Nir Eyal, Author, Entrepreneur, and Angel Investor
Helping Us Understand Our Tech Habits
How Nir Eyal’s curiosity is helping brands and users alike rethink our relationships with technology.
Nir Eyal is fascinated with habits—how we form them, how we break them, and how companies can cultivate them to make their products irresistible.
He’s an expert in behavioral design and product psychology, and has lectured at Stanford and given TED talks on how brands can develop habit-forming products and how consumers can recognize the control technology has on them.
And while most people see habits as behaviors that need breaking, Eyal says they can actually be a good thing.
“Habits are really who we are,” he says in a video on his site. “Habits are evolutionarily beneficial. We have habits to save our brain from doing all the thinking of the first time we learned a behavior.”
Eyal’s unique outlook and fixation on habit have led him to be a highly successful consultant, entrepreneur, and investor, and he’s been called upon to discuss the effects technology has on everything from childhood development to interpersonal relationships. He’s spent about a decade and a half researching, teaching, and writing about humans’ natural inclination toward habits, the role habit plays in business, and how we can use that knowledge to break the hold technology seems to have on us all.
But Eyal’s expertise didn’t come with formal training. In fact, he credits “the school of hard knocks” for much of his success in the field.
The Need to Answer a Question
Eyal’s journey began as a founder of two successful startups, but before that, he was a young misfit. The Israeli-American emigrated with his family to the United States. He says having his “crazy name” made him feel different. “I hear that’s something a lot of entrepreneurs feel.”
Eyal received his bachelor’s degree in political science at Emory University, where he studied journalism and economics. After he graduated in 2001, he spent a few years working for Boston Consulting before venturing into his first startup. It was a company called Sunshine Business Development, a renewable energy distribution, wholesale, and retail business he started after moving to New York City in 2003.
“We had really good timing around starting that,” he says. “We started it in 2003, back when almost nobody was doing solar energy.”
He sold that company to a private equity firm in 2007.
His next startup is what really got him thinking about habit-forming products and the companies that have perfected them. In 2008, after moving to California, he began an online ad network called AdNectar, which provided and placed ads for online gaming apps.
“But back then, apps didn’t mean iPhone apps,” Eyal says. “There was no Apple App Store. Back then, apps meant Facebook apps.”
At the time, apps like Farmville and Candy Crush were new and wildly popular.
“You could build an app and then overnight, a million people could start using your Facebook app. A lot of them were very frivolous and silly, but they gained traction very quickly. Most importantly, I think, they demonstrated some interesting principles of consumer psychology and how we can design products to change people’s behaviors and their habits.”
Once he sold the company in 2011, Eyal really began to wonder what made the apps, and technology products in general, so incredibly habit forming.
From Blogging to Teaching
He answered that question the way he answers all the questions that plague him: by diving into the topic head first. He did extensive research on the subject, studied companies like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and began writing about habit-forming tech on his blog, NirandFar.com.
The blog, he says, turned into classes at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. At the business school, he taught a class called “Using Neuroscience to Influence Human Behavior.”
Through his research, writing, and classes, he began to recognize patterns in the most habit-forming products and came up with what he called the “Hooked Model.”
“It starts with a trigger, to an action, to a reward, and finally an investment,” Eyal says. “And what we find is that through successive cycles through these hooks, this is how our preferences are shaped, how our tastes are formed, and how these habits take hold.”
He points to Google as the ultimate example.
“Every day, when you want to know some information, if you have a question and you feel this sense of uncertainty, you Google it with little or no conscious thought. And this is why habits are such a competitive advantage. If you have the kind of company that people use out of habit, they don’t even consider whether the competition has a better product.”
The Hooked Model helps companies connect their products to customers’ problems with enough frequency to form a habit. From this model came a seminar and his 2014 book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
A Drive to Help Others
Eyal is now a leading expert in how to design products that are habit forming, and he’s become an angel investor for several successful brands, including Eventbrite, Marco Polo, and Presence Learning. He has written for the Harvard Business Review, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today, and consults for several businesses.
But Eyal’s goal isn’t to make money getting people hooked on products. Instead, his focus is on using his articles, books, lectures, workshops, and even investing practices to make life better for people.
In a promotional video, Eyal outlines his two primary reasons for writing Hooked.
First, he wanted to serve people who are working to build products that help people live better lives, including designers, entrepreneurs, and product makers. “This book provides a framework to help them build the right thing sooner, to use the deeper psychology of why users do the things they do so that we can help them live better lives,” Eyal said.
