Nir Eyal shares how habits keep users coming back and how to become indistractable in the midst of such forces.
- How habit-forming products win over higher quality products
- Four steps to becoming indistractable
- How to turn a distraction into traction
Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The M.I.T. Technology Review dubbed Nir, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.” Nir founded two tech companies since 2003 and has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He is the author of the bestselling book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. In addition to blogging at NirAndFar.com, Nir’s writing has been featured in The Harvard Business Review, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today. Nir is also an active investor in habit-forming technologies. Some of his past investments include: Refresh.io (acquired by LinkedIn), Worklife (acquired by Cisco), Eventbrite, Product Hunt, Marco Polo, Presence Learning, 7 Cups, Pana, Kahoot!, Byte Foods, Anchor.fm, and Symphony Commerce. Nir attended The Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory University.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Sponsored message: ZipRecruiter is the smartest way to hire
- Nir’s website: Nir and Far
- Nir’s podcast: Nir and Far
- Nir’s book: Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
- Previous episode: 317: How to Form Habits the Smart Way with BJ Fogg, PhD
- Research: Skinner – Operant Conditioning
- Book: The Odyssey by Homer
- Tool: Forest
- Tool: Focusmate
- Tool: Time Guard
Nir, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
My pleasure. So good to be here.
I really enjoyed learning about you and reading your blog and listening to the podcast, Nir and Far. Could you maybe give us a little back story for sort of your background and how you acquired the nickname of ‘The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology’?
Sure thing. Let’s see. I started two tech companies. The last one was at the intersection of gaming and advertising. In those two industries I learned a heck of a lot about how companies change consumer behavior.
I was at the forefront of apps back when apps didn’t mean iPhone apps because the Apple app store didn’t exist. I was very early in the game back when apps meant Facebook apps and people were doing all kinds of stupid stuff like throwing sheep at each other and things like that and Farmville, if you remember that back in the day.
Yeah, my buddy Luke was a part of the Farmville team.
There you go. I kind of had this front row seat. They were – companies like that were our clients. I had this front row seat to see all of these experiments come and go. I learned a lot about how companies change our behavior. I became fascinated by the psychology of designing for habits. I had this hypothesis that the companies that would be able to make it in the future must figure out how to build habits.
I invested a lot of time into learning about habits and then I kind of came up to a wall when I looked for a … to try and explain to me how to build habit-forming products. I didn’t find it, so I decided to write the book I couldn’t find. That’s why I wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. I wrote the book after interviewing academics and practitioners, a lot of the people who helped build Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and WhatsApp and Slack.
I wrote the book not for them obviously. They already know these techniques. I wrote the book for everybody else. I wrote the book for people out there who are building the kind of products and services that can really help people live better lives if they would only use the product.
That’s why I wrote the book because I know there’s so many people out there like I was that struggled … how to build a habit-forming product that can help people build healthy habits in their lives.
Well, there’s a whole lot of good stuff there. We had BJ Fogg on the show not too long ago. It’s just a fascinating topic to dig into, habits and how they get formed and the influences associated with them.
Maybe could you just sort of dig into some of the components here in terms of when it comes to your book Hooked and the Hook model? What are some of the building blocks that we can use in forming habits, both in the stuff we’re making as well as just our lives and how we’re influencing our fellow colleagues at work?
Yeah, absolutely. My first book is called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. It was really tailored to people – to business people, to people who are building products and services.
My next book actually that’s coming out early 2019 is called Indistractable. It’s about how to manage these distractions. How to make sure we do what we say we’re going to do? Why is it that we get so distracted when we say we’re going to do one thing and then invariably we end up doing something else?
You sit down at your desk. You’ve got a big deadline looming and instead of working on that project for some reason you’re checking email 30 minutes later for no good reason. My study and research into habits has kind of taken me to both sides of the equation.
But let’s start with Hooked because I think it sounds like most of your listeners are professionals looking to find ways to keep customers engaged. We know that it’s much more cost efficient, much higher ROI to keep an existing customer engaged versus having to spend all of that money to acquire a new customer.
That’s really where my sweet spot is. When customers ask me – I’m sorry, when clients ask me how do I keep people coming back, the answer is you have to build a hook.
That if you look at every habit-forming technology out there, whether that product – the best in the business, the people who keep us checking our phones, companies like Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and WhatsApp, and Slack, and Snapchat, every single one of them has what’s called a hook.
The hook is the basis of my book. It’s this four-step experience that users pass through when they interact with a product. I can walk you through those four steps here in a 30,000 foot view of it at least. There’s a lot more detail in the book, but I’ll give you kind of the overview.
