How to Deal With the Root Cause of Your Distraction with Nir Eyal #182
I’ll be the first to admit. I can be easily distracted. Ping, blue dot, check email, etc. Nir Eyal named my interference as pain management. “Unless we deal with the root causes of our distraction, we’ll continue to find ways to distract ourselves. Simply put, the drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all our behavior.” I invite you to put aside your biases and assumptions about distraction and listen to Nir Eyal’s research on how to become Indistractable.
Indistractable reveals the key to getting the best out of technology, without letting it get the best of us. It provides practical, novel techniques to control your time and attention—helping you live the life you really want. Eyal overturns conventional wisdom and reveals why distraction at work is a symptom of a dysfunctional company culture – and how to fix it.
About Nir Eyal
Nir writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. Nir founded two tech companies since 2003 and has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He is the author of two bestselling books as well as a blogger on Nirandfar.com.
Transcription of my interview with Nir Eyal
Nir Eyal: We like to blame the pings and the dings and all the technology, but we are looking for an escape from an uncomfortable sensation that is the root cause of all distractions.
Aaron: Brothers and sisters. Welcome back to another episode of work life play. We’re, we’re on a hunt to discover the art of living. How do we live in such a way where we discover more every day that brings us life, brings us intimacy, connection work. We love deeper meaning and purpose in our life and we actually are living forward in a way that we’re proud of and find ways to course correct along the way cause it ain’t going to all be perfect, but we can practice by building new muscles and skills to stay on purpose and keep going.
Today my guest is Nir Eyal, and he wrote a book called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. I’m gonna shoot straight with you, when I first got the book I was like, “I don’t know, I’ve just seen so many of these really is this, is this like tips and techniques and what was disruptive to me, super disruptive is that nears message starts with the reason we are so easily distracted is because we are attempting to manage some kind of pain and via that pain we gravitate to other things.
Let’s say you sit down to read a good book and then you hear the ding of your phone and then you go check it. Let’s say you are sitting down to do some meaningful work. In my world that would look like turning on the computer and um, I turn off my wifi signal if I really want to get real about getting some work done, some undistracted work, and then all of a sudden I think of, “Oh yeah, I should really put in that load of laundry, shouldn’t I?” So he goes through and scientifically, um, has done a ton of research and aggregated that research together here for us to show us what’s actually in the way and how to begin to pay attention to the difference between internal triggers that take us off course to external triggers so that uh, inbound email being a external, whereas an internal trigger may be that thing for me was like, yeah, I really, I don’t want to be doing this right now. So I’d really rather be looking to go do laundry more than sit down and do the hard work that’s in front of me here.
So really fascinating, really applicable, really helpful. So what we’re gonna talk through today is what do we stand for, who we want to be, how we relate to the world, and how we can actually develop the muscle to become indestructible. You can do this. Keep going. It’s good for you.
Okay so, Nir, you claim that Indistructable is possible and I am Uber curious in the world of insane distraction, how is it actually possible and how do you use this? A drive to relieve discomfort is one of the standouts that I want to hear from you on.
Nir Eyal: Yeah. So you know what? Let’s make it super personal. Let’s make it interesting. So what are you struggling with when it comes to distraction?
Aaron: Probably my inbox. I have an internal compulsion to want to have a zero inbox. You know everything, all the boxes checked and all of the trash emptied.
Nir Eyal: I know you’ve been reading my book and so you’re definitely speaking the right language here because what you’ve touched on is the root cause of distraction. It’s what we call an internal trigger. We like to blame the pings and the dings and all the technology. But really what’s happening is we are looking for an escape from an uncomfortable sensation that is the root cause of all distractions.
So that pull you described is fundamentally a feeling. And so what we have to understand is that all distraction, in fact, all human behavior is about a desire to escape discomfort. Everything we do is about this desire to escape discomfort. It’s not about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. It’s pain all the way down. Every action you take. Some people say, take that to mean that the only way to motivate people is to make them feel pain. And that’s not what I’m saying at all. What I’m saying is it’s called the homeostatic response.
Physiologically it makes perfectly perfect common sense that if your body feels discomfort, that is what drives you to do something. So if you feel cold, your body says, that doesn’t feel very good. Put on a coat. If you are too hot, it says, take it off. If you’re hungry, you feel hunger paying. So you eat. And if you eat too much, Oh, now you feel stuffed. You stop eating. So that’s a physiological response to an uncomfortable sensation.
