Transcript of Eliminating the Distractions of Modern Life
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John Jantsch: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Nir Eyal. He is an Israeli-born American author, lecturer and investor, known for his bestselling book, Hooked. But today we’re going to talk about a new book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. So Nir, thanks for joining me.
Nir Eyal: My pleasure, John. Thanks for having me.
John Jantsch: So as I stated, your first book, which I was a huge fan of called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, I’m probably not the first person to suggest that there is now some irony in the fact that you’ve written a book to teach us how to get off of these habit forming products. Is that an accurate statement?
Nir Eyal: Yeah, yeah. I know there’s definitely something there and I did this intentionally, right? The books are kind of the same color and I wanted them to rhyme a little bit. There’s some similar features and of course that’s part of my journey. And the idea was that we can use habit forming technology for good. We can get people hooked to saving money, to exercising, to being more productive at work. That’s the kind of clients I work with. But then you know, the Indistractable is a little bit of a whistleblower book in that I’m revealing the inner workings of how to stop being so distracted by some of these products that use some of these similar psychological tactics to get you engaged.
Nir Eyal: So my clients don’t include the gaming companies or the cigarette companies. I don’t work for any of those companies. I never will. My intention was always to democratize these techniques so that we can use them for good, but then also become aware of how we can overuse these products sometimes and how we can put them in their place.
Nir Eyal: But I want to make sure it’s very clear. Distraction is much, much bigger than just tech. Tech is just the latest gadget in our hands, but we have always had potential distractions. Right? You know, whether it’s working too much, whether it’s drinking too much, whether it’s watching too much TV. But there’s a thing called news junkies that read too much news. I mean, there’s endless distractions in this world and it’s not a new problem. Socrates talked about it literally 2,500 years ago. Socrates talked about Akrasia, the tendency that we had to do things against our better interests. So distraction is not a new problem. What is new is that if you are looking for distraction, well then it’s easier than ever to find.
John Jantsch: Yeah. One of the things I really like about the fact that you did say, “It’s not just tech.” I mean that’s just an excuse. That’s just like the nearest, easiest thing in our pocket I suppose to distract us. But I guess we can sum the whole book up a lot of ways in the three kind of categories, internal triggers, you mentioned traction, and external triggers. And so let’s spend a little time kind of breaking that down a little bit of what an internal trigger is, the traction steps that you suggested, and then obviously the external triggers.
John Jantsch: But I think in some ways, the internal triggers, I think a lot of people, whether they realize they happen to them, I think they’re pretty easy to identify. Sometimes it’s just the stuff we react to, isn’t it?
Nir Eyal: Well, so this is where I think I want to break some myths here. I think most people think about distraction, they just think about the pings, the dings, the rings, all of these things that prompt you to distraction. That’s the kindergarten stuff, right? The changing your notification settings and turning off your apps or whatever. Come on, that’s basic. You don’t need a whole book just to tell you that. That’s ridiculous. What-
John Jantsch: Well, yeah, there’s a lot of people have suggested these detox things that everybody’s goes on, just don’t-
Nir Eyal: Yeah, and it-
John Jantsch: They don’t stay.
Nir Eyal: They never work. Of course they don’t work. The same reason that 30-day diet doesn’t work. People diet to get into their wedding dress or into get into their wedding suit or whatever, and then we know what happens after the wedding and then the weight comes back when you have these temporary, arbitrary goals. And the same happens with our digital distractions. So the digital stuff is not the root cause. It’s the proximal cause. It’s very convenient, it’s called motivated reasoning. We want to believe that distraction is caused by these technologies and it’s just not true. There’s always a root cause, whether the root cause has to do with why our kids are constantly on their devices. Why work seems to constantly be a distraction. When you dig into what is the root cause, you have to start with what is the root cause of all human behavior.
Nir Eyal: Not just why do we do things against our better interest. Why do we do everything and anything? And the answer is it’s not what most people think. You know, most people think that motivation is about carrots and sticks. This is called Freud’s pleasure principle, that all behavior is motivated by desire to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Neurologically speaking, that is not true. That is not what’s happening in the brain. What’s happening in the brain is one thing and that is that all behavior is prompted by a desire to escape discomfort. That’s it. It’s pain all the way down. Everything we do is about the need for homeostasis, meaning to restore psychological balance. And we know this to be true physically, right? When we’re hot, we… Sorry, when we’re cold, we put on a jacket. When we’re hot, we take the jacket off. We know that physiologically when we feel discomfort, that’s how the brain gets us to do stuff.
