He wrote a book about how to build habit-forming products that will get you hooked, and now he’s back to help you take control of your time and get sh*t done.
My guest today is Nir Eyal, the author of the best selling book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” and “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.”, and investor in startups such as Eventbrite, Product Hunt, and Anchor.fm
In today’s episode, Nir will share actionable steps to brush off distractions and how you can take control of your life by turning your values into time.
listen to this episode
- Why Nir wrote his first book Hooked
- The triggers of a habit-forming product
- The reasons why Nir wrote his new book Indistractable
- The point in his life where Nir realized that he needed to write Indistractable
- The very first step you can take to be Indistractable
- Why you should need to make time for “traction” in the context of forming habits
- The actionable tactics that you can do right now to be Indistractable
- Why “running out of willpower” is a myth
- How you can align your habits with your value
- How keeping a pact with yourself can push you to be productive
Louis: Bonjour, bonjour, and welcome to another episode of everyonehatesmarketers.com, the no-fluff actionable marketing podcast for marketers, marketing consultants, founders, and techies who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.
Louis: In today’s episode, you’ll learn how to control your time and attention and get the best out of technology. My guest today is a former Stanford lecturer and behavioral designer who spent more than 10 years researching the psychology behind habit-forming products. The result of all of this work is the book Hooked. You’ve probably heard of it. You probably have read it as well. Well, guess what? He’s back with his second book today, Indistractable, which is if you’re listening to this episode right now on the day of the release, it’s being published today. So, on the 10th of September. And it’s all about getting the best out of technology without letting it get the best of you.
Louis: So, you might have guessed who I’m talking to today, Nir Eyal, welcome aboard.
Nir: Thank you so much. Great to be here, Louis.
Louis: So, before talking about this new book and this new research and this new method you’ve put in place, let’s talk just a bit about Hooked again, so that folks who haven’t necessarily read it or listened to it understand what this first book was all about. What was those four steps towards having a product that hooks people?
Nir: Yeah, so the idea behind Hooked was how do we build the kind of product that people engage with because they want to, not because they feel like they have to? So, the big problem I try and solve with Hooked is that so many entrepreneurs out there are making a product or service that would really benefit people if they would only use it. And so, what I wanted to do with Hooked was to study the world’s most habit-forming products, the most engaging products in the world, products like Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and Instagram and WhatsApp. And the idea was what if we could take the psychology of what makes those products so engaging and use it everywhere, right? If we could use it in enterprise software, you know, the boring stuff you have to use at work that nobody wants to use.
Nir: What if we could use it to help people exercise more or eat healthier or save money? And that’s exactly what’s happened in the five years since I’ve published the book, that’s exactly what’s happened, people have used these techniques for good. And so, that’s really the idea, because remember, the reason I was so excited to come on this show is because you can buy growth. You can send out a bunch of spammy ads and hope people will respond to them. But one thing you can’t buy for that you have to build into the product is engagement. You can buy growth, you cannot buy engagement. You have to build for engagement.
Nir: And so, what I wanted to do is to help people build the kind of products and services that don’t rely on spending a ton of money on advertising or sending people spammy annoying messages, the kind of products that people really want to use on their own, habitually. And so, that’s really the backbone of hooked.
Louis: And the method behind the book is in kind of four steps, right? So, you have the trigger, the action, the reward, and investment. Can you just-
Nir: Very good. Wow. I’m impressed.
Louis: I just took notes, man. I’m just reading my notes. Listen, nothing smart about me.
Nir: You don’t have a tattoo on your arm or something?
Louis: No, it’s in my chest, on my chest.
Nir: Okay, right.
Louis: So, let’s describe just briefly those four steps, right? So that folks listening can understand again. So, what is the trigger again?
Nir: Sure, so a trigger is a call to action. It’s something that tells you what to do next with little or no conscious thought. So, there are two types of triggers. We have external triggers and we have internal triggers. External triggers is something in our environment. It’s a ping, a ding, a ring, something that tells you what to do next with some piece of information. An internal trigger, however, and this is actually the ultimate goal of a habit forming product is to form an association with these internal triggers.
Nir: An internal trigger is something that prompts us to action from within, right? And so, it’s those uncomfortable emotional states, it turns out all human behavior is motivated by a desire to escape discomfort. And so, when it comes to building habit forming products, what we have to do is to understand what is that emotional itch? What’s the psychological discomfort that our customers are trying to escape from? And that’s what we design our product or service to relieve that problem, to relieve that pain point.
Nir: So, that’s the internal trigger and the external trigger, the first step of the hook.
Louis: So, then you have the second step, you take action, right? You do something that’s kind of the key place to understand, right?
Nir: Exactly. So, the action is where the habit itself is manifested. This is where the user does the behavior that becomes a habit. So, the requirement to building a habit forming product is that the action is the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. So, a scroll on Pinterest, a search on Google, pushing the play button on YouTube. These incredibly simple behaviors done in anticipation of an immediate reward.
Nir: And so, that’s a key principle, you know? One thing we’ve known in consumer psychology for decades now is that the easier something is to do, the more likely people are to do it. So, for that key action phase of the hook, the phase where people take that key habit, we want to make that behavior as easy as possible to do. And so, in the book, I describe how do we do that? How do we build these kinds of products that get people to provide relief to their discomfort as quickly as possible.
Louis: Yeah, good ideas. I can see that you’ve talked about this book and this method for the last five years almost every day.
Nir: It’s been a little bit, yeah. Yeah.
Louis: It’s going to get more interesting in the next few minutes, trust me. So, once you do this, once you search on Google, once you click this play button, then you have this valuable reward coming in. So, what is that about?
