#176: Why Technology Isn’t the Reason You're Distracted with Nir Eyal
#176: Why Technology Isn’t the Reason You're Distracted with Nir Eyal
Ever blame your unproductive day on too many emails, Slacks, and phone calls? Us too. But on this never-before-released episode of Seeking Wisdom, author, investor and lecturer, Nir Eyal, debunks the myth of technology’s influence on distraction. Because it’s not the technology’s fault you’re distracted – it’s you wanting to be distracted.
DC and Nir talk about Nir's background in advertising and gaming, what he's learned from writing two books (Indistractible and Hooked), and why anything that you do that you don't PLAN to do is a distraction.
DC: Before we get to the show, did you know you can get more insights just like the ones you're listening to right now on Seeking Wisdom delivered right to your inbox. Sign up to get my weekly newsletter. It's called, The One Thing at drift. com/ dc. What's going on? It's DC here. I'm here to tell you about an exciting episode of Seeking Wisdom that we've never before released. And this episode is with Nir Eyal. Now, Nir Eyal is an Israeli born American author. He's a lecturer and investor. He's got this amazing best- selling book that I loved and have given away to so many people. It's called, Hooked, and it's about how do you build habit forming products? He's also written a book called, Indistractable and How to Take Control of Attention. He's amazing. And I spoke to him in person at Hypergrowth 2019, right? Hypergrowth is our conference, happens every year and it's on its way back. So stay tuned. In this episode, we're going to talk about growth, engagement, monetization, all of that stuff. If you're a product founder, if you're someone from a marketing background who cares about this stuff, this is going to blow your mind. And we're going to talk about how you minimize distractions. How you get away from Slack and email and all that stuff. So that's something that everyone can learn from. So I am excited for you to finally listen to this episode that we've kept deep in the crates. Remember six star only certified podcast, see you. Thank you for joining us. I'm obsessed. We have a book club at Drift, and one of the books that we gave out is your previous book called, Hooked and that one's been a big one for us. But now you've written this new book. What made you shift from a very domain specific, I think almost like techie growth loop mind, to more general?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. Yeah. So Hooked was really written for the person who is building a habit forming product. It's about how to build healthy habits in user's lives because I really think that for so many businesses, they are so dependent. Their business model depends on repeat engagement. And so when I started to uncover some of the deeper psychology behind how products are designed to bring people back, I wanted to democratize those techniques. I wanted everyone to know how Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and Slack, how they are designed to bring us back so that we can all use those techniques for good and democratize those techniques. But of course, the question I kept getting asked is, okay, so you taught people how to build good habits, what about the bad habits? And so that's where, Indistractable, came from.
DC: What got you into that world to be able to write Hooked in the first place? Because it was so inside-
Nir Eyal: Yeah, I started two tech companies.
Nir Eyal: The last of which was at the intersection of gaming and advertising and I had this front row seat to see how these companies would come and go and some of them would be really successful and others would peter out solely based on the engagement of their users. We talk a lot about growth, and growth is very important, but it's only one of three legs of the stool. You need growth, you need engagement and you need monetization. And so I saw a lot out there about growth, but I didn't see a lot around engagement. And the thing about engagement is that you can't buy engagement. You can buy growth. But if you buy a lot of growth with advertising and a lot of campaigns to buy users, if you can't keep them around, you're a leaky bucket. Just users come in and they all fall out. And so it was imperative, I believe, to build the products that not only can grow the user base, but also can retain them. If you want to grow your business, you have to figure out ways to keep people coming back.
DC: That company that you had, where you discovered that, that was called, Ad Nectar, is that right?
Nir Eyal: Right. Right.
DC: That's funny because a common friend of yours, Jules, was telling me about that and he was like," Oh, there's this company I know." I was like," I totally remember that company." Because I had a company at the same time in the same space. It was called Lookery.
Nir Eyal: Yeah.
DC: We did social gaming.
Nir Eyal: Totally, totally. We had a very common experience then. Yeah, I remember that.
DC: Yeah. So that's where I started to see firsthand some of these patterns, but then I had seen no one write about them. They were like these secret patterns from certain people inaudible and other people and then no one wrote about it in general. That's why I was fascinated when your book came out.
Nir Eyal: Yeah. Yeah. I mean the idea, I didn't invent these techniques, they were being used. But they were being used by companies saying, well, that's what our competition does, or that's what we did last time, without a real base understanding of why these things actually work. And so I didn't, a lot of these techniques were used by the gaming companies, by advertisers, by social networks. But I figured, what if we could use these techniques to help people exercise more and save money and be more productive at work. And that's exactly what's happened in the past five years since I wrote Hooked, that thousands of companies have used these very same techniques to build healthy habits.
DC: So you, if you go back in time, you grew up in Israel and you immigrated to the US?
Nir Eyal: No, actually, I grew up in Orlando, Florida.
DC: Orlando, Florida. It's nothing like Israel.
Nir Eyal: Noting like Israel. I left when I was three years old.
DC: Oh, three years old. Okay, yeah. What led you from Israel to Orlando, Florida?
