"Zach's Corner" - Podcast #17: Nir Eyal - Indistractable

You can access this episode of Action Design Radio on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and YouTube (or wherever you typically get your pod on). Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and sign up for the newsletter on our website to see if an Action Design Network city near you is hosting a free upcoming Meetup event.

Zach Simon is the producer of the Action Design Radio podcast. Zach’s Corner is a synopsis of each episode, as well as Zach’s own thoughts on the topics discussed by podcast hosts Zarak Khan and Erik Johnson with our rotating guest experts.

About Our Guest: Nir Eyal is a behavioral designer and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” He has taught business and design at Stanford, founded two technology companies, and helps teams design more engaging products. His writing on technology, psychology, and business appears in the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today.

Today’s the day. Last week was jam-packed with client meetings, performance reviews, conference calls, and that last-minute flight to Cincinnati because your team lead came down with the flu and couldn’t go herself.

But today is different. You’ve got the morning all to yourself, and you’re going to spend this time working on that project you plan on presenting to your boss at the end of the month. You know, the one that’s sure to secure you that promotion that you know you deserve.

You’re at your computer, working away. But before you even finish your bagel and coffee, your phone vibrates. Your cousin finally posted the photos from the wedding last month, and guess who’s been tagged in 18 of them? Okay, you’ve been waiting for weeks to see these, so your project can wait a few minutes.

Another vibration. Your friend has proposed a trade in your fantasy football league. Wait a second, he’s offering who for Odell Beckham, Jr.? You’re insulted. The rest of the league needs to hear about this in your group chat.

An email from a coworker with a favor request.

A notification about what’s happening in the Oval Office this morning. Twitter must be in a frenzy right now, let’s check it out…

A text with a meme of (insert politician/celebrity/athlete here) with accompanying article.

A Tinder alert. Someone matched with you! That new tapas place would be a perfect spot for a first date. Do they take reservations? Better find out.

All of a sudden it’s time for lunch. You had all morning to work on your special project, but you’re lucky if you actually dedicated more than one good hour to it.

You ask yourself, “What is wrong with me?”

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According to behavioral designer and author Nir Eyal, nothing is wrong with you. Smart, successful, responsible people fall prey to the perils of distraction on a daily basis. Is this something we can avoid? Or in an increasingly tech-saturated and connected world full of notifications, social media, mobile devices, and streaming content available at the touch of a finger, are humans doomed in the 21st century?

These are questions Nir set out to research, and ultimately answer, in his latest book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. As you may have inferred from the book’s title, there’s hope for us to block out distractions that prevent us from living the types of lives we want. Nir’s definition of indistractable is “becoming the kind of person who strives to do what they say they are going to do; to live with personal integrity.”

Indistractable.JPG

First, a little explanation about the title. Many of us think the opposite of distraction is focus. But according to Nir we need to pay attention to the Latin root word itself; we should employ strategies and tricks in order to harness the power of “traction.” Traction pulls you toward what you want to do, something you do with intent. Distraction pulls you the opposite way.

“I don’t frankly care what you do with your time,” he says. “As long as it’s consistent with your values, that’s what I want you to do.”

It is not about becoming a flawless, machine-like workaholic who never gets distracted or does anything unproductive. It’s just the realization that we would be in better shape, have better relationships, and get more work done if we simply did what we say we’re going to do. And then taking steps to keep improving our follow-through to the best of our abilities. It may not be easy, but healthy behavior change rarely is. Breaking bad habits requires instilling better ones.

“The problem is that so many of us go through our day-to-day lives without turning our values into time,” Nir tells Erik and Zarak on our latest episode of Action Design Radio. “We just kind of float around and today we blame our technology, but it turns out in my research the source of our distraction goes much, much deeper than that. The number one source of distraction are these internal triggers, these uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to escape from.”

This is a concept that rings true with Zarak. “We have deeper psychological motivators that are prompting our distraction,” he agrees. “Technology is external.”

So if external triggers (mobile devices, social media, the constant availability of the internet) are not to blame, what are these internal triggers and how can I combat them?