Nir: Right, so the reward is not just any old reward. It’s not just about giving people what they want. It’s also about having this bit of mystery, this element of uncertainty around what they might find the next time they engage with the product. And so, this is called a variable reward or intermittent reinforcement. So, this comes from the classic work of B.F. Skinner. He did these very famous experiments where he took a pigeon, put them in a little box, and he gave them a disk to peck at.
Nir: And what he found was that the rate of response, the number of times that the pigeon would peck at this disk increased when the reward was given on some kind of variable schedule of reinforcement. So, sometimes the pigeon would peck at the disk, no reward, no food pellet. The next time the pigeon would peck at the disk, they would receive a reward. And so, what we find is in all sorts of products that consumers find most engaging, most interesting, the kind of things that people form habits around, you always find some element of mystery, uncertainty.
Nir: And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, right? You know, there are applications in gambling, of course. Slot machines are classic examples of variable rewards mechanics. But we also see it in what makes a movie fun to watch, a book interesting to read. It’s what makes romance romantic, right? It’s all about variability. And so, when we think about products like YouTube and Twitter and Slack and Instagram and WhatsApp, all of these products fundamentally have some form of variability where the product maker is either inserting variability, or the product operates in a condition that’s already variable.
Nir: Like, for example, think about Salesforce, right? Salesforce is CRM software. But there’s variability around, “What should I do next today? Who should I call? What should I say? What does my customer need?” There’s variability around what to do every day, what’s changed. And so, that variable reward mechanic we see in all sorts of products that are habit forming.
Louis: And finally, the investment.
Nir: The investment phase, so this is probably the most overlooked of the four steps of the hook model. The investment phase is where the user puts something into the product in anticipation of some kind of future reward, okay? So, this can be in the form of data, content, followers, reputation, skill acquisition. Any of these things that make the product better and better with use. The ultimate goal is to use this principle that I call stored value.
Nir: So, a product that can appreciate in value, that’s the goal of a habit forming product. If you think about everything in the physical world, right? Your clothes, your table, your chair, everything in the physical world, things that are made out of atoms as opposed to made out of bits, all of these things depreciate with use. But habit forming products do the opposite, they should get better and better the more the product is used. And it comes in the form of this investment the user is making into the product to make it better and better with use.
Nir: And by the way, it also loads the next trigger. So, this is why the hook model is a loop because every time I do something in the product, for example, put information into Salesforce, send a message on Slack, like something on Facebook, save something, add a contact, any time I make those forms of investment, I’m loading the next trigger because I’m likely to get a reply or some piece of information that brings me back in the form of an external trigger that prompts me through the hook once again in the future. That’s the hook model.
Louis: Perfect summary of the model. You’ve clearly worked a lot on this. So, thanks so much for sharing all of that. So, now let’s make it even more interesting using your own model for this book. I have my theory of why you’ve decided to write this next book. I’m not going to tell it until you tell me. So, what was the trigger for you to write this next book? Be honest with me. What was the true reason why you decided to write Indistractable?
Nir: Who should go first? I’m so curious to hear your reason of why you think I wrote this book.
Louis: All right, let me tell you I think you wrote this book.
Louis: I think you felt a bit guilty, you know? You might have felt a bit guilty about … I mean, that’s my cynical mind playing, right? So, that’s my mind playing right there. You might have felt a bit guilty about this model being used by the wrong people or the wrong hands for the wrong products, right? In terms of actually this is very addictive, right?
Louis: Facebook is notorious to use this model, not necessarily explicitly using it, but at least using some sort of behavioral psychology to engineer a product that is clearly addictive for people and makes their life quite miserable for some of them. And I wonder if you had thought of that and said, “You know what? It’s all good to build a habit forming product when the product is good. But some people might suffer from those habits that are actually not that good for them.” You mentioned gambling. And maybe you thought about, “Let’s give them some tools to fight that.” And that’s my theory.
Nir: Well, look, it’s a really good thing when people can say, “Wow, this author’s work is so good, it works so well,” right? If the biggest criticism that someone can label against me is that the model works too well, then I’ll take it, right?
Nir: Unfortunately, I’ve never been paid by Facebook or Google or any of these companies. I don’t work for these companies. These companies are examples in the book. I wish I would have founded some of these companies, but I didn’t. I use these companies as exemplars so that these methods are not kept and locked up in these organizations, right? Why is it that only the social media networks and the gaming companies know these techniques? Why can’t we use them for all businesses, right?
Nir: Why can’t every business be as engaging as Facebook or a video game? I think that would be terrific, because remember, the real problem out there is not that a few products suck us in, not in the way that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and these products suck us in. The real problem is that far too many products suck, right?
Nir: I have never had anyone attend my workshops or call me up or say, “I’ve used your book and now everyone’s getting addicted.” The problem is not that for most businesses, right? How many people right now, be honest with me, how many people out there listening to this are saying, “I’m not sure if I should use Nir’s technique because people might overuse my product and become addicted.” The fact is that I actually talk about in the book in a chapter called The Morality of Manipulation where I talk about the ethics of applying these techniques.
Nir: And the book is not titled “How To Build Addictive Products”, the book is titled “How To Build Habit Forming Products”. And in fact, the French edition, you might have seen this, the French edition of my book was published with the wrong word. They actually published it with the word addiction. And I told them to burn all those. They had to take them off the market and bring it back with a different title because I do not want people to think that they are addicting folks because there’s a very different definition between an addiction and a habit.