Eyal also wrote the book out of concerns that “the world is becoming a potentially more addictive place.” In order to put technology in its place, he reasoned, “We have to understand the deeper psychology driving why we use these goods and services. …By understanding how these products change our behavior, we can make sure that we control our habits as opposed to our habits controlling us.”
His next book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, turns to the pervasive and persuasive aspects of technology.
Getting People Unhooked
Now that he knew how to create habit-forming tech, another question popped up for Eyal: How do you control your attention and actively choose your life?
“I had this question because I found that my attention was being controlled in ways I didn’t always like,” he says.
So he did what he always does. He dove into research until he found a satisfactory answer.
“But this one, I felt like I was getting a lot of bad advice,” he says. “Every book that I read on the topic of distraction and focus, basically the central message was get rid of the distraction, especially when it comes to digital devices. If you find that you’re distracted because of your iPhone, well then go on a digital detox. … And what I discovered was it didn’t work.”
There are a few reasons for that. First, he says, technology isn’t going away, so how can you go cold turkey?
“It’s like going on a crash diet. What happens after you say, ‘I’m not going to eat junk food for 30 days.’ What happens on day 31? Well, you gorge on day 31. So what was the point of that? Nothing.”
Second, people rely on technology in every aspect of their lives. “I need to use these products for my livelihood,” Eyal says. “It’s nice if you’re a professor. You know, most of these books are written by professors who don’t have social media accounts. Many of them don’t even use email. And so that’s very nice for you if you have that kind of luxury.”
The final reason is the most important one—abstaining doesn’t address the underlying psychology of why people get distracted.
That’s where Indistractable (which is due out in October 2019) comes in. But the book evolved to address not only technology, but other habits and addictions people have.
“I started writing a book about digital distraction and what I ended up writing about was a book around answering this question of why we don’t do what we say we’re going to do. We know we should exercise. We don’t. We know we should eat healthy. We don’t. We know we should be present when we’re in a meeting. We should be present in both body and mind, and yet we find ourselves working on our email in the middle of dinner or in a meeting.”
Eyal is now a leading consultant and thought leader in the world of product psychology and behavioral design. But the question he never asks himself is, “How can I use technology to make money?”
Rather, he asks how habit-forming technology can help make lives better, and how people can integrate technology into their lives without becoming slaves to their devices. In the process, Eyal is committed to answering questions in ways that serve anyone with a business, or just a smartphone.
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Laurie Mega
- The story behind Eyal’s successful startups in the solar power, advertising, and gaming industries
- How observing the behavior change through product design led to a burning question in Eyal’s mind
- Eyal’s journey to understanding the deeper psychology behind how products are designed to be habit forming
- The principles behind the Hook Model, and how the Bible is a perfect example
- How Eyal’s own book inadvertently helped him improve his physical fitness
- How his desire to control his attention inspired Eyal’s upcoming book Indistractable: Mastering the Skill of the Century
- A sneak peek into techniques from Eyal’s new book to help people overcome internal triggers
- A live case study with Nathan to help him address the habits he wants to break
- Why high levels of distraction at a company are usually symptoms of a bigger problem
Full Transcript of Podcast with Nir Eyal
Nathan: The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Nir: How did I get my job?
Nir: Yeah, so it’s a long and winding story but I’ll give you the short version. The short version is that I started a couple tech companies and the last one was in the advertising and gaming industry. That is an industry that let’s face it, is dependent on mind control, that those two industries, advertisers don’t spend all that money for their health, and gaming companies are really experts when it comes to manipulating user behaviour. I had this vantage point of seeing how companies change people’s behaviours through the products they design, and I wanted to figure out what was it that made some companies so good at these techniques of changing user behaviour while other failed?
I really wanted to understand the deeper psychology behind how products are designed to be habit forming. I started blogging about habit forming technology and what I was learning to answer my own question, and then that led into a class that I taught at Stanford, at the Graduate School of Business and then later at the Design School there. Then, that class turned into a book which I then published. It’s called Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products. I published that about five years ago now.
And then yeah, that leads me to today. Now I’m publishing another book about the other side of the story, about distraction and how do we make sure we put distraction in its place. That book will be out in the fall of 2019, it’s called Indistractable.
Nathan: Interesting. Yeah, I really want to talk about Indistractable and really what compelled you to write that book, but before we jump into that, I’d love to hear about the two companies that you started. What exactly happened? Did you exit them? Are you still running them? Are you just on the board? Talk to me.
Nir: Yeah, so the first company was acquired by a private equity firm. It was a solar energy business and we started that, we had really good timing around starting that. We started back in 2003, back when almost nobody was doing solar energy. At least not many large scale. There were a few people leftover from the Carter administration back then that thought that solar was really cool, but we managed to start that company and then later it was acquired.