Nir Eyal: And the same goes for psychological discomfort. When we’re lonely, we check Facebook. When we’re uncertain, we Google. When we’re bored, we check stock prices or ESPN or Pinterest or you name it, all kinds of things out there to relieve boredom.
Nir Eyal: So this is really, really important because it turns out that the number one source of distraction are the distractions that start from within. That we have to understand the fact that if all behavior is prompted by desire to escape discomfort, that means that time management is pain management. So all the life hacks and all the gurus’ techniques of how to manage your time will not work unless you first master your internal triggers. We have to spend some time understanding what exactly are we looking to escape from? What is the emotional itch that we are looking to scratch with some kind of distraction?
Nir Eyal: Let me tell you, if you can’t sit at the table with your family, without checking your phone, it ain’t about your phone. If you can’t sit down at work and focus on one task at a time without constantly checking Slack or email or whatever, it’s not about Slack and email. There’s something going on inside of you that unless you can cope with that discomfort, and by the way, I’m patient zero here. I wrote this book for me more than anyone else. What I wanted to do was to help people deal with these triggers in a healthy manner so that we don’t have to rely on self-control and willpower. I am tired of people telling us self-control and willpower, self-control and willpower, does not work. You have to have a system in place in order to make sure you do what you say you’re going to do.
John Jantsch: But are some of these behaviors, and maybe you’re going to suggest, well that’s just an internal trigger, but are some of them just habitual? I mean, we don’t even know why we’re doing it, or nothing triggers it. It’s just that’s what we do.
Nir Eyal: Well, the definition of a habit is an impulse to do, behave with little or no conscious thought and a habit is just a learned behavior. So why did we learn that behavior? Every behavior is learned because the brain… What the brain does really, really well, the primary function of this three and a half pounds of fat we carry inside our skulls everyday, our brain, what it does really well is pattern match. And so if the brain learns cause and effect between what the source of discomfort and whatever alleviates that discomfort, that’s what we come to again and again.
John Jantsch: And so then we no longer have to think about it. Is that what you’re saying?
Nir Eyal: Exactly. And that’s where the habit is formed. Right? And sometimes we can have very healthy habits, right? And sometimes we can have unhealthy habits. So the way to break these unhealthy habits, particularly when it comes to distraction, is to start with what is the source of the discomfort that we are looking to escape from. That’s the first step.
John Jantsch: And in some cases it may have nothing to do with what you’re doing or your job, or it could be something really deep-seated.
Nir Eyal: Well, yeah. So there’s only two answers to that problem. And so the answer number one is to fix the source of the discomfort, to figure out what’s going on in your life. Is it a crappy work environment? Is it that you have problems with your marriage? Is it that something else is going on in your life that you need to fix? Or many problems in life can’t be fixed. Look, it’s part of being human is that we feel boredom, uncertainty, stress, fatigue, loneliness. This is part of being a a person. And so in those cases, what we need to do are learn strategies to cope with that discomfort in a healthier manner. Because remember, the opposite of distraction is not focus. The opposite of distraction is traction. Both words come from the same Latin root [Latin 00:00:08:46], which means to pull and they both end in the same six letter word, action, A-C-T-I-O-N.
Nir Eyal: So traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do in life. Things that you do with intent. The opposite of traction is distraction. Any action that pulls you away from what you want to do in life. So this is incredibly important because this leads us to the second step in terms of the four parts of becoming indistractible. Step one is to master the internal triggers.
Nir Eyal: Step two is to make time for traction. So here’s the thing, you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. Two-thirds of people in America do not keep a calendar. Well, if you leave lots of white space in your day, you know what’s going to happen. Your boss is going to take up that time. The news is going to take at that time. Facebook is going to take up… Somebody is going to claim that time unless you decide what you want to do with it.
Nir Eyal: Very basic step. It’s something you see across the board with C-level executives. They do it forever. I have never met a C-level executive that doesn’t do this already. Either they’re carrying around some kind of piece of paper with their daily schedule or it’s in their phone. So we have to start. This is no longer a luxury. Living in the 21st century means you have to plan your day and you have to synchronize your schedule with the important stakeholders in your life. With your family, with your colleagues, with your boss. It’s critical to getting done what you want to get done every day and living the life you want to live.