Nir: An addiction is a persistent compulsive dependency that harms the user. A habit is simply a behavior done with little or no conscious thought. And so, the idea is how do we build healthy habits with our technologies? Now, your answer is partially right because I thought when I … After I wrote Hooked … So, Hooked is just coming up on its fifth year anniversary. And I remember a few years after I wrote Hooked, I had this moment where I had kind of a life defining moment.
Nir: I was sitting with my daughter and we had an afternoon together. And we had this book of activities that daddies and daughters could do together. And one of the activities was to ask each other this question, “If you could have any superpower, what superpower would you want?” And I remember asking the question, but I don’t remember my daughter’s response because when she was answering, I was busy looking at my phone and I wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying.
Nir: And the next thing I knew, I looked up and she had left the room. She got the hint, she got the message that my phone was more important than she was. And so, that’s when I realized, “Oh my god, I understand the deeper psychology behind how these products are built. And here I am getting hooked myself.” So, I thought, “Well, okay, you know what I should do? In order to fix my own problem, I’m going to write Unhooked. I’m going to write a book, Unhooked, about how …” You know, kind of like you said, I let the Pandora’s box out and it actually is all technology’s fault and now we’re going to fix it.
Nir: But the more research I did … So, you can actually see because we’re talking on video right now, you can actually see all these books behind me. Half these books are about this problem of tech addiction, tech overuse, distraction. And what all of them said is pretty much the same thing, “Stop using the technology. Technology’s bad for you. It’s melting your brain.” That’s basically, go on a digital detox, a 30-day plan. They all say the same thing.
Nir: And I tried it. I swear, I tried it. I got a flip phone that had no apps. All it did was send phone calls and text messages. I got this 1990s processor back here that I used to type on that has no internet connection. And I thought, “Well, okay. Well, if the technology’s the problem, I’ll just get rid of the technology and I’ll solve the distraction problem.” And guess what? It didn’t fricking work.
Nir: And the reason it didn’t fricking work is because of the same exact reason why when I used to diet … So, when I was clinically obese, I was clinically obese at one point in my life. And I would go on these fad diets because food is the problem. Food is the enemy, the big bad corporations are making me fat. And I would go on these food binges. I would say, “Okay, 30 days no junk food.” But then, of course, guess what happened on day 31, right? I would eat like crazy. I’d make up for the lost time.
Nir: And so, these solutions didn’t stick around because I hadn’t gotten to the bottom of why I was overeating. I didn’t get to the emotional bit, the psychology of distraction. So, what started out as kind of an anti-tech book, right? This mia culpa of, “Oh my god, look what this technology is doing to me,” actually turned out to be a book about the psychology of distraction. And one of the first things I learned was that distraction is not a new problem, that distraction has been around forever, that Socrates and Aristotle talked about the nature of akrasia, this tendency that we have to do things against our better interests.
Nir: They talked about this 2,500 years ago. So, distraction has always been with us. And guess what? It’s part of being a human being. It’s part of being an adult in an age with so many interesting things, right? We can watch sports matches and newspapers and social media and all this stuff happening that is entertaining, that’s interesting. But it also means that even though this stuff isn’t our fault, we didn’t invent these technologies, dealing with it, I have concluded, is our responsibility. And more so in this day and age, if you don’t have the tools, if you don’t know how to be Indistractable, no doubt about it, these companies are going to get you.
Nir: Not only that, they’re going to get you, they’re going to get your business colleagues, they’re going to get your kids. They are going to form habits with you unless you know how to put these technologies in their place. So, what I wanted to do is to say, “Look, we can use these techniques for good.” So, I didn’t write Unhooked because I didn’t want to negate anything that I wrote in Hooked. I believe in every single thing I wrote in Hooked.
Nir: I actually just finished editing the five-year edition and not much has changed. I added to it, but nothing needs to come out because those techniques can still be used to help people form healthy habits in their lives, right? Saving money, exercising, making enterprise software more engaging. So, those things still stand. The reason I called it Indistractable, the reason that I called this new book Indistractable is because this is the skill of the century.
Nir: If you were to ask me what superpower I would want today to answer my daughter’s question, I would want the power to be Indistractable, which means … The definition of becoming indistractable, it’s a made up word. It means the power to do what you say you’re going to do. It means striving to have personal integrity, striving to do what you say you were going to do. And imagine the power that you would have if everything you said you would do, you actually followed through on, right? Like, we say we’re going to go to the gym, we don’t. We say we’re going to eat healthy, we don’t. We say we’re going to work on a big project today at work, we get distracted with emails or Slack or whatever.
Nir: So, that’s the big question behind this book. Why don’t we do what we say we’re going to do? And how can we become indistractable?
Louis: So, for the record, I was half right, 50% right, just so that I can feel good about myself. More seriously though, thanks so much for going through all of this. This is a very good answer to a cheeky question made for you to react.
Nir: I love it.
Louis: But yeah, I didn’t know you were morbidly obese, I didn’t know you struggled with all of that. Kudos for sharing it as well, thank you. So, now, I think you’ve perfectly nailed the explanation of the problem we’re trying to solve in this episode. And now it’s about how do we actually do that? I think people listening are eager to know what is this four-step method that you’ve come up with? So, without further ado, let’s do it. Like, we’ve done explaining the hook model again at the start of this episode, let’s dive into the details of this method, which to be clear with listeners as well, I do not know about. So, I am as curious as people listening right now. So, what is the very first step of this method?
Nir: Yeah, so you’re going to hear some overlap between Hooked and Indistractable because again, I think it takes someone who is on the inside, right? It takes an industry insider to understand the poison and also provides the remedy. And so, it turns out that a lot of what we have to do in terms of breaking these bad habits is about unwinding these hooks, breaking these hooks that don’t serve us.