Then, the second company was as I mentioned in the advertising and gaming space. We started that company with several co-founders that I met at Stanford, and we ran that company for a few years until it was acquired by another company, and that company was then acquired by Yahoo.
Nathan: Oh, wow. Interesting. When it came to I guess the advertising space, you guys were doing advertising for games, or were you actually producing games as well?
Nir: No, we were actually … The gaming companies were our clients. We were an ad network for games, so we were placing ads inside apps, but back then, apps didn’t mean iPhone apps. There was no Apple App Store back then. Apps meant Facebook apps.
Nathan: Yeah, that was a big thing back in the day. It was a bit before my time, before I knew this space or anything at all, was across it, but yeah, that was a big thing, right?
Nir: It was a really big deal, yeah. I mean, you could build an app and then overnight a million people would start using your Facebook app. A lot of them were very frivolous and silly but they gained traction very quickly and most importantly, I think they demonstrated some really interesting principles of consumer psychology and how we can design products to change people’s behaviours and their habits.
Nathan: Yeah, interesting. Let’s talk about some of those principles. I know you cover it in your first book, Hooked, and that’s actually quite an iconic book. It’s very, very well recognised, a lot of people in my team have read it, and yeah, let’s talk about some of these principles.
Nir: Yeah, absolutely. The Hooked model is really about answering this question of how does a company connect their product’s use to a customer’s problem with enough frequency to form a habit? What I did through these years of researching what is it about some companies that makes them so sticky and so habit forming, while other products are easily forgotten is that these products that create habits all have hooks embedded into the product design.
A hook is this four step model that starts with a trigger, to an action, to a reward, and finally an investment. What we find is that through successive cycles through these hooks, this is how our preferences are shaped, how our tastes are formed, and how these habits take hold.
Nathan: I’m very, very familiar, when I think of great products, development, I think of a concept called lock-in. Some of the best email service providers, they’re so good because yeah, it’s just so difficult to get out of them. They’re tied to your business and a big part of your business’ success and the revenue it generates, because email’s so powerful. Once you get started, once you get integrated, once you build all these crazy, automated campaigns, and you’ve got all your community on there and you’ve got all their profile data around tagging and what they’re interested in, it’s very, very difficult to ever want to move. So, would you say that this form of lock-in is that four step process?
Nir: That can be part of it. It’s part of what I call the investment phase, where the user puts something into the product that makes it better with use. Now, there are some instances where the investment does create lock-in, but I was really fascinated by the companies that don’t necessarily embed themselves in that way. For example, if you think about Google, Google has about 90% market share and I would argue that searching on Google doesn’t have much lock-in.
It’s not like an enterprise software that once a company starts using, it’s very hard to rip it out and change. And yet, every day when you want to know some information, and you have a question, if you feel this sense of uncertainty, you Google it with little or no conscious thought. This is why habits are such a competitive advantage, that if you have the kind of company that people use out of habit, they don’t even consider whether the competition has a better product, right?
We don’t ask ourselves, “I wonder if Bing has a better search engine. I wonder if DuckDuckGo is any better.” No, we just Google it with little or no conscious thought, and that’s amazing to me, right? How does a company form a habit through the use of a product? It used to be that companies would create habits, create preferences through display advertising, right? The reason you see so many Coca-Cola commercials and whatnot is because they are creating this preference through what’s called the mere-exposure effect, right?
The more you see a brand, the more you see a logo, a tagline, the more affinity you have for it. This is called the mere-exposure effect. But if you think about it, these companies like Facebook and Twitter and Slack and Instagram and WhatsApp, none of these companies spend hardly any money on advertising. It’s a drop in the bucket how much they spend. What’s different about these companies is that they don’t create habits through advertising. They create habits through the product experience itself.
And that’s really special. It’s through this four step process, the trigger, action, the reward, and the investment, that’s what creates these habits. For many of them, it’s not necessarily lock-in. Of course, for some of them, the investment phase is very important, and makes it difficult to switch, but for many of them, it’s just simply creating this mental habit that when I need XYZ, I turn to this particular company.
Nathan: Yeah, I see. Interesting. I don’t know the correct stats, but I’ve read it somewhere that Twitter worked out that if somebody, as long as they do their first status update, or their 5th or 13th tweet or whatever it is, there’s a certain number that that’s when they know it’s going to be, like they’ve got you. You’re going to be a user, or you’re sticky.
Nir: Right. It was the number of followers.
Nathan: Yes, number of followers.