The same phenomenon holds true when it comes to psychological responses. So when we’re feeling lonely, we check Facebook. When we are uncertain, we Google. When we’re bored, we check, uh, the news, stock prices, uh, Netflix, Reddit, Pinterest, all of these products and services, everything caters to an uncomfortable sensation even. I mean, some of the pushback is, well, I like to feel good. Isn’t that motivating? Don’t I want to feel nice things? Absolutely you do. But why do you want those things?
Aaron: And I think that that’s the question that you’re picking out that I found fascinating in your book.
Nir Eyal: Yeah, exactly. So wanting, craving, desire, lusting. There’s a reason we say love hurts because even the desire to feel good is psychologically destabilizing. So the reason this is so important is that the first place to start to become indestructible, to master procrastination and distraction. So they don’t control us and instead we control them. The first step is to acknowledge that time management is pain management.
Aaron: I’ve never heard that before. So when I was reading though, the weekend I showed my wife was like, you could listen to this. What I found compelling about your framing of all of this is because your journey began in helping tech companies find out how to motivate us as humans. And so the psychology behind our motivations in this pain management, and then now your indestructable book is almost like, and by the way, here’s the cure to kryptonite. Here’s, here’s what you can do about it. I know I was part of, you know, creating these great products and services.
Nir Eyal: Well, to be clear, I’ve never worked for Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and the companies I profile, I stole their secrets and made them available to everyone else so that you can build the kind of products and services that people use because they want to, not because they have to. Right.
So, uh, I’ll take full credit and blame for getting people hooked up for, to exercise in the gym using Fitbits. Uh, I’ll take full credit and blame for getting kids hooked onto education with Kahoot. Another company that used my, uh, my hook model, the New York times uses the hook model to get people engaged with the news every day. So, uh, it’s not the same companies.
I never worked for the companies that build ugly habits. And I’ve never, you know, I’ve, I’ve been approached by cigarettes, tobacco and, and all kinds of other unsavory things and I’ve never worked for those clients and never will.
What I wanted to do was to help people with my first book build good habits. Now, if you know how to build good habits with products, you also know how to break bad habits with products, products that are distracting. And listen, it’s not just about technology, right? I think this is a very popular misconception that, Oh, distraction started with the iPhone. That’s BS, right?
Plato talked about distraction 2,500 years ago. Humans have always been distracted by something or another. Believe me, if the iPhone went away tomorrow, we’d find something to replace it. That’s what we always have, right? So if it’s not Facebook, it’s watching too much football. If it’s not football, it’s too much booze. If it’s not too much booze, you name it. We’ll find something to take our brains out of our minds when our minds aren’t a nice place to be. That’s what we have to understand first.
Aaron: You mentioned in your book too that this is, this is very personal for you. It wasn’t, this is not theoretical sitting outside in a, in a lab or in a two by two quadrants. Matrix. This is like, this was you and your life, your son, your wife, your career. So you were, you were curious about your own plight. So tell us, take us back to the beginning.
Nir Eyal: Yeah, but I’m not letting you off the hook here. We can talk about me later. I want to, I want to fix your problem Aaron.
Let’s talk email master these internal triggers is to understand why Aaron feels this itch. So you have to, there’s a lot of steps to becoming Indistractible. The first strategy, (there’s four big strategies) is to master these internal triggers. So we have to start with understanding what is that pull and what are you going to do next time you call, I think you called it a pull, right? What do you do next time you feel that urge, that itch. How do you arm yourself today to make sure that when you feel that itch, and this, this is really important.
Let me just explain this real quick. What we didn’t talk about is what is distraction, right? We didn’t define that term. If you ask most people what is the opposite of distraction, they’ll tell you it’s focused. But that’s not true. The opposite of distraction is not focused. If you look at the origin of the word, the opposite of distraction is traction. Both words, traction and distraction can come from the same Latin root which means to pull. So traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do. Things that you do with intent, things that help you live out your values and be the person you want to be. The opposite of traction is distraction. Any action that takes you away from what you plan to do and pulls you away from being the kind of person you want to be.
