I’m Nir Eyal. Confession: I used to struggle with distraction. I’d tell myself to tackle a project, then hours later, I'd find I'd done anything but. I’d promise to avoid my phone, then give in to the glow of the screen. I wanted to know why I was so easily distracted, and why so many of us are. And more importantly, I wanted to change these habits.

It took five years of research and experimentation, but I think I’ve cracked the code on why we get distracted and what we can do about it. It turns out science can tell us a lot about how to increase our focus and deal with distraction, and that science helped me change my work and life. Today, I can get things done and spend more meaningful time with my family and friends—and I don't feel guilty all the time because I didn't do something I said I would.

Today, I call myself "indistractable"—a label that was hard for me to earn, and one that I made the title of a book that documented this journey. To be fair, there is some irony here. Before tackling my distraction problems, I wrote a book called Hooked—a guide to building “habit-forming products.” I know it can seem contradictory, but my experience as an industry insider was part of what helped me "un-hook” myself from distraction—without having to do some crazy digital detox or give up technology for a month. There's hope for people who love their devices but don’t want them to run their lives.

I’m excited to answer your questions, and hopefully this can help others who struggle with distraction. I’ve done a few other things in my career including teaching at Stanford as well as founding and investing in start-ups. I'm also a proud father of an 11-year-old, I live in New York, and I'm a barefoot runner. I’d be happy to answer questions about any and all of that as well.

So please, ask me anything!

Proof: https://imgur.com/xdPE02O

Edit: Hey everyone, I have to step away for an hour, but I’ll be back to answer more questions!

Edit: Back now, diving in! Keep the questions coming!

Edit: Reddit, thanks for all the great questions, comments, and back-and-forth. I really appreciate it, and if you keep leaving questions, I will do my best to answer them. Thank you!

Comments: 285 • Responses: 43  • Date: 

sssssshocking553 karma

So you got all of the big tech companies to make us get hooked on using their products/services and now you're teaching all of us to get un-addicted to using those products? Do I have that right? What gives?

Edit: a word

nireyal365 karma

I appreciate the question--and it’s a totally fair one to ask.

First, I wrote the book because I needed it. I was finding myself distracted throughout my day, especially during one of the most important moments in my day: my time with my daughter. And the thing that seemingly distracted me was--wait for it--technology. So I set out to solve my own problem.

Second, I had insights into the products that were leading me to become distracted. Hooked went deep into how psychology could be used to build engaging products and services. I understood this hidden psychology because I had spent years researching what makes products habit-forming.

Third, I wasn’t a fan of the fear-mongering narrative around tech. It seems there’s a new headline every day about tech “hijacking our brains” and “addicting” us all. That narrative isn’t true and isn’t helpful. While some tech does addict some people, the vast majority of us are not pathologically addicted. Most people aren’t addicted, they’re just distracted. Furthermore, telling people to give up their devices isn’t practical. We need these products for our livelihood and to stay connected with important people in our lives.

Thankfully, we can get the best of tech without letting it get the best of us. I wanted people to discover, as I did, that we’re much more powerful than we think. That the notion that we’re all addicted isn’t helpful and teaches learned helplessness instead of personal responsibility.

Trust me, though, I get the irony. And I hear about it in a good-natured way from my friends and family constantly. Guess it comes with the territory!

sarl__cagan253 karma

Like the guy at the World Cup who sold vuvuzelas and also ear plugs

phoney_user162 karma

Vuvuzela: $1 Earplugs: $20

nireyal83 karma

Internet immortality: priceless.

nick_ok114 karma

What the hell are you doing on Reddit!?! Quick! leave this place before years of work are undone!! Save yourself.

nireyal138 karma

Haha. Yes, the irony abounds. But just to be fair: 1) I think Reddit's amazing 2) I actually set aside time to do this. What I mean is that I practiced what I preach: if I'm going to do an AMA, it means I'm doing it guilt-free with a block of time for it. So if I want to browse Facebook for a while, I schedule "social media time." The point isn't to give up all the things you enjoy—and c'mon, who doesn't love a good internet rabbit hole?—the point is to make deliberate, conscious choices as opposed to allowing those rabbit holes to pull you away from what you ought to be doing. We want to use these products on our schedules--not on the app makers.

bsbing107 karma

Your "hook model” aims to, "build products that create habit-forming behavior in users via a looping cycle that consists of trigger, an action, a variable reward, and continued investment." What is good example and a bad example of this model being implemented?

nireyal152 karma

I appreciate the question! And it’s a valuable one. I’ll use two examples, one for the “good” and one for the “bad.”

Good -- It’s one that brings users back without a lot of conscious thought. A good example would be FitBod. It’s a fitness app that helps people form an exercise habit in the gym. One thing they do is remove uncertainty and wasted time by telling you exactly what to do in the gym. There’s no dithering about what your work out might be today; you just fire it up, and it tells you what to do. It seems simple, but this is actually a powerful psychological lever that addresses a real need. That’s just one feature but it speaks to the “action” part of the model in a way that works well.