Nir: Yeah exactly, as I actually talk about it … Right. I talk about it in my book, actually. I talk about this, there’s this chapter on habit testing. How do you figure out what habit to form around? Part of habit testing is finding the habit path which is what is it that your habituated users have done? What threshold have they reached in interacting with your product that makes them very likely to become habituated users?
What you do is the first step is to identify, you find what things they did before they became a habituated user. Then you codify, you understand those steps that they took, and then you modify, so identify, codify, and modify, so you then modify the experience, the user experience, so that everyone goes along that same habit path. This is exactly what Twitter did, right? They figured out that if you followed X number of people on the site, you are much more likely to become a habitual user.
Today if you were to sign up for a brand new Twitter account, guess what? One of the first steps is, “Hey, there are all these famous people you really should follow. What do you think about following them first?”
Nathan: Yeah, see they’ve got that in the onboarding.
Nir: Right, exactly.
Nathan: I see. This is hardcore product development. You’re either a product developer or you’re a founder, because founder’s like the , the product development, the visionary.
Nir: Right. This is definitely about how to build these kind of products, right? It’s really about how do we design them? Now, the good news is that you don’t necessarily have to be an app developer to use these techniques, that companies both online and offline can use many of these techniques, and the idea here, I use Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp and these companies as the models, as the case studies, but the idea is that we can use them for good.
In fact, I do these two case studies in the book of companies that use the hook model, and the two examples I give of companies who actually use the hook model, because remember, Facebook didn’t use the hook model. Twitter didn’t use the hook model. They were my examples that I drew from in order to demonstrate how the hook model is used, but of course, they didn’t use the hook model because the hook model didn’t exist back then when they started these companies.
But companies in the book that did use the hook model, there are two that I show. The first one is The Bible.
Nathan: Oh, wow.
Nir: The Bible app. Yeah, there’s an app called The Bible, it’s used by over 200 million people, probably more by now, and you can see how the product uses these four steps of the hook model. Another app that I know for a fact they used the hook model is called Fitbod, which is an app that helps people develop healthy habits in the gym. It’s really about developing, how can we take the same psychology that the game makers and the social media companies use to keep us hooked? How can we use that same psychology to help people live better lives, to build healthy habits?
Nathan: Interesting. Can you just talk me through what Fitbod do exactly? Because that’s interesting.
Nir: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. I’ll give you a very personal story here. I have always struggled with physical fitness. I was obese at one point in my life, and I was never very athletic. I really struggled with doing anything physical because I just hated it. I just did not enjoy exercise in any form, until I found this app called Fitbod. I played around with this app, I can’t even remember how I found it. I probably found it poking around the App Store, and I decided to give it a try and as I used it, I thought to myself, “Wow, this is brilliant. I mean, they have nailed all four steps of the hook model. The trigger, the action, the reward, and the investment.”
I actually emailed them and I said, “Hey, I’m just curious, have you possibly read my book? Because this is just uncanny” and they wrote back and they said, “Yes, in fact, we read your book and we designed the app with these principles in mind.” It’s interesting in that I actually wrote a few years before I found Fitbod, I wrote an article on my blog called Why Fitness Apps Are Making You Fat, because I was so frustrated that all the fitness apps out there were awful. They were not habit forming at all.
What Fitbod really does differently, and I think really is quite brilliant is that they don’t target the person who doesn’t want to go to the gym. Currently, a lot of fitness apps, they target people who are complete couch potatoes, and that’s very hard to do because they’re not targeting a very specific behaviour. Whereas Fitbod, they target a very specific problem, the problem is a person like me who says, “Man, I really would like to enjoy exercise but I don’t” and a big reason that I didn’t enjoy exercise is because I would get to the gym and I wouldn’t know what to do.
So, this is called an internal trigger. There’s two types of triggers. Internal triggers, and external triggers. External triggers are the pings, the dings, the rings, all the things that prompt you to action. Internal triggers are negative emotional states. In my case, I would go to the gym and I would look around, and you’d see all these muscle heads and people who knew what they were doing in a gym and I’d stand around not really knowing what to do.
Well, this is what Fitbod is for. It’s not for getting you into the gym. It’s for the person who’s already in the gym and feels this uncomfortable emotional sensation of uncertainty, insecurity, right? Every habit forming product has to find that emotional itch that it caters to, so that’s the internal trigger for Fitbod. The action is to open the app. Just that. Simply open the app. That’s the habit. Every time you feel insecurity, uncertainty in the gym, you open the app.
The reward is that the app gives you a pre-programmed workout that tells you what exercise to do, how many reps to do, how much weight to lift. It tells you everything you need to do. That’s the reward, and then there’s a bit of variability. We find that in, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Slack, all of these products have what’s called a variable reward. It’s almost like a slot machine like mechanic, where there’s uncertainty.