Nir Eyal: My parents pursued the American dream and Orlando had really good schools and it was relatively close to Israel versus California or west coast.
DC: Weather wise.
Nir Eyal: Weather wise, it's not crosstalk Yeah. And yeah, then I went to school in Atlanta and then migrated up to New York. And then from New York, moved to California for business school.
DC: I always say that I want to do a book one day, or a documentary, just to figure out, because my parents immigrated here as well to the US, the immigration patterns. Because sometimes, you'll just talk to someone who will go from somewhere totally different to the middle of the country, small town, and I can never figure out, what is the story that got someone from someplace in Africa, all the way to someplace in Mississippi?
Nir Eyal: Where did your parents immigrate from?
DC: My mom immigrated from Ecuador and my dad from Puerto Rico. And then, they met in New York City.
Nir Eyal: And you grew up there?
DC: Yeah, I grew up there. And so, yeah, it's just a fascinating passage. So if you think about your latest book, Indistractable, which I'm listening to on Audible, what led you there? I get the patterns of the reversing it, but what made you want to write another book?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. So for me, it was really a personal need that in my life, when I wrote Hooked, I didn't have many people calling me. I wasn't very busy. I wasn't, nobody heard of me. And when the book started to succeed, we've sold a quarter million copies now of Hooked.
DC: What, really?
Nir Eyal: Yeah.
DC: That's amazing.
Nir Eyal: So somehow it went, I wrote it for people who are making habit forming products and I self published it at first and I thought, okay, this would be a few thousand people would buy it. Somehow, it reached a wider audience of people outside of tech, who were interested in it, as well. Then I started getting a lot of phone calls. I started getting a lot of consulting engagements and speaking engagements. And suddenly, the one thing that had made me successful, the research and the writing, now was crowded out by all these other opportunities, which was great. But what I really love to do and what I missed doing, was writing. And so I would sit down at my desk and I'd say, okay, now I'm going to write and I would get distracted. I would check email. I would Google something. I would constantly get distracted.
DC: Falling into the same patterns that you wrote about?
Nir Eyal: Well, no, that's when I started writing.
DC: Okay. Okay, got you.
Nir Eyal: Not so much, so Hooked is really about healthy habits. So, I don't think I really succumbed to these bad habits that you typically think of like social media or gaming. But I tell you what, email is a constant distraction, still can be a constant distraction. And that's, I think something that's very, very important that people think of distraction, they only think of the obvious stuff. They think about social media and video games, but I would argue that anything that is not what you plan to do with your time, is a distraction. And those distractions are actually more sinister because we think to ourselves, oh, I'm just checking email. That's kind of, I need to do that anyway. But if it's not what you plan to do with your time, it is a distraction.
DC: What are the habits that you form yourself now? And I know that for me, I constantly have to reevaluate my habits and change them over time and figure out what sticks and what doesn't. But what are the habits now that you have that help you with this distraction?
Nir Eyal: Yeah. So Indistractable is a very systematic approach to dealing with distractions, four parts, and it took me five years to write this book, because there's so much folk psychology and misinformation out there on how to manage distraction and procrastination and focus. And one of the biggest myths is that the technology is the problem and I don't agree at all. Technology is the tool. The thing is, we don't know how to use the technology. Or many times it's misused on us. Meaning that one of the most important chapters in the book is this chapter on workplace culture. And what I found was that distraction in the workplace is a symptom of dysfunctional company culture. And when companies have a healthy workplace culture, distraction is a problem that people can talk about. So the real problem is that we can't talk about the problem of distraction. And so with companies like Slack, for example, Slack is a company I profiled in the book. They don't have a problem with tech distraction, even though you would think, look, Slack is-
DC: The epitome.
Nir Eyal: ...Yeah, everyone complains that Slack is distracting us, but if you go to Slack, they should be the most distracted people on earth. They're not.
DC: Why is that?
Nir Eyal: Because of three things. So number one, they have a culture of psychological safety.
Nir Eyal: And psychological safety is this tenent where people can talk about their problems without fear of getting fired. So that's the first criteria. People can raise their hand and say," Hey boss, this isn't working for me. Can we talk about this?" And it turns out, that that is a very important trait. If you look at corporate malfeasance from the airline, the 737 disaster to Enron, there's always people who knew about the problem, but didn't want to talk because they were afraid of getting fired. So when we look at distraction as a problem, like let any other, when we open the ability of employees to talk about their problems without fear of retribution, we can fix the problem of distraction. So that's number one. Number two is that they have a forum to talk about the problem. So many companies, they don't give people a place to talk about their concerns. So with Slack, it's interesting, they actually use Slack channels.
DC: To do it?
Nir Eyal: To do it, right. They have this one Slack channel called, Beef Tweets, where you can post anything, any beef you have with the company.
DC: I love that, yeah.