Nir: And so, I’m not an advocate for spending more time with Facebook or Google or whatever might be a distraction. If it’s not serving you in your life, it’s time to do something about it. And not just the technology distractions, right? Let’s remember, at least in America, the average American watches five hours of television a night. And so, I’m not one of these people who say that some distractions are more morally superior than other distractions. I don’t know why watching a football game on TV is somehow morally superior than playing Candy Crush. It’s the same thing.
Nir: The difference is what are you doing with intent? What are you doing because you want to do? Versus what are you doing because the app maker or the television network or the soccer league or your boss or even your kids want you to do something that you didn’t plan to do? That’s the real idea here. I’m not going to tell you what to do, my goal is to help you do whatever it is you yourself want to do in life. That’s the goal.
Nir: And so, let’s start out with this four-part model. The first step, and the most important step, is to master our internal triggers. So, we talked about those internal triggers earlier, let me talk about this a little bit more. You know, many of us believe this myth that motivation is driven by what’s called Freud’s pleasure principle. Freud’s pleasure principle says that all human behavior is motivated by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Not true.
Nir: Turns out, all human desire, all human motivation stems from a desire to escape discomfort. All of it. It’s pain. It’s pain all the way down, even the pursuit of what we think is pleasurable, desire itself is an uncomfortable psychological state, wanting, craving. There’s a reason we say love hurts, right? Because it’s wanting itself is uncomfortable. This is called the homeostatic response. In the body we know this is true because when we feel hot … Sorry, let me start with cold. When we feel cold, we put on a jacket. When we feel hot, we take it off. When we feel hungry, we eat. When we’re stuffed, that doesn’t feel good, we stop eating.
Nir: So, our physiological sensations stimulate us to do something in the world. Now, the same can be said about psychological sensations. Great examples of this, when we feel lonely, we check Facebook. When we are uncertain, we Google. When we’re bored, we check YouTube or Reddit or the news or whatever. All of our behavior is stimulated from a desire to escape discomfort, which means if all of our behavior is stimulated by a desire to escape discomfort, then time management is pain management.
Nir: So, all of the fancy pancy techniques, all of the getting things done and all of the time management stuff out there isn’t worth a lick if you haven’t figured out the emotions driving you to do things you didn’t want to do. That’s the secret of conquering akrasia, this 2,500-year-old mystery that Socrates and Plato talked about. It’s about understanding why we feel these things.
Nir: So, that’s the first step is mastering these internal triggers. And there’s only really two answers for what to do about these uncomfortable emotional states, either we can fix the source of the problem or we learn to cope with it. So, this book is not about meditation, that’s not what this book is about. Not that that technique doesn’t work. It didn’t work for me particularly well. And I know not many people will say that these days. But I’m going to go … You know, it’s become like the third rail you can’t talk about and nobody can say bad things about meditation.
Nir: I’m not saying meditation is bad. I’m just saying I tried it for a year, didn’t do it for me. I was looking for something else, okay? So, my book is not about meditation. It’s not about mindfulness. It’s about these productive techniques that we can use to either deal with the problem or learn to cope with the problem.
Nir: And so, there’s this whole series of techniques that we can use. The book is … There’s this strategy level understanding of the methodology. But also, I give a lot of these very tactical approaches. So, okay, that’s the first step is master these internal triggers so they don’t master you. The next step is to make time for traction, make time for traction.
Nir: Now, traction. What’s the definition of traction? Traction is any action that we take that moves us towards what we want in life, right? These are things that we do with intent. Now, again, there’s a great quote that says, “The time you plan to waste is not wasted time.” So, if you plan to play video games, if you plan to check Facebook, if you plan to be on YouTube, whatever it is, if that’s what you plan to do, go for it.
Nir: The problem is that very few of us actually plan our days. So, here’s the irony. I don’t want to hear that you think that the world is distracting and that Facebook is the enemy and is hijacking your brain. That’s a bunch of bullshit because if you haven’t planned your day, you don’t know what distraction even is. You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from, which means we need to plan out our days.
Nir: Only a third of people ever schedule their calendars. And I think that’s probably one of the best things you can do to stop getting distracted is to plan a template for what your ideal day looks for. So, I’ll give you a link to a calendar template that you can use in your show notes. I built this free tool, doesn’t cost you anything, where you can actually make this template for yourself to budget out your time.
Nir: Now, you may slip off schedule. That’s fine, it’s going to happen. The idea here is that you’re going to get better and better at not getting distracted, at doing more traction. But you can’t do that unless you know the difference between traction and what’s the opposite of traction? Distraction. Traction and distraction. Distraction is any action you take that moves you away from what you really want to do.
Nir: So, that’s the second step is make time for traction. And so, this really involves living out our values, having our values on our calendars, turning our values into time. Okay. So, that’s the second step.
Nir: The third step is to hack back the external triggers. So, I talked about in the hook model these external triggers, the pings, the dings, the rings. All of these things that prompt you to do something, to do some kind of action. Now, they’re not all bad, right? Many external triggers move us towards traction, right? If an external trigger tells you, “Hey, it’s time for that meeting,” or, “Hey, it’s time to spend time with your kid,” or, “Hey, it’s time to go to the gym,” and that’s what you plan to do, well, that’s moving you towards traction.
Nir: But if an external trigger moves you away from what you plan to do, well, then it’s moving you towards distraction. So, it’s time that we hack back these external triggers. And I give a long list, there’s several chapters about how to hack back the external triggers in meetings, how to hack back external triggers in the office, how to hack back external triggers on your desktop, on your phone. There’s many, many techniques that we can use to hack back these external triggers that don’t serve us.
