Nir Eyal
Creating Good Habits

Be inspired, and don't measure your success by how many boxes get checked off on a to-do list. Stop making to-do lists and start mapping out your day with how much time you will spend on each task you are committed to doing.

Nir Eyal
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Show Notes

Technology is a tool that can help build healthy and lasting habits, according to author and consultant Nir Eyal (@NirEyal). Nir’s groundbreaking book Hooked is a guide to building products people use because they want to, not because they have to. In his new book Indistractable, Nir teaches from the intersection of psychology, technology, and business to lead us to what is possible if we follow through on our best intentions, stay focused, and overcome distractions. 

Nir Eyal (@Nir Eyal) writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. A Graduate of Stanford School of Business and crusader for utilizing technology to build unique and healthy habits, Nir has written two books, Hooked and Indistratable. Both books are rooted in research and passion for the betterment of humanity. Nir lives in Singapore with his wife and daughter.

Just because it’s a work-related task, doesn’t mean it’s not a distraction.” 

Nir Eyal

Key Takeaways:

  • Real Distractions Begin Within: We tend to blame our phones, computers, kids, boss, and all external things like that. But studies find that external distractions are only 10% of what pulls us away from our focused tasks. The other 90% of our distractions are internal triggers. For example, if you overeat, often it is the internal distraction of a feeling—feelings like loneliness, boredom, shame, etc. Distractions begin from within.
  • Addiction vs. Habit: Addiction is defined as a persistent compulsive dependency on a behavior or substance that harms the user. There is no such thing as a good addiction. By definition, addictions are destructive. Habits are defined as a settled or regular tendency or practice. We want good habits in our life. We all have good habits or bad habits. 
  • All Products are Used to Modulate Mood: Apps and other products we use are designed to activate our internal triggers. Internal triggers are born from an uncomfortable emotional state we seek to escape. Boredom, loneliness, fatigue, desire, curiosity, and uncertainty is what habit-forming products attach themselves to. Whenever you feel an emotion, you become internally activated to use a product such as an app, device, or item. Find products that empower you to build healthy habits and live a good life.
  • Traction and Distraction: What do traction and distraction mean? The opposite word to distraction is traction. Traction and distraction both come from the same Latin root, traho, which means to pull. Traction, by definition, is any action that pulls you toward what you said you would do—the opposite of traction is distraction. Distraction is any action that pulls you away from what you plan to do, from your values and goals, and from becoming the person you want to become. The difference between what is traction and distraction is to decide in advance how we want to spend our time.

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Links for Nir Eyal:

Nir Eyal Website

Hooked Online Workshop


Mark Divine 0:00  

Hi your at the Mark Divine show, and this is your host Mark Divine. On this show, I showcase inspirational people from all walks of life, exploring what it means to be fearless through the lens of these inspirational and resilient leaders, Stoic philosophers, entrepreneurs, amazing authors, and people who aren’t really doing cutting-edge research such as my guest today Nir Eyal. Nir writes, consultants, and teaches around the intersection of psychology and technology in business. He co-founded and sold two high-tech companies in 2003, dubbed by the MIT Technology Review as the profit of habit-forming technology. His first book was Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. And we’re going to be talking today about his next book called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Nir, thanks so much for joining me on the Mark Divine Show. 

Mark Divine 0:50

Nir super nice to meet you. Thanks so much for joining me on the Mark Divine show. How are you today? 

Nir Eyal 0:54

My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Mark. 

Mark Divine 0:55

Yeah, no, it’s great. So you’re all the way over in Singapore. It’s not often I talk to folks from Singapore. 


Nir Eyal 1:00

That’s right. 


Mark Divine 1:00

What led you to live there? 


Nir Eyal 1:02

Oh, we just love it here. It’s, it’s a great place. And so we’ve really taken to it. And we’ve been here about three years now. And yeah, it’s like living in the future. You should, have visited have you ever been here? 


Mark Divine 1:10

I have never been to Singapore. You know, whenever I see pictures, though, I am kind of blown away. It does look like a futuristic landscape, you know? 


Nir Eyal 1:17

Yeah, it is. It’s, it’s a very cool place. 