So the reason this is so important, and this gets back to your question around email, is that we have to acknowledge that anything can be a distraction and anything could be traction. So here’s what happens to most people. It certainly happened to me all the time before I started along this line of research. I would sit down on my desk and I would say, okay, now I’m going to be focused. Now I’m going to stop procrastinating. I’m going to work on that hard project. I’m going to do what I said I was going to do. Here I go. But at first let me check email. Right? And I’m guessing you experienced something very similar.
Here’s the thing, we trick ourselves into believing email is kind of a work-related task that feels productive, that feels like something that I should, you know, kind of do in my day. So let me just check email real quick. Let me just do that one thing on my to do list and we allow distraction into fooling us to prioritizing the urgent at the expense of the important. So just like anything could be distraction, anything can be traction. So at the right time, of course you should check email just like you should enjoy watching Netflix or playing around on Facebook or enjoying a video game. There’s nothing wrong with the technology per se. It’s about whether we use it or it uses us. So when we say, Oh, let me just check email real quick before I start that hard project. You know, if you sat down at your desk and you started pissing around on candy crush, well that’s obviously a distraction, right? That’s obviously not what you intended to do. That’s the easy stuff.
The much more pernicious form of distraction is when you tell yourself, “Oh, let me just check this email real quick,” and before we know it, we’re not doing the hard stuff that we said we would do with time.
So this is what’s so important. So this leads us to step two. Step one is mastering the internal triggers, figuring out how to gain control over these emotions that we’re trying to escape. That has to be step number one because time management is pain management. Step two is to make time for traction. So Aaron, do you have time in your day scheduled and time blocked for email?
Aaron: I do not.
Nir Eyal: Okay, so great. Great second step. So after you use those tools, and we don’t have time to go over all the tools, but we can go back to them if you thought any were particular. Interesting. First we have to master the internal triggers. Are you armed with the arrows in your quiver so that when you feel stress, anxiety and certainty and you have the habit of just let me check email for a quick minute. Do you have a way to diffuse that distraction so that it doesn’t lead you away from what you plan to do? So that’s step one. Step two is to make a time box calendar and burn your to do list. Did you hear what I said? Burn that goddamn to do list to do lists are killing your productivity. Yeah. Do you keep it to do list by the way?
Aaron: Um, yes.
Nir Eyal: Okay. When was the last time you didn’t finish every single thing that you said you were going to do yesterday?
Nir Eyal: Okay. So how’s that working out for you?
Aaron: Well, all the shit that I didn’t get done yesterday goes into the list that I’m hoping to get done to today, which compiled with the stuff from Wednesday also. Turns out I am a drastic underestimater and repeatedly offending.
Nir Eyal: Yes. Okay, so welcome to the club buddy. It’s not you that’s broken. It’s your system. We’ve all been told, this myth that if we write stuff down on a to do list that’ll somehow magically get done to do lists are messing with our heads because when you don’t finish what is on your to do list.
Remember behavior change is identity change and the way that to do list mess up our identity is that they tell us day after day, if you don’t finish everything on your to do list, you are reinforcing your identity as someone who doesn’t get things done. The exact opposite of what we were told to do lists are supposed to do for us and you think like what’s the big deal? Okay, so I didn’t finish.
Here’s what happens day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. You are reinforcing your identity as someone who doesn’t do what they say they’re going to do until one day here’s what happens. You say, ah, big deal. Just do it tomorrow and now the whole thing comes crashing down. What you’re saying is we have a, we operate with a degree of in congruence and that becomes our normal. Exactly. And we believe that it’s okay that this is who we are. I just, I’d add on, finish everything I say, I’m going to do it all right.
Aaron: And now we’ve lost the battle and then now that’s part of the narrative of the story we tell ourselves and everyone else around us.
Nir Eyal: Exactly.
Aaron: To reinforce back to the original too, is that we, all of this is about pain management.
Nir Eyal: Right, we feel we need to do something right? We have fear, uncertainty, we have stress around, Oh, I definitely had to get that thing done and now we have a habit of writing it down into our to do list. So it’s off our brain. We don’t have the stress of having to think about it anymore. Now that doesn’t mean we’ll get it done, right?
Aaron: Pain management, elite Advil, right? By writing it down, at least that’s out of my head. Right?