Bad -- I’d say any product that intentionally prays on addicts. I think it’s important to distinguish between “habits” and “addictions.” Addiction can be an unfortunate byproduct of a product designed to be engaging but for some industries, it’s their entire business. I’m not a fan of business models that knowingly addicts people to their products and then won’t do anything about it. The examples are obvious here -- tobacco, alcohol, and machine gambling are all examples of industries that would have trouble staying viable without addicts making up a disproportionate share of the revenue. That’s a problem, and from my point of view, it’s unethical.

Lone_Beagle68 karma

Care to comment on the current state of loot boxes in Video Games? For example, NBA2k20, which is rated "E" for Everyone (so is marketed to children), which has highly realistic gambling mechanics woven into the game and progression?

nireyal114 karma

Since you mentioned loot boxes, I think you're probably more in the know than the average person about game design and about the tricks of that trade. So I'll spare everyone else a long discussion, but suffice it to say, I think we're likely to see regulation in the US similar to the "gacha laws" in Japan. Loot boxes won't go away, but the regulations may restrict them.

bsbing20 karma

I did read that you lost a bunch of weight with that app. Are you an investor in it? In that example, what is the trigger?

nireyal77 karma

I did start exercising regularly for the first time with FitBod, but no, I'm not an investor in it.

The external trigger: a notification telling you it's time to hit the gym. The internal trigger: the uncertainty of not knowing what to do once you get there--and the app scratches that psychological itch.

McJock92 karma

Back when you were distractable, what was your record for longest wikipedia deep-dive?

nireyal202 karma

Alright, embarassing admission time: I've had multiple, all-day Wiki rabbit hole sessions. I mean can you blame a guy? Just look at this list of "cognitive biases": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

To a guy like me, that's catnip, and I confess that I've spent many an hour reading about "the Ostrich effect" and "recency illusion."

When its not that, it's all things Back to the Future: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Back_to_the_Future

djdarrenpop28 karma

Just spent the last hour reading about cognitive biases. god damn it.

nireyal40 karma

I'm so, so, so sorry. (And...you're welcome.)

cracksilog79 karma

What’s a habit the average person can pick up every day to make sure they’re less distracted?

nireyal192 karma

I’m tempted to geek out on the distinction between “habits” and “routines” and why it’s so important to know the difference, but in order to answer more questions, I’ll come back to that topic later on.

As for a daily habit the average person can do, it would be to learn to identify our internal triggers with curiosity instead of contempt. So many of us beat ourselves up when we get distracted and think there’s something wrong with us (or blame the tech), but this only makes us feel worse and ironically leads to more distraction to escape discomfort. Instead, we can learn to identify the preceding emotion that leads us astray so we deal with them more healthfully.

For instance, we can use a “distraction tracker” to simply write down the emotion we felt when we got distracted. Were you feeling lonely, bored, or stressed, when you wandered over to Facebook for that half-hour? Were you anxious when you decided to go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole instead of writing your research paper? Putting the feeling down on paper can empower you--and more importantly, you can discover root causes. After you’ve done that, we can use tactics like the “10-minute rule” which says we can give into any temptation after just 10 minutes. Most of the time, you’ll get back to the task at hand after just a few minutes of reflecting on the emotion and the root cause of the discomfort you are seeking to escape with a distraction.

bsbing58 karma

With all of these tools at your disposal, why were you an hour late to your own AMA? (kidding, no need to answer)

nireyal78 karma

Haha. Totally fair question. Happy to answer. I submitted the post at 1030, but then I think something might have gotten caught by the auto-filters? The friendly neighborhood mods came to the rescue, approved the post, and all is well.

bwish10066 karma

Nir, I really struggle with going to bed on time. I do way too much work late and wake up the next morning groggy. To do more work.

How would you combat this? Thank you

nireyal130 karma

I feel you on this one! I constantly went to bed later than I intended. Here’s what I did to fix that:

Made time for traction - I put going to bed on my daily calendar. Not only did I know exactly when I wanted to go to bed, I had time planned for brushing my teeth and doing the things that come before bedtime.

Hacked back external triggers - I stopped sleeping with my cellphone. Most Americans sleep with their phones on their nightstands. I think that’s a mistake. I got an alarm clock, and now, I charge my phone outside the bedroom. That way, it can’t trigger me with a sleep-interrupting ping or ding.

Prevented distraction with a pact - I bought an outlet timer that turns off my internet connection and computer monitor every night at 10pm. Scary effective.

Mastered internal trigger - I used techniques like the “10-minute rule” to help me pause for a few minutes to think through the root cause of why I was tempted to stay up late. Was I fearful, stressed, anxious? A few minutes of reflection helped me understand what negative sensations I was trying to escape so I could deal with them more rationally.

JudgeHoltman80 karma

bought an outlet timer that turns off my internet connection

You are not fucking around.

Probably bad that this is unthinkable to me isn't it?

nireyal45 karma

So before I get a reputation as the guy who "used a timer to cut himself off from the world, like Thoreau," I should say I've upgraded this tool recently.

A little while back, I bought an Eero internet router. The problem with using the timer was that it shut off everything. The Eero allows you to keep your smarthome devices on, while turning off WiFI access to certain devices in your home. That means I can keep my Amazon Alexa on to play music before bed, while not being tempted to go on my laptop.

goldiespapa36 karma

You could have been describing me with your intro, so I've just bought your book and look forward to reading it.

