This week our guest is lecturer, investor, and author, Nir Eyal, whose previous two books include Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
Nir has a lot of experience teaching and discussing these subjects, so we were able to explore many different aspects of attention in a very short time. This include the triggers that drive us to get hooked to products, the morality of “hooking” people’s attention, the distinction between addiction and distraction, why Nir thinks social media hijacking attention is a dangerous myth, how managing our attention is about managing our pain, and many ways in which we can bolster our defenses against distraction and control our attention.
Music by: Amine el Filali
Nir Eyal [00:00:01] That this always happens with new forms of media. And it's not that we shouldn't be careful, we should be careful, but we shouldn't enter a moral panic and start medicalizing and moralizing people's behavior. We should be very precise about what the harm is and fix that harm.
Steven Parton [00:00:33] Hello everyone. My name is Steven Parton and you're listening to the feedback loop on Singularity Radio. This week our guest is lecturer, investor and author Nir Eyal, whose previous two books include Hooked How to Build Habit Forming Products and Indestructible How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Nir has a lot of experience teaching and discussing these subjects, so we're able to fit in a lot of different aspects of attention into this conversation. This includes the triggers that drive us to get hooked to products, the morality of hooking people's attention in the first place. The distinction between addiction and distraction. Why Nir thinks that the idea that social media is hijacking our attention is in fact a dangerous myth. How managing our attention is about managing our pain in many ways, in which we can bolster our defenses against distraction so that we can ultimately control our attention and become what NIR calls indestructible. This is a truly content, rich episode with lots of good information for anyone who is looking for practical ways to take back control of their attention. So let's waste no more of your attention on this exposition and just jump into it. Everyone, please welcome to the feedback loop near all. Well, at this point, you know, one of the reasons I want to talk to you, obviously, is because of how relevant things like getting hooked to technology and products are to the modern times and how important it is to be able to control our attention. And you've written a book about both of these things. You've written, hooked specifically to talk about how to grab people's attention and destruct in distractible, to talk about how to control our own attention. What was it about these subject matters that motivated you to talk about them or that attracted you so deeply to focus so much of your own attention and energy into exploring this idea of attention?
Nir Eyal [00:02:38] So I think that behavioral design is probably something that fascinated me even before I knew what to call it for a few reasons. As a kid, I was clinically obese, and I remember like not not just chubby, like I was clinically obese. My parents took me to the doctor and I remember there was this chart on the wall that said, like height and weight, and here's here's normal, here's overweight, here's you. You're over here in the orange cat or the red category passed in the orange category of just overweight. And I remember from a very young age feeling like food controlled me and it wasn't. And I also found that really fascinating, right? That like I that companies were marketing to me as a child. I remember like, you know, like every American child in the eighties, I ate breakfast cereal every single day. And then I, I heard on some television show about about being a smart shopper, about how the boxes of Trix are always that. The bunny is always looking down so that when the kid looks up, they make eye contact with the bunny. And I just found those kind of techniques fascinating. But I also think that when I was able to understand my own behavior and and manage that relationship with food as opposed to feeling like food controlled me, I think that was that was a really powerful breakthrough in my life. And I still struggle with my weight. Right. I'm today at 44. I'm in the best shape of my life, but it's something I actively have to work on. So I think that's probably where it started. And then there's probably something in my upbringing. So I was born Israel. My, my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. And I think there's also it's there's probably no it's not a coincidence that there's so many Israelis in this field of behavioral economics. Right? Daniel Ariely, Shlomo Ben Artsy, Daniel Kahneman. There's a lot of Israelis in this field, and I think there's probably something around the fascination of mass psychosis, right? Because of the Holocaust, because of the trauma that that that all of us felt, even if we didn't go through it psychologically. We heard these stories. You know, we know that we know the museums. We know the now that the archives of what happened. And so I think there's this mix of fear and fascination with how people's behavior can be shaped in in good, bad ways. So that's it's probably an amalgamation of of all that. And then finally, I didn't get into this field until I was looking for the application of it. So I was a startup founder. Before I was an author, I started two companies and it was only at the second one that I was at the intersection of these of these industries that were dependent on changing consumer psychology. And when that company was was acquired, I had some time on my hands and I had this very strong thesis that I wanted to build a product that created a habit. And I didn't know how to do that. I looked for a book or how do you build a habit forming products? And I couldn't find one. And so that's when I decided to write my own. Essentially, I didn't think I'd write a book, I just thought I'd blog about it. But I started talking to my former clients and friends who were in Silicon Valley, professors that I, I worked with at Stanford and tried to codify what I was learning into some kind of model that would be useful for me. I think. I thought that would be all it was good for. And it turns out a lot of other people were also interested in the model as well. And so that was kind of the genesis of the class that I later taught the Stanford Gsb in at the House of Letters sort of design, and then eventually my first book, Hooked.
Steven Parton [00:06:13] So you talk there about your background and you know, specifically things like the Holocaust and World War Two and mass psychology. It makes me wonder, do you think things have changed a lot in the ways that we do grab people's attention or the way that this mass psychology phenomenon takes place in the modern world? Compared to then, are we seeing the same kind of things just channeled through a technological medium, or does the technological medium introduce new opportunities?
Nir Eyal [00:06:41] I think it's both. It's it's definitely both. It's it's like Aurelius said, when you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck. So I don't think any of us want to go to a world free radio. But of course, Hitler used radio to to spread his message. So. So it comes with goods and bads, right? It's really about how these tools are used. And there is absolutely a growing paid period where a technology we're not sure about the extent of how technology can be used to influence and persuade. And in some cases it's used to to coerce, meaning it gets people to do things that they didn't want to do that they later regret. And in some cases, it gets people to. It helps persuade, meaning it helps people do things that they themselves wanted to do. So it's it's it's not one or the other for a technology that's as massive as mass communication, whether it's the television, the radio, the book or the Internet, there's going to always be good and bad.
