If you struggle with feeling distracted, you likely think that modern technology is to blame, and that if your phone wasn’t so infuriatingly desirable to check, you’d be a lot more focused and productive.
But my guest today argues that the problem of distraction doesn’t lie with technology, but with you. His name is Nir Eyal, and he’s a behavioral design expert and the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Today on the show we first discuss Nir’s work in helping companies create apps that hook people into using them, and why he thinks these methods of attraction can be positive as long as you put tech in its place. We then dig into how to do that, beginning with the idea that you can’t complain about being distracted, if you don’t know what you’re distracted from, how the first step in getting control of your attention is understanding what you’d like to be doing with it by planning out your time, and why the opposite of distraction isn’t focus. We discuss why time management is pain management, and why we need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable internal triggers that prompt us to use our devices for emotional pacification. Nir then walks us through how to deal with the external triggers of distraction, including managing your email inbox, making pre-commitments, and turning indistractability into part of your identity.
- Why Nir wrote Hooked, which is all about capturing people’s attention
- How uncertainty keeps us scrolling and scrolling
- Parents, their phones, and kids
- Why blaming the technology isn’t very productive (and what the root cause of distraction really is)
- What does the word “distraction” really mean?
- Internal triggers vs external triggers when it comes to being attached to your phone and apps
- How tech has become a modern bogeyman
- The power of setting implementation intentions
- Why strict abstinence doesn’t always work
- Time boxing and schedule syncing
- How to hack back our attention
- The real reason email takes up so much of your attention and time
- Other actions to take when your internal triggers are pulling you to distraction
- Blaming, shaming, and why neither are good for you
- What are pre-commitments? How can they help us beat distraction?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Hooked (Nir’s first book)
- What Makes Your Phone So Addictive
- Bible App
- Skinner box
- Feel Busy and Distracted? Here’s How to Take Control
- Becoming a Digital Minimalist
- How to Beat Distraction and Stay Focused
- Americans Panic Over Tech Addiction
- The Power of Implementations Intentions
- Podcast #214: How to Have a Good Day, Every Day
- Nir’s schedule maker tool
- How to Avoid Distraction in a World Full of It
- Stop Confusing Habits for Routines
- How and Why to Hold a Weekly Marriage Meeting
Connect With Nir
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. If you struggle with feeling distracted, you likely think that modern technology is to blame, and that if your phone wasn’t so infuriatingly desirable to check, you’d be a lot more focused and productive.
My guest today argues that the problem of distraction doesn’t lie with technology, but with you. His name is Nir Eyal, and he’s a behavioral design expert and the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Today on the show we first discuss Nir’s work in helping companies create apps that hook people into using them, and why he thinks those methods of attraction can be positive, as long as you put tech in its place. We then dig in to how to do that; beginning with the idea that you can’t complain about being distracted if you don’t know what you’re distracted from. How the first step in getting control of your attention is understanding what you’d like to be doing with it, by planning out your time, and why the opposite of distraction isn’t focus. We discuss why time management is pain management, why we need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable internal triggers that prompt us to use our devices for emotional pacification. Nir then walks us through how to deal with the external triggers of distraction; including managing your email inbox, making precommitments, and turning indistractability into part of your identity.
After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/indistractable. Nir joins me now via clearcast.io. All right Nir Eyal, welcome to the show.
Nir Eyal: Thanks so much Brett. Great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you’ve got a book out called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. I know people feeling like they’re not in control of their attention is a big problem that a lot of people have. But before we get to this book, let’s talk about the book you published before this, because they’re connected in a way. That first book you published was Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. This was done a few years ago. I remember reading it; it was really good as well. It’s about how companies, or it was used by companies, to create apps and websites that hook people into using them. What was the big idea that you were trying to highlight in that book?
Nir Eyal: So with Hooked it was really… This was published five years ago. So the idea was really about how do we democratize these techniques that have been used by the gaming companies, by the social networks, to make all sorts of products more habit-forming and engaging. The reason I wrote the book… The book didn’t benefit the social networks and the video game companies. They had known these techniques for years and years. What I wanted to do, once I learned these techniques, was to share them. Because my idea was, what if we could make healthy habits just as engaging, just as sticky, as the products that many people blame for distracting them many times. So my clients have never been the social media companies and the gaming companies. My clients are companies like The New York Times, hired me to help make habit out of reading the news. Companies like Fitbod, used the Hook model to get people hooked to exercising in the gym. Kahoot! used the Hook model to build the world’s largest educational software, which gets kids hooked onto in-classroom learning.
So that’s really the impetus of the book, was for the benefit of anyone building a product that they want to turn into some sort of a habit.
Brett McKay: Good. What are the insights about human psychology and habit formation that you highlighted in that book? I’m sure there’s lots of them, but what are some of the few that stood out to you?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. So at the core of any of these experiences, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Slack, Fitbod, even the Bible App; the one case study that I highlight in the book is the Bible App, which has hundreds of millions of users, and all of them essentially use this four-part model called: a trigger, an action, a reward, and an investment. This is the Hooked model, and it’s through successive cycles, through these hooks, that customer preferences are shaped, that our tastes are formed, and that our habits take hold.
So we have triggers, these triggers are things in our environment typically. The pings, and dings, and rings that prompt us to take some kind of action. Then the next step is the action phase. It could be something as simple as scrolling a feed, opening an app, checking a dashboard, playing a video. It’s defined as the simplest action done in anticipation of a reward. Then comes the reward itself, and the point of the reward phase is to scratch the users itch they came for, and yet leave them wanting more. Some bit of uncertainty around what they might find the next time they engage with the product.
The engine of the Hooked model is variability; there is what is called an intermittent reinforcement. This comes from the work of B.F. Skinner; he found that when he took pigeons and put them in a little box, now known as a Skinner box, and he gave them a little disc to peck at, if they pecked at the disc and received a reward on a fixed schedule, meaning peck at the disc get a reward every time, he could train those pigeons to peck at the disc whenever they were hungry. As long as the pigeon was hungry they would peck the disc, that’s how they learned this new habit. This is called operant conditioning. But what Skinner discovered, to his amazement, was that when he ran out of these food pellets one day, and he couldn’t afford to give them to the pigeons every time, so sometimes a pigeon would peck at the disc and nothing would come out. The next time the pigeon would peck at the disc they would receive a reward. What Skinner observed was, the rate of response, the number of times these pigeons pecked at the disc increased when the reward was given on a variable schedule of reinforcement.