Nir: This is they key question we have to ask, “Is this external trigger serving me? Or am I serving it?” And we have to remove the ones that we are serving that are not serving us.
Nir: And finally, the last step is called preventing distraction with pacts. And so, this step involves taking what’s called a pre-commitment, taking some kind of action where we commit in advance to what we will do when we potentially get distracted. And so, this involves either using some kind of technology, ironically enough, using technology to block out distracting technology. It involves taking price pacts, which is when we have some kind of price that we have to pay when we get potentially distracted.
Nir: So, for example, for me, quick story. Every day when I wake up and I go get dressed in my closet, I have a calendar in there that has a $100 bill taped to today’s date. Now, every day I have a choice to make. This is called, by the way, the burn or burn technique. Burn or burn technique. I have a choice to make. I can either burn the $100 bill or … I have a lighter literally right there by my calendar that I can set the $100 bill on fire. Or I can go to the gym and burn some calories.
Nir: So, I’ve entered into a price pact with myself to say if I don’t do the thing I want to do, if I potentially want to give into the distraction and say, “I’m too tired today. I’m not going to go to the gym,” I have to burn that $100 bill. So, this is called the price pact. There’s many, many other price pacts that we can take.
Nir: And then, the last thing we can do is to create an identity pact where we can actually begin to shape our own identity and the way we see ourselves so that we can do what we say we’re going to do. And this technique came out of my experience being a vegetarian. I was a vegetarian for five years. I no longer am. But when I was a vegetarian, not eating meat wasn’t hard, right? Think about a religious Muslim, they’re not asking themselves, “Should I have a beer or not?” Right? No, they don’t. They don’t drink alcohol, it’s part of being a Muslim.
Nir: A religious Jew who says, “I don’t eat pork,” they’re not debating with themselves. A vegan, a vegetarian, they’re not debating with themselves. It’s part of their identity. And so, we can actually create our own identity out of becoming indistractable. That’s why I called this book Indistractable because I want to create a moniker, a name that we can call ourselves and say, “Why do I do these weird behaviors? Why do I protect my time? Why do I make sure I have time to do the things I want to do? Oh, I’m indistractable.”
Nir: And so, those are the four steps. We master these internal triggers, we make time for traction, we hack back external triggers, and we prevent distraction with pacts.
Louis: Really good summary again. You’ve … Yeah, I’m quite speechless because it’s quite good to listen to you, hear everything you have to say. There isn’t much I can add to it. I let you speak and it’s all good for an hour. No, it’s going to become more difficult in the next few minutes.
Louis: So, you shared a few examples. The last one about the identity reminds me of Seth Godin and in his book, the last one about This Is Marketing where he says that people like us do things like this, right? So, people who are indistractable don’t be distracted, don’t get distracted, basically.
Louis: So, let’s go back to the four steps because I took notes. So, you have the internal trigger, mastering those internal triggers, then you have the traction, planning for traction, hacking back the external triggers, and then preventing distraction, right?
Louis: So, here’s the challenge for the two of us in the next few minutes, let’s try to pitch one or two tactics, not strategies, but tactics that people can take away right now listening to these episodes for each of those steps, yeah?
Nir: Sure. So, let’s up it a little bit more even. I want to work with you.
Nir: Do you have any distractions in your life that you want to tackle?
Louis: So, are we talking about step one here? Those internal triggers, mastering those internal triggers. No?
Nir: Not necessarily.
Nir: Let’s start with what the distraction is in your life? What keeps you from doing what you say you want to do?
Louis: It’s a tough one because I feel I’m very much in control of what I want to do, and then the reason why we’re talking today is because exactly of this, right? So, my goal is to build a podcast that is listened and that people get value from. I also have a full-time job that is quite fulfilling. I want to spend time with my wife. I feel like I have time for all of that because a lot of things that you mentioned throughout those steps, I’m doing, you know?
Louis: External triggers, I have almost none. I have accountability partners or people that can tell me what to do if I’m not doing it. So, there’s a lot … I don’t know if I’m the best person to mention that. But let’s say for the sake of it-
Nir: No, pick a real one. Is there any area where you … I don’t know, think about for yourself. So, there’s three domains, three life domains I describe in the book: things you do for yourself, so this is do you you get enough sleep? Do you have proper nutrition? Do you exercise? Do you make time for reading? Do you … Whatever it is. And again, I’m not saying you should do these things. I’m saying these are things that typically fall in that domain.
Nir: And then above that, you have the relationships domain. Do you make time for your responsibilities to others, your family members, your significant other, your friends? Do you make time for them to live out your values with them? And then, finally work is the third domain. Do you make sure you do everything it is that you want to do professionally?
Louis: Let’s pick the reading bit because actually that’s quite true that I’m not reading enough and I wish I could read more, take more time to read, like you’ve done behind you, all those books.
Nir: My library of credibility here. Yeah, okay. So, let’s say reading. So, the problem is you plan to read, but you don’t … you get distracted while you’re reading.
Louis: Yeah. I mean, I never get to it, really.
Nir: You never get to it. Okay, perfect, so let’s take this one. Perfect. So, the first step is the internal trigger. So, how do you master those internal triggers? So, if you find yourself sitting down with a book and you’re bored, you’re thinking about work, you’re anxious, you’re stressed. So, what we would do here is to understand either how we fix the source of the problem, or we figure out how to cope with that discomfort. So, those are the only two things we can do with an internal trigger.
Nir: To fix the source of the problem, we might do things like, hey, why don’t you read more entertaining books, right? And this is partially the fault of us authors. Many, many books are just so boring people don’t get through them. I try and write my books Hooked and Indistractable in a very fast paced way so that I can compete with other potential ways people can spend their time and so that they are entertaining so that you don’t feel the internal trigger of boredom. So, that’s one technique is stop reading boring books so that you don’t feel that discomfort in the first place.