John Jantsch: You have a couple of really compelling… And actually I’m going to jump backwards a little bit and then come back to this value idea, but you kind of glossed over pain management. So I just want to touch on that a little bit. You actually have a title of a chapter called, I don’t know, I don’t have it written down, but something about turning time management is really pain management. So you went by that pretty quickly. And I wonder if you could maybe just unpack that thought.
Nir Eyal: Sure, so this idea that all behavior is prompted by a desire to escape discomfort. So if everything we do is about relieving psychological or physical discomfort, that means that time management is pain management, right? All behavior is a desire to escape discomfort. So that means we can either fix the source of the problem or learn tactics to cope with it in a healthier manner. So that those internal triggers, that psychological discomfort leads us towards traction as opposed to distraction, feeling bad. One of the things I hate about the self-help industry that I think the self-help industry has sold us this lie that we are always supposed to be happy. And if you’re not happy and satisfied with your life, something’s wrong with you. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evolutionarily we are designed for dissatisfaction and that’s good. That’s what kept our species striving and trying and inventing and working towards improvement. So we can channel that uncomfortable sensation towards traction, towards things we want to do that are consistent with our values and we have to be careful about making sure they don’t lead us towards distraction.
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John Jantsch: So the other chapter then that I want to jump to that was extremely compelling for me at least, was this idea of turning values into time.
Nir Eyal: Right. Right. So this has to do with this idea if you ask people what their values are, they’ll talk a good game. And I certainly did. “Oh what’s valuable to me in my life? Oh my health, my health is very, very important. Oh, my friends and my family, these things are very, very important to me.”
Nir Eyal: Are they though? Really? I mean, here’s the thing. You can tell someone’s values by looking at two things. Their bank ledger, how they spend their money and their calendar, how they spend their time. And so if these things are really important to us, we have to make time for them in our day. They don’t just happen. Having good relationships. You know, there’s a loneliness epidemic in this country that we know, the psychologists tell us, that loneliness is as detrimental to our health as smoking and obesity. But we can’t form these relationships with people unless we make time for them and we are fully present.
Nir Eyal: Same goes in the workplace. We can’t do our best work unless we make time for the hard stuff. Time to focus, time to think. We are so busy reacting all day between meetings and emails, we have no time for reflection. But reflection and concentrated thought, this is where the best ideas come from. This is where we produce the most important work output, is that time to think. And then of course with our health, we all know how to get healthy. We don’t need to buy a diet book or an exercise… We know what to do. Everybody knows what to do, right? We all know chocolate cake isn’t as healthy for you as a healthful salad. Why don’t we eat the right stuff? Why don’t we take care of our bodies? Well because a big part of it is that we haven’t turned our values into time. It’s got to be on your calendar or it’s just not going to happen these days.
John Jantsch: Yeah. So give us a practical… I mean, you already mentioned the idea that people don’t have calendars, which I find amazing, but you know-
Nir Eyal: Well it’s more than just calendars. It’s time box calendars. So I think that we have to plan for every minute of our day. And it sounds very rigid and people boohoo. “What do you mean? I want to do, I don’t want to plan my whole day.” Too bad. The reality of living in the 21st century, you don’t have to kill your own food. You don’t have to chop your own wood. I’m asking you to make a calendar. Okay. And that calendar, and I’ll give you a link for the show notes, very simple to make. So it takes about 30 minutes. And what we want to do is… It’s not good enough just to make that calendar right. We also have to synchronize that schedule. It’s called schedule syncing. We’re doing that with the important stakeholders in our life. With our domestic partners, with our boss. So that for the first time we coordinate how our time will be spent.
Nir Eyal: So many managers, they just lob over tasks, without constraints, right. Our only input as knowledge workers is our time. And so it’s critical that we sync this. We do this practice of schedule sinking with our managers so that there’s a realistic expectation of what can and can’t get done based on the time we have in our day.
John Jantsch: Yeah. And I think that’s a great point though. I mean, I’m guilty of lobbing tasks over and over and I think that this idea that it’s a two way street. Would you call that an an element of culture or is that just something that takes practice itself?