So what we see in all sorts of products and services that we find most engaging, most engrossing, most fun, you will find this element of variability. Whether it’s playing a video game, whether it’s watching the news; the first three letters of news is new. We always want to know what we don’t know, what happened that we are not aware of, what’s the surprise. It’s what makes books fun to read, it’s what makes a movie entertaining, it’s all about surprise. It’s what makes people listen to this episode right this minute, is about not knowing what we’re going to talk about next.So that curiosity gap, that variability, that uncertainty, is what keeps us scrolling on Facebook, it’s what keeps us hooked to email, it’s what keeps us striving to do more. This uncertainty is really at the core of many species drive to act.
Then the last step of the Hook model is called the investment phase. This is where you put something into the product to improve it with use. This is a really big deal. If we think about the history of innovation, traditionally it’s been very difficult and taken a very long time for a product to change its specifications for the user’s needs. So Henry Ford is famous for, or at least attributed with, saying that you can have any color of Model T as long as it’s black. The reason he said that was because it’s really hard to retool a factory and give you a car in every color you desire. Well today what’s changed is that we are co-creating products in real time. So my version of Facebook, my version of Instagram, my version of Slack, email, whatever, is customized to me based on the effort I put into it.
That’s very different. So we are co-creating these products in real time by storing value in the product, and the more we use it, it actually appreciates in value. That’s never happened before, because if you think about it, everything made out of atoms, as opposed to bits, depreciates with wear and tear. The more you use something up, the less valuable it becomes; your furniture, your clothing, anything that we consume depreciates with wear and tear. But habit-forming products do the opposite. They actually get better and better. They appreciate in value the more you interact with them. That’s very special.
So that’s the fourth step of the Hook, the investment phase, which also loads the next trigger. So when you send someone a message on WhatsApp, or Slack, or Instagram, when you send someone that message, you are investing in the service, thereby loading the next trigger, prompting you through the Hook once again, because you’re likely to get a reply. So that reply from your message is an external trigger, which brings you through the Hook one again.
Now, eventually the promise land of a habit-forming product is to no longer require an external trigger at all. What they do eventually is attach themselves to what is called an internal trigger. We’ll talk about internal triggers more when we talk about how to become indistractable, but it’s very, very important. So every habit-forming product, the ultimate goal, is to no longer require a ping, a ding, a notification, some spammy advertising. What they bank on, the promise land, is to attach the product’s use to some kind of uncomfortable emotion.
So when we are lonely, we check Facebook. When we are uncertain, we Google it. When we are bored, we check Reddit or stock prices or sports scores. All of these things cater to an uncomfortable internal trigger, an uncomfortable sensation. That really is the promise land; when a company can attach the use of the product to a problem in your head that you feel and impulsively use that product out of habit. That can be used for good, of course. We can help people form healthy habits around eating, and exercise, and connecting with people, etc. It can also form some pretty bad habits, if you’re not dealing with that feeling in a healthy manner and instead looking for emotional pacification with a distraction.
Brett McKay: All right. So you wrote the book on sort of laying out what makes a product, or an app, or a service, habit-forming. Yet, you had this realization that you were losing control of your attention to your smartphone. So how does the guy who wrote the book, who understood what the companies were doing to capture our attention, how did you realize you had lost control of your attention?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. So for me, the seminal moment for me was really when I sat down with my daughter, after I wrote Hooked… So before I wrote Hooked, nobody was calling me, nobody was emailing, nobody was writing stories about me, and I wasn’t busy. So I had plenty of time to write my book in peace. But then when I wrote Hooked, and I actually self-published it at first, and just thought, “Okay. Whoever might want to read it.” I had a few thousand blog subscribers and I thought maybe they’d like it. But then the book started doing really well, and I started getting more phone calls, and requests for consultations, and requests for speaking engagements, and I got busier and busier. To one point I realized that this was a detriment in some ways, it was a high class problem, I’m very thankful, but it was also a problem nonetheless.
I remember sitting with my daughter one afternoon, and we had some time together where we could just spend some quality time as daddy and daughter together. We had this book of activities that had all kinds of things that daddies and daughters could do together, and one of the activities was to ask each other this question: If you could have any super power, what super power would you want? I remember the question verbatim, but I can’t tell you her answer. Because in that moment when she answered, I was distracted. I was looking at my phone because I had gotten some email, or I don’t know what happened, something happened that made me check the device, probably some ping or ding on my phone. The next thing I knew, when I looked up from my phone, she had left the room because she’d gotten the message that whatever was on my phone was more important than she was.
So that was kind of the turning point for me. I remember actually I told this story to a friend of mine, and so he was curious and he asked his daughter what super power she would want. She told him that, “Daddy. The super power I would want would be the power to talk to animals.” He asked, “Why? Why would you want to talk to animals?” His daughter said, “So that when you and mommy are on your phones, I’ll have someone to talk to.”
Brett McKay: Ouch!
Nir Eyal: So this is not a problem that only I experience. I think many, many parents can relate to it. If I’m honest with you, that wasn’t the only time it happened. I would get distracted when I was with my daughter, I would get distracted when I was at work, I would sit down to write, the thing that made me successful as an author is to write, and yet I would find that I would putz around, I’d check Slack channels, I’d check the news, I’d Google something. I just couldn’t get to work, and that was very frustrating.
So I decided to dive headfirst into the problem, knowing what I know as someone in the industry, as an industry insider, I wanted to figure out, how can we put this stuff in its place? My knee-jerk reaction was to blame the technology. The reason I blamed the technology is because that’s what everybody tells you is the problem. Every book I could buy on the topic, and I have dozens of them here, they all basically said the same thing. Technology is highjacking your brain, technology is addicting you, technology is this, technology is that.