Nir: The other thing you can do when it comes to mastering the internal trigger is to reimagine it, right? How could you see the internal trigger differently? So, there’s this myth that a lot of people believe out there called the ego depletion. Now, that’s a fancy name for it because that’s what the psychologists call it. But a lot of people believe what is essentially this idea that we run out of willpower, right?
Nir: This idea that, “Hey, I had a long day.” This is what used to happen to me all the time. I’d come home from work after a long day and I’d say, “You know what? I deserve a break.” And I’d end up on the couch watching Netflix with a pint of ice cream day after day because I deserved it. I was spent. Turns out there’s actually some research that showed that this was a real phenomenon, that our willpower was a reserve that we emptied, okay? That we ran out of like a gas tank.
Nir: Except for the fact that now in the past couple of years, psychologists have tried to replicate these studies and found that it doesn’t exist. It’s not true, unless there’s one circumstance, one group of people who do show ego depletion, which are people who believe that ego depletion really exists. Those are the only people. So, part of it is reimagining our temperament, right? Understanding that these self limiting beliefs like, “Oh, I have a short attention span or an addictive personality,” or, “I’m spent and I have no more willpower left,” these are falsehoods.
Nir: Now, you may have an actual pathology, right? A little footnote here. Maybe you do really have ADD or whatever. But chances are, you don’t. So, we have to stop telling us these myths that are not helpful, particularly when it comes to this technology debate. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but a lot of people are saying, “Oh, technology’s addictive and it’s hijacking your brain.” It’s bullshit. It’s not true. It can addict some people, right? Just like alcohol is very addictive. But we’re not all alcoholics. Many of us have a glass of wine and we’re not alcoholics. We have sex, we’re not all sex addicts. And technology’s the exact same way that it’s not so simple to say that technology is addicting us.
Nir: And in fact, when you say that, you are actually making it true because you are teaching yourself what’s called learned helplessness. You’re teaching yourself, “Well, there’s nothing I can do. It’s addictive. It’s got me.” And so, it actually helps these companies keep you hooked when you believe this stuff. So, we have to reimagine the trigger, we have to reimagine the temperament. We also have to reimagine the task itself so that when you feel, “This is boring getting through this book,” you’re telling yourself a different narrative. And I tell you how to do this. I instruct you how to do this narrative around seeing it as a challenge, seeing it as something different, that you’re making progress. And there’s a lot of details in the book about exactly how to do all this. So, that’s the…
Louis: So, the one thing that resonated the most with me is really when I have a long day, I would work full-time, I will interview guests in the evening, you know, I still love it, still energizes me a lot. But then I go home and I’m like, “Fuck, I’m spent. Can’t do anything.” And exactly what you described, right? Watching Netflix, chilling because I deserved it. So, the step here, if I want to read more books in the evening is to actually say, “Listen, this is not true. You’re not spent necessarily. You may be tired or whatever, but actually, you have as much willpower as you had early in the morning.” It’s all about just reimagining that, making sure that, no, you can actually do more stuff in the evening, it’s just in your head, right?
Nir: Right. So, it turns out … But we all feel this, right? How do you explain then that we feel spent? What is that phenomenon? It turns out that it’s not that we are spent and we shouldn’t tell ourselves we’re spent. It turns out, Michael Inzlicht has this great research where he posits that that feeling is actually not the fact that we are depleted, but rather it is an emotion, that willpower is an emotion, not a gas tank.
Nir: And so, what this means is, just as it’s ridiculous to say, “I was so happy until I ran out of happiness, now I can’t be happy anymore,” that’s stupid. Or, “I was really upset, but now I ran out of being upset.” That doesn’t make any sense. The same goes for willpower, that willpower is an emotion that comes and goes. And so, I teach you techniques in the book about how to do that, how to ride out an uncomfortable emotional state so that we can get to the other side and let that emotion pass over us, just like we would any other emotion.
Louis: So, give me one example of one technique, maybe a small one that people can take away around this on this state or emotion.
Nir: Absolutely. So, this is a technique I use almost every day. It’s called the 10-minute rule. The 10-minute rule says that whenever I encounter a temptation that I want to give into, whether it’s, “I have this … I need to write, but writing’s really, really hard, so I’m just going to Google something or check email real quick,” or, “I’m just going to eat that piece of cake,” or, “I’m just going to turn on Netflix for just a quick minute. I can give into anything I want in 10 minutes, in 10 minutes.
Nir: And this rule allows you to do what’s called surfing the urge. This comes from acceptance and commitment therapy. Surfing the urge is when we simply … We don’t say we’re bad, we don’t say that we’re broken, that we’re messed up or that the technology’s addicting us. We don’t … There’s two categories of people, the blamers or the shamers. The blamers say, “It’s all the technology doing it to me,” right? “It’s their fault.” The shamers say, “I’m broken. There’s something wrong with me.” They shame themselves. And the fact is, neither of those are correct.
Nir: The answer is that these are behaviors, these are actions. And actions can change. So, we can use something like the 10-minute rule, like surfing the urge, to just give us a little bit of space to allow that sensation to wash over us, to surf the urge, as opposed to fighting it back. And that allows that sensation to then pass. And then we can deal with it in a more healthy fashion.
Louis: So you actually gave yourself 10 minutes to experience the emotion you are feeling right now, yeah?
Nir: Exactly. Exactly. And there’s other techniques like leaves on a string technique. There’s a lot of other techniques that we can use in that moment when we feel this uncomfortable sensation to cope with it in a healthier manner.
