The Melanie Avalon Biohacking Podcast Episode #151 - Nir Eyal
Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. Nir previously taught as a Lecturer in Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford.Nir co-founded and sold two tech companies since 2003 and was dubbed by The M.I.T. Technology Review as, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.”
He is the author of two bestselling books, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Indistractable received critical acclaim, winning the Outstanding Works of Literature Award as well as being named one of the Best Business and Leadership Books of the Year by Amazon and one of the Best Personal Development Books of the Year by Audible. The Globe and Mail called Indistractable, “the best business book of 2019.”
In addition to blogging at NirAndFar.com, Nir’s writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, Time Magazine, and Psychology Today. Nir attended The Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory University.
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9:40 - Nir's Personal Journey
11:45 - Committing and values
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19:15 - what about ADHD?
20:35 - planning and time boxing
22:40 - the problem with to do lists
27:30 - managing social media
30:00 - avoiding discomfort with distraction
33:10 - using discontent to your advantage
35:05 - how to be indistractable
38:20 - preventing distraction
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43:30 - working with your internal triggers
45:50 - responding to distraction
48:40 - difficulty in changing habits
52:50 - email
1:01:45 - multi channel multi-tasking
Melanie Avalon: Hi, friends, welcome back to the show. I am so incredibly excited about the conversation that I'm about to have. It manifested actually through a friend, who I've also had on the show, Bill Tancer. He introduced me to this fabulous human being, Nir Eyal, who I have here today. He's the author of two books. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. And for and so, I am all about learning about our psychology, and really optimizing our experience of the world, and being the most productive, and content, and amazing person that we can be in our daily lives, and that can be pretty hard to do or so it seems today with all of our modern technology, and the things that we are exposed to, and “distractions.” Nir’s work really dives deep into how technology and products have affected us the—Actually, how it goes both ways. How companies can make products that really, well, create habit forming users and then on the flipside how users can have a healthy relationship with our environment, and products, and technology, and stuff like that. He's been all over the place. He's been in the New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, Time Magazine, Psychology Today.
I will say not only are his books, they're easy to read, they're very approachable, but they are packed like packed, packed, packed with so much information. I learned so many things that I had no idea about. And then on top of that, I learned why I do a lot of the things that I personally do. I'm sure we'll talk about this in the show. But there are a lot of habitual things that I do that I find make myself more productive, and less susceptible to distraction, and near talks about a lot of these, and it made me so happy because I was like, “Oh, that's why I do that.” So, in any case, I'm just so excited. There're so many ways that we could take this, but Nir, thank you so much for being here.
Nir Eyal: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Melanie Avalon: To start things off, for listeners who are not familiar with your work, could you tell us a little bit about your personal story? What you're doing today with the psychology of everything? Have you always been interested in that route, did it start more with the business side of things? What led you to what you're doing now?
Nir Eyal: Depends how far back you want to go. But [laughs] maybe the inspiration for the work I do today really started when I was a kid, and I was clinically obese, and I was clinically obese for a good chunk of my life. I don't mean overweight, I mean, clinically obese. I remember going to the doctor's office with my mom and the doctor saying, “Look, kid, here, here's normal weight, here's overweight, and here's you. You're over here on the chart. You're in the obese category.” I think it all started from the struggle I had with my weight. I still struggle with today, even though, today at 44 years old, I'm in the best shape of my life. I've never been this physically fit. It's not because I have good genes. That's not the reason. It's because I finally learned to do what I say I'm going to do. I think that this is really the skill of the century. Because these days, we all basically know what to do. If you don't know what to do, you google it. If you want to lose weight, if you want to have better relationships with your family, if you want to be more productive at work, the answers are out there. What we don't know how to do is how do we stop getting in our own way. Despite knowing what we do, despite promising to ourselves that we will finally eat right, and exercise, and be fully present with people, and get the work done that we have to get done, despite knowing what to do, we don't do it. We lie to ourselves. That's really what I wanted to tackle. Because I think in this day and age, it's only becoming more difficult. If you are not prepared, if you don't have this critical skill set, it's becoming more and more difficult to control your time and attention. And that truly determines what we make of our life is how we control our time and how we control our attention.
Melanie Avalon: I love that so much. Actually, that was something that you talked about in the books. I probably will remember which one that came from, but it overlaps between the two. Something that you talked about that had never occurred to me before was, you're talking about the value of committing to things, because basically, unless you commit, you won't know if what you're doing is a distraction or not. The role of values and what we do, and that had never occurred to me that, “Oh, having values and committing to something,” that's actually the difference in between is what I am literally doing right now, a distraction or not.
Nir Eyal: Exactly, yeah. That's a really good place to start, actually. Just to interject to your-- Understand what that term even means. I think that was a real revelation for me was when I started-- I wanted to understand distraction and one of the first things I learned was that this is not a new problem that we like to blame our technologies, we like to blame them food industry, we like to blame all kinds of modern things for causing our distraction. But what I quickly found, this topic has been a struggle for humans for at least the past 2,500 years. That's when Plato, the Greek philosopher talked about akrasia in the Greek, the tendency to do things against our better interest. If people were struggling with distraction, the guy was literally saying 2,500 years ago, “Gosh, things are so distracting these days.” [laughs] If Plato was talking about this 2,500 years before the internet, the root cause can't be modern technology. It has to be something deeper.