Nir Eyal: So a huge part of this culture. So half the book is about things that you can do yourself, but the fact is, there’s only so much that you can do yourself. So the other half of the book is about the environments we live in. So there’s a section on how to make an indistractable workplace, how to raise indistractable kids, and how to have an indistractable relationship. Because the fact is, I can tell you the four steps of how to be indistractible. We only went through two of them so far. I can tell you those four steps and you can follow them to a T. But if your boss decides to call you up at 7:00 on a Friday and says, “Oh, I need you to check email right now, there’s something we need to work on.” Is it the email and the phone that’s at fault? Is it the technology at fault or is it your crappy boss?
Nir Eyal: And so a big part of this is company culture. Now, if that’s what you sign up for, I’ve got no problem with that. If you want to work on Wall Street, you want to work at a startup, I get it. I’ve been there. Go for it. If you know you’re getting into a 60 hour a week type job, I’m not going to tell you not to. However, there is a bait and switch that goes on in many companies. They say, “Oh yeah, we’re a 40 hour work week kind of place.” But then you get there and you say, “Oh, 40 hours is how much you want me in the office, but actually you want me to do real work on nights and weekends and now it’s a 60-80 hour work week.” That’s not fair. That’s a bait and switch. And so that’s the kind of stuff where company culture comes into play.
Nir Eyal: The good news is, and I profile several companies who have made the switch and they find that not only do employees do better work, they dramatically reduce employee turnover and they actually can find out that once they start this discussion around distraction in the workplace, all of these other skeletons in the closet come out. And so I profiled the Boston consulting group and a few other companies on how they’ve made this transition and it’s remarkable. It benefits all types of the metrics in terms of their organization, improve once people start having this conversation around distraction.
John Jantsch: Yeah. I think that if you were able to do some sort of research on most companies, you would find how much time is actually wasted.
Nir Eyal: Oh my God.
John Jantsch: And that actually doing what you’re talking about doing with a focus would actually give so much time back anyway.
Nir Eyal: It’s so true. So that’s why we only got to the first two steps of mastering internal triggers, make time for traction. The third step is to hack back the external triggers and that’s where I talk about hacking back meetings. How much time do we waste in stupid superfluous meetings? Email, right. You know so much of our day… There’s study done that showed that between those two things, meetings and email, the average knowledge worker only has an hour and a half for everything else that isn’t meetings and email. And so where does real work get done? It gets done on nights and weekends and our health pays the price. Our families pay the price, our friends pay the price. And so that’s the kind of discussion we need to have is we can taper down on these stupid meetings we don’t need to have. And these emails that get spreed. The Harvard Business Review found that 25% of the emails the average knowledge workers sends didn’t need to be sent and 25% of the emails they received didn’t need to be received. So we are wasting a tremendous amount of time.
John Jantsch: Yeah. I can’t tell you how often… I work in a pretty lean organization, but we do have some sponsors that have an agency that has this component that comes and 18 people want to meet four times to talk about something that would have taken about two seconds. [crosstalk] And we cancel.
Nir Eyal: We have meetings to discuss when we’re going to have meetings.
John Jantsch: Yes.
Nir Eyal: It’s ridiculous. And so I show you exactly how to hack a back all of these external triggers. External triggers are the pings, the dings, the rings, all of these things that lead us towards distraction, can lead us towards distraction. And so I talk about these eight different environments, group chat, meetings, email, cell phone, your desktop, all of these places where we can hack back these external triggers. And it is possible, I mean some people who have read the book, Shane Snow is another author, said he reduced the time he spent on email by 90% after using these methodologies.
John Jantsch: Yeah. And I think on the surface an individual, I think could look at this book and say, “Well this is a book about habits.” But I think a company could look at this and say, “This is a book about leadership and about management.” Couldn’t they?
Nir Eyal: Yeah, I mean there is an element of breaking bad habits, not so much building habits. That was more about what Hooked was about. My first book was about how to build habits facilitated by technology. But absolutely I think to expect it to just be on the employee is a little bit narrow. I think there needs to be something to be said for company culture that plays a huge component into how to help people be their best. And in fact we know that there is [inaudible] that literally drive us crazy. I’m not being figurative here.
