Episode: 218 |
Nir Eyal:
Nir Eyal Live:


Nir Eyal

Nir Eyal Live

Show Notes

Nir Eyal was my guest on Episode 200 of this show. I found his message so important that I asked Nir to discuss his latest book, Indistractable, at an Umbrex Presents event, which took place October 28, 2019.

This episode is Nir’s complete live talk to a capacity crowd at StandUpNY, followed by a Q&A period.

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Nir Eyal: Whatsapp and Slack and Snapchat all use to keep you hooked. Not for their benefit, but for your benefit. The people out there who are building products and services that would love to use the same exact tactics to help people get hooked to healthy habits. That’s exactly what’s happened in the past five years. Companies like Cahoot, the world’s largest educational software. If you have school aged kids, chances are they know about Cahoot. Cahoot’s mission is to get kids hooked to in-classroom learning.
Nir Eyal: Companies like FitBot, that get people hooked to exercising in the gym. Companies like Paga and Bite Foods that all change people’s habits in a healthy way.
Nir Eyal: But of course, just how … it’s been in the same way that we have good habits, we also find that we have bad habits. And so, Hooked was really about how to build healthy habits, facilitated through these technologies, but of course the downside is that sometimes these technologies are built so well, they’re so engaging, they’re so good that we want to use them sometimes too much.
Nir Eyal: So, that’s what led me to explore this path around distraction, to try and get to the root cause of this problem. Now the Genesis of the idea for this book was one afternoon, I was sitting with my daughter and we had this wonderful afternoon planned together where we had nothing but Daddy and daughter time for the entire afternoon. And I remember we were sitting together, and she and I had this book of activities that Daddies and daughters could play together. One of the activities was to make a paper airplane and shoot it across the room and see how far it would get, who would win. Who could make the best paper airplane.
Nir Eyal: Another was to make a little origami boat. One question I remember verbatim. The question was, if you could have any super power, what super power would you want? And I remember the question word for word, but I can’t tell you what my daughter said, because in that moment, I had decided that there was something on my phone that was much more important than she was. She got the message that whatever was on my device was more important than time with someone I loved very, very much.
Nir Eyal: She got the message, she left the room, and she decided to play with some toy outside. By the time I looked up from my phone, she was gone, and I knew something had to change. I remember telling this story, just as a sidebar, I told this exact story to a friend of mine before the book was published, and he decided to ask his daughter the same question. We have daughters of a similar age. So, he asked her, what super power would you want? And she said she wanted the power to talk to animals. He said, “Wow, the power to talk to animals, why is that, honey?”
Nir Eyal: She said, “So that when you and Mommy are on your phones, I’ll have someone to talk to.” Brutal, right? And of course, I wish I could tell you that that was the only time that I got distracted with my daughter. It wasn’t. Not only did I get distracted from my daughter, I’d get distracted while I was with my wife or with my friends. Worst of all maybe was that when I tried to sit down at work, I would tell myself, “Now I’m definitely going to work on that big project I’ve been procrastinating on. I’m definitely going to get to work,” and then find myself checking email, looking at Slack channels, checking the news real quick, instead of doing what I said I was going to do. So that’s when I decided that if I could have any super power, I would want the power to become indistractable.
Nir Eyal: Indistractability will be the super power of this century. This will be the most important macro skill. We know that the kind of jobs of the future will require the kind of human ingenuity and creativity that only comes from focused work. We know that loneliness is an epidemic in this country, and we can’t form relationships with people if we find ourselves constantly on our devices as opposed to being fully present with people we love. When it comes to our kids, what kind of example are we setting when what they see of us is the top of our heads as we’re scrolling away on our devices?
Nir Eyal: So, on this journey to become indistractable, to become the kind of person who lives with personal integrity, to do whatever it is you say you’re going to do, I started to dig into some research about how old this problem really is. Many folks today think that the problem started with our devices. Of course, that’s absolutely not true. This is a very, very old problem, that in fact, Plato talked about this problem 2,500 years ago. He called it akrasia, the tendency that we all have to do things against our better interest.
Nir Eyal: Knowing this is not a new problem should actually give us some hope, given the fact that people have been complaining about this problem 2,500 years before these technologies.
Nir Eyal: One way to tackle distraction, a good place to start, is to understand what distraction really is. You see, if you ask most people, what’s the opposite of distraction, they’ll tell you focus. But I don’t think that’s true. That in fact, if you look at the entomology of the word, the opposite of distraction is not focus, but rather the opposite of distraction is traction. Traction and distraction both come from the same Latin root, trahere, which means to pull, and they both end in the same six letter word, A-C-T-I-O-N, that spells action. So, traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want. Things that you do with intent.
Nir Eyal: Now, the opposite of traction, is distraction. Anything that pulls you away from what you really want. Things that you are not doing with intent. This is important for two reasons. Number one, anything can become a distraction. How many times have you sat down at your desk, this is what I would do all the time. I would sit down at my desk and I would say, “I’m finally going to work on that big project. I’m finally going to do what I said I’m going to do. I’m not going to procrastinate anymore. Right after I check some email.” And 30, 45 minutes later, I’m still not doing the thing I said I was going to do.
Nir Eyal: But email is productive, isn’t it? Isn’t that kind of a work-y thing to do? Well, not if that’s not what you planned to do with your time. It is still as much of a pernicious distraction. If we don’t decide in advance what we want to do, by thinking we’re doing these pseudo work tasks, we become slaves to the urgent, at the detriment of the important.
Nir Eyal: The other thing we need to realize is that just as anything can become a distraction, the hope here is, that anything can become traction. How? As long as we plan ahead for it. So, there’s nothing wrong with scrolling Facebook or watching a YouTube video or doing anything you want to do with your time, as long as you plan ahead for it. The rule here is that the time you plan to waste is not wasted time. That as long as you make time for it in your day, anything is an act of traction. I don’t buy this moral hierarchy that people say, “Oh you on Candy Crush or Facebook, that’s frivolity. But me watching football on TV for three hours, that’s okay.”