So I followed their advice. I did the 30 day detox, the 30 day plan. I got rid of my smartphone and I bought myself this $12 feature phone on Alibaba that does nothing but send text messages and receive phone calls. I got myself a word processor from the 1990s, they don’t even make anymore, with no internet connection. I sat down, and I said, “Great. I got rid of all the technology. Now I’m going to be focused. Now I’m going to make sure I’m not distracted.” I still got distracted. Because I’d say, “Oh, let me tidy up my desk real quick.” Or, “Let me take out the trash.” Or, “There’s that book I’ve been meaning to do some research into, I bet there’s something interesting there that I should probably read.” I would keep procrastinating.
So the more I dove into the psychology of procrastination, I realized that we have it all wrong. The technology is not the cause of distraction. It’s the symptom. The root cause is much more interesting, and much more important to identify if we are really going to tackle distraction.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that root cause, because I’ve had that same issue before. I’ve done things where I’ve implemented firewalls on my devices where I can’t access certain sites. One thing I’d find myself doing is, okay, there was one site that was super distracting, I’d block it. Well, I’d just find another site to distract myself with. So if it’s not the device, or the technology, what is the root cause?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. You may not like this, but the root cause… In order to understand the root cause of the problem, let me just back up to some first principles here. So let’s start with, what do we mean by distraction? What does that word even mean? If you ask people to define the opposite of distraction, they’ll tell you it’s focus. I don’t agree. I don’t think the opposite of distraction is focus. That, in fact, if you look at the etymology of the word, the opposite of distraction is not focus. It is traction. That both traction and distraction come from the same Latin root, trahere, which means to pull. They both end in the same six letter word. A-C-T-I-O-N. That spells action. So traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do; things that you do with intent. The opposite of traction is distraction; anything pulls you away from what you plan to do with intent.
So all of our behaviors are either leading us towards traction, or distraction, based on what we plan to do with our time. Now, in order to understand what pulls us towards either traction or distraction, which is by the way a very, very old problem. Plato talked about this 2,500 years ago. He called it acrastia, the tendency that we all have to do things against our better interests. So 2,500 years ago, well before iPhones, well before Facebook and Instagram, people were complaining about, “Gosh. Isn’t the world such a distracting place these days?” Every generation has their tech boogeyman; whether it’s the television, the video games, the radio, I mean even the written word was derided by Socrates as something that was going to enfeeble men’s minds. So this is nothing new.
But we have to ask ourselves, really to get down to first principles, not only why do we do things against our better interest? But why do we do anything? And everything? If you ask most folks, “What is the nature of human motivation? Why do we do everything?” They will tell you some version of carrots and sticks, typically. This comes from Freud’s pleasure principle, Bentham said something similar, that everything that we do is about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Carrots and sticks. Turns out that neurologically, however, this isn’t true. That’s not how it works. That in fact, everything we do is not about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, but rather it’s pain all the way down. That everything we do, everything we do, is about a desire to escape discomfort. This is called the homeostatic response. We know this is true physiologically; if you feel cold, you put on a jacket. If you’re hot, that doesn’t feel good, you take it off. If you’re hungry, you feel hunger pangs, so you eat. If you eat too much, okay now you’re stuffed, you stop eating.
So those are physiological responses; the brain gets us to do stuff by making us feel discomfort, that we have to act, we have to manipulate our environment to stop that discomfort. The same is true with psychological sensations, as we talked about earlier. That when you’re lonely, Facebook. Uncertainty, Google. Boredom, Reddit, stock prices, sports scores, all this stuff. Even, in fact, the desire to feel good. The brain doesn’t get us to act because we feel good, the brain gets us to act because we felt good. The memory of feeling good creates psychological imbalance for us to want to do something. There’s a reason we say that love hurts, because psychologically that is exactly what is going on in the brain. Desire, craving, wanting. All of those things do not feel good. That is what prompts us to quell that uncomfortable sensation.
So back to distraction. What does all this mean? If all of our behaviors are spurred by a desire to escape discomfort, in one form or another, what that means is that time management is pain management. So I don’t care what life hacks you just read about, or what guru tells you to take a cold shower at 4:00 am, none of that stuff works. Unless, first and foremost, we learn how to deal with discomfort. That is the most important first step. What we do with that discomfort leads us to either traction or distraction. If we channel it for good, it can actually be a force that spurs us to do what we say we’re going to do. But if we’re not trained, if we don’t know how to master our internal triggers, that’s where we turn to these technologies, that which we love to blame as the source of the problem, which they aren’t, they’re just the tools that we use for emotional pacification. Like babies sucking on their thumbs. Until we learn that principle, and accept it, and deal with it, we will always become distracted by something.
Brett McKay: Okay. There’s a lot to unpack there. So this idea of distraction; a lot of the things you were talking about were internal triggers. You mentioned before, apps and websites use external triggers, but ideally they want to get to the internal trigger. So are companies thinking about that? We want to be the go-to source for people when they feel bored, or when they feel sad, or when they feel lonely. Do they sit in a room and think about that and say, “That’s what we want to do.”
Nir Eyal: Some of them do. Yeah, absolutely. For example, when I was working with… Well, let me give you… I work with many, many companies, but for example when I worked with The New York Times, it was very much that. When in a user’s day would they sit down and want to scratch psychological itch; of boredom, fear of missing out, uncertainty around what’s going on in the world. So they build their product to cater to that uncomfortable emotion.
I didn’t work with Fitbod, but Fitbod is this great app that used the Hook model, only after I’d written the book, I had never consulted with them, they read the book and used it. Their internal trigger was trying to cater to the person who goes to the gym, like I used to be, and would face uncertainty around what to do. There’s all these muscleheads that seem to know what they’re doing, and here I am, I don’t know what to do. That doesn’t feel good. That uncertainty feels bad. So the solution to that discomfort is an app like Fitbod.
Brett McKay: Well, and let’s talk about this idea that everything is pain. What would you say to someone who says, “Well, I do something because I genuinely like it.” What would you say? How would you say, “Well, no. Actually you’re doing that to avoid pain.”
Nir Eyal: Give me an example.
Brett McKay: Let’s say someone who consistently works out. They exercise every day. It’s not because they’re gritting their teeth to exercise every day, they just do it because it’s just part of what they do, and they enjoy it.