Hook has four basic steps. Every hook starts with a trigger to an action to a reward and finally an investment. I know many of your listeners have heard of BJ Fogg or Charles Duhigg. There’s lots of perspectives there, but … is really designed not for personal habits. This is for product habits. When it comes to a product, you have to have these four basic steps. I’ll walk through them very quickly.
The first thing that you have to do is that you have to define your internal trigger. That’s the first step of the hook. Now an internal trigger is an uncomfortable emotional state. I know for many of your listeners, they say, “Whoa, whoa, wait. This is supposed to be about product design and building great customer experience. What does it have to do with emotions and icky sticky stuff like that?”
The fact is people buy and do everything they do for one reason only. That one reason is to modulate their mood. If you don’t understand that basic psychological fact, then you’re missing something.
Everything you do – it’s called the homeostatic response. When you feel too cold, you put on a jacket. When you feel hot, you take it off. When you feel hunger pangs, you eat. When you feel stuffed, you stop eating. Those are all physiological sensations that make us do something.
The same exact formula exists when it comes to psychological discomfort. When we’re feeling lonely, we check Facebook. When we’re feeling uncertain, we Google. When we’re feeling bored, we check YouTube or the news or sports scores.
You have got to identify, whether your product is something that needs … a habit or not, your first step is to figure out what’s the psychological itch that you are going to satiate for your customers. That’s the internal trigger. You have to know what that is if you want people to do anything.
That’s intriguing. This itch, it could be big or small in terms of “I’m worried that I’ll be alone the rest of my life and I’ll never find someone,” or “I’m kind of bored right now.”
Then that whole spectrum. I’m curious do have any sort of insights or research when it comes to which of the – what are kind of the categories of itches and are some kind of way more potent as human motivators than others?
There’s a lot of techniques that we can use to find that internal trigger. The criteria here is if you’re building the kind of product that requires repeat use – and we should probably talk just for a second about why should I even care about habits. Why do habits affect my bottom line?
Some of the biggest reasons that habits are so important is that they are a huge competitive barrier that it’s very hard for the competition to swoop in and take your customer away once your user, once your customer has formed a habit with your product.
If you think about people who don’t need a habit, let’s take insurance. Insurance will never be a habit-forming product. It just doesn’t occur with sufficient frequency to ever form a habit. The problem with a product like that – there’s nothing with a business model that doesn’t require a habit, it’s just that your competition can come in very easily and undercut you based on price or some feature.
For example, Geico comes around and says, “15 minutes saves you 15% on car insurance.” Well what happens when somebody else says, “Oh you know what? 12 minutes saves you … percent on car insurance.” Just the next feature or the next discount and boom, your customers have abandoned you.
If you don’t form this habit, if you don’t pass customers through that hook, you are at the mercy of these other factors.
If you think about that compared to Google, for example. If I polled your listeners right now, I’m guessing probably 90 to 99% have searched with Google in the past 24 hours and maybe a couple percent have searched with Bing, the number two search engine. Is that because Bing is worse? No.
It actually turns out … studies, when people can’t tell the branding, when they strip out the branding, people can’t tell the difference between the search results. But the fact is we don’t stop and ask ourselves, “Hm, I wonder which the best search engine would be?” No, we just Google it with little or no conscious thought, purely out of habit. That’s all it is. It’s just a habit.
That’s what’s so amazing about these habits is that it turns out once you have a habit, it’s not the best product that wins. Do you hear me right? I’m telling you it’s not the best product. It’s the product that can create the monopoly of the mind, the thing that we turn to with little or no conscious thought.
We wouldn’t even know if Bing was any better because we don’t even give them a chance because we have formed a habit with some other solution. That’s why habits are so, so powerful.
Back to the topic at hand here around these internal triggers, around figuring out what those internal triggers are. The key word here is frequency. When we’re trying to figure out what are our customers internal triggers, we want to figure out what sparks this itch, what’s this need to modulate some kind of mood that occurs with sufficient frequency.
It turns out the research tells us that if we don’t get the user to do the key habit within a week’s time or less, it’s almost impossible to change their habit. There are some exceptions, but the behavior really has to occur within a week’s time or less.
We can talk about what happens if your product isn’t used with sufficient frequency, for example, what if you are selling insurance, how can you build a customer habit. We can talk about that, some ways that you can actually bolt on a frequently occurring habit onto a product that’s not bought frequently.
