« Plato struggled with distraction 2500 years before the iPhone. » A talk with Nir Eyal – part 1.

30.04.2020 – 5 min. read

interview Nir Eyal


5 min. read

Who is Nir Eyal?

Nir Eyal is an American author, lecturer, entrepreneur and investor. He is known for his bestselling books Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. He writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The M.I.T. Technology Review dubbed Nir, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.” His work inspired us in the creation of Let Me Think.


Let Me Think: Hello Nir ! It is a real pleasure to speak with you today.  In Indistractable, you say that becoming indistractable will be one of the key skills for an individual to thrive in the 21th century. What does it mean to be indistractable? And what makes becoming indistractable such a key skill ?

Nir Eyal: There’s no aspect of our life that isn’t touched by the ability to decide how we spend our time, and how we spend our attention. At the end of the day, this is how we spend our life. Distraction is nothing new – it has been with us for a very, very long time. I really think there’s going to be a bifurcation between people who let their time, their attention, and their lives be controlled by other people, and people who stand up and say “No, I am an indistractable. I decide how I spend my time, my attention, and my life”.

I wrote the book (“Indistractable”), because I was struggling with this problem. I found that since writing it, there’s no aspect of my life that hasn’t improved. I’m in a better shape than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m 42 and I’ve never been this physically fit. My marriage has improved. I spend more time with my daughter. I’m more productive at work. So there’s no area of life that isn’t touched by this. 

LMT: Your previous book, Hooked, is a cookbook to create habit-forming products. The goal is to help entrepreneurs build products to improve our customers lives because we all love easy to use products that become staples of our daily routines… But nowadays we  hear more and more people complain about “smartphone addiction”.
To you, what is the difference between being hooked and addicted?

Nir Eyal: I really appreciate that you picked up on the difference. I can always tell when someone hasn’t read my book because they’ll say, “oh, you wrote a book on how to addict people”. I specifically talk in the book why it is not titled, “How to Build Addictive Product”. It’s titled, “How to Build Habit Forming Products,” because an addiction by definition is a pathology. It is a persistent compulsive dependency on a behavior or substance that harms the user. As product builders, we never want to design something to be addictive because – by definition – addictions harm users. So that’s unethical.

“Nobody is getting addicted to an enterprise SaaS software.

I never say you should addict people. And I never work for companies that addict people. So I don’t work with alcohol companies, I don’t work with marijuana companies, I don’t work with gambling companies, I don’t work with pornography companies. There’s a lot of companies I won’t work with, even though I’ve been asked to. Some gaming companies I won’t work with either, because that business model that relies upon addiction is unethical. Addiction is a pathology.

What I write about are habits and we can have good habits that help us improve our life. So nobody is getting addicted to an enterprise SaaS software. Nobody’s getting addicted to an exercise software. Nobody’s getting addicted to educational apps. That’s not a problem. In fact, quite the opposite. The problem is that people don’t use the tactics. When you think about your enterprise software, or government services software for local businesses, this software sucks. It doesn’t suck us in. It sucks.

And so, my goal was to democratize these secrets that the gaming companies and the social media companies use to get us hooked – so we can use these techniques for good. Hooked works for the product developer, for the designer who wants to help people form good habits with their products, so that people use their products because they want to, not because they feel like they have to.

But Indistractable, I didn’t just write for the product maker, I wrote for everyone. And one of the things that is really important for people to realize is that using the terminology of “addiction” is hurting us. The vast majority of people are not addicted. We want to think we are addicted. We love to hear we’re addicted. Why?

Because when there’s an addiction, there’s a pusher. There’s a dealer.

There’s a big bad tech company that’s doing it to you, which means it’s not my fault. There’s nothing I can do about it. Right. Tristan Harris tells me it’s addictive. It’s hijacking my brain. Hijacking is what they did to us on 9/11. Hijacking is what virus is doing to our bodies. Hijacking is not God damn Candy Crush. Give me a break. It’s offensive to use that kind of language to describe something that every one of us can do something about.

If we believe we are powerless, we are. If we believe we are powerful, that also becomes true.

LMT: Some apps earn a lot of criticism, yet are responsible for an important amount of time we spend connected. What do you think about social media? What place should it have in our lives?

Nir Eyal: In Indistractable, I talk about this dichotomy between distraction and the opposite of distraction. They tell you the opposite of distraction is focus. But I actually don’t think that’s true. The opposite of distraction is not focus. The opposite of distraction is traction. Now, what is traction? Traction and distraction actually come from the same Latin root “trahere” which means “to pull”. And you’ll notice that both traction and distraction end in the same word – ACTION!