Steven Parton [00:07:43] Yeah. Did you worry about that when you set out to write this book? Were you concerned that this toolset that you're giving people would almost be like Pandora's Box in a sense? Or were you hopeful that, you know, this was going to be something that everyone needed to know and it was beneficial for people? And specifically, I'm talking about hooked for now because I think we want to talk about hooked, I think before we get into it distractible, just to have that foundation. But I mean, when you were writing Hook, did you wonder like, should I give this information to people? Is this a dangerous to order to give away?
Nir Eyal [00:08:17] Sure. And there's a section in the book called The Morality of Manipulation, which deals from the very first edition of the book since I published it, which deals with ethics. Right. How do we as behavioral designers make sure that we apply this for good? And just to be clear, I'd love to take credit for inventing these techniques. I didn't. I stole them from people who were already using. And I stole them from the social media companies. I stole them from the advertising companies. I stole them from the video game companies. And the idea was always to take what they know and apply it to other fields. So I can't be credited or blamed with Facebook as Facebook and YouTube and Instagram and all that, because they don't need me. They've known these techniques forever. It's where I want to be useful is for everybody else. Why is it that we should only use these techniques for for entertainment or frivolity? What if we use this for good? And that's exactly what's happened since Hope was published in 2014. Every conceivable industry from health care to get people to take a get into a habit of using a health care product, a health care device exercise, eating better. And now we're using these techniques to get people hooked to continuous glucose monitoring. I work with companies that do that education. I work with many education companies. Cahoots is a company that's now a $4 billion company that use the hook model to get kids hooked to learning. So that was always my intent, was to take these techniques that were caged up in entertainment, advertising companies, media companies, and bring them to the rest of us so that we can change behavior for good. And I think that's that's absolutely happened.
Steven Parton [00:09:54] Yeah. Can you can you talk then a little bit about what some of those techniques are? Can you can you discuss some of the ways in which we we do get hooked?
Nir Eyal [00:10:02] Sure. So I'll give you the 30,000 foot view of the hook model. The hook model is a design experience that connects the users problem to your product with enough frequency to form a habit. And these folks have four basic steps. Again, I'll give you the very, very fast version. Every hook starts with a trigger. It starts with an external trigger. There's actually two kinds of triggers, but I'll get back to the second kind of minute. The first kind of trigger is what we call an external trigger. These are the pings, the dings, the rings, anything in our outside environment that tells us what to do next with some piece of information. So click here, buy now. Play this anything that tells you what to do next. That's the external trigger. Then comes the action. The action is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. So that's where the habit is manifested. The thing that we do with little or no conscious thought. Scroll a feed, push a play button. Any kind of action that you're doing with little or no conscious thought would be that habit. Then comes the reward. And not just any reward. It's a variable reward. So what we see is endemic to all sorts of habit forming products is some kind of intermittent reinforcement. Of course, this comes from the father of operant conditioning, B.F. Skinner, where he showed that when a reward is delivered on a variable schedule of reinforcement, the rate of response increases. So what? This is what makes gambling so engaging. It's why we watch sports on TV. It's why we like reading a good book or watching a movie. It's all about uncertainty. It's what happens next. The news is a great example, right? The news media could care less if you've consumed too much of it. What they want to do is to give you the most you know, if it bleeds, it leads story so that you keep watching or clicking or flipping through. The news. Why is the first three layers of news? And E.W. is about what's new? What's different? What don't you know, the mystery, the uncertainty. And of course, we see this all over tech products, right? The feed is a great example of swiping left and right. All examples of variable reward mechanics. We see that everywhere in all sorts of habit forming products online and offline. And then finally, the last and perhaps the most important step of the hook model is what we call the investment phase. This is where the user puts something into the product to make it better with use. So this can be data content, reputation, skill acquisition, anything that we do with the product that makes it better and better the more we use it. And the goal here is to do what I call store value. So unlike most products that depreciate, right, your car, your clothing, your couch, all these things lose value. Habit forming products, they do the opposite. They appreciate. The more you use them, the more valuable they become. And that's done because of this concept of stored value. So that's the the last and most important step of the product is getting better with use, and that makes it more likely that you will return in the future, even unprompted. And so this is where we're going to get back to that second type of trigger that I mentioned earlier. Not just the external trigger where a habit is formed is when a company doesn't need that external trigger anymore. So you're not using the product because of a ping ding a ring, you're using it because of an internal trigger. And this accounts for 90% of the time we check our phone. It's not because of a ping ding a ring. It's because of an internal trigger. So what's an internal trigger? It's an uncomfortable emotion that we seek to escape. So habit forming products attach their use to some kind of uncomfortable feeling boredom, loneliness, uncertainty, anxiety, stress. When you can when your products use is the salve for that itch, that's when it becomes a habit. Because now you don't need spammy marketing, you don't need aggressive advertising. The customer is cuing themselves to use the product on their own. That's when the habit is formed.
Steven Parton [00:13:41] Yeah. Would you say that a lot of these internal triggers or this escape from discomfort is prompted by these tools, though? Because in some ways I'm thinking about maybe the way that a notification might show you pictures of your friends doing something that you weren't there for or showing you a picture of your ex. Or, you know, the feed is constantly piquing my dopamine levels so that when I step away, I need to come back. Like, in some ways, it feels like those internal triggers, that sense of loneliness I get, was brought on by the external trigger. Do you think that's a dynamic that's at play here?
