Well, I'm, hunkered down at home … which, let’s face it, is pretty normal for me. The only thing I’m missing is coffee shops and restaurants — which is annoying, but not that big a sacrifice all things considered.
You’re likely used to working at home or remotely already too, but with the constant barrage of news, and many schools closed, plus all the other distracting things going on right now, we thought we’d do something different this week.
We’re sharing a guest lecture from inside the Unemployable Initiative, our community for solo business people. And it’s a great one with Nir Eyal, author of the bestselling books Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
It’s the second and most recent book that we’re focusing on today. Jerod Morris led the conversation with Nir, and I enjoyed listening in. I think you will too.
In this hour-long session (which is a sample of the regular content that is available to members of the Unemployable Initiative), Nir discusses the intersection of his two books and then provides insight from each that we can all apply to our daily lives.
Among the many topics we cover:
- What does it take to build habit-forming digital products?
- How can we manage the internal triggers that cause us to become distracted?
- What does it mean to “make time for traction”?
- Why are to-do lists the wrong way to manage priorities?
- How can we “reimagine tasks” to help us stay engaged in tasks without the need for external rewards?
- What's the best way to handle email?
- How does the power of precommitments and pacts work? (And why is it essential that this come after the other steps in becoming Indistractable?)
- What are some tips for staying focused on big, long-term projects?
- What can parents to do to help their children become indistractable?
We hope you enjoy the special edition of the 7-Figure Small podcast. To learn more about the Unemployable Initiative, click here.
Subscribe to 7-Figure Small
Or search for “7-Figure Small” wherever you listen to podcasts.
How to Focus and Get More Meaningful Work Done
Jerod Morris: Welcome to 7-Figure Small, the podcast that brings you the stories and strategies that are driving the growing number of solo businesses achieving 7-figures in revenue, without investors or employees. Here is your host for this edition of 7-Figure Small — serial digital entrepreneur, Brian Clark.
Brian Clark: Hey there, Unemployable people, Brian Clark here, hunkered down at home… which, let’s face it, is pretty normal for me. The only thing I’m missing is coffee shops and restaurants — which is annoying, but not that big a sacrifice all things considered.
You’re likely used to working at home or remotely already too, but with the constant barrage of news, and many schools closed, plus the other distracting things going on right now, we thought we’d do something different this week.
We’re sharing a guest lecture from inside the Unemployable Initiative, our community for solo business people. And it’s a great one with Nir Eyal, author of the bestselling books Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
It’s that second and most recent book that we’re focusing on today. Jerod Morris led the conversation with Nir, and I enjoyed listening in. I think you will too.
If you want to find out more about the Unemployable Initiative, you can head over to Unemployable.com/community. Thanks for being here. Stay safe and keep going.
Jerod Morris: So when I asked members of the Unemployable Initiative at the beginning of 2020 what their biggest challenges were for the new year, the most common response was some variation of avoiding distractions and maintaining focus to be able to get more meaningful work done, which made today's guest an obvious choice to invite in for one of our guest lecture discussions.
He writes, consults, and teaches about what he calls “behavioral design,” a combination of user experience and behavioral economics with a little bit of neuroscience mixed in.
His experience is vast, having founded two tech companies since 2003 and teaching at the Stanford Graduate School of Business as well as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford.
You probably know him from the two bestselling books he has written — Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. He is here today to share some of the insights from those books so that we can have more intentional and productive days and lead more fulfilling lives. Here is Nir Eyal.
Nir, thank you so much for joining us today here inside of the Unemployable Initiative.
Nir Eyal: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
What Was the Impetus for the Two Books?
Jerod Morris: No, absolutely. Let's jump right into it. I'd like to start out probably where most people start out with you, I would imagine, when they want to talk about these two books. And that is actually addressing kind of the obvious contrast between the books.
In short, Hooked teaches people how to create products that people can't put down. And Indistractable has an entire chapter that deals with managing exactly these kinds of external triggers.
So I'm just curious, what was the impetus to write Hooked, and then why did you then feel the need to follow it up with Indistractable?
Nir Eyal: Yeah, I wrote Hooked to help companies design healthy habits in peoples’ lives. So I've worked with companies like Fitbod that gets people hooked to exercising in the gym. I've worked with companies like Kahoot, the world's largest educational software to get kids hooked on in-classroom learning. One of my clients includes The New York Times who I've helped get people hooked to consuming the news and staying informed on a daily basis.
So the point of Hooked was to democratize the methods used by Facebook and the gaming companies — they have known these tactics for decades. My idea was, what if we could democratize these techniques so that all sorts of companies, all sorts of people building products and services that can really improve peoples’ lives, can use these same tactics for good?
Why is it just the video game companies and the social media networks that get people so engaged? Why can't we get people engaged to using all sorts of products and services that can help them build good habits in their lives?
There's this misconception that somehow my book helped Facebook — no, no. My book was published in 2014. Facebook was founded in 2006, well before. They'd known these tactics. The gaming companies have known these tactics for years and years. I wanted to expose these techniques so that the rest of us could utilize them as well.
Now these are different products. Nobody is getting addicted to educational software or enterprise software — that's ridiculous. These kinds of products need to be made better and they have been made better, because people are using these techniques to make them more engaging and more habit forming, which is fantastic.
Now, the flip side of studying how to build good habits is that I understand the Achilles’ heel of how many of these companies that people find distracting are built. So I'm an industry insider that can tell you exactly, if you find that you are distracted for one reason or another, I'll tell you exactly how to break those bad habits in your life.
Tips to Keep Products Engaging
Jerod Morris: Before we jump into Indistractable, because I've got a lot of topics that I want to cover there. I do want to talk a little bit about Hooked, because I think there are some elements there that could really be useful for this audience. A lot of the members of this audience, they're going to be creating digital products like online courses, email newsletters, email sequences, even apps and SaaS products.
What are a few high level tips that people should keep in mind to make these products engaging and keep people coming back to using them?
Nir Eyal: There are no high level tips. There are no magic bullets. It's a 250-page book that's about as short as I can make it.
The big picture is that you have to understand the basic framework by which habit forming products are designed. Every habit forming product, whether it's online, offline, enterprise, consumer web, doesn't matter — any product that forms a habit utilizes these four key steps of a trigger, an action, a reward, and an investment.
