How do you move away from the many distractions around you and focus on what is important? To bestselling author, Nir Eyal, being indistractible – the ability to do exactly what you set out to do – is the skill of the century. Dubbed by the M.I.T. Technology Review as “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology,” Nir writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. He joins Steve Sims on the podcast to talk about the difference between traction and distraction, and how you can hack the internal and external triggers of distraction to become as focused as you need to be. With the right mindset and some innovative technological tools to help you, Nir believes you can take back control of your own time and life and focus more on the people and things you truly care about.
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Nir Eyal: Prophet Of Habit Forming Technology
I’ve got Nir Eyal on the show. He talks to us about the arts of behavioral design. There are all these companies and technologies out there that everyone thinks they’ve got these tips and tricks to get us to do what they want. He’s here to tell us that they do, but they don’t all work as long as we’re thinking correctly how to schedule and how to look after the stakeholders in your life. I enjoy getting into that moment especially as it was impactful to me as well. Learn from Nir and what he says from the Indistractable, from the Hooked books. He’s an award-winning, top-shelf bestseller author who simplifies how we should be focusing our mindset and the difference between traction and distraction. Enjoy the episode. Share it around.
Nir, thank you for coming on the show.
It’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
I’ve got to admit when I heard about you and I started doing a little bit of digging, I got behind what you call behavioral design. That intrigued me. There’s an actual structure and infrastructure that companies use to get people to make the right decisions or to make their decisions. How did you come upon on this?
I was in the right place at the right time in Silicon Valley. Back in 2006 is when I went to business school at Stanford. I saw the rise of many of these companies like Facebook, Google, Instagram, WhatsApp, Slack and Snapchat. I was at the epicenter of these companies using these principles of behavioral design to change people’s habits. My question was, what else can we do with this? Why should it just be the video gaming companies and the social media companies who use these techniques? What if anyone could use these same techniques to help people build healthy habits with their products and in their lives? That’s exactly what’s happened.
My first book that came out of a course that I later ended up teaching at Stanford is called Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products. It’s all about how companies can use these techniques to help people build the habit. Exercise, for example, is something that an app called Fitbod does using the Hook model. They get people hooked to exercising in the gym. Kahoot! is company that became a billion-dollar company. It’s the world’s largest educational software and they use the Hook model to get kids hooked onto in-classroom learning. Companies like The New York Times, one of my former clients, uses the Hook model to get people hooked to reading the news every day. The idea behind my first book was how we can use these secrets of behavioral design to build the products that people use because they want to, not because they have to. The flip side of products made so engaging is that sometimes we use products too much or we use certain products that distract us from what we want to do in life. If Hooked was all about how to build good habits with the products we use, then Indistractable tackles this problem of bad habits that take us off track and distract us from what we want to do in life.
We think we’re making independent freewill choices but there are certain strategies and certain structures that are nudging us in that direction.Being indistractable is the skill of the century. Click To Tweet
There’s definitely nudges. Some people take it to an extreme. The narrative is that we’re all victims, that technology is hijacking our brains that it’s addicting everyone. I think that’s rubbish. I’m telling you this as an industry insider that knows every one of their tricks. They’re good but they’re not that good. It’s not mind control. It’s not taking over your power to control and choose. Freewill is a tricky subject when it comes to philosophy and psychology. There’s a question about freewill in general but what there is not a question about is free choice. There’s that Viktor Frankl quote, “Between stimulus and response is our ability to choose.” That’s exactly right. This is how we define our life. It’s based on what we choose. How we will spend our attention or how we will spend our time is how we will spend our life.
What I want to give people are the tools to decide for themselves in a world that is full of distraction. I want to help them choose their own life no matter what it is you want to do with your time. What I want to help people to do is to live with personal integrity. If you’re anything like I used to be, I would say I was going to work out, but I wouldn’t. I would say I would exercise, I would say I would eat right and it wouldn’t happen. I would say I was going to be fully present with my family, with my daughter, and yet I’d get distracted. I would say I was going to work on that big project at work, finish that big thing I’ve been procrastinating, and yet I procrastinate another day.