There’s quite a bit of uncertainty in the variable reward when it comes Fitbod around what’s the exercise going to be? How many reps do I have to do? Am I able to do what the app told me to do? There’s all this challenge and variability associated. And then finally, there’s the investment phase. The investment phase is where the user puts something into the product in anticipation of some kind of future benefit.
In the case of Fitbod, every time you do an exercise, every time you lift any weight, you have to enter it into the app. You confirm, “This is how much I did.” Did you do what the app recommended? So, the entering of data makes the app better with you, so that next time you go to the gym, it knows already what you should do based on your previous workout. Not only does it have your information saved from last time, it uses that data to tell you what to do next.
For example, if you go on a Monday, and you work out your upper body or whatever, it’s going to not recommend that you do that same exercise on Tuesday, because it knows that your muscles are still sore. It uses that investment to make the product better and better with use. So, that’s the complete hook, the trigger, the action, the reward, and investment.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. Fascinating. I’m mindful of your time and I want to switch gears and talk about your latest book, Indistractable: How To Control Your Attention And Choose Your Life. It goes around psychology, so a similar theme, but it’s kind of the reverse. How do you avoid this stuff? I’m curious, what compelled you to write this book?
Nir: Yeah, so I write books because I am looking for answers to questions that I don’t find a satisfactory answer to. The question around Hooked was how do you build consumer habits? How do you build habit forming products? The question with Indistractable is how do you control your attention and choose your life? I had this question because I found that my attention was being controlled in ways I didn’t always like.
I did do what I always do whenever I have a question I need an answer to, I buy every book on the topic and I start reading them. Most of the time, I get the answer I’m looking for, for the questions I need answered in life. But this one, I felt like I was getting a lot of bad advice. Every book that I read on the topic of distraction, on focus, basically the central message was get rid of the distraction. Especially when it comes to digital devices, right? If you find that you’re distracted because of your iPhone, well then go on a digital detox and digital minimalism, and digital sabbath.
What I discovered was it didn’t work. The reason it didn’t work is a few reasons. Number one, this stuff isn’t going away. You can’t avoid it forever, right? It’s like going on a crash diet. What happens after you say I’m not going to eat junk food for 30 days? What happens on day 31? Well argh, you gorge on day 31, so what was the point of that? Nothing.
The second thing that I found is that I relied upon this stuff, right? I need to use these products for my livelihood. It’s nice if you’re a professor, most of these books are written by professors who don’t have social media accounts, many of them don’t even use email. That’s very nice for you if you have that kind of luxury. And the third and most important reason that that advice didn’t work, to just abstain from these devices, was that it didn’t address the underlying psychology of why I was getting distracted.
What I found was I put my cellphone away and I start reading a book that I’ve been meaning to catch up on. I’d start writing for a bit on a word processor that I bought without an internet connection, and I’d start folding the laundry or take out the trash. I would constantly get distracted by something because I hadn’t dealt with what was going on inside me.
What I realised was I started writing a book about digital distraction, and what I ended up writing about was a book around answering this question of why don’t we do what we say we’re going to do? We know what to do, we know we should exercise, we don’t. We know we should eat healthy, we don’t. We know we should be present when we’re in a meeting, we should be present in both body and mind, and yet we find ourselves working on our email in the middle of dinner, or in a meeting.
We sit down on our desk and we say, “Oh, we’re definitely going to work on that big project and finally finish that presentation” and yet we find ourselves Googling something or on a Slack channel instead of doing the work we know we need to do. Why is that? Why don’t we do what we say we’re going to do? It’s really a book about distraction, about the psychology of distraction, because I felt man, if I could just do everything that I know I should do, wouldn’t that be a superpower? That’s really why I wanted the answer to this question.
Nathan: Interesting. What did you find out? How do you become Indistractable?
Nir: Yeah, so I refer back, part of the nice thing about being the guy who helps companies build habit forming products, is that I know the Achilles’ heel of distraction. Part of this draws upon some of the similar psychology that I’d described in Hooked to break these bad habits, to make sure that we do what we say we’re going to do. Part of it, the most important thing you can do is to understand your internal triggers, and to master them.
What we find is that if you get used to using a distraction to stop discomfort, then you habituate to it. Your brain automatically goes to whatever it is solves your pain, even if it doesn’t serve you, even if it’s against your best interest. So, what I find is that if we don’t deal with that, if we don’t first start with what is it that I’m trying to escape? What’s the feeling? What’s that icky, sticky truth that I don’t really want to face that keeps me from doing what I say I want to do? Why do I keep escaping?