Mark Divine 1:19

So, but you’re not from there. So, let’s before we get into kind of like a topic that’s near and dear to both of our hearts, which is distractibility.

Nir Eyal 1:27



Mark Divine  1:28  

You have to know this before we get into conversation, but I’ve been teaching attention control to the Navy SEALs now for almost 20 years. So that’s definitely something that is very important and I’m excited to hear about your thoughts on the matter. But where are you originally from? And kind of what were some of the formative adventures in your life that puts you on the path that you’re on? 


Nir Eyal 1:47

Sure. Yeah. So I was born in Israel. And I came to the United States when I was three years old, my parents brought me to the States. Yeah, I’ve lived in America most of my life, went to Stanford for business school. That’s where I kind of started to specialize in what we call behavioral design, which is my current field of study and work, where I help companies build the kind of products and services that improve people’s lives through healthy habits. So my first book was called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, which was all about stealing the secrets of Silicon Valley to build the kinds of products that people get hooked to for for healthy ways. So it’s not just about, you know, social media and video games. It’s about how we can help people live healthier lives by getting hooked to an exercise app, or getting hooked to a language learning app or getting hooked to a financial services product that helps them grow their net worth. So there’s all kinds of ways that we can use the same psychological tactics for good to build healthy habits. 

Then a few years after I wrote that book, I found that I had a problem in that I had, some of the products that I was using, not the same products, but some of the products that I was using, were becoming distractions that, you know, we want to get people hooked to exercise apps and financial services products and language learning apps. But what about all the other stuff that distracts us? What about social media? What about the television news? What about too much alcohol? What about all the million other things we do too much email that take us away from what’s really important to us in life? And so what I wanted to do was to figure out why we get distracted. Not so much attention control, per se, but more of intention control, if you will. Why is it that I intend to do one thing, and yet I’m doing something else, right? I say I’m going to exercise, but I didn’t. I said I was gonna eat right, but not so much. I said I was gonna be fully present with my family, and yet somehow, I’m checking my phone. I said I was going to work on that big project at work, and yet, I’m doing everything, but so that was really the focus of my research with my second book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Yeah, so that’s kind of a quick summary. 


Mark Divine 3:47

I heard a lot of kind of like theoretical stuff, but I didn’t really hear much about Nir, who’s Nir. Why Stanford? Why did you get interested in behavioral work? Who’s the man behind the curtain here? 


Nir Eyal 4:00

I would probably say it was a formative experience for me was that I, for a good chunk of my life, was clinically obese. That was a big, big part of, you know, my interest in this field is that for a good chunk of my life, I felt like food controlled me. My mom took me to the doctor’s office, I remember seeing this chart on the doctor’s wall of, you know, here’s, here’s normal weight, here’s overweight, here’s you. You’re way over here in this red section, being clinically obese. Yeah, I remember that feeling of that food controlled name. 


Mark Divine 4:27

So when you started to have that insight or that feeling like okay, this is not how you want to be right. I can see how immediately attacking it by positivist sense of going after and changing their behavior is, you know, an important thing, but it’s also simultaneously important to kind of look back at the root cause…


Nir Eyal 4:45



Mark Divine 4:45

And ask why? Did you do that work as well? 


Nir Eyal 4:48

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So you know, at first, my knee-jerk reaction was to blame the food, right. It’s McDonald’s fault, right? It’s well, we all do this, don’t we? Isn’t it? It’s the food industry. It’s the government subsidies. It’s McDonald’s, its Cheetos, its you know, breakfast cereals, its carbs, it’s fat, you know, you name it. We blame the food. Just like today we blame social media, right? It’s not my fault.


Mark Divine 5:09



Nir Eyal 5:09

 Zuckerberg is doing it to me, right? It’s all the mainstream media, we blame all this stuff outside of ourselves. And, frankly, you know, it wasn’t until I took responsibility and said, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Why am I overeating? Yes, food is delicious. Absolutely. But to be honest with you, the real reason I was overeating is because of the way I was feeling. Right? I was overeating when I was feeling lonely. I was overeating when I was feeling bored. I was overeating when I felt ashamed of how much I had just overeaten. And it wasn’t until I really figured that out, that I could start changing my behaviors. And frankly, it’s the same insights today when I tried to tackle this topic of distraction. That was the biggest insight for me was that most distraction begins from within. And we can of course, talk about why in the methodology as well. 