Now that you've been talking about your book with the press and interested readers, is there anything not included in your book (anecdotes, bits of advice, etc.) that you could share here to supplement your text?

nireyal93 karma

That's a great question. When I finished the draft of the book and gave it to my wife, it clocked in at 350 pages. And she said, "No one's going to make it through a 350-page book about distraction." She was right (as she often is!). So we started cutting.

One of the sections I cut was a lot of work and research on addiction. There's a myth that addiction is caused by the product or substance being abused. We think drugs cause drug addictions. We think gambling causes gambling addictions. But Addiction is more complex than that. There's a confluence of three factors that lead to addiction: 1) the person 2) the product 3) the pain the person is otherwise unable to cope with. We need a more nuanced and scientific view of addiction and need to be careful about our use of the word. If we don't understand what addiction is and use the term to explain things we "like a lot," we risk disrespecting people who have real addictions and need real help. Furthermore, we give away our agency and our ability to deal with the problem when we say we are all "addicted."

But that whole series of thoughts ended up being a few pages too many for the book, and I wanted to make sure people got through it without, well, being distracted. (I did, though, put a lot of that thinking up online, in case people want to go deeper.)

BernzMaster22 karma

Hi Nir, do you have any advice for people who are more easily distracted than average such as those with AD(H)D?

nireyal24 karma

The book isn't specifically written for people with ADHD (which is a condition that requires the attention of a specialist.) However, I have had many readers tell me that the techniques within it are helpful for managing their conditions. Many of them overlap with other recommended advice for people who have ADHD. My sense is that, if you have ADHD, you probably attack that issue with more than one tool, and my hope is that some of the tools that I've written about can help you.

AsmirLalani22 karma

Hi Nir!

Great usage of Reddit btw, I love it!

My question would be: what are your favorite apps and services to keep you distraction-free?


nireyal51 karma

By this point, I've tried them all, and I don't want to overwhelm people. But here are a few of my favorites:

Surfing the urge (MP3) -- An audio-based exercise from the University of Washington that helps an individual develop the practice of dealing with cravings or urges to behave in a certain way.

The Happiness Trap -- This is a good intro to Acceptance and Commitment therapy.

Mixmax -- Among other things, it allows you to delay email delivery--which can help you control your inbox.

Sanebox -- They analyze your email habits to determine future email importance and auto-filter/organize those emails so that the most important ways get the attention they deserve. It also comes with the SaneBlackHole feature that ensures you never see emails from a particular address ever again.

X.Ai -- An AI personal assistant who schedules meetings for you.

Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator -- A personal favorite, and it does what it says it will do: makes your newsfeed disappear, so you can use the best of Facebook without getting pulled into the vortex.

Distraction-Free YouTube -- Similar to the Newsfeed Eradicator -- this scrubs ads and recommended videos, so you watch what you came to watch on YouTube.

That's just a few, and I'm happy to share more if people would like!

ahh_meh18 karma

I’ve been reading the book and found that writing my answers in the workbook is a huge help, even though it feels like it slows me down from getting more into the book. In the book a few times you recommend writing things down. Is there some psychological secret that we can learn from there, or is it just something that seems to work for you or others?

nireyal37 karma

Great question, and I'm glad that the workbook has been such a huge help. I really appreciate getting that feedback.

On the writing piece: there is a psychological basis for this. It comes from the world of acceptance and commitment therapy. It works because it gives us agency and control over an otherwise mindless habit. By writing down the internal trigger, we have more power to control it. (Btw, a great book on the topic is Russ Harris's Happiness Trap.)

Most people default into shaming themselves when they get distracted. But by writing things down, you are acknowledging the root cause of the problem is a feeling -- not your failing. That can help us be kinder to ourselves, and learn ways to cope with discomfort in a healthier manner.

MeineMeinungen16 karma

Your book seems to place the blame for being "hooked" largely on the individual and doesn't put much of the blame on the corporations that make these apps (you even seem to praise companies like Slack, whose product absolutely demands people's attention and certainly adds to distraction). To me, this seems to be an almost libertarian take that praises large corporations at the detriment of the average person.

I guess my question is, why should I view electronic device distraction, which can lead to things such as bad texting and driving, as a personal failing and not a market/corporate failing?

nireyal22 karma

This is an important question. Here’s my take: with the exception of children and people who are pathologically addicted, I think dealing with distraction is a matter of personal responsibility.

Let’s take the example you offered. The reason I would argue that texting while driving is a personal, and not a market, failure is that (given current technology) the consumer is the one who has the easier time of preventing harm. Think of two cars traveling one behind the other. If one car rear-ends the other, in almost all cases, it would be the driver in back who is at fault. This is not because the driver in front could not have done something to prevent the accident, but rather that the driver behind has much more control over ensuring a safe distance between the two cars.

There’s probably a tech fix for this issue on the horizon. I imagine that, someday, self-driving cars or phones that switch off automatically will solve the problem. But until then, the phone manufacturer is the driver in front, so to speak. We're the driver in back.

