Illustration by Sean Suchara

Work Culture

Nir Eyal says distraction doesn't start with technology—it starts with us

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Published on September 17, 2019

Illustration by Sean Suchara

Nir Eyal spent the best part of a decade working in the depths of the technology industry, watching as designers at tech giants subtly tweaked their products in order to manipulate the psychology of their users and modify their behavior.

In 2011, Eyal released Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, a behavioral design manual. “My idea was to democratize the psychological techniques technology companies use so that all of us in business can help people form healthy habits,” says Eyal in an interview for Dropbox. Hooked was an instant success, spreading like wildfire across the technology industry and beyond.

But recently, Eyal’s focus has swung one-eighty. In his latest book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, Eyal focuses not on building habits, but breaking them. And his radical switch in focus started with a children’s activity book.

Eyal was playing with his young daughter. He had set aside an afternoon for them to work through a book of fun activities. “If you could have any superpower in the world,” Eyal asked his daughter, reading from the book, “what would you choose?”

As his daughter weighed the pros and cons of flight, invisibility, and super strength, Eyal’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Instinctively, he pulled it out. When his daughter had decided on an answer, Eyal was still glued to his device. “Just a second,” he said, his fingers tapping out an email. “I need to respond to one thing.”

We use these devices as psychological pacifiers as we are looking for an escape from uncomfortable sensations. And if we don't deal with that fact, we will always find distraction somewhere.

By the time he had hit send and returned his focus to the activity book, Eyal’s daughter had wandered off. “I had just blown a special moment with my daughter because I had allowed something on my phone to distract me,” wrote Eyal on his blog Nir & Far. Eyal says this one isolated incident wasn’t a huge deal but the scene kept repeating itself in his head, and that worried him. He knew something was wrong. He started to investigate the problem of distraction. Several years later, that investigation would culminate in the publication of Indistractable.

We sat down with Nir to hear more about his findings.

 

Why is it important to examine distraction?

I wrote the book because I was Patient Zero and felt I was struggling with distraction. I found that I was distracted with my daughter, I found that I wasn't able to complete the work I had planned, and I wasn't taking care of my body.

I wasn't doing what I said I would do and that was annoying — but it was also fascinating.

The fascination came from a question: Why did we do this? It’s an age old question. In fact, Socrates and Aristotle asked the same question 2,500 years ago. They called it akrasia, which is the tendency to do things against our better interests. And they also struggled to explain the mystery.

What I initially planned as a book about technology distraction quickly turned into a book about the psychology of all distraction.

When you identified the problem, your first reaction wasn’t to write a book. Instead, you investigated existing advice. What did you find?

I followed many self-help books to a tee. I went on a digital detox, I did a 30-day plan, and I excised technologies from my life — and two things happened. First, I realized I need these technologies. I need them to connect with my friends and I need them for my livelihood. Saying ‘Hey, stop using social media’ is easy but not every profession can do that.

Second, even when I did get rid of these things, it didn’t work. I got myself a flip phone and a word processor from the 1990s. I got rid of all my internet connections. I got rid of all the apps and social media. Then I thought, “Okay, now I'm going to be focused and not be distracted.” But it didn't work.

I would find other distractions. I would organize my desk, I would say, “Oh, there's that book I've been meaning to read,” or "Let me just take out the garbage real quick." I kept getting distracted because — and here's the truth we don't like to admit to ourselves — distraction starts from within.

We can blame the proximal causes like technology all day long, but if we fail to realize we are doing things against our better interest because they are helping us escape from discomfort, we will always be distracted by one thing or another.

We use these devices as psychological pacifiers as we are looking for an escape from uncomfortable sensations. And if we don't deal with that fact, we will always find distraction somewhere.

If technology is not the enemy, how do you advise fighting back against distraction?

Let's start with the four part model that I talk about in Indistractable, which starts with a definition of distraction. What does that term mean? In order to understand distraction, we have to understand the opposite of distraction, which is not focus. The opposite of distraction is traction

Traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do. And the opposite of traction is distraction, which is anything you do that pulls you away from what you want to do.

This is really important for two reasons. Number one, it frees us from this silly moral hierarchy that lets people judge each other for how they spend their time. If you want to play Candy Crush or browse social media, there is nothing morally inferior to doing that versus watching football on TV. It's a pastime and there's nothing wrong with it as long as you do it with intent and it's consistent with your values.

Number two, it makes us be honest with ourselves about what is traction. Many of us sit down at our desk at work and we say, "Okay, we're going to do that big project that we've been delaying. We're going to start working on it… right after we check email, right after we check our Slack channel." And that’s just as much of a distraction as playing video games because it fools us. Distraction tricks us, it makes us think that what we're doing is productive — but it's not. It's just as much of a distraction because it's not what we intended to do.

What prompts us towards traction and distraction are only two things: external triggers and internal triggers. External triggers are kind of the usual suspects, the pings, dings and rings. They're not inherently good or bad as it depends what they lead us to. If an external trigger says, "Hey, it's time to wake up and go to the gym," and that's what you intended to do, that’s terrific. That trigger was serving its function. But if the external trigger is a notification while you're in the middle of a meeting, it's taking you off track and now it's distraction.