When I looked at what does this word distraction even mean, one of the things I was surprised to find is that I didn't really understand what that term even means. If you want to test yourself to see if you know what that term means, ask yourself, “What is the opposite? What's the antonym of distraction?” Most people will tell you the opposite of distraction is focus. We don’t want to be distracted, we want to be focused. But that's not exactly right. But if you look at the origin of the word, distraction, the opposite of distraction is not focus. The opposite of distraction is traction that both traction and distraction come from the same Latin root, trahere, which means to pull and you'll notice that both words end in the same six letters, A-C-T-I-O-N, that spells action, reminding us that distraction is not something that happens to us, but rather it is an action that we take. Traction by definition is any action that pulls you towards what you said you were going to do. Things that you do with intent, things that move you closer to your values that help you become the kind of person you want to become. The opposite of traction, distraction is any action that pulls you away from what you plan to do, anything that pulls you away from your values further away from becoming the kind of person you want to become. So, this is super important. This isn't just semantics. This is really important because I would argue that any action can be traction or distraction based on one word. And that one word is intent.
Many times, when we talk about this discussion of distraction, people tend to moralize and medicalize. You spend your time, Facebook, or Instagram, or YouTube, that's a waste of time. But me watching football, that's okay. We tend to moralize or medicalize. “Oh, they're addicting us. These tech products are hijacking our brains and we all have ADHD.” That's just not true. Some people have addiction, some people have ADHD. It's about 3% of the population. 97% chance, that is not our problem. What we need to realize is that none of these things that we used to spend our time are inherently bad. It's about whether we do them with intent or not. If you want to spend time on Facebook, great. Or email, or football, or whatever you want to do, do those things. But do them on your schedule and according to your values. Those are acts of traction. Conversely, what I found in my research is that the most common outlets for distraction are not the things people blame. We tend to blame the media, technology, and things like that. It turns out, the way we tend to get distracted tends to be in ways that we don't even realize we're getting distracted.
Let me give you a quick example. For years, I would sit down at my desk at work, and I would say, “Okay, now I'm going to get started on this task, this thing I've been procrastinating on, I've got it at the top of my to do list, here I go, I'm going to get started, I'm going to get to work. But first, let me check some email.” That's a work-related task. I'm being productive, right? Aren't I? I'm doing a worky type thing. When I didn't realize that, that is the most pernicious form of distraction, because you don't even realize you're getting distracted. When we do this kind of thing, distraction tricks us into prioritizing the urgent and the easy work at the expense of the hard and important work we have to do to move our lives and careers forward. So, just because it's a work-related task, it doesn't mean it's not a distraction. If it's not done with intent, if it's not pre-planned, if it's not something you are doing with forethought, it is by definition of distraction.
Melanie Avalon: For example, taking the example of a stereotypical person who has “ADHD,” you were talking about how the opposite of distraction is not focus. A person with ADHD, presumably, I haven't had ADHD, but my understanding is, you just flip back and forth focusing intensely on different things. I guess, what I'm saying there is, they are actually really focused on a lot of things. It's just the common goal, I guess, isn't being achieved. So, that's why they don't have the traction because the focus is not moving towards one common thing. Is that what's going on?
Nir Eyal: Well, so, ADHD affects around 3% of the population. My book, frankly isn't written for people with ADHD. It's written for people who are struggling with non-pathological conditions. Everyone else, the 97% of us, who we know think we might have something wrong with us. But it turns out, if you don't have a diagnosis, there's probably nothing wrong with you. [laughs] It's just the fact that we live in a world with so many interesting things and thank God we do live in this world of abundance where for the first time in human history, you can be entertained with a touch of a button, you can connect with loved ones, you can learn anything you want to learn right in the palm of your hand. But the price of all that progress, the cost of living in this amazing age of abundance is that we have to learn this new skill. This new skill of becoming indistractable.
Melanie Avalon: You’ve touched on this a few times, but I got really excited with parts of the book talking about the role of planning and something that you call timeboxing. I am the biggest planner of all planners. I have an actual physical calendar. I plan out the entirety of my day very extensively. Every second, a lot of it is in blocks like you talk about in your book. It's funny because I feel extremely free having this approach. Because then I know that everything is accounted for, everything is planned out, and I can exist within that, I can know that I will be able to get to what I want to get to, I don't feel I'm again distracted. I don't feel I have too many choices that I have to make. But for people who don't like planning, when I engage with them, they think that it sounds controlling or it's locking them in. So, how do you feel about scheduling and planning, and what is time--? I always say time blocking, timeboxing. Timeboxing.
Nir Eyal: Yeah, same thing. I didn't invent this concept. It's been around for a while. So, yeah, time blocking, timeboxing. I'm not surprised that you're using it. What we find is that very, very few people do. It's only about 5% of population and that 5% of population that does this are high performers. It tends to be that the people who-- This is what's so weird about this is that people who don't use this technique, who resist this technique of timeboxing, they resist it because they think, “Oh, I don't want to be boxed in, I don't want to be told what to do, I need freedom, I need to clear my day in order to get focused work done.” Of course, it's exactly the opposite. When we have wide open space in our day, that's when we tend to be least productive. Because what most people do, if they're into time management at all, the first technique they learn is keeping a to do list. I'm not anti-to do list, but if you use them incorrectly, they actively harm your personal productivity. Why? Because to do lists, what people do when they have a to do list? There're a few problems with it.
Number one, there's no constraint. So, you can always add more to it to do lists. This is why people come home from work after a hard day, they look at their to-do list, and there's still a million things on it, and they feel like crap. Why? Because a to-do list is a promise you're making with yourself. You're saying, “I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this.” What happens if day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, you don't finish those things on your to-do list, which I've never met a to-do list devotee who finishes everything on their to-do list every day. What you're doing is reinforcing the fact that you are not living to your personal obligations day in and day out loser. This begins to have a negative toll on your perception of yourself, of your capabilities. This is where you hear people saying, “Very harmful, self-defeating beliefs around, I'm no good at time management.” Well, it's not that you're no good at time management, it’s that you're using a technique that's no good. As opposed to people who do what you do and now I do. I used to be a to-do-list devotee, but now, what I do today is that I use in conjunction with a to-do list, I also timebox my day. Meaning, I know when I will do what I say I'm going to do.
