constantly interrupted. And so, when they were distracted, they would make mistakes. By the way, this should sound pretty familiar. In the workplace, if you’re constantly distracted, you also make mistakes that degrade the quality of your performance.
And so, you know what the solution was? Well, you know, because you’d read the book, but the solution wasn’t a fancy pants app. It wasn’t some crazy multimillion-dollar technology solution, some smart dispenser. The solution was cheap plastic vests. These nurses wore a bright orange vest that told their colleagues, don’t interrupt me right now I’m dosing medication. So, they hacked back the external triggers that would lead them to potential distraction. Amazing, right? Such a simple solution. And so, we as knowledge workers need to do the same thing. That’s where this idea for this screen sign that I put in the book where you can print out and you had this little sign on your desk that says “I’m indistractable right now.” That’s where that idea came from.
Jason Ogle: Thanks for telling that story Nir, I love that so much. And that is like, I think that’s one of the epitomes of the importance of applying these principles in our lives. And I guess this kind of segues into – I have two questions, but I’m going to kind of combine them because they’re really related. It’s just about kind of the consequences. You just mentioned one really big consequence to distraction in the healthcare industry. What other consequences are we facing as a society, especially with the direction we’re heading with distraction? Like where are we heading as a species and society if we don’t start taking back control of our distractibility and even in this artificially intelligent driven economy, we’re heading, you know, headlong into? These machines are extremely indistractable. What does that mean, right? I mean, what does that mean for us? Right?
Nir Eyal: Yes. No, that’s a good point. Yes, I think there’s some pretty profound implications, right? So, I think unlike most tech critics out there who are pretty pessimistic, I’m actually quite optimistic. I’m very long on human ingenuity. The human species is very good at adapting their behaviors and adopting new technology. So, adaptation and adoption of different behaviors and new technologies is what always has propelled our forward. So, I’m very, very optimistic about the human species. I will say that those who don’t adopt these techniques, those who don’t become indistractable, sooner rather than later are going to suffer for it. There really will be a bifurcation of people who know how to manage distraction, know how to manage their attention, and those who don’t. And those who don’t will be a lot worse off for it.
Because if you think about, you know, what kind of jobs in the future won’t be automated away? What kind of things can technology not do? Well, it’s the kind of things that require human creativity, right? They require not following the rules. You know, algorithms are really good at following a set series of commands, but when it comes to creativity, that’s something that until we get a generalizable intelligence, we’re very far from creating. Those are the kinds of jobs that are going to be more in demand and that won’t get automated away, right? All the simple road tasks, those can be pragmatize. So, what we need to do is to prepare ourselves and our children to be able to concentrate, to focus, to be able to be creative. And the only way to do that is to have the kind of focus that we need to do creative work. And the only way to do that is to learn these skills, to become indistractable.
When we think about our relationships, you know, psychologists tell us that loneliness is as detrimental to our health as obesity and smoking. And part of the reason that we have this epidemic of loneliness is because we can’t form relationships with other people when our heads are down in our phones and we’re not actually speaking to each other. So, if we don’t learn to manage distraction and have face to face interactions when we’re around people that we want to connect with. Our friends, our families, our significant others, we need to be fully present for them and our health will suffer for it unless we form those bonds. So, we have to know how to put that distraction away by becoming Indistractable.
And then finally, when it comes to our kids, you know, many people tell me how distracted their kids are these days. And “Oh my gosh, they’re on Fortnight and they’re on Facebook and they’re on Instagram and they just can’t focus. You know, they don’t have the attention span like we used to have.” And then, when I dig a little deeper and ask, “Well, what are your tech habits?” It’s the parents who are teaching kids that their phones are more important than they are.
Jason Ogle: Ouch.
Nir Eyal: And so, for the sake of our children, we have to show them…
Jason Ogle: [Laughs]
Nir Eyal: Sorry. I am with you man. I learned this lesson as well. We as parents have to set a good example. That if you want your kid to have a healthy relationship with technology, you have to model that behavior for their sake.
Jason Ogle: So, as we close Nir, I want to kind of bring it right back around to where we started. In the origin story, you mentioned about what really compelled you to write this book and it has to do with your daughter. And is your daughter’s name Jasmine?
Nir Eyal: Yes.
Jason Ogle: I love that you dedicated this book to her. I just thought that was so special and I didn’t even have to think. It took me a second. I was like, “That’s his daughter’s name.” You open the book with that really, really emotive story. And that you told us too in the beginning of this interview. And I think that’s so special you dedicated this to her.
And I want to know. Did you ever find out what superpower she wanted?
Nir Eyal: Yes. So, I did. So, I actually went back and I asked her. Because, as I was relating the story in the book, I was like, “Okay, now I’m just curious. Like what superpower does she want?” And honest to God, this is what she told me. She told me she would want the power to always be kind. That’s the super power she wants.
Jason Ogle: Awe!
Nir Eyal: I know, right? That’s what she said.
Jason Ogle: Goodness!