The responsibilities lie with the consumer because we’re the ones voting with our wallets. In many cases, we’ve paid for these products and services, and sometimes, we’re even paying for the privilege of having our emotions and imagination manipulated. That’s not a bad thing, per se. Don’t we go to movies to feel something? We know it’s just flickering light and that the actors are reading scripted lines, but we love it because it’s engrossing. Similarly, when it comes to our tech products, we want our devices to be user-friendly, engaging, and even habit-forming. That’s not a problem in itself. In fact, in many cases, it represents real progress.

If you hold your breath waiting for companies to make their products less engaging, you’re going to suffocate. Why wait? Could there be regulations that fix the distraction problem from Washington, DC? Maybe. Might tech companies decide to make their products less engaging? Possibly. But the thing we can all do right now is to learn ways to become indistractable today.

By focusing on the individual, we give the individual power—and I’d argue that’s not about blame, it’s about agency. We can choose how we spend our time and attention—and we can decide that we’re not going to be at the mercy of a cyclone of updates, notifications, and alerts.

swestdahl11 karma

What's the most important lesson that college improv comedy taught you?

nireyal55 karma

Easy: the rule of “Yes! And...”

When you’re on stage, the best way to kill a comedy sketch is to negate the premise. So if your partner acts like they’re floating in outer space, you want to go along with it and add to the idea. You don’t want to insist that, in fact, you’re not in space and that you’re actually underwater SCUBA diving. It kills the whole spirit of the moment.

This lesson applies to business (and life!) as well. Both are about improvising and trying to find the right path forward. And often, that’s about saying “yes, and…”—and then seeing what you can do to build on something that’s already been said.

mantis___bog9 karma

You again?

This is the first time I'm here.

nireyal13 karma

I could've sworn I've seen you here before...maybe in a past life?

firefly21210 karma

<3 I love hooked as a aide to help me understand when I'm being marketed to, but how do you feel about companies misusing habit forming behavior to be more predatory on people with addictive tendencies or other problems?

nireyal24 karma

Bottom line: I think it’s unethical to knowingly prey upon someone who does not have the ability to make sound judgments. That’s why, for instance, we have laws protecting children from potentially predatory practices.

Companies who knowingly depend upon addicted people to stay in business are crossing the line. Consider casinos, for instance. They don’t care much about the person coming into town for a weekend of fun once per year. They really want the “whales” who play until they are tapped out. Some so-called, “free-to-play,” online games operate under the same predatory model—and people play until they are financially spent. I think that’s unethical.

bakerjake10 karma

Hi Nir - have you ever heard of the service Focusmate? It’s a really cool way to avoid distraction.

nireyal20 karma

Not only have I heard of it, but I loved it so much that I invested in the company. I think Taylor and his team are doing remarkable work. Focusmate is an example of a precommitment device that can help you become indistractable, and I can't recommend it enough.

esotericunicornz9 karma

What is something you learned about in your research that you absolutely couldn't get to the bottom of, couldn't figure out?

nireyal25 karma

A seriously great question--and a tough one, because authors don't enjoy admitting when they didn't leave it all out on the field.

But here's the one thing I grappled with that I didn't feel like I got to the bottom of: pain. There's a whole complex, interesting literature on pain, and I wanted to go further in exploring chronic pain. It turns out, chronic pain is the brain's hypersensitivity to irrelevant stimulus. I found that interesting: what if pain is more psychological and not physiological? What does that mean for our subjective understanding of discomfort and our ability to control it?

But for reasons of both page constrains and expediency, I couldn't run that one to the ground. It felt like an entirely different book, and honestly, I might make it the subject of what I work on next. It's a field that I think affects so many parts of our lives--and so many of the people in them--and I didn't want to give it short shrift by tossing it in without going deep into the research.

RustyBlacksmith9 karma

Hi Nir,

I'm currently thinking about doing an industrial design project on distraction for my final year dissertation. Have you ever felt that there is a need for a physical product that would help us with this problem?

nireyal13 karma

Wow! That's a great topic to pursue for your final year dissertation. And my answer is a resounding yes. I do think physical (and digital) products will emerge to help us deal with distraction, and I profile a few of them in the book. There's one physical product that stands out, which is the KSafe. It's designed to deal with those cravings that so many of us get for something in our pantry that we probably shouldn't have. It's just one example of many, and I'm glad that you're going to spend some time on that research. We need more of it!

bionicmichster9 karma

What’s the most unexpected thing that happened while writing “Indistractable” or “Hooked”? I’m really curious about your writing process in general as well

nireyal24 karma

Here's something unexpected: the reason this new book took me five years is that I tried a bunch of tactics that didn't work. I got a flip phone (to keep my smartphone at bay) and it failed. I got a 1990s word processor (without any internet) and that didn't work (I got distracted by books instead). I thought that one or more of these would fix my distraction issue, but all those efforts made me realize that technology wasn't the root cause. Distraction starts from within. I had to go deeper to figure out why I was actually getting distracted.