That’s the first step, is to understand and master these internal triggers, and I give all kinds of techniques of how do we overcome these internal triggers? That’s the most important thing. The next thing that we can do is to make time for traction, and I talk about how important it is to plan your day. There’s a lot of techniques. This can be very difficult for some people, but it’s absolutely critical, because if you don’t plan your day, someone else will.
Moreover, we can’t complete that something is distracting unless we know what it is distracting us from. We have to start planning our day. Then, the next thing is we can hack back the external triggers. We talked about those external triggers earlier, the pings, the dings, the rings, all the things that pull you towards distraction. We have to know how to hack back those external triggers. In Hooked, I talked about how companies hack your attention and hack your behaviour. Well, in Indistractable, I tell you how to hack back.
It turns out it’s actually not that hard, right? There’s some very common sense things we can do, not only on our desktops and on our phones, but also in our workplace environments. Once of the biggest culprits of distraction is open floor plan offices, right? We need new techniques to make sure that we don’t get distracted as we’re doing our work, so we can do what we say we’re going to do.
And then finally, the last thing that we can do is to make pacts. Pacts are a very old technique, they date back 2500 years, so there’s all kinds of things that we can do to use what I call an effort pact, which makes doing the thing we don’t want to do more difficult, a price pact, which exerts some kind of cost, and then finally and perhaps least understood is what I call an identity pact, how we can actually change the way we view ourselves, the way we define ourselves to make a pact with ourselves, so that we can do the things we really want to do.
The four basic steps again are master the internal triggers, make time for traction, hack back external triggers, and then finally prevent distraction with pacts.
Nathan: Interesting. I’ll give you an example, if we could run through an example of something that I face-
Nathan: … if that would be cool. I’m really into my health and fitness, I try and train at the gym, a combination of gym and boxing, at least 4-7 times a week. A good week-
Nathan: … will be seven times, a bad week will be four. I really enjoy the boxing component now as well, and I’ve got a trainer, et cetera, et cetera. I really try and eat really good food as well, because I don’t want to have all this time that I’m putting into working out go to waste. I try and prepare my meals and try and eat healthy food all the time.
But one thing I do like to do is I really like to eat tasty food. I really like going out for a nice dinner and just this is fun, and it’s kind of like something I like to do. And I also really like to have beers with mates, or have a drink with friends. For me, I can’t really just drink one drink. I’m more the kind of person that likes to have a good time and have quite a few drinks on that particular night, if it’s a wedding or something like that.
These are two I guess habits that I’ve formed where let’s just say I might have a nice dinner or a really fancy, a tasty kebab or you might pronounce kebab, really tasty-
Nir: I get it.
Nathan: … like once a week. Maybe on the weekend or something. What can I do around that particular bad habit that I have?
Nir: Right. The first step is to decide the …between traction and distraction. Traction is anytime we do what we want to do, things that move us forward in life, that are consistent with our goals, things that we do with intent. The opposite of traction is distraction, right? Anything that we do without intending to do it. The fact is if we don’t learn these techniques, then we will constantly be swayed. Whether it’s because our boss wants something, to do something, because our spouse, our kids, social media, the news, a restaurant that wants to sell you something, a bar that wants to sell you something.
So, if we don’t plan ahead, if we don’t understand what it is that we want to do with intent, then we will constantly be swayed. The world is just too much of a tempting place for that not to happen. I really think there’s going to be a bifurcation between people who understand these skills and understand how to be Indistractable and people whose lives are dictated and run by other people, and they’re constantly being manipulated.
The first step is to decide for yourself, and only you can make this decision, is what is traction for you? The idea here, the reason that abstinence doesn’t work is that for many people … It’s not that it never works, but for many people, they really struggle with abstinence, and I would argue that even if they’re able to be abstinent around some things, you can’t be abstinent around everything, right? You can’t be perfect all the time.
Sometimes it’s perfectly okay to indulge, right? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a few drinks, if it’s what you intended to do. The first step is to decide for yourself what is traction versus distraction? If you’re going out with your mates, it’s perfectly fine to have a nice meal. It’s perfectly fine to have one, two, or three drinks. There’s nothing wrong with that. The question is for yourself, what do you intend? Think beforehand what it is that you want to do.
Whether it’s something that you want to do, or something you don’t want to do. For example, I want to go to the gym versus I don’t want to have that second piece of cake, okay? That’s the first step. Then, once we understand for ourselves what it is that we want, whether it’s with our time, whether it’s with whatever we eat, whether it’s with activities, once we know what it is we want to do, then we just work our way around these four steps.