It's through successive cycles, through these hooks, this is how preferences are shaped, how tastes are formed, and how these habits take hold.
So it's really about, if you're just building a product, if it's brand new, that's a great time to take out this model and run your product through this model to make sure that before you spend a lot of money on designers and coders, that you first ask yourself, “Does my product meet the archetype of a product that builds a habit? And if not, let's go ahead and tweak it now before we spend all that money.”
The other time that this framework is super helpful is when the product is already in market and for some reason, it's not engaging people. People aren't coming back.
Many times I'll get calls from venture capitalists who call me and say, “Look, we put millions of dollars into this company. Their growth was phenomenal, it looked amazing.” And then, “We put all this money in the company and now all the users are not coming back. What's going on?”
We call these type of businesses “leaky buckets,” and so they call the plumber. I'm the plumber that tells them how to stop up the leaks so that customers don't keep flowing out. Because remember, with any product or service, you can always buy growth.
If you go to an investor and say, “Look, my product yields this kind of lifetime value per customer. All I'm missing is the money to buy acquisition, to buy user acquisition,” they'll back up the truck. They'll give you as much money as you need if you can prove a profitable lifetime value per customer. Because you can always buy growth. You just buy a bunch of ads.
What you can't buy is engagement. You cannot buy engagement. Engagement has to be baked into the product from day one or it's not going to keep people coming back. That's not something you can buy, that's something you must design.
Mistakes in Building Engagement
Jerod Morris: What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see people make when it comes to building engagement where that's really their goal, but they have that leaky bucket like you referenced?
Nir Eyal: Thinking the best product wins. That's the biggest problem. People think, “Oh, if we have the most features, the best product, it's going to be super awesome.” You know, “Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Not so much. The truth is, it's not true. Think about it.
Let's take Google as an example. When I do public talks, I'll often ask a room of a hundred people and I'll say, “How many of you have used Google in the past 24 hours?” Every hand shoots up. And I say, “How many of you have used the number two search engine, Bing, in the past 24 hours?” Maybe one hand in the room out of a hundred people will say they've used Bing.
Why? Is that because Google has such a superior product? No! Turns out in head to head comparisons, third party studies took the search results of Bing versus the search results of Google. They stripped out the branding so that people couldn't tell which search engine results were which, and just based on the search results, it was a 50/50 preference split. People couldn't tell the difference.
And yet, Google owns what percentage? 90%, 95% of the search engine volume. Why? It is nothing more than a habit.
Here's why habits are so incredibly important. When a customer has formed a habit with a product, they don't even give the competition a chance. They don't even ask themselves, “Hm, I wonder who makes the best search engine?”
How many times have you ever asked yourself that? No, you just google it with little or no conscious thought. And that is the tremendous power of having a customer habit — it erects a barrier to entry. It's what Warren Buffett calls a “competitive moat.”
Now, it's not the only competitive moat. You can have intellectual property, you can have brand, you can have economies of scale, lots of potential moats. But habits are one of those moats that keeps the competition out that you can take all the way to the bank.
Building Habits to Maintain Attention
Jerod Morris: Speaking of habits, let's transition and talk about building the habits of maintaining our attention, some of the things that you talk about in Indistractable. We often think about protecting our attention within the framework of battling against external triggers, and that's definitely a part of it.
But in your book Indistractable you actually break the process down into four separate areas of focus: mastering internal triggers, making time for traction, hacking back external triggers, and then preventing distraction with pacts.
Can you just kind of take us…?
Nir Eyal: I love that you said that so effortlessly. God bless you. That’s great. Nicely done.
Jerod Morris: It was, I guess, surprising when I opened up the book, because I really expected it to be more of a focus on, “Okay, how do we deal with these external triggers?” And I loved how you framed it where you begin with the internal part. I thought that was really powerful.
Can you just walk us through those four different sections and how they fit together?
Mastering Internal Triggers
Nir Eyal: Absolutely. Here's the thing. Many of us think that the external triggers are the source of distraction. The pings, the dings, the rings, all of these things in our daily life, that's what we tend to blame. And they certainly play a role. These external triggers can lead us to distraction.
But it turns out in time studies that a much more common source of distraction is not the external trigger. And we can get back to what to do about those external triggers in a minute. The much more common source of distraction is what we call the “internal trigger.”
What is an internal trigger? An internal trigger is an uncomfortable emotional state that we seek to escape from.
You know, 2,500 years ago, Plato talked about how terrible distraction was. 2,500 years before the iPhone that everybody blames for making the world such a distracting place. 2,500 years before that, people were complaining about how distracting the world is. This is not a new problem. Plato called it akrasia — the tendency that we have to do things against our better interests.
So if we're going to answer this question of, “Why don't we do what we say we're going to do especially these days?” Plato could have argued, “I didn't know what to do.” Even your grandparents could have argued, “I want to lose weight, I don't know how. I want to have better relationships, I don't know how. I want to be better at my work, I don't know how.”
We know how. And if you don't know, google it, for God's sake. It's all out there. Who can possibly say they don't know how to lose weight, how to have better relationships, how to be better at your job? How about doing the damn work?
We don't have that excuse anymore. It's all out there. What we don't know how to do is: how do we stop getting distracted? That's the thing that's missing.
So let's back up a second. Let's ask a really fundamental question here. If we're going to answer Plato's question of “Why do we do things against our better interest when we know what to do?” we have to ask ourselves this base level question, this first principles question of, “Wait a minute, why do we do anything? What's the nature of human motivation?”
Now, most people will tell you that human motivation, the reason people do what they do, is about the desire to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Jeremy Bentham, Sigmund Freud, they call this “the pleasure principle.” That everything we do is about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
But we now know that that is not true. We do not do things for carrots and sticks, pleasure and pain. In fact, neurologically speaking, it all boils down to one thing, and that is the desire to escape discomfort. Everything you do, you do for one reason only — and that is the desire to escape discomfort.
You're probably saying, “Wait a minute, but don't I do things to pursue pleasure?” Yes, but go a little layer deeper. You see, even the pursuit of a pleasurable sensation is itself psychologically destabilizing — wanting, craving, desire, lusting. There's a reason we say, “Love hurts,” because the way the brain gets us to act, even if it's in the pursuit of pleasure, is by first making us feel uncomfortable enough to go get whatever it is we want.