Nir Eyal: What’s the difference? There is no difference. As long as you plan to do what you said you were going to do with intent, on your schedule and according to your values, there’s nothing wrong with it. Enjoy it. As long as it’s on your schedule.
Nir Eyal: Picture in your mind, we have traction, we have distraction, now what prompts us to either traction or distraction? What moves us in either of these directions? Two things. We have external triggers. External triggers are the things in our environment, typically the pings, the dings, the rings, all of these things in our environment that prompt us towards traction or distraction. The other thing that prompts us towards traction or distraction are the internal triggers. Internal triggers are uncomfortable psychological states that we seek to escape.
Nir Eyal: It turns out that this, overwhelmingly, is the root cause of distraction, that when you ask most people, “What’s the nature of human motivation? Why do we do everything that we do?” Most people have some conception of carrots and sticks. This is called Freud’s Pleasure Principle that says that everything we do is about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Turns out, neurologically speaking, this is not true. That inside the brain, the way the brain inspires us to action is not by getting us to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, but in fact, neurologically speaking, it’s pain all the way down. It’s pain all the way down.
Nir Eyal: Let me prove it to you. This is called the homeostatic response. We know this to be true physiologically. Think about it. If you go outside and it’s cold, that doesn’t feel good. What do you do? You put on a jacket. If you come back in, and now you’re hot, that doesn’t feel good. You take it off, right? If you’re hungry, you feel hunger pangs, so you eat. Then, if you eat too much, oh now you’re stuffed. That doesn’t feel good, so you stop eating.
Nir Eyal: Physiologically, we know this to be true, and of course, psychologically, the exact same principle holds, that when we’re feeling bored, I’m sorry, let me start with loneliness. When we’re feeling loneliness, where do we go? What app or website do we check when we’re feeling lonely?
Auidence: Feedback
Nir Eyal: Facebook, right? Somebody said Tinder? Different kind of loneliness. What about when we’re feeling uncertain? Before we scan our brains to see if we know the answer? What are we doing?
Auidence: Google.
Nir Eyal: We Google it. What about when we’re feeling bored? Where do we go between 2:00 and 4:00 when you have that big project you don’t feel like working on? You go to YouTube, Netflix, Instagram, Reddit, stock prices, sports scores, the news, all of these things cater to this uncomfortable feeling of boredom. We don’t like that sensation, and the solution, the relief is provided by these technologies in our pockets, among many other potential distractions. So, this is the most important step to becoming indistractable. Because if we don’t confess to ourselves that the reason we really become distracted, the reason we do something we didn’t intend to do, is by definition, the root cause, is this desire to escape from an uncomfortable sensation.
Nir Eyal: What do we do about that? There’s only two things we can do. The first thing we can do is fix the problem. So, when I was with my daughter, and I was checking my device, I hate to admit this, but it wasn’t the phone doing it to me. I was going through some stuff in my life that I needed to escape from, that I was looking for relief. Stress, work anxiety, I was looking for satisfaction from this phone. Let me tell you, one thing I didn’t tell you about that story is that I had been with my daughter for about three hours at that point, and I needed a break. A grown man can only take so much time with a toddler before I need some relief, but I could have handled it in a much healthier way.
Nir Eyal: By identifying that the internal trigger, the source of the problem, wasn’t my phone, it was the uncomfortable sensation that I didn’t know how to cope with. So we put in practice all these different techniques. So now, my daughter an I sat down together, after I realized that the source of the problem was that I was just getting bored, I was getting tired playing Uno for the 100th time, or doing some kind of kid activity that I didn’t find very entertaining. So, we sat down together, and we made ourselves what we call the fun jar. We wrote down 100 things, and we didn’t stop until we got to 100. 100 things that we would like to do together.
Nir Eyal: All these activities. We put them inside this fun jar, and now anytime we have time together, even if it’s just 45 minutes or an hour, we take out an activity and we know that everything we take out of this fun jar is going to be fun for the both of us. That’s an example, a whimsical example of how you can fix the source of the discomfort. But of course, not all problems in life are so much fun.
Nir Eyal: A difficult workplace culture, a toxic workplace environment, a difficult home life situation, these are things that cause us these internal triggers that we seek relief from, whether it’s through our phones, through the bottle, through escape of some sort, to take ourselves out of that uncomfortable emotional state. The first solution has to be to try and fix the source of the problem.
Nir Eyal: But we can’t solve every problem in life. Part of being a human being is feeling stress, anxiety, uncertainty, fatigue, loneliness, it’s just part of the human condition. What do we do in those cases? In those cases, we can find ways to cope with that uncomfortable sensation in a healthier manner. Let me give you just a few techniques. I want to make sure that everybody can walk away today with things that they can start doing immediately. There’s a lot more in the book, of course, everybody got a copy of it, but let me just highlight a few techniques that have been found to be incredibly helpful when it comes to finding healthier ways to deal with discomfort.
Nir Eyal: The first thing we want to do is to simply note the sensation. Psychologists tell us that by simply writing down what is that sensation? Boredom, stress, anxiety, fatigue, loneliness, whatever that sensation might be, simply writing it down helps us gain greater control and agency over that sensation. The next thing that we want to do is to become curious rather than contemptuous. You see, most people, we fall into two categories, when we get distracted, we’re either blamers or shamers. The blamers, they say, “Oh, you see, it was this technology that did it to me,” right? “It’s my I-phone, it’s Facebook, it’s Slack, they did it to me.”
Nir Eyal: The shamers, and this is the category I put myself into, I would do this all the time, I would say, “You see, maybe I’m not very good at this job. I must have a short attention span. I’m lazy. There’s something wrong with me.” And I would shame myself.
