Nir Eyal: How To Feel Less Distracted

Do you have trouble focusing or working without distraction? Well if so, this week’s episode is for you. I spoke with Nir Eyal. Nir writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. He is the best-selling author of Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How To Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.

In our conversation, we explore behavioural design, what distraction means, and how to become 'Indistractable' - a term he coined which means to be living with personal integrity, being honest with yourself.

Health Podcast Highlights

Nir Eyal: How To Feel Less Distracted Introduction

Well, today we are going to explore two themes, actually, one about being hooked on devices and programmes and our modern world, and the other is how to become indistractable, if that’s a new term. Well, today we’re going to explore that. And it’s really something that I think we should all be focussed on. 

I’ve often said that we are like kids in a sweet shop with our technology, which has grown exponentially in our lives over the last 20 or so years, and we still haven’t quite worked out how to get the most out of our lives while still using it. We are not going to give up technology. We have to learn to live with it and we have to learn to live with it in this modern world.

Well, my guest today is Nir Eyal, whose work and writing is an intersection of Psychology, technology, and business. He calls it behavioural design and we will be exploring that term in this podcast. Nir is an author of two wonderful books, both of which I have read called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Boy, if that’s ever throwing down the gauntlet to us all, I think that’s a book we all need to be reading.

He has an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and lectured in Marketing at that Graduate School of Business and Design School, The Graduate School of Business and Design School. He worked in the video gaming and advertising industry where he learnt and applied techniques used to motivate and manipulate users. So if anybody knows about how we are hooked, this is the man. 

He helps companies and individuals create behaviours that benefit their users while educating people on how to build healthful habits in their own lives. A challenge for us all. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Nir Eyal.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:00] I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I am recording this podcast, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present, and emerging.

Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Well, today we are going to explore two themes, actually, one about being hooked on devices and programmes and our modern world, and the other is how to become indistractable, if that’s a new term. Well, today we’re going to explore that. And it’s really something that I think we should all be focussed on. 

I’ve often said that we are like kids in a sweet shop with our technology, which has grown exponentially in our lives over the last 20 or so years, and we still haven’t quite worked out how to get the most out of our lives while still using it. We are not going to give up technology. We have to learn to live with it and we have to learn to live with it in this modern world.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:01:11] Well, my guest today is Nir Eyal, whose work and writing is an intersection of Psychology, technology, and business. He calls it behavioural design and we will be exploring that term in this podcast. Nir is an author of two wonderful books, both of which I have read called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Boy, if that’s ever throwing down the gauntlet to us all, I think that’s a book we all need to be reading.

He has an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and lectured in Marketing at that Graduate School of Business and Design School, The Graduate School of Business and Design School. He worked in the video gaming and advertising industry where he learnt and applied techniques used to motivate and manipulate users. So if anybody knows about how we are hooked, this is the man. 

He helps companies and individuals create behaviours that benefit their users while educating people on how to build healthful habits in their own lives. A challenge for us all. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Nir Eyal.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:02:35] Welcome to the show Nir. 

Nir Eyal: [00:02:37] Thank you, great to be here with you.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:02:38] Nir I have so much I want to talk to you about, I was very excited that we got to speak. And I know that you use the term Behavioural Design. And I’ve got a feeling that we all either enjoy or suffer from behavioural design. I wondered if you might to share with us what that actually means. 

What is Behavioural Design?

Nir Eyal: [00:02:57] Sure. So Behavioural Design is using Consumer Psychology to influence behaviour to form healthy habits. So we don’t want to ever create addictions. It’s not about creating addictions. Addictions are very different from habits. The goal of my work is to build the kind of products and services that people want to use, but for lack of good product design, don’t use. 

And so this is the kind of product that you might use to help form an exercise habit or perhaps to get you to remember to take your medication or help you save money or help you learn a new language. We can use the same technologies that are used by Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp and Slack, not only for frivolity but to help us build good behaviours and good habits in our lives.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:03:43] Well, I mean, there’s a lot to unpack there because we’ve been confronted with these kinds of things and choices all the time. And you’ve written two books, and I’m looking forward to talking to you about both of them. Uhm, I first picked up Hooked the title grabbed me, was probably a good idea, but How To Build Habit-Forming Products, which is, you know, tell us about that book. Tell us how you came to write it. 

“Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” 

Nir Eyal: [00:04:13] Yeah. So I was looking for how is it that so many of the products we use are so good at getting people to use them? What is behind products like, you know, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Slack, WhatsApp, Amazon, Google? The list goes on and on these mostly tech-based products. That’s what interested me. What is it about these products that make them so sticky? How do they get us hooked? And so the idea here was not to write the book for their benefit, alright. They were already using these techniques. They didn’t need my book.

My goal was to democratise their techniques by exposing them so that the rest of us can use them for good. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. So since the book was published, we sold over half a million copies and it’s been used in every conceivable industry, from Health Care to FinTech to Education products. The list goes on and on. 

And I’m an active angel investor, so I look for the companies that utilise this work and my profession is finding these companies and helping them grow. So some of my portfolio companies include companies like Canva, a company based where you are.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:05:19] Yes, we use it. We use it. It’s a wonderful product.

Nir Eyal: [00:05:22] Exactly. How does it work? I mean, how well, how is it so wonderful? Well, it’s because it’s designed to be wonderful. That didn’t happen by mistake, they didn’t happen by accident products like Kahoot, one of the world’s largest educational software products companies I was lucky enough to invest in that have touched the lives of millions of children to get them hooked to education. So we really can use these same exact techniques for good, not just for frivolity.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:05:47] Now, I know people are going to Russia and buy that and read it, but if you were to give us a couple of things about what it is, what is the common denominator that gets us hooked?

Nir Eyal: [00:05:58] Sure. So it’s really about this four-step process that I called Hook Model. And the Hook Model is a series of four behaviour, four steps in the user experience that through successive cycles, through these hooks, this is how our habits are formed through this technology, so it starts with a Trigger. There are two kinds of triggers — external triggers and internal triggers. 

External triggers are the pings and dings that we have in our outside environment that prompt us to action. The next step is the Action phase of the Hook (Model). It’s defined as the simplest behaviour done in anticipation of a reward. It’s scrolling a feed. It’s pushing play on a YouTube video. It’s a quick Google search, the very simplest thing you can do in anticipation of a reward. 

Nir Eyal: [00:06:41] Then comes the Reward itself. And typically that reward is variable. There’s some kind of uncertainty, some kind of mystery involved with that reward. It’s the same type of uncertainty that keeps us glued to a rugby match or helps us want to finish a great book. This uncertainty and variability are the core of what keeps us engaged in many entertaining experiences, as well as the many of the products and services we use. So that variable reward is a key component.

And then finally, the Investment phase, which is where the product gets better with use. The more we interact with it, the more valuable it becomes. So as opposed to most products that depreciate with wear and tear, when you think about your car, your furniture, your clothing, all these things lose value with wear and tear. Habit-forming products do the opposite. 

They don’t depreciate. They appreciate. They get better and better the more they’re used because of this principle of stored value. So by investing in the product, we actually make it better. That’s a cardinal trait of these habit-forming products.

Nir Eyal: [00:07:44] So that through successive cycles, through these four steps off the hook, eventually, we begin to form an association with an internal trigger. And that’s where the habit really takes hold. What is an internal trigger? We talked about the external triggers earlier, the pings and dings. An internal trigger is an emotional state that we want to escape from. So everything we do, every product we use, we use for only one reason, and that is to modulate our mood. So habit-forming product has to attach its use to that uncomfortable sensation.

For example, when you’re lonely, you check Facebook, when you’re uncertain. You Google when you’re bored, lots of solutions to boredom, right? You can check stock prices, sports scores, the news. Let’s worry about somebody’s problem thousands of miles away so we don’t have to think about the discomfort we’re facing right now. 

So many of these products, in fact, all of the products we use, we use to escape some kind of emotional discomfort. And so a habit-forming product, whether it’s something that leads us towards, you know, a time-waster or something that helps us form a good habit, always has to attach its use to an internal trigger so that through successive cycles, this is how our tastes are formed, how our habits are shaped.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:09:02] Wow. I mean, with products like Canva and Kahoot, I just love that, you know, it has been so well designed to take me on that journey, but so much of our interaction is not like that, is it? And I guess and I read your book, The Indistractable, which is the next book I always felt like is this the flipside of the same coin, you know, is this now telling us how it was you got hooked but indistractable. 

And I love that story you shared in your book about your daughter and spending special time with your daughter. I wondered if you might want to share that with them, with us, and then lead us into the book itself.


Nir Eyal: [00:09:46] Yeah. So shortly after I published Hooked, I was with my daughter and we had this one day planned, which is this beautiful afternoon. And we had a book about different activities that dads and daughters could do together. And one of the activities was to ask each other this question: If you could have any superpower, what superpower would you want? And I remember that question verbatim, but I can’t tell you what my daughter said, because in that moment, for whatever reason, I don’t even know why I decided it was a good time to check my phone. 