The first step is to understand these internal triggers, right? When we do over indulge, when we do do something that we don’t intend to do, what is the uncomfortable emotional state that we are trying to escape? We have to understand that question. This is a fundamental point that we have to come to grips with. If you don’t want to exercise, you’re not in the mood to exercise one day, well what’s the feeling you’re trying to escape?
If you find yourself overindulging in a meal that you didn’t intend to, you’re eating junk food when you didn’t want to, what’s that feeling you’re trying to escape? Many times it’s not what we think it is. For example, you mentioned with food, many times people say, “Well, why did you overeat?” “Well, I was hungry.” But it turns out that’s not really why we overeat. We almost never eat in this modern world because we’re hungry. We eat because we are scared of being hungry in the future.
We are escaping something that we don’t like to feel, whether that’s boredom, whether that’s loneliness, whether it’s anxiety. Food is one of these tools that we use to escape discomfort, and I know this personally, having been obese at one point in my life. It wasn’t what I was consuming, it was what was consuming me. That’s the most important step, and unfortunately it’s the step that we don’t like to face. It’s so easy to blame the substance, it’s so easy to blame the food, it’s so easy to blame our technology.
But at the end of the day if there is no internal trigger, if we know how to cope with that discomfort, nobody can make you do anything that you don’t want to do. That’s the first step. The second step is to make time for traction. So, I would argue that going out for a nice meal and having a few drinks, there’s nothing wrong with it as long as you plan to do it. This is where we literally put it on our calendar, right? So that we’re doing it with intent, and then enjoy that experience.
For example, if it’s having a nice meal, if you have that on your calendar, that I’m going to allow myself once, twice a month, whatever it is that you want to have that indulgement meal, nothing’s going to happen to you. You’re going to be totally fine, as long as you did it with intent. Same goes for overindulging in social media, for example. For me, I have time on my calendar every day when I make time for social media. I can check YouTube, I can check Facebook, I can check whatever I want. That’s time that I have budgeted to do that activity, and I turned something that was previously a distraction into traction, because that’s what I wanted to do.
Then what we have to do is to remove, the first step remember, is to hack back the external triggers. If you find that you overindulge on food, then it’s too late to try and do something about it when the chocolate cake is at your lips. You’ve already lost the battle. They’re going to get you, it’s too late. What you want to do is to make sure that in those times when you’re likely to become distracted, to do something that you didn’t intend to do, that you have removed those external triggers, that they’re not in your face all the time, right? Whether it’s on your cellphone, removing the notifications, whether it’s not keeping unhealthy food in your home, we want to remove those external triggers.
And then finally, the last thing we can do is to prevent distraction with pacts. This is really the line of last resort. This is what we do after we’ve done the other three steps of mastering the internal trigger, making time for traction, and hacking back the external triggers. The last thing we can do, we should do, is to make pacts with ourselves. This is where we can have some kind of cost to prevent us doing something we didn’t want to do.
For example, this is an extreme example. If this was really important to you, and you said, “Look, I only want to drink one night a month.” I don’t know, I’m just making this up. If we made a bet that if you drank more than one time per month, that you would owe me $10,000, I bet you you won’t do that behaviour anymore, right?
Nir: 100%. Well, then we can’t blame the food or the drink or the substance or the media if all it took was a bet, right?
Nir: Remember, you’re not paying it if you do what you wanted to do. So, we can use all … This is just the tip of the iceberg, I’m giving you the super short version. The book is 200 pages and there’s lots and lots of techniques in it, but these are just the tip of the iceberg of some different techniques that we can use, to make sure that we do what we say we’re going to do.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s really cool. A lot to think about. Lots going through my head around why I do it and that kind of confronting that, and then also some of the things that I need to think about when it comes to that traction piece, and setting myself up.
Nir: I’ll tell you what typically doesn’t work. What typically doesn’t work is pure abstinence. People like to quote Alcoholics Anonymous, which is a pure abstinence programme and it can be effective for some people, but the success rate on a programme like Alcoholics Anonymous is reported to be around 12%. That’s horrible, right? 12%. Part of the reason is that it’s not true that people need to go cold turkey forever. Even with addictive substances, when you think about nicotine, turns out most smokers are not addicted, believe it or not. Most smokers are social smokers. They smoke once in a while.
Now, they don’t account for the majority of the cigarette sales, and God forbid am I saying that cigarettes are good for you. No, no, no. They’re definitely horrible for you, but I’m making the point that pure abstinence doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t work because of what’s called the white bear effect. There’s this study that found that when you ask people not to think about a white bear, the fact that they can think about nothing else but the white bear. That’s all they can think about.