Nir Eyal: And it’s, it’s a decent first step. Okay, so using to do list as a very temporary repository. Fine. Most people leave their stuff to do on the to do list. And here’s why it’s so toxic, because to do lists are nothing more than a register of output, but output requires input, right? If I were to go to a Baker and say, make me a hundred loaves of bread, he’d say, no problem. I need flour, I need yeast, I need sugar, I need salt, I need all the ingredients. Where are the ingredients? Right? But we somehow expect to make output without input. What’s our input? Two things, time and attention. Those are the elements of input to do knowledge work.
And so that’s while you’re driving for time boxing, take your email examples. So you time box and let’s give you 30 minutes once a day or whatever your allotment is. Then is your objective to then within that container only accomplish whatever you’re capable of in that moment and let go of the rest. Define what happens inside that container
Nir Eyal: So the goal with a to do list is to finish the task. We can’t wait to check that box to cross it off our list, right? That’s the goal with time boxing. The goal is to not finish anything. What? Yeah. That that doesn’t make any sense. How am I going to finish? What do you mean don’t finish anything. Here’s the thing.
Aaron: Does that mean something different in Singapore than it does in a states?
Nir Eyal: The only goal with time boxing is to work on whatever it is you say you are going to do with your time. Whether it’s be with your kids, watch Netflix, check email, work on that big RFP. Doesn’t matter. Whatever it is you say you’re going to do. Your only goal is not to finish. It’s to do it for as long as you said you would without distraction. That’s the only way you measure yourself and I don’t care if it’s 30 minutes, an hour, two hours, five minutes, doesn’t matter. Did you do what you said you were going to do for as long as you said you would without distraction and if you do that, what are you now doing to your identity now you are forming this identity of yup. I said I was going to do it for 30 minutes. I did it for 30 minutes without distraction.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve finished, because here’s the thing, Aaron, every human being on earth, study after study have found we are horrible at predicting how long something takes us to finish.
Aaron? It’s not just me you’re saying?
Nir Eyal: Everybody, we are horrible and look, a lot of things are outside of our control, right? You’re working on a big presentation, right? Well, I need the graphics from Judy and I need the numbers from Bill. And it takes time for these things to come through and you don’t always have a transparency to know when things are going to come to you. So instead of planning the output, which you actually have very little control over, plan the input, right?
So what you’re going to do is to make a time box calendar, and I want you to fill up every minute of your day, not just with the worky stuff, but also with the stuff that helps you live out your values. If prayer is important to you, meditation, journaling, exercise, video games, whatever you want to do with your time, put it on your calendar because now you can enjoy your leisure time without guilt. Because you’ve turned distraction. Let’s say you like checking Facebook. Great. Do it. You’re turning distraction into traction in your case, Aaron, with email. Okay. You’re checking email throughout your day because of two reasons. That pool of, Ooh, I wonder what’s waiting for me, right? What if somebody needs me urgently and two, you don’t have a time in your day to know you’re going to get to it. So when you say to yourself, okay, I feel that internal trigger, I’m worried, right? Worry is a very palpable internal trigger that somebody is waiting for me. When you go up one o’clock that’s when I spent an hour checking email every day. You know it’s coming. And it helps me diffuse that urge to get distracted from those big projects you’re trying to work on.
Aaron: Yeah, it’s so good. So tell me what are some of the challenges of, I’d call it onboarding of like, okay, great. You’ve got me all right. Yes, I’m willing to later today build a time box for next week. What’s the grace in the counseling you can offer us to make sure we don’t go back into the old narrative of, look, I’m mucking it up again. I can’t even get this right.
Nir Eyal: Okay, so the first thing is that you need to think of yourself as a scientist, not a drill Sergeant. Okay? You will screw up and you will get distracted and everybody gets a free pass with every distraction. Here’s the difference between people who are in distractible and everybody else, people who are in distractible, when they get distracted, they understand why they got distracted and they make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Paulo Coelho has this wonderful quote, he says, a mistake repeated more than once is a decision. It is a decision get distracted by the same thing again and again and again. You are deciding to be a distractable person. But you can decide to be an indestructible person.
So what I want you to do is just plan out one day. Can you do that for me?