Think about this physiologically, in the body. If the brain senses that it's cold outside, it says, “Hey, buddy, it's cold. Put on a jacket. This is uncomfortable. This doesn't feel good. Put on a coat.” If you feel hunger pangs, you eat. If you eat too much, now your brain says, “That doesn't feel good. Oh, now you feel stuffed, stop eating.” Those are physiological sensations.
The same is true for our psychological sensations. So when you feel lonely, check Facebook. When you're uncertain, google. When you're bored, you check ESPN, you check stock prices, you check Reddit, you check Pinterest. The thing everybody's checking now when you feel fearful is the news.
We use these things to help us escape psychological discomfort. So what this means, if all human behavior is prompted by a desire to escape discomfort, that therefore means that time management is pain management.
Let me say that again. Time management is pain management.
It doesn't matter what life hacks you use, what guru’s book you've read. Fundamentally, none of that stuff is going to work if you first and foremost don't address: why is it that when you feel this discomfort you look for escape?
If you don't know how to harness that discomfort in a way that serves you in a healthy manner versus a harmful manner, you will always be distracted by one thing or another.
How to Recognize Discomfort
Jerod Morris: What are some ways, some strategies to recognize that when it happens? Because it seems like it's really important to recognize when you're feeling that discomfort so that before you just jump to whatever the distraction is, you can actually be mindful about, “Hey, I'm feeling this, let me try a different path this time.”
Nir Eyal: This is where we really get into the meat and potatoes of “How do we deal with this?” And, by the way, this is just step one. The first strategy to becoming indistractable is about mastering the internal triggers. And there are dozens of different tactics that you can use.
Of course, it's more important to understand the strategy than the tactics. The tactics are what we do, strategy is why we do it. And so the strategy is the most important part. But let me just give you a very effective technique that comes out of acceptance and commitment therapy.
According to acceptance and commitment therapy… and by the way everything in my book — I hate these self-help books that say, “Get up every morning at four in the morning.” “Why?” “Because that's what I did. It worked for me.” Come on, I need more than that. I want to see peer-reviewed studies. So everything in my book, there are 30 pages of citations. Everything has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. It's actually backed by good science and I use it myself every day.
One of the techniques that I use every day is called “the 10-minute rule.” The 10-minute rule says that you can give in to any distraction in just 10 minutes. Now, whether that distraction is the chocolate cake you know you shouldn't eat, the cigarette you know you shouldn't smoke, checking Facebook or email or WhatsApp or whatever when you know you should be working on that big project — you can give into those things in just 10 minutes of doing what's called “surfing the urge.”
Because, you see, these uncomfortable sensations — anxiety, fatigue, loneliness, stress, whatever it might be — these sensations in the moment, they feel like they're going to last forever. Like, “I have to do something to escape. Give me that pill, give me that booze, give me the news, give me the Facebook, give me the football, give me something to take my mind off of what I'm thinking about right now, because it sucks.” Those kinds of sensations tend to crest and then subside like a wave.
If you can ride that wave like a surfer on a surf board for just 10 minutes, it turns out that 9 times out of 10, when those 10 minutes are up, the wave will have crested and subsided.
What you do — I do this almost every day when I'm working on something difficult and I find myself wanting to get distracted, I feel that internal trigger, instead of reaching for my phone, instead of looking for something to take my mind off of that discomfort, my job is to sit there for 10 minutes and just feel that sensation, whatever it is.
And I have two choices to make. Either I can get back to the task at hand or sit with that sensation. Just, “What's going on in me, where might this come from? What am I feeling exactly? How can I process this in a healthier manner versus reaching for some kind of distraction?” Again, 9 times out of 10, by the time that timer goes off, I’ve forgotten about it and I'm back to work or whatever it is I wanted to do.
By the way, that's just the tip of the iceberg. That's just one technique. We could do about 11 other different things that you could do for this.
What Is Distraction Exactly?
Jerod Morris: But when that timer goes off, then you can essentially reach for the distraction guilt-free, right? Because you've kind of, as you said, you've surfed the feeling and if it doesn't pass, then you can kind of give into it, I guess?
Nir Eyal: You can. The idea here is to learn over time how to be better at this practice of becoming indistractable. So this is actually a good time to talk about — we didn't really address, what is distraction? What are we talking about exactly?
The best way to understand distraction is to understand what is the opposite of distraction. If you think for yourself for a minute, what is the opposite of distraction? Most people will say it's focus, but that's not true.
The opposite of distraction is not focus. The opposite of distraction is traction. If you look at the origin of both words, they both come from the same Latin root trahare, which means “to pull.” And if you look at both words, they both end in the same six letters, ACTION, and that spells “action.”
So traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do, things that you do with intent. The opposite of traction is distraction — any action that pulls you away from what you plan to do.
This is really important for two reasons. Number one, anything can be a distraction. How many times, see if this rings a bell, have you sat down at your desk and you say, “Okay, I'm going to stop procrastinating. I'm going to get to work on that big project. I'm not going to get distracted. Here I go, I'm going to get going, but let me just check email real quick”?
Jerod Morris: That happened to me this morning.
Nir Eyal: Okay, great. Perfect example. This used to happen to me all the time before I started along this line of research. What I didn't realize is that that is the most pernicious form of distraction. It's not Facebook and YouTube, because if you're playing Candy Crush or watching YouTube videos at your desk, okay, you and everyone else knows you're slacking off, it's obvious.
The distraction that's dangerous is the kind that tricks you into prioritizing the urgent at the expense of the important. That's the much more pernicious form of distraction.
Because, again, anything can be a distraction. Just because you think, “Oh, I’ve got to do that at some point. It's productive, it's a worky type task,” if you don't do what it is you said you're going to do principally, that hard project that you're delaying on, that email, which otherwise would be a productive task, has now become a distraction itself. So anything can become a distraction, anything can be traction.
I hate this narrative that we see every day in the media that technology is melting your brain, it's hijacking your brain. It's taking over our lives. BS! It's not true. The data doesn't support it, the studies don't support it. And if anything, it makes things worse, because people believe that rubbish and they stop trying.
There's nothing wrong with watching YouTube videos. There's nothing wrong with enjoying Netflix. There's nothing wrong with watching a football game or going on Facebook, as long as you do it on your schedule, not the media company’s schedule. If you decide when you will do these things, they are by definition traction. And that's why Making Time for Traction is second step of becoming indistractable is all about.