Nir Eyal: Of course, this led to more internal triggers, the worst I’ve felt about myself. Where could I now go for relief from that discomfort? I wanted to escape through distraction even more. Neither of those strategies are a good course of action.
Nir Eyal: Instead, what psychologists tell us, is to explore that sensation with curiosity rather than contempt. They tell us that by surfing the urge, this technique comes from acceptance and commitment therapy, that emotions tend to crest like waves and then subside. So, if we can ride that urge like a wave, like a surfer on a wave, we can wait for it to abate.
Nir Eyal: One technique that I use almost every single day, is called the 10-minute rule. The 10-minute rule is a great alternative to abstinence. You know many of us are taught that we’re not supposed to do something, and we use strict abstinence. We say, “Don’t do it.” That’s supposed to keep us on track.
Nir Eyal: But that’s really hard to do for things that you can’t escape completely. Food, for example. You got to eat. When it comes to distraction, we have to use these tech tools. Are we really so naïve to think we can just stop using email? That’s nice advice for someone who maybe is in some ivory tower somewhere, but that’s not really practical advice for the vast majority of us. So, instead of strict abstinence, which we know can backfire. Why? Let me give you an example. I want you now, whatever you do, do not think about a white bear. Don’t do it. Who’s thinking about a white bear? Everyone, right? Every single person is thinking about the white bear.
Nir Eyal: It turns out, when we tell ourselves not to do something, this is called the ironic process theory, it makes us more likely to think about it. It’s almost like a rubber band. When you pull back a rubber band, you pull it, pull it, pull it, pull it, and then you can’t pull it anymore. When it comes out, it doesn’t just go back to where it started. No. It ricochets even farther. So, that’s what happens with strict abstinence. We tell ourselves, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, okay fine. Do it.” And that relief of the discomfort of telling ourselves not to do something, itself is registered in the brain as pleasure. As satisfaction. Because remember, all human behavior is spurred by a desire to escape discomfort.
Nir Eyal: This is in fact how we solidify bad habits, through this technique of strict abstinence, that because we relieve the pain of telling ourselves don’t do it, that in fact is registered as a good feeling, which is very counter productive. What do we do instead?
Nir Eyal: When we feel like we’re about to give in to a distraction, instead of using strict abstinence, instead of blaming, instead of shaming, we take out our phones, and we say, set a timer for 10 minutes. And then we put it away. Our job for those 10 minutes, is to surf the urge to become curious rather than contemptuous. For just 10 minutes. You have a choice, you can either get back to the task at hand, or just feel that feeling with curiosity rather than contempt. You’ll find that over 90% of the time, that feeling will subside, and you’ll find yourself right back at the task you really wanted to do.
Nir Eyal: That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more that we can do that you all have copies of the book, that you can explore about mastering internal triggers. But that’s the most important first step, mastering those internal triggers.
Nir Eyal: The second step to becoming indistractable, is making time for traction. You know, when I was researching this book, I talked to a lot of people who struggled with distraction. I had one friend who told me about a particularly bad case of distraction. She told me about how every day she’s running around town and she can’t get anything done, and her kids want this, and her boss wants this, and her spouse is texting her about that, and do you see what happened in the news? She just couldn’t get anything done. I said, “Wow. That’s really tough. I’m really sorry to hear that. Can I see what it was you got distracted from today? What did you plan to do that you didn’t get done? Can I see your schedule?”
Nir Eyal: She kind of looked at me funny, and she took out her phone, and she showed me her calendar, and it was all white space. There was nothing on it. Maybe a dentist appointment or something. So here’s the thing. She is part of over two thirds of Americans who don’t keep a calendar. Think about all the time an money we spend on keeping our stuff safe. We have home security systems, we have alarms on our cars, we put our money in bank accounts behind thick vaults. But when it comes to our time, “Sure, come on over. Take as much of it as you want.”
Nir Eyal: So, the fact of the matter is, we cannot call something a distraction unless we know what it distracts us from. In this day and age, if you don’t plan your time, somebody is going to plan it for you. Your boss, your kids, whatever’s going on in the news, social media, somebody’s going to eat up that time, unless you plan what you want to do with your time in advance.
Nir Eyal: This uses an age old technique, it’s actually been studied in thousands of independently verified studies, that have found that this simple technique, it’s called making an implementation intention. Just a fancy way of saying planning out what you’re going to to and when you’re going to do it, is an incredibly effective way to make sure that you do what you say you’re going to do.
Nir Eyal: Now, that’s just step one. Step one is making this time box calendar. I tell you exactly how to do that in the book, but the next step is to do what we call a schedule sync. This is pretty novel. I haven’t seen this in any other book. This idea is to sit down with the stakeholders in your life, the people who you owe time to, and just quickly review your calendars.
Nir Eyal: I have to tell you, this saved my marriage. A few years ago, I’ve been married for 18 years, and a few years ago, my wife and I were fighting every day about the same damn problem. The problem was, that she would complain that I wasn’t pulling my weight. She would say, “Look, don’t you see the laundry needs to get done. Don’t you see the trash needs to be taken out. Why aren’t you helping out? Don’t you see our daughter needs to be fed?” And I said, “Honey, honey, honey, if these things need to get done, just tell me. I’m not a mind reader. Just tell me what needs to get done.”
Nir Eyal: What I didn’t realize is that by asking her to tell me what to do, I was asking her to do more work. I was asking her to be my boss, and to direct me. It turns out that I wasn’t alone. That in fact, in the majority of dual income, heterosexual households, both people work outside the home, women still in this day and age, take on a disproportionate share of household admin responsibilities. I see a lot of women shaking their heads. No men think this is interesting.
Nir Eyal: So I had to admit to myself, when I did this research, and I found out, “Oh my God, this is a big problem. It’s not just in my household that this happens.” I asked myself what were my values, and one of my values is to be in an equitable marriage. To pull my weight. If we both work outside the home, we should both pull our weight when it comes to household admin duties.