The goal is not to finish the task. This is super important. It's not about finishing anything. But then how am I going to get stuff done? It turns out studies find that people who simply focus on working without distraction for as long as they say they will. If you say, “I'm going to check email for 30 minutes, I'm going to write that blog post for an hour, I'm going to make my sales calls for 45 minutes,” whatever the case might be, the people who do those things without distraction, irregardless of whether they finish the task actually get more done than that to-do list people. Because the people who don't schedule their day and only work with the to-do list, they do five minutes of this, then they get distracted, they do five minutes of that, they do five minutes of this, they're constantly doing what we call reactive work. Reacting to emails, reacting to notifications, reacting to phone calls, and they don't get that focus work time to work without distraction and it takes them substantially longer.
The other big problem with to-do list is that there's no feedback mechanism. We have what's called a planning fallacy that most people surveys find take three times longer to finish a task than they expect. This happens because there's no feedback with a to-do list. When you say, “I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this,” you don't have any mechanism to tell you, well, how long did it actually take you to work on this task over time. Whereas, when you use a timebox calendar, it provides you feedback, because you say, “Okay, look, I put in 30 minutes to do this task for five days of the week, how far did I get in terms of completing my goal at some point? Now, let me adjust. Okay, I need 45 minutes, I need more or less time, etc.,” and you're learning over time, how long things actually take you to complete. This is why people who use this methodology that I describe in my book, Indistractable, really do get more done and they're also way more satisfied with their life. Because the people who don't use timebox, they never enjoy what real leisure feels like. There are so few people out there who really understand what leisure should feel like why. Because for folks who are constantly running around, running their life on a to-do list, they're never done. So, they get home from work, and all they want to do is watch a movie on Netflix, or hang out with their kids. But what's happening in the back of their mind? They're thinking about, “Ah, I should really finish checking my email, I didn't finish that project yet. There're those hundred things on my to-do list, I still haven't done.” So, they don't actually get to be fully present and enjoy leisure time.
As opposed to people who timebox their day, when they sit down and play with our kids, it's on their calendar. That's what they have planned to do when they scroll social media or whatever they want to do for fun it is planned for and so there's no guilt. Anything else, but checking social media, or watching a movie, or playing with your kids would then be a distraction. So, the fact that they know in advance, this is what I want to do with my time by timeboxing gives them the peace of mind [sighs] to finally relax without feeling guilty that they shouldn't be doing something else.
Melanie Avalon: You're speaking my language so much. Yeah, I feel I combine them. In my calendar, the way the calendar set up, I have an ongoing to-do list in the left column. That's my ongoing list of everything and I recopy it over each week to the next week. But every day, I pull pieces from it and put it on to that day's “to-do list,” but it's within the time that I do it and then I only do certain things during certain times. Every day, and then every day during the middle of day, I go and do cryotherapy and that's where I like timebox in my head the rest of the day, what I'm going to do during the different hours. I just love all this so much. Actually, I didn't think I could do this because a lot of my life is doing social media. So, Instagram, Facebook. I have some pretty big Facebook groups. It's been hard to find a healthy balance with that and healthy relationship with that. But at least with Facebook, the biggest thing that I've done that has had a profound effect is this timebox method. I used to check Facebook constantly throughout the day. Now, I only go, I check at night, I have a very specific time when I check it, and then I'm done, and I don't open it again unless I have to. I thought I would fall behind, but I haven't.
Nir Eyal: Yeah, yeah. In fact, it gives you peace of mind knowing you've got time plan for it. This is the problem and this is what we should really get into, because what I thought was the source of distraction. It turned out not at all to be the defining factor of why we tend to mostly get distracted. There are two kinds of what we call triggers. We talked earlier about traction and distraction. What leads us towards traction and distraction are triggers. There are two kinds of triggers. The first is what we tend to blame. It's the external trigger. These are all the pings, the dings, the rings, the things in our outside environment that lead us towards traction or distraction. Now, that turns out to be only 10% of the times that people get distracted. Only 10% of time they'll get distracted is it because of an external trigger. What's the other 90%? The other 90% of the time we get distracted, it's not because of what's happening outside of us, but rather about what's happening inside of us. These are called internal triggers.
What are internal triggers? Internal triggers are uncomfortable sensations we seek to escape. Loneliness, boredom, fatigue, uncertainty, stress, anxiety, fearfulness. These feelings that we seek to escape. This turns out to be by far the leading cause of distraction. Distraction is not a moral failing. There's nothing wrong with you. We're not broken somehow. It's simply that we haven't learned to deal with this discomfort in a healthy way that leads us towards traction rather we try and escape it with distraction. This is a super important lesson. One of the most important learnings that I've had writing this book and doing this research is that “time management is pain management.” Let me say that again. “Time management is pain management.” By the way, you can also add “weight management is pain management. Money management is pain management,” because all human behavior, all human behavior is driven by the desire to escape discomfort. We used to believe in what Freud called the pleasure principle, Jeremy Bentham said something similar around that, all human behavior is driven by the desire to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, that is not true.