Nir Eyal: The work of Stansfeld and Candy found that when a work environment has two conditions… You know, you think about, okay, what type of work environments lead to depression, anxiety disorder? If you say, okay, where is there the most correlation between the kind of jobs that lead to anxiety and depression disorder? You would think it’d be like a sad job, right? A mortician or somebody who works in a slaughterhouse. No, no, no. It’s not what you do. It’s the environment you do it in. Turns out that companies that have a work environment where people have high expectations coupled with low control, this is the type of workplace that literally leads to depression, anxiety disorder. You don’t have to have both by the way. If you have high expectations and high control, you’re fine. It’s when you have this work environment of high expectations and low control, that’s when things go off the rails.
Nir Eyal: And here’s what’s so frustrating about those types of environments. What do people do when they don’t feel in control? Psychological agency is incredibly important. It’s one of these core things that we need for psychological wellbeing and flourishing. We have to feel agency and control over what we do. When people don’t feel in control, you know what they do? They call stupid meetings. They send stupid emails that don’t need to be sent. Why? Because they are grasping for control and agency and it makes the problem worse, not only for them, for everyone else as well.
John Jantsch: So let’s bring these three things together and to the fourth part.
Nir Eyal: Yeah. So the fourth part is about preventing distraction with pacts. So the third step was about keeping the external triggers out. This is about keeping yourself in. And so this is where we make what’s called a pre-commitment. It’s where we make some kind of pact with ourselves or with someone else.
Nir Eyal: There are three types of these pre-commitments. An effort pact, a price pact, and an identity pact that we can use to make sure that we can keep ourselves in. And so a lot of what we can do here leverages technology, ironically enough, to prevent distraction from technology.
John Jantsch: So we’ve talked a lot about companies, but I’m envisioning families taking this on.
Nir Eyal: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. So my favorite section of the book and where I learned the most, I have an 11-year-old little girl who some of her first words, I’m not kidding, some of her first words I think after dada was iPad time, iPad time. So now she’s 11 and the challenges have certainly changed, but this is a very important skill.
Nir Eyal: If you think the world is distracting now, just wait a few years. Virtual reality, augmented reality, you know the world is not going to become less distracting. It’s going to become more potentially distracting. So if we don’t teach our kids how to become indistractable, they’re going to be in big trouble. I think this is going to be the skill of the century that kids who can focus, who use the power of becoming indistractable to do what they think is important in life, these are the kids who are going to have a huge competitive advantage over the kids who let their lives just be controlled by other people.
John Jantsch: I wonder if there’s going to be a time when they’re teaching this in schools.
Nir Eyal: Oh man. From your mouth to God’s ears. I hope so. I really hope so. And you know, the thing is, I’m not one of these Luddites that says, “Oh, technology is so evil. It’s so bad. Just get rid of the technology.” No, that doesn’t solve our problem. We can’t do that. To not be tech literate… It’s very difficult to succeed without understanding how to use these tools. So I believe that we can get the best out of technology without letting it get the best of us.
Nir Eyal: And if we’re rational about it… Look, I’m a tech insider. I know how these tools are built and I can tell you where these tactics work and where they don’t. What the Achilles heel is for how we can regain our attention and control our lives. It’s actually not all that hard. We just have to understand the root causes as opposed to the proximal causes. Because there’s a lot of motivated reasoning here. We want to blame technology, and especially us parents. We love blaming. My generation it was Super Mario Brothers and before that it was heavy metal music. And before that it was comic books. I mean every generation of parents, we love to blame something that helps us deflect responsibility. But it turns out those are never the root causes. There’s something else going on and that’s what we have to deal with first and foremost.
John Jantsch: Speaking with Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable. So Nir, tell people, and of course we’ll have the show notes, but tell people where they can find out more, and I think you actually have some resources related to the book as well.
Nir Eyal: Absolutely. Yeah, so my website is Nirandfar. Nir, spelled like my first name, so it’s N-I-R and far.com. Nirandfar.com. And at indistractable.com you can get a an 80-page workbook we couldn’t fit into the print edition, so that’s available there. It’s a complimentary workbook as well as a free video course and all that is at indistractable.com. It’s spelled I-N, the word distract, A-B-L-E. So indistractible.com.
John Jantsch: Nir, thanks so much for stopping by the podcast and hopefully we’ll run into you soon out there on the road.
Nir Eyal: My pleasure. Thanks so much, John.