Nir Eyal: Yeah. Exactly. Well, even the desire to feel good… I’m not saying that pleasure doesn’t exist. Of course pleasure exists. Let’s take it to… It’s really base fundamental state. Think about orgasm. Orgasms feel good, and we are programmed biologically to have the orgasm. But that sensation, that pleasure, is what we remember about the experience. But getting to the experience, we get there because we crave, we desire, we lust. That is uncomfortable.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. I imagine that some people, they work out because they don’t like the feeling of not working out.
Nir Eyal: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Right.
Nir Eyal: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s right. So I talked to a former NFL player a few weeks ago. He said, “No, that’s not true. I don’t believe that everything we do is about the desire to escape discomfort, because I love the rush of going out on the field, and the crowds, and the cheering. I worked my ass off and it hurt, but I did it anyway.” Then about after 15 minutes of explaining to him this concept, he said, “You know what? Actually you’re right. Because not going out there, and not giving it my best, and not performing, and the idea of letting down my fans, was so painful that I had to do this.”
Brett McKay: So it’s a bit of both. So the wanting and the desire creates pain because in order to fulfill that pain, you do the thing.
Nir Eyal: So in fact, the brain has two separate systems. It’s called the liking system, and the wanting system. Whether we like something or not, doesn’t actually matter. They’ve done these experiments on rodents where they trigger their wanting system to want a particular thing. Even though they may not like that thing, they still do it because they want it, because they crave it. So the liking system is what lights up, so to speak, in the brain. I hate that term, but you get what I’m trying to say. It was activated when something is pleasurable. But the pleasure itself is not necessary to get us to do a behavior. What is necessary is the wanting system, which spurs us to act because of discomfort.
Brett McKay: So you’ve said, distraction has been with us forever. I think a lot of people who are listening, they lived in a time when there were no smartphones or whatever, and they got distracted. I remember when I was a kid, I found ways to distract myself. I didn’t want to do homework. But something seems different about the tech we have here. What do you think is different about the tech that we have today?
Nir Eyal: Well, it certainly is different. There’s no doubt about it. Just the fact that technology is so pervasive, and is designed to be so persuasive, is different. I mean, the fact that we have it with us at all times of the day in our pockets, means that if you are looking for distraction it’s easier than ever to find. But I think what has gone off the rails a bit lately, is this idea that just because something is designed to be engaging, just because it is designed to be fun, that somehow it’s addicting us all. It’s highjacking our brains. I mean, give me a break. That’s ridiculous. Of course that narrative is one that gets a lot of attention, and it always has. I recently published an article in The Atlantic that was titled Tech Addiction is the New Reefer Madness. That people have been fearing something that is apparently taking over our brain since time immemorial. The idea of being possessed, zombified. There’s this practice of trepanning, where we have these ancient skulls of people who lived thousands of years ago, their brain was fractured in order to let out an evil spirit.
So there’s something about us that looks to blame something taking over the mind. We’re very scared of that. I think the latest boogeyman that we like to blame is technology. Because while something is designed to be engaging, there’s no doubt that Netflix designs its shows to be engaging, and frankly would we want it any other way? Should we say, “Hey, Netflix. Can you stop making your programming so good? I want to watch it all the time. Hey, Apple. Your iPhone is way too user friendly. Please, can you make it shittier? Because I use it a lot.” That’s ridiculous.
So instead of holding our breath waiting for tech companies to change, in which case we are going to suffocate, why don’t we do something about ourselves? Without this hysteria, thinking that we’re all getting highjacked, and our brains are being manipulated. Come on. It’s ridiculous.
We just don’t know yet, we haven’t developed what’s called the social antibodies, to put this stuff in its place. As an industry insider, not some professor who has never had a social media account, I have all the social media accounts. I love all this stuff. Let me tell you, we can get the best out of these tools without letting them get the best of us.
Brett McKay: I think I read somewhere, I think it was a book, about how to get a handle on your social media addiction, whatever. The guy mentioned monks. There’s monks who use smartphones, but they’re not checking it all the time like we are. They’re like, “Well, I use a smartphone. I’m okay.”
Nir Eyal: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. So this is exactly where we start. So first and foremost, we have to start by mastering the internal triggers; by realizing that the reason we get distracted, the reason we do anything, is to escape discomfort and try to find ways to channel that discomfort towards traction rather than distraction. So the first step has to be mastering the internal triggers. The second step is to make time for traction. This utilizes this idea of turning your values into time.
When I wrote this book, I interviewed a lot of folks who struggle with distraction. Many of them would tell me, “I’m so distracted these days. I can’t get anything done, between what my kids want and what my boss wants. This is happening on Slack, and this is over email, and do you see what Donald Trump just Tweeted? I can’t get anything done.” I say, “Wow. That’s really tough. Can I see what exactly you got distracted from today? What did you plan to do that you didn’t get done?” They’d oftentimes take out their calendar, on their phone, and they’d show it to me and it was blank. There was nothing on their calendar. It turns out that 2/3rds of Americans don’t keep any sort of calendar. I mean, think about how crazy this is. We spend so much time and effort protecting our stuff; we lock up our money in banks, we have home security systems, we have car alarms. We protect our stuff because we don’t want anybody to steal it. But when it comes to our time, “Oh, yeah. Sure. Come on in. Take it. Take it. Do whatever you want with it.”
If you don’t plan your day, why are we surprised when someone plans it for you? Whether it’s your boss, whether it’s your kids, whether it’s something that happens in the news; if you have lots of white space in your day, you know what you’re going to do with it. You’re going to putz it around. You’re going to waste it. So the thing is, we cannot call something a distraction unless we know what it distracted us from. So these monks who use social media, they understand, there’s nothing evil about social media. It’s a tool. It’s great. I use it every day, and I love it. So let’s stop vilifying it, and instead use it correctly. Which is to say, make time for it. If you like video games, make time for it. If you want time to meditate, to pray, to go on a walk, to have focused work time, wonderful. I want you to do that stuff, according to your values.