To your question about my writing process: there's a difference in what I did pre-Indistracble and post-Indistractable. Before this book, I would write whenever I had time. And as I got busier, I got more distracted, and I finished less writing. Post-Indistractable, I have it on my calendar. I schedule two hours from 930 to 1130 every day, with planned exceptions (like this AMA!).

bionicmichster5 karma

Is it possible to schedule office hours with you to pick your brain on what it is to be a writer? I have a topic I’d love to write on but don’t know any published authors, so would love to have the opportunity to chat with you about you experiences

nireyal21 karma

Happy to help. You can send me a message on Reddit if your question(s) are things I could just respond to here. Or we can chat. Just go to: nirandfar.com/schedule-time-with-me. A lot of people have helped me out along the writerly path, so I'm happy to offer advice or aid in any way that I can.

HardekAilawadi8 karma

How to be indistractable in college where there are so many things and events to distract you and you can't just focus?

nireyal19 karma

Great question!

With so many potential distractions in college, the first step is to turn your values into time. By planning your day, you’ll know the difference between traction and distraction for every minute. Anything you plan to do is traction; anything that is not on your schedule is a distraction. Remember, you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. (Also if you need help on the scheduling front, I built a very easy to use schedule maker tool.)

Next, you need to “hack back the external triggers.” When you’re studying, turn off the pings and rings that lead you to distraction. In college, I’d say your working environment is just as much of a contributor to distraction as your tech. In other words, you need to make sure you can work from places free of external triggers (like other people) when you need to focus and get your work done. Study time shouldn’t be social time. I fully admit: in college, I was someone who found myself in the library talking to my friends instead of getting my work done. That was before I learned how to become indistractable, and my hope is that you can learn from my mistakes.

Then, you need to utilize “pacts” to prevent distraction. Make an effort, price, or identity pact to keep you from falling off track. Tell a friend you’ll pay them $50 if you don’t finish a draft of a paper. Use tech tools like the Forest app or the SelfControl app to create a barrier between you and time-wasting apps and websites. Those pacts pay off.

Finally, you’ll need to deal with the “internal triggers,” principally the “fear of missing out” which can be a powerful force pulling you towards distraction, especially in college when it can seem like everyone else is out having a good time. Learn techniques for coping with psychological discomfort to help you become mentally tougher. Learning to become indistractable during your formative university years will serve you throughout your college and professional career. And the truth is, you’ll probably have more guilt-free fun and attend more interesting events because you’ll feel like you have mastery over your time.

hashish168 karma

Personal question here, what was your internal reason for being distracted?

Edit: For those who don't really know what they are looking for.

nireyal20 karma

Honestly, there wasn't a single reason. My internal triggers for being distracted depended on the circumstance.

So when I was with my daughter, I was distracted because I had had too much toddler time. One can only handle so many hours of playing Uno before you start to climb the walls. So the internal trigger to check my phone, in that case, was boredom. But I could have handled it in a healthier way.

When I was at my desk, trying to work on a presentation, I'd wrestle with the internal trigger of anxiety over a looming deadline. To escape that trigger, I'd look for relief by checking email, going to Wikipedia, Googling anything that was remotely relevant.

In social situations, as a natural introvert, I've always felt uncomfortable in crowds. To avoid the discomfort of mingling with strangers, I'd make up a reason why my phone demanded urgent attention. Before we all had smartphones, the first thing I would do at a cocktail party is slam down a few drinks to make the internal trigger of social anxiety go away. In both cases, the phone and the booze gave me an escape from the uncomfortable feeling.

For each one of us, the reason for the distraction will be different, and it will depend on the situation. But the point is to find the root cause, and it's usually not the same cause in each situation.

nkurmalhotra8 karma

I have a huge problem with concentrating. This has grown over time as you are expected to multi task and all. this now affects your growth as an individual as well.

what will be your top 3 suggestions to solve this?

nireyal32 karma

Great question. I spent years nerding out about this (and there’s tons of stuff in the book), so instead of three, let me give you four. :-)

1) Master your internal triggers. You have to get to the root cause of why you’re compulsively checking you’re getting distracted. Most often, the reason is that you’re trying to escape discomfort of some kind. You’re trying to get away from feeling bad. Boredom, loneliness, insecurity, fatigue, uncertainty, these are all things we don’t want to feel and use our devices and other distractions as psychological pacifiers.

Once you figure out what the trigger is, you can process it and address it. Dr. Jonathan Bricker, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, gives his patients a few techniques. You can write the feeling down. You can get curious about it. Even just identifying it and calling it out can help. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but understanding the root cause is key.

2) Turn your values into time. It’s easy to talk a good game about what’s important to you. “I value my health!” “I love my family!” But then if you look at someone’s calendar, there’s no time for work and no time for the kids. You have to actually make time for the things you value. Again, this sounds easy, but if you’re like I used to be, you don’t actually carve out time for the things that you say you value.

I block out chunks of time now for my wife and my daughter as well as time for focused work at my desk. It’s there, staring at me on the calendar. And during those intervals, nothing else gets scheduled. It seems simple, but it’s a big part of defeating distraction. Remember, you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from!

3) Hack back external triggers. We’re inundated with dings and pings, and those things pull us away from what we really want to do. But not all external triggers are distractions. If used to help you accomplish tasks, external triggers can remind you to do what you planned. That said, I would argue that the best thing a lot of us can do is to pare down the number of external triggers to only the ones that serve us.