Just plan. Don’t plan your entire year. Right? Even the advice I give him the book is just to plan a week’s time, but to get you started plan one day. Now what I want you to do for that one day is to ask yourself, how can I turn my values into time? How can do I, can I turn my values into time? What does that mean? Values are defined as the attributes of the person you want to become.
So I want you to ask yourself for these three life domains that I’ll explain to you, how would the person you want to become, spend their time in these three, these three life domains?
The first is you, you are at the center of your life. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others. So how much time would the person you want to become spend on on this life domain? So things like exercise, uh, proper rest. You know, how many times do we tell our kids you have to get to bed on time, but we don’t take that same advice ourselves. Do you have a bedtime? You know, very important to make time for the things that are valuable to you. So I’m not telling you what your value should be. By the way, if you don’t care about your body and your health, Hey, I don’t care. I’m not going to tell you to change your values. But if you think that’s important to you, do you have that time on your schedule and keep it sacred? Then your relationship domain. So do you have time on your calendar? If the attribute, one of the attributes of the person you want to become is someone who’s a good friend, a devoted spouse, someone who’s a good son or daughter, is that time on your calendar to spend time with those people, especially now that many of us are, are socially isolated. We need to schedule that time on a regular basis with the important people in our life. Okay?
And then finally, the work domain. Now work, it’s separated into two types of work. We have what we call reactive work and reflective work. Reactive work is what eats up most people’s day, the emails, the Slack channels, the meetings, the phone calls. It’s easy work. Anybody can do it. The hard work, what separates you from your competition in business and in life is the amount of time you spend doing reflective work. Reflective work is the kind of work that people don’t want to do because it requires them to think and thinking in this day and age is a competitive advantage because people aren’t doing it, so you have to schedule that time. I’m not saying how, I don’t know. You know, you have to decide how much time is right for you. Whatever’s in accordance with your values and your type of work, right? If you’re a computer engineer, you need a lot of reflective work. If you work in a call center, you probably need very little reflective work because your day is almost all reactive, but most people are somewhere in the middle.
The idea here is to protect that reflective work time. No matter how much of it you need in your day, schedule it or it’s not going to happen. Because if we don’t plan our day, somebody is going to plan it for us. And here’s one thing I want everyone to remember. Maybe write this down. You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. Okay? You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. If you have a calendar that’s full of white space, everything is a distraction because what did you get distracted from? Now, distraction is not the same thing as diversion. A diversion can be totally healthy. A diversion is defined as a refocusing of, of attention. So if you want to refocus your attention on a Netflix movie or a video game or whatever, great, do it. Enjoy it. That’s perfectly healthy as long as you turn it into traction by defining how you want to spend your time.
Aaron: So back to the one day plan. I like your question a lot. Um, how would the person you want to become, spend your time, which is a really, um, invitational question and a creative base question versus a shame-based question. Right? And so then as you go through and say, Oh yeah, um, what would the best version of me tomorrow want to be doing and how would that appropriately mapped to my values map with you at the center relationships and then work and then these, um, toggles of reflective and reactive. So then as a first pass,
Nir Eyal: Sorry to interrupt, just to interject, this isn’t like fantasy you right. This isn’t you during your retirement.
Aaron: No, this is me tomorrow, today.
Nir Eyal: And that means you have to make time for the stuff that people don’t equate with their values, like cleaning up the house or you know, personal hygiene. You got to do that stuff in your day because look, the person you want to become takes care of the house and, and keeps themselves clean. So you’ve got a bunch of time for even those type of tasks as well. I’m not saying you have to do it by the minute, but make sure you have that time allocated for all this stuff. You know, for example, uh, one of the things that drives me crazy, remember how we talked about how a mistake repeated more than once as a decision people, one of the pitfalls, uh, for this method is that people sometimes will say, well, what if something unexpected happens? Okay? Like what I say, traffic? Traffic’s not unexpected, this happens all the time, but you can budget for it. You can allocate, okay, well, you know, on a good day it takes me 20 minutes. On a bad day, it takes me 45 you can adjust.
And so back to what you asked me, one of the common pitfalls are with this technique. Yes, it’s warm. Sometimes people are very intimidated to start doing this. So I made that super easy. I built a tool. It’s totally free. You don’t have to have to sign up for it with an email or anything. Anybody can use it. I built it to make it crazy easy. Okay? It’s that near and far.com. Forward slash schedule hyphen maker. So the name of my blog near and far.com, forward slash schedule hyphen maker. I’ll give you the link for the show notes as well.