Neurologically speaking, everything you do, everything you do is about the desire to escape discomfort. This is called the homeostatic response. If you feel cold, the body says, “Hey, you should put on a coat.” If you feel hungry. The body says, “Oh, that doesn't feel good, you should eat.” All of these physical states or physical behaviors are driven by the desire to escape discomfort that makes perfect common sense. What we don't think about is that the psychology around why we do various behaviors in our life is also driven by how we feel emotionally. When you are lonely, check social media. When you're uncertain, google. When you're bored, oh, lots of solutions for boredom. Check sports scores, check stock prices, check the news. Let's worry about somebody's problem 5,000 miles away, so we don't have to worry about what's happening in our own heads. This is the driver of all our behavior. And so, that's why it's so important to understand that the first step to becoming indistractable before all the life hacks, and the tips, and the tricks, none of that stuff works unless you first start with mastering these internal triggers or they will become your master.
Melanie Avalon: So, this idea that we're trying to avoid discomfort, what role does our seeming contentment with reality play? Okay, because you talk about how on the one hand if we weren't content we wouldn't in advance as a civilization. On the other hand, I feel like a reason that I am often indistractable and I'm not saying I'm indistractable.
Nir Eyal: You are, you are. You can call yourself indistractable. This is actually really important. Sorry to jump in. it's a really important distinction. Being indistractable, I made up the word, by the way, so, I can define it any way I want.
Melanie Avalon: Really, really quick. I read the book and I was exposed to the word so much. I was just assuming that it was a word, and that was taking all my notes, and I kept trying to autocorrect it. I was like, “Wait, is this really not a word?” But I was so used to hearing it from your book.
Nir Eyal: Yeah. It wasn't in the dictionary, right? Yeah, so, being indistractable doesn't mean you never get distracted. It doesn't mean you never get distracted. I still get distracted from time to time. Being indistractable means you strive to do what you say you're going to do. You are honest with yourself as you are with others. An indistractable person learns why they got distracted and they do something about it as opposed to a distractable person keeps getting distracted by the same things again, and again, and again, and they don't do anything about it. Paulo Coelho, he had a wonderful quote. He said, “A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.” A mistake repeated more than once is a decision. Distractable people decide to be distractable because they keep getting distracted by the same stupid thing. We know Facebook is distracting. Okay. We know email can be distracting. Okay. We know that you can fall off your diet. Okay. But what are you going to do about it? An indistractable person take steps today to prevent getting distracted tomorrow. If you do that, if you strive to do what you say you're going to do, if you're the kind of person who says, “Okay, I got distracted once fine, so loud. What am I going to do to prevent it from happening again, and again, and again?” That's what being indistractable is all about. So, you can call yourself indistractable. [laughs]
Melanie Avalon: Awesome, awesome. Now, I have a thought based on what you just said, but the other thing I was saying before that was that in a way, I feel I'm very content with my reality and that's the reason that I feel indistractable because I don't feel I'm trying to escape anything. I do feel very content, but I am constantly moving towards things. Maybe that word content is being used differently. I just had this major epiphany, where maybe the reason I feel undistractible is because I'm so content with my reality, my life's journey that I don't feel the need to look other places. I don't know.
Nir Eyal: Yeah, yeah. I think that's absolutely right. The point I was making in the book around why being discontent is actually a good thing and why I push back against the self-help narrative that we're supposed to be happy all the time that the goal is perpetual bliss, that doesn't make any sense. Evolutionarily and biologically, that is not how the species is created. Because think about it. If you were always happy, if you were always satisfied, why would you work? Why would you improve your life? Why would you make the world a better place if you're completely blissed out and satisfied all the time? I think we should lean into the fact that our species does so well. We are the most successful species on the face of the earth, because we have this perpetual disquietude that pushes us forward. The question is, what do we do with that discomfort? High performers leverage it. They use the fact that they want more, they want to do better that they want to improve the world. They use that to drive themselves to traction. What low performers do when they feel the very same feelings, what do they do? They escape, they drink, they scroll, they watch the news, they do things that help them feel better in the moment, but don't actually make things better in reality. That's the difference.
Melanie Avalon: You talk about a lot of different tactics that you can use, things like price packs, and identity packs, and what are some of your favorite ways that we can actually implement tactics to not be distracted?
Nir Eyal: Yeah, absolutely. It comes from understanding this model, the strategies are much more important than the tactics. Tactics are what you do, but strategy is why you do it. The most important thing is to understand these four parts of the indistractable model and then you can adapt for yourself and your own life what works best for you. If you think about it this way, so, you've got traction, you've got distraction, you can think of that as a horizontal number line to the right is traction to the left is distraction. Then you can think of two arrows points. The middle of this horizontal line pointing vertically from top to bottom, you've got external triggers and internal triggers. I'll give you a link, so, you can add it to the show notes if people want to see this visualization, it's very helpful to see it. But now, we just want to use these four strategies in concert. The first step is to master internal triggers, which we talked about earlier. That's the most important first step because you will always find a way around doing what you say you're going to do, if you can't master these feelings. The number one reason we don't achieve our goal, it's very simple is we quit. That is the number one reason people don't achieve their goals. They quit. Why do we quit? We quit because we don't feel like doing the thing we say we're going to do. We don't feel like exercising, we don't feel like eating right, we don't feel like doing that product. It's a feeling. Fundamentally, we have to get that right. We have to learn how to master those internal triggers. That's step one.
Step two is making time for traction. This is what we talked about with timeboxing. It's about understanding what your values are and then turning your values into time, because you can't call something a distraction, unless you know what it distracted you from. Let me say that again. You can't call something a distraction, unless you know what it distracted you from. If you can't look at your calendar and say, “Huh, I wanted to do this, but I didn't.” You have no right to say you got distracted. If you don't plan your day, everything is a distraction. I teach you how to do that, how to synchronize your schedule. Many people say, “Yeah, that sounds great, but my boss wants this and my kids want that.” No problem. We do what we call a schedule sync, so that we can make sure that when we have stakeholders in our life that demand our time and attention, we know what to do about that, so that we don't go off track. There're strategies and remedies for every situation. So, that's the second step, making time for traction.