I’d stare down on my to-do list and go for yet another day where I wouldn’t finish everything I said I was going to do and I was sick of it. I wanted to understand what would the superpower of being indistractable looks like? What if you had the power to do what you said you would do every day? What would that look like? To me, that is the skill of the century. That is a superpower. My life has changed so much in the past years that it took me to write this book because I can finally live with personal integrity. I can finally be indistractable.
Let’s get a bit of an understanding of where you came from. We know in 2006, you say you were in the right place at the right time. Let’s be blunt. We often put ourselves there without realizing it. You were there, you were open to this opportunity, you grasp it and you’ve written two fantastic books of which I’ve got both of those. I want to get an idea of growing up. What was happening in there that would get you to that 2006 moment? Where did you grow up and what was your upbringing like?
I had a very privileged upbringing and a middle-class immigrant family. My family emigrated from Israel when I was three years old and I grew up in Florida. If there was one thing that led me to my current line of work is that as a kid, I was clinically obese. It was that experience of feeling that my life was not in my full control. I felt that food controlled me. That was tough. That was a very hard period in my life. It wasn’t until I took action that I realized what was going on. I made this mistake when I was overweight that I would constantly go on fad diets. These don’t eat sugar for 30 days, no fast food, the detox diets, and they never work. The reason they never work is because it doesn’t get to the root cause of the problem. It wasn’t food that was making me obese. It was my relationship with food. It was what I was using food for. I wasn’t eating because I was hungry. I was eating because of my feelings. I was eating because there was something I didn’t control inside of me and I was using food so that I wouldn’t have to feel those uncomfortable sensations.
Why do I tell you this story and how does it lead me to my current line of work around technology? We’re going through the same discussion that people will tell you, “Go on a digital detox. Don’t use technology for 30 days. Stop using your iPhone.” That’s ridiculous because none of that is the real source of the problem. Just like with food, the real source of the problem when it comes to distraction is what is going on inside of us. If you sit down at the dinner table with your family and you have this itch to check your phone every five minutes, it’s not the phone’s fault. It’s something going on inside of you. If you can’t finish your work and concentrate without looking at the internet every few minutes, there’s something deeper going on that needs to be addressed. The first step to becoming indistractable has to be to master these internal triggers that most people don’t know some very basic and rather simple techniques to help us get control over these uncomfortable sensations so that they don’t control us.
Joe Polish often talks about our addiction is just a cover for what the problem is. You’re talking now about we’re escaping something when merely the problem is far deeper. How do we recognize that we’ve got a problem? If you’re at the dinner and you’re constantly checking the phone, there are maybe some that can cover it by going, “I’m waiting for a business meeting,” or “I sent out an email.” How do you first recognize that you’ve got an issue?
The first place to start is to understand the difference between distraction and traction. We’re not talking about addiction here. Addiction is a pathology. A lot of people think that they’re addicted and they’re not. They’re not addicted, they’re distracted. Addiction affects a small percentage of the population, but way more people use it as an excuse to slough off responsibility. If you’re addicted, that is a disease and it requires a lot more help like professional assistance. An addiction is defined as a persistent dependency on a behavior or substance that harms the user. Despite trying to stop and harm caused, we keep doing a behavior that causes harm. That is a disease. We cannot take that lightly. The problem is many of us say, “I’m addicted,” when what we’re really saying is, “I like it a lot.”
That is not an addiction. We don’t talk about any other disease the way we talk about addiction. We make it sound everyone’s addicted and they’re not. We have to make sure we differentiate the two. The majority of us are not addicted, we are simply distracted. What does that mean? To understand what is distraction, we have to understand the opposite of distraction. Think about it for a minute. Most people will say it’s focus. It’s not focus. The opposite of distraction is traction. If you look at the entomology of the words, both come from the same Latin root “trahere,” which means to pull. You’ll notice that both words end in the same six letters that spells action. Traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do or things that you do with intent.