Reimagining the Task
Jerod Morris: In the section on Mastering Internal Triggers, there were a couple others that really stuck out with me that I thought could be especially impactful for our audience here (solopreneurs and freelancers). And those are Reimagining the Task and Reimagining Our Temperaments. Can you unpack those just a little bit?
Nir Eyal: Sure. This might take a while though. Are sure you want to do both?
Jerod Morris: Well, okay. Let's start with Reimagining the Task. Because I think especially for us where sometimes there are repetitive tasks or there are things that we have to do that maybe we don't want to, but it moves the ball forward, I thought this section was really helpful on that.
Nir Eyal: The first step is to reimagine the trigger itself. So that's where we ask ourselves, “How do we deal with that discomfort in a healthier manner?” We talked about one technique, there are a bunch of others.
The next big pillar of what we can do to master internal triggers is to reimagine the task itself. If we can see the task differently, it can become less onerous, less painful. And if it's less painful, we're less likely to seek distraction to take our minds off of that discomfort.
The common wisdom is what Mary Poppins told us, “Add a spoonful of sugar.” If you add a reward to the task, then you'll do it. But, of course, the studies have now found that what's called an extrinsic motivator over time does not work very well, that people learn to cheat, that they still dread the task. And most perniciously, it drains us of creativity when we say, “Oh, if I finish this hard thing, then I can have this thing I want.” It doesn't work over time, because we have this myth that things need to be enjoyable all the time. And that's not necessarily the goal here.
What you can do and I quote from the work of Ian Bogost. He's a professor at Georgia Tech. He's found that there is a way to learn how to play anything. You can learn how to play any task by reimagining that task. Now play, funny enough, doesn't have to be enjoyable. It just has to hold our attention long enough to allow us to complete the task.
Bogost tells us there are two secrets to doing that. Number one, we need to focus more intensely on the task. Not to escape it by cutting the bitter taste of the task with a spoonful of sugar, but by focusing more intently on it, by looking at the nuances, by finding the intricacies of that task.
You say, “Well, how can you do that?” Think about all the things that other people find super engaging, super fascinating, super interesting that you think is super boring. Let me give you some examples.
I have a buddy who loves to work on his car. He's always tinkering with his car. And to me, playing around with an engine and getting all greasy sounds like work. You'd have to pay me to be a mechanic. I don't want to do that.
I have another friend who's really into quilting and she will spend hours quilting. I mean, oh my God, that'd be torture for me.
I have another friend who's super into coffee and he will spend hours meticulously analyzing the single bean origin: “And if you grind it this way and if the water temperature is 185 versus 200…” I mean, the intricacies that they're into seems incredibly boring to me. But they’ve found the fun in it, not necessarily the pleasure, the fun in it.
What we can do with pretty much any task is to learn to find the details. And once we find those details, the ability to play that task opens to us like a blooming flower. So that's the first thing is to look for the intricacies of that task, to focus on it more intensely. Of course, you can't do that unless you have that time to focus on that task, which we can talk about in a bit.
The second thing that we have to do is to look for the variability in that task. We can add variability to a lot of things. We know that variable rewards are at the heart of all kinds of engaging experiences. Whether it's scrolling your Facebook feed or pulling on a slot machine, it's all about the variability. It's uncertainty. That's what keeps us hooked.
And so we can add variability to all kinds of mundane tasks. We can ask ourselves: how long can it take us to do this task? What’s the most efficient way to do it? We can challenge ourselves in various ways.
These are just some tactics we can use to finish mundane tasks that we don't want to do, but for one reason or another find that we have to do.
Making Time for Traction
Jerod Morris: Obviously, you've written a couple books, you're a writer, you blog, you're online. What ways have you found to do that for your online work? Have you found any specific strategies, ways to add variability that might be useful for the folks listening to this?
Nir Eyal: Sure. One of the best things you can do (and this goes into step two of how to become indistractable) is by making time for traction. That’s one of the best things that I did to improve my writing career is to hold aside time in my calendar for that task.
Two-thirds of Americans don't keep any sort of a calendar. And I’ve got to be honest with you, I have no sympathy for someone who says, “I got distracted today.” And then I say, “Well, what did you plan to do with your time?” And they show me their calendar and there's nothing on it, like just blank open time.
If you don't know what you wanted to do with your time, then everything is a distraction. So just by having that time constraint of, “Look, I'm not going to finish this blog post.”
Here's the thing. I used to use a to-do list. And let me bust this myth, because it turns out most people don't understand how evil to-do lists are, because they've bought into this myth that I call “the tyranny of the to-do list.” Because that's how you're supposed to get things done. You keep a to-do list, and then you check off all this stuff in your day and magically the things get done.
It doesn't work. And we all know it doesn't work. I don't know why people don't call bullshit on this. We know this doesn't work. I mean, if you're anything like I used to be, half of the things on my to-do list would get recycled from one day to the next to the next to the next.
Here's the thing, we don't realize what an effect that has on our psyche. If you let that happen, if day after day you see on your to-do list that you didn't finish what you said you're going to do, you are reinforcing an identity of being the kind of person who doesn't finish what they said they're going to do. “You don't live with personal integrity. Loser!”
And so that repeats day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and we start believing it. Because here's the fatal flaw with to-do lists — with the to-do list, it's nothing more than a list of outputs. But, of course, every output needs an input. And that's why to-do lists are fatally flawed.
Now to-do lists are great when they're very temporary repositories between your head and your calendar. But if that to-do is not on your calendar, it’s not going to get done. It has to have a place on your calendar, because that is the only way to know the difference between traction and distraction throughout your day.
That constraint of planning out when you are going to do certain tasks, even if it's for a short period of time — here's the mind shift.
You see, when people keep a to-do list, it's all about finishing. But the research shows us that people are horrible at predicting how long a task takes them to finish. On average, the average person underestimates how long a task will take them by 300%. The average task takes three times longer than you predict it will.
That's why that list of things to finish doesn't work, because we're horrible at predicting how long something will take us to do. Instead of keeping this list of “Finish this, finish this, finish this,” which we know doesn't really work, what we do instead is we put that time on our calendar and our only goal now is to not finish anything.