So that’s one big hurdle is just getting started. So that’s why I say try just doing it for one day a week and then you, you’ll see how easy it is and you’ll expand beyond that. Um, and then the second thing is when people fall off track, you want to make sure you gave yourself self compassion, right? How do we give ourselves compassion? We talk to ourselves the way we would talk to a good friend who was having a problem. And so we don’t want to be drill sergeants, we want to be scientists. What does a scientist do? A scientist runs an experiment and then find the results and then adjust accordingly and runs another experiment. So every week in our schedule is an experiment.
So you might say, okay, you know what, that half an hour for email. You know what? It really should be an hour. Okay, well adjusted for the week ahead and figure out, okay, what is that going to take time away from so I can adjust it accordingly in the week ahead. And so every week on my calendar, Sunday nights I sit down with, yeah, 10 minutes maybe. And I rearranged my calendar to make it easier to follow the week ahead, learning from what happened the week before. And so it’s a constant iterative process once a week, 10 minutes to think like a scientist and adjust that calendar.
Aaron: And then with that, what you’re describing too is that, that the scientists with compassion is taking the pressure off of also getting it right. Right. Or at being perfect, but iteratively running small experiments in Petri dishes to figure out what happens, learn from it and improve upon is very different than the drill Sergeant. Right. Which is perfection driven.
Nir Eyal: That’s right. That’s right. That Oh my gosh, I said this calendar, it has to be right. Perfect. And the first time, start with one day a week. See, you know, maybe even a weekend, right? Like, maybe you’re going to block out, uh, for example, uh, in my weekly calendar I have time with my daughter right now I have a big old block of time for what we call a planned spontaneity.
Aaron: So you had like a, a fishbowl kind of drawing of fun stuff you’ve prepopulated to do.
Nir Eyal: Yeah. And this is a common objection, right? I need time to be creative and spontaneous. Well, the fact of the matter is the most creative people on earth, guess what? They get their butts in the chair to do the creative work. That’s how they’re graded. They make the time to be creative. The same goes with spontaneity. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my daughter during those three hours, but I plan that time and I block it because I know what I will not be doing. I won’t be on my phone, I won’t be checking social media, I won’t be checking work emails. That time is devoted just to be with her for that time.
Aaron: Yeah, it’s really great. What’s on my mind also is, and I know you’ve got, um, Greg McKeown on the cover here as a for the centralism. It just reminds me very similarly, um, of the framing of indestructible distractible, essential as a nonessentialism and has some, what I like about your work is how, uh, very explicitly and tactical you’ve made it to make it accessible for any and all of us. And I also love how you’re, um, you’re, I would say like judgment free, meaning that you’re saying, listen, whatever your values are, if you want to eat chocolate and binge on Netflix and drink too much and sleep too little, great. That’s a choice. Versus being on autopilot and then saying, I don’t know why this happens to me. Is that accurate?
Nir Eyal: Super accurate. Exactly. You know, I think that there’s this bandwagon, these days of vilifying, uh, people’s choices. You know, if want to eat chocolate and drink liquor all day, that’s your choice. I’m not going to tell you not to. If you want to play video games and hop on Facebook. So what, why is playing around on Facebook any morally different than watching football on TV? It’s just a pastime. There’s nothing wrong with this stuff. We shouldn’t vilify the technology. It’s about how do we do this stuff with intent so that we use it as opposed to it using us.
I think when we use these things for psychological escape and we don’t really realize why we are escaping that stuff or how to control it, that’s when bad things happen. That’s when we look back at our life and we say, what did I do with my life? I let other people control my attention, control my time and in control of my life as opposed to an indestructable person, they decide how they spend their time and attention and their life. You know, there’s a reason we call it paying attention. We pay attention. It has value. And for many of us, we just give it away, right? Like giving out a hundred dollar bills to people. We give away this thing that has value to anybody, right? Donald Trump tweets something. Okay, give him our attention. Uh, the news, Blair’s with something our kids need us, our boss needs us, our spouse need us. Here you go. Everybody take this thing that’s valuable, as much of it as you want.