The opposite of traction is distraction. Anything that pulls you away from what you plan to do. Why is this dichotomy so important? It’s important because anything can be a distraction. Let me see if this hits a nail with you. This used to happen to me all the time. I would sit down at my desk and I’d say, “I’m going to work on that big project. I’m going to finally focus. I’m going to do the thing that I’ve been delaying. Here I go, I’m going to get to work. I’m going to stop procrastinating, but first let me check the email quickly.” How often does that happen? “Let me do that quick thing on my to-do list so that I feel like I’m gaining some momentum.” What we’re doing is allowing distraction to trick us.
Distraction loves to trick us. We love to think that what we’re doing is productive. We’ve got to do it anyway. It’s something that we can tick off our list, but it is as much of a distraction because it is not what we plan to do with our time. That email that you check before you do that big important project that you know you should be working on, that is in many ways a more pernicious distraction because it’s less obvious. If you’re playing Candy Crush at your desk, that’s an obvious distraction. If you’re checking email, Slack channels, googling something, or whatever it might be, you think it’s work-related, you think it’s productive but it’s not. What you’re doing is you’re allowing distraction to prioritize the urgent at the expense of the important. That is death for your productivity, for your business, and for you reaching your goals in life.
The idea here is that whatever it is you say is important to you, as long as you say, “This is what I want to do with my time,” that is traction. What I want you to do is just as anything can be a distraction, anything can be a traction. All those things that people think about as distracting, the video games, Facebook, YouTube, I’m here to tell you there’s nothing inherently wrong about any of those things. As long as you use them according to your values and on your schedule, not someone else’s. We can overcome these distractions by turning them into traction, by making time for them in our day, by making sure that they are consistent with our values and using them according to when we want to, not based on when somebody else pings or dings us.
You’ve hit the button there and we’ve all been through it. Every entrepreneur is going, “I have known that.” I love the way you say about prioritizing the urgent over the important. Is there any kind of behavioral design that we can adapt to be able to recognize and enforce us into traction and avoid distraction?
The first step is to master the internal triggers. We have to start with the root cause of the problem of why we get distracted. We love to blame what we call the external triggers, the pings, the dings, the rings, all of these things in our environment. The root cause of the problem is none of those things. It’s what’s going on inside of us. First and foremost, we have to deal with the internal triggers, the uncomfortable sensations, the stress, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, whatever it might be. I give you dozens of techniques that you can use so that when you feel those internal triggers, you can address them in a healthier manner. That’s step one.Distraction that looks productive is more pernicious because it is less obvious. Click To Tweet
Step number two is to make time for traction. It turns out that the vast majority of people don’t plan their day. Here’s the fact of the matter. You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. That means if you have a big white space in your day and you’re struggling with not getting everything done, the solution is to plan your day. Most people don’t plan their day. I’m talking down to the minute, this is an essential skill. If you look at high-performance people across every industry, they plan their time, not the output. It’s not as simple as having a big long to-do list. Most people don’t realize that to-do lists are degrading their performance. Why? Because when you keep a big long to-do list and if you’re like most people, you have stuff on that to-do list that you don’t finish from day-to-day. You are reinforcing your identity of a person who can’t follow through.
Every day you don’t finish the task on your to-do list, you’re telling yourself, “Here was another day that I lied to myself. I would say I do want to do these things and I didn’t.” That is toxic. You’re reinforcing an identity that is not serving you. Most people do not use to-do lists effectively. They use them in a way that destroys their productivity as opposed to enhances them. The way we enhance our productivity is that we keep a time box calendar, and then we schedule sync our time with the stakeholders in our life, with our husband, our wife, or our boss. We sit down with them and we synchronize our schedule. I know that might seem uncomfortable to some people, but it will change your life. My wife and I almost got divorced over this problem and that problem has ceased to exist right now.
We now do a weekly schedule sync. It takes us about five minutes a week. If you do this with your boss, it will take you 5 to 10 minutes a week. I’ll give you a link for a tool I built not to sign up for anything. You don’t have to give me your email. It’s completely free. What you want to do is to plan your week, synchronize your schedule with the stakeholders in your life. You will be so much more productive, so much happier in your day-to-day life because you will know finally for the first time in your life, what is traction and what is distraction for every minute of your day.
