The Attention Expert joined us to discuss why we form bad habits and what we can do to resist the lure of technology.
If habits are meant to be useful, why then do we form bad ones? And just how can we resist the hook of technology, to be indistractable?
This week we’re in conversation with Nir Eyal. Nir is the author of two bestselling books, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
Nir previously taught as a Lecturer in Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford.
Nir co-founded and sold two tech companies since 2003 and was dubbed by The M.I.T. Technology Review as, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.”
In this episode we discuss:
- Why we form good (and bad) habits
- The underlying roots of distraction
- How to become indistractable
This episode is part of a new mini-series, which explores ‘who’s in control – the tech, or us?‘. Look out for episodes with Nicholas Carr, Adam Alter, and Anna Lembke, where they will be sharing their own views.
Georgie: This week, I’m in conversation with Nir Eyal. Nir is the author of two bestselling books: Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and the award-winning Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
He consults and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology and business and previously taught as a lecturer of marketing at The Stanford Graduate School of Business. Nir has cofounded and sold two tech companies since 2003 and was dubbed by the MIT Technology Review as the “prophet of habit forming technology”.
Today we’ll be discussing habits, hooks and just what it takes to be Indistractable.
Georgie: Nir, thank you so much for joining us today on the Freedom Matters podcast. It’s really fantastic to have you on the show; and great to finally connect with you.
Nir: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
Georgie: Okay. So I guess just to lay a baseline… can you explain to me, first of all, what is a habit and why do we have habits?
Nir: Absolutely. Habits are defined as “impulses to do behaviour with little or no conscious thought” and it’s about half of what you do, every single day, day in and day out; is done out of habit. And the reason we have habits? Habits are just another form of learning; and so it allows our brains to offload a lot of the conscious processing that is required with deliberate action onto habitual action.
So if you had to drive your car with a kind of white-knuckle perseverance, as you had when you were learning to drive for the first time, it would be really hard to always do that on your way to work every day.
So by offloading a lot of these learned behaviours onto our habitual processes, it allows our brains to do other things. So that’s why you can, after you have plenty of practice driving a car – you can listen to a podcast, you can talk to a friend, you can have a phone call while driving… hopefully while your hands are still on the wheel, but a lot of what used to be very difficult and effort-full becomes effortless.
Georgie: Okay. So then that seems really helpful. Why then, do we also develop bad habits?
Nir: Hmm… Well, the way to answer that question is to first ask ourselves: “What’s the nature of motivation?” If we’re going to ask why we do one thing or another, we have to back up and say: “Well, why do we do anything?”
I think most people have this misconception that motivation is about the desire to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Jeremy Bentham said this. Sigmund Freud said this. It’s kind of a well-known dichotomy of “You’ve got carrots and you’ve sticks”.
It turns out, neurologically speaking, that is not true. That we do not do things for the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. From a neurological basis, everything we do we do for one reason only – and that reason is the desire to escape discomfort. That in the brain everything we do is about the alleviation of some kind of discomfort. Even the pursuit of pleasurable sensations.
So wanting, craving, lusting… All of these things are themselves psychologically destabilizing. If you think about this in the context of our bodies, it makes perfect sense. This is called the homeostatic response.
If the brain senses that you’re too cold, you put on a coat. If the brain says “Oh, now you’re too hot!” you take it off.
And it’s that same physiological process that affects us psychologically; that when we are lonely – we check Facebook. When we’re uncertain, we Google. When we’re bored, we — Oh well, lots of solutions to boredom, right? We check the news, stock prices, sports scores, Pinterest, Reddit… There’s lots of solutions out there to alleviate that discomfort of boredom.
And so the reason we have any habit – good habits, bad habits — Any learned behaviour is the same reason we do anything — It’s the quickest route to alleviate our discomfort. And once the brain learns that this series of behaviours is what most efficiently helps us absolve that discomfort – and it does so reliably – that’s what we’ll go for again and again and again.
