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How to Become Indistractable: A Wizard's Manual by Nir Eyal

Kevin Cook
  • (0:45) - Controlling Your Attention With Nir Eyal
  • (6:10) - The Motivation and Research Behind Indistractable
  • (11:30) - Death By To-Do List and Our Ability To Multitask
  • (17:40) - Traction Is The Opposite Of Distraction
  • (29:55) - Breaking the Spell: Building A System That Works For You
  • (35:25) - The Hidden Super Power: Managing Discomfort Intentionally
  • (45:00) - Nir & Far Gifts for Choosing to Become Indistractable
  • Mind Over Money Archive


Welcome back to Mind Over Money. I'm Kevin Cook, your field guide and story teller for the fascinating arena of behavioral economics.

Recent listeners know that I just finished up a 3-part series titled "Fast Times at Innovation High" where I looked at corporate strategy and decision-making from lululemon LULU vs Under Armour to General Motors vs. Tesla TSLA.

I also turned those discussions inward to allow us to focus on ourselves, on the ways that we execute our own goal plans in our personal lives, or not. With guidance from Bulletproof CEO Dave Asprey and the "doctor of innovation" Clayton Christensen, who the world just lost in January, to two excellent books devoted solely to decision-making processes, I charted some possible pathways to getting more control of our time, goals and productivity.

So today, I'm thrilled to have as my guest the author of a powerful new book titled Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.

Nir Eyal taught behavioral design at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business at his website NirAndFar.com.

If you follow the fortunes, and the missteps, of companies like Facebook FB, Google, Twitter TWTR, and Snapchat SNAP you may know Nir from his 2014 book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Nir refers to his work as "behavioral design" because even though his research taught those web, mobile and social media companies -- and I could throw Apple in there too -- how to capture and seemingly enslave our attention, he has always believed that tech companies could and should use the insights and tools to help people create positive habits too.

I found this early background from Wikipedia interesting as well...

After graduating from the MBA program at Stanford in 2008, Eyal and fellow students founded a company that placed online ads in Facebook, with Eyal serving as CEO. His work in the company sparked his interest in the psychology of users, and he went on to become a consultant in product design. In 2012, he taught a course in the program on product design at the Stanford University School of Engineering.

From Nir's self-written bio on his blog...

I've sold two technology companies since 2003 and now help teams design more engaging products.

For most of my career I've worked in the video gaming and advertising industries where I learned, applied (and at times rejected) the techniques used to motivate and manipulate users. I write to help companies create behaviors that benefit their users while educating people on how to build healthful habits in their own lives.

As an active angel investor, I put my money where my mouth is by backing habit-forming products I believe improve lives. Some of my past investments include Eventbrite, Refresh.io (acquired by LinkedIn), Worklife (acquired by Cisco), Product Hunt (acquired by Angelist), Marco Polo, Presence Learning, 7 Cups, Pana, Kahoot!, Byte Foods, FocusMate, and Anchor.fm (acquired by Spotify).

In a moment, I'll begin our conversation with Nir about his made-up word and concept, Indistractable. But I'll tell you upfront, this is powerful stuff. As I read the book and prepared for this interview, I was continually blown away by several things...

One, the originality of Nir's ideas and the roots and cloth connecting them.

Two, the depth and breadth of ground-breaking psychological research he found to support his proposals and prescriptions.

Three, the clarity, mastery and sheer joy of his writing.

Move over Malcolm Gladwell.

Blame Technology, Or Take Charge of Your Mind

I didn't read Hooked, but whatever it did for the tech giants to make their platforms more irresistible and even addictive, Indistractable might do factors more because it will be a guidebook for all humans on how to deal with any technology that might come at us in the next century.

In that sense, it's more than an antidote to Hooked. It's a prescription for life. Thus my first question for Nir was this...

Did you set out to write a book on motivation, procrastination, goals, values -- i.e., the roots of success and happiness -- or did it just take on that evolution as you dove deeper into the research you wanted to do?

Be sure to tune in to hear Nir's answer to that and so much more in our 40-minute conversation. One thing I learned from the interview is that Nir doesn't take credit for teaching the tech giants anything they didn't already know.

He clarifies the obvious fact that by the time his book Hooked was published, they were already experts at captivating our attention and distracting us. He says that he wrote the book more for all of us to (1) understand the forces at work and (2) help us create our own captivating products and services.

And it makes perfect sense. Why shouldn't we use the same proven principles and tactics of human behavior design as the big guys to make our marketing, websites, apps and customer experience as tantalizing and habit-forming?

His new book Indistractable then picks up by showing us how we can build more fulfilling lives regardless of what Hollywood, Madison Avenue or Silicon Valley throw at us.

Nir Eyal's focus is on the root causes of our behavior (some gnawing discomfort we seek to alleviate) vs the proximate causes, like our devices and bad habits.

Focus Does Not Equal Willpower

One thing I forgot to ask Nir about was that if our "dumbphones" can be most harmful to others during driving and family time, the most destructive solitary uses logically have to be before bed and upon first waking.

Not only are these times of day when we are most susceptible to suggestion, distraction and mood influence, but these are the precious minutes we need to have control over to set our agenda or choose our state of mind.

Nighttime requires the ability to relax peacefully without worries and the influence of other peoples' agendas and morning is a time for clarity and focus on our goals and routines, not the hundreds of potential messages from news, email and social media noise.

