« Plato struggled with distraction 2500 years before the iPhone. » A talk with Nir Eyal – part 2.

15.05.2020 – 5 min. read

nir eyal interview part 2


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 Eyal, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.” His work inspired us in the creation of Let Me Think.


Let Me Think: In Indistractable you identify two types of humans: Normal ones, and those who are indistractable. It’s an important distinction, and in the coming decades, it’s going to become increasingly important because we’ll have built powerful new tools. And we’ll have to find a proper use of technology. What’s your opinion on this?

Nir Eyal: There will be what we call a “spreading of social antibodies”. It’s this idea that when a society has discovered emergent negative, anti-social behaviors, then we begin to inoculate ourselves. We begin to inoculate ourselves so that we we stop these unhealthy behaviors. And this is what we’re going to do when it comes to technology.

And I’m very confident we will because we’ve been here before. I was born in the 70s and I remember that in the 80s, in my home, my family had ashtrays. We had ashtrays in our living room. Why? Because back in the 1980s, a majority of Americans smoked. And when people came to your house, they just lit up a cigarette. They expected to smoke in your living room. Today, in America – I’m not so sure what’s happening in Europe – but in America, if somebody walked into your living room and assumed they could smoke a cigarette, you’d kick them out. That would be incredibly rude. Well, what changed? Was there a law that says you can’t smoke in someone’s home? No. There’s never been such a law. You can smoke in someone’s private residence. What changed is that people adopted new norms, new manners about what is acceptable and what is rude and impolite. And that’s exactly what’s happening today with technology use.

Now, if someone tried to smoke in your living room it would be considered rude. And so what changed was that we adopted new norms.

And that’s exactly what we’re doing. People need to stand up and say, “I am indistractable, I choose how I control my time and my attention in my life. I don’t have my time and my attention controlled by others.” We start spreading these new norms about the appropriate place to use technology.

It’s already happening. I get called in as a consultant to go teach companies how to build an indistractable workplace. When I go to these meetings, if anyone is in the back of the room on their device, you know who it is? It’s not the young people. It’s the big boss, the big important boss, who wants to show everyone how important he is because he’s got emails he must check right now. The younger generation figured out that this is rude behavior. They don’t do this to each other because they know it’s rude. It’s the older generation that still hasn’t gotten the message.

LMT: Nowadays we find ourselves in the century of emotions. Emotions are everywhere, and each product we use seeks to manipulate how we feel while using it. There is a lot of literature in philosophy about the importance of managing our emotions, and not becoming the slave of our passions. Did these great thinkers influence your writing of Indistractable?

Nir Eyal: I started my study of the psychology of distraction with Plato, and I was surprised to hear that Plato struggled with distraction 2500 years before the iPhone. In the Greek, he called it “akrasia” : the tendency that we had to do things against our better interest. So if Plato struggled with distraction 2500 years before Facebook, video games, and the iPhone, this is not a new problem, right?

“We can’t choose how we feel. We can only choose how we respond to our feelings.

This is not something that technology has created. It’s part of the human condition. And the solution for “akrasia”  is to understand what causes us this discomfort, what I call internal triggers. And most distraction is not from the external triggers. It’s not from the pings, dings, and rings. It’s from what’s happening within. That is the source of most distraction in our day to day lives. It’s boredom, uncertainty, fearfulness, fatigue, loneliness. That’s what we are, why we use different things to escape our feelings, whether it’s too much news, booze, Facebook, football… It’s all for the same reason: to get out of our heads. That’s an ancient insight about getting comfortable with discomfort. It’s a Buddhist approach, realizing that feeling bad is not bad, but rather part of the human condition. But, in our society, we’ve been told from the self-help community that if you’re not happy and satisfied with life all the time, there is something wrong with you.

And I think this has led many to constantly seek ways to escape. If we feel bored, we check reddit, or Youtube, or the news. If we’re lonely we are instantly on Facebook. If we’re anxious we are instantly on Google. And so, we formed this connection, that relief comes from using these products. But the problem is when we habituate to those products and we don’t stop and ask ourselves whether they are serving us or we are serving them. That’s when they get the best of us. And so the idea is to use these things with intent, by not being a slave to our sensations, by realizing that we don’t control our sensations. You cannot control your urges or your feelings.

If you have an urge to smoke, or an urge to check Facebook, or an urge to check the news, it’s sort of like the urge to sneeze. You can’t stop the urge to sneeze if you need to sneeze. You’re going to have that urge. What you can do is to decide how you will respond to that urge. Hence the word responsibility. When you feel the urge to sneeze, do you sneeze all over everyone? Or do you get a tissue and you cover your nose?

So, we can’t choose how we feel. We can only choose how we respond to our feelings. So the same goes with our devices when we feel bored, or a project is difficult or being with family is not so interesting. Do we instantly look for relief by checking our devices? Or do we learn how to process that discomfort and figure out a way to deal with it in a helpful rather than hurtful manner?

That’s the first step to becoming indistractable. It’s called mastering the internal triggers. It’s not self-help advice. No time management tips work unless you first start with this critical step of mastering the internal triggers.

LMT: In Hooked and Indistractable you do a good job of simplifying, analyzing, and theorizing from complex psychological principles.
Today, designers and marketing experts are trying to increase their understanding of how our brains work in an attempt to talk directly to it. How do you think this will evolve in the near future?

Nir Eyal: That’s a tough one to answer because we don’t know. Right now, it’s science fiction, so it’s hard to know. What I will tell you is that there is nothing I’ve seen today, not augmented reality or virtual reality, none of that stuff has the power to control us. It can influence us, persuade us, coerce us, but there’s nothing that we can’t overcome with forethought. If you want to summarize Indistractable into one mantra, it’s this: “The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought”. Distraction and procrastination is an impulse control problem, it’s not a character flaw. There’s nothing wrong with us. We simply don’t have the tools to deal with these impulses in a healthy way. But we have foresight, if we plan ahead, which is something no other creature on the face of the earth can do.

We can see the future better than any other animal on earth. We know what’s going to happen. So if we wait till the last minute. If the chocolate cake is on the fork on its way to your mouth, you’re gonna eat it; if the cigarette is lit, you’re gonna smoke it; if you sleep next to your cell phone every night, you’re going to pick it up first thing in the morning – you’ve already lost, it’s too late. But we can plan ahead with forethought. We can make sure that those things don’t distract us by planning ahead. But the people who are indistractable, according to the research I did over the past five years, they don’t have a lot of willpower. In fact, they don’t have a lot of self-control. What they have is a system. They plan ahead. They take these simple steps to make sure that they are indistractable, so that when they do get these urges, it’s already been taken care.

They don’t have to fight with themselves. They already have a system in place to prevent them from getting distracted. So out of all the currently available technology, I don’t know what’s going to come in the next 20 years. Who knows? But out of everything I’ve seen today, nothing stands a chance against someone who decides they’re indistractable and uses these techniques to combat distraction.

LMT: Thank you so much for your input, Nir. It’s been interesting, and really resonates with what we’re doing here at Let Me Think.

2 Responses

  1. Beautifully explained!
    But I personally struggle to make balance between being organised and making time for my family when they need(Wht if I have planned to read emails at a given time and my kid comes up with his toys and expects me to play with him).

  2. Wow! i love what nir said and I think I got little aware about hoe things work to make us distraction and as he says everything starts within which is true. And this everyone knows the only problem is people are not aware of this internal trigger.

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