Nir Eyal: We fixed this problem entirely. We never fight about this anymore, because we now use the simple technique of making a time box calendar and having a weekly schedule sync. It takes 15 minutes a week. We sit down together, we look at each other’s calendar for the week ahead, and we make sure that we’re synchronized about what needs to get done and when those tasks are going to get done. Because so many things in the household have these contingencies, right? If I don’t make the food, then she can’t put it on the table for our daughter, etc.
Nir Eyal: Having that weekly schedule sync, is incredibly effective at home, it’s also incredibly empowering in the workplace. So many managers, we just toss over responsibilities. We say, “Okay, I want you to do this, I want you to do that, I want you to do this.” And we only think about the output. We don’t consider the input. Sitting down with your manager, showing them your calendar and say, “Hey look. Here’s my week ahead, here’s all the things you want me to make sure I get done this week. There are these things I didn’t find time for. Help me re-prioritize. Help me figure out what’s important this week that I should replace my time with.”
Nir Eyal: That practice is life changing. Incredibly effective practice. So again, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making time for traction. That’s the second step to becoming indistractible. Lots more we can do there.
Nir Eyal: the third step to becoming indistractable is to hack back external triggers. Now, external triggers are the pings, the dings, the rings, all of these things in our environment that prompt us either to traction or distraction. They’re not necessarily bad. If an external trigger is an alarm on your phone that says, “Hey, it’s time for that meeting. It’s time to work out. It’s time to do that thing you planned to do.” Well, now it’s leading you towards traction.
Nir Eyal: But if it is a ping or ding on your phone while you’re trying to spend time with your daughter, or you’re in a business meeting, well that’s not helpful. That’s leading you towards distraction. That’s not what you planned to do with your time.
Nir Eyal: So of course we can change the notification settings on our phone, that’s easy. That’s kindergarten stuff. Turns out, two thirds of Americans don’t do that, by the way, two thirds of people with a cell phone, never change their notification settings. How can we call these technologies addictive and say they’re hijacking your brain when we haven’t even taken the five, 10 minutes to change these notification settings? Of course we have to do that on our phones and our computers. We can hack back those external triggers.
Nir Eyal: But it turns out that the more dangerous distractions are the ones that we don’t think of as these typical distractions like the ones on our phones and our computers. A few years ago, there was a study done by a group of nurses at UCSF that attempted to tackle this problem of medication mistakes. Turns out 200,000 Americans every year are killed or harmed when doctors or nurses give patients the wrong medication inside hospital settings. Has anybody by the way, if you’re comfortable, been affected by this? Anybody? Okay, look around the room. Every time I give this talk, there’s a surprising number of people who have been affected by these prescription mistakes. Healthcare practitioners making these mistakes inside hospital settings.
Nir Eyal: These nurses wanted to figure out why this was happening. Most hospitals in America, they just say, “Eh, what are you going to do? Fact of life.” But this is a 100% preventable human error. These nurses got together, they did a study and they found the reason nurses were making these mistakes so frequently, was because of distraction.
Nir Eyal: You see, as they were dosing out medication, a doctor would come by and interrupt them. A fellow nurse would ask them a question, and they would make mistakes as they were dosing out medication. Now, the tragedy here is that these nurses didn’t even realize they were making the mistakes in the moment. It was only later, when someone died or was injured by these mistakes, that they realized, “Oh my God. What just happened?”
Nir Eyal: Of course, this happens to us, as knowledge workers, every day. We think we’re doing a great job, we think we’re doing our best, and we don’t realize how much better we could be if we didn’t have all these mistakes that we didn’t realize that we were making throughout our day caused by distraction.
Nir Eyal: What was the solution? What did these nurses come up with? They came up with a solution that decreased medication mistakes by 88%. They almost eliminated this problem completely. The solution was not some multimillion dollar program. It wasn’t some new fancy technology, it was plastic vests. Plastic vests that these nurses wore, you’ll see the picture in the book, that told their colleagues, “Drug rounds in progress. Do not disturb.” Reduced the problem by 88%.
Nir Eyal: Why am I telling you this story? What’s the lesson for all of us that work in the typical American office? Many of us work in an open floor plan office. Many of you work in those type of settings. Or you work at home where you have distractions from your kids, your spouse, somebody interrupting you when you’re trying to do focused work. What do you do? Well, in every copy of your book, in the back, you will find what I call a screen sign. It’s a cardboard cutout. You pull it out of the book, you fold it into thirds, and you put it on your computer monitor. It’s a big red sign with a stop light on it that says, “I’m indistractible, please come back later.” That message tells your colleagues that you are not to be disturbed at the moment.
Nir Eyal: Now, I know many of you are saying, “Well, that’s what I put headphones on for,” right? Here’s the thing. When you put on headphones, people think you’re watching YouTube. So, it’s not an effective message. We want to be more explicit about the fact that look, at this company, its okay to get focused work done, so for the next 45 minutes, maybe an hour, I need to not be interrupted. I need to do focused work.
Nir Eyal: There’s a lot more we can do to hack back these external triggers. Not only email, not only our phones and our computers, and our office environment, meetings. Oh my God, how much time do we spend in pointless meetings? How much time do we spend getting email that is a complete waste of time. 25% of the emails you receive, according to the Harvard Business Review, you did not need to receive, and 25% of the emails the average American knowledge worker sends, they did not need to send.
Nir Eyal: So, we are wasting a tremendous amount of time on these distracting emails, I show you how to hack back email as well. But for the sake of time, I want to move on to the fourth step to becoming indistractable. The last step is to prevent distractions with pacts. Pacts are these pre-commitments. It’s about deciding in advance, what you are going to do. This technique is an ancient technique. The first recorded use of these pre-commitments comes to us from the Odyssey, written by Homer over 2,500 years ago. In it, the Greek hero Ulysses has to sail his ship past the island of the Sirens.