But what I tend to see, specifically with companies out there that are selling something, like a one-time solution or … product, we are so focused on getting people to check out that we totally neglect finding ways to get them to check in. That’s a big mistake.
This is the future of commerce is finding ways to keep people engaged with us as opposed to relying on these one … transactions that cost us a fortune to acquire these companies and then we lose them to the completion next time.
Understood, thank you. So now, let’s talk about the action.
Sure, the action phase is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward, so the simplest thing that I can do to get relief from the psychological itch.
For example, let’s take Facebook, a lot people think that Facebook is a very habit forming-product. If you are using Facebook because you’re feeling lonely or seeking connection, that would be the internal trigger. The app is simply open the app and scroll a feed.
As soon as you’re scrolling that feed, what happens to your boredom, what happens to your seeking connection? … a little bit. You’ve got that satiation … emotional discomfort occurring just through that simple action.
If you can be the kind of company that figures out even what seems to be trivial little actions, too much thinking, too many steps, too much confusion, any little step that you can remove from the process is going to make the likelihood of the behavior more likely.
I call it the intoxicated test, that you want to build the kind of product and service that is so easy to use that your customer or your user could use it even if they were drunk. That’s how simple your product needs to be, particularly when it comes to digital products.
We want to make sure that’s as easy as possible to get relief from that psychological itch.
Very good. Thank you. Then next up, reward.
The next step of the hook is the variable reward. The variable reward phase comes from the work of BF Skinner who was the father of operant conditioning back in the 1940’s and 50’s. He did these very famous experiments, where he … pigeons, put them in a little box … a disk …. Every time the pigeon pecked at the disk he would give them a little reward, a little food pellet.
What Skinner observed was that he could train the pigeons to peck at the disk as long as they were hungry, as long as they had the internal trigger, they would peck at the desk whenever they had this internal …. Great, called operant conditioning.
But then Skinner started to run out of these food pellets. He literally didn’t have enough of them. He couldn’t afford to … a food pellet every time; he started to give them just once in a while. Sometimes the pigeon would peck at the disk and they wouldn’t receive a reward. The next time they would … at the disk, they would get a reward.
What Skinner observed was that the rate of response, the number of times these pigeons pecked at the disk increased when the reward was given on a variable schedule of reinforcement. We see the exact same psychology at work on all sorts of …, wherever there is mystery, wherever there is uncertainty, wherever there’s a bit of the unknown, we find this to be incredibly engaging and incredibly habit forming.
Best examples online if you think about scrolling the feed on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, everything has a feed these days, that’s a form of variable reward. If you think about looking at a deck for some kind of enterprise software and seeking your sales numbers go up or go down, that’s a variable reward that keeps you coming back.
If you think about in the media a story is interesting when you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Everybody wants today’s news, not yesterday’s news. What makes for a good book, a good movie, any of these experiences have to have this variability, this bit of uncertainty. We have to build that into the product. It has to scratch the users’ itch. It has to give them what they came for.
This isn’t just cheesy gamification. This is actually addressing customer’s needs, but leaving this bit of uncertainty, a bit of mystery around what they might find the … time they engage with their product or service.
Got you, so you’re actually better off instead of delivering just tremendous delight every time, kind of at least checking the box to scratch the itch but sometimes just doing it in spades, like with Facebook newsfeed, “Oh my gosh, that person is engaged now. Wow!” whereas, “Okay Trump did something else,” in terms of how satisfying I find that reading of the newsfeed that day.
Right. We want to make sure that it’s actually rewarding, it actually gives people what they want.
What we’re finding now with Facebook for example, is that when the algorithm got out of whack, when people started saying, “Oh, this is a bunch of crap I’m not interested in,” they stopped using it because it wasn’t addressing the users’ itch. But they moved somewhere else. They didn’t just stop. They just changed their habits. Some people did, not everybody. But they’re changing their habits.
Now we’re seeing the tremendous rise of Instagram. Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars. There was a Wall Street bank that just tried to assess what the value of Instagram would be today if it wasn’t part of Facebook, it would be worth over 100 billion dollars. Even though everybody laughed at Zuckerberg when he bought Instagram, this stupid little app.
Zuckerberg really gets habit. He knows that if he doesn’t own his customer habit, somebody else is going to capture that habit. It’s very important that he keeps it. People are starting to migrate over to Instagram because it’s giving them more of what they want.
The internal trigger for using Facebook used to be connecting with friends, loneliness. Then Instagram turns out to be a better solution to solve that problem, but it uses the same exact hook.