What do I mean, “Not finish anything?” When am I ever going to have anything done?
The goal is to not finish the task. The goal is to work on that task for as long as you said you would without distraction. So for that timebox, all you have to do is say, “I'm going to work on that task, and I'm going to write this blog post, I'm going to start working on this project, whatever it might be. I'm going to work on it without distraction for as long as I said I would.”
It turns out that people who use that technique are actually much more productive at finishing stuff than people who use the standard to-do list technique.
Jerod Morris: Ironic how that works out, isn't it?
Nir Eyal: Yeah, exactly.
Block Out Time for the Fun Stuff
Jerod Morris: As we link this to external triggers, because a lot of the external triggers that people talk about — social media, email, being online, a lot of this stuff — these are things that our folks, we work online, like we have to be there. So eliminating them is not possible. And, as you've talked about, it's not even necessary. Those tools have benefits.
So is one way to do that, like when you talk about using a calendar and scheduling out your time, should there be a block on there to go in and do email? Should there be a block in there to go in and manage social media? Is that one way to make sure that you're being intentional with your time so these external triggers aren't just yanking you out of traction?
Nir Eyal: That's exactly right. Because remember, every distraction only has three causes, one of three causes. It's either an internal trigger, which is the number one source. It's boredom, anxiety, uncertainty, fatigue, loneliness, something going on inside of us that we want to escape. And so we can have a toolkit ready to deal with that discomfort in a healthier way.
The second reason is an external trigger — a ping, a ding, a ring. And so there are things we can do to hack back those external triggers. We can talk about a few of those in a minute.
Then the third reason is a planning problem. You plan to do something and one thing took you longer than you expected or you expected to go to that meeting and yet you got stuck in traffic. Well, you could plan to leave a little earlier next time.
The idea behind becoming indistractable is not that you never get distracted. Okay, that's not the goal. We will all become distracted from time to time. The idea here is that when you get distracted, you know why and you do something about it.
It's like the great Paulo Coelho quote who said, “A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.” If you keep getting distracted by the same crap again and again and again, you are deciding to be distractable.
As opposed to when you say, “Okay, now I know why I got distracted. Let me fix something in my calendar for next week.” The idea is not to be a drill sergeant, the idea is to be a scientist. So you look at that calendar, it takes 15 minutes a week. I'll give you a link later on for the show notes where you can make your own calendar like this. Very easy.
I built a tool (you don't have to sign up for anything, it's totally free) where you can plan out your day, so that now for the first time, for every minute of your day, you know exactly what it is you're supposed to be doing versus everything else that's a distraction, even the fun stuff. I don't want you to just plan the productive stuff. I don't want you to just work all day. You're not a robot. I want you to plan the time for the fun stuff as well.
Because here's the problem with how most people work, particularly people who keep long to-do lists without keeping that calendar — I used to do this all the time. I would come home from work. I still hadn't finished all this stuff on my to-do list and all I wanted to do…I was exhausted. I just want to watch some Netflix. I just want to chill, I just want to relax, I want to play with my kid. And yet, because I didn't finish all that stuff on my to-do list, even when I'm supposed to be having fun, in the back of my head, there's all this stuff I should be doing.
Whereas opposed to when you use a timebox calendar, now I have time in my calendar to do exactly the thing I want to do. I mean, it literally says on my calendar, “Social media time” when I can putz around on Facebook and YouTube to my heart's content for as long as I said I would.
And if I get an email and I start checking work email, that is the distraction now. Because what I wanted to do is to have fun on Facebook, which is totally fine because I'm using it on my schedule, not the app makers, not the media companies.
How to Get Started
Jerod Morris: Obviously, you've had a lot of experience with people who have read your book who have put these strategies into place. I would imagine that mental shift from people who do use to-do lists or maybe don't do anything to get used to this timeboxing with a calendar that has to be a difficult shift for some people to make.
What are some common pitfalls that people come up against when they're trying to do that? And how long is reasonable to expect for that to feel comfortable, for that to start to become a habit?
Nir Eyal: So it never becomes a habit, because the definition of a habit is a behavior done with little or no conscious thought. And it's not a habit, it's a routine.
Jerod Morris: Good distinction.
Nir Eyal: Yeah, this is really important, because I think today a lot of people think everything can become a habit and it can't. The definition of a habit is a behavior done with little or no conscious thought.
I don't know about you, when I'm writing an article, writing’s fricking hard. I've written hundreds of articles, two books. It never gets easy. It's never something I do with little or no conscious thought. It's hard fricking work.
I think the problem is that when we think that, “Oh, it needs to be a habit. It needs to be effortless, kind of like driving a car.” Eventually, it does become a habit, because you can drive a car with little or no conscious thought.
The problem is when we think that, and it's not easy, we think we're doing it wrong or that we're dysfunctional or that's something's wrong with us. And it's not a habit, it's a routine. A routine is just a series of behaviors frequently repeated.
So the idea to your question of, “How do you get started? How do you start small? This seems like a lot of work.” How about you start with one day a week, maybe even a weekend? How can you live out your values this weekend?
I give this model in the book of these three life domains. You've got you at the center, your relationships, and then your work. With those three life domains, first is you. If you can't take care of yourself, you can't take care of others.
So ask yourself: what are your values when it comes to yourself? Values or attributes of the person you want to become? How does the person you want to become spend their time? How much of their time do they spend on these various tasks?
Now, I'm not telling you what you should do with your time. I'm not even telling you what your values should be. If your values include taking care of your body, your mental, physical health, do you have time in your calendar for exercise? Do you have time for proper nutrition, proper rest? How many parents tell their kids to go to bed on time, because they have a bedtime, but they're complete hypocrites because they don't have a bedtime?
So, are you taking care of yourself? Do you have that time in your calendar, your relationships?
In this country, we are going through a loneliness epidemic. And this didn't start with the internet, this didn't start with Facebook. It started back in the 1990s. Robert Putnam wrote a book about this in the early ‘90s called Bowling Alone that documented how in this country, the institutions that people used to participate in — the bowling league, the key club, the church group — the things that held time in our calendars are gone. They're disappearing. We don't do this stuff anymore.