And by the time I looked up from my device, I realised that she was gone because I had sent her a very clear message that whatever was on my phone was more important than she was. And she left the room to go play with some toys outside. And I realised that as a father I had blown it. I had a perfect moment and I got distracted. And if I’m honest with you, it didn’t just happen with my daughter.

Nir Eyal: [00:10:41] It didn’t just happen at one time. It would happen when I would say to myself, I’m definitely going to go exercise today. I’m definitely in a workout. But I didn’t. I’m certainly going to eat healthfully today. But I wouldn’t. I’d sit down on my desk and say, OK, I’m going to work on that big project I’ve been procrastinating on, but I delay. And so what I realised was that it wasn’t just about being with my daughter. It happened in several areas of my life. And frankly, it wasn’t just about the technology that I was getting distracted from all kinds of things that I said I would do. And I wasn’t living with personal integrity. 

You know, something that’s very important to me. I’m sure it’s very important, too, to many of your listeners, is to be as honest with ourselves as we are with others. But unfortunately, we lie. We lie all the time to ourselves.

Nir Eyal: [00:11:29] We say we’re going to do this. We say we’re going to do that. We’re going to exercise. We’re going to save money. We’re going to eat right. We’re going to spend more time with our loved ones. We’re going to focus at work. We know what to do. We just don’t do it. And so that’s a new phenomenon. You know, for most of human history, people could throw up their hands and say, well, I don’t know what to do. Right. How do I do that thing? I have to go to the library. I need to go ask some expert for the secret. 

Well, today, that expert is at Just ask Google, whatever it is you want to know how to do, the answers are right there. So what’s our excuse? Why don’t we do the things we know we should do? Who doesn’t know that if you want to live more healthily, you have to eat right and exercise? Do we really need a diet book to tell us that? Who doesn’t know that if you want to have better relationships, you have to be fully present with the people you love? Who doesn’t know that if you want to be better at your job, you have to do the work, especially the hard stuff that other people don’t want to do? 

Nir Eyal: [00:12:22] So the question isn’t what do I do? The question now in this century is, why don’t I do the things I know I need to do? Why do I keep getting in my own way? That was my problem. And so the question is, why do we keep getting distracted? That is the skill of the century is becoming indistractable, being the kind of person who lives with personal integrity and does what they say they’re going to do in business and in life.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:12:50] Yes. Well, that is perhaps our biggest challenge almost from birth. But certainly, I can see it in my own grandchildren at the age of two, three, four, five. And I am just as guilty of it as well. And we are all getting distracted and part of the problem I come back to your first book is that too many people, I mean, the distractions have never been greater.

Nir Eyal: [00:13:17] No, I mean, I will agree with you that distractions, if you are looking for distraction, they’re easier than ever to find. But remember, distraction is not a new problem. Plato talked about this very same problem 2500 years ago. 2500 years before the Internet, before the iPhone, before Facebook. People were complaining about how distracting the world is and every generation has their moral panic. You know, when I was a kid, it was about television and rap music and Dungeons and Dragons and comic books and radio. I mean, just how far back you want to go.

Every generation thinks it’s something outside themselves and blames whatever technology Désir has been invented. And you know what? That’s never the source of the problem. We love to blame those things, but that’s never the real source of the problem, there’s always something deeper going on because, look, the price of progress is that things get better. 

If you want to live in a world where you’re in Australia I’m in Singapore, we’re talking for free over these magic video phones, I mean, can we pause for a second and take a look at the world we live in right now? I mean, how much better is our world?

Nir Eyal: [00:14:27] Just a few decades ago, imagine if we went through COVID-19 if it was COVID-19. Let’s imagine the year 1990. We had tried to go through the past couple of years without these amazing technologies, without Facebook to connect us, without WhatsApp, without Zoom, without these amazing technologies. Can you imagine how much worse this whole disaster would have been? It was bad enough. It would have only been worse. So the world is getting better, right? There are these new technologies.

Nir Eyal: [00:14:53] Now, do these technologies have downsides? Of course. Paul Virilio, this philosopher, said ‘When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck.” Of course, they’re going to be problems with these technologies, but this is nothing new. We can overcome this if we believe we can. 