Nir Eyal: The Sirens are these mythical creatures that sing this magical song, and any sailor that hears the Siren’s song, wants to crash his ship onto the shore of the Sirens island, where he dies.
Nir Eyal: Now, Ulysses knows this is going to happen, and he wants to make sure that he doesn’t get distracted. That he doesn’t do something he doesn’t want to do. What does he do? He tells everyone in his crew to put wax in their ears so they can’t hear the Sirens song. He tells his crew to bind him to the mast of the ship, and he tells them, “No matter what I do, no matter what I say, don’t let me go.”
Nir Eyal: Here’s the thing. It works. He sails his ship right past the island of the Sirens, and returns his crew and his ship safely home.
Nir Eyal: How can we do this in our own lives? How can we use these pre-commitments? Well, there’s a lot of pre-commitments that we can make. Starting with what’s called an effort pact. An effort pact puts a bit of work between you and the distraction you don’t want to succumb to. Just like Ulysses binding himself to the mast of that ship.
Nir Eyal: Every day, when I need to do focused work, I take out my phone, and I have a little app called Forest. Now Forest works like this, every time I need to do focused work, I dial in how much time I need to do focused work, whether that’s time I want to be with my daughter without distraction, whether it’s time I want to spend writing without distraction, and when I type in how much time I want to do focused work for and hit Go, a little virtual tree is planted.
Nir Eyal: If I pick up my phone and do anything with it, the little virtual tree dies. I don’t want to be a virtual tree murderer. So, that is enough of a pre-commitment, it’s enough of a promise to remind me that I made with myself to keep me on track, to prevent me from doing something I would later regret.
Nir Eyal: That’s what’s called an effort pact. You can also make what’s called a price pact, where you have some kind of economic disincentive to not doing what you say you’re not going to do. The third type of pact is called an identity pact, and I think this is the most important and interesting of the three. And identity pact is when we use some kind of moniker, some kind of identity for ourselves, to help us stay on track.
Nir Eyal: This comes from the psychology of religion. That we know that when people have some kind of identity, some kind of moniker that they call themselves, it makes it much less likely that they will do something they later regret, that they will go off track. For example, a devout Muslim does not say to themselves, “Ooh, I wonder if I should have that beer today?” No. A devout Muslim does not drink alcohol. A vegetarian doesn’t say, “Ooh, you know that bacon looks good. I wonder if I should have some every day.” No. A vegetarian does not eat meat. It’s part of who they are. They do things that are a little different from the mainstream as part of that identity. This is exactly what we need today.
Nir Eyal: When I was a kid, growing up in the 1980s, I remember that all over my house, we had ashtrays, because back in the 1980s, if someone came to your house, they just expected to light up a cigarette in your living room. That was just what people did. But can you imagine if someone came to your living room today and just lit up a cigarette without asking? That would be ridiculous. And I remember my mom, she had these ashtrays that were these beautiful glass ashtrays that we used to have, and then one day, they all disappeared. She got rid of them all.
Nir Eyal: She replaced them with an ashtray that was made to look like a skeleton’s hand. This is a true story. She wanted to send a signal to people who were smoking, this is not so good for you, by having a skeleton’s hand as the ashtray. Then one day, even those disappeared. I remember people came over and they said, “Where’s the ashtray?” And my mom would say, “No. You have to go outside if you want to smoke.” She lost friends because she asked these smokers to go outside and smoke. That was so weird. It was so different. It was so unusual.
Nir Eyal: But that’s an example of what’s called spreading social antibodies, and that is exactly what we need to do today with distraction. Social antibodies are when a society realizes that a behavior is not good for us, we start changing our norms, our manners, our rules, around how certain things are done. You say, “Well yeah, but legislation is why people stopped smoking,” right?
Nir Eyal: Well, not in anybody’s living room. There’s never been a law that says you can’t smoke in someone’s living room, and yet people stopped doing it. Or at least they ask, “Where do I go to smoke?” So, we see the same thing happening today by people who proudly declare, “I am indistractable. You know what? I don’t respond to every text message and email within 30 seconds. I put this weird screen sign on my computer monitor when I need to do focused work.” Is that any different than someone who might have an unusual diet or wear unusual religious garb? No. These people are trendsetters. They’re people who proudly declare that, “I am in control of my decisions, my attention, and my life. I am indistractable.”
Nir Eyal: So, when I was wrapping up this book, I remember sitting down with my daughter, and I said, “Honey, look. I’m really sorry that the first time I asked this question I didn’t hear your answer, and I’m really curious, what is your super power? What super power would you most want?” And she thought about it for a minute, and here’s what she said, honest to God. This is what she said, she said that if she could have any super power, it wouldn’t be to sling spider webs or fly like Superman, she said she’d want the power to always be kind. That’s what she said. So, after wiping my eyes, kind of collecting myself, and that’s when I realized, kindness is something anyone can do. We all can be kind. We don’t have to get stung by some radioactive spider, we don’t have to be born on some alien planet, we can all be kind.
Nir Eyal: The same goes when it comes to managing distraction. These days, a lot of people will tell you that technology is addictive, that it’s hijacking your brain, that there’s nothing you can do about it, because of those algorithms. I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think it’s helpful because there are do many things we can do. We can master these internal triggers. We can hack back … I’m sorry, we can make time for traction. We can hack back the external triggers. We can prevent distraction with pacts. All of these things empower us to make sure that we use technology as opposed to these distractions and technologies using us.
Nir Eyal: You see, we all have the power to put distractions in its place. We all have the power to become indistractable. Thanks very much.
Nir Eyal: All right. I think we have some time for questions. This is always my favorite part.