Nir Eyal [00:14:16] It can be, but so every product you use, I can't think of one product that you don't use for only one reason, and that reason is to modulate your mood. Okay, everything you do, everything you do, the cup of coffee in the morning, Netflix at night, whatever it is, every product you use those books in your bookcase, you bought them to make yourself feel different. That's what products do. Why? Because the nature of human motivation, you know, we used to think it was about Freud's pleasure principle that every and Jeremy Bentham said something similar, you know, that everything we do is about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. We now know that, neurologically speaking, that's not true. That motivation is about one thing and one thing only. The desire to escape discomfort. Everything you do is about the desire to escape discomfort. Even the desire to feel good, right? Wanting, craving, desire, lusting is psychologically destabilizing. So what every product in our universe does is scratch that emotional itch. It forms that association that, Oh, when I'm thirsty, my beverage of choice is Coca-Cola or Sprite or who knows what, right? If I'm bored, what do I do? If I'm lonely? What do I do if I'm sleepy? What do I do? This is why we buy everything that we buy. That's not necessarily a sinister thing. That can be a very good thing, right? If I'm. If I'm feeling lonely, how do I scratch that itch of loneliness? Well, I could do in a lot of different ways. I could call my my best friend. I could spend time with my wife. I could hang out with my kids, or I can go online. So it's about how we scratch that itch. Now, there is the reason I say it depends in the beginning of the answer is that you could argue that some products perpetuate that condition, right? That if you become conditioned to seeking this short term relief. Right. Go back to my example where I was saying about how I struggle with obesity. Okay. I would love to tell you that the reason I was overweight was because the fast food companies did it to me. Right. That it was McDonald's fault. But in actuality, I wasn't overweight because food is delicious or because I was hungry. I overate because I didn't know how to deal with my feelings. And this is very common to people who struggle with obesity. It's not the food, it's the relief the food provides from other things that are not hunger related. I would eat not just when I was hungry. I would eat when I was lonely, I would eat and I was bored. I would eat when I felt guilty about how much I had just eaten. And so that's where it gets into this vicious cycle where the natural circuit breakers that most of us have for some people who are struggling with a disorder don't trip. So most people, you know, you drink alcohol, you have a great night. You know, you go a little crazy, you drink too much. And then the next day you have a hangover and you promise you won't do it again. And for most people, they they moderate. Right. But of course, alcoholics, they don't moderate. That circuit breaker isn't trips. Trips. And so when they have the adverse consequences. Right. That's the whole definition of addiction is despite the adverse consequences. There's this compulsion to keep doing that behavior.
Steven Parton [00:17:27] Is this why you have said before and other interviews that you don't think social media is hijacking our minds? I'm pretty sure I heard I remember you saying at one point you think the idea that social media is is is hijacking our minds is a myth. And actually.
Nir Eyal [00:17:40] Not only do I think it's a myth, I think it's actively harmful and incredibly disrespectful. Hijacking is what those bastards did to us on 911 to compare. Scrolling through, you know, my cousin's wedding photos. Come on. It's. It's a whole nother league. And even the whole, you know, you hear this dopamine squirts and all that stuff, it's such on a different scale. You don't hear you only hear laypeople talking about this. You know, you only hear people who are not actually researchers using this kind of language because actual researchers know that a hit of cocaine is release is something like 10,000 times more dopamine than anything you could do online. It's not even close. Dopamine is not cocaine in the brain. But of course, this imagery of old governments for its dopamine source, it's such a powerful image. And, you know, so many of our problems, I think, in the world can be can be boiled down to these simple mantras, right? These simple, often repeated phrases that are completely inaccurate or at least lack nuance. So some people and here's why the nuances some people are actually addicted to social media. Right, because addiction is a pathology. And so just like, you know, many people, most people, if they have a glass of wine with dinner, they're not an alcoholic. Right. If you enjoy sex, you're not a sex addict. If you, you know, like food, you're not you don't have a food eating disorder necessarily because you like it a lot. So this is where I think we get into trouble for a few reasons. Number one, it's harmful to say that it's hijacking our brain, because while it does apply to some people, right, some people who do struggle with an addiction actually are really struggling with that pathology. Right. Of an addiction, just like they would struggle with alcohol addiction or sex addiction or whatever other addiction. But that's about 3% of the population. That means 97% of us, 97% of us don't have the addiction. We have a distraction. But when we tell people it's hijacking your brain, we're sending them a message that there's nothing you can do if your if your brain is hijacking and plane and brain and plane sound similar. Right. I think that's no that's no coincidence that you see that together because think about it, right. If somebody is hijacking a plane like like they did to us on 911, there's nothing you can do. Right? You're powerless. You're being steered by Mark Zuckerberg into a tower. So what do you do? Nothing. I can't do anything. My brain is hijacked. It's not my own. I'm addicted. Right. Addiction. The word comes from the Latin word for slave. Yeah. So this leads to what we call learned helplessness, which is exactly what these companies want. I think that the if they could have the social media companies word, it would have funded the social dilemma movie because what that movie told people is powerless. Nothing you could do. Wait, wait for the politicians to do something. Tell the companies to do something. Really. We're going to hold our breath. If we hold our breath, we're going to suffocate. So, number one, we shouldn't wait. So this it decreases people's agency when you tell them your brain is hijacked. That's the first problem. Second problem is that it's incredibly disrespectful to people who actually struggle with the pathology of addiction. We toss the word addiction around all the time, but we wouldn't talk about epilepsy this way, right? We wouldn't talk about that Tourette's this way. Why does everybody get addicted? It's a pathology. We need to respect this very awful disease that people who struggle with addiction have and realize that it is very separate from who I like. Candy Crush or I check my Tic TAC a lot. No, it's very different because for the vast majority of us, there's a 97% chance you don't have an addiction, you have a distraction.
Steven Parton [00:21:14] I guess that's where you draw the line. Is your big your big issue. There is that line between addiction and distraction, I guess, is what you would say.