To get more concrete, here’s a quick four-step process for doing that with your phone: 1) Remove the apps you no longer need. 2) Remove apps that you like, but that you can use on your computer instead. 3) Rearrange the remaining apps on your phone to reduce visual clutter. 4) Adjust your notification settings for each app, to only notify you when you need it most. I can assure you that paring some of these triggers back will help.

4. Prevent distractions with pacts. Forethought is the antidote for impulsivity. That sounds fancy, here’s what it means: you have to precommit to things, and by precommiting, you'll become less impulsive.

Think about it: once you buy a plane ticket for a friend’s wedding, it’s rare that you back out. Another example: once you put money away in a retirement account that has a penalty for early withdrawal, you’re less likely to take money out. Those are pacts--agreements you made with yourself about something you want to do in the future.

You can use these kinds of pacts all the time, in ways that can help you defeat distraction. Apps like SelfControl and Freedom make you take a bunch of steps before you mindlessly browse the web. I used a price pact to finish my book: I told a friend of mine I’d give him $10,000 if I didn’t meet my deadline. And damnit if I didn’t keep my deadline!

I can go super deep down this rabbit hole, but I hope some of those thoughts help you out, at least a bit. Believe me when I tell you: I’ve been there.

wojoyoho7 karma

1) Do you have any ethical concerns with respect to providing a road map for companies to create addictive and distracting products?

2) Do you have any ethical concerns making money both from providing a road map for companies to create addictive products and off selling a solution to addicted/distracted consumers?

nireyal8 karma

Great questions.

I called my first book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” I purposely didn’t use the word “addictive” in the title or subtitle. There’s a big difference. Addictions are persistent compulsive dependencies on a behavior or substance that harms the user. A habit is an impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought.

While addictions are always harmful, habits are not. We want tech makers to use the tactics I describe in Hooked to help people build healthy habits like exercising more, saving money, and being more productive at work. These aren’t addictions. They’re helpful habits.

My insights into how tech tools are built to be engaging also gave me a unique perspective on what these tactics can and can’t do. Behavioral design is not mind-control. Unless the user does not have the faculties for sound judgment (as is the case for children and people who are pathologically addicted), you can’t make people repeatedly do something they don’t want to do.

Therefore, it behooves us to stop labeling everything “addictive” and start getting real. For the vast majority of us, these products are not “addiction.” They are, at times, “distractions.” As an industry insider, I can teach people how to use tech to build products to improve people’s lives while also providing insights into how to dial back.

As for making money, writing books is the opposite of a get-rich-quick scheme: it rarely makes you rich, and it’s definitely not quick. Indistractable took me five years to research and write. When I approach a topic, it’s because there’s some question I have in my head, and I can’t find the answer available. When I wanted to know how to build habit-forming products and couldn’t find a book on the topic, I did years of research and wrote a book. And when I sought the secret to managing distraction and found the books already out there insufficient, I decided to write that book as well. I enjoy doing it, and I’m grateful for the chance to do go deep into topics and share my insights with others.

pMangonut7 karma

Why do you think is the reason for humans to get distracted? Is it because we lack a powerful ' why'? Or we are very bad at managing transitions between tasks?

nireyal42 karma

Distraction is nothing new. The ancient philosopher Plato talked about “akrasia,” our tendency to do things against our better interests—and he was talking about that 2,500 years ago. These are fascinating, age-old questions. Why we do things we know we shouldn’t? Why do we not do the things we should? There are three reasons we get distracted:

1 - We’re present bias. If you’ve ever procrastinated on a big task, given in to temptation, or failed to save for the future, you’ve fallen victim to what psychologists call “hyperbolic discounting.” This psychological quirk is a cornerstone of the field of behavioral economics. It’s the tendency to choose smaller, immediate rewards versus benefits that take longer to accrue. Candy tastes great in the moment, but might not so good for you over the long haul. That impulse buy feels fantastic right now. But the savings you might get won’t feel as good for a few years.

2 - We are marginal thinkers. According to “marginal value theorem,” animals will switch from gathering food in one patch to the next not when the food is depleted, but when the resource is depleted enough to no longer be as interesting as the next patch. You and I—and all our fellow humans—also follow this model, not just in our primal search for food but in our very modern hunt for information. We switch between email, television, and our phones, constantly looking for the next information reward. When one source becomes less interesting, we jump to the next. Given that it’s so easy these days to feed our media diet with a quick click or tap, we’re all the more likely to switch back and forth like frenetic little squirrels.

3 - We’re creatures of habit. About 40 percent of our daily behaviors are driven by habit. These impulses can be put to good use, offloading common tasks to cognitive autopilot. However, this ability can also conspire against us today. When we form a habit with something that provides psychological relief from discomfort, we tend to turn to that action time and again.

Knowing that we’re biased to the now, programmed to look for the new and interesting, and wedded to our habits, we can begin to adjust each of those to achieve our goals.