Louis: It’s really a good one, thanks for sharing it because I want to cover the other three steps.
Louis: So, the next one is to plan your traction, right?
Nir: Make time for traction, exactly.
Louis: With intent.
Louis: So, with the example of reading more books, now that I recognize actually being spent is an emotion and willpower is an emotion rather than a state, now what is the next step?
Nir: So, if you said … Okay, I would ask you, “Is reading a book part of your values?” Right? So, ask yourself … because this is … What I don’t want people to do is to say, “Well, this action is something I should be doing.” Who says? Right? You have to decide for yourself based on your values what’s important. But let’s say you say, “You know what? Learning is one of my values. I want to …” What’s the definition of a value? A value is a trait of the person you want to become, a trait of the person you want to become.
Nir: And so, if you say to yourself … And it’s something you never achieve. You never say, “I have achieved this value.” You’re constantly striving for that value to live out that value. The problem is we talk a good game, but we don’t actually turn our values into time. So, if you say to me, “You know what? Learning, continuously learning is one of my values, a trait of the person I want to become,” then I would say, “Turn that value into time.” Where on your calendar does it say you have time to read a book? Because if it ain’t on your calendar, it ain’t going to happen. This is called the myth of the to-do list.
Nir: We’ve all seen this, right? You have a million things on your to-do list, and we’re all taught the way to get things done is to put things on your to-do list. Doesn’t work, or at least not by itself. So, I have a to-do list. But along with everything that’s on my to-do list is a time in my calendar to do it. So, a to-do list on its own is only half the problem, or half the solution, I should say, to the problem.
Nir: The other half of the solution is to actually put time on your calendar. So, what I would do is to say, “Where on your calendar do you have time to read a book?” Is it 15 minutes first thing in the morning? Is it 30 minutes right before bed? It has to be on your calendar or it ain’t going to happen. And then what we have to do is to reassess that calendar every week to say, “Okay, did we adjust it accordingly to make sure we have time to live out our values?”
Louis: I like this method because I used to be quite, I would say unproductive a few years ago. And I used to say a lot of things without doing them. And I used to have long to-do lists exactly as you mentioned without a proper calender. Now what I have is I have blocks of time that I have in my calendar related to a specific portion of a to-do list. So, with experience now, I know that today I have let’s say 10 items I want to go through. I can feel that the top three need to be done, and I have this first block of time to do it. I know that the time it’s going to take me, I know I will do these three for this block of time. And that really changed a lot of the way I view to-do lists and how to get shit done. So, I’m happy you mentioned that.
Louis: And this is kind of the summary of the step two, isn’t it? It’s like as simple as putting to-do’s in your calendar. Like, making time, consciously planning in your calendar for to do the shit you’re saying to yourself or even to others to do, right?
Nir: Right, exactly. So, it’s easier with an example that you give of, “Part of living my values includes reading every day.” That’s easy because it only involves yourself. What becomes a little bit more tricky and where there’s a more advanced technique is what happens when you owe time to others? For me, it was I owe time to my daughter, I owe time to my wife. And particularly with things I didn’t really know I was skimping out on, right?
Nir: So, there’s a lot of studies that show that women in heterosexual relationships where both people work outside the home, women still take on more burdens of household admin than men. And I didn’t want to admit this was true. I’m telling you, it was very true. And I’m embarrassed to admit this. And so, it wasn’t until I sat down and said, “Oh my god. My wife is doing so much.” And the reason I was neglecting these opportunities is not that I didn’t want to help, I didn’t know what to do.
Nir: And so, I had to sit down and say, “Okay, what are all the things you do? What are all the things I do?” And if one of my values is to have an equitable marriage, right? If I believe that when two people get married that they should share responsibilities equally … Now, maybe that’s not your value, but it happens to be mine. I’m not saying I should impose my values on others, just happens to be my value. Well, then that means that if we want to share work equally, those tasks need to be on my calendar and we need to sync our schedules together. We need to synchronize.
Nir: And so, this also applies in the workplace. It’s ridiculous to me that so many of us work in places where work is just pushed at us. “Here. Here’s all the things you need to do.” But we don’t think about the one constraint that we do have control over is our time. So, I teach people in the book this technique of syncing with stakeholders, sitting down with people and saying, “Okay, here’s my schedule,” either in a daily standup or a weekly meeting, “Here’s how I plan to spend my time. Is this correct? Are we aligned here in terms of how I should spend my time for you?” If it’s an employer, or together if it’s a relationship that we’re in.
Louis: So, it’s an audio podcast, but I’m nodding like an idiot for the last five minutes because yeah, everything that you said is also what I’ve learned through a lot of mistakes and challenges, syncing priorities in my personal life as well is very, very similar story with my wife having the exact same discussion where I told her after a long debate and heated conversation with her that I need to plan things ahead. I needed to do lists, I need to know what I should do in this house, like the shopping, the cooking, I need to plan that out, or else I’m not going to do it, not because I don’t want to help, not because it’s not part of my value, but because I just simply can’t do it unless it’s written somewhere. And now we’re in a much better place because of it.
Louis: Professionally, very similar story as well. I’ve learned to share, and that’s an advice I would give to listeners as well. I’ve learned to share my priorities with stakeholders almost every week saying, “This is my top three. Do you think it’s in line with your expectations or not? This is what I’m planning to spend time with.” So, again works really well.