Buy Nir doesn't fall back for the simple answer that we just need to control our attention with willpower. In fact, it sounds like he went to considerable lengths in dissecting the controversial research on willpower and ego depletion. He summarizes what he found in our interview.

This also prompted me to ask him "Did you ever get bogged down in the jungles of journals you must have slogged through?" He has a very interesting answer that led me to note another great feature and benefit of his book.

Despite the wealth of academic research, cited in some 20+ pages, Nir brings all the main points home at the end of each chapter with a "Remember This" section summarizing the key findings. Not that his writing is ever bogged down with laboratory or statistical jargon, but more that he has always found most business books to be crammed full of words when sometimes just a few would do.

Evolution and Negativity Bias

Another aspect of Nir's research and book that I find especially interesting -- but we just didn't have time for in the interview -- was his approach to finding answers about our discomfort and attention in the early dawn of humanity.

Evolutionary psychology is a rich field for speculation and theorizing, even if actual research is hard to do without simulating the environments that shaped our ancestors millions of years ago.

But some things are pretty clear if we just look at the current evolutionary state and behavior of all animals, including homo sapiens. In the book, Nir draws conclusions from research that suggest we humans maintain a "negativity bias" as a default mechanism to deal with all the ever-present dangers and challenges to survival, which dominated the majority of our existence before civilization solved so many problems and offered so many creature comforts.

"Unfortunately," writes Nir, "the same evolutionary traits that helped our kin survive by driving them to constantly do more can conspire against us today."

It's what Neil Pasricha in his book The Happiness Equation calls "the single biggest reason it's so hard to be happy." In essence, our brains are predisposed (if not "hard-wired") to be nervous, anxious, and ever-watchful -- if not downright paranoid!

But Nir Eyal, as you should have guessed by now, has gone even deeper into the research by identifying three more psychological factors (in Chapter 4) which likely have roots in our primeval past and that explain our propensity for distraction to "solve" physical, emotional, and mental discomfort.

I should note that I'm skipping a key step and section (in Chapter 3) of Indistractable where Nir sets the stage for what discomfort is and how it drives distraction. He uses the story of an infamous TED Talk to tell the tale of one woman's obsessive striving to escape deep pain and fear.

The good news comes in conclusions like this from the early chapters of the book that lead to powerful solutions and strategies in later chapters..

"Dissatisfaction and discomfort dominate our brain's default state, but we can use them to motivate us instead of defeat us."

That might not sound so hopeful on the surface, but once you accept that your brain is busy tricking you into believing you are continually unsatisfied and full of discontent, then you can learn to trick it into getting going on the goals and experiences you really value most and want to achieve for yourself and your family.

Can't Get No Satisfaction: Distractions and Addictions For All

One of my favorite parts of the conversation with Nir is on one of the strongest competitors for our attention, clinical addiction. Habitual listeners will know that I created 2 episodes in the summer of 2018 talking about the unique neuro-chemical drivers of attention, memory and learning titled Dopamine and the Weather.

Nir draws on research from smoking cessation and the results confirm what we learned: a physical addiction like that to nicotine, while strong, is not the only factor in activating habitual behaviors. It is very often the thoughts and mindset of the smoker in advance of smoking that trigger the anticipatory dopamine response that excites craving and motivation.

I won't share the research here because I don't want to spoil the impact of Nir's story telling. (Word has it, he tells the story of that research in the podcast.)

But seriously, there is so much in this book, I couldn't possibly ruin it for you. We've barely covered Part 1 on how to Master Internal Triggers. The next 3 parts of the book get into the roll-up-your-sleeves work where Nir explains how to get "traction" by turning "your values into time," how to Hack Back External Triggers, and how Prevent Distraction With Pacts.

How to Become Indistractable

Long-time followers and listeners know that I'm a big fan of the Market Wizard books by Jack Schwager that allow us to model the great traders in both mindset and actions. And you know that I think becoming a super-learner is probably the most important overall skill in a rapidly evolving job market of highly-disruptive, exponential technologies.

Well, Nir may have just combined both fields and stolen their titles as I'm now calling him the Wizard of Learning. Why so dramatic? Because when he launched Indistractable in September of 2019, he wasn't joking when he suggested that Being ‘Indistractable’ Will Be the Most Important Skill of the Future.

And he's not exaggerating either when he calls being indistractable a superpower. For an investment of $20 or less, what have you got to lose to find out if we're right?

Now, if I haven't fully convinced you to pick up a copy of Indistractable -- I first bought the Audible version and then the Kindle one to explore all the research citations -- I'm helping Nir bring down the hammer because he's got a ton of great bonus resources for you.

Just go to NirAndFar.com/Indistractable and you will see what I'm talking about. He wants to give you the schedule maker tool he mentions in the interview and a distraction tracker. I think there's even an online course bonus.

Best of all, you get to download an 80-page workbook full of exercises to get you going on all the Indistractable principles, practices and prescriptions.

The site is also full of great supplemental articles and discussions.

Whatever you do, don't put off getting a rich ideas-and-implementation manual that could help you cut procrastination in half and double your productivity.

As Nir and I talked about the unique challenges for business and families during the COVID-19 crisis, as more professionals are forced to adapt and work from home, being indistractable is more important now than ever.

Kevin Cook is a Senior Stock Strategist for Zacks Investment Research where he runs the TAZR Trader and Healthcare Innovators portfolios. Click "Follow Author" above to receive his latest stock research and macro analysis.