The biggest problem I see today, the biggest problem is that people are buying into this myth that technology is addicting you and it’s hijacking your brain, that the big bad tech companies are making these products that you just can’t stop using. I am here to tell you that is absolutely rubbish. It is not true unless you believe it’s true. If you give them the power to say, well, it’s addicting me, what can I do? Look at my kids, they won’t stop playing video games. What can I do?

Nir Eyal: [00:15:40] Do you know what people do? Nothing. It’s called learnt helplessness that when people believe there is nothing that can be done, they do nothing about the problem. And that was initially my reaction was, oh, it must be the technology. Look, I keep using the technology. The technology is distracting me. Well, but this is everything we do these days is on technology. So you can’t blame technology for the source of distraction.

So here’s what I did. I actually got rid of all the technology right before I wrote this book. You know what I tend to do is I don’t ever write a book unless I can’t find a book that already solves the problem for me. So I went to read all the other books on this topic and they told me about, you know, digital detoxing and just get rid of your devices. And I did that. 

I sat down on my desk. I got myself a word processor from the 1990s with no internet connection. I got a flip phone for that. You know, one of those twelve-dollar things. You can buy an Alibaba that we used to have in the early 2000s. So I bought those things because they had no apps, no social media. And I still got distracted.

Nir Eyal: [00:16:40] I would sit down on my desk and say, OK, I’m going to write. Nothing’s going to distract me. I’m just going to focus. But, oh, there’s that book on the shelf I’ve been meaning to read and, you know, look at my desk. Gosh, what a mess. I should clean up my desk. Let me take off the trash real quick. And I kept getting distracted. You know why? Because distraction isn’t about what happens outside of us. 

The vast majority of distraction begins from within. And so it wasn’t until I could understand that cardinal principle about what is the deeper psychology of distraction. It’s not the devices, people, I promise you. Get rid of your devices. If you don’t learn how to be indistractable, I promise you whether it’s too much news, too much booze, too much food, too much Facebook, too much football, you’re going to find a way to distract yourself. Unless you understand how to become indistractable.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:17:25] I think the thing that’s changed now is that with algorithms and the fact that even if you got rid of your device, I’m almost certain that the very first person you came into contact with after you got rid of all that would have had devices and you’re surrounded by it. And these devices, because of algorithms and clever programming, end up knowing us better than we know ourselves. 

In fact, you know the work of Yuval Noah Harari, which I’m sure you’ve read, and he talks about, you know, this whole challenge with technology actually hacks us where it knows us better than we know ourselves. And that’s probably I mean, our mothers use, here’s some explanation, our mothers used to know better. That’s right. But with where we at.. 

Nir Eyal: [00:18:10] I love that point. I just wanna interrupt you because, I want to I really, before you go too far, I love his point because it makes my point, you know, Harare talks. I’m a big fan of his work, but I think he’s got this one wrong. And I’ll tell you why. You know, he talks about how it used to be our mothers know our needs. 

Our mothers anticipate what we require. But here’s what happens, when we’re babies that’s true. When we’re incapable, when we’re, you know, useless infants, we can’t we can fend for ourselves, our mothers do understand what we need. But what happens when kids get older? What happens when we become teenagers and our mothers tell us what to do all the time? What happens? Where am I going with this? What do we do? We rebel.

Nir Eyal: [00:18:56] So here’s what’s happening. People all over the world are saying enough. Enough, I’m not going to hold my breath and wait for these companies to change because they’re not going to change. Their business model, just like every medius business model, whether it’s the newspaper, the television, all monetise your attention. 

So what exactly is it that the algorithms are doing that makes us incapable of changing? Can you tell me? What is the algorithm doing that makes it impossible for us to turn off the stupid notifications? To uninstall the apps? How about this? Here’s a newsflash. Decide what you will do with your time ahead of time. Can we not do that?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:19:45] I actually do think our relationship with technology is a bit like we’re a bit like, we are all of all ages, like kids in a toy shop or a sweet shop. We’ve discovered this. We’ve discovered that. We want this. We want that. I want that, too. I want this as well. I want to do that. We haven’t really learnt how to deal with it. And that’s why this book is so you know, this issue of managing our ability to be distracted is just everyone’s biggest challenge.

Moral Panic around Distractability

Nir Eyal: [00:20:15] I mean, yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more, but here’s the thing. It is not an insurmountable challenge, right. That is as good as the products are at getting us hooked. And look, I wrote the book Hooked. I know all their tricks. And I will tell you, they’re good. They’re good. They’re not that good. This is not mind control. This is not hijacking your brain. 