Which brings us by the way to the fourth step. It’s probably the most overlooked. What’s very different I think from my model from other models is this investment phase. The investment phase is something that the user does … some kind of future reward, some kind of future benefit. It’s not about immediate gratification. It’s an act that the user does for a future benefit.
For example, every time a user gives a company data or content or follows people or accrues a reputation, all of these things make the product better with use. Now why is this so revolutionary?
You think about the history of manufacturing, it used to be that customizing a product was very difficult and very expensive. Henry Ford is quoted as saying that you can get the Model T in any color as long as it’s black. The reason he said that is because it’s hard to customize stuff, especially physical stuff.
But if you think about it, what’s so amazing about these products, specifically things that are connected via the internet, and today everything is connected in some form, is that we can actually improve the product with use.
Everything in the physical world, everything we have made out of atoms, your clothing, your furniture, everything that you use, loses value, it depreciates with wear and tear. But these habit forming technologies, if you think about it, what’s so amazing about them is that they appreciate with use. They get better and better the more we interact with them.
They do that because of this investment phase. If you are not improving the product every time the user interacts with it, you are missing a huge opportunity.
Now, the way this all fits together into this infinite loop is that every time I invest in the product, what I’m doing is also loading the next trigger.
We’ll stick with Facebook just because we’ve been talking about this example. Every time I like something, comment, post, friend, I’m loading the next trigger. I’m giving the company the opportunity to have a reason to send me an external trigger once again prompting me through the hook once again, so a notification, a ping, a ding, a ring, something that tells me, “Hey, come back. Something that you did has some kind of follow up action to it. You should come back and see.”
You post a photo. There’s an external trigger that sends you a notification that says “Come check out what your friend said about your photo.” The action is to open. The variable reward is the uncertainty of what they said. The investment now is you write back, you like, you comment, continuing the hook again, and again, and again until we’re all habituated.
Understood. Okay. That’s sort of how it all works together. I’d like to look at the opposing side of this. How does one become indistractable in the midst of these brilliant people with huge budgets creating this super hooking stuff?
Yeah. Sometimes when people hear this it sounds icky. It sounds unethical. It sounds manipulative. It can be used for manipulation. Anytime that we are using these techniques to get people to do things that we want them to do for our commercial interest, sorry, that’s a form of manipulation.
Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Manipulation has a negative connotation, but it doesn’t necessarily have to because there’s two types of manipulation. There’s persuasion and there’s coercion. Persuasion is helping people do things they want to do. Coercion is getting them to do things they don’t want to do. Not only is coercion unethical, it’s bad for business.
If we get people to do something they don’t want to do, they complain about it. They regret it. They tell their friends. It’s a terrible business plan. We don’t want to use these techniques for coercion. …. People exercise more, to save money, to get more sales, to use software that helps them use better lives, to use our service that would help them if they would the product.
That’s the disclaimer here as a product maker is to use these techniques to help people do things that they want to do but for lack of good product design, don’t do.
I’m intrigued a little. I think some folks would say, “I wish I could be on Facebook less and yet I find myself going there again and again.”
Perfect. That’s a perfect lead in to my next book called Indistractable, which will be available on Audible starting in Spring of 2019. When it comes to answering this question of how do I use Facebook less, the answer is not to wait for Facebook to make a product that you don’t want to use. Okay?
So many people today, the tide’s turned against technology. I’m not saying that these guys are not innocent. There’s lots of things these companies do that I don’t like. If you think about monopoly status, if you think about their use of data, lots of things I’m not happy with these tech companies.
However, this one particular question around how do I use the product less, why are they making products that I want to use all the time, don’t hold your breath. If you hold your breath and you wait for them to make a product that is less good, you’re going to suffocate. That doesn’t make any sense, right? They’re not going to make a product that is worse, that you don’t want to use as much.
In fact, if you think social media is habit forming, just wait until we all start using virtual reality and all the other stuff that’s going to come down the pipe in the next few years. This is going to look like nothing. We’ve got to build the skill of becoming indistractable. We haven’t been taught how to cope with all of this distraction, all of these things – the cost of living in a world with so many good things.
Right now we are talking thousands of miles apart from each other on a free service that technology has made possible. If you would have told me as a kid that this would be possible, I would say “Nah, that’s science fiction. No way are we going to have all this stuff,” video calling and classes for free, and the word’s information at your fingertips. It’s amazing.
But the cost is that we have to learn these skills to cope with managing our attention. How do we become indistractable? Well, it’s a great question. It intrigued me for five years. Since I published Hooked this is all I’ve been thinking about. I tried all kinds of techniques. What I ended up with was another four-part model. I have a thing for four-part models.
