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Ask Me Anything: Nir Eyal

Posted in the following categories: Personal Development, Productivity

Wall Street Journal bestselling author Nir Eyal writes and consults about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business.

In his new book, Indistractable, Nir explores the dark side of habit-forming products and provides strategies for overcoming the power of distraction.

I got an advance review copy of the book and really enjoyed it. His advice is counter-intuitive (dare I say, contrarian). He argues, for example, that eliminating online technology from our lives can make our addiction worse, not better. He busts the myth that willpower is a finite resource that’s depleted every time we exert ourselves. He shares relentlessly practical strategies for controlling your attention in a world filled with products and services designed to rob it away from you.

Nir was gracious enough to participate in an Ask Me Anything session where he answered questions posed by Inner Circle members.

Here are the questions, followed by Nir’s answers.

1. I agree that trying to resist your technology is outrageously difficult and degrades your ability to resist distraction elsewhere. Is our ability to resist distraction something that we can develop the same way that we develop muscles through exercise? (Timothy Chips)

The answer you’re probably expecting is, “Yes, becoming indistractable is a lot like exercise.” And in some modest ways, I suppose it is. You exercise because you have a goal: to be more fit, to look better, to feel better. You try to defeat distraction because you have a goal: to get your work done, to spend more time with your family, to finish that side project you promised yourself you’d do. Just like you can get fitter the more you exercise, you can become less distracted the more you work at it. Those are important similarities—and I’m not knocking them.

But I’d actually argue that, in the specifics, using the analogy of exercise can be a bit tricky when it comes to dealing with distraction. For one thing, exercise tends to be something you do externally to achieve a result that’s internal. For distraction, I’d argue that the work begins internally, by identifying the reason you’re allowing yourself to become distracted in the first place. In fact, one of the big things I argue in the book is that all the hacks and apps and tricks you want to use won’t amount to much if you don’t focus on the reason you’re giving into distraction.

In my book, it’s only once I’ve figured out why I’m distracted that I can begin to take external steps to deal with the distraction. So in that way, I’d adjust the metaphor slightly: Yes, becoming indistractable shares some important similarities to exercise, but the work begins within as opposed to without.

2. At some point in my life I began to see “being distractable” as a warning sign that it was time to reflect on my goals and responsibilities to determine whether I needed to address deeper issues in my life. Was there a point in your life that made you start to think deliberately about being distracted and its consequences, and if so, when and why did this happen? (Christina Guthier)

The moment is crystal clear: I was supposed to be enjoying time with my daughter, and I grabbed my phone and told her, “Sorry, let me just get to this one important e-mail.” Whatever e-mail I was reading wasn’t important, and given how phones and email work, it’s likely that I wouldn’t limit myself to just one. And yet I was willing to trade those few minutes with my daughter for a few minutes trying to achieve inbox zero.

Oof. That’s one of the moments when it hit me that my distraction was affecting my life in ways I wasn’t proud of. And that’s what launched my five-year journey to becoming “indistractable.” I’m not perfect today—no one is!—but I’m far less likely to allow myself to be pulled away from the important things for the thoroughly unimportant ones.

3. What is your best advice for parents to help their kids manage their relationship with addictive devices? (Catherine Cheng)

I would reframe the approach: the goal ought to be to teach your children how to manage their own relationship with potentially distracting devices. Here’s what I mean: the best thing my wife and I did in dealing with our daughter’s device time was allowing her to determine her own boundaries and then holding her accountable to them.

When we recognized that she was developing some bad habits, we sat down and asked her how much time she wanted to devote to different activities throughout the day. And then we had her pick a number for devices (her favorite was the iPad). She said, “45 minutes.” That seemed reasonable to us. And because she chose the time herself, she had agency and authority about it. This wasn’t her parents imposing restrictions; she had defined the limits for herself.

Now all kids aren’t created equal, and if your children’s device habits have gotten to a breaking point, you may need to step up your intervention a bit. But I think there’s always a way to guide children to the right answer rather than impose rules from on high. And the difference can be stark: children break rules set for them, and they’re more likely to comply with rules they set for themselves.

That’s proven true for us, and at the high level, I’d recommend that approach for any parent dealing with this all-too-difficult issue.

4. I find I am distracted by other things I want to do. One of my pressing issues is that I need to spend time marketing my food booth, but I find myself scheduling dinner with one of my offspring instead. Does that qualify as distraction or a lack of prioritizing, and can you address both problems the same way? (Kathleen Marie)

In my weekly schedule, you’ll find an odd item that you probably wouldn’t expect: “enjoy social media time.” Huh? The guy who is telling us about not becoming distracted allows himself to binge social media? Let me explain the method to the mayhem. During those chunks of time, I’m allowed to enjoy social media. But when that time is over, I don’t use social media. (Apps like Self-Control can help to make this super rigorous, by the way, by blocking certain sites outside of certain time windows.)

So if you have to market your food booth, schedule it. And if you want to have dinner with your children, schedule it. And then in both time periods, don’t allow yourself to do anything else. If you’re going to work on marketing, work on marketing. If you’re going to dine with your kids, be fully there.

Now, the natural response is: but there are only so many hours in the day. And I get that. I’m an author, run a business, and try to be a good dad and husband. I totally understand how overwhelming things can feel. But I would argue that you’ll feel a bit more at ease if you’re honest about the “distractions” you allow yourself to have. In other words, you’re allowed to watch Netflix; you’re allowed to browse Twitter; you’re allowed to stalk your friends on Instagram. Just do it within the interval, and you won’t feel guilty about it. You won’t feel like it’s a distraction and importantly, because you’ve scheduled it, it won’t be. Even your brain, when tempted to do something else, will think, “Oh, well, I have time for that later. Let me focus.” And it can be that little bit of reorienting that can make the difference between sticking to what you have assigned and becoming distracted.