By simply using this technique that has been studied in thousands of studies now, it’s called setting an implementation intention, which is just a fancy way of saying you’re going to plan what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. So what I want folks to do is to keep what’s called a timebox calendar. I’ll give you a link in the show notes. I built this very simple tool, totally free, you don’t have to sign up for anything. All I want you to do is to turn your values into time. So if you value physical health, and I’m not saying everybody needs to value that, just whatever your values are, does that have time on your calendar? If you value time with your friends, do you have a regular opportunity to do that? If you value learning and growing intellectually, do you have time for that? Do you have time for focused work? These things need to be on your calendar, because if they’re not on your calendar they’re just not going to get done. That’s the second very important step to becoming indistractable.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It sounds like… So you have to be intentional, you have to fill your day with stuff. The other thing, too, you talk about, it’s not just filling it with positive stuff. It’s not positive or negative. But not just filling it with typical productive stuff, but also you can timebox, “I’m going to scroll Instagram for 30 minutes at this time.”
Nir Eyal: Sure. Absolutely. In fact, it relieves you of that psychological tension. So what happens to a lot of folks, particularly if they have kids, they’ll tell their kids, “You can’t play Fortnite until you finish everything else you have to do.” So the kid, all day, is thinking about, “Am I going to be able to play it? Am I going to be playing Fortnite? Am I going to be able to play it?” They obsess about it, they ruminate about it, and that makes it worse.
If we talked about how the thing that spurs all behavior is the desire to escape discomfort, well rumination is uncomfortable. This is why abstinence doesn’t work, by the way. If I tell you, “Hey, whatever you do right now, do not think of a white bear.” Of course, all you’re going to be thinking about is a white bear. So that’s why strict abstinence doesn’t work. We need better techniques. So by simply planning the time, for ourselves, for our kids, and saying, “Yep. You can play Fortnite, you can go on Facebook, you can check Instagram, at this time of day. As opposed to throughout your day whenever you feel bored for a minute, whenever you feel lonely. Nope, it’s coming. 8:00 pm. That’s the time on the calendar when you’re going to scroll social media. You turn what would otherwise be a distraction into traction. Remember, the time you plan to waste is not wasted time.
Brett McKay: We’ve written about this before on the site, about overcoming bad habits. A more effective way is not gritting yourself and sort of abstaining. The more effective way, oftentimes the easier way, is to fill that up with good habits. Plant flowers to smother the weeds. This kind of sounds what timeboxing is. Put on the calendar, the stuff you want to do, so you actually do it instead of filling your day with stuff you don’t actually enjoy doing.
Nir Eyal: Absolutely. Absolutely. That we can make it easier to do the things we really want to do by simply planning when we are going to do it. It’s a huge step forward. I want to mention as well, that it’s not just about timeboxing here. That’s been written about a lot.
What I’m hoping to add to the conversation is also this practice of schedule syncing. Schedule syncing is the practice of sitting down with the stakeholders in your life, and reviewing that timebox calendar so that you can synchronize expectations. So this practice completely transformed my marriage. I’ve been married for 18 years now, and a few years ago my wife and I would constantly fight about household responsibilities. It turns out this is not uncommon, that in fact in most heterosexual dual income households, women still take on a disproportionate share of household admin duties. I’m embarrassed to admit, that that was happening in my household even though one of my values is to have an egalitarian marriage. I think we should be 50/50 partners, and yet my wife was really taking on more household duties than I was. My excuse was, “Honey. If I don’t do something, just tell me to do it. What’s the big deal? If I forget to take out the trash, or do the laundry or whatever, just tell me and I’ll do it.”
What I didn’t realize is that me asking her to do that was itself work. I was asking her to be my boss. That’s stressful, and it’s unfair frankly. The solution was so simple. All we do, we sit down for 15 minutes, she has a timebox calendar, I have a timebox calendar, and inside that timebox calendar are our household responsibilities. So I know exactly when I’m going to make… We meal plan, so I cook everything on the weekend for the entire week so we have lunch and dinners already made. I know when that’s going to happen. It’s in my calendar. I know when all the household tasks that I need to get done will happen, so that she can coordinate what she needs to do, based on what I’ve already done, and vice versa.
Let me tell you, this 15 minute practice of just looking at each others calendars and saying, “Okay. Who’s taking my daughter to this class today? What’s different this week than was last week?” It takes 15 minutes, it saved our marriage. That same practice of schedule syncing is something we can do in the workplace, as well. So many managers, they just lob over outputs. “I want you to do this, I want you to do that, I want you to do this.” They have no sense of how much time these tasks take, and that’s ridiculous. It’s a bait and switch.
We have this basic trust exchange in the workplace where I give my employer my time, and they give me money. But if there’s no understanding about how long something will take, what happens? Well, we know what happens. They screw us. The time that we’re supposed to be doing our work, at work, now bleeds into home time, and nights, and weekends. So what we thought would be just a 40 hour a week job, is now a 60 or an 80 hour a week job. If you know that’s what you’re getting into, if you’re going to work at a startup, or on Wall Street, and you know that’s what you’re going to get into, great. That’s fantastic. But if you didn’t realize that, and you thought you were getting into a place that only required 40 hours a week, and now you’re working 50, 60, 70 hours a week. Well, that’s a bait and switch. So what we have to do is this regular practice of doing this schedule sync with our managers, with our teams, and saying, “Look, boss. Here’s how I’m going to spend my time this week.”
And by the way, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a week’s time. Some people do it every day, if their schedule changes every day. You want to do it with the frequency with which your calendar changes, but most people can do this once a week. I said, “Look. Here’s all the priorities I have on my plate. Here’s everything you asked me to do that’s on my to do list, from you, all the backlog of things you want me to do. Here’s how I’m spending my time. Here are the things that I couldn’t fit in my calendar. Help me re-prioritize. What should I not be doing with my day?” Okay?
That schedule syncing process is incredibly effective. You will see a huge boost in your performance when it comes to matching expectations with what you should be doing with your time, with your boss, with your employees, through this simple process that literally takes 15 minutes a week.
Brett McKay: Do you think, I mean, in your experience when you talk to people who have done this, because I think a lot of people are a little hesitant to have that conversation with their boss. Because they’re like, “Well, the boss says I’ve got to do this.” Have you found that managers actually enjoy having that conversation with their employees?