The first thing to realize is that distraction starts from within, that time management is pain management. We talked about earlier when it comes to building habit-forming products about how important it is to attach your product or service to an internal trigger.
On the flip side, as a user, this means if you are doing something that you don’t want to do – if that’s the definition of distraction is something I didn’t intend to do and I did anyway – you have got to understand that distraction starts from within.
The icky sticky uncomfortable truth that a lot of us don’t want to face because it’s so much easier to blame Facebook or the sugar industry and the baker who makes the cookies and Coca Cola for making sweet beverages and all of our problems we can blame on somebody else, the icky sticky truth is that we don’t like to face is that these internal triggers start from within.
It’s like I’m bored, and that’s why I went to Facebook.
That’s right. If you can’t stand hanging around your kids because they’re driving you crazy and so you’re checking Facebook to escape from them, that ain’t Facebook’s fault. If you sit down at your desk and you check email/Slack because you can’t stand to work on that really hard boring project right now, that’s not Slack’s fault. We have got to figure out what’s going on inside us and fix the problem or learn to cope.
Now some of this problem comes from the workplace. I was giving a talk and I asked this question to kind of prove this point. I said, “Look, here’s how we know it’s not the technology’s fault because if you won the lottery tomorrow, you have 40 million dollars in your bank account. You never have to work for money another day in your life. Do you still check your work email account? Do you still check those Slack panels at 11 o’clock at night?”
This one woman stood up in the front row one time and she said, “Yeah, I’m going to use my email one more time to send everybody a message that says ‘Screw you suckers!’” I think that’s about right. It’s not the technology. It’s if anything our addiction to work.
So many of these internal triggers come from the workplace. And in large part, and I talk about this a lot in the book, they come from sick work cultures, cultures that cultivate and create these negative emotional states that we seek to escape with our devices.
The first step, we can go a lot into the culture and how we change the culture of a company, but the first step, big picture, is to find those internal triggers, learn to cope with them, and to help our organizations become healthier environments that don’t create so many of these internal triggers that we seek to escape. That’s the first step.
Okay, let’s get the overview, then maybe I’ll dig in.
Okay, I’ll do the overview real quick. The first step is to manage our internal triggers. The next step is to make time for traction.
The idea here is that so many people complain about distraction, but when I ask them what did the news or Facebook or your boss or your kids distract you from? What were you so distracted from today? They take out their calendars and I look at the calendars of most people and they’re blank. There’s nothing on their calendar.
The fact is you cannot call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from, which means we need to get into the practice of scheduling out every minute of our day. It’s okay to schedule time to do nothing. I want you to schedule time to do nothing. I want you to schedule time to think.
But if you don’t schedule your day, somebody else will, your kids, your boss, your significant other, Facebook, Donald Trump, somebody’s going to eat up that time unless you decide what you’re going to do with it. That’s making more traction.
The third step is to eliminate, to hack back those external triggers. We know that two thirds of people who own a smart phone never adjust their notification settings.
Oh my gosh, wow.
Right? Crazy. How can we start to complain that technology is addictive and it’s hijacking our brains and it’s irresistible if we haven’t taken ten minutes to turn off these goddamn external triggers … don’t serve us?
To be clear, they’re not all bad. If an external trigger helps you wake up in the morning or reminds you to go exercise, that’s great. It’s leaning towards traction. But if it’s not, if it’s making you do something you … want to do, it’s leading towards distraction. We have to turn it off.
Oh yeah. I am just – that is a shocking statistic to me because whenever I get a new app, I get a notification from that app. I’m like, “No, no, no OfferUp.”
“I wanted you to notify me if someone wanted to buy the thing I put up. I did not want you to notify me if one of my random friends is now using OfferUp. I don’t care. This needs to go.”
I guess I’m pretty merciless on that. I’m stunned to hear that two-thirds are like, “Okay, whatever. Sure you can interrupt me in any way at any time about anything.”
Yeah. Crazy, right? I don’t think we have a right to complain about technology being too addictive until we start to take these simple steps. That’s why I’m not worried. I love teaching people how to hook others to form healthy habits. I also think it’s on us to make sure that we don’t get unhealthily hooked. That it’s our job as consumers to take these very simple steps to put technology in its place.