Mark Divine 5:51

So what were some of the big aha’s in terms of let’s say, you know, your research and your first book and the work you did Stanford, in terms of how to form positive addictions, or use technology, you know, what’s being done to us, when we use a fitness app, like you said, that’s, you know, has kind of a grab or an addictive quality to it?


Nir Eyal 6:13

I would be very careful about using the word addiction, I didn’t call the book How to Build Addictive Products, because an addiction is defined as a persistent compulsive dependency on a behavior or substance that harms the user. So there’s no such thing as a good addiction. By definition, addictions are bad. What we do want in our life is habits, right? About 50% of what we do, according to windy wood is done out of habit. And so we have good habits, we have bad habits. And so what we want to do is to use technology to help us build those good habits. And lo and behold, we can also use technology to help us break the bad habits. We see a lot of products in that space as well. What’s basically involved in building good habits is this four-step model that I call the hooked model, which starts with a trigger. So every action begins with a trigger. We have two kinds of triggers, we have external triggers and internal triggers. An external trigger is all these pings, dings, and rings these things in our outside environment that tell us what to do next. 

So, for example, an app notification or just something in your outside environment that gives you a cue that gives you some kind of call to action, then you open the app, that would be an example of the action phase is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward, then you have the variable reward phase, which is very important, what you see in all sorts of habit-forming products, is not only giving people what they want, but there’s always a sense of mystery, there’s always a sense of uncertainty, there’s a slot machine like effect, and all kinds of habit-forming products, that keeps you wanting more. And then finally, and the most important part when it comes to products versus personal behaviors, you know, we’ve all read the habit books about the trigger action reward type model. 

But what’s really different about products versus personal habits is that this investment phase is where you put something into the product to make it better and better with use. So habit-forming technologies, specifically, they don’t depreciate not in the way that your couch or your clothing or your car would depreciate value, but they actually appreciate they get better and better the more their used. And that’s really revolutionary. So through data content, reputation skill, you’re making the product better and better, the more you use it. And so, through successive cycles, eventually, you don’t need those external triggers anymore. You don’t need those pings, dings and rings, you don’t need to spend money on it expensive advertising. People will start using the product not because of an external trigger, but because of an internal trigger. And an internal triggers an uncomfortable emotional state that we seek to escape. So boredom, loneliness, fatigue, uncertainty, anxiety, this is what a habit-forming product attaches itself to in order to create that habit. So every time you feel an emotion, you use this product. Now, all products do this, the only reason you use every product or service is for only one thing, and one thing only. And that is to modulate your mood. So what a habit-forming product does is attach itself so that every time you feel a certain way, you use a particular product. 

Now, this is the same formula that the social media companies in the gaming companies use. But of course, thankfully, we can actually use the same methodology to build good habits as well. And that’s the point of my book.


Mark Divine 9:08

It still has a little bit of a dystopian feel, to me that we’re keeping people plugged into technology, as opposed to forming habits that are maybe like, let’s get outside in nature, let’s get back to earth, you know, let’s take a walk on the beach. 


Nir Eyal 9:20



Mark Divine 9:20

I mean, maybe that’s built into right so that technology can trigger us to go do those things, is what you know.


Nir Eyal 9:26

That’s absolutely right. There’s nothing, you know, used to be like, oh, it’s one or the other. I don’t know anyone who lives in that world anymore; everybody is using we are all cyborgs. You know, being a cyborg doesn’t mean you have to have it plugged into your bloodstream. It means it’s part of your daily activity. And so the fact that we’re touching our phones on average, 150 times a day means that it is an integral part of our day-to-day lives. And so what we have to do is try to figure out how do we use these products as opposed to letting them use us, and you’re absolutely right, Mark, you know, you can use these products to help you get in shape to go outside more to be more mindful with your family. There’s all kinds of things we’re going to be able to do with these products. We could do many of them today already, if we understand how they work psychologically, so just saying like, oh, stop using technology. That’s a fool’s errand because it’s not going away. You know we need to figure out how to use them correctly. 