Nir Eyal: In my experience, managers are scared to have this conversation, but they’re dying to. Because what a manager has to be very cautious of is micromanaging. So this is one of those practices that actually is better implemented from the bottom up, rather than the top down. When a manager comes to an employee and says, “I want to see every minute of your day,” the employee can bristle at that. But when the employee comes to the boss and says, “Hey, boss. I really want to do everything you’ve asked me to do, but I just can’t fit it all into my schedule. Can you help me figure out what to deprioritize?”
Then we have transparency into how we spend our time. Typically, a manager will be very amenable to that; whereas when it goes the other way around that you might get an opposite reaction.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. So these are tactics you can use. I think high level tactics, beyond the just block stuff on my phone, and whatever, to help you get a control of those external triggers.
Nir Eyal: We’re still in schedule syncing. The external triggers, that’s the next step. That’s step three.
Brett McKay: That’s the next step, okay. Well, let’s talk about that.
Nir Eyal: Sure.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about getting ahold of external triggers.
Nir Eyal: Yeah. Yeah. So the third step I call hacking back the external triggers. The reason I call it hacking back is that I think everyone is pretty convinced that these technologies are hacking our attention. They’re not highjacking our brains. I think that’s a ridiculous term. Highjacking is what they did to us on 9/11. It’s not email and Slack channels, let’s be honest here. But they are definitely hacking our attention through all of these pings and dings.
Well, the fact is, we can hack back. Two-thirds of people with a smartphone never change their notification settings. That’s ridiculous. Can we really complain about technology addicting us if we haven’t taken 10 minutes to change the notifications settings?
So I devote a couple pages to that in the book, but that’s kindergarten stuff. Lots of books can tell you how to change your notifications on your phone. If you don’t do it, I don’t want to hear that you’re distracted. It takes 10 minutes. Turn off those notification settings that don’t serve you, because Zuckerberg can’t turn them back on.
What we find is a much more pernicious source of distraction are the ones that people don’t think about. Okay. Principally, if we work in an open floor plan office. Turns out that these open floor plan offices save companies a ton of money because they don’t have to give everyone their own private office like they used to have to a couple generations ago. But today, companies save all that money because they save a lot on real estate. But these open floor plan offices are a hotbed of distraction. Way more than our devices is Janice coming over and saying, “Hey, did you hear the latest office gossip?” Or, “Hey, can I ask you a quick question?” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, we want to interact with our colleagues, but we want to do it on our schedule, not jut when anybody feels like coming by our desk and interrupting us.
So every copy of Indistractable comes with a cardboard cutout that you pull out of the book, you fold it into thirds, and it’s what I call a screen sign. You put the screen sign on your computer monitor, and it tells your colleagues, “I’m indistractable. Please come back later.” You can’t miss it, it’s this bright red sign that you put on your computer screen. Now I know some people are thinking, “Well, I put on headphones, and headphones tell people that I can’t be bothered right now.” But here’s the thing; they’re not bothering you for the wrong reasons, they’re not bothering you because they think you’re watching YouTube videos. So you want to send a very clear message, you are not watching YouTube videos, you are doing work, and it’s okay to ask people to come back a little bit later.
So that’s what this means by hacking back the external triggers; whether the external triggers are our technology, or being distracted by colleagues.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. I mean, sort of this is kind of related to time syncing, blocking your schedule, another thing you talk about, and I’ve seen other places that I’ve tried in my life and implemented with successes, set time for email. Right?
Nir Eyal: Yes.
Brett McKay: Instead of just checking your email constantly, okay, the way you hack back on that, turn off all the notifications and then you’re only going to check it at certain hours in the day.
Nir Eyal: Absolutely. Absolutely. So this technique is probably the most bang for the buck that you can possibly get from the book. I’ll give it away right now, I’ll tell you what to do. So it turns out that between email and meetings, those two things, the time left over for the average knowledge worker to do everything they have to do in their day is only an hour and a half. So if you took out meetings and email, from the average knowledge worker’s day, they’d only have about an hour and a half to do everything else in their day. It’s crazy. So that’s why most work gets done outside of work on nights and weekends. Well, that’s ridiculous.
So how do we start hacking back email? So here’s a killer technique that I’ve been using now for a few years, that has dramatically reduced the amount of time I spend on email every day. So the equation you want to remember when it comes to the time we spend on emails is called TNT. TNT stands for the total time you spend on email, the big T, equals the number of emails you get, times little t, the time you spend per email. Pretty basic. The number of emails you get, multiplied by the time you spend per email.
So how do you reduce the total time you spend on email? Well, the first principle is that if you want to get fewer emails you have to send fewer emails. Well, how do you send fewer emails? You make sure that you only send the emails that really need to be sent, because what most people do, they go chronologically through their email and they kind of catch as catch can. Whatever is at the top of their email inbox, that’s what they try and reply to. Some people try and get to this mythical place of inbox zero as quickly as possible, but that’s so counterproductive because the more emails you send per day, the more emails you’re going to get back per day. You’re playing this email ping pong game. That’s ridiculous.
So instead what you want to do, what we find is, that where we spend the most time wasted on email is not the checking, it’s not the replying, it’s the rechecking. That’s a huge waste of time. Here’s what this looks like. You open an email, you read it, you put it away. You open the next email, you read it, you put it away. Hour goes by, you open that email again, you read it, you put it away. That process is a huge waste of time, and then sometimes people open and check each email five, six, seven, maybe 10 times. It’s ridiculous.
Next time, we have to create ourselves a little rule here, that every email that we open, we only touch twice. The first time we open that email we have to answer this question: When does it need a reply? That’s the only thing we care about. When does this email need a reply? If it never needs a reply, we just archive it. If it needs a reply right this second, like a hair on fire type of problem, okay, go ahead and reply right now. But everything else, I don’t subscribe to the 2-Minute Rule by David Allen, I think that’s bad advice. Because you know what happens if it’s a 2-Minute Rule and you have 100 emails that each require two minutes, well now you’re spending 200 minutes on email. So I don’t like that rule at all.