Frankly, I should say actually, I misspoke there, all distraction. Because look, if you haven’t dealt with those internal triggers, it’s not going to be just Facebook, it’s going to be the television set. If it’s not that, it’s going to be radio or it’s going to be magazines or it’s going to be trashy novels. It’s always going to be something unless if we figure out how to deal with distraction at large.
Okay, got it.
Oh, and there’s one more step I forgot to tell you about. The last step, you know how we talked about traction is actions you take that you want to do, distraction is the opposite. The opposite of traction is distraction. Distractions are all the things that we do that we don’t want to do.
The last of the four steps that we can take is to help us make traction – sorry, distraction less likely. We do that through pacts, all kinds of ways.
This comes from Ulysses in the Odyssey. Ulysses is sailing his ship past the island of the sirens. They sing this magical song that any man who hears wants to crash his ship onto the island of the sirens and dies there, so Ulysses comes up with this idea.
He says, “I want you to tie me to the mast of the ship and no matter what I do and what I say, don’t let me go,” because he knows he doesn’t want to get distracted. He doesn’t want to do something that he knows he doesn’t want to do. It works and he sails his ship right past this … and he didn’t become distracted.
We can use the exact same techniques ourselves. It turns out that there are literally thousands of free apps and Chrome extensions and tools that we can use to build these pacts in our life.
For example, whenever I want to do focused work, I use this little app. It’s free. It’s called Forest. I type in how much time I want to do focused work for and in that period of time if I pick up my phone and do anything with it, there’s this little virtual tree … die.
Okay, stupid little virtual tree. Who cares about this virtual tree, right? But it’s enough of a reminder, “Oh, you took a pact with yourself not to look at your phone.”
Another thing I like to do is I find a focus friend. Many times when I do writing and writing is really hard work, it doesn’t come naturally for me, I’m very frequently tempted to get distracted, Google something or check email. I write with a buddy. I have somebody, a focus friend, who I get together with and we write together. You can do this in the office too. Find a colleague.
Then the final thing I’ll mention, and by the way, in the book I mention literally dozens of different things you can do. Another thing I do, I use this website that I liked so much I actually became an investor in it. It’s called FocusMate.com. FocusMate.com, all it does is you pick a time when you want to do focused work and then you’re connected with somebody else, somewhere in the world for that period of time.
In that time you log in, you see them on your – it’s a video feed. They see you. You say, “Hello. How are you doing? Go.” Then you start working. It’s amazing how just seeing that person holds us accountable. It’s a pact that we make with that other person to only do focused work during that period of time.
In short, these four techniques of managing internal triggers, making traction more likely, hacking external triggers and then finally, making distraction less likely, if you do these four things, you will manage distraction. You will become indisractable.
That’s powerful and so cool. I’ve heard of a number of these tools, but Focusmate, wow, that’s another one. How does the person know if you’re looking at your email?
They don’t. By the way this is one of dozens and dozens and dozens of different things we can do. The idea isn’t oh, this is the solution for everyone. The idea is to use these techniques, to try them on for size. Some work for a while, then you have to find a different solution. Some work for some people and don’t work for others. The idea is it’s a process.
Becoming indistractable is like personal growth, you’re never done. There will always be potential distractions, but by identifying where your problem is, “Oh, it’s the internal triggers,” or “Oh man, it’s these external triggers,” or “I haven’t made time for traction,” or “I need to make distraction more difficult”—By understanding where the problem is we can do something about it.
… I think every other book I’ve ever read on this topic is like this ten things you can do. It’s not organized. It’s not clear in people’s brains where these different techniques fall into place. Then of course it becomes very difficult to utilize them.
All right. Now I want to go deep into the root of things at the start when it comes to just acknowledging your internal itches there. I think that one fundamental one is I’m just actually not okay with being bored for more than one minute.
I think that’s pretty common because it’s sort of like – I’m thinking about the train right now in Chicago, the L. Often 100% of people in a train car will be on their phones I’m looking at. Maybe they’re doing fantastically wonderful things, that it’s rewarding and fulfilling and satisfying for them, but my hunch is it’s not. That some of them are just killing the time and they could be putting their mental energies into something that serves them better.
How do you grapple with that one? I’m not comfortable being bored anymore because I’m used to being constantly entertained.
Yeah, well the first step is to ask if it’s really a problem. If you take the train every day and during that time – there’s this myth that people can’t multitask. I know you’ve heard that a lot, right? That we can’t multitask, we can’t multitask. That’s not really true. We can multitask.
… what we can do is utilize different channels. We can’t utilize the same channels. I can’t ask you to solve two math problems at the same time. I can’t ask you to watch two television shows at the same time. I can’t ask you to watch – to listen to a podcast in each ear. But we can certainly multitask different channels.