How many times have you told a friend, “We should get coffee sometime”? Yeah, like that happens. You have to hold that time with your friends as well. Plan that out. You can be spontaneous from time to time, but if somebody is really important to you in your life, plan that time, invest in that relationship. Whether it's your friends, your kids, your spouse, hold that time for them and keep it sacred.
And then finally, your work. We have these two work types. We have what's called “reflective work” and “reactive work.” Reactive work is the emails, the meetings, the phone calls, the stuff we have to react to. And that's part of pretty much everyone's job these days.
But what's also a part of most people's jobs, certainly everyone listening today, is also reflective work. Reflective work is where the strategic planning happens, where the long-term goal setting happens, where the hard problem solving happens. All that stuff happens not while you're responding to email and answering phone calls. It happens when you have time to think without distraction.
Now, some jobs are 100% reactive. If you work in a call center, your job is to pick up the phone whenever the phone rings and react to that phone call. That's all you do all day. Nobody listening to me today works, I don't think, in a call center (maybe somebody does). But I'm guessing everybody listening to me has at least a big chunk of their day that requires them to reflect. And yet, so many of us work like we work in a call center. All day long it's emails, phone calls, meetings, and we do not protect our time to think.
What I would suggest is start with one day, okay, maybe one weekend. What would that ideal day look like for you? Then maybe expand it to a couple of days a week, maybe a work day until you look at that seven-day calendar. Literally, this exercise, and for all the time that people spend moaning and complaining and whining about how distracted they are, and making five-year plans and vision boards and regrets of dying — it would take them 15 minutes to make a one-week calendar for the week ahead.
Once you have that template, you have a physical manifestation, you can see what your calendar for the week ahead looks like. And then your job is to adjust that calendar from week to week. So the week ahead, now you have that time on your calendar. I have 50 minutes every Sunday where I look at my calendar and I say, “Okay, you know what? I really need more time for emails. Let me adjust that. Or you know what? I don't need so many meetings. Let me adjust that for the next week. Or I don't need so much time for writing. Or I need more time with my daughter.”
Whatever the case might be, I'm going to adjust that week to week like a scientist to figure out how to make that calendar easier to follow week after week. This doesn't have to be perfect. You're not a drill sergeant. It's about learning over time how to improve your efforts to become indistractable.
Jerod Morris: I would imagine as people do that for the first time or the second time and you're talking about defining your values and figuring out how you're going to manage this time, that can probably be uncomfortable if you haven't done it. And you have to maybe face the fact that like, “Man, I haven't really defined these things yet.”
And that, to tie this back to the earlier part of the conversation, is where you want to surf that feeling and kind of feel that discomfort. And then you said, you wait 10 minutes, but then hopefully, you can feel that discomfort and then move forward and do your best anyway and get better as you go.
Nir Eyal: So that's what you do in the moment. But if you haven't planned that time, then it's not going to work. You have to first know what is traction, what is distraction for every moment of your day.
What I found is that for most people it's incredibly empowering. I'm guessing everyone listening to me right now, I doubt that many people have ever experienced how good it feels to come home from work and say, “I can watch Netflix without guilt. I can play with my kids without thinking I'm supposed to be doing something else right now. Because you see on my calendar, that's exactly what I plan to do.”
That freedom, you don't know how sweet that is. It is awesome to do that stuff without guilt of, “I'm supposed to be somewhere. Somebody needs me, their email’s waiting for me.” Because you know, “I'm going to get to that. I've got time on my calendar where I will get back to those tasks.”
The Power of Pre-Commitments and Pacts
Jerod Morris: Yeah, so the fourth section in the book, you talk about the power of pre-commitments and pacts. I'm curious how you think that could be applied in a group setting, like our community or specifically maybe with accountability groups to actually help us become indistractable. Or if you think trying to do that is more of a distraction than it would be worth it, and if this should be more of a personal type thing?
Nir Eyal: Sure. Let me explain what these pre-commitments and pacts are for the folks who haven't read that section yet. A pre-commitment is when we make a decision in advance to prevent us from getting distracted. It's the fourth and final step. It's the firewall to make sure you don't get distracted.
You have to do the other steps first. This will not work if you don't first master the internal triggers, make time for traction. And we skipped the third step of hacking back the external triggers. That's very important too.
The fourth and final step is to have this firewall from distraction to make sure that you don't get distracted when the time comes. You can make these pacts, these pre-commitments. And there are three types of pacts.
There's what's called an effort pact, a price pact and an identity pact. And they all involve making some kind of pre-commitment with yourself or with somebody else. Having a group, having some kind of social reinforcement to keeping a pact could be very, very effective. I talk about in the book a few examples of this.
One is I talk about how you can engage other people to keep you on track. So if you can work next to somebody and say, “Look, we are both going to do our focus work. We're both going to do our reflective task right now for an hour, 30 minutes,” however much time you want to spend. “Okay, let's do that, let's keep each other accountable. Go!”
If you can't do that in person, it turns out Technology to the Rescue has actually a wonderful website called focusmate.com that I love so much, I actually invested in the company. This is a wonderful product.
You just go to focusmate.com. You find a time when you need to do focused work for, and you book that time. And then you'll be matched with somebody who has the same objective at the same time that you do, and you see them, they see you. Your job is to just work on that task at hand without distraction. And if you're late, they'll give you a bad review, so you better show up.
It's really a great site for people like me who have trouble getting started in the morning. If you're the kind of person who says, “I'm going to wake up bright and early and work on that big project,” but then 15, 20 minutes, 30 minutes later, you're not doing it — this is a wonderful way to keep you on task. So you can set that up with a friend as well. You can use these amazing technologies, like Skype, like Zoom, to do something similar.
Then another thing that you can do is called a price pact. A price pact is when there's some kind of monetary disincentive to get distracted. So for me, I spent about four years researching this book, and then finally it was time to write. I had to get the words down and actually crank it out.
And I made a bet with my friend Mark. He sat right here next to me and we made this bet that if I didn't finish the manuscript by January 1st, that I would have to pay him $10,000. Like that would really hurt, I did not want to pay him the 10,000. And of course, I didn't. I didn't need to enroll in some fancy writers program, some seminar where I'd have to pay thousands of dollars. All I had to do was finish my goddamn work. And if I finished it, I didn't have to pay my $10,000. So I got my manuscript and I kept my money.