Georgie: When you look at our digital habits right now, how would you say we’re doing?
Nir: Well, I think if I had to grade humanity at large, I think we’re doing pretty well. I’m pretty optimistic. I mean, look at us right now. I’m in Singapore. You’re in the UK. We’re talking over this technology on these video phones. Oh yeah – and it’s free! [Laughs]
Nir: Like, what kind of world?
Nir: I mean, if you would have told me this when I was ten years old, I would have laughed at your face. We don’t stop and appreciate how far we’ve come; and given all these changes, I’m not surprised that there are some unfortunate and unforeseen consequences.
But the human race is inborn with this tendency to give attention to bad rather than good; and that’s part of our evolutionary heritage. Right? “Good things are nice, but bad things will kill you”. So all of us have what’s called this ‘negativity bias’ and so it’s no surprise that we only think of the bad stuff. We don’t think about all of the amazing advances.
So I think it’s super important for us in the technology world, those of us who build products and those of us who use these products, to not think of these problems as insurmountable but to think of them as challenges – because the solution is, in fact, more technology!
Nir: The solution to bad technology is not to stop using it. Right? We didn’t stop sailing ships with the first shipwreck.
Nir: We made ships safer! So that’s really the solution. That’s what’s going to get us out of these problems – is good people with the right intentions, with the right ethical compass, getting into this industry to make better technology to fix the last generation of technology.
Georgie: Yeah. Interesting – and I want to come back to that later because I know that’s what you’re doing. You’re investing in products that build good habits.
Before we got to talking about good habit building products however, I wanted to touch on a controversial topic. Nir is strongly opposed to widely using the term “digital addiction” – and given our previous conversation with Nicholas Carr and our forthcoming ones with Adam Alter and Anna Lembke – I wanted to understand Nir’s perspective a little more.
Nir: Yeah. So I would alter that a little bit and say that we’re not all addicted [Laughs]
Nir: I do think that addiction is real, right? There are definitely people who have the pathology of addiction.
But this narrative that you hear people saying today: that we’re all addicted to our phones, that our brains are being hijacked by these technologies… It is disrespectful and misinformed; and in fact, actively harmful.
An addiction is defined as “a persistent compulsive dependency on a behaviour or substance that harms the user”. The vast majority of people are not addicted. About 1-5% of the population has this disorder and has this pathology, but to call us all somehow addicted is ridiculous.
Not only is it unscientific, it’s disrespectful to people who actually have the pathology because I think it trivializes what is a disease.
Nir: And two, and perhaps most importantly – it’s incredibly disempowering. We like calling ourselves addicted because we like learned helplessness. When we believe that there is nothing to be done, that there is a dealer, there is a pusher… “My mind is being controlled. It’s being hijacked. Well, now I don’t have to do anything about it.” Right?
Nir: Not my fault! Not my responsibility! Not my problem! It’s “Big Bad Zuckerberg is doing it to me. Now I don’t have to do anything!
But the fact of the matter is: We’re not addicted. We are distracted. That’s all it is! It’s simply a distraction, just like all kinds of other distractions in the world. But when you use that language: “Oh, that kind of stinks. Now I’ve got to do something about it. Ugh! That’s boring! Can’t I just blame somebody else for this problem?”
Nir: So I don’t think it’s that nobody is addicted to technology. Some people absolutely are! What I am very adamant against is this disempowering language that somehow we are all addicted.
Nir: Give me a break! Have you taken five minutes to change your notification settings? No? You’re not addicted. Have you taken a few minutes to plan your time? Stop complaining! [Laughs] We can do something about this right now.
Georgie: So, that is definitely a very clear understanding of where you see a route from a problem perspective. Indistractable obviously talks about the solution to that. For you, what do you think is the most important message of the book and then secondly – if you were going to do one thing to become Indistractable, what would it be?