Actually, this utilizes a technique we call temptation bundling, where we can take something we enjoy, something we like as a reward and use it to help us build a habit, to incentivize a behavior that we may not really enjoy.
For example, … I never liked working out. I just didn’t like going to the gym. What I used was this technique that has been well researched now. I actually listened to my podcast as my reward for going to the gym. That’s the only time I listen to podcasts.
I’m using different channels. I’m exercising with the physical channel and I’m listening with auditory channel. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.
If part of your commute to work involves enriching yourself with listening to an audiobook or a great podcast, that’s fantastic as long as it is intentional. If you’ve planned ahead – for example, for me, every night from 7:30 to 9:30, that’s my social media time. That’s time I literally have on my schedule for checking Facebook, and Reddit, and YouTube, and all the stuff that I want to check online, but it’s only for that time.
I’ve taken what otherwise would be a distraction at any other time of the day and I’ve turned it into traction because it’s done with intent. I’ve planned ahead and it’s on my calendar that that’s when I’ll do it.
Got you. If folks do find they’re in a place where it’s like “I’m going on Facebook,” “I’m going on YouTube instead of paying attention to my child or talking with my friend who’s in front of me at a restaurant or something.” Once you notice “Hey, I got this itch that I seem to have this need to scratch compulsively and I wish I didn’t.” What do you do?
What do you do? Let me give you a few techniques, okay? The first thing that we try and do is to actually fix the problem. If the problem is something that we can solve, if it’s a deeper issue, if it’s caused by a difficult life situation, a toxic work culture, these are things that we need to actually fix in our lives or they’re going to just keep coming up again and again and again.
It’s finding the things that we can fix and then learning to cope with the things that we cannot fix. I’m not naïve enough to say that everyone can just leave their job or fix everything in life. There are pains in life. Life involves some degree of suffering.
The problem is that we expect our technology or a pill or a bottle to make everything pain free, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we become dependent when we haven’t learned how to cope with pain. Time management is pain management. We have to learn that. Here are a few quick techniques that we can use. Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
One technique that we can use that psychologists tell us is incredibly effective is to name the internal trigger.
If we can name the source of the discomfort and look at it as an outsider would, meaning you’re working on a big project, it starts to get kind of boring and you start reaching for your phone, you literally start saying to yourself, “Oh, there my hand goes reaching for my phone because I’m feeling what? This project is difficult. It’s hard.” We start literally talking to ourselves like a third party will talk to us, like a good friend might talk to us.
Then what we want to do is to use a technique called surfing the urge, kind of like a surfer on a surfboard, where we allow some time for this negative – this uncomfortable sensation to wash over us.
I use a technique called the ten minute rule, where I will just give myself ten minutes when I catch myself about to get distracted or even in the middle of the distraction I say, “Okay, what am I feeling right now? I am going to give into this temptation. I am going to do this distraction, but in ten minutes.” I literally set a timer. I tell myself “It’s fine. I can give into that distraction. No problem. In ten minutes.”
Then all I have to do is in that ten minutes just do this exercise, just surf the urge, get curious about that sensation, be with that discomfort. Don’t do what I used to do which is tell myself, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me. I must be a loser.” I beat myself up. I was so mean to myself. Instead, it’s normal. It’s something that happens to every person. It’s happened for every human being that ever lived.
This is how we get stronger is that when our body tells us oh, this is something difficult that you’re trying to grow into … totally normal response to have these negative emotional states. To just stick with it for ten minutes and almost always what you’ll find is that sensation subsides. That’s how we develop our ability to manage pain, which is how we manage our ability to manage time.
This is why every other technique out there hasn’t worked for people because we have all these productivity tips, but fundamentally even if you use these productivity tips, if you sit down at your desk, and we’ve all felt this – you have a to-do, you know what to do exactly, but then it’s hard and I don’t want to right now and it feels bad. If we don’t cope with that, if we don’t learn these techniques to overcome that discomfort, we’re never going to be our best.
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, Nir, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
No, that’s – we covered a lot. You asked some fantastic questions. If anybody wants more information, my website is NirAndFar.com. That’s N-I-R, spelled like my first name, Nir and Far. Not near like the real word, but like my name, NirAndFar.com. Yeah, I hope you come to the website. I’ve got some resources there. Again, the book will be out early 2019.