Nir provides a four-step model to answer that question:

1.    Master Your Internal Triggers

2.    Make Time for Traction

3.    Hack Back These External Triggers

4.    Prevent Distraction with Pacts

Now, in order to get the full picture of how to put these four practices into place in order to help you better achieve your life, career, and relationship goals – you’ll have to read the book for yourself. But below are some of my favorite helpful nuggets gleaned from Nir’s chat with Zarak and Erik on our latest podcast, including a detailed analysis of Step 1: Master Your Internal Triggers.

 

WE NEED TO STOP PRETENDING THAT TECH IS THE ENEMY

Newsflash: It’s not the tech – it’s us. We have suffered from distraction and procrastination long before we harnessed electricity to create anything that could even remotely be considered technology by our present-day standards.

Early and often throughout Indistractable, Nir references ancient Greek and Roman philosophers (Socrates, Seneca, Hierocles), mythology (Tantalus), Homer's Odyssey (the irresistible lure of the Sirens' call), as well as the Latin roots of the many of the terms being explored. That was one of my favorite aspects of the book. How Nir painted this as a thousands-year-old issue that has consistently challenged humans to find solutions to overcome. And that although technology is a distraction horse of a different color, the overall struggle didn't begin with the invention of the internet or smartphone. 

Socrates in a contemplative pose, perhaps wondering why it’s so hard to get things done in the modern, distracting world of Athens, circa 400 BC.

Socrates in a contemplative pose, perhaps wondering why it’s so hard to get things done in the modern, distracting world of Athens, circa 400 BC.

 Fast-forward to the 20th century, where conversations (and Senate hearings) took place about fears that television and comic books were “melting our brains, preventing us from being productive, and even leading to an increase in depression and suicide” as Nir says. Does that sound any different from the conversations people are having today about Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram?

“The real distraction is not the tools,” Nir says. “The real distraction is thinking it’s the tools. Because that obfuscates the real problem, especially around kids.”

So often, we tend to take an Us or Them approach. Basic in-group/out-group psychology is part of our nature – you’re either with us or against us. But as Nir explains, we don’t have to approach our view of technology this way. In fact, we shouldn’t.

“The answer to complex problems is always the same: It depends.”

“If there’s one thing that plagues our society these days that’s a real problem, it’s our binary thinking,” he says.

“Everything has to be black and white, good guys versus bad guys. And the answers are never that simple. The answer to complex problems is always the same: It Depends. Is social media good? It depends! Is it bad? It depends! If you are using social media to connect to people because you have a difficult time because they live far away from you or you don’t have access to them, then it’s a wonderful outlet. If you overuse it at the cost of being with your family or other priorities, then it can be a bad thing.”

Erik makes a very good point when he says that, “We’re still in such a new era of having a lot of these products, but we’re not totally sure how they align with our values all the time.” He’s absolutely right about the new era we find ourselves in. According to Pew Research, 81% of Americans currently own a smartphone, up from 35% in 2011. And does anyone think that number will go down in the next few years? That is a huge cultural shift in just a few years.

It would be easier to blame the tech companies for our distraction woes. But as Nir demonstrates with the fact that Socrates and Plato used to wax about what a distracting “modern” time they lived in, this is not a new problem. If Zuckerberg closed Facebook tomorrow, or if smartphones magically disappeared altogether, would distraction disappear? No, we’ll go back to watching sports, soap operas, reading magazines, and gossiping around the water cooler instead of having our heads buried in our phones.

So instead of vilifying technology (even though everyone loves a good scapegoat), Nir’s solution was to take a Pro-Tech AND Pro-Human approach.

 

RECOGNIZE THAT ABSTINENCE DOESN’T WORK

Nir said that during his research, the most common “solutions” he encountered from all of the various “experts” out there were along the lines of:

-        Just stop using the tech

-        The tech is melting your brain

-        Go on a 30-day detox

This makes real behavioral design experts like Nir want to jump up and down, screaming THAT DOESN’T WORK! Why, you ask? A few reasons.

First of all, there are many of us that literally can’t stop. And I don’t mean that as an allusion to addiction (more on the misuse of the word “addiction” later on). I mean there are too many people (such as Nir) who depend on these tech tools for their livelihoods. Our jobs depend on connecting with people via email, Slack, LinkedIn, or other mediums/websites/social media. So for many, it’s preposterous to even pretend like giving up their smartphone for a month is a viable option.

What might people say is “melting our brains” and ruining society 50 years from now?

What might people say is “melting our brains” and ruining society 50 years from now?