In my research, what I found is that external triggers are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the number of distractions that we encounter every day. And most distractions don't start from outside of us — they begin within us.

We have to go a layer deeper to answer the question: why do we get distracted? In fact, we actually have to go one layer deeper again and ask, why do we do anything? And it turns out that all behavior is prompted by the desire to escape discomfort.

It's pain all the way down, which means that even the pursuit of pleasure is itself psychologically destabilizing. There's a reason we say love hurts. All of these things are psychologically destabilizing and so we escape through action. And if all behavior is prompted by a desire to escape discomfort, that means time management is pain management.

This is a fundamental truth we have to realize. We can blame the proximal causes like technology all day long, but if we fail to realize we are doing things against our better interest because they are helping us escape from discomfort, we will always be distracted by one thing or another.

Your work is built on fairly old research, but it will sound new and novel to most people. Why is that?

The irony is that professional media organizations are built on the same exact business model, and the technology companies, that they're blaming. The publication that criticizes technology, calls them distractions, and say they're hijacking your brain, use the same exact business model of selling your attention for money. They make their money on advertising.

When The New York Times or The Guardian writes a piece about how technology is melting your brain, they're doing that because people love negativity. It's called negativity bias and it's an inborn tendency for us to be fearful of things. And so we want a big, bad monster, we want threats because looking inside of us and saying, "Wait a minute, we've met the enemy and it is us" is scary and requires us to do something.

You think the dominant ‘big, bad tech’ narrative has influenced the language we use to describe the problem. For example, you say we overuse the term addiction.

Everybody uses the term addiction, every article, every critic. It drives me crazy because an addiction is a pathology. You wouldn't say, "I was reading a book and it was so good it made me OCD." Obsessive compulsive disorder is a pathology, like addiction is a pathology. And when we use this term incorrectly, it’s not only incredibly disrespectful to the people who actually suffer from it but it also gives us an excuse to not do anything about the problem.

Watch what happens when I call technology addictive versus when I say technology is something that some people overuse. If there's no addiction, there's no pusher, there's nobody making me do anything, there's nothing hijacking my brain. If it's just overuse, it’s like any number of things that I overuse. Sometimes I drink a little too much or I eat a little too much — but that doesn't mean I don't have agency. It means that I need to have better control and find ways and systems to make sure that I don't go overboard. I think the right term is overuse.

If there's one motto I want people to remember it’s: the antidote to impulsiveness is forethought. So in the moment, of course they're going to get you. If you're on a diet and a fork of chocolate cake is on its way to your mouth, it's too late to do anything.

Likewise, if you're complaining about how technology is hijacking your brain and you're sleeping next to your cell phone, it's too late. Of course it's going to interrupt your sleep, of course it's going to interfere with your sense of wellbeing. You have to take steps beforehand.

This is where I really disagree with critics who say, "Oh, it's the algorithms and they're hijacking your brain." The fact is, with our current technology, there is nothing that you cannot easily overcome with forethought.

These simple steps that I talk about in my book — mastering the internal triggers, making time for traction, hacking back external triggers, and preventing distraction with pacts — are based on decades old research that I'm just applying in a new way. It’s not rocket science but it is harder than just saying, "Well, it's big, bad tech doing it to me.” The problem is when we learn to be helpless, we are giving these companies exactly what they want.

So far we’ve talked about individuals but people spend huge chunks of their days in workplaces that are increasingly full of disruptions. How can we address that?

Half of the book is about things that we as individuals could do, and it’s important that we take those steps first. But I've helped start two tech companies and I've worked in big companies as well. I know that sometimes the solution is not quite as simple as changing your own behavior as we also operate in a larger context.

I think the workplace, despite our best intentions, can make us distracted. It can perpetuate a culture that creates more internal triggers. We know through the work of Stansfield and Candy that the confluence of high expectations and low control leads to anxiety and depression in the workplace. And when people are feeling anxious and depressed, how do they escape? They send more emails, they call more meetings, and they are on Slack channels all day long. They're doing this in a desperate attempt for more agency and control when they don't have enough.

We need to realize that technology overuse in the workplace is not caused by the technology itself. It is, in fact, a symptom of a dysfunctional workplace culture. And when you add technology that has the ability to keep us constantly connected to a sick workplace environment, you get up an unholy mix. It looks like technology is the source but it is just a proximal cause, not the root cause. The root cause is a dysfunctional workplace culture.

You’ve said that the world is bifurcating into two groups: those who allow their attention to be manipulated and those who have become indistractable. Do you think society is trending towards either group?

I think there is much more interest in the problem. When I wrote Hooked, the opposite was true. I had to convince people that companies were using psychology to change your behavior. Back then people thought, "Oh, Zuckerberg just got lucky." But I came in and said, "No, no, no. They understand these techniques and they use them to change our behavior." And, of course, today I have to convince no one of that.

But now, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. I need to convince people to ease up a little bit. These techniques are good, but they're not that good. We are not puppets on a string. You can't make people do something they don't want to do for very long.