Mark Divine 10:12

One of the neatest contextualizations that I’ve come across is the idea of extended mind. The iPhone or your device is really an extension of your mind, right? So you have so it frees up capacity in your brain mind. So you don’t have to remember everything. You don’t have to like, you know, do all the algorithms, you can kind of outsource that to your extended mind, the technology holding you in your hand being one part of that extension. You can there’s other ways to extend your mind. Yeah. So that was helpful. Instead of looking at the technology as something that’s interfering or is invasive, it’s actually a positive extension.


Nir Eyal 10:46

Yeah, right. Just like any tool, right, it’s about how we use it. A hammer can be used to build a house or bash someone’s head in. So it’s really about how we use these things. And of course, society always goes through these waves where we adopt a technology wholesale, and we think it’s the greatest thing ever. And then we start to learn actually, you know what, there’s some downsides. It’s, you know, Sophocles, the Greek philosopher, said this 2500 years ago, nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse. So, of course, if we’re going to use a technology as vast as the internet, yeah, there’s gonna be some curses. But what do we do as a species? We don’t say, Oh, stop using technology, right? 

The Luddites never win. What wins is figuring out how to use these technologies by doing two things. We adapt, and we adopt. That’s what we’ve always done in the face of technological change. It’s going to be no different with AI revolution. Whatever comes next, we’re going to adapt our own behaviors right, to learn how to use these technologies better. And then we’re going to adopt new technologies to fix the last generation of technologies. And this is what’s so inspiring to me. Right? It’s Paul Virilio said, when you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck. What do we do? Do we stop sailing ships? No, we saill more ships than ever. But when was the last time you heard of the shipwreck? Almost never, why we didn’t stop using the ship. We didn’t stop using technology. We made it better. 

So we not only need to adopt new technologies, that’s the entrepreneurial spirit. We also have to adapt to these technologies to change our own behaviors. And that’s what indistractable is all about, of course.


Mark Divine 12:13

We’re recording this just a few weeks after kind of chat. GBT had its user interface moment, right? It’s Netscape moment. So now it’s all the rage even though it’s been behind the scenes and used for a while, but, so where do you think AI, or how do you think AI will adapt and extend? You know, these technologies that we’re talking about, or that you’re involved with the positive use technologies, the habit forming.


Nir Eyal 12:37

I would say GPT, to me, is not really AI. I think it’s a misnomer. It’s an LLM to the large language model. So basically, what it’s really good at amazingly good at is regurgitating already existing information. You know, what it did is crawl the internet. It crawled all human information. And it’s really a it’s really good at answering questions in a way that makes it look like it’s thinking, but it’s not just predicting the next word based on what it’s already learned.


Mark Divine 13:01

Couldn’t you say that of all AI is to make it look like it’s thinking when it’s not?


Nir Eyal 13:06

Currently, yeah, we don’t have a general AI, there is no real, you know, something that comes anywhere close to a human mind. It’s very easy to trick-check GPT.


Mark Divine 13:15

Right, right.


Nir Eyal 13:15

Or to stop it dead in its tracks. With very simple questions that you couldn’t stump a human, even a fifth grader could do things that GPT can’t do. 


Mark Divine 13:22



Nir Eyal 13:22

So it’s an LLM, it’s not really an AI in that respect though, to answer your question, how does it change the game? I think it gives everyone a 16-year-old admin. at your side, you now have a 16-year-old who’s taken the AP English exam, and who’s really good at writing essays based on what’s already on the web. And it can answer those questions in a blink of an eye. It’s really, really good at that. But what it will not be able to do, as far as I can tell with existing technology, who knows this might change. It can’t be creative, meaning what’s great about writing, right? When you read a great book, when you watch a great movie, when you look at a great piece of art, it’s the originality. It’s what’s new. That’s what variable rewards are all about. I talk about this a lot in my book, Hooked, that habit-forming experiences always have this uncertainty, this mystery. So you can’t ask it to give you a surprising insight that hasn’t been connected before. They can only give you what’s already out there. And it does that really, really well. But it’s going to be up to you to figure out how to synthesize that into a unique perspective. 