Nir: Yeah. So the book is divided into these four strategies, which are: Number one (which I think is the most important step) – is mastering the internal triggers. The second step is to make time for traction. The third step is to hack back the external triggers and that’s where tools like Freedom and of course other tools that we can use to hack back these external triggers – and then finally, preventing distraction with pacts.
And the reason I wrote this book, by the way… I wrote it for me. [Laughs]
I was incredibly distracted and I didn’t like it! Right? I didn’t like the fact that I would say I was going to exercise and I didn’t. I would say I was going to be fully present with my family and with my daughter and yet somehow I would check my devices.
So I think the biggest revelation for me was back to this concept we talked about earlier; around how all human motivation is prompted by a desire to escape discomfort, which therefore means that time management is pain management.
Time management is pain management. That if we don’t master these internal triggers, they become our master. That, at the end of the day, all the tips, tricks and hacks… They don’t work unless we start with the underlying reason we are getting distracted.
What are we looking to escape from? Is it loneliness, boredom, fatigue, stress, anxiety, uncertainty? If we don’t know how to deal with that discomfort, we’re going to always find some kind of escape. Whether it’s too much news, too much booze, too much football, too much Facebook… We’re going to find a way to distract ourselves unless we know how to cope with that discomfort.
So that’s the most important first step – is having arrows in your quiver, ready to go, so that you can actually harness those internal triggers and use it like rocket fuel to push you towards traction rather than distraction. So I think that’s the most important first step.
Georgie: And I wonder… I know previously you have talked about how a number of years ago you were obese and you struggled with your weight and your health. When you kind of came through the cycle of coming out of that, was that the first time you recognized that this is what was driving your own behaviour?
Nir: Absolutely, yeah. I think there are many, many parallels, I think, to the distractions that are caused by technology and the distractions that come from physical health. A distraction… I define distraction as anything that takes you away from traction. You know, the opposite of distraction is not focus. The opposite of distraction is traction.
Nir: Traction is any action that pulls you towards what you say you are going to do. Things that you do with intent.
Nir: Things that move you closer to your values and help you become the kind of person you want to become. Those are acts of traction. Everything else, all other actions, are a dis-traction.
When I used to be obese, I would blame and shame. And this is very typical for all distraction, whether its food related or not. People tend to fall into these two categories of blaming things outside themselves. I used to blame the food companies. Blame the sugar industry. Blame McDonalds! “They’re all responsible for making me fat!”
Just like you hear today: “It’s the technology companies! They’re doing it to us!” Okay, we call those people “blamers”. That line of thinking, I discovered, is futile because you’re not going to change that stuff. Right? These things aren’t going away!
Nir: And frankly, we don’t want them to go away! I don’t want to live in a world without McDonalds. McDonalds is great! In moderation, right? [Laughs]
I like social media! I think YouTube is great. So I don’t want to live in a world without them, so blaming these things while they continue to exist is pointless. It doesn’t get you anywhere.
The other type of person is what we call “the shamer”. This is what I used to do a lot. I would shame myself. I would say: “Oh, I’m no good at this!” You hear people saying this about time management. “Oh, I have a short attention span!” “I’m no good at time management!”
In the health space: “Oh, I have a slow metabolism!”, “There’s something wrong with me”, “I have low willpower”, “I have no self-control”… blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!
“I am a Sagittarius!” [Laughs]
Nir: You hear every reason in the world why somehow you are the way you are and nothing can be done about it. These people we call “shamers”. And the reason that technique is such a bad coping strategy is because shame is one of the most uncomfortable internal triggers we feel!
So the more shame we feel, the more discomfort – and guess what is a great solution to that discomfort? More distraction!
So when I was obese, I didn’t eat because I was hungry! I ate because I was bored. I ate because I was lonely. I ate because I felt ashamed about how much I had just eaten. That’s why I was overweight.
Nir: It wasn’t until I understood what was going on and became not a blamer or a shamer but what I call a “claimer”. A claimer claims responsibility not for their feelings. I think this was a big revelation to me in my own life.