It makes for a wonderful headline. This is why you hear it on the mainstream media. This is why the newspapers and the cable television networks love to tell you about how technology is terrible for you, even though they use all the same tricks on you. They love to tell you how they’re terrible because that’s their competition and it makes for a great headline. 

Nir Eyal: [00:20:53] Again, we love moral panic. So, of course, the entrenched media companies want to fend off the competition through these hysterics that we eat up. We love this line, the algorithms. What exactly are the algorithms doing? Feeding us more cat videos? Feeding us more political garbage? We can turn that crap off if we believe we can’t. The price of progress. Do you want to live in a world where you have the world’s information at your fingertips? You want to live in a world where you have infinite opportunities to learn and grow and share? You want to live in a world where this stuff, by and large, is free. 

You know what? You got to learn some new tactics. You’ve got to learn some new manners. You got to learn some new habits. That’s the price of this progress. And there will be bifurcation in this world between people who let their time and attention be controlled and manipulated by others and people who say, no, I decide how I control my time and attention because I am indistractable. And that’s exactly why I wrote this book.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:21:52] Yeah. And it’s exactly why we’re talking. And I’m very open to accepting that. How do we get started?

How to Stop Feeling Distracted

Nir Eyal: [00:22:02] Yeah. Yeah. So the first thing is to understand what is a distraction. What we are really talking about here is if I understand this term. So the best way to understand what distraction is, is to understand what distraction is not. What is the opposite of distraction? The opposite of distraction if you ask most people, they’ll tell you it’s ‘focus.’ 

But that’s not exactly right. The opposite of distraction is not ‘focus.’ The opposite of distraction is if you look at the origin of the word, the it comes from the root word “trahere” in Latin, which means to pull. And you’ll notice that the word ends in A-C-T-I-O-N.

Nir Eyal: [00:22:35] Distraction ends in action, reminding us that distraction is not something that happens to us. It is an action that we take. So if you ask yourself what is the opposite of distractions, it’s not ‘focus,’ it’s ‘traction.’ Traction is any action that pulls you back to that same Latin root, pulls you towards an action that you intend to take, OK? It’s anything you do with forethought. It is an action that pulls you towards your goals, towards your values, helps you become the kind of person you would become. Those are acts of traction.

The opposite of traction is distraction. Distraction is any action that pulls you further away from your intentions, further away from your goals, further away from becoming the kind of person you want to become. So this isn’t just semantics. This is very, very important because any action can be traction or distraction.

Nir Eyal: [00:23:25] Let me give an example. So for years when I got into the office, I would sit down on my desk and I’d say, OK, now I am not going to get distracted. I am going to work on that task at the top of my to-do list. And by the way, we can talk about why “to-do lists” are one of the worst things you can do for your personal productivity. 

We will come back in a second. I would take that task at the top of my to-do list and say, OK, now let’s get to work. Let’s do that one thing. Nothing’s going to get in my way. I am not going to get distracted. No more procrastination. Here I go. I’m going to get started right now. But first, let me check some email. Right. Let me check that Slack notification. Let me do those first — 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:24:01] Sounds familiar. Sounds familiar.

Nir Eyal: [00:24:02] Right? Exactly. Those three or four things may be at the bottom of my to-do list just to get started, right? Those are all work-related tasks. I’m being productive. I got to checking email at some point today. And what I didn’t realise is that that is the most dangerous form of distraction. Forget about Facebook and video games. 

The most dangerous form of distraction is the distraction you don’t even know is taking you off track. It’s obvious if you’re playing a video game or checking Facebook, maybe you should be doing something else with your time. What you don’t realise is that if you are checking email when you said you would be working on that big project, you are just as distracted. 

Nir Eyal: [00:24:38] Even more so because distraction tricks us into prioritising the urgent and the easy work at the expense of the hard and important work we have to do to move our lives and careers forward. So that’s distraction. Anything could be an act of distraction if it’s not what you plan to do. Conversely, anything can be traction if it’s what you do with intent. So don’t listen to these chicken little tech critics that tell you all the sky is falling and all these technologies are melting your brain. B.S. If it’s what you want to do with your time, why is watching a rugby match somehow morally superior to playing a video game? There’s no difference, right? 

Just because one is new, just because one is what the kids are doing doesn’t make it, you know, better or worse. If you want to play video games, if you want to watch television, if you want to watch YouTube videos, if you want to go on Instagram, do it. Enjoy. There’s no guilt. There’s no judgement. Let’s not moralise and medicalise perfectly normal behaviour. 