Woppa1246 karma

My kids are becoming very addicted to internet RPGs and YouTubers. I'm worried. What should I do?

nireyal18 karma

Let me begin with a personal story. When my daughter was 2 years old, some of her first words were “iPad time! iPad time!” Now that she’s 11-years old, she still loves her devices but we’ve also equipped her with the power to control distraction. Here’s how we taught her to be indistractable:

First, we got to the root cause of her internal triggers. Many kids today overuse tech because of a lack of what I call, “psychological nutrients.” According to Self-Determination Theory, we all need three things for psychological well-being: a sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. However, many kids today live over-scheduled and over-restricted lives. They have little time for free play and their psychological needs go unmet. When kids don’t get their psychological nutrients met offline, they go online, where tech companies are happy to reward them with what they’re missing. In order to understand why kids overuse tech, we need to understand what’s really driving them. In my daughter’s case, we found that if we planned time for her to play with her friends IRL, she wasn’t as compelled to connect with them online. So we created more IRL play time.

Second, we made time in her day for the tech she enjoyed, like online games and YouTube videos. But we approached it differently than we had in the past: we gave her a say in how she’d like to spend her time. We made sure to build in time into her day to play games, but asked her how much time she wanted to spend given all the other things she could do. Kids are surprisingly smart about time, and when we asked her how much of a time budget she wanted for games and videos, she answered 45 minutes. That seemed to us like a reasonable amount, and more importantly, she determined it for herself.

Next, we made sure she knew how to hack back the external triggers like the pings and dings on her phone. If a kid doesn’t know how to turn off devices when it’s time for dinner or to do homework, then they are not mature enough to use those devices. When we knew that she could understand airplane mode and do not disturb, we knew she had enough wherewithal for the device itself.

Finally, we helped her prevent distraction with pacts by helping her keep commitments to herself. She uses apps like Forest and Apple’s Screentime to help her stay focused or tell her when she’s had enough. Now it’s her device that tells her it’s time to put the iPad down, not her daddy.

anotherkindofbiscuit4 karma

Hi Nir! I’ve never heard of these books but I’m definitely going to look into them. Thank you for doing this AMA.

I studied psychology and human development for my undergrad and consider myself a lifelong student on these subjects.

I realized a few years ago that I had a shopping problem. I had left a toxic workplace and was in between jobs. I was in a new city. Stress was definitely a main factor in my compulsive shopping. I felt compelled to always be on the hunt for something. I ended up with stuff I liked but at the end of a few months, a lot of it was clutter. I read Marie Kondo’s book and decluttered so much. Forcing myself to hold each item and really think about what it means to me yanked me out of my compulsive shopping habits. I no longer see the thrill in shopping “for fun”. Going through her method made me realize that in times of stress, I was trying to replicate a ritual I had growing up when shopping with my mom. It was the way to her heart, I guess you could say. She loved finding “a good deal”. On some level, I thought I’d feel comforted. Of course, I never did and all that I ended up doing was increase my credit card bills and fill my home with unnecessary things.

In a case like this, what kinds of psychological things do you think are at work? Can you share a similar type of situation that you’ve come across in your research?

nireyal4 karma

I'm really glad you asked this question and shared your story. And the reason is this: I don't want people to assume that all distraction is driven by technology.

In this case, the action you didn't want to do was superfluous spending. And you did it for the same reasons that compel every distraction--indeed, the psychology behind every behavior: escaping an uncomfortable sensation.

It's no exaggeration to say that all the situations I've come across boil down to this same thing. But there's a silver lining: that means that in every case, the answer comes down to understanding the internal triggers, making time for traction, hacking back the external triggers, and preventing distraction with pacts.

gigatroness3 karma

I absolutely love your responses and look forward to reading more. Thanks for doing this ama. I cannot wait to read your books! Now my question, what is your favorite subreddit?

Raspberries-Are-Evil3 karma

So whats the best way to avoid being distracted by, wait hold up a sec, gotta answer this text......oh man look a puppy! Wait, what were we talking about?

Seriously though, didn't people still have this problem before tech? Do you think its more about technology or is it something else?

nireyal9 karma


I couldn’t agree more. Can we honestly say that if Zuckerberg turned off Facebook or Reddit shut down (shiver at the thought!) that we’d stop getting distracted? Of course not!

Distraction is nothing new. It was written about in ancient times. And our criticism of tech is almost as old as the problem of distraction itself. People have always blamed the latest technology for rotting our brains and taking over our lives. Before today’s technology, people said television, the radio, comic books, even the novel, were leading our minds astray.

What is different today, however, is the fact that technology has created a world where distraction is easier than ever to find. It’s literally living in our pockets. If it is distraction you seek, distraction you shall find. The good news is that we will get through this the same way humans always have: we will adapt and adopt. We will adapt our behavior by learning new ways to deal with distraction. And we will adopt new technologies to fix bad elements of the last generation of technologies.