Awesome, thanks. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Yeah, so one of my favorite quotes, it’s actually a part of the mantras that I repeat to myself every day. It’s a quote from William James, the father of modern psychology. He said “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” I think that’s a really important life lesson that the art of being wise the art of knowing what to overlook.
Awesome. How about a favorite book?
There’s a lot. This is always such a tough question for me because so many of my friends are authors. I always get in trouble.
I’ll say one of my latest favorite books is a book actually about addiction, which I think is the best book I’ve read about what addiction really is. I think most people don’t understand what addiction really is about. They call everything addiction. But there’s a book by Stanton Peele called Recover. Recover and Peele is spelled P-E-E-L-E, Stanton Peele. I really, really enjoyed that book. I thought it was fantastic.
Thank you. How about a favorite tool?
A favorite tool. I mentioned a few of them. One of the tools I don’t think I mentioned, maybe I did, it’s called Time Guard. Did I mention Time Guard?
I don’t think so.
Okay, so Time Guard is a terrific tool. It’s not my favorite app. It’s free. Here’s how Time Guard works. Remember we talked about pacts and how you can see these pacts with yourself, kind of like Ulysses did? The way Time Guard works is it will block out certain apps and websites on your phone when you don’t want access to them.
Remember how I told you how I allowed myself social media time between 7:30 and 9:30 and I turned a distraction into traction? Well, Time Guard, if I slip up and I accidently open up Instagram, Time Guard doesn’t let me use it. It turns off the connection to that specific app or YouTube or whatever you want it to whenever I try and use it during the off hours.
It was really great at breaking that bad habit. Now it doesn’t happen as often because I’ve learned that it doesn’t work during those times, but Time Guard is a great tool for breaking that habit.
Of all these habits you’ve formed and broken, what’s one of your favorite habits?
Wow, there’s so many habits. It’s hard to decide. I think one of the habits that’s really served me well – and a lot of people don’t know that there’s a slight nuance between a routine and a habit, so it might be worth clarifying.
A habit is behavior done with little or no conscious thought. A routine is just a behavior frequently repeated. When people say reading is a habit or running is a habit or working out is a habit, it’s not really a habit unless you do it with little or no conscious thought. I can’t call any of those things, even though they’re helpful things, habits. I would call them routines.
But I think one of the healthiest habits I have is changing my food habits. We know that health and fitness is not made in the gym, it’s really made in the kitchen. Over years and years of changing my diet, I’ve started to create this habit of preferring healthier food. I think that’s really – I hope … we’ll see how long I live. I hope I don’t jinx it by saying this. But hopefully it will become a habit that serves me well in years to come.
Excellent. Is there a particular nugget you share that seems to be frequently cited and quoted back to you?
I think – I don’t know if I can make this a nugget size, but I’ll try my best. The message I really want to leave folks with is that we can do this, that when people think about distraction that the current narrative is that it’s someone else’s fault. It’s the big tech companies that are hijacking our brains. That’s just not true.
In fact, believing it is dangerous because what this does – we know that – there’s been several studies now that show that the number one determinant of whether someone can reach their long-term goals is their belief in their own power to do that goal. This is incredibly important.
If you believe that your brain is being hijacked, if you believe that you’re powerless, you make it so. That’s the message I really want to leave folks with is that we have the power to manage distractions. We have the power to become indistractable.
All right. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Sure. This has to do I think with the workplace because so many of our internal triggers come from toxic work cultures. My challenge – and I know this isn’t easy and it’s not something that everybody can do and that’s why it fell into this challenge category.
I want you to observe your workplace culture around responsiveness to technology. I want you to see if you might be able to at least spark a conversation around why your company is as responsive as it is. If you have a great tech culture, that’s terrific.
The reason I think this is such an important challenge is what we find is when companies start looking at this problem of tech overuse, what we find time after time is that tech overuse in the workplace is a symptom of a larger dysfunction, that if your company can’t talk about this problem of tech overuse, there’s all kinds of other skeletons in the closet you can’t talk about.
What companies are finding is is that when they open the dialogue, when they create a work environment with psychological safety where people feel safe talking about this problem, which by the way, nobody likes. Even hard charging bosses don’t like checking their email at 11 o’clock at night. Nobody likes this problem.
The idea, the challenge here is see if you can spark a conversation with a colleague about the responsiveness through technology in your work environment and if there’s some things you can start doing to potentially change that culture. I’ve got some resources on my website as well that can help you with that and reach out if there’s any questions.
Awesome. Nir, thank you so much for this. This was a real treat. I wish you tons of luck with the upcoming book and all you’re up to.
Thank you so much. This was really fun.