Nir Eyal: And so that's number two. Then number three and most importantly, is that the company management needs to exemplify what it means to be Indistractable. That culture flows downhill. And so if management is always on, always connected, always pinging and dinging people, well then this drives people crazy. And in fact, it's been shown to lead to even more distraction. We know that about half of the emails that you send and receive every day, you did not need to send and receive. We've all seen these superfluous meetings that people call. So we think about, just the technology distracting us, but in actuality between the emails and the meetings all day, the average knowledge worker only has about an hour and a half all day to do anything but meetings and emails. And so that constant reacting is taking a toll on our ability to reflect, but it's only through reflection that we actually solve our difficult problems. We need time to think. And so when a company can promote this Indistractable environment from the top down, that's really where we start to see things take hold. And in fact, if you go into Slack headquarters, you will see a big sign in pink neon letters that says, work hard and go home.
DC: I love that.
Nir Eyal: It actually says that on the company walls, because everybody at the company from Stewart Butterfield on down, believes in this principle that when we're at work, we're going to work more than at home.
DC: crosstalk Leave. Yeah, I love that. And if you were creating a company, if you were back creating a company, how do you think you would encourage creating this psychological safety into a company?
Nir Eyal: So it really comes from walking the walk, not just talking the talk. You can say, oh please, we want your feedback. But if people notice that people who speak their minds are fired or treated differently, then that's it. So there's a lot of literature out there. Google did this seminal study on psychological safety. And they found that actually the teams that perform best, were not. We're constantly told this myth, I think in the startup community, that A player's-
DC: Totally. Totally.
Nir Eyal: ...That oh, it's about getting the best people there. And it's good. You should get good people. But here's the thing. That's not the most important trait. What Google found was it wasn't the best people that had the best teams, it was the teams that had psychological safety to talk about their problems. Those were the people who did best on a team basis. And so that's, it's an incredibly important trait.
DC: After selling a quarter of a million books with Hooked, what led you to want to write another book. Because to me, I've written one and it seems incredibly painful.
Nir Eyal: I really like it. I mean, I write books when I read everyone else's book on the topic and they don't satisfy me. They don't answer my problem. So I read every book about building engaging products, but they didn't nail it for me. There was a lot of books out there about how to build personal habits. There was a lot of books about how to build product, but there wasn't a book about how to build habit forming products. And so I wanted to write that book for myself.
Nir Eyal: And then with Indistractable, there were a lot of books about focus and time management. There were a lot of books about technology overuse. There wasn't a book specifically about how to fight distraction. And I tried what the other books told me to do. I got rid of my technology. I got a flip phone. I got a word processor.
DC: You did?
Nir Eyal: Oh, I did all that stuff, because that's what the books tell. I went on this 30 day digital detox. It doesn't work. It just didn't work for me, because I didn't address the real root cause of why I was getting distracted. The big revelation for me is that distraction is not just about the external triggers that pings and dings and rings, most distraction starts from within. It's the internal triggers. It's anxiety, uncertainty, stress. We are looking for emotional pacification from some kind of distraction, whether it's too much tech, too much booze, too much news.
Nir Eyal: It's all about fixing something inside of us that we don't want to feel and we turn to that distraction impulsively. So just blaming the thing outside of us, doesn't fix the problem. We have to figure out what's going on inside as well.
DC: Yeah. I love that you write and talk about that because to me, I always think that these are just human patterns. These are not technology. We get so lost when we talk about technology. There is no technology. There's just humans and patterns and those patterns have largely been the same. And everything is usually a distraction from addressing the real problems. Those human, either communication problems or problems that you have in your own life that you haven't addressed, and all of these things, are reactions to them. They're the surface.
Nir Eyal: Now I will say that if you are looking for distraction-
DC: Oh yeah. It's easier.
Nir Eyal: ...it's easier than ever to find. So that's for sure. These products do prey to some degree on these emotional needs.
DC: For sure.
Nir Eyal: But that doesn't mean we're helpless and homeless. And I think a lot of tech critics want to perpetuate this myth, and I think it's very harmful, that technology is addicting everyone. That technology is hijacking your brain. That is bullshit.
DC: Yeah, yeah.
Nir Eyal: And in fact, teaching people that, is harmful, because it leads to what we call learned helplessness. Because they'll say, oh, there's nothing I can do.
Nir Eyal: Look, my kid's acting crazy because of the video game, or I can't do anything, the Facebook algorithm has me dropped and it's not helpful and it's not true.
DC: Besides buying the book, where else should we send people to learn more about Indistractable?
Nir Eyal: I appreciate it. So Indistractable, the subtitle is, How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. It's available wherever books are sold. And my blog is Nir and Far. And Nir is the spelling of my first name, N- I- R, nirandfar.com. And of course you can go to Indistractable. com. There's a video course and a workbook and all kinds of freebies there as well.
DC: That's awesome. Let me know what you thought of this episode by texting me at 1- 212- 380- 1036. Again, 1- 212- 380- 1036. Now, if you're looking for more on leadership insights, sign up for my weekly newsletter. The One Thing at drift. com/ dc. Every week, I'll share a habit, tool or mental model that's helping me reach my goals. Hope to see you there. Text me, hit me up.