Nir Eyal [00:21:22] Yeah, I think it's important that we call it what it is, right. Because that's the only way we can effectively deal with it. But I understand why people gravitate towards that. And I'm clearly not winning this war. Right. Because for every one article you see about personal empowerment and hey, what you can do about it, you see ten that say big bad tech is doing this or that because we love this narrative. Right? People always love it. The rich, the big corporations. I mean, it's such a trope now, but and in some regard, it's true, right? There's a lot of things that these companies have done very poorly and should do better and should be held to a higher standard. And there's lots of regulations that I am in support of regulations protecting children and regulations, making sure that foreign actors can't influence elections. This is common sense stuff we should do. But I'll tell you one thing that will never happen. We'll never we're never going to regulate a product to be less engaging for our own good, right? Like that's stupid. Netflix, can you please make your shows less engaging? I find that I really am entertained by your shows. Can you make them more boring? Apple your phones are so user friendly. Can you make them a little harder to use? No, it's stupid. That doesn't make any sense. These products, you know, being engaging is not a problem. It's progress. We want them to be engaging. Now, what does this require? You know, we live in this world where by so many metrics, things are getting better. We have access to the world's information in our pockets, the price of that. This is you have to learn how to use it appropriately, guys. Right. We have to learn. What am I asking you to do? Change your notification settings. Right. Plan your day. Ask yourself what emotions are driving you to distraction. This isn't rocket science. I'm not asking you to go climb Mount Everest. We just need to learn how to use these things. And I'm telling you, it's so much easier to do. Don't even agree with my point about personal responsibility. Say you agree. Yes. Facebook should fix it. Okay, let's. I'll give you that point. Why would we wait? Right now we can do something about it. But you never hear the tech critics talking about that because it doesn't serve their narrative what they want. Give my organization money. You tell it. Tell everybody about how evil social media is on social media. But you're right. It's no coincidence the social Dilemma movie came out on Netflix.
Steven Parton [00:23:40] Well, I mean, bearing that in mind, I mean, you're you're getting on something here that I think is really important and maybe kind of helps bridges towards and distractible bit is that there seemed to be a lot of other things taking place in people's lives that are causing the behavior. Right. We we want the we want stories to be engaged and we want video games to be engaging. We want to enjoy whatever apps that we have. The issue is that what I'm hearing at least, is that a lot of our life circumstances like you were talking about when you were younger and the way you were basically like eating your emotions, these other life circumstances are not really, you know, satisfying our psychological needs. And in that way, I wonder if maybe you could talk about how, you know, what you said before is like time management is pain management. And this this this resistance to distraction comes from, I guess, maybe a better relationship with our pain management.
Nir Eyal [00:24:37] That's exactly right. So back to my point earlier about how all human behavior is sparked by a desire to escape discomfort. So what that means then, if you can manage that discomfort, this is how we ultimately control our behavior. So that's why I say time management is pain management. Weight management is pain management. Money management is pain management, right? It's all about this ability to delay that gratification so that we make the right choice, that we our actions lead us towards traction, things that we want to do with our time and attention as opposed to distraction. Anything that leads us away from what we said we do with our time, attention. So so this this principle, I think, is where we have to start, because if we jump straight to the life hacks and the tips and tricks in grayscale, your phone, okay, that's kindergarten stuff. It doesn't deal with the underlying issue. And the reason I know it doesn't deal with the underlying issue is that distraction is nothing new. Right. Do people think that distraction is is something that the Internet created? Of course not. Plato, the Greek philosopher 2500 years ago, was complaining about the world is so distracting these days. He called it a class in the Greek. So this is not new. And of course, you know, you'd have to go back 2500 years. Our grandparents complained about how distracting the radio was and novels were terrible and the bicycle was horrible. I mean, it's literally every new technological breakthrough, especially when it comes to new forms of media. This is always the cry of the reaction is who doesn't have the the perspective of historical relevance, that this always happens with new forms of media. And it's not that we shouldn't be careful. We should be careful, but we shouldn't enter a moral panic and start medicalizing and moralizing people's behavior. We should be very precise about what the harm is and fix that harm. So when people talk about, oh, there are all these these these social media does this and the attention economy that. Okay, but show me the harm, right? Show me, for example, foreign actors interfering in elections. Okay, that's harm. Let's do something about that. And it's easy to fix, right? We can do something about that. But these obtuse things that, oh, you know, people the kids the kids are spending too much time video gaming. Well, that might not necessarily be such a bad thing, right? When we look at the fact that every metric of what hurts children, with one exception, which is teen suicide in the United States, it's not happening everywhere in the United States. For some reason. I think it has to do with the fact that we have more guns than men, women and children. This country is the only country on earth that has that. Maybe there's a correlation there that that that was a tipping point back in 2008. Same time we see these the increase in teen suicide all the other metrics all the other metrics, smoking record lows, truancy record lows, drunk driving record lows, pregnancy record lows, drug use, record lows. All the things that hurt kids, all the stupid things we used to do before the internet is at a record low. Well, why? Why? You know why? Because the kids aren't doing all that reckless, dangerous stuff. If you wanted to create a device to keep kids safe at home off the streets, you know what? Maybe for those very dangerous teen years where we've known for millennia that kids do stupid stuff. It gets them into trouble and gets them hurt. Now, such a bad invention. Yeah, I know.
Steven Parton [00:27:55] I don't want to. I don't want to speak out of turn on on. Jonathan hates views, but I talked to him recently and he would argue that this is actually a big negative. I would say that he would say these are network effects because the issue is that kids are so, you know, let's just say, distracted by their technology that they're not going out and playing and that this is actually not good because this limits their social development. They're not out there in the world taking the risks that they need to they're they're victims of like helicopter parenting. They're not enjoying that latchkey kid type of lifestyle that builds resilience. I mean, do you think there's anything to that aspect of it?