Secondly, it’s the same reason that fad diets don’t work well enough to create long-lasting, sustainable behavior change. When you go 30 days without any junk food, what often happens on Day 31? Binge! You stuff your face after starving or depriving yourself. Study after study shows that abstinence doesn’t work, whether we’re talking about sex education or creating healthier tech habits. We have to understand WHY we do things against our better interest, and then learn and employ techniques to cope with these urges in a healthier fashion.

“There is no impulsiveness that we can’t prevent with forethought.”

Nir’s approach is that the antidote for impulsiveness is forethought. If you’re trying to lose weight but the chocolate cake is on the fork on its way to your mouth, too late! You’ve lost. If you’re trying to reduce the amount of time you spend on your phone, but you sleep with it 18 inches from your head, too late! You’ve lost.

“There is no impulsiveness that we can’t prevent with forethought,” Nir says. “Something that our species does better than any other animal on the face of the earth is that we have this gift, this ability to see the future with greater fidelity than any other animal on earth. Which means that we can plan ahead.”

The problem is that most of us do nothing to combat the impulsiveness of our natures that lead to distraction. So Indistractable is a book about tactics we can all implement to live the lives we want in order to better align with our values.

Erik captured this sentiment beautifully when he said, “We need to empower individual people to take control of their own time rather than getting rid of technology, or hoping that technology solves the problem for us. We should be preparing people for the shortcomings in their psychology that really prevent them from being able to do what they want to do.”

Shortcomings in our psychology? Like what?

Glad you asked.

 

UNDERSTANDING OUR PSYCHOLOGICAL LIMITATIONS

Understanding these limitations is the first step toward working around them, and better yet making them work for us as opposed to holding us back.

First and foremost, we need to stop believing the perpetuated myth that tells us that if we’re not happy, then we’re not normal. This. Is. Not. True.

As Nir describes on the podcast and in the beginning of his book, the human “steady state” is dissatisfaction. It’s an evolution thing; satisfied tribes got complacent and died off (probably killed by our less satisfied ancestors, who survived). It is dissatisfaction that leads us to constantly strive to improve our world. Inventions, life-saving medications, innovations of any kind – these are all a result of us wanting more. So our dissatisfaction and craving for “more” is something we should embrace and continue to channel, but it’s important to not misinterpret it for true unhappiness or depression.

Another element is understanding that our cognitive biases and quirky genetic makeup have a tendency to play into this natural state of dissatisfaction. Some examples are below:

  • Negativity bias:

o   Our tendency to see the bad first and to disproportionately focus on the negative versus the positive

o   For an example we don’t have to look any further than the media, which perpetually report on bad things going on in the world, not happy things

o   The news is not giving you what you need to know, but what will keep you watching

o   The media are all attention merchants (same as Facebook!), and they know what keeps people tuned in. We all help perpetuate the cycle because negative stories satisfy our typically negative worldviews

o   We’re constantly looking for negativity, it’s in our nature and instincts to spot threats. It served us well while roaming the deserts in tribes trying to survive, but less now in modern society.

  • Hedonic adaptation

o   Even when we get something we want and it makes us happy, it is very fleeting – we quickly revert back to our normal state

o   This reminded me of Happy Money, a great book where social psychologists Michael Norton and Elizabeth Dunn recommend (among several other tips) buying experiences instead of things

o   That gigantic high-definition TV you bought may make you SUPER HAPPY for a while, but you’ll get used to it. It will become your new anchor for what is normal. And besides, spending more time isolated from others inside watching TV will ultimately lead to less levels of happiness than more prosocial behaviors.

o   I remember Norton’s Action Design meetup talk in Chicago a few years ago, where he said that on a given day, we all usually say we’re about a 7 on the proverbial scale of 1-10 of happiness

o   We revert back to the mean VERY quickly. “Well, today definitely isn’t the worst day of my life, but it’s also certainly not the best…I guess I’m about a 7.”