This is really important because traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do. These are things you do with intent, things that help you live out your values. Distraction is any action that pulls you away from what you plan to do. Anything that is not helping you live according to your values and be the person you want to be. Any action can be traction and any action can be distraction based on intent. So I think it’s ridiculous to tell people that video games are melting your brain. The W.H.O., before this whole pandemic, told people about addictive gaming disorder. They said “OK. Be careful, everybody. Your kids are going to have gaming disorder!” Now that everybody is sheltered at home and we’re all scared to death, they say, you know, “It’s a healthy thing to do. Please play video games.”

It’s ridiculous because when we vilify technology, we hurt ourselves. Because some people really are addicted. For example, some people have an addiction around alcohol. But as everyone who has a glass of wine with dinner, an alcoholic? No! And do we want to go back to prohibition and make alcohol illegal? No! Alcohol is wonderful. It’s great. But we have to use it responsibly. And the same goes with our technology. 

Instead of vilifying video games and social media, we have to learn how to use it properly. And I understand there’s been an adjustment period. But all this blaming of the “big bad” tech companies out to get you and hijack your brain and addict you is really not serving us. The question is: “do we use these products according to our schedule or the tech companies schedule?”

Which is what I like about your product Let Me Think. Because there’s nothing wrong with checking social media. There’s nothing wrong with playing a video game. They’re wonderful. I don’t want to be another one of those professors that doesn’t have a social media account that tells everybody not to have social media. I’m so sick of these professors telling everybody they don’t use it themselves. It’s not practical. Many of us need these tools for our businesses, for our livelihoods, and they connect us to people in ways that we can never be connected before.

So we had to stop these blanket statements that these tech companies are all bad, that these technologies are harming us. Because it’s just not true. It’s how and when we use them. If you plan time in your day to say: “I plan to go on social media. That’s my social media time in my calendar.” There’s time for checking social media. And it’s wonderful. There’s nothing wrong with it. Because I planned when I will do it as opposed to letting the tech companies plan for me.

Can you imagine if this epidemic had happened 30 years ago?  It would be like a whole other level of terror. Really, it would be horrible and thank goodness we have these technologies. Look at us talking from thousands of miles away.  So it’s really a key. We have to stop this blame game and realize that there’s a right and a wrong way to use these technologies.

LMT: When someone says she has bad usage habits with some apps on their smartphone. How responsible do you think people truly are? When people struggle to control their use, feelings, habits… to what extent should the blame be put on the apps, which are made with the objective of retaining people’s attention more and more, with precise knowledge of how our brains work? 

Nir Eyal: Well, let me let me bring this home for you. You’re both French, right? I know you’re not both in France, but you’re both French.

LMT: Yeah. Yeah. Both French. 🥖

Nir Eyal: So I have a problem with you French people. You make too many delicious pastries. (laugh) I’m serious! I love croissants. I have a thing for croissants. Croissants are my nemesis. And every time I’m in France, I walk in the streets and I can’t help but smell these amazing desserts and pastries and especially the croissants. Am I going to go to the baker and say “Stop making such delicious food? I can’t say no anymore.” Is it the bakers fault or do I need to say, look, this is the cost of living in a world that’s so wonderful that I have these choices? Thank God I live in a world of plenty and I can buy these things made for me at my doorstep. So, the price of progress is that we need to learn how to get the best out of these things without letting them get the best of us.

If I over consume croissants, bad things will happen. If I over consume technology and media, bad things will happen too. But does that mean I want to live in a world without these things? Of course not. And the good news is that there are entrepreneurs out there, just like you two, that are building tools to help us put technology in its place. So, the solution to one generation of bad technology is better technology. And so this is what what Paul Virilio had a wonderful quote. He said: “When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck” which is so à propos. When was the last time you heard of a shipwreck? Almost never. We never hear of shipwrecks anymore. Why? Did we stop sailing ships? No, we sail more ships than ever. But we made the ships better. So, the first generation of technology, of course, it was going to create shipwrecks.

Of course, something as vast and world changing as the Internet was going to have negative unforeseen repercussions. So what do we do? We need entrepreneurs like you guys to build the tools to fix the bad aspects of the last generation of technology. So what we do is what we’ve always done as a species. We adapt and we adopt. We adapt our own behavior when we face new threats and we adopt new technology to improve the bad aspects of the last generation of technology. That’s what’s gonna get us through this.

3 Responses

  1. Wonderful interview.
    Very well put. You can’t put the blame on tech firms or tech in general, the responsibility of tech usage lies with the user. Sure, the tech space is littered with behavioral nuggets to keep you hooked every day, but its the user’s choice to be distracted by them. Really loved that analogy – You invent a ship, you also invent shipwreck.

  2. I completely agreed on where nir is pointing out. In this case every individual on planet needs fucking self-awareness i.e need to be aware of one’s own internal triggers. And I also think that is the only solution to all root cause problems which we called as ‘addiction’.

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