Nir Eyal [00:28:34] Absolutely. And our kids actually play together. So we're we're good friends and we actually very much agree on the solutions. What we differ on is the cause. I think the cause has much more to do with the parenting style first inflicted by the traditional media, that the traditional media convinced the American parents that letting your kid go outside is dangerous. When we were kids. Kids. We used to play outside. We could go outside, but today, oh, stranger danger. And you're going to get kidnaped and there's going to be a shooting and this. And so what did the parents do? They don't give their kids an option to go out and play, which we absolutely agree with. I totally agree with Jonathan Heights. We need kids to play. And in fact, in my book and distractible, I have a whole chapter on how to raise and distractible kids. And one of the things I prescribe is scheduling time for your child to have what we call free play. And and that free play only happens without the gaze of parents, coaches and teachers. And that is also part of the problem. By the way, if you are if you have the resources, what you do, you don't let your kids just free play. No, no, no. They have to go to Kumon and they have to take swimming lessons and they have to take Chinese lessons. They have to take ballet. So it's not social media doing. It's a fact. It's parents persuaded by one. The media that has convinced us that it's dangerous to let your kid play to the pressures of college. You know how difficult it is to get into a college. Today, parents are scheduling every minute of their day. That's not technology's fault. That's parents being suckers and not realizing that you don't have to do all this stuff to to raise a wonderful human being. What you really need to do is pull them out of the swimming lessons and the Chinese lessons and all this extracurricular garbage and let them play, just let them be kids. So I totally agree with Jonathan Haidt. What I don't agree with is I don't think that's caused by the technology. I think the technology came as the band aid afterwards. So parents stuck their kids at home fearful that something bad would happen to them. What the hell else are they supposed to do? Like, literally, what is a kid going to do if they're stuck indoors after school? Well, in my generation, what do we do? We watch TV, right? What do they do today? They're online.
Steven Parton [00:30:46] So what I'm hearing is that the issue with the the big bad Wolf, that is social media mentality is that it actually obfuscates the the key issues because we rather than addressing the specific issues like maybe the helicopter parenting or, you know, these other the other aspects of people's lives, we just. Put it all under the rug. Call it social media addiction and forget about the actual issues.
Nir Eyal [00:31:12] And this is exactly what the last Jedi. We don't seem to learn this lesson. Right? In my generation, it was heavy metal. That's Dungeons Dragons. That's what was doing it to.
Steven Parton [00:31:22] Both of which I love.
Nir Eyal [00:31:23] Right. And before that, it was the rock and roll music and it was the radio. And I mean, literally every generation does this this moral panic that it's the new technology. Why? Because we as parents and I'm a parents I have a 14 year old daughter. We never want to think it's us. That's us. Can't I just blame Mark Zuckerberg? Right. My kid is acting crazy. It can't be me. It's got to be something outside of me. And I understand that's a very difficult pill to swallow. Unfortunately, it's just not the truth.
Steven Parton [00:31:54] Yes. So.
Nir Eyal [00:31:55] Oh, sorry.
Steven Parton [00:31:56] 1/2, please.
Nir Eyal [00:31:57] Please. I one thing that that Jonathan and I very much agree on is that we do need more protection for kids using these products. So even Facebook, the makers of the owners of WhatsApp and Instagram, even, they will tell you 13 years old is the minimum age to use the product. Why the hell would you let your kid use or use these products to manufacture themselves? Tell you don't let your kid use under a certain age? Oh, but all their friends have it. So. So you gave them the phone. So this is this is a silly argument just because everybody's doing it. The network effect. Come on, give me a break. Right. We've heard this too many times. If all your friends jump off a cliff, would you do it, too? Okay, some do. Parents say no, sorry, you don't get it because you're not 13. I actually think even 13 is too young, not because we have so much overwhelming evidence. The only evidence we have is that something is happening with teenage girls. We don't see anything happening with teenage boys. And even Jonathan, I will say that to you as well. Something is happening with teenage girls specifically. We don't we're not exactly sure why there could be all kinds of causes. So I think just to be safe as a precautionary principle. My daughter's 14. I'm not going to let her have social media until, I don't know, 16, 17, 18. Why not? I feel like those years are difficult enough without social media, so why not wait a few years? But for adults, I think it's a senseless argument.
Steven Parton [00:33:18] That makes me think specifically of, you know, identity formation. And as adolescents, you know, we're in a big process of figuring out who we are. And I believe you've talked before about the fact that self-image and our identity can be a factor of resilience when it comes to distraction. Can you talk more about that?