And you know, when you think about how much we spend on our stuff, right? We have alarms on our homes, we have security systems on our cars. We put our money in vaults behind, you know, in banks to keep it safe. But when it comes to our time, yeah, sure. Anybody who wants it come and get it.
Aaron: What I find near is that so many people I don’t actually understand at a base level, like their general awareness isn’t that attention is something precious and finite and that that’s actually like attention and intention, how those two go together. And so I think a lot of people are just experiencing life, um, in the reactive mode, just fielding whatever is coming next. And, but it’s only, there’s a great poem. Um, do you know poet David White? Do you know who he is? Yeah, basically. I’m met with a bunch of executives, um, in corporate America. And this woman had written a poem in response that said, um, something that was sort of, uh, 10 years ago I turned my head and then I looked back and it had become my life turned away. And so it was like an accident. It was like a subtle thing. And then all of a sudden in the rear view mirror, it looks very different than I had intended, but I didn’t even know I could intend for it to look a particular way.
So what I love is like you’re making it accessible in a way where yes, it can have the effect of having a super power, but it’s not unobtainable in the way that a Marvel comic, you know, uh, x-ray vision is like, this is accessible for all of us. If we make the choice to and have it being values based, then it’s anchored in something more than just, uh, I don’t know optimization, you know?
Nir Eyal: No, totally. This is not like a book of tricks and life hacks because you know, the tactics are cheap. Uh, there are a lot of tactics out there and, and I didn’t spend five years through the research that I did to just give people a bunch of tactics. I wanted to give the strategies. So tactics are what you do, strategies why you do it. So everything in the book, not only does it work, I mean I’ve, I’ve used it for many years and with hundreds of people that I’ve worked with over the years, but I also everything the book is backed by peer reviewed studies and that’s really important. You know, I can’t stand these self help books that a guru will say, well I do this so everybody should do it. No, no, no. I want to see the evidence. Show me the peer reviewed studies.
Aaron: As the compassionate scientist that you are, right?
Nir Eyal: No, that’s the part I’m not competitive at all. I know you’re being facetious saying that. I hate that stuff where it’s like, you know, I, my method works because I say it does. No, no, no. I really want to see some research that shows that it’s not just you making this up. So everything in the book is backed by, by decades old research. As you know, I mentioned 30 pages of, uh, of, of citations. So it really does work and it’s, it’s backed by these studies. Um, and I think the reason you find it accessible is because, look, I wrote this book as much as I wanted it to benefit people. I wrote it for me, right? I was incredibly distracting of.
Now I have this reputation of being somebody who has a lot of willpower and self control because I wrote this book Indistractible, exactly the opposite that I wrote this book because I struggle with distraction for so many years. I needed an answer. I wanted to stop getting distracted. And you know what’s interesting, the people who I interviewed, uh, who, who use many of these tactics over the years, the people who are in distractible, they don’t have a lot of self control and willpower, right? That’s not that.
You know, in the psychology community, there’s even a doubt whether willpower’s even real and a lot of research that shows that actually the studies that were conducted on reap, on, uh, on willpower are bogus. I talk about this, uh, study about, uh, ego depletion in the book. You know, there’s this, there’s this concept that we run out of willpower, like we run out of gas in a gas tank, but many people believe this. You know, I would come home from work every day and I’d say, Oh, you know what I feel spent, you know, give me that pint of Ben and Jerry’s. I’m going to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. I’ve got no willpower left, right? It’s been such a hard day. And it turns out that there’s this term ego depletion is what we call it, a, that some psychologist is some studies that found this was an effect. It turns out, however, it was only one study. And when things sound, uh, you know, smell a little fishy in the social sciences, what we do, we run the study. Again, it turns out the study can’t replicate. So it doesn’t really exist except, except with one group of people that one group of people really do run out of willpower. They really do run out of low power. Like you would run out of gas in a gas tank. And those people were the people who believed that willpower is a limited resource.