The third step is to hack back the external triggers. Even though, they only make up about 10% of our distractions, when it comes to our phone or computer, that's easy stuff. That's kindergarten. What's a little bit more complex, but also, I would say even more important is the kind of distraction that we don't really realize is taking us off course. Things like stupid meetings [laughs] that we didn't need to be a part of, emails that we think are important that really aren't. How do we deal with--? Oh, what about our kids? For many of us who are working from home, kids, we love them to death, but they can be a huge distraction. What do we do about all these external triggers in our life? We can hack back, we can take steps to make sure that these triggers serve us as opposed to us serving them. And so, I show you systematically how to go through each and every one of those.
And then finally, the last strategy for becoming indistractable and this is something that must come last, you have to do these in order is to prevent distraction with pact. Pact are these what we call precommitment devices. It's when we decide in advance what we will do when a distraction rears its ugly head, so that it becomes a firewall, it becomes a last line of defense against distraction. As you mentioned, we have price packs, we have identity packs, we have effort packs, and we can talk more about how to use those. But essentially, what they are these failsafes, these barriers between us and something we don't want to do that if everything else fails, this keeps us on track. Just to reemphasize, you have to do that step last because if you don't do the other three steps first, then it can go off the rails. So, that's it. Those four steps in concert.
Now, you don't have to do everything all at once. What we find is the best strategy is to just do one thing in each of these four strategies. Everybody can do one small thing. It's super easy to get started. What you will find is that over time, you start building your self-efficacy, you start building your sense of agency that, “Wait a minute, I actually can do this. I'm not a victim to distraction. I can decide how I control my attention, how I control my life,” and then you start adopting more and more strategies to optimize how you spend your time.
Melanie Avalon: I'm just going to say for listeners, if you are loving this definitely just get Indistractable, because I'm just thinking about how many things there are and how many treasures there are when they read the book. I wanted to comment really quickly on the internal triggers. Something that I read in your book that, you know how sometimes you read something in a book and you actually really start implementing it daily and it's just so invaluable? That was you pointing out about the way to, I don't want to say tackle, but the way to work with internal triggers is basically identifying the urge that comes right before the trigger. The reason I wanted to point this out is because it might sound like the goal here is to change your feelings, or get rid of your feelings, or whatever that may be, but as Nir talks about, it's not that, it's just identifying that internal feeling that comes before the thing that is a distraction. It's crazy because I started doing it for something that I wanted to specifically tackle, something I was doing that I didn't want to be doing. I realized, “Oh, every time before, there is this internal feeling that I have.” It's mind blowing to actually experience that in real time. So, thank you.
Nir Eyal: Yeah. Well, can I ask what that was? I'm just curious. Maybe it's helpful to take it real time.
Melanie Avalon: It was not wanting to text somebody that I didn't want to be texting.
Nir Eyal: You didn't feel it, but you knew you had to or you knew--?
Melanie Avalon: This urge to check this person’s social media, or send them a text message, or somebody I was trying to cut out of my life rather than keep in my life. I realized right before every time, there was this feeling of a fear or a loneliness. It wasn't so much about that other person.
Nir Eyal: Oh, I see. So, texting them was the distraction away from what you really wanted to do.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah.
Nir Eyal: Got it, got it. Oh, that's a good one. I see. So, what did you discover was the internal trigger that was driving the distraction?
Melanie Avalon: I don't know if it was clear enough my actual identification of it, but the meandering thing that I came to was that by feeling like I wasn't engaging with this person and they weren't engaging with me, then they were no longer interested that I didn't have self-worth that I wasn't being seen, that I wasn't-- I had to do with my own insecurities surrounding probably social rewards that you talk about seeking like social acceptance.
Nir Eyal: This is golden because what you're doing is you're processing on your side of the net so to speak. You can't change that person. What you can change is how you respond to these feelings. What we tend to find is that when it comes to distraction, people fall into three different categories. We've got what we call the blamers. The blamers blame distraction on other things outside of them. This person, the internet, it's the news, it's all the stuff outside of them. But that's of course a futile strategy because you can't change that stuff. There was no mythical age before distraction. There will always be somebody out there that annoys you that is not doing what you want them to do in your life. Blaming things outside yourself doesn't work.
The other extreme is what we call the shamers. We've got the blamers and we've got the shamers. The shamers, they shame themselves. They think that there's something wrong with them. They're somehow broken, they're somehow deficient, and that's not a great strategy either because shame is a very uncomfortable internal trigger. The more we feel shame, the more we feel that we are somehow deficient, and wrong, and broken, what do we do? We feel bad. What do you do when you feel bad? You become more likely to search for more distraction to take your mind off of feeling bad. So, being a blamer doesn't work, being a shamer doesn't work. The only strategy, the three that works is becoming a claimer.
A claimer claims responsibility not for how they feel. This is a really important point and you touched on it earlier. The feeling part is not the problem. You do not control your feelings. This is a message everyone needs to hear. You do not control your feelings. It's ridiculous. It's like an urge. If you have the urge to sneeze, do you control that urge to sneeze? No. It's involuntary. Once you felt the urge to sneeze, there's nothing you can do about the urge to sneeze. What do you do when you feel the urge to sneeze? The responsible thing to do is to grab a tissue and cover your face, so you don't get other people sick. Unlike a blamer or a shamer, a claimer claims responsibility based on what they do in response, hence the term responsibility to that internal trigger. It's not about the feeling. It's about what you do in response to that feeling.