Nir Eyal [00:33:36] Yeah. So so self-identity is it can can be a path towards distractibility or away from distractibility. And so I'll give you a couple examples. So a few years ago, there was a lot of research done into this concept of ego depletion. And ego depletion says that our willpower depletes right like a battery running out of charge, that you once you it's over. Once you have no more of it, that's it that you're out of it. And so this research actually had some some studies behind it until a group of researchers, as we do in the social sciences, when a study sounds a little fishy, what do we do? We replicate it. So science is all about replicating a study to make sure that that we can test it again. Again, if it's really true and it turns out it couldn't replicate. And so the best that we know right now is that ego depletion is not real, that you don't run out of willpower like charging a battery. That's just not how willpower works, except except in one group of people. There was, in fact, one group of people. And this was a study done by Carol Dweck at Stanford found that people who believed that willpower was a limited resource, those people really did run out of willpower. So this is a great illustration of what I was saying earlier around why it's so actively harmful to tell people that social media is hijacking your brain is addicting, everyone. Because if we believe it's true, if we believe that somehow we're deficient, that we're a morning person or a night owl and we're unable to function or Sagittarius or I'm a this I'm of that. This can be very detrimental to our behavior, to what we actually want to do in our life, because we will act in accordance with our beliefs about ourselves. It's like Henry Ford said, whether you believe you can or you can't, you're right. And we all know that. Right. And so why would we think it's any different when it comes to our use of technology and distraction? Conversely, when we have an identity that affirms the kind of person we want to be, this has been shown to be incredibly empowering to help us do the things we say we're going to do. There's a beautiful study done by Newton at all where he showed that simply referring to the act of voting in as a noun or a verb, meaning are you a voter versus are you going to vote right the now versus the verb, are you the kind of are you a voter was one of the most significant improvements we've ever seen in terms of actual voting behavior, because they actually check the voting records in this study. And they said that actually people did vote simply through this this intervention that identify people as voters. We see this also when we think about something that's far more addictive than social media with Cigarets. Right? So I remember when I was growing up in the 1980s, back then, everybody I knew when I visited my friend's house, everybody had ashtrays in their living room where you saw whether you smoked or didn't, didn't matter. 40% of the population used to smoke back then in the 1980s. And people who were born after the 1980s can't understand this because today it's crazy to think that you can walk into somebody's house and just light up a cigaret that people did that all the time and they didn't care whether you smoked. They just expected to have an ashtray handy because that's what people did back then. Well, today, that's crazy. No one would ever do that. Walk into your living room and just light up a cigaret. Or at least they'd ask or, you know, be polite about it. Well, what changed? What happened? Was there a law that said we can't smoke in someone's private residence? No, there's never been such a law. What changed was our norms, our manners, our identity changed. So I remember when my mom threw away the ashtrays and when one of her friends came over and just assumed that she could light up a cigaret, she took out this pack, and my mom said, no, no, no, no, no, sorry. We are non smokers. You see, there's that identity. We are non smokers. If you like to smoke, if you kindly go outside. And she took offense, right? It was so weird, so different. Nobody did that back then. But of course, today it's just commonplace. So that's what we need to do. And so the way the reason that my book is titled Indestructible is that Indescribable is meant to sound like indestructible. It's an identity. It's who you are. And so we see this manifesting when it comes to the psychology of religion. We know that when someone says that they are a vegetarian or vegan, they don't debate with themselves every morning, Ooh, should I have that bacon sandwich for breakfast? No, it's true. They are. It's part of their identity. So when we call ourselves indestructible, just like my mom calls herself a smoker, that is who we are. And that what essentially that does is make us much more likely to act in accordance with that identity. So, yeah, you know what? I don't check my phone every 30 seconds and yet I plan my day. And, you know, when I work, I have this little sign on my screen that says when I'm available to be interrupted, is it weird? Yes. Is it that much different or outside the norm than someone who eats a peculiar diet or wears religious gowns? No, it's something that we tolerate and accept in society. So so that's what we need to do with becoming indestructible as well. So the more people that hear this message and say, no, I'm indestructible, that's who I am. That's my identity. This can, I think, promote social change so that we can spread what we call social antibodies to make the world more indestructible.
Steven Parton [00:38:51] Yeah, it reminds me of the idea of the Ulysses Pact and that idea, like using your stronger moments to protect you against your weaker moments. So if you set aside your day when your brain's doing well, then in those moments where you're feeling worn out or you feel like you are lacking in willpower, you have those environmental cues to steer you in positive directions.
Nir Eyal [00:39:12] Absolutely. So if you were going to summarize it and distractible into one mantra, it would be this that the antidote to impulsiveness is for thoughts. I'll say it again. The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought, because, you know, these distractions are impulse control issues. So whether it's time management, weight management, money management, it's fundamentally about an impulse control problem. So the solution to impulse control is forethought. What do I mean by that, that if you wait to the last minute, you're going to lose, right? If the cigaret is in your hand, you're going to smoke it. If the chocolate cake is on the fork and you're on a diet, you're going to eat. It's too. You're going to lose if you sleep next to your cell phone every night. It's going to be the first thing you reach for in the morning. It's too late. They're going to get you. But there is no distraction. We can't overcome with forethought. So these big bad companies and the distractions and the hijacking your brain. Well, did you plan ahead? Did you plan your time? How are you going to spend your time? Did you make sure that whatever it was that got you last time won't get you again? This is the difference between someone who is distractible and someone who is in distractible. Paulo Coelho had a wonderful quote. He said, A mistake repeated more than once is a decision that's worth repeating. A mistake repeated more than once is a decision. Okay, you know what? Those bastards at Facebook, they got you, right? They distracted you. Okay, once. Twice. How many times are we going to sit here and let them distract us, do something about it? So a distractible person says, Well, you know, whatever. And they get distracted again and again and again by the same things. An indescribable versus is that okay? I see what you did there. I'm not going to let that happen again because every distraction only has three causes. It's either an internal trigger, an external trigger, or a planning problem. That's it. And so once you can identify the true sources of distraction, you can take actions today to not get distracted tomorrow.
Steven Parton [00:41:05] Yeah. Are there other techniques of forethought, like under that umbrella of forethought, what are some of the things that you would recommend for people who are feeling like they're struggling with distraction, who are looking for ways to kind of bolster their defenses against getting hooked in negative ways?