  • Boredom: our NEED for stimulation of some kind

o   Timothy Wilson study at Harvard cited by NIr where participants shocked themselves rather than just sit in a room quietly!

o   Participants were hooked up to electrical circuits and told if they pushed the button they would receive a painful shock. The instructions were essentially, “Sit in this room for 15 minutes – do nothing.”

o   Half of the participants chose to administer an electrical shock rather than just feel nothing, even though they knew it would be painful

o   We hate boredom, would rather feel SOMETHING than nothing

  • Rumination:

o   We turn problems over and over in our head – oftentimes until they get solved, other times until they simply begin to haunt us

o   Sometimes these ruminations manifest themselves in serious physiological ways

o   Insomnia: Some people do suffer from clinical insomnia, but most people’s sleeplessness is caused by…worry about insomnia. Leading cause!

We need to recognize that these tendencies and compulsions of ours are NORMAL. They’re part of our psychological composition. Part of the human condition is dissatisfaction and wanting more. And that’s perfectly fine – as long as we are channeling them in a helpful manner instead of a hurtful one.

 

NIR’S FIRST STEP TO BECOMING INDISTRACTANBLE – MASTER YOUR INTERNAL TRIGGERS

Early on I shared Nir’s four-step solution to becoming indistractable:

1.    Master Your Internal Triggers

2.    Make Time for Traction

3.    Hack Back These External Triggers

4.    Prevent Distraction with Pacts

Nir explains that “negative valence states” are the uncomfortable sensations we seek to escape from. But these are the motivators for ALL BEHAVIOR. People used to think (Freud’s pleasure principle) that neurologically speaking, we are driven both by pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. Nir says that research has shown that that foundation was only half true – it’s actually all about the pain.

“If all behavior is motivated by a desire to escape discomfort, then it means that time management is pain management.”

All human behavior boils down to avoiding pain. Even the pursuit of something good is rooted in escaping discomfort. “So if all behavior is motivated by a desire to escape discomfort, then it means that time management is pain management,” Nir says.

That gives us two options: We can either change the source of the discomfort (fix the problem), or learn to cope with the discomfort that we cannot change.

One subsection of this portion of the book is dedicated to the strategy of “Reimagining Our Temperament.” The self-image of your temperament has a profound impact on your behavior. Nir references the myth of ego depletion. Roy Baumeister published a book called Willpower in 2011, which famously claimed that willpower is a finite resource. That you run out of willpower like a car runs out of gas. You’re “spent.”

However, Nir describes the many researchers who have since debunked this theory because they were unable to replicate its findings. Their conclusion was that ego depletion is only observed in…PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE IN EGO DEPLETION.

Just like how constantly worrying (ruminating!) about insomnia can turn into sleeplessness, this is an example of “learned helplessness.” In other words, we make it true.

Some very subtle imagery here.

Some very subtle imagery here.

If we hear that technology or social media is “addicting,” then we accept it as fact and act accordingly. We fall into the trap of something we hear and then subsequently believe. Now, anything that helps eliminate pain can potentially become addicting, whether it’s eating, taking drugs, having sex, etc. But only a very small portion of the population actually develops a true compulsion, a real “addiction.” But when we call these things addictive, we believe it, and we become worse off for it.

Oh boy…

Oh boy…

Nir deftly disarms this “addiction” weapon of vocabulary and psychology by replacing it with the word “overuse.” You’re not addicted to Instagram, but you do overuse it. You don’t have an addiction to Candy Crush, you’ve just fallen into a habit of overuse. The path of least cognitive resistance is blaming something else instead of ourselves. But to get back on the right track we need to REIMAGINE OUR TEMPERAMENT.

Not helpful!

Not helpful!

“Do not tell yourself you have an addictive personality, or a short attention span, or that you can’t stop, ‘There’s something wrong with me,’” Nir pleads. “Some people really do have a pathology with this, but most of us just need to instill different behaviors, change our actions, and adopt new ways of living our lives in order to become indistractable.”

As we already covered, this doesn’t necessarily mean that after reading this you should go delete all your social media accounts, trade in your smartphone for a flip phone, and cancel your Netflix subscription. Nir loves using all three of those things.

But it does mean we should start asking ourselves questions about the way we habitually spend our time on a daily basis, and how that makes us feel.

 “We need to ask ourselves whether these tools are serving us, or whether we are serving them,” Nir says.

Let the questions begin.

 

Irrationally yours,

Zach

You can access this episode of Action Design Radio on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and YouTube (or wherever you typically get your pod on). Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and sign up for the newsletter on our website to see if an Action Design Network city near you is hosting a free upcoming Meetup event.