Entering into those price pacts, now, people don't like it. It's funny, because many people are like, “Ooh, that's so scary. I'm not sure if I want to do it.” They'll pay some guru to teach them how to do the work so that they can avoid having to do it. Like, “Let me go attend a writers’ retreat to teach me how to do it,” as opposed to, “Let me just do the goddamn work and put this money up in case I don't to incentivize me to finish it.” And it turns out that that technique can be very effective and save you a ton of money.
Jerod Morris: Yeah, but as you said, it's really important to master the internal triggers and make time for traction and then hack back the external triggers first before you get to that.
Nir Eyal: Got to do those first. Because remember, the fourth step is the failsafe, it's the last resort. If you're not equipped to deal emotionally with those internal triggers, you're going to fail. If you don't make that time on your calendar by turning your values into time, you're going to fail. If you have constant pings and dings around you, you're going to go off track. So you've got to do those three things first.
Then the fourth step is the last resort, the final step to make sure you do what you say you're going to do.
How to Make Email Work for Us
Jerod Morris: So in that third section where you talk about mastering the external triggers, we probably could have done a five-hour session going through each one of those. And obviously, we don't have time to do that.
The one that I would love to focus on is email. I write a newsletter called The Thinkers Roundup, and actually this week's newsletter is about email and I use that section as the inspiration for it. I kind of took five steps out of there.
I really like how you reframe email, how we need to view email to reduce it. Can you talk a little bit about how, because email is something that it's a necessary evil, but it's something that we all have to do and it has some benefits. How do we make email work for us and for the people that we're sending email to?
Nir Eyal: There's a basic math equation to email. If you want to spend less time on email, you have to send fewer emails in a given period of time. It makes very common sense. And yet people don't understand this. The way I know people don't understand this is that people feel like, as their email inbox fills up, they’ve got to get it out, got to get it out. Like whatever's there, just get it out of there.
It's my to-do list — that if I tick things off, I can feel productive. They're using email as a validation to get rid of that feeling of, “Oh, I don't know what to do,” or “How am I productive?”
Again, it's going back to those internal triggers of escaping some kind of uncomfortable sensation. If I don't really want to work on the big project, I'm fearful about what to do, I'm anxious about my business, email is there to the rescue.
So we have to understand first and foremost that if you want to receive fewer emails in a given period of time, you have to send fewer emails in a given period of time. How do you do that?
Well, there's a very simple tactic that involves using labels. The problem with email, where we waste the most time time studies have found — the most wasted time on email is not the checking, it's not the replying, it's the re-checking. You open an email, you read it, you put it away. You open it again, you read it, you put it away. “What was that email? What did it say again? When does it need a reply?” Okay, you put it away: “I’ll get to it later.”
That's where we waste the most time on email. So, instead, there's a new rule I want you to adopt. Every email you get, you're going to touch twice. You're only going to touch twice. The first time you receive that email, you have one job. That job is to ask yourself, “When does this email need a reply? When does it need a reply?” Either it never needs a reply, in which case delete it or archive it. Or it needs a reply right now, “Oh my God, hair on fire. You have to reply right this second.”
That's about 1% of emails, almost never. If your house is on fire, they're not going to send you an email saying, “Oh, when you get a chance, your house is on fire.” They're going to call or text you. So that almost never happens.
Then the rest of the emails fall into two categories: emails that need a reply today or emails that can wait for some time this week. Today or sometime this week. So what I want you to do when you receive an email, read that email the first time you touch it and ask yourself, “When does it need a reply?”
If it needs a reply today, you use the labeling function. Every email program does this, whether you use Outlook or Gmail. If you don't know how, google how to do that. You label the email as “Today.” If the email needs a reply sometime this week, it can wait a little while, mark it as “This week.”
And then back to step two that we talked about earlier about making time for traction, I want you to put time in your calendar to reply only to today's emails. By the way, if you're the kind of person who gets a lot of emails throughout your day, that's fine. You can have several times in your day. “Okay, I'm going to check email for 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes in the afternoon and 30 minutes at night.” Fine, that's fine.
But have that time set aside, so that you know, “When I have these today emails, these ones that are genuinely urgent, I know exactly when I'm going to reply to them.” It's not going to be all day catch as catch can.
But then you say to yourself, “Okay, well, where do I save the time? It doesn't seem like I've saved any time. I still have to get back to all those emails I need to reply to this week.”
Here's what happens — this is like Harry Potter magic. When you label an email as something that can wait a little while, something that can wait sometime this week, what I want you to do is to set time aside in your calendar for a big block of time.
Okay, so for me, it's called Message Mondays. I have three hours when I'm going to go through all those emails that accumulated that can be replied to sometime this week.
Now, here's the magic. When you let emails wait, when you don't reply to emails based on whatever's at the top of your inbox, but instead you're systematic about thinking to yourself, “When does it need a reply?” and the only other time you touch the email is to reply to it in that timebox period of time in your schedule, you will find that about half of those emails that you thought you needed to reply to, you don't need to reply to anymore.
Why? Because people figured out their own crap. The issue that was so burning back then, it turns out got crushed under the weight of some other priority. You will find about half of those emails people figured out how to do their own stuff so that you don't need to get involved in the first place.
Having those emails that can wait a little while allows them to marinate and allows many of them to evaporate from actually getting a reply at all.
So we label our emails by the ones, “I need to reply to today.” We reply to those during certain times of the day that we've pre-proportioned for that task. And then we let the emails that can wait a little while, and only reply to them on our time in our calendar that is for that task of replying to those weekly emails.
So every week you're essentially replying to anyone who actually does need a reply.
How to Manage Traction and Distraction on Long-Term Projects
Jerod Morris: You've been extremely generous with your time. I know we only have about five, six minutes left, and I did want to get to this question. One of the folks who is here live asked this question, and it refers back to something that we talked about earlier.
This is from Mish, and she says, “Any suggestions for managing traction, distraction on longer term big projects, which require focus and attention when the rewards aren't necessarily in sight?” Something that's not going to fit into a single timebox or is really going to take over the long-term.
Nir Eyal: So let me tell you how I started writing my book. I put in my calendar, because this is what the gurus tell you to do to get things done — “Finish book in my to-do list.”
Jerod Morris: That's simple, huh?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. All right, it doesn't work. What you have to do instead, if that's one of your values, and writing a book is definitely one of those tasks that requires reflective work, you have to have that time in your calendar book.