5. Would you recommend that someone overcome digital distraction by restricting their use of devices to certain periods of time throughout the day? (Timothy Chips)

Two thoughts on this:

1) I think the device is just the tool, not the root of the problem. Let me explain. When I started down the journey, I played around with different ways to keep some distance between me and my devices. I got a manual word processor, for instance, with no connection to the internet. Surely this would free me, at long last, from all of Facebook and Twitter’s distractions, right? Yes, it did. But then I looked over at the wonderful library I have assembled, and I found myself reading books instead of clicking tweets. I replaced one distraction with another, and I think one of the common misconceptions in this field is that technology is, by itself, the problem. You have to dig a little deeper and see why it is you’re allowing yourself to become distracted.

2) Time-restrictions can indeed be an effective approach. As I said earlier, I allow myself time in my calendar specifically to indulge in the internet rabbit holes I love. And that’s okay–as long as it’s scheduled, time-limited, and not something I use to interrupt other things in my day.

6. How do you see us all interacting with our devices in 10, 20, 30 years? (Catherine Cheng)

I want to reframe the question. Jeff Bezos has this great comment he made once in response to a question about the future. He talks about thinking not about what might change 10 years from now, but about what might stay the same. Here’s Bezos:

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. … [I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

Why does that matter to us? Because I’d argue that it’s worth thinking more about how our interactions with our devices now are going to be similar to how they are a decade or two or three from now.

Here’s my bet: the device manufacturers are going to create more enticing products, and all of us are going to be dealing with similar kinds of issues to today. Distraction isn’t a new problem—it’s as old as the ancients. Even Plato wrote about it 2,000 years ago. And while Plato didn’t have Twitter, he did have the same brain the rest of us do—one prone to avoiding what we need to do in favor of what we want to do.

What does that mean for our relationship with devices? Well, I’d argue that the thing you need to do now is to prepare yourself for a world in which these technologies become ever more interesting, attention-getting, seductive. Flip phones aren’t coming back. But I’d also submit that the habits we build today can affect our interactions in the future. So if you’re able to keep these technologies in their proper place, you’ll have a great relationship with them many decades later. At least, that’s what I’m hoping and working towards—and trying to help others work towards as well.

7. Do you agree with the central argument in Cal Newport’s book, Digital Minimalism? Is the approach you suggest in dealing with digital distractions different from Newport’s, and if so, how?

First things first, I’m a fan of Cal’s work, and he’s a friend. He has helped a lot of people, and I’m the first to line up when his new work comes out. He also provided a great endorsement for my book, Indistractable. Obviously the arguments in his book speak to me.

That said, I think I differ in my desire to give readers a way to live with technology and to keep things like social networks in their lives. I use Facebook; I use Twitter. But what I’m trying to show with the research, experiments, and tactics in Indistractable is that you can enjoy technology without letting it distract you. There’s obviously some overlap there with Cal’s work, but I would say I’m a much more sanguine on technology, broadly.

8. I’m curious about the process of writing Indistractable, whether you wrote a little bit every day and if you had help with research. How long did it take to write and was it an easier experience than writing your first book? (Christina Guthier)

So at first, I tried to do this like I did my last book: I’d write “whenever I could find the time.” Big mistake. The reason the book took five years to complete is that I spent a good chunk of time at the outside just spinning my wheels.

Then I found one of the tactics I recommend in the book: I set aside time each morning to write the book—and do nothing else. It seems like a small change, but it’s actually a big one. When I put something on my calendar, it gives it concreteness and definition; it means it’s going to get done. And in this case, writing for two hours every morning was the fix I needed to finish the book.

9. How do you decide whether or not to invest in a business? (Christina Guthier)

I use the GEM framework, which stands for Growth, Engagement, and Monetization. In a startup, I look for 2 of the three with a plan for the third. I also look for businesses that rely upon unprompted user engagement to succeed. If a business needs to form a habit to fuel customer engagement, that’s an area where I can be particularly helpful.

10. While the book is about overcoming distraction, as with everything, the dose makes the poison. I’m curious if you have any thoughts around the “optimal amount” of distraction? Or certain types of distractions that have benefit for resetting focus and attention? (Kathy Varol)

Let’s say that, right now, you use Facebook as a way of avoiding work. In my view, that’s the kind of distraction you need to squash. Instead, you should consider building “Facebook time” into your schedule—not as a way of distracting yourself, but as an honest recognition that you enjoy the product and want to catch up on the lives of your friends and family.

It’s less about the dose, per say, than about actually being precise in those moments when you choose “distractions.” That can seem like a subtle difference, so let me explain. I’m not arguing that it’s okay to make an 8-hour time block of “Facebook time.” What I am saying is that you need to decide if certain distractions deserve their own chunk of time.

As far as periods of rest within work, I think that’s important. I can’t write for 2 hours in one fell swoop, and I take micro-breaks in the middle. That’s both a way of giving my eyes a rest, and of giving my brain a chance to breathe. But honestly, it’s no longer than a few minutes, because I find that any longer and, well, I might fall prey to a distraction.

11. When did you last feel truly appreciated and what made you feel this way? (Christina Guthier)

My book launch for Indistractable was truly amazing. I didn’t have a traditional book launch for Hooked, but with this book, I had friends and family join me to celebrate the five years of research and writing it took to make this book happen. I was so grateful and proud to have so many wonderful people care about the success of this book and the change I’m trying to affect in the world.

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Thank you Nir Eyal and everyone who sent in questions. Please pick up a copy of Indistractable. And if you’d like to participate in our next AMA, please join the Inner Circle!

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