You are not responsible for your urges and feelings. Many people feel like if they feel an urge to get distracted that somehow they are defective. They’re broken. If they feel a craving, if they have a sultry thought that somehow something is wrong with them: You do not control your feelings. Those are not under your jurisdiction.
Just like: imagine if you had the urge to sneeze. That’s not your fault. Once you have the urge to sneeze, you can’t control the urge. All you can control is what you do in response to that urge.
Nir: Hence the term: responsibility. So when you feel the urge to sneeze, do you let it out and sneeze all over everyone in the room? No! You take out a tissue and you cover your face – because that’s the responsible thing to do.
Nir: So it’s the same thing with all sorts of distractions. It’s not your fault that you felt the urge. That’s not your fault. But it is your responsibility to claim the action that you will take in response to that urge.
So, do you give into every temptation and urge, or, do you have methods and techniques to respond to those urges in a healthy (as opposed to hurtful) manner?
Georgie: So you went through that cycle of owning and taking responsibility for how you were responding to these triggers around your weight. A number of years ago now, right?
Nir: Yeah, yeah. It was well before I started this line of research, yeah [Laughs]
Georgie: Okay. And then you found yourself again back in a similar cycle, but with technology. You tell the famous story of the “What superpower would you have?” with your daughter and you never heard her answer because you were distracted by your device. I think we’ve all had really similar moments and completely can relate to that.
So you’ve escaped one problematic set of behaviours and then here you are and you realize you’ve got a new set of problematic behaviours… but this time perhaps you had an understanding and a foundation that you could apply more quickly again. Did you find that helpful?
Nir: Yes, I did. Well… I did and I didn’t because I think I got sucked into, at first, the popular narrative; which is so seductive, which is “It’s not my fault” [Laughs]
Nir: “It’s not my fault” and “It’s not my responsibility”. I agree it’s not my fault, but it is my responsibility and that’s what I have changed into.
Nir: Whereas I think before, when I struggled with this problem, I didn’t intend to write a book about it. I just read every book on this question hoping that I would find my solution and that I wouldn’t have to write a book about it. They basically all said the same thing, right? Stop using technology.
But when you think about it, the number one reason we don’t achieve our goals… What’s the number one reason we don’t achieve our goals? Is it lack of willpower? No. Is it lack of resources? No. You know the number one reason we don’t achieve our goals? We quit.
Nir: Simple as that! So what if we could just persevere long enough to achieve that goal? Well that’s what becoming Indistractable is all about. It’s about learning how to persevere through that discomfort. That’s the real source of the problem.
It’s not these proximal causes. It’s not the Facebook. It’s not your email. It’s not the television. It’s getting to the root cause of the problem. The emotions that we are trying to escape when we get distracted, I should say.
Georgie: Yeah. Amazing. How are you doing now? Because I always feel like whenever I hear you talk, you’ve got it sorted. Right? Do you still wrestle with these triggers? What are the hard things for you to turn towards?
Nir: Okay, so I will tell you. So I made up the word Indistractable and I get to define it any way I want. Right? So becoming Indistractable doesn’t mean you never get distracted. I will admit to you: I still get distracted! I wrote the book. I came up with the word. I still get distracted from time to time, in particular when things change.
Nir: When life throws curveballs at you… which it always does! Right?
Nir: There’s always curveballs.
Georgie: Especially right now [Laughs]
Nir: Especially over the past couple of years. Absolutely! That’s when you’re mostly likely to get distracted… but here is the difference.
An Indistractable person – it’s not that they never get distracted. An Indistractable person knows why they got distracted and they do something about it. As opposed to a distractable person… they keep distracted by the same thing again and again.
Paolo Coelho has a wonderful quote. He said: “A mistake repeated more than once is a decision”. So, that’s the difference!
An Indistractable person says: “Okay. You got me once. I see what you did there, Life… but I’m going to do something about it”.