Fundamentally, I’d say tech is the “proximate cause” of distraction, not the “root cause.” Like in the game of pool, the white ball isn’t the reason the colored ball goes into the pocket. It’s the player who incites the proceeding actions. With tech distraction, there are deeper causes for why we get distracted that have driven us to distraction since time immemorial. If we don’t learn tactics to cope with the real source of the problem, we’ll always be distracted by something.

eric23323 karma

How do your family and friends view your indistractability? Are there any downsides? Do they ever think of you as robotic, or inattentive, or one of the other terms that come to mind when I think of the opposite of distractability?

nireyal6 karma

Quite the opposite! The reason I started down this path was because I was constantly distracted while with my friends and family. Now for the first time in years, I am fully present with the people I love. It’s been all upside for me, and I think my family and friends would agree.

mladaw2 karma

How did you stay focused long enough to write a book on staying focused?

nireyal2 karma

There's an honest answer to this that might help people (though, of course, I get the joke!). At first, I researched and wrote “whenever I could find the time.” So the whole process was, well, chaotic. But after I discovered the research into how to conquer distraction, I built the time into my schedule. This is called setting an “implementation intention.” Every morning, two hours. And by “time-boxing” that segment of the day, I could actually get the book done. Now, it still took five years, because it took me that long to figure out how to cure my distraction issues. I tried a lot of different methods and read through thousands of academic papers. But the writing itself became much smoother because I used the techniques I learned while writing the book to, well, write the book.

BrighterLater2 karma

Honestly curious, did you ever approach your battle with distraction from a more meditative or philosophical perspective? Like, is getting more things done even really... necessary?

nireyal2 karma

I think like anyone, this is something I’ve wrestled with quite a bit. Here’s what I’d say: the underlying goal of my approach is to help you do whatever is consistent with your values. One value could be productivity. But it’s not the only value. For me, a big part of why I went down the path of figuring out my issues with distraction was that I wanted to reclaim time with my family--and during that time, I didn’t want to be checking my phone or worrying about other things.

It’s more about being conscious about how you spend your time, as opposed to simply saying that time must be used to get things done.

MrGims2 karma

What do you think think of tech companies using and maybe abusing your hook model (trigger, action, variable reward and continued investment) ? Like scrolling content website or stories getting into every apps

It plays on fear of missing out, brain's reward system and build habits that can be quite addictive

Do you think it will become a problem on par with alcohol and tobacco ? Or maybe more like junk food, something that is a social inequalities catalyser ?

nireyal8 karma

Alcohol is a useful analogy here. Some people have a pathological addiction to alcohol. But most people who drink are not alcoholics.

In the same way, there are probably some “tech addicts.” But most of us, I would argue, aren’t “addicts.” I’d put us somewhere closer to teenagers trying booze for the first time. We got ahold of this new thing (smartphones, social media platforms, etc), and we weren’t really told how to use it responsibly. So we binged. Now, we’re waking up with a tech hangover.

After your first alcohol-induced hangover, you might swear off booze forever. But more likely, you regret what you’ve done, and then you change your behavior. In the same way that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a drink if you know how to do so responsibly, there’s nothing wrong with social media or technology when handled responsibly. Contrary to what a lot of the popular books will argue about swearing off technology forever, I think there’s a better way.

We discovered with alcohol that prohibition didn’t work. And I think that analogy holds for tech too: the answer isn’t to become a tech-prohibitionst, but to grow up and learn how to use it in a mature and responsible way.

flyingGrandma1 karma

Granted I'm only 15 pages into the book (so sorry if you go on to address this), but what's your favorite calendar app and what tips/tricks do you use to optimize your scheduling? Do you build out your schedule on a weekly basis or day-by-day? Do you set aside X hours/day for "free/flex time" during the week?

nireyal2 karma

I use Google Calendar to keep a timeboxed schedule, but honestly, I find it can be too cumbersome for most people just getting started with the practice. I wasn’t happy with any of the scheduling tools so I made my own schedule builder. Most people find adjusting their calendar every week to be a good cadence. However, if your schedule changes daily, you may need to revisit it more often. Personally, I found adjusting my schedule every week works for me. Every Sunday evening, I look at the week ahead and make tweaks (and, yes, the time to “tweak my schedule” is on my calendar too.)

Remember also to plan time for activities you enjoy. The time you plan to waste is not wasted time. Make time for relaxation, meditation, or whatever you find is consistent with your values (e.g., reading Reddit AMAs). It’s also best to schedule some buffer time between commitments with uncertain time requirements. For instance, if your morning commute changes based on traffic conditions, you can build in extra time daily to make sure it doesn’t conflict with your next commitment.

TranquiliZer931 karma

Are you using us to keep you distracted?

nireyal2 karma

Let’s be clear: Reddit is no distraction (er, as long as you’ve scheduled time for it) Remember, the time you PLAN to waste is not wasted time.

benofepmn0 karma

i’m sorry what were you saying? i’m so distracted i get distracted by a second distraction while distracted.

nireyal2 karma


Beccabooisme0 karma

I'm browsing reddit as a distraction from getting up to get ready for work.

I come across this thread that seems very interesting and like it could help me

I read one paragraph and decide "oh no i really should actually get up now, I'll bookmark this for later"

Distractions on distractions of distractions. Is this normal?

nireyal1 karma

An AMA about distraction made you less distracted. Does this mean we broke the internet?

sulumits-retsambew-1 karma

What did you do in the IDF? How long were you in for? What is your rank?

nireyal10 karma

I have a super Israeli name, but I never served in the IDF. I grew up in a suburb of Orlando, Florida, and I've been in America since I was three years old. (I did serve as an Americorps volunteer for a year in an underprivileged school in southwest Atlanta.)