Nir Eyal [00:41:23] Sure. So it's these are the four steps to becoming distracted. The first step is to master the internal triggers. So if we don't master our internal triggers, they master us. So what you have to do is to have these this game plan, these arrows in your quiver that you are ready to go when you feel these internal triggers, when you feel lonely, when you feel bored, when you feel stressed, what are you gonna do right? Are you going to scroll? Are going to take a drink? Are you going to watch TV or do you have a game plan in place that when you feel this discomfort, you don't escape it with distraction, but you lean into it with traction, but that requires forethought. And I gave over a dozen different techniques from acceptance of cognitive therapy, from cognitive behavioral therapy, all kinds of techniques that you can use today to have that that tool ready to go when you feel that discomfort. Okay. So that's step number one. Master internal triggers. Step number two is make time for traction. So many people when who complain about distraction, when I ask them, what exactly did you get distracted from what was on your calendar that big, bad Facebook took you away from? Right. What did you have scheduled? And they show me their schedule and there's nothing on it. So let me get this straight. You got distracted from something that you didn't even plan. How can you get distracted when you don't know what you've got distracted from? So, newsflash, we have to plan our time. We have to plan our time. Unless you're a child or retired. And you want to get more out of your life, right? If you feel you're capable of more and you're not achieving what you want to achieve with your time and your attention because you're distracted. You have to plan your time. If you don't plan your day, somebody is going to plan it for you, whether it's the media, whether it's your kids, whether it's your boss. Somebody is going to plan your day for you because they have an incentive to use your time and attention sometimes for for it to monetize it sometimes. So whatever somebody is going to eat up that time, you've got to plan your day. That's step number two. Make time for traction. And I teach you exactly how to do that based on your values. The good news is you can spend that time anywhere you want. So I don't care if you plan to play video games all day. If that's consistent with your values, do it. I'm not going to moralize and medicalized that behavior if that's what is consistent with your values. Awesome. But you have to plan your time according to your values, not someone else's. Right. So that's all about making time for traction. The third step is to hack back the external triggers. We talked about those pings and dings, and even though it's the source of only 10% of our distractions, it's a very simple things that we can do that all of us should do. It takes minutes to finally make your your phone in distractedly your computer and distractible. But that's the kindergarten stuff. The much more common, insidious forms of distraction are the things that we don't think about. Right? How about those endless meetings that we have over Zoom or in person that are just drone on and on these meetings that didn't need to be called in the first place. Nothing but distractions. Email How many? How much e-mail do we get every day? That's nothing more than a distraction. Our kids, many of us are working from home today. We love them to death. It can be a huge source of distraction. So what do we do about all these external triggers? Again, distraction didn't start with the cell phone. There's all kinds of distractions out there. And so I teach you that system step by step, how to hack back those external triggers. And then finally, the last step is to prevent distraction with a packed and a packed, as you mentioned, like a Ulysses Pact is when we decide in advance what we will do, when we're going to get distracted. So as the last line of defense as a firewall against distraction, there are these three kinds of packs, an effort packs, a price pact and an identity pact. We talked a little bit about identity packs, but there's also these two other types of effort packs and price packs that in that last line of defense, right. If everything else fails, this is the last step we take to make sure we become indestructible.
Steven Parton [00:45:06] Do you think that there's a reason that this is such a hard thing for people to implement in their day to day lives?
Nir Eyal [00:45:13] Well, I don't. I don't know if it's as hard as maybe you think. Fair, fair or not. Yeah, I get a lot of people who I mean, the book is sold over half a million copies and distractible, that is. And it still continues to sell well. And it's being now handed to people who are struggling with ADHD that the book is not written for people with ADHD specifically, but even clinicians are giving the book to folks who are struggle with ADHD as a pre pharmaceutical solution. Right. Let's try the behavioral solutions before we go on to pharmaceuticals, which we all know have potential side effects. So these techniques really do work. And I have to be very clear, I didn't invent any of the techniques, any of them. What I did was collate them into a model. That's helpful. So what I want people to think about is traction, distraction, internal triggers, external triggers. And this model, if you're listening to me so you can't see the visual hand gestures I'm making here, but in the book there's a model that if you can imprint that on your mind, you can use this as as the guide to take one simple step. You don't have to do everything in the book. You don't have to go on a digital detox. I think those are stupid. You don't have to get rid of your phone. It is a very tech, positive approach that you can take step by step by step. But the beauty of this technique is that it really does dove into this. The real cause, without blaming the superficialities, really starts with emotional regulation. And you'll find that it's not just about technology, it's about distraction in all forms of your life. So the advice I give folks is just start with one small things in each of these categories. Do you have one thing that you know you will do when you get when you feel one of those internal triggers that tends to drive you towards distraction? Do you how about you plan one weekend afternoon? Right. If you're not used to planning your day, just start with a weekend afternoon. What would the ideal weekend afternoon that helps you live according to your values look like? How about you hack back one external trigger? Use one of these commitment packs. There's all kinds of things that you can do one step at a time. And what you find is that as you do that, you build your self-efficacy, you build your sense of agency, and it becomes easier and easier and you realize how much better your life is when you simply do the things you say you're going to do, whether it's I said I was going to exercise. I said I was going to eat, right. I said, I'm going to be fully present with my kids, my family. I said, we're going to work on that big project. There's there's just such an immense feeling of joy when you do what you say you're going to do, and then you can truly enjoy leisure. Because I think this is the real tragedy that we see today, is that so many people have no idea what real leisure feels like, especially like alpha, like type-A personality, people who are constantly working, working, working, even when they want to relax, right? Even when they go on vacation, even when they come home from work. And all they want to do is watch Netflix because they use some of these antiquated techniques like keeping to do list. By the way, we could talk about why to do this are are counterproductive for many, many people even when they want to relax. Right. Just be with their kids or do something that's not work related. They're always thinking about what they should be doing. They carry this baggage around around what they could be and should be doing as opposed to an indescribable person. Doesn't carry that right. I planned in my day just for all social media. That's what's on my calendar now. That's traction. Everything else is distraction. And so you really enjoy the leisure time you give yourself without this guilt that you should be doing something else. Anything that you say is what you plan to do in advance. That's traction. Everything else is distraction.
Steven Parton [00:48:41] Yeah. Well, as we look forward into this relationship of a tension with technology. Are you then optimistic or pessimistic about the way things are going? Do you think that we're seeing people kind of build this immune system as we, I guess, maybe become more mature in our relationship with technology? Do you feel like maybe it's going the other direction? How do you think this paradigm is unfolding?