Georgie: Yeah. This gives a brief comfort because in the last few weeks when I’ve been poorly I normally have a really, I think, quite healthy relationship with how I use technology; but while I was poorly, it all went out the window and I was doomscrolling and I was on social media and I was on WhatsApp – and I knew it was making me feel terrible. It really made the situation worse, actually.
Nir: It makes sense. When our level of these internal triggers increase, we’re much more likely to look for relief in one thing or another.
Nir: Whether it’s a drink, whether it’s a scroll or whatever. Absolutely.
Nir: I think you’re certainly not alone! [Laughs]
Georgie: Yeah. But it made me think more about it because I do love your work, but I do think you do have to have a degree of stability and additional brainpower in your life to be able to put in place these new structures that can then remove the opportunities for distractions to trigger us. As soon as you feel a bit of pressure in your life or change, it becomes really hard and these things fall away.
Nir: Yeah. So I think I’ll say a few points. Number one: This is not a new problem. Distraction did not start with our technologies.
When I was a kid, it wasn’t TikTok and Instagram. It was the television set, right? “Couch potatoes”. That’s what they called us. “We’re all watching too much television!” And all of these distractions out there with rap music and rock ‘n roll music…
Nir: So we are definitely in chartered territory because with every new technology there are growing pains. So that gives me hope at least that we can get through this.
Now, how do we get through this? We do two things. The same things we have always done as a species. We adapt and we adopt. So we adapt our behaviours. We spread what’s called “social antibodies” that innoculate us from bad behaviors. And I think we’ve clearly been here before with more dangerous behaviours.
So when I was a kid, we had ashtrays in my house! Not because my parents smoked. My parents didn’t smoke. But everybody has ashtrays in their living room because when someone came over they just expected to smoke! That was normal behaviour.
Until… brave people like my mother, when one of her friends came over and tried to light up a cigarette she says: “Oh. I’m sorry. We are non-smokers.” Right? She calls herself by a moniker, an identity. “We are non-smokers. If you’d like to smoke, if you’d kindly go outside”. And yes, this woman was incredibly offended. “Oh my goodness, how dare you ask me to smoke outside?” because that was so weird back then.
Nir: But look! Look at the world today! Today smoking went from 40% of the US population to less than 14% of the population – and there’s never been even one law that says that people can’t smoke in someone’s private residence. Why did that change? Because we built new manners, new norms, around the appropriate place for certain things – like cigarettes.
Nir: That’s exactly what we’re doing today with technology. We need to call each other out and we need to form a new identity. This is why the book is called Indistractable because that’s our new moniker. That can be our identity.
I schedule my time. I plan my day. That’s what I do. I am Indistractable.
So I think that’s number one. We adapt our behaviours. Then the second thing we do is we adopt new technologies – and that’s exactly what products like Freedom are doing. Right?
Nir: By adopting these new technologies that fix the last generation’s technology, this is how we get through this. We adapt and we adopt.
The good news here is that this is not something that’s exclusive to the wealthy. Right? [Laughs] It’s not — You know, health food, you can say: “Yeah. Eating healthily today is very expensive”. It’s debatable, but … “Oh, you know, eating organic and all that’s very expensive”. But that’s not the same problem with technology!
I mean, today Apple just release its new iOs. It comes with this incredible focus mode that allows us to block off notifications from things that might distract us. The techn industry realizes that if we make these products things that people can use to manage their distraction, they will like them more.
Georgie: Just moving on to kind of adapting, because I think this is where I want to get the conversation to.
Your first book was obviously Hooked and it was talking about how to design habit building products and then Indistractable in many ways is the other side of the coin where you’re then helping people to recognize the triggers that can come from technology and how to maintain traction despite those distractions.
So where are we with that? Technology is getting better at hooking us. We are perhaps getting a bit better at stepping away from it. Is this a race? Who is going to win?
Nir: I think it depends on the business model of the product. The techniques themselves are not inherently good or bad, which is why I fully stand behind both my books even though some people think “Oh, aren’t they opposed to each other. Right?” Hooked and Unhooked? No, no.
