Home » Indistractable: How to Master the Skill of the Century: Nir Eyal (Transcript)

Indistractable: How to Master the Skill of the Century: Nir Eyal (Transcript)

Nir Eyal

In this talk at 2018 Habit Summit, author Nir Eyal describes a new model for managing distraction.


Nir Eyal – Author of Hooked

You know many people think that we are going through a distraction crisis. But I think that there’s a lot more at stake than our broken noses and our bruised egos.

A few years ago, I wrote this book about how technology changes our habits. And I wrote this book for two reasons.

The first reason I wrote the book was for people like you — people who are building the kind of products and services that can help people live better lives by helping them build healthy habits.

But there’s another reason I wrote this book. You see around this time I found that technology was changing my behavior in ways that I didn’t always like.

I remember one time I was sitting with my daughter. We were having some quality father-daughter time and we were using this book of activities for daddies and daughters. And one activity in the book was to ask each other this question: ‘What superpower would you want?’

And I wish I could tell you in that moment what my daughter said. But I can’t. Because right then and there I was distracted by my device.

But if you asked me today what superpower I would want, I would want the power to be ‘Indistractable’.

Being indistractable is the skill of this century. When we think about the workplace as automation increases, the kind of jobs which will continue to be valuable are the ones that require human focus and creativity.

When it comes to our social lives, when we think about the importance of having close friendships and how we can only build those relationships, if we meet both face to face with body and mind.

You know, psychologists tell us that loneliness is as detrimental to our health and well-being as obesity and smoking.

And then regarding our kids what kind of example are we setting, if the impression they have of us is of the top of our heads as we’re scrolling on our devices?

So what I’d like to share with you this morning is what I’ve learned over the past five years, since writing my first book around this question of:

How do we manage distraction? How do we become indistractable?

And to start I want to share with you a story from a friend of mine.

This is Dr. Chance. She’s a Harvard-trained psychologist and she studies many of the things that we look at in terms of how products and services change people’s behaviors.

A few years ago, she started using a particular product that started as a healthy habit and became an unhealthy obsession. The device that she formed this obsession over was a pedometer, specifically the Striiv pedometer.

At first it helped her do a few more steps every day. It helped her live a little bit more healthfully. But then it became an unhealthy obsession when at midnight one day she received this notification from the Striiv pedometer that told her of a challenge.

It said: ‘If you walk 20 stairs right now, we’ll give you 20 points!’

And so she thought well I could do that!

She walked down her to the stairs to her basement and back up. And as soon as she got to the top of the stairs, the app rang out again and said – ‘Guess what? If you do 40 more stairs we’ll give you triple points!’ So she did that too.

And for the next two hours, Dr.Chance walked 2,000 stairs. And to put that in perspective that’s 300 stairs less than climbing to the top of the Empire State Building.

She woke up the next morning; she had a terrible neck ache and she knew that something had to change.

What was this strange force that captured Dr. Chance’s mind that night?

What happened is that she came under the influence of Akrasia. Akrasia is this tendency that we have to do things against our better judgment. Now the word was first coined over 2,500 years ago by the Greek philosopher Socrates and Plato who noticed this tendency that all of us have to do things against our better judgment.

And the fact that people have been struggling with distraction for that long should give us some solace. This is not a new problem.

But if we are to understand the problem of distraction, we have to understand the psychology of Akrasia.

So we can think of it this way. Distraction is on one side of the spectrum – these things that we do against our judgment. These things that we don’t really want to do.

The opposite of distraction is ‘traction’. And you notice both words end in the word ‘action’, reminding us that both ‘distraction’ and ‘traction’ are things that we do, not things that happen to us.

And that’s not typically how we think about distraction. Many people will say, ‘You know, I was concentrating but then the phone rang and I got distracted!’

But what we’re doing is conflating the external trigger – the notification, the ring, the ding that distracted us with what we did in response to that interruption.

Now external triggers we see around us every day, but what is just as much a source of distraction are these internal triggers. These uncomfortable sensations that originate within us, that prompt us to either traction or distraction.

If we are going to manage distraction, we have to start by understanding these internal triggers.

You see the body gets us to act by making us feel these uncomfortable sensations that we seek to escape. It’s called homeostasis.

  • If you feel cold, you put on a jacket.
  • If you feel uncomfortably hot, you take it off.
  • If you feel hunger pangs, you eat.
  • And when you’re stuffed, you stop!

Those are physiological sensations. But the same rule applies to psychological states, when we feel emotions that we’re looking to escape.

  • So when we’re feeling lonely, we might check Facebook
  • When we’re uncertain we Google
  • When we’re bored we might check the news or stock price or sports scores or Reddit or whatever.

There are lots of companies and products and services out there that will help us rid ourselves of those negative internal states, those uncomfortable emotions.

So if we’re going to manage distraction we have to start there by realizing that the source of much of this discomfort comes from these uncomfortable psychological states.

You see there’s more to Dr. Chance’s story that I didn’t tell you.

What Dr. Chance told me is that in this period of time when she became obsessed with her pedometer, she was going through a really rough patch. Her marriage was falling apart and she was under a lot of stress and pressure to find a full-time teaching career.

So what she told me and what she’s allowed me to share with you today is that Dr. Chance was using her pedometer as an escape from an uncomfortable reality.

And the fact is if you’re dealing with something as difficult as the pain of going through a divorce, then your smartphone or Facebook, or whatever, your pedometer isn’t the real source of the problem.

In my case I’ll admit to you that when I was with my daughter and after so many hours of toddler time and the thousandth game of Uno, I needed a break. But I probably could have handled it in a much healthier way.

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