Step number three is about hacking back the external triggers. When we think about all the pings, dings, and rings that can lead us to either traction or distraction, the key question here is which of these external triggers are serving me and which am I serving? What we want to do is to systematically get rid of all of those external triggers that don’t serve us. Whether it’s email, Slack notifications, and notifications on our phone that’s kindergarten, that’s easy stuff. I’ll teach you how to reduce the amount of time you spend on email by up to 90%. There are many things that we can do that most people don’t realize to reduce the waste of time that we spend on these distractions.
One of the most common sources of distraction turns out 80% of knowledge workers say the number one source of distraction is not their phones nor computers, it’s other people. The number one source of distraction is the open floor plan office. It has nothing to do with technology. I teach you exactly how to hack back external triggers in an open floor plan office setting. That is the bane of most knowledge workers’ existence. People coming by their desks and saying, “Did you hear that bit of office gossip? Can I talk to you for a quick 30 seconds?” It’s never 30 seconds. I tell you exactly what to do about that.
Finally, the last step, the fourth step is to prevent distraction with pact. Pact are pre-commitments that we make to ourselves or others to keep us on track. There are three types of pacts. We have what’s called an Effort Pact which is about having some bit of friction in between you and the distraction. Something that makes that distraction difficult to do. For example, in my household, every night we have a special internet router that shuts off the internet at 10:00 every night. That’s a pact that my wife and I have made with ourselves to say we want to get to bed on time, our sleep is important, our sex life is important. We can also make what’s called a Price Pact. A price pact inflicts some monetary disincentive to getting distracted.
The third type of pact is what we call an Identity Pact. This is the most powerful and most important of the three. An identity pact is when we use some moniker, some identity to help us stay on track. This comes from the psychology of religion. When someone calls themselves a devout Christian, an observant Muslim, or even a vegetarian that helps them stay on track. A vegetarian, for example, doesn’t say every day, “I wonder if I should have some bacon for breakfast.” No, a vegetarian doesn’t eat meat. It is who they are. That’s why the book is titled Indistractable. You, the readers, can call yourself indistractable. You are going to become the kind of person who lives with personal integrity. Does that mean you never get distracted? No, that’s not what becoming indistractable means.
Being indistractable means you strive to do what you say you’re going to do. You strive to live with personal integrity. That should be our new identity. What I’m trying to create is this movement of people who say, “I might do some unusual behaviors. Maybe what I do is a little bit different from the norm.” If you want to have things that other people don’t have, if you want to be something that other people aren’t, then you have to do things that other people don’t do. This is what we do to become indistractable. It’s not different from someone who wears unusual religious garb or who has an unusual diet. To become indistractable, we need to pick up these practices and tell others that this is who we are. We don’t want our time and attention in our life controlled by others. We decide how we spend our time and attention in our life.
Thank you very much for that. I’m going to be looking forward to see what’s that link that you said you would share so that we can start adopting the scheduling process. I love the phrase stakeholders. I recall many years ago the same situation you mentioned. Very few things are dissimilar. We entrepreneurs all have the same path. We may be in different locations doing with different people or whatever. I remember that I was losing connection with my wife and I noticed that my schedule was always packed 9 times out of 10 with people that I didn’t want to meet. My attorney, my dentist, my accountant. I was committed to booking and sticking to a time to get a cavity search, but I wouldn’t book a time to have a moment with a stakeholder. Someone that has got your back, someone that loves you. She wasn’t even making it into my schedule.
I changed from that. Funnily enough, I even booked a breakfast and people go, “Why do you book a breakfast with your wife?” We get out of the house away from the screens, we jumped on the bike and we’d go on a breakfast somewhere. It’s not a big thing. By 9:30, we’re back again. It’s amazing what that does to your relationship and the fact that you’ve scheduled it. I know I’ve got these things coming. I heard everyone out there to do that. I’m glad you reinforced it. Let’s be completely blunt. If you’re not committed to those stakeholders, they won’t be committed to you for much longer.