In many ways, this habituation to these behaviours that we try and restrict ourselves, it’s almost like if you think about when you pull a rubber band. You pull it, let’s say you hold a rubber band between your fingers, and you pull it, pull it, pull it, pull it, and then you let go, it bounces back the other way, right? Doesn’t stop from where you started. It goes back the other direction.
So, if you think about it, if you pull and you’re trying to resist, resist, resist, resist, resist, and say, “No, no, no, no, no. Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it,” and then when you release, the release itself feels good. The release of the discomfort of wanting, of craving, in fact feels pleasurable. I mean, cigarettes are a terrific example of this. There’s nothing that feels good about smoking a cigarette. There are sensations, but there’s nothing inherently fun about the effects of a cigarette. It stinks, it’s disgusting, I mean there’s nothing good about it, unless what is provided from that cigarette is the relief of the wanting, of the craving, of the, “I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t. Okay, fine.”
That feels good, so we have to be very careful about abstinence, whether it comes to media, whether it comes to substances, whether it comes to indulgences. We want to make sure that we’re doing it in a thoughtful way.
Nathan: Yeah. I love it, man. I’m thinking a lot about things like how can I use this framework to be a more effective founder? When I think about what will be relevant to our audience, as well, I think the tool Slack, I love it, but I have a love/hate relationship with it, because it is so distracting. We have a remote, like a distributed, hybrid distributed team, and yeah, it is a habit forming product and you’re just always trained to be on there and always getting your alerts. I feel like I always need to be across everything that’s going on, and we’ve got 35-40 people on there, and it’s just always going, going, going, going.
Nir: So it’s really interesting that you mention Slack, because it’s actually, Slack is a case study in my book. Because everybody talks about Slack like it’s this thing that causes so much distraction, but interestingly enough, you would expect if it’s the technology that causes distraction, then you would think the companies that use it the most would have the biggest problem with distraction, right?
Nir: You would imagine that if Slack was the problem, if technology was the problem, then at Slack headquarters, man, probably nobody can get anything done. But that is so not true. Because when you walk into Slack headquarters, the first thing you see is a big neon pink sign that says, “Work hard, and go home.” So, it turns out in my research what I thought was a problem with technology turned out to be a problem of corporate culture.
That if you work at a company where people can never disconnect, where people are run ragged because they feel like they’re always having to be on all the time, I am telling you that is a symptom of a bigger problem. Distraction at work is a symptom of dysfunctional culture. You have skeletons in the closet at any company that is struggling with distraction because at companies where people have this culture where people can raise their hand and say, “Hey, I don’t like this. This is a problem. We should work it out.” It’s a problem like any other problem.
The thing is that at companies that can’t do that, where people feel like if they raise their hand and say, “Hey, you know what? I didn’t sign up to be on my computer at 10:00 p.m. every night. That’s not what I signed up for.” Some companies, like Slack, you can do that. You can raise your hand, and raise a concern and they solve the problem like any other problem. But at companies that use technology too much, where people are distracted, what I found in my research was that these companies have the kind of cultures that lack what’s called psychological safety, that people feel like if they raise their hands and say, “Hey, this is really not working for me,” they’re afraid of retribution.
They’re afraid they’ll be thought of as lazy, they’re afraid they’ll be fired because they’re not team players. It turns out that it’s not just about the distraction, it turns out they feel that way about everything. There’s all sorts of skeletons in the closet that they’re not sharing with the rest of the team. That’s really the lesson that I learned from writing this book is that distraction in the workplace is a symptom of dysfunction.
Nathan: That’s fascinating, okay. All right, well look, where can people go and grab a copy of your book? We have to work towards wrapping up. Where’s the best place?
Nir: Yeah, so Hooked is available wherever books are sold. I’m assuming that’s the case in Australia, as well. It’s called Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products. And my next book, Indistractable, will be available in October of 2019, and please check out my website in the meantime. I publish articles around this topic of psychology, technology, and business. My website is called NirAndFar.com, but Nir is not spelled how you think it’s spelled. Nir is spelled like my first name, so it’s N-I-R, Nir, AndFar, N-I-R, andfar.com.
Nathan: Awesome. Well look, thank you so much for your time, Nir. This has been a really fascinating conversation. I’ve learned a tonne. There’s some things that I have to go away and implement and yeah, I can’t thank you enough for your time and for sharing. Thank you so much.
Nir: My pleasure. This was really fun. Thank you.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Nir Eyal
- Visit Eyal’s website
- You can purchase “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” wherever books are sold, including on Amazon
- Eyal’s second book “Indistractable: Mastering the Skill of the Century” will be available in October 2019