Nir: Yeah. And you know, many of these techniques, you will have seen some of these techniques before. The idea is that some of these techniques have really good research behind them. For example, setting an implementation intention is one of the most well-researched effective time management techniques. And so, I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel here. What I wanted to do is to give a framework as a way to think about it with these four basic steps so that no matter what distraction we come upon, we know how to run it through this four-part model, master internal triggers, make time for traction, hack back external triggers, and prevent distraction with pacts, so that we can become better at managing each of these distractions to make sure they don’t distract us.
Louis: Yeah, so it’s really kind of you summarized a lot of research, you made sense for anyone to really understand and action, which is great. So, step there, hack back external triggers. Again, going back to the reading, what should I do?
Nir: Yeah, so this is an easy one, actually. So, I would ask what are the external triggers in your life that even after you’ve learned to deal with the internal triggers, even after you’ve made time for that value on your calendar, what are the external triggers that could prevent you from reading? Okay?
Nir: So, maybe it’s you read and your cell phone goes off and there’s something happening on Facebook or your email account. Maybe your spouse keeps asking for something when you just planned to sit down and read. Maybe your kids interrupt you. Whatever it might be, you’ve got to hack back those external triggers to remove those external triggers from your life for that time that you’ve dedicated to do whatever it is you wanted to do.
Louis: One thing that I’ve started to do and I’ve done successfully in the last two years was to delete all social media apps from my phone, all emails and all of that. So, I don’t have a lot of communication. The only one that I’m allowing myself to keep is Reddit because I just need to read memes every day like I have to. So, that’s one. So, Reddit is the only one.
Nir: And there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, I would tell you, if you don’t want to get distracted about reading memes all day, there’s nothing wrong with reading memes on Reddit.
Louis: Don’t feel bad about it.
Nir: What I would encourage you to do is to make time for that.
Louis: Yeah, yeah.
Nir: Put it on your calendar. Like, literally put it on your calendar because then what you’re doing is you’re turning something that is a potential distraction into traction. That’s exactly what you plan to do with your time and there’s nothing wrong with it.
Louis: Yeah, it gives me a lot of inspiration, you know? Reading those memes every day.
Louis: So yeah, Reddit. And then I don’t have any notifications. So, there’s no push notification on my phone, none on my desktop or anything like this. So, I don’t feel like I have a lot of external triggers that I can’t control. But then, yeah, my wife wants to talk to me in the evening obviously. So, it’s all about making sure that we understand, okay, from 8:00 PM to like 8:30 PM, I just want to read a book. I’m just going to be in the room, just read it and then I’ll be back and I’ll make dinner or something like that, right? So, that makes sense.
Louis: That sounds like the easiest to deal with, right?
Nir: For some people. For some people, removing those external triggers … Well, two thirds of people never change their notification settings. Did you hear that? Two thirds of people don’t … What?
Louis: That’s the first thing I do.
Nir: How can you not change your notification settings? That’s crazy. So, that’s a very simple step we can take. I actually show you how you can do it on your phone in less than an hour, and you will save many, many, many multiples of hours with not getting distracted.
Nir: And then the fourth step, so how can you prevent distraction with pacts around this potential distraction and wanting to get more time reading? In this case, I would ask you to set some kind of rule for yourself, some kind of pact, a pre-commitment that ensures that you read when you want to read. So, there’s three ways you can do that, an effort pact, a price pact, or an identity pact.
Nir: One thing that you could do that I found to be particularly helpful is using these effort pacts, some kind of promise that you make to yourself that commits you to doing what it is you want to do. And when you think you’re not going to do it, you keep yourself in, right? And how do you do that?
Nir: So, we’ve all been told that you can’t multitask, right? Everybody says you can’t multitask. No multitasking. Not exactly true. Turns out, you can multitask, but only for certain tasks. It’s called what I call multi-channel multitasking, because what the brain can’t do, the brain can’t absorb multiple sensory inputs on one channel. So, for example, if you put a podcast in one ear and a podcast in the other ear, you can’t listen to two podcasts at once because they’re both using the auditory channel.
Nir: However, you can do something physical while you listen to a podcast, for example. Why? You’re multitasking, aren’t you? Because those are on two different channels, the physical and the auditory channel. So, what you can do is to use what’s called temptation bundling. You can use the reward of something you enjoy to help you do something you don’t so much enjoy.
Nir: So, for example, let’s say you love going to the gym. Well, you can use as the reward for listening to an audio book, for example. Maybe you don’t have to read a book, you could listen to a book. I do it all the time. It’s wonderful. I listen to podcasts all the time. Why not listen to audio books as well? You can use that as the reward to either go to the gym or make the gym the reward for listening to an audio book for example. And you make a promise to yourself, “Hey, every time I’m in the gym, I listen to an audio book.” Or, “Every time I listen to the audio book, I’m in the gym,” depending on which one you like better, right? What’s the reward versus what’s the behavior you’re trying to incentivize?
Nir: And that rule will help solidify this identity of, “This is what I always do. I’m indistractable. I’m the kind of person who strives to do what I say I will do.”
Louis: Nir, thanks so much for going through all of this with me today, your method in details, giving so many research, some data points, not only your point of view, but what actually is true from a scientific standpoint, which is one of my values obviously to trust science, which is a big thing at the minute.
Louis: Thanks so much. Where can people find your book, Indistractable, where can they buy it?
Nir: Yeah. So, Indistractable is available wherever books are sold. The subtitle, in case you’re searching for it, is Indistractable: How To Control Your Attention And Choose Your Life. You can go onto nirandfar.com is my blog. Nir is spelled like my first name, N-I-R. Nirandfar.com. And you can find the book as well with many links for international buyers as well as folks in the U.S. at indistractable.com.
Louis: Nir, once again, thank you so much.
Nir: My pleasure. This was great. Thank you.