What you did in terms of understanding, “Wait a minute, that urge I have to get in touch with this person, what is source of that discomfort? What is that internal trigger? Is it insecurity, is it my sense of self-worth?” It's things that you can control that you are feeling and then you can control how you will respond to that internal trigger in the healthiest way possible. Is it something that you will respond to in a way that leads you towards traction or is it a way that leads you away from your values, away from your goals and something you're doing to relieve that discomfort with distraction?
Melanie Avalon: So, making those changes, learning this new paradigm or this new strategy for making these changes in your life. One of the things you talk about is just how hard it is to actually change behavioral patterns that are ingrained in us. You talk about this. I have told so many people this fun fact. You talk about the keyboard setup and how the keyboard, or the Q-W-E-R-T-Y, or whatever it's called, how it makes no sense? It's not the most efficient way a keyboard should be set up. But despite attempts to change and have new keyboards, we're just going to keep using this keyboard, because that's what we're so used to. Actually, making these changes, how possible is behavior change? Is it harder to make--? The keyboard is an external thing. Actually, using something externally, are those types of behaviors harder or easier than changing internal behaviors we have how we engage with what we just talked about with urges that we experience?
Nir Eyal: Yeah, it's a great question. I don't know if I have a quantifiable answer, but the QWERTY keyboard is a wonderful example just to keep everybody up to speed. The idea behind the QWERTY keyboard is, if you look at your first line below the numbers, you'll see that the first line says Q-W-E-R-T-Y. That's why it's called a QWERTY keyboard. That keyboard configuration like, why is it not just A-B-C-D-E-F-G? Why do the letters not go in order? The reason that it is that way is because when keyboards were first invented on typewriters, keystrokes used to be hammers like hammers on a piano, if you've ever seen how a piano works on the inside. What they found was that if you set up what's called a Dvorak keyboard where it's A-B-C-D-E-F-G, where it's in alphabetical order along the keyboard, actually, people typed too fast for the machinery to not get jammed. If people would type so fast, these hammers would get jammed up and it couldn't type. So, the QWERTY keyboard that we use today was made to make a slower typers. It is intentionally designed to keep us slow.
Melanie Avalon: Wait, quick question. Is that just in the learning phase or after you've learned?
Nir Eyal: In the typing phase. If you habituate to a Dvorak keyboard, you will type much faster than a QWERTY keyboard, because of the spacing of-- the letters are placed in such a position, so that you have to reach for some of the most commonly used letters. There are much more efficient ways to design a keyboard than the QWERTY keyboards that we all use today. Why is it that way? Why do we keep using it even though absolutely the case that we would type faster with a different keyboard configuration? Well, it's because it became the industry standard. Once people habituated to this way, the market potential of switching over is very small now, because we all know QWERTY. It's memorized, it's a habit. We type with little or no conscious thought, the definition of a habit. Even if something is better, we don't switch. And so, it's a good metaphor for understanding in life, why we do things the way we do? Do we do them because it's the best way to do them or do we do them because it's the conventional way to do them?
I'm not advocating for people to switch keyboards. I use a QWERTY keyboard. It's much easier now that I know how to use it, but it does make me kind of question conventional wisdom. I know you do this as well. I know your work. Everything you do is also about, “Is this the best way or is this just conventional?” I think when it comes to this principle of being skeptical, not cynical. There's a big difference between being skeptical and cynical. I think being skeptical is a very healthy attribute. We need to question, is this the best way to do things or is this just the conventional way to do things? As opposed to cynical thinking, “Oh, everybody's trying to get me and I'm a victim.” That's not a healthy mindset, either. But constantly questioning whether the things that I do, am I really doing them because they benefit me, are they serving me, or am I serving them?
Melanie Avalon: Gotcha. Okay. You're talking about how we can optimize our engagement with things that we feel we have to be doing, but we don't actually have to be doing as much, the emails and stuff like that. The thing I struggle with, and you talk about this in the book, and I feel I should do this, but I feel I have to answer everybody because if I don't, then I'm ignoring them or I'm sliding them. I really struggle to have a healthy relationship. I don't know if it's because of my level of empathy, but if I don't answer an email, I feel bad. I feel like a bad person. Because you're talking about the tactic, I guess, of delaying answering emails. The thing that I found most comfortable for me was, I can delay most of my emails to the end of my work day because half the time, they actually get resolved by the end of the workday and then that's less time. But then I still feel I have to answer everything. One of my personal habits is, don't leave any email unanswered before the next day. Even if I don't answer it, I email them to say that I will answer tomorrow. What do you propose for people to have a healthy relationship with emails, especially since I think you had some statistic about the amount of time that we spend on emails every day and it's some shocking amount?
Nir Eyal: It is mind boggling. It's true. [laughs] If you just do some simple math of the average knowledge worker gets hundred emails per day times two minutes per email, that only leaves about an hour and a half for everything that's not emails. I budgeted an hour and a half of meetings per day, really the average knowledge workers workday leaves very little time for anything, but meetings and emails. That's a big problem because we know that the really important work gets done without distraction. There're two kinds of work. There's reactive work, which we all have to do in some degree. Reacting to emails, reacting to notifications, reacting to phone calls, we have to do that. But there's also another kind of work which turns out to be more important, which is what's called reflective work. Reflective work is strategizing, the planning, the thinking has to be done without distraction. You can't do reflective work in five-minute sprints the way you can do reactive work. What we find is that high performers will make time in their day. Not their whole day, but some time in their day without fail for reflective work.