Mark Divine 14:28

Just since we’re on the topic, what is your personal insight into whether and when a general AI might actually show up on the scene? 


Nir Eyal 14:38

Uh, who knows. I mean, I think, you know, the problem is that it’s going to be semi by mistake if it happens. Why do I say that? Because we don’t even know how our own intelligence works. If you look at what’s happening today, in the replication crisis, around the field of psychology in general, specifically the psycho-pharmaceutical industry, you know, we literally don’t know what causes depression, what causes ADHD, what causes schizophrenia. We’re debating now, whether schizophrenia is itself. I mean, there are a lot of people who say schizophrenia isn’t actually a disease, it’s more like cancer, right. There’s we used to think cancer was one thing. And now we know it’s not. It’s just an umbrella for many, many different types of pathologies. So we don’t understand the brain at all. We can’t pinpoint…


Mark Divine 15:20

True that.


Nir Eyal 15:20

…where is a thought biologically. We don’t understand where a memory exists, we cannot. We have theories. And every time we have a new technology, we change these theories, right? The Greeks used to think it was one way based on their technology than during the Industrial Revolution, we thought the brain was all about gears and levers. Whenever we have a new technology, we port that technology to think that we understand the brain. Recently, we used to think the brain is like a computer That’s complete nonsense, the brains acts nothing like a computer with the fact that we can’t even explain our own intelligence leads me to think it’s going to be quite a while before we can build it from scratch. Now, it may happen, right? It could happen. But I think it’s going to be for a long time, uh, what looks intelligent is going to be more of a mirage kind of like LLM’s, right? They look super intelligent. But it’s a trick. 


Mark Divine 16:03

Right, yeah. Yeah, no, I totally agree with you. And even if there did arise something that was had some some semblance of general intelligence, or even self-awareness, it’s bound to be extraordinarily different than the human mind.


Nir Eyal 16:16



Mark Divine 16:16

Right. So this idea that we’re going to be able to recreate the human mind is, is kind of a fool’s errand, I think. So let’s get on to the topic of distractibility, and in-distractibility, right, so, you know, you spend years trying to get people hooked, and, you know, distracted with apps.


Nir Eyal 16:35

Well, not not distracted, not distracted, hooked to good things, right. So we don’t want to get them distracted. We want them…


Mark Divine 16:39

That’s still a distraction.


Nir Eyal 16:39

No, no, no, it’s not. Well, okay, so let’s, let’s start with definitions. I’m a big-word nerd. So let’s talk about what the word distraction really means. And where does it come from? You know, the best way to understand what something means is to ask yourself if you know the antonym, right, what’s the opposite of that thing? So if you ask most people, what’s the opposite of distraction? The opposite of distraction? Is focus, right? Wrong.


Mark Divine 17:00

It’s attract.


Nir Eyal 17:01

No, it’s traction, actually. So traction and distraction both come from the same Latin root, tro, hooray, which means to pull. And you’ll notice that they both end in the same six letters, ACTA when that spells action. So traction, by definition, is any action that pulls you towards what you said you were going to do. Those are acts of traction. The opposite of traction, this traction. Distraction is any action that pulls you away from what you plan to do away from your values away from your goals away from becoming the kind of person you want to become. So this is more than semantics. This is really important, because I would argue, any action that you plan to take with intent is by definition, traction. So if you planned to use one of the apps, I helped design to help you learn a new language or exercise or heck go on social media play video games, that’s all fine. It’s all traction, we shouldn’t moralize medicalized, there’s nothing wrong with video games, you want to play video, tell me why playing a video game is morally inferior to watching sports on TV.


Mark Divine 17:55



Nir Eyal 17:56

What’s the difference? There’s no difference. If you plan to do it, do it. But do it on your schedule, according to your values, not the tech companies. So that’s an act of traction. The opposite distraction. This is any action that pulls us away from what you plan to do. And so what we often find is that what we think is a distraction, or what we think is traction, I should say, oftentimes is a distraction. I’ll give you a great example. For years, I would sit down at my desk, and I would say okay, now I’m going to work on that big project, I’ve got the thing to do on the top of my to do list, by the way we can talk about what to do lists are one of the worst things you can do for your personal productivity, we can get into that. 