My wake-up call came from my wife. My wife and I met in college. We met in Economics class and she reminded me of a term that is so perfect for what happens here. The term that she reminded me of that we learned in Economics 101 is called residual beneficiary. A residual beneficiary is the person, the chump that gets whatever’s leftover when a company is liquidated. When a company goes out of business, the debt holders get their share first, then the equity holders, then last is the residual beneficiary. My wife turned to me one day a few years ago and she said, “You have made me into the residual beneficiary, I get whatever scraps of time are leftover.”Don’t let the most important people in your life become residual beneficiaries. Click To Tweet
She was absolutely right. That was a big part of why I wrote this book. She’s the most important person in my life and yet I would keep appointments with all kinds of people and I wouldn’t keep appointments with her. She would take the back seat. More so, when it came to investing in myself. I’m the most important person in my life. If I don’t exist, then my world doesn’t exist. If I don’t take care of my health, my mental, physical, and emotional health, those things need to be taken care of. The only way you can take care of those things is to make time for them and keep those commitments as staunchly as you would keep a commitment with a very important person in your life.
That’s impactful. Bravo to her for standing up. That’s a very eloquent way of putting it as well. I like that. We’re starting to get to the tail end but I don’t want to lose somebody’s impact here. I’m going to be asking you to pitch it now. Where can people find out about you?
My website is NirAndFar.com. There’s an 80-page workbook there that’s complementary on Indistractable. We couldn’t fit it into the final manuscript so you can get that on my website for free. If you go to Indistractable.com and you end up ordering the book, whether you order it on Amazon, your local bookseller, it doesn’t matter. Keep your order number and enter it at Indistractable.com. There is a free video course that will guide you along this process to becoming indistractable.
I appreciate you giving a shout-out. I got this guy’s books and he does go into depth on it. He makes it very easy to understand. I’ve not gone all the way through the books purely and simply because of my time commitment and every other lame ass excuse. I’m telling you, by the time this episode comes out, I would have read it. I’ll make sure I do.
We should do a follow-up after you’ve had a chance to digest the book. Let’s sit down together and do another one of these. We’ll talk about how you’ve implemented these things and how it has changed your life or if you have any additional struggles. We can see how we can make you even more indistractable.
I’ll focus on traction and Nir offered to help me with that. I will be an absolute idiot to pass up on that. Everyone can read it and knows that you promised. I’ll do that. I appreciate that, Nir. You’ve told us where they can find you on the website. You’ve got your first book, which was Hooked and Indistractable. Is there anything you’d like to leave the readers with?
The message I want to leave people with is you are more powerful than you think. We shouldn’t subscribe to these self-limiting beliefs that these things can control us and they’re hijacking our brains. It’s ridiculous. We are much more powerful than these distractions if we believe we are.
Usually 9 times out of 10, the biggest problems we got is stuck in our headspace. People’s misery attracts misery. Every time there’s a new bit of technology out, there’s always those banner people out there that are going to stand up and go, “They’re going to put me out of business.” We are far more powerful than any technology out there at the moment. We shouldn’t accept any of those excuses. You’ve given us a lot. I want everyone to do one thing out of this apart from reading your book, which they should do in any case. I want you to schedule some time with those stakeholders. I want you to look at them as stakeholders. They’ve got your back. You should have them or you will lose them. In my comment and Nir’s, both of us nearly lost the strongest and best part of our world. Don’t let that happen to you, guys. Nir, you’ve been absolutely fantastic. Thank you very much for coming on the show.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, Steve.
I’ll be in touch for my follow up. Thank you.
There goes another chap for me. I hope it helps you. I hope you take action on it. If you love it, share it. If you hate it, send me an email at Ask@SteveDSims.com. If it’s an interesting email, I’ll respond to it. If it’s vulgar and abusive, I may still respond. If you like what’s going on, share it around with you. If you’re ready to make the next step, come and join us at one of our Speakeasies. Look after yourself. Until next time.