Enjoy it, but do it on your schedule and according to your values and nobody else’s. Right? Because the time you plan to waste is not wasted time. Dorothy Parker said that. It’s OK if you want to do that stuff, that’s fine. But do it according to your schedule and your values. 

Nir Eyal: [00:25:50] So now we have traction. Now we have distraction. Now, let’s talk about the triggers. We talked a little bit earlier about my first book and the progress I made my research around triggers. Let’s go back to these two types of triggers. The external triggers are the pings, the dings, the rings and our outside environment. 

And then we have the internal triggers, these uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to escape from. And studies find that only 10% of the time that you check your phone, 10%, are you checking it because of an external trigger? The other 90% of the time that we check our devices, it’s because of an internal trigger. 

A trigger that in time’s studies have verified this, that 90% of the time that you check your device it’s because of what you are feeling, not because of what’s happening outside of you, but what’s happening inside of you.

Nir Eyal: [00:26:37] So to answer your question, long-winded setup.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:26:39] No, no. Good. Good.

Triggers for distraction: External Distractions vs. Internal Distractions

Nir Eyal: [00:26:41] Now we have our four steps, right? So we should have a picture in our mind here. Distraction, traction, internal triggers, external triggers. Now, we follow these four points of the compass and we have our answer.

Step number one, we master the internal triggers. If we don’t master those uncomfortable emotional states, they become our master.

Number two, we make time for traction. If you don’t plan your day, somebody’s going to plan it for you. And you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. 

Nir Eyal: [00:27:11] Number three, we hack back the external triggers. Of course, the media is trying to hack your attention. So is your boss. So are your kids. All kinds of things in your outside environment are trying to grab your attention for their benefit. That doesn’t mean we can’t hack back. 

We can fight back by taking steps today to prevent getting distracted tomorrow by doing simple things like turning off notifications, changing our computer interface, using technology to fight technology, distraction. I show you how to do all that stuff, hacking back to email, meeting, Slack notifications. We can hack back each and every one of those external triggers step by step. 

Finally, the fourth step is to prevent distraction with pacts. And this is where we use what’s called a pre-commitment device to make sure that as a last resort, as a firewall to prevent distraction, we have a strategy in place that makes it more difficult for us to go off track, more difficult to get distracted. 

So when we use these four techniques in concert, mastering internal triggers, making time for traction, hacking back external triggers and preventing distraction with pacts, this is how anyone can become indistractable.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:28:20] I know you talk about schedule management to tell us a little bit about that. What is managing our schedule? What are some pearls for us there?

Time Management & Schedule Management

Nir Eyal: [00:28:27] Yeah. So, OK, the first step again is mastering the internal triggers. That’s the most important step that if you don’t know what to do with that emotional discomfort, you’re always going to find distraction somewhere. But after we’ve learnt some of these techniques that we can use whenever we feel that discomfort, the second step is to make time for traction, that you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. So if you have a big open calendar, if you use a to-do list, we can talk about why ” to-do lists” are so horrible. I know I mentioned that earlier.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:28:54] Yes, you mentioned that and it might, it’s my top problem. I hear that, but go on.

Nir Eyal: [00:28:58] I’ll tell you why. To-do lists, it turns out, are one of the, let me be very clear, I’m not talking about keeping a to-do list, meaning taking things out of your brain and writing them down, that’s good. Taking things out of your brain, putting them on a piece of paper and app, very good. What’s bad is running your life on a to-do list. If you look at your calendar, I’m sorry. If you look at your to-do list before you look at your calendar, you’ve made a big mistake because to-do lists have no constraints. 

You can add more and more and more. This is what people have, they have a to-do list that’s a mile long and they’re productive throughout the day. But here’s the thing. They get home from work and they look at their to-do list and they still haven’t finished what they said they were going to do. And what does that do to our psyche? What message does that send?

Nir Eyal: [00:29:41] When I look at these things that I said I was going to do, these commitments I made to myself and I didn’t do them. Loser. So day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, I am reinforcing the self-image of someone who doesn’t live with personal integrity, someone who doesn’t do what they say they’re going to do. And that takes a toll. 

And then eventually people start saying this nonsense of I’m no good with time management. I have an addictive personality, I have a short attention span. You start hearing this ridiculous narrative that people tell themselves, which of course, then they conform to because they think they’re somehow broken.