Mark Divine 18:29

Let’s come back to that. I’m kind of curious.


Nir Eyal 18:31

Yeah, we’ll get back to that. I would sit down, I would say okay, I’ve got that big project, nothing’s gonna get my way. I’m not gonna get distracted. Here I go, I’m gonna get started. But first, let me check some email. Right? 


Mark Divine 18:40



Nir Eyal 18:40

Let me scroll that slack channel real quick. Let me just do those things on my to do list those easy things to do just to get the ball rolling, right? Those are all work related tasks, how can checking email be bad, that’s what I’m supposed to do for my job. But what I didn’t realize is, if it wasn’t what I said I was going to do in advance, it’s just as much of a distraction. And in fact, that’s the worst kind of distraction, because you don’t even realize you’re distracted. So we justify, oh, I have to check email. But if that’s not what you said, you were going to do with your time and attention, you are prioritizing the easy and the urgent at the expense of hard and important work you have to do to move your life and career forward. 

So just because it’s a work related task, doesn’t mean it’s not a distraction. That’s the most terrible kind of distraction. 


Mark Divine 19:17

Yeah, distractions like that are really avoiding the reality of doing that kind of work doing what you’re intended to do. 


Nir Eyal 19:22

That’s right.


Mark Divine 19:23

Because there’s resistance, it’s hard.


Nir Eyal 19:24

Right, which actually gets me into the second part of the model. So you’ve got, you know, if you think about two arrows pointing to the right, the left, you’ve got traction, you got distraction. Now you’ve got the triggers, right, you’ve got external triggers and internal triggers. External triggers, again, are these pings, dings and rings these things in our outside environment that can lead us towards distraction. Those are the usual suspects. We tend to blame our phones, our computers, our kids, our boss the things outside of us, but studies find that they are only the source of 10% of our distractions. 10% are external triggers. The other 90% of our distractions, as we alluded to earlier, are what we call internal triggers. So these are uncomfortable emotions; boredom, loneliness, fatigue, uncertainty, anxiety, stress. And it turns out if you don’t understand those internal triggers, I don’t care if it’s too much news, too much booze, too much football too much Facebook, you will always find distraction if you don’t understand why you’re getting distracted in the first place. And so the first step to becoming indistractable has to be to master those internal triggers, or they will become your masters. 


Mark Divine 20:23

So how do we do that? I mean, it sounds like self-awareness work. Meditation, contemplation, journaling, reflective, you know, conversations therapy,


Nir Eyal 20:32

I tried to make it a lot easier than that. 


Mark Divine 20:34



Nir Eyal 20:34

I mean, those are all very good. You know, there’s nothing wrong with those things. But I find most people don’t have time for it. They don’t have time for the journaling. They don’t have time for the contemplation. They certainly don’t have time for therapy.


Mark Divine 20:45

If you can hack self-awareness, God bless you. Let’s go with it. 