Aaron: I thought that was fascinating. So I actually pulled my wife in while I was on the couch in the living room this weekend and I’m like, you’re not going to believe this. I have told myself this for decades. And it turns out it’s true because I’ve told myself this. Yes. And so it’s actually been really helpful. Reframe for me is like, hold on. Oh, what even that? So what I’ve been doing just in the last week in my own science experiment, um, is in those moments paying attention to what is, what is the pain? And I’m actually feeling, can I name the pain, the discomfort, the tension, so that in this moment I might have an opportunity to explore with curiosity what else might be driving this versus just the shame of, look, here I am again, depleted, depleted, overrun, and I burned, burned it too hot today and I’m out of gas so I should get some more chocolate and pour another whiskey, which is okay if I’m at choice, if that’s what I want to do
Nir Eyal: Not at the moment. But if you do it in the advance meeting, then the day before, yeah, no problem. Do it. Enjoy it. But yeah, that’s, that’s great. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s what a lot of people do when they feel these uncomfortable internal triggers. They don’t get curious. They get contemptuous. They do what we call blaming and shaming, right? They either blame the things outside of themselves. Oh, it’s Facebook, it’s my job. It’s the modern world. They blame all this stuff outside themselves, which isn’t helpful. Or they shame themselves. Right? Uh, I have short attention span. Uh, I’m lazy. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. They shame themselves. And of course the more shame they feel, the worst they feel, the more likely they are to seek relief through more distraction. So we don’t want to be a blamer, we don’t want to be ashamed or we want to be a claimer, a claimer claims responsibility, not for how we feel, but how we respond to our feelings.
Aaron: That’s great. So what I’d love for you to do is coach us for a minute in close. I’m thinking as the listener, I’m sold, yes, I want help. I’ll buy the book and I’ll go to schedule maker. Um, near and far in the corporate world, we talk a lot about mountains, rocks, boulders, pebbles, you know, pieces of sand. How do you break these things down into small, tiny experiments? We can run
Nir Eyal: The four big strategies, we only talked about two of them, but the four big strategies first is mastering the internal triggers. And there’s a lot of techniques for how to do that. And you can start adopting those today. You know, starting with simple things like noting the sensation, the 10 minute rule, uh, uh, we talked about, uh, addressing these uncomfortable emotional States with curiosity rather than contempt. You can start doing that immediately and I show you exactly how, uh, then we, we’ve got that next step of making time for traction.
So scheduling just one day and then we get into more advanced techniques like schedule sinking for example, where we’re reviewing with the important stakeholders in our life. Uh, our schedule. It’s a life changing practice. It’s improved my marriage and increase, improve my workout. But that schedule sinking process, which, which we didn’t get to talk to, but that’s a very important step.
The third step is about hacking back the external triggers. So this is where we get into the nuts and bolts of how do we reduce the amount of time we spend on email. I show you how to reduce the amount of time you spent on email by up to 90%. So that’s definitely a cycle. You want to check out nine zero. Yeah, it will. It will blow your mind. Great. Yeah. Yeah. So you’ll have to get to that part. Um, I show you how to hack back the external triggers around group chat and meetings that don’t need to be held, right? How many meetings are held because people just want to hear themselves talk huge waste of time. What do you do about that? How do you change your company culture so that your workplace has less of a distracting work environment? Um, how do we work at home and we have kids at home?
How do we keep those distractions at Bay? I tell you how to do that.
And then the fourth step is preventing distraction with pact. And this is the, this is the firewall, this is the last resort to prevent distraction. We can actually use a host of different tools to uh, to, to make sure that when we feel distracted after we’ve done the other three things, after we’ve mastered the internal triggers, may time for traction and hack back the external triggers, the last resort. We put measures in place to make sure we don’t go off track. And so I show you how to do that as well. So the idea here is that you start adopting these small tactics at first, and then as you get comfortable with using these four techniques in concert, you, you address more and more and more. So, you know, anyone, if you’ve listened to this, this episode, you can call yourself in distractible right now.
Remember, behavior change is identity change. And so I want people, you know, in distractable sounds like indestructable. It’s meant to sound like a super power when I made up this word. And so this is something I want people to think of as a moniker, right? This is who you are now. And so now that you are in distractible, it’s not about being perfect. You’re going to get distracted from time to time. But again, the difference between someone who’s indestructible and someone who’s not is that they learn from what distracted them in the past so that it doesn’t keep taking them off track in the future.
Aaron: That’s beautiful. Love it. Super liberating, empowering. Great message. Love it. I’m a believer.
*We’ve done our best for this transcription to accurately reflect the conversation. Errors are possible. Thank you for your patience and grace if you find errors that our team missed.