Instead, what we want to do is ask ourselves, “When does this message need a reply?” Does it need a reply today? Or sometime this week? Then we have time on our calendar every day for only the emails that need a reply today. We label each email that needs a reply today as such. Now that’s going to be about 10 to 20% of your email inbox, is messages that need a reply today. About 80% of your emails either never need a reply, or they can wait a little while. So then we have time on our timebox calendar when we only reply to the emails that need a reply today, and we do that only today.
Then we have one day in our week, for me I call it Message Mondays, where it’s a big four hour block where I flush through all those emails that can wait a little while. Now you say to yourself, “Yeah, but what’s the difference if I reply to it right away or if I reply to it in a week’s time? Isn’t it the same thing?” No, it’s not. There’s this magic thing that happens when you let non-urgent emails wait. They decompose. This is called email decomposition, kind of like a compost pile. What happens is, when you let non-urgent emails wait a little while, most of them you don’t need to answer, because people figure out stuff on their own. Or something just gets crushed under the weight of some other priority, and is no longer relevant.
So by letting emails just simmer for a little while, letting them decompose, you’ll find that many of them never need a reply. The ones that do, you go ahead and flush through all those in that time slot where you have to go through the emails that require a response sometime this week. This will dramatically reduce the time you spend on email.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. You also have great advice and sort of tactics to use with Slack, or other social networking servers, that people can check out in the book. I want to circle back to this idea of internal triggers. So one thing you talk about is being aware of those internal triggers, and what they trigger. So if you see, “Okay, I’m feeling sad. I’m going to check Instagram.” Should people come up with alternatives? So if they’re feeling sad, they have something planned they’re going to do instead of checking Instagram?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. So the idea here is that we want to… There’s three things we can do with these internal triggers. We can reimagine the task, reimagine the trigger, and reimagine our temperament. So when it comes to using these techniques in concert, when we know what we want to do in that minute, we know that that is traction. So let’s say you sit down and you say, “Okay. I’m going to work on this big project. I’ve got this presentation I need to do. I need to do my taxes. I need to do this research. I need to do this thing I’m not really crazy about doing, but I need to do it.”
So you have that time on your calendar, and now you find yourself getting distracted. Let me make this very personal. So for me, writing is really hard work. I’ve written two books, but it’s really, really hard. It does not come naturally to for me. I don’t understand these authors who can just whip out a book in a few months time. That’s just not me. It’s hard. I would constantly get distracted. I would just check email for a minute, or look something up on Google, or do some research, and I would do this stuff thinking, “Oh. This is productive. This is helping me.” But the fact of the matter is, if it’s not traction, if it’s not what I planned to do, it’s distraction.
So this is what I call pseudowork. It’s the stuff that tricks you into thinking it’s productive. “Oh, email. Yeah, that needs to get done sometime.” No. If you’re doing a task that you planned to do, like writing, like finishing that presentation, whatever that thing that you’ve been putting off, the hard stuff that you didn’t want to do, if you’re giving up that time to do just the urgent stuff, just the emails, which most of the time aren’t even urgent. Then you’re just as distracted as if you would be playing a video game. It’s just as counterproductive.
So what do you do? So now I don’t get distracted this way anymore. So now when I sit down to write, when I find myself about to get distracted, what psychologists tell us to do, this comes from acceptance and commitment therapy, what they tell us to do, one of the most empowering things we can do is to simply note the sensation. Writing down what it is you are feeling; without judgment, just with curiosity. “I’m feeling bored. This is hard work. This is difficult. I’m anxious whether anybody’s going to like this.” Whatever it might be, just write down that sensation on a piece of paper next to you. Then what you want to do is called surf the urge, because in the moment when we experience an emotion, it feels like it’s going to last forever. When we’re angry, or sad, or happy, whatever. It feels like we’re always going to be that way, and that’s never the case. That emotions are fleeting, and then they subside; kind of like a wave.
So what we want to do is to surf that urge, with curiosity rather than contempt. Now most people, they’ll fall into two camps, they’ll either be blamers or shamers. The blamers are the ones that say, “Oh, it’s Facebook. It’s my iPhone. It’s Slack that’s doing it to me.” The shamers, and this is what I used to do, they say, “Oh, man. I have a short attention span, or maybe I’m lazy, or maybe there’s something wrong with me.” We shame ourselves into thinking that there’s something wrong with us. Of course neither of those answers are correct. Blaming others, or shaming myself; neither of those things are the right approach.
Instead, the right approach is to explore that sensation with curiosity rather than contempt. One of the techniques that I use to surf the urge is called the 10-Minute Rule, where you can tell yourself, “I will give in to any distraction, whether that distraction is I really want to check email right now. Or I really want to look at my fantasy sports numbers.” Or whatever the case might be. “I really want to eat that piece of chocolate cake.” You can do that, in 10 minutes. I will set a timer, I will literally say into my cell phone, “Set a timer for 10 minutes.” My job is to just sit here and feel that sensation with curiosity, instead of contempt, or get back to the task at hand. You will find that 9 times out of 10, you will get back to the task at hand before those 10 minutes are up.
This is a way, way more effective technique than sheer abstinence, as we talked about earlier, when you obsess about it, and say, “No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Okay fine.” That actually makes things worse. So strict abstinence oftentimes doesn’t work for these kind of things, instead what we want to do is to learn how to manage these sensations and ride them like a surfer on a surfboard.
Brett McKay: The 10-Minute Rule sounds like a tactic that people suggest for people who like to shop. So instead of, “Okay. I want this thing; buying it now. I’m going to wait until tomorrow.”
Nir Eyal: Sure, yeah.
Brett McKay: Typically, the urge goes away by then and they’re fine.
Nir Eyal: That’s right.
Brett McKay: That’s a really useful tactic there. So we’ve talked about getting understanding of our internal triggers, doing the timeboxing, and then hacking away external triggers. The last section on how to get a handle of distraction is using precommitments. So for those who aren’t familiar, what are precommitments? What are some examples of precommitments that can help people to become indistractable?