Will Bachman: A lot of us are in some form of client service. The question is, if you’re in client service, I’ll face this situation where it’s okay I’ve time boxed, I’ve said on my calendar that I’m going to spend the next two hours writing podcast episode, or working on some project, and then I get a phone call from a potential client, potential project, hard not to take that phone call. Or, have clients with expectations that if they email you, you’re very responsive. What’s you’re advice to client service professionals on how to implement these without interrupting your client relationships?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. So I think there’s some obvious answers here, of setting expectations with your clients, telling them when you’re going to be available to be very responsive, and when you’re going to have time for reflection. Especially when it comes to doing the kind of caliber of work that many of you do. You can’t do what you do without time to reflect. The problem is, so much of our day is spent reacting to things, between messages and phone calls and Slack notifications, we’re reacting all day long, that we have no time for reflection. So, it is imperative for your output, to make sure that you have time in your day for reflection.
Nir Eyal: Now, there’s also a lot of the solutions, ironically, to tech distraction, come in the form of tech. Like tech fixing tech’s distraction. For example, one of my favorite features that’s on Apple IOS, there’s a similar feature on Android devices, it’s called do not disturb while driving. Does anybody use this tool? Does anybody use it? A few folks.
Nir Eyal: Okay. Here’s how it works for those of you who don’t use it. Do not disturb while driving works like this. You push a button, and in that time when you turn on do not disturb while driving, if anyone calls or texts you, they will receive an auto reply that says, “I can’t talk right now, I’m driving. If this is urgent, text me with the word, urgent.”
Nir Eyal: Now, you can customize that message as I have, so that if you text or call me while I’m indistractable, it says, “I’m indistractable, please, if this is urgent, text me with the word urgent.”
Nir Eyal: So, if it’s really, really urgent and it can’t wait for 45 minutes or an hour while your doing your focused work, and then take a break and call them back or whatever it might be, they’ll have a way to get through to you. Because I think this problem is mostly in our heads. It’s again, the internal triggers. Remember, internal triggers are incredibly important, that all human behavior is spurred by a desire to escape discomfort. I would argue nine times out of ten, it’s not that the client is actually calling, it’s the fear of the client calling. That’s why we become indistractable. We tell ourselves this bullshit excuse, “Well, I better not start working on that big project right now, because what if a client calls,” and we don’t do the thing that we really need to do, that we really need to concentrate because what if.
Nir Eyal: That’s fear talking. That’s not the external trigger. That’s the internal trigger.
Will Bachman: You’ve got a chapter in the book on this, so I’ll read this question, and a whole chapter in the book on it. Do you have suggestions of what can be done company wide to make the workplace indistractable? What are some tips around that?
Nir Eyal: Absolutely. This is a really important point, because as I was … the book took me five years to write, mostly because I got distracted a lot. In the beginning, I got distracted all the time, because I wasn’t using these techniques until I discovered which ones really worked. So, as I was writing the book, I realized that just telling people how to become indistractable is not good enough. That I can tell you exactly how to become indistractable. I’ll tell you how to master the internal triggers, make time for traction, hack back external triggers, prevent distraction with pacts, and yet if your boss decides to call you at 8:00 pm on a Friday night, what do you do? You plan to be with your family. You plan to work out. And yet, now your boss is calling and saying, “I need you to do something.”
Nir Eyal: My question is, who’s at fault here? Who caused the distraction? Is it the technology of the phone that your boss used? Obviously it isn’t. It’s the fact that your boss and you work at a company that tolerates that kind of behavior. So, the big conclusion I made in researching the root causes of distraction, is that when it comes to the workplace, distraction at work is a symptom of cultural dysfunction. Let me prove it to you.
Nir Eyal: One of the tools that I heard people complain about at nauseum, second to email, the most complained about, the most distracting technology in the modern American workplace was Slack. A few folks said it. Slack, or some kind of other group chat app. I decided to go pay Slack a visit. So, I decided to go see Slack, and you would expect if the technology was causing the distraction, well then nobody uses Slack more than Slack. They should be the most distracted people on Earth. But that’s not what I found. That in fact, at Slack, if you use Slack on nights and weekends, you are reprimanded. That is not what they do there.
Nir Eyal: That in fact, at company HQ in San Francisco, you’ll see on the walls, it’s written in big pink letters, it says, “Work hard and go home.” It literally says it on their walls. So, Slack has this company culture that does not get distracted, that allows people the time they need to focus, to do their best work. The reason they … the way they do this is in three ways. Number one, they give employees what’s called psychological safety. The ability to talk about this problem. To raise their hands and say, “Hey, you know what? This isn’t working for me.” Without fear of retribution.
Nir Eyal: The second thing that they do, is that they give a forum for people to air these concerns. So, another company I profile is BCG. Many of you know BCG. Boston Consulting Group. It’s one of my first jobs out of college. I spent a couple years there. It was horrible. It was a really, really tough workplace culture, and we were constantly expected to be connected through our Blackberries at the time. They have gone through this cultural transformation. They did this incredible turnaround where they used to be a company that had very high employee turnover. Very high employee churn. Now it’s rated as consistently one of America’s best places to work. It’s got a very high Glass Door rating. Rated by the employees who work there.
Nir Eyal: Because they started giving people a forum to talk about this problem of distraction, along with many other problems. What Slack as well as BCG discovered, is that when they gave employees the ability, the forum, the place to talk about this problem of distraction, they realized there were all kinds of other skeletons in the closet. That they could quickly figure out solutions to this problem of distraction. They came up with their own solutions. But what they also discovered, that when they opened the floodgates and let people speak honestly about problems at the company, without fear of getting fired, they also improved … not only did they improve employee retention, they improved customer service, they improved customer satisfaction. They did better work, because they could talk about their problems. You see, the real problem of distraction at work is not distraction, it’s that we can’t talk about the problem of distraction without fear of getting labeled as lazy or not a team player or, as incompetent in some way. That’s the real problem.
Nir Eyal: Then the third characteristic of these companies that don’t struggle with distraction despite the fact that they use technology a lot, is that company leadership exemplifies what it means to be indistractable because culture flows downhill. So, we know that technology, in a dysfunctional company culture, perpetuates the problem. It’s called the cycle of responsiveness. That when people show up at a workplace, and they see that everyone’s always on their devices, they realize that this is what you have to do to get ahead. So, they send even more messages. They’re on their devices even later into the night, and of course, that just perpetuates this terrible vicious cycle.