Nir Eyal: I thought she would say like to flight or X-Ray vision. And she said, “To always be kind.” And I just was like, oh, it gives me goose bumps even relating that story to you because a few things occur when I heard that. One, was like, “Oh my God, I have such a wonderful kid. So, I’m bragging a little bit.
Jason Ogle: The feels are all just hitting me.
Nir Eyal: I know, right? But the other thing that I realized is that kindness isn’t really a superpower, right? We all can be kind. And in a way that was just such a perfect metaphor for this struggle around distraction. That managing distraction is also something that all of us can do. That a lot of tech critics these days, they tell you that. “Technology is hijacking your brain, that it’s addictive, that it’s irresistible, that there’s nothing you can do.” It’s all about the big, bad tech companies doing it to you. But that’s not true. Because what we know is that when we give up control, it’s called “Learned helplessness.” When we think that something is more powerful than we are, we give up. We justify our behavior. In fact, there’ve been studies around alcoholics, and they’ve determined that the number one factor of whether an alcoholic will relapse, get this, is not their level of physical dependency. It is their belief in their own power to change. Think about that. More than the physical dependency is their belief in their power to change.
So, when we think that technology is so powerful that it’s telling us what to do, that it’s addictive, which is a horrible word. We should not use it except for the most extreme cases for an actual medical condition. The vast majority of people out there are not addicted to technology. It’s just something we overuse. So, these metaphors matter. If we call something “Addictive,” we act like we cannot control it. Whereas if we call something, “Hey, you know what? This is something, sometimes I go overboard on and so I need to figure out how to manage it better.” Because the fact is, all of us can manage distraction. We can all be Indistractable.
Jason Ogle: Ah, so good. So good. Learn helplessness that is fascinating. I hadn’t heard that before. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? Like our brains are eavesdropping on our self-talk?
Nir Eyal: Yes. And I agree. Look. I will be the first to tell you that technology is designed to be engaging. No doubt about it. I know, I hear it all the time. “Oh, these things are designed to be addictive and blah blah blah.” Okay great. But it’s not going away, right? You know, we can’t go backwards in time and this stuff is not – if anything, if things are going to become more engaging, if anything. So, that’s why we need to learn how to live with it. Not, you know, cross our arms and say, “Well, I’m going to wait until, you know, these tech companies make their product less engaging.” That aren’t going to happen. They’re going to continue to make them things that we want to use and we want them to do that, right? We want products to get better and better. That’s called progress. That’s not a problem. So, it’s up to us by and large, except for people who are in protected classes. And I should mention there are people who need help. Children for example. They are a protected class. There are certain books. I wouldn’t let my kid read. There are certain movies I wouldn’t let her watch. And of course, there are certain apps and things on the Internet, I wouldn’t let her do without supervision. I think also addicts. People who are actually addicted about – you know, the single digit percentage of people who really do have a problem where they want to stop using, but can’t. There are people out there, many of them have Comorbidity with OCD, but the vast majority of people out there, this is not an addiction. If anything, it’s about over use and we can make sure that we can get this under control. It’s not all that hard. As long as you know the technique.
Jason Ogle: Ah, so good. And you know, we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, right? But we can learn how to squeeze out just enough that we need to do the good that we need to do for ourselves. Nir, what’s the superpower that you would want in closing?
Nir Eyal: Well, it was being Indistractable. I will tell you, I mean that was really the motivation for writing this book. Was, you know, imagine what you could accomplish for a minute. You know, just think about, what if everything that you said you would do, you did. That to me was the super, I mean, that blows my mind. All the things that I’ve said in my life before I was Indistractable that I never followed up on. And my life has changed so much in the past few years since I started researching this book. It’s amazing. I mean, I’ve lost weight. I’ve gained muscle. I have the best relationship in my life that I’ve ever had with my wife and we’ve been married 17 years. I’m closer to my daughter. I published two books. I am way more productive and way happier than I ever have been because I am better at keeping promises to myself.
Jason Ogle: And you know what? I’m so glad you wrote this book Nir. Defenders, pick it up, there’ll be a link in the show notes. It’s a super good and there’s so much more that we don’t even have time to talk about in the book. So, Nir, thanks so much for, for being here again and sharing so much wisdom and knowledge with us. I appreciate you. You are a superhero of mine.
Nir Eyal: Awe, thanks.
Jason Ogle: You really are truly.
Nir Eyal: I appreciate it. Thank you so much Jason.
Jason Ogle: And I hope to have you on to talk about your next book. You know, because I know there’s a lot more, you have a lot more to offer. You’re just getting started I think. So, tell us how to connect and to keep up with you?
Nir Eyal: I appreciate it. Yes. So, my website is nirandfar.com and my first book is Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. And my next book Indistractable will be released in the fall of 2019. And yes, that’s it I think.
Jason Ogle: Alright. And last but not least, I just want to say, as always, “Fight on my friend.”
Nir Eyal: Thank you so much, Jason. It’s a pleasure!
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