Nir Eyal: [00:30:16] There’s nothing broken about these people. It’s simply that we’re using a broken technique. Much rather than using a to-do list, we want to keep a schedule, keep a calendar. And by the way, I didn’t make this up. This is one of the most well-researched pieces of personal productivity advice that almost nobody uses, unfortunately. 

And the real people who are top of their game in almost every field do this. And that’s why they’re at the top of their game. They decide in advance how they will spend their time because you can’t say you’ve got distracted if you don’t know what you’ve got distracted from.

The Epidemic of Loneliness and Valued Relationships 

Nir Eyal: [00:30:51] So if your calendar has whitespace on it, what did you get distracted from? You didn’t decide what you were going to do. Everything is a distraction. So you have to decide in advance how you want to spend that time. So that’s a very, very important criterion. How do we do that? We do this based on our values. OK, this is how we get started. And people say, well, how do I get started doing this whole time boxing thing? I’m convinced. But what about how do I do it? 

We start by turning our values into time. Now, what are values? Values are attributes of the person you want to become, attributes of the person you want to become. So here we have these three life domains that I asked people to take a look at what kind of person they want to become in these three life domains.

Nir Eyal: [00:31:36] Starting with you, you are at the centre of these three life domains. So how would the person you want to become spend time on themselves? OK, now my values are going to be different from your values and I shouldn’t tell you what your values are going to be. But if exercise is important to you, for example, do you have time on your calendar for physical activity? If you know, being sharp is important to you, right? Do you have time for sleep? 

You know, we’ve heard ad nauseam how important sleep is to us. How many of us have a bedtime? We tell our kids they have to have a bedtime. But how many of us are hypocrites and we don’t have a bedtime, right? If a prayer or meditation or reading is important to you, it’s got to be on your schedule. That’s the first life domain.

Nir Eyal: [00:32:18] The second life domain is relationships. You know, we know that in the Western world primarily, there is an epidemic of loneliness, that loneliness is as detrimental to our health as smoking and obesity. It is a very serious problem. And part of the reason we have this problem is that the time we used to have in our schedules to interact with other people has evaporated along with the progression of secular society. 

Now, I’m a pretty secular person, but I will say that we miss something when we don’t have that regular, you know, Friday night dinner at the Synagogue or the Sunday church group or, you know, whatever the occasion is to bring us together.

Nir Eyal: [00:32:59] As society became more secular, we lost these regular social interactions that were held on our calendar. Right. Even if it’s not the social interactions, hours of the religious interactions, it’s the Bowling League or the Kiwanis Club or whatever the case might be. Toastmasters, those times on our calendar when we interact with other people, the good news is we can bring that time back. 

So don’t give your most loved people in your life the scraps of time that are left over for your kids, for your siblings, for your parents, for your spouse. Book that time in advance, have that time held and preserved for the people you love most. 

Reactive Work vs. Reflective Work

Nir Eyal: [00:33:35] And then finally, the last life domain is your work. And work separates into two categories. We have what we call reactive work and reflective work. Reactive work is reacting to all those pings, dings and rings. Right. It’s the meetings, the Slack notifications. That’s reactive work. And many people feel very comfortable not having to think about what to do.

And so all day long they allow themselves to do reactive work. Not only is it very stressful work, but it doesn’t help us do our best work because you cannot do your best work without making time to reflect. You can’t be creative. You can’t problem solve because you can’t think if you are constantly interrupted every 30 seconds. So for God’s sakes, you’ve got to protect at least some time in your schedule for that reflective work, because if you don’t, you’re running real fast in the wrong direction.

Nir Eyal: [00:34:29] So those are those three life domains that we can use to fill our calendar. And then, and this is what to-do list can’t do. We have to make trade-offs because unlike in a to-do list that has no constraints. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. So this technique forces you to ask yourself, what am I going to do more of? What am I going to do less of? 

And by the way, I want you to do the fun stuff. You want time for television? You want time for video games? Awesome. Put that in your calendar, too. But it forces you to make these trade-offs so that you understand, hey, what is traction for my day? The things that I plan to do with my time and everything else, that’s a distraction.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:35:02] Yes, because that is the thing, isn’t it, about decision making. And you talk about values here, but people often talk about decision making and the balance between that and spontaneity or rather the scheduling and the balance between spontaneity. 

Nir Eyal: [00:35:18] Right. So, look, you know what I do? It’s it sounds like an oxymoron, but I actually schedule spontaneity. How do I do that? I don’t schedule every second of my day. But I know, OK, here are the buckets of the things that for me this time to this time, this is what I want to be doing with my time. So, for example, when I am with my daughter on Saturday afternoons, we have a big time block off, you know, one o’clock to five o’clock where we don’t know what we’re going to do. So why do I need to schedule it? 