The high performers make that time and they keep it sacred. They protect it. Whether it's getting up early, whether it's budgeting time in their day and saying, “Look, my doors closed. I have to think, I have to work here without distraction.” They make time in their day for reflective work to be indistractable. So, that's absolutely critical. As opposed to what most low performers do is that they run around their day, they're super busy all day long. Whenever I hear somebody says, “Oh, I'm so busy, I'm so busy.” That's what they're talking about as they're doing reflective work. I'm sorry, they're doing reactive work. The problem is, they're running around real fast in the wrong direction because they've had no time to sit down and actually think about, “Wait, what am I doing here? Is this really the direction I want to go in?” You have to make at least some part in your day for that reflective work time.
Now, when it comes to email, email is the bane of the modern knowledge workers existence these days because it's such a convenient place to go, when you don't know what else to do. [chuckles] When I'm not really sure what the most important project is, so, uncertainty. When I have a big project, I don't feel doing because it's hard, boredom or fatigue. These internal triggers drive this unhealthy use of email as a distraction. The first place to start and by the way we are cut from the same cloth here. [chuckles] I have to constantly monitor this myself, I've gotten a lot better about it, but I also very much feel this pain around the guilt of not replying to people on time, all kinds of internal triggers are associated with email. The first step is to realize it's a feeling, it's a feeling. It's not necessarily reality. Now, there are some emails that are, “Oh, my gosh, super urgent. You have to write me right away.” But that's maybe 1% or less of emails. Because look, if your house is on fire, they're not going to email you. They're going to call you, they're going to text you, they're going to find a way to get through to you. It's not going to be an actual emergency.
The first thing we need to realize and I hear from people all the time, “Well, I can't just disconnect. I can't work without distraction. What if somebody needs me?” Well, the reality is, they're not going to need you through email. They're going to find you another way. That really, it's an excuse. It's a feeling that we have that we might be needed that comforts us in a way knowing that, “Oh, somebody needs me. I'm important.” If I don't feel doing the big project, I can always check email and feel like, “Oh, I'm being productive.” But again, that's the most dangerous form of distraction that tricks you into prioritizing the wrong type of stuff like email. Instead, what we want to do is a few things. One, we have to timebox the time we spend on email that far too many of us when we can't think of something else to do, we check email for five minutes here and there. Of course, that's a huge productivity sink, because it distracts us from what we really want to do and it doesn't allow us to do that kind of focused work that really helps us be at our best. By planning time for it in our schedule and you have to decide what that is for you. If you want to work for 30 minutes and check email for 30 minutes, if that's the kind of cadence for your type of job, you need a lot of reactive work, fine. I'm not going to tell you how to spend your time but do it with intent. Do it with forethought on your schedule. For me, I have time, I budget an hour and a half every day for email. That's about how much time I've learned by using timeboxing for a few years now that I know I need on a daily basis.
Now, the key is that you book that time, but then also you have a few rules about how you respond to email. Here's how it works. You want to set a rule that you only touch email two times. Each email only gets touched two times because what studies find is that the way we waste time on email, it's not the checking, it's not the replying, it's the rechecking. That only wastes time on email and you know what this looks like. You open the email, you read it, you put it away, you open the next email, you read it, you put it away, 25 minutes later, “Wait, what does that email say again? Let me check it. When does the--?” That's the problem. What you want to do is to say, you only touch each email two times. The first time you label it based on when it needs a reply. Know what the subject is, but when it needs a reply and it falls into two categories, actually, three categories. The first category is junk. If it never needs a reply, archive it, you don't need to see it again.
The other two categories are things that need to reply today. Emails that actually do really need to reply today, you label those as today and then emails that need a reply sometime this week. 20% of your emails, this is on average for the average knowledge worker, 20% of your emails need a reply today, 80% of your emails can be replied to sometime this week. Now, this is what's so magical about this process. If you give those emails that need a reply sometime this week, just sometime to marinate, let them just sit there for a little bit. What you will find is that on average 50% of that 80% of emails will no longer need a reply.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah, resolve themselves only.
Nir Eyal: They resolve themselves. Exactly. Because what people do is they play what I call email ping pong. You get a message, you reply. You get a message, you reply. You get a message, you reply. What you're doing is essentially guaranteeing that you will get too many emails because if you want to get fewer emails, you have to send fewer emails in a fixed period of time. When you let those emails that don't need a reply immediately, marinate, as opposed to replying, replying, replying, you will save yourself a ton of time. Step number one, realize it's just a feeling. People aren't going to die if you don't reply to them right away. They'll be just fine. They've got other things in their life as well. Only reply to those emails that need a reply today based on a timebox schedule, then make extra time. For me, I call it message Mondays. On message Mondays, I have three hours on Mondays when I reply to those emails that need to reply sometime this week. And again, about 50% of those that I would have otherwise replied to, I don't have to reply to you, because it gets crushed under the weight of some other priority or people figuring out their own issues. So, that's a wonderful strategy to reduce the amount of time you spend on email.
Melanie Avalon: Well, just to comment on all of that. Two of the most healing healthy things, I think, for me with everything is, I don't watch the news anymore and it's for the reason that you said that if they need you enough, they'll find you. I figure if something bad enough happens, it will find its way to me somehow without me watching the news constantly. Second, this is something that you talk about in the book, but I've already turned off all notifications that I can for everything, so then I have to consciously go in and choose to engage with the thing rather than it just popping up in my life. You can put your phone on Do Not Disturb, but then it tells you that it's in Do Not Disturb mode and I'm like, “Why the point is to have no notifications?” I want to be really respectful of your time. One little last thing maybe you could touch on and this made me so happy was you have a very nuanced perspective of multitasking. I always pride myself on “multitasking,” but then they always say, “Oh, you can't actually multitask. It's impossible.” But you talk about multi-channel multitasking. I was wondering if you could just briefly tell listeners a little bit about that because I just thought that was-- it's what I definitely naturally do.