Nir Eyal: The only way, one of the ways, not the only way, one of the ways to stop it is when company management decides to become indistractable. Decides that when they show up at a meeting, they put away their devices, that they’re fully present with people when they meet with them, that they shut off on nights and weekends. That’s something that at Slack, they exemplify. Back to that motto, written on the company walls, “Work hard and go home.” It’s part of the company ethos.
Nir Eyal: Now, I don’t want you to confuse working long hours or not working long hours with what I’m saying right now. If you want to work long hours, go for it. If that’s consistent with your values, do it. If you wanted to be an investment banker, if you want to go work at a tech start up and you’re okay with working 60-70 hours a week, no problem, as long as you know what you’re in for. My problem is what so frequently happens today in the American workforce, is people think they’re working at a place that they’re required to work 40 hours a week, but then when they show up, they realize, “Oh, I also have to do an extra 20-30 hours a week on nights and weekends.”
Nir Eyal: That’s a bait and switch. That’s not right. That’s the kind of thing that we need to talk about the problem in order to fix it. But the real problem again, is the fact that we don’t have a forum, we don’t have psychological safety, to talk about this problem as well as all kind of other problems. When you look at companies that have had these corporate scandals, from Enron and until most recently, at Boeing, with the 737 Max, there’s always people at the company that knew what was going on, but they didn’t want to talk about it for fear of getting fired. That’s the real problem going on.
Will Bachman: How do you see meditation and mindfulness as it relates to being indistractable?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. In the book, I give tactics like acceptance and commitment therapy, which is a form of mindfulness. But, I don’t spend a lot of time on it. I don’t spend any time on meditation. Meditation is only mentioned once in the entire book, to tell you that I will not be talking about meditation. Not that I think it doesn’t work, I think if it works for you, wonderful. Go for it. I think that’s great. There’s a lot of studies that show that if you meditate, you can get all kinds of benefits from it, but it’s been written about to death.
Nir Eyal: I’m not the most qualified person in the world. There’s been tons of books that have done a better job. And, I think there’s a lot of people out there who want more. I don’t think … not that I’m saying that every proponent of meditation says that this is the answer, but look, you can’t meditate every problem away. Sometimes we need to actually do something about the problem, fix the problem, and then use techniques like meditation, like mindfulness, like what I’m putting in the book, to learn tactics to cope with that discomfort.
Nir Eyal: I don’t cover it a lot, just because … not that it doesn’t work, it’s just been covered, I think, to death frankly, by other folks better than I could have.
Will Bachman: I don’t know how this one got in here, but raise your hand if you asked this. What do you think of Georgia Tech?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. Great school. Georgia Tech’s a great school. That’s random. Somebody got distracted.
Will Bachman: How do you avoid social pressure so you can remain indistractable? For instance, I do not check emails in meetings, but everyone else does.
Nir Eyal: Yes.
Will Bachman: The end result is that they respond to emails within the hour, during the meeting, while I take several hours to reply, and it’s not socially acceptable to wait that long to reply.
Nir Eyal: Yeah. Part of it is company culture. Part of it is about changing this ethos, just like we did when it came to smoking, around changing these patterns of how we reply, that we need this awareness. I’m hoping, and this is a big reason why I wrote this book, that it’s okay not to respond within 30 seconds to every email, that we can do better work when we time box time for email in our day, as opposed to constantly reacting. We need time for reflection, as I said earlier.
Nir Eyal: Now, when it comes to a social setting, or a business meeting setting, let’s do the social setting, well for a business meeting, I have a rule that when we’re going to have a meeting, we need to be present both in body and mind. That many of us … you know how this works, right? You go to a business meeting. Somebody’s on their phone, typically it’s the hippo. Does everybody know who the hippo is? The highest paid person’s opinion, right? That’s who the hippo is.
Nir Eyal: Typically it’s the hippo that decides, “Oh, it’s a good time to check my email right now. Go ahead, just keep talking, I just need to do this one thing.” Of course, what does that do to everybody else in the room? It has this second hand smoke effect almost. That if I see that you’re checking email, well now I’m internally triggered to think, “Oh my gosh, what’s in my email inbox? I had better check, too.”
Nir Eyal: Pretty soon, we have the entire room is physically present, but their minds are somewhere else and they’re not paying attention. Why are we even having this meeting in the first place? My suggestion is that we have one laptop per meeting. That if we’re going to meet in the real world, let’s have one laptop, everybody use what’s called these charging stations. Some companies are already using this. We follow the rule ABC, always be charging, so that we have a charging station in the center, in the corner of the room. Everybody plugs in their phone, so that we can have a meeting without our devices, and then we have one computer in the room that projects whatever we’re talking about so that we can record notes, we can make sure that everybody’s opinions are taken into account. We don’t all need to be on our devices during these meetings.
Nir Eyal: Now, what about social settings? What happens when you go out with friends, you’ve all seen this, and somebody at the table thinks it’s a good time to use their device and you really would like them to rejoin the conversation. So, you can’t tell that person, “Hey, get off your phone.” You’re not going to stay friends for very long. So, what do you do?
Nir Eyal: Well, there is a simple question that you can ask, and that you have to ask with all sincerity, that will help them get back into the conversation. You have to also realize that there could be an emergency there, right? There might be something that’s super, super urgent that they have to respond to right now. In which case, you want to give them an out to take care of that problem somewhere else. So here’s the question. You simply look at them in the eye, and you say, “I see you’re on your phone. Is everything okay?” That simple question, if it’s really that urgent, they’ll take care of it, they’ll get the hint and say, “Oh my gosh, I’m really sorry. My kid’s sick, or I need to take care of this problem real quick,” okay, fine, no problem. Or, nine times out of 10, they realize what’s going on and they’ll put the phone away.