Well, I schedule it, because even though I don’t know what we’re going to do, you know, we’re going to be spontaneous. We might go to the museum, we might get some ice cream. I go to the park. I don’t know what we’re going to do. But the point is, the reason I block off that time is because I know what I will not be doing. I will not be checking email. I will not be taking a work phone call. I will not be checking for social media because that is time I have dedicated to be with someone I love very much. 

So having that time blocked off and knowing that is going to happen, that time is reserved for quality time with my daughter. That’s a very important step. Now, what we do with that time? Doesn’t really matter. It’s about excluding what I will not be doing at that time. So if I find myself, oops, I’m checking my phone or whatever, now I know that’s a distraction because that is not what I plan to do with my time.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:36:33] Wow. Nir, you’ve given us so much to think about and so many pearls there. And it’s why I’ve read, you know, both of your books. And obviously, anybody listening to this has got to read it. You know, there are so many pearls in there and the issue of distraction is huge. If you’re going to leave us with two or three pearls and getting going in this, you know, give it to us. Give us some —

Actionable Tips to Improve Distractability

Nir Eyal: [00:36:57] Sure. You know, I think the important thing to remember here is if you’re going to summarise this entire book into one mantra, it’s this: “The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought.” The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought, that when it comes to the problem of distraction and procrastination, it’s not a character flaw. 

You know, many people think that there’s something wrong with them. There’s nothing wrong with you. OK? Procrastination distraction is not a character flaw it’s on a moral failing. It’s simply that we haven’t learnt how to deal with these impulses, how to deal with these impulses that lead us away from what is actually consistent with our goals and our values.

So it’s really about learning how to find impulse control and how do we do that? The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought. That if you wait till the last minute, they’re going to get you. If you wait till the chocolate cake is on the fork and you’re on a diet, you’re going to eat it. It’s too late. 

The chocolate cake is on the fork. If you wait till the cigarette is lit in your hand, you’re going to smoke it. If you sleep next to your cell phone every night, it’s the first thing you reach for in the morning before you say hello to your loved one. It’s too late. Then, of course, the social media companies are going to get you. Of course, it’s too late.

Nir Eyal: [00:38:13] What do we do about it? We use forethought. You know that is one of the traits of our species that makes us so special. Is that unlike any other animal on the face of the earth, we can see the future with higher fidelity than any other creature that roams the earth. Right. We can predict what is going to happen. So don’t wait till the last minute. Take steps today to prevent getting distracted tomorrow. 

And I don’t care how amazing their algorithms are, how great their devices are, how addictive or how distracting, whatever. It doesn’t matter. It’s not even a match. We are so much more powerful than they are if we take steps today to prevent a distracted tomorrow.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:38:53] Nir, what a note to finish on. And thank you so much for joining us today. I’ve loved talking to you, I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. And to have the opportunity to speak has been terrific. Thank you so much.

Nir Eyal: [00:39:04] My pleasure, Ron. Thank you.


Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:39:08] Well, that conversation just dovetails so perfectly into the conversation that I started with Jocelyn Brewer just recently about Digital Nutrition, but this is so much more than that. And I mean, it’s interesting that Nir has written these two books, Hooked and Indistractable, and whether they are the opposite ends of the same coin, I think actually Indistractable is so much more than that. And I’m really enjoying reading it at the moment. And I would really recommend that to you as well. 

It’s a challenge for us all. Are we spending our time on ourselves? You know this is a big part of this podcast’s message — about taking control of your own health and prioritising.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:39:56] And I was just reflecting on the fact that whenever we talk about sleep and there’s so much information about sleep, the most important part of you getting a good night’s sleep is for you to prioritise it. Unless you think it’s important. All the rest is just academic. And this is exactly the same too, we have so many distractions in our world, in our lives, but it’s about values and Nir so beautifully articulated. It’s about you, it’s about your relationships and it’s about work. 

And when it comes to work, it’s about: Is the majority of your time at work reactive or reflective? And we all know that if we go down the rabbit hole of emails and face all these other social media things, it’s a rabbit hole that is very reactive and we should be spending more time at work reflecting and being indistractable.

Look, we’re going to have links to Nir’s website, Nir and Far, and his wonderful books. I hope you found that as stimulating as I did and certainly inspiring. I hope this finds you well. Until next time. This is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be Well.


This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.