Nir Eyal: Yeah, totally. The book is full as you could probably, if you're listening, you can tell by now.
Melanie Avalon: So many treasures.
Nir Eyal: Thank you. I was going to say it's full of me turning over apple carts. It's a lot of myth busting. But I appreciate the kind words of it. This is definitely a myth that needs to be busted that we can't multitask. That is not true. Common sense tells you it's not true. You can drive in your car while you're talking to a friend, you can take a walk and listen to a podcast, you can absolutely multitask. What you can't do is you can't uni-channel multitask. Meaning, you can't take in input from two sources of information at the same time on the same channel. It’s just like a channel on your televisions, you can't watch two channels of TV at the same time, you can't listen to two podcasts one in each year and figure out what both are saying, you can't do two math problems at the same time. But you absolutely can do what's called multichannel multitasking. If you utilize multiple channels at the same time, you can absolutely multitask. What I recommend, if you want to get more out of your day is to find ways to use different sensory channels at the same time.
I'll give you a quick example. A few years ago, I decided to never read the news or any articles that is on my computer. Why? Because the media is designed. I'm just talking about social media, I'm talking about traditional media, New York Times, CNN, whatever, BBC, all of them, they will not tell you you've had enough news. The New York Times will never say, “Hey, you've had enough. Go live your life.” [laughs] They want you to keep reading, and reading, and reading, consuming, and consuming news. That's how they make money. They sell ads. There's nothing wrong about that business model. I'm not saying it's unethical but we need to be responsible as consumers of this information to make sure that we're using a way that serves us as opposed to us serving them. How do we do that? One of the things I do is that I never read articles on the web. I always send articles to this great app called Pocket. I have no affiliation with them, but I just love the app. Pocket will take the text of the article, it will scrub out all the ads, all the clickbait, all the links, and will allow you to listen to that article in this text-to-speech feature they have. What do I do? I use multi-channel multitasking to consume that content that otherwise would have wasted my time online. You know how it is? You read one article, then you read the next article, then you read the next article, and three hours later, you've wasted your morning, you’re reading news, and you can't do anything about that stuff. Why did you spend that much time consuming it, then regret the last time?
Instead, what I do is when I see interesting article, I say, “Great.” I save that article and I have a rule that I can only consume that content when I'm doing something for my body. Meaning, when I'm taking a walk, when I'm in the gym, when I'm doing something healthy. I listen to those articles read to me during that time and that utilizes multichannel multitasking. I can exercise as I'm listening to interesting content. Now, it's really a win-win because not only am I not wasting the time going down this content vortex online, but I'm also incentivizing. This is what Katy Milkman calls Temptation Bundling. Using the reward from one area of your life to incentivize action that you maybe don't have as much motivation to do in another area of your life. The reward for exercising is listening to this interesting content. You can use multi-channel multitasking in all kinds of ways. Instead of taking a Zoom meeting, why not take a walking Zoom meeting all right or if you are so lucky to be physically present with your colleagues, maybe take a walking meeting around the block with them or all kinds of ways that we can use multichannel multitasking to get more out of our time?
Melanie Avalon: Yeah. Well, I think one of my favorite things is just organizing your cleaning while listening to podcasts or books that I'm reading. Yes, I just I love it. Well, this has been absolutely amazing. Listeners, we only barely scratched the surface. You've got to get Indistractible. Also, his other book Hooked is amazing. Nir narrates the books. If you enjoyed listening to him, he is the one speaking. Did you narrate both of them or just one of them?
Nir Eyal: Yeah, both of them.
Melanie Avalon: Both. Yeah, yeah. They're so, so incredible. So, definitely check them out. I will put links to everything that we talked about in the show notes. What links would you like to put out there Nir for people to best follow your work? Are you working on any new books by the way?
Nir Eyal: Thanks. Yeah. I am in the process. It takes me about five years to write a book. I circled around a topic. I haven't quite circled that topic. I have a few ideas that I'm narrowing down, but I always write books that I need. That's always been what I write about. If there's already a book out there that addresses the problem, then I don't write it. But if I can't find a book that fixes the problem for me, that's when I write it. With Indistractable, I read all these books about stop using technology. Well, thanks stupid. I can't. [laughs] I won't have a job if I stop using technology. I needed something that really worked for me and that's why I decided to go deeper into this topic. Yeah, there'll be more books in the future, but not quite sure what they will be. But to keep updated on what I'm working on, feel free to visit my blog. It's called nirandfar.com. Nir is spelt like my first name, N-I-R. So, that's nirandfar.com Want more information about Indistractable? We actually have a complimentary 80-page workbook that we couldn't fit into the final edition of the book. It got too long. So, we decided to make it available for free at indistractable.com and that's spelt IN the word distract ABLE. So, indistractible.com.
Melanie Avalon: Awesome. Well, we will put all of that in the show notes. And then I just want to tell you personally, I know we didn't talk as much about your book, Hooked, but I recently launched my first product line and I have a lot of other product lines in the works. Your book was so valuable to me, not only to try to decide how to make the best product that I can for user experience and engagement, but you also address the morality of it because I've been haunted by this idea of, “Oh, am I my selling out by making a product?” You talk about how the thing that determines if you're being manipulative or not is, is it something that you personally use and is it something that would basically benefit the lives of others, which is everything that I try to do? So, I was like, “Okay.” Maybe we're okay. Yeah. But no, thank you so, so much. This has been so incredible. Maybe when you have your next book, you can come back on because this has been so amazing.
Nir Eyal: Oh, I really appreciate it. Thank you so much for the kind words and yes, we'll definitely keep in touch and stay indistractable.
Melanie Avalon: Oh, thank you. You, too. Thanks. Bye.
Nir Eyal: Bye bye.
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