Nir Eyal: Sure. So this is the last step, and this is something that I have to warn you about a little bit, because we have to do it last. A lot of people have tried some variation of these techniques, and they find that they backfire because they haven’t done the other ones first. So there’s a time and place to use these precommitments. A precommitment is basically deciding in advance what you are going to do, so that when you potentially get distracted you have some kind of instrument in place that prevents you from doing something you don’t want to do.
So a good example of a precommitment is a retirement account, where if you take out your money before you’ve reached a certain age, you have a penalty that you have to pay, because it’s preventing you from doing something you don’t want to do. That would be an example of precommitment.
Now we can use these precommitments to block out distraction. How do we do that? Well, there are three types of pacts. There is an effort pact, a price pact, and an identity pact. An effort pact is where we put some bit of work in between us and something we don’t want to do. So in my life, a good example of this, is a few years ago I found that my sex life was really suffering. My wife and I had been married for 18 years, and we were just not being intimate with each other because every night we would go to bed and she would fondle her iPhone and I would caress my iPad, and we wouldn’t spend any time together. We were going to sleep later and later because of our devices. That was really taking a toll on our marriage.
So what did I do? First we followed these three steps that come before; we mastered the internal triggers, made time for traction by putting in bedtime in our calendars, it literally says not only bedtime, it says when it’s time to get ready for bed, we hacked back the external triggers so there was no screens in our bedroom anymore. Now we come to the fourth step, in terms of using a pact. Here’s what I did. I went to the hardware store, and I bought this $10 outlet timer. The outlet timer plugs into your wall, and whatever you plug into the outlet timer will turn off at a certain time of day or night, whatever you program into it. So in my household every night at 10:00 pm my internet router shuts off.
Now this was a few years ago, now I actually bought a router that has this built in. So now all the smart home devices, like Amazon Alexa, etc., that stuff stays on, but my computers, my iPhone, the iPads, all that stuff loses its internet connection at that time. Now, could I turn it off? Of course I could. I could go fiddle around with the settings and do that stuff, but that would take work, that would take effort. So this effort pact keeps you on track by making a little bit of work, keeping you away from something that you don’t want to do.
So as this last resort, remember hacking back external triggers is about keeping those external triggers out; using precommitments to prevent distraction is about keeping yourself in.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. So this is sort of like the Odysseus, what Odysseus did when he tied himself to the mast.
Nir Eyal: Yes, exactly.
Brett McKay: He knew he’d go crazy-
Nir Eyal: Right.
Brett McKay: … listening to the Sirens, so he tied himself to the mast so he didn’t have to worry about it.
Nir Eyal: Right. Right. Exactly.
Brett McKay: I like the identity precommitment, because that was something I’ve never heard before. I thought it was really interesting. I actually found it very useful. What is an identity precommitment?
Nir Eyal: Sure. Yeah. So this comes from the psychology of religion. We know that, it turns out that, people who call themselves a certain moniker, they have a certain identity, don’t seem to expend any self-control or willpower on doing, or not doing, something. That’s consistent with their identity. This was something I really like, because I hate willpower. I hate self-control. I hate self-discipline. That’s not what this book is about. I want to help people have systems in place so that they don’t need any self-discipline.
This line of research was really interesting to me. We see it all the time. There’s that joke about how do you know someone’s a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. Not to pick on vegans, because you can substitute any moniker there. You can substitute people who are paleo, or people who are crossfit, or marines, or whatever. When there’s an identity involved, we become more likely to live up to that moniker. So a devout Muslim doesn’t ask themselves every day, “Oh, should I have that gin and tonic?” No. Devout Muslims don’t drink alcohol. Period. It’s who they are. They’re not deciding, “Oh, should I? Or should I not?”
So that’s why the book is titled Indistractable. Because indistractable, it’s a made-up word, and that word is very similar, it sounds like indestructible. So I want people to start calling themselves this moniker. I want this to be a new identity. So when someone complains to you, “Hey, I emailed you and you didn’t reply back in 30 minutes after I sent you the email.” You can reply, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m indistractable. That’s not what I do. I don’t interrupt my time that I planned when I’m doing something else, to constantly be available. It’s not who I am. I use this screen sign on my monitor because I’m indistractable. That’s how I prioritize my time. That’s who I am.” And they say, “Oh, that’s crazy. Aren’t people going to bristle at that?” Why should they bristle anymore than people wearing ethnic garb, or religious garb? It’s just who you are. This is your moniker. This is what you do.
So that identity pact, calling yourself indistractable, teaching others about how to be indistractable. By the way, this is something we also see in religion. You notice that every major religion has apostles. It has missionaries. Part of that, of course, is to spread the faith, but moreso, from a psychological standpoint, the reason that every major religion has people who prosthelytize is not only for the person they’re trying to convert, but rather it’s for the person doing the converting.
So when you tell someone else that you are a Christian, you are a vegan, you are a whatever, you are reinforcing your own identity and making it more likely for you to stay on the straight and narrow. We can do the exact same thing when it comes to being indistractable.
Brett McKay: All right. So just from here on everyone’s going to start themselves indistractable.
Nir Eyal: Yes. It sounds crazy, but this is how every movement started. So it sounds crazy for awhile, and maybe only the early adopters will do it, Those are the people who are going to be more productive at work, more happy in their home lives, more healthy because they actually work out and do what they say they’re going to do. So hopefully in a few years this will catch on, but here’s your opportunity to be an early adopter.
Brett McKay: Right. It will be religion.
Nir Eyal: Exactly.
Brett McKay: This will be like the founding documents here. Well, Nir. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Nir Eyal: Absolutely. Yeah. So my website is called nirandfar.com. Nir is spelled like my first name. N-I-R. So that’s nirandfar.com. When it comes to Indistractable, you can go to indistractable.com. There is an 80 page complementary workbook that we couldn’t fit into the hardback, so you can get it for free at indistractable.com. There’s also a video course, all kinds of tools and resources there as well. That’s all at indistractable, that’s spelled I-N, the world distract, A-B-L-E. So indistractable.com.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Nir. Thanks for so much time. It’s been a pleasure.
Nir Eyal: My pleasure, thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest is Nir Eyal. He’s the author of the book Indistractable. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website nirandfar.com, that’s N-I-R-A-N-D-F-A-R.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/indistractable, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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