Nir Eyal: This is part of building these social antibodies, by spreading these rules, just like that cigarette example of saying, “Hey, you know what? If you want to smoke, can you please go outside? Please don’t smoke in my living room.” This is also part of these new social antibodies that we need to spread.
Will Bachman: Is comfort with boredom a useful practice to combat the compulsion to seek distraction?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. I think so. One of my beefs with the self help industry these days, is that some people spread this myth that if you’re not happy all the time, if you’re not satisfied with life all the time, something’s wrong with you. That makes no sense. From an evolutionary basis, we are designed for dissatisfaction. We are not programmed to constantly be happy. Think about it. If there was ever a group of homo sapiens, that was happy and satisfied all the time, our ancestors probably killed and ate them. They wouldn’t have survived. It’s that perpetual disquietude that keeps us hunting, that keeps us searching, that keeps us inventing, creating. That urge, that desire, that discomfort, can be channeled towards traction.
Nir Eyal: But of course, if we don’t know how to channel it towards traction, it can lead us towards distraction. Boredom was really helpful on the Savannah 200,000 years ago, because it helped us search for more food. It helped us create new tools. We can use that same feeling of discomfort to help lead us towards creativity if we find these tactics to gain comfort with the uncomfortable.
Will Bachman: We go home and read the book, we can follow the instructions, but we’re not going to become 100% indistractable tomorrow morning. Having kind of been working on this now for five years, talked to a lot of people about it, tell us a kind of reasonable timeline of what you’ve seen as sort of a reasonable evolution, moving towards being 100% indistractable, and having that super power. What could we expect would be a reasonable … something we should feel good about a month from now, two months from now? Tell us a little bit of that evolution of moving along that journey.
Nir Eyal: Sure. The nice part about making up a word, is that you can define it any way you like. Becoming indistractable does not mean you never become distracted. Becoming indistractable means that you are the kind of person who strives to do what they say they’re going to do. You strive to do what you say you’re going to do. You live with personal integrity. You’re here, right? And you’re not distracted right now. And you’ve learned these techniques, hopefully you’ve learned one or two maybe you can start implementing today as you leave the theater. You are already indistractable, because you are the kind of person who strives to do what they say they’re going to do. You already live with personal integrity.
Nir Eyal: Now, you’re not going to do everything in the book. I guarantee you when you read the book, there will be some things you’ll say, “Ooh, I am not ready for that.” And that’s totally fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can jot down in the margins, maybe make a little bookmark or something and say, “Okay, this is something I’ll look at later on.” But if you do something simple, like change your notification settings, maybe plan one day in your week to plan traction, so you’ll know what distraction is. Very simple steps. These techniques, you don’t have to do everything all at once.
Nir Eyal: The idea here is to just pick out a few techniques that might fit for you and your lifestyle, maybe share a couple with your family, maybe with your kids, your spouse, maybe with a coworker or two, maybe use that screen sign. Whatever it is that you’re comfortable doing, you don’t have to be black and white here. In fact, you will never finish becoming indistractable. It’s almost like saying, “I’m done being creative. I have achieved maximum creativity.” No. That doesn’t make sense. Creativity is a macro skill that helps you do other things better. And the same goes for becoming indistractable. It’s something that you’re never done doing.
Will Bachman: Is there anything wrong with checking your phone in a large meeting as a signal to the presenter that they are wasting your time?
Nir Eyal: Oh no. Oh my God. I’m taking it so personally. No. You know what? Actually that’s a really funny question. That’s a great question, because a lot of speakers hate that, when people check their phones during speeches. I actually love it for exactly that reason. It tells me, “Hey, this is kind of boring. I’m losing some people. I got to get that guy to pay attention to me. What can I do. Hey look over here, to help make the talk more interesting.”
Nir Eyal: Personally, I don’t mind it, I think it’s a good feedback loop for me. But I hope you’re not talking about my talk.
Will Bachman: All right, and then last question here, and then we will wrap it up. Can movements be distracted, and is this why communities like companies, states, etc. have a hard time making progress on uncomfortable topics or on their [inaudible 00:54:27]? Not just individuals, but can a whole organization be a distracted organization?
Nir Eyal: I think that many … now, it sounds like there’s a priorities question here, but I think the kind of companies that are more distractable, the kind of companies that drive people crazy, and I say that term not in a pejorative way, I mean, this is factual, we know that there are two conditions of a workplace that literally cause anxiety and depression disorders, you hear that right? They’re not just correlated, they’ve been shown to cause depression anxiety disorder. The two conditions. Let me back up.
Nir Eyal: If I asked you, “What kind of workplace would cause anxiety and depression disorder?” When I first heard that question, I would think, “Oh, it must be a depressing job. Maybe it’s working as a mortician, or being a veterinarian that has to put down puppies or something.” I don’t know. Having a sad job. Turns out that’s not true. It’s not the work you do, it’s the work environment you do it in. So, it’s the confluence of two factors simultaneously that makes a workplace environment one that leads to depression anxiety disorder, and this is the work of Stansfield and Candy.
Nir Eyal: They found that when an organization has high expectations, coupled with low control, it’s that confluence of those two factors, that is the type of work environment that literally drives us crazy. What do people do when they feel anxiety, when they feel the symptoms of depression disorder? That causes more internal triggers, and so what do they do to grasp for agency? To feel in control? They send more emails, they call more superfluous meetings that waste everyone’s time. And they’re doing this again, for the psychological need of agency. Thyre trying to give themselves a feeling of control where they have too little.
Nir Eyal: By the way, if you have high expectations and high agency, high control, no problem. That’s a wonderful work environment. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s when you have high expectations and low control, that’s the type of work environment that’s plagued by more distraction, more anxiety, more symptoms of depression disorder.
Will Bachman: Let’s give it up for Nir Eyal.
Nir Eyal: Thank you.

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