I didn’t call my second book Unhooked. I called it Indistractable because I think we can have our cake and eat it, too. We can get hooked to good habits, right? I think getting people to change their behaviour to help them exercise more…
So Fitbod is one of the case studies I profile in the book that gets people hooked to exercise. Kahoot!, a company I consulted with and then invested in, gets kids hooked to online education. Fintech products that help people save money and get them hooked to saving money… Those are all fantastic. Right?
So the application of these techniques, when the end result is something that really benefits the user and it’s something that they’re happy to do, I think is fantastic. What we have to be on guard about are the products that monetize our time and attention.
Georgie: I just want to challenge you though, because you made quite a sort of simple distinction of that you’ve got your attention apps over here and then you’ve got the other ones over here that are actually positive for our lives. But I think there’s a much more blurred line.
I mean, I don’t use Fitbod but I use Fitbit and there’s a lot of content on there – and they are still fighting for attention, even though they are encouraging us to develop good habits, because attention is still good for showing to investors how much people are engaging with your product and stickier users; which is great for the bottom line in the long run.
It’s a blurry line!
Nir: Sure. Yeah, so I think you’re absolutely right. In fact, in Indistractable, in one of the chapters, I profile a woman who is — I don’t use the term lightly, per what we talked about previously. She becomes addicted to her pedometer.
She finds herself at two in the morning walking up and down her stairs because her pedometer is giving her extra bonus points to walk up and down. She kind of catches herself at two in the morning saying “What am I doing here?” and she realizes that she has walked the equivalent of the entire Empire State building just to rack up points in the middle of the night.
So that does happen. Absolutely. That’s the very, very rare exception. I don’t think it makes the rule. But I use that illustration to show you how some people – in this case, the woman who I profile — She was going through a very nasty divorce, her job was uncertain and she was looking for psychological escape – and this was her escape.
You know, some people do get addicted to overdoing it because they’re looking for some kind of escape. Of course, it’s designed to be engaging. That’s the point. In order for a pedometer to be helpful to people, it has to be engaging. Some people in certain circumstances, with a certain psychographic profile, can overdo it. That’s for sure. But I think that’s the exception, not the rule.
Whereas opposed to companies that their entire business model is pay per click or pay per view, where it’s “How many ads can we show people?”… I think that’s a different monetary incentive.
Georgie: Okay. So yes, these apps are engaging. They have to be in order to drive that product… but unlikely to be as damaging as products which are purely built on attention and engagement.
I wanted to ask Nir: “What was the risk that many of these products which encourage good habits were still eroding our sense of autonomy and our ability to pick and choose?” Did he think that was a problem?
Nir: Yeah. Yeah, I would say that none of this stuff exists in a vaccuum. [Laughs] So when people say that social media is limiting our choices or when you design the menu you’re designing the options set, that is true… but compared to what?
What would we be doing if it weren’t for these social media channels or if it weren’t for these technologies? I’ll tell you what we’d be doing. The same thing we’ve always been doing. We’d freaking watch the television! [Laugh]
Georgie: That’s only four channels! [Laughs]
Nir: You’re right! Exactly, right? So this is nothing new. Any form of media gives you a limited set of options based on what you’re tuning into. Now, I would much rather live in a world where we have more options than less. In this day and age, again, the price of progress is choice – and it’s not an easy choice!
But that is something that we have to struggle with, is that we need to learn these new options and these new norms of how to adapt and adopt to this new reality. That’s the price of living in a world that I think is infifintely better, is that we need to learn these new practices.
Georgie: Okay – and the final question we ask all our guests: Nir, what does productivity mean to you?
Nir: Productivity means acting with intent. So by following through on whatever it is you say you’re going to do with your time. I think I’m productive if I said in my schedule that I was going to meditate or draw or take a walk with my wife. If that’s what I did and I did it without distraction, that to me is being productive.
Georgie: Nir, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast. I really enjoyed that conversation.
Nir: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy and productive days.