What I would recommend for this person is to sit down and say, “How much time does this task require to live out my values of working on that task? How important is it to me? How valuable is it to my life?” Putting that time on the calendar.
For me, to write a book took me a really long time, but it went a lot faster when I learned this technique of saying, “Look, I'm going to work on this book for two hours every morning. From 9:30 to 11:30, that's when I'm going to it. I'm just going to work on that task without distraction. That's my only job.”
Now, when I did that for a week, two weeks, I could start gauging my progress and saying, “Hm, okay, two hours of writing yields more or less about three or four pages. So what is that going to track out to in terms of this long-term goal?” Maybe I need to add some time, maybe it's too much time. And then I'm going to adjust it in the week ahead.
It's as simple as that. It's about taking a guess, so a hypothesis: “How much time would I think I need for this task?” Putting it on your calendar, working on that task, no matter how big that task is without distraction for that period of time. And then reassessing week after week, “Do I need more or do I need less?”
How to Teach Children to Be Indistractable
Jerod Morris: For my last question for you, Nir, I actually want to step out of the context of work and actually talk to you Dad to Dad from a parenting perspective a little bit, because you have a great section in the book about that.
I have a three-year-old daughter and one of the things that my wife and I have really tried to be intentional about is helping protect her attention, because it's so easy for kids to get distracted.
What are one or two of the most important things you can do as a parent to help make sure that your child grows up with some of these mentalities in mind?
Nir Eyal: Yeah, bravo to you for recognizing that you have to arm your child with the skillset. If you think the world is distracting now, just wait a few years. I mean, with augmented reality and virtual reality and God knows whatever else is coming down the pipes, the world is only going to become a more distracting place. So it is absolutely imperative that we teach our kids how to be indistractable.
The number one way to teach your kid how to be indistractable is to be indistractable yourself. You see, kids come with these little detectors called hypocrisy detection devices, and they are constantly looking for how you screw up and how you are not acting according to what you are telling them to do. So you cannot tell your kids, “Stop playing Fortnite,” while you're checking Facebook. It doesn't work that way. You have got to become indistractable yourself.
Then in the book, I teach you how to raise indistractable kids by simply going through these four steps with your child. What are the internal triggers? How can we help children deal with that discomfort that leads them to look for a distraction? How can we help them keep a schedule that includes, believe it or not, time for screens? There's nothing wrong with two hours or less of extracurricular screen time.
Not even one study shows that for anyone older than two years of age, two hours or less is totally fine as long as age appropriate, of course. That doesn't have any deleterious effects. So how can we involve the child in helping them make these kinds of guidelines for themselves?
I talk about in the book how I did this with my own daughter starting at just five years old. Then removing the external triggers. I get this question all the time from parents: how do I know my kid is ready for a particular technology? A child is ready for a technology when they know how to turn it off.
So it's just like a swimming pool. I'm not going to let a kid jump into a swimming pool without having lessons in terms of how to swim. That would be negligent. I have to know that, “Can you show me you know how to use this in a healthy manner? When you come to the dinner table, do you bring your phone? That's not using it in a healthy manner. At night, can you turn it off when you're doing your homework? If not, you don't know how to use it in a healthy manner.” So you have to demonstrate that you can use it in a way that they can remove those external triggers.
Another really low hanging fruit, no technology in the bedroom. Do yourself a favor, whether it's phones or laptops, iPads, televisions, none of that stuff should be in the bedroom. Why? Because the most important thing that you can do for your kids' mental health is to let them get enough sleep. So anything that boops or beeps at night that interrupts sleep should not be in a kid's bedroom, including the old technologies like radio and television. Kids don't need TVs in their room. It's not necessary. It can only distract them at night when they need their precious sleep.
That's all about removing those external triggers. Of course, there's a lot, lot more in that chapter in terms of what's going on in terms of their psychological well-being. I dive into the deeper reason why kids are really distracted these days. And for most parents, it’s going to be very surprising. It's not the technology, it's what's called “psychological nutrients.” I think most kids in this country are deficient in these psychological nutrients, and they are looking for them online when they don't get them offline.
Where Can We Find You?
Jerod Morris: Yeah, Nir, this has been wonderful, incredibly insightful. Your website is nirandfar.com. Tons of good resources there. And I've also enjoyed following you on Twitter too. I believe your Twitter is just your name, right? NirEyal?
Nir Eyal: That's right.
Jerod Morris: So those are two great places to connect. Are there any other places that you want to direct people to, if they want to learn more?
Nir Eyal: Yeah, so if you go to nirandfar.com again, my name is spelled Nir, so it's a pun on my name, nirandfar.com. There's an 80-page workbook that you can get there. It's complimentary. It'll help you get on this journey to becoming indistractable. We couldn't fit into the final edition of the book, so it's there for you for free.
If you do end up getting the book, whether it's the Audible audio book edition, the hardcover or the paperback, the ebook, it doesn't matter. Keep your order number. When you get the order number from Amazon or from your local bookseller, if you go to indistractable.com, there's a complimentary video course that you can get there totally free. If you get the book, make sure you keep that order number so you can get that free course as well.
And there are tons of resources and tools and all kinds of stuff that you can download there for free.
Jerod Morris: Awesome. Nir, thank you so much for joining us here at the Unemployable Initiative. Really appreciate it, this was fantastic.
Nir Eyal: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
Jerod Morris: Cool, thank you. All right, thanks everybody who is here live. Really appreciate it. And I'll talk to you guys soon on the next guest lecture here inside the Unemployable Initiative.
Thank you, Nir, that was great.
Nir Eyal: All right, my pleasure. Thank you so much. That was fun. And I'll send you a couple of links. I know we talked about a couple of things that maybe you want to include. You're going to post the recording as well, right?
Jerod Morris: Yes, we're going to post the recording and we are actually going to post this on the podcast as well. So the recording will be private just for our community members, and the podcast will be public for everybody else to listen to.
Nir Eyal: I'll send you this in a few minutes here, all this other links and stuff that might be helpful to you.
Jerod Morris: Yeah, that'd be great. I appreciate that.
Nir Eyal: All right, buddy. Thank you so much, my pleasure.
Jerod Morris: Excellent. Thank you. Take care.