Nir Eyal [00:49:06] I think that's going to be a real bifurcation. Hmm. That the people who stand up and say, no, I will control my time and attention. I will choose how I spend my life. I am in distractible are going to go one way and they're going to have the benefits of all the amazing good aspects of this technology. And then there will be the people who either give up or who are unaware of these techniques. And unfortunately, I think their time and attention will be controlled by others. And so I don't I don't know society wide. What this means is too complicated for my puny brain to comprehend what the long term ramifications are. But I do think on an individual personal level, this will be the skill this century, because we have it all at our fingertips. Right. We all there's no excuse anymore to say I don't know what to do. Right. There's there's almost no problem that you can't find help with today with the Internet. Right. What are you struggling with? All your weight loss, attention management, money management, whatever it is that you're struggling with. Pretty good chance somebody has either written a book about it or has some website with tips and tricks and you can consult with the answers. Are there? What we lack is the ability to pay attention long enough to absorb this knowledge, to absorb this wisdom. And so those who develop that skill of becoming indestructible can have the best of both worlds. But those who don't, I think, are going to be in trouble.
Steven Parton [00:50:36] Do you think this is impacted at all by things like the like Maslow's hierarchy of needs? I know the you know, there isn't necessarily a hierarchy and he never necessarily put it in those order, that order. But it does seem to me there's something here in that becoming and distracted was almost like a luxury. I can't I can't escape this idea a little bit as I'm hearing you feeling like in a way, if you're financially not in a good spot, if you're working a job that you despise, if you feel like you don't have a lot of autonomy in your life, if you are just exhausted, whether or not that idea of willpower is is real or not, if you're just exhausted after two jobs or a long day or whatever it is, it feels like wrestling with attention becomes almost like a luxurious thing that someone has. So do you feel like that's at play here at all?
Nir Eyal [00:51:28] Well, I don't think you have the problem unless you're privileged. Mm. Right. It's not like.
Steven Parton [00:51:33] Ignorance is bliss kind of thing.
Nir Eyal [00:51:35] You know, I think if you're if you're working at a restaurant, if you're working, you know, picking fruit, if you're working on an assembly line, you're not checking Facebook. Right. If you're if you're if you're working a blue collar job at after work, you're watching TV anyway or you're doing something else with your job. That's not who I hear is struggling and saying this is really hard to implement. That's almost never the case because those folks don't have the luxury of all this free time. You know, I'll quote Kirkegaard, who said, Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. Anxieties, the dizziness of freedom. It is only because this new class of people who has so much time on their hands and doesn't appreciate how much time they have on their hands that struggles with distraction because they have the time to not work two jobs right now, so like really hard working people do. So it's really a privilege even to have this problem in the first place. Now that means therefore, that with that, that the access to these devices, with the access to the time to to to do these things, we have to learn how to be judicious with it. Right. That if you have this, this, this luxury of having extra time in the first place, you also may want to invest in learning how to spend it well.
Steven Parton [00:52:54] Yeah, it seems to me almost in the same way we can use the US's pact for our own consciousness. Those of us who might have the luxury to, you know, enact a kind of Ulysses pack and maybe even do it across socioeconomic divides. And now, in a way, it feels like those of us who are lucky enough to becoming distractible can maybe help in part strategies to the other people who don't have that luxury.
Nir Eyal [00:53:17] Totally, totally. And this get. And how do we do that? Right. It starts with of course, it'd be great if we taught kids how to be in Distractible in school. That might take a while, but there's a lot of other things we can do, right? Simply setting the example, if people made it unacceptable to check your device over a meal. How about we did that? Yep. And by the way, it's a great start. Right? And so we're talking about the book. How how do you have indestructible relationship as a whole section of the book about, you know, different relationships that we have with people? And, you know, I talk about in the book this very simple technique that works like a charm of when you when you're out with friends and somebody is checking their device, what do you do? You can't say, hey, get off the phone. What you do is you ask sincerely a question that doesn't judge. Right, because you don't know what's on the other side of that screen. They might have some kind of emergency they have to respond to. So you want to genuinely ask, hey, I see your on your phone. Is everything okay? And the answer might be, you know, I'm really sorry. My kid's sick. I got to go deal with this thing. Fine. No problem. They excuse themselves from the table, and they go take care of it. But nine times out of ten, what happens is. Oh, I'm sorry, let me just put that away, because they just think that snapping out of the phone zone, that implies that that's a rude behavior to do. And so it's just like what I talked about, that example of my mom telling, you know, this, this person who came over, no, we're non smokers, that type of behavior that I truly believe within the next few years, I'm already seeing it. There's a big sea change, I think over the past few years that people now know that's rude, right? Like if you're sitting down with somebody, that's a crappy thing to do to somebody and start checking their phone. So this is naturally happening with or without my book. People are seeing the downside of of technology and they're doing what they've always done throughout human history, which is adapt and adapt. We adapt our behaviors to deal with the bad aspects of a new technology, and we adopt new technologies that fix the bad aspects of the last generation of technology. So overall, I'm pretty optimistic.
Steven Parton [00:55:14] I like hearing that near. I really appreciate this candid conversation, but I see that we are coming up on time. And so I want to give you a chance before we go. Is there anything at all you'd like to close with? Maybe some new work you've got going on, any companies you want to talk about, anything you're doing at all and appreciate it.
Nir Eyal [00:55:31] Thank you. Yeah. So just I'll give a quick plug for my website is near and far economists felt like my first name and I R and R dot com. There's actually a workbook that we couldn't fit into the final edition of book. It was too long, but it's available for free at in distractible economy that's in the word distract a bell dot com indescribable dot com. You can download that whether you buy the book or not and the book again the first one is folks how to build habit forming products. And the second book is in DISTRACTIBLE How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. And they're both available where the books are so perfect.
Steven Parton [00:56:04] We'll have all the links for that in the show. Notes. Fan, I want to thank you again for taking the time there.
Nir Eyal [00:56:09] Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.