Nir Eyal 20:47

Yeah, yeah, I’ll tell you exactly how to do it. And I didn’t invent these techniques. I spent five years researching them. And what I found was that many of these techniques are already available, we just don’t use them. But the first step is realizing that the problem is not outside of you. That 90% The problem is in your own head, right? Just getting that realization is huge. Most people don’t think that they think okay; they listen to some PhD who says, stop using your phone, stop checking social media. Well, that’s the kind of advice that only a tenured professor would give you. Right? Like, if you stop checking your phone, you’re gonna get fired from your job. What kind of stupid advice is that? Stop using your phone. Come on, give me a break. That’s stupid. We need practical solutions for people, right? And so the practical solution for people is to understand first and foremost, what is the sensation that you are looking to escape? What is that feeling? And by understanding that, it is just a feeling, you can begin to have power over it, begin to master as opposed to letting it master you. So there’s over a dozen different techniques that are very practical that are just in this section of the book, but I’ll give you one that I use almost every single day. And this is called a 10-minute rule. Okay, the 10-Minute Rule, it literally takes only 10 minutes. This comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. And the idea is that you can give in to any distraction. If it’s eating that piece of chocolate cake. If you’re on a diet, if it’s smoking that cigarette, if it’s you know, checking email, when you know you should be working on a presentation or making sales calls, whatever it is, you can give into that distraction, but not right now, in 10 minutes, not for 10 minutes, by the way, in 10 minutes. Why is it so powerful? We know this is so powerful, because the standard advice of just say no, right? Just don’t do it is terrible advice, especially when it comes to things that we have triggers everywhere, right. Sometimes the the advice is to abstain completely, right. But when it comes to things that are always available food, technology, it’s impossible to just not do it. It’s always there. And what happens is when we tell ourselves not to do something, this elicits what we call psychological reactance. Reactance is this tendency that we had when we are told what to do, we rebelled in some way to get someone to want to do something to tell them not to do it. And the crazy thing about the human psyche, what’s so unbelievable, is that this reactance effect occurs, even when we tell ourselves not to do something.


Mark Divine 23:05



Nir Eyal 23:06

So by telling yourself, don’t do it, you know, the standard advisement don’t check technology, don’t do this don’t do it turns out makes us want more. And so instead of telling yourself not to do something, you’re telling yourself not yet. You’re grown man, you can do whatever you want, right? You still have that agency and autonomy. And you’re telling yourself I choose to wait 10 minutes until I’m going to give into that distraction. It’s amazing. You know, I’ve been a professional writer for over a decade. And all I want to do every single day. I don’t know, you know, people say oh, you can form a habit around writing, BS. There’s no such thing as a writing habit. If anybody who tells you that doesn’t understand the definition of a habit, a habit is a behavior done with little or no conscious thought. How do you write with little or no conscious thought? 


Mark Divine 23:45

It’s impossible.


Nir Eyal 23:46

It’s impossible. Have you exercise with little or no conscious thought there’s no such thing as an exercise habit. That’s bullshit. Habits are done with little or no conscious thought. There’s no such thing as a meditation habit. There’s a meditation routine, a writing routine, but no such thing as a writing habit. What I do when I’m writing, all I want to do you know, it’s hard work, I’m full of anxiety and stress and uncertainty, all I want to do is go check Google and research something or let me just check the news. Let me just check my email. That’s all I want to do while I’m writing. But instead, what I do is I pick up my phone, I said, set a timer for 10 minutes, I put my phone down. And now I have a choice to make. I can either get back to the task at hand, right, get back to the writing, or I surf the urge. Now surfing the urge is another one of these techniques. I said there’s over a dozen of them in this section of the book. Surfing the urge acknowledges that these uncomfortable internal triggers you say what’s a quick hack to overcome these internal triggers? Do I gotta go attend therapy? No. All you have to do is realize that these emotions are like waves. They’re like waves. They’re transitory. They crest and they subside. Of course, that’s not what we think in the moment. When we’re angry. We think we’re always going to be angry when we’re stressed. We think we’re always going to be stressed when we’re anxious. We always think we’re going to be anxious, but of course that’s never the case. These sensations they crest and subside and so your job for those 10 minutes is to simply experience that sensation, to ride it like a surfer on a surfboard until that sensation succumbs. And so I teach you exactly how to do that there’s certainly mantras, you can repeat yourself, I, I create my own mantra, which is a very simple one, which is, when I feel those internal triggers, all I have to do is to repeat to myself, This is what it feels like to get better. This is what it feels like to get better. And within a few seconds, I’m back to the task at hand. 

Now, what happens over time, by the way, it doesn’t, you don’t have to start with 10 minutes, you can start with five minutes. Heck, you can do anything for five minutes. You can, you can take pretty much any kind of emotional discomfort for just five minutes. But what you’re doing is over time, you’re proving to yourself that you have the agency, you have the ability to work without distractions. So the five-minute rule becomes a 10 minute rule becomes the 15 Minute Rule becomes the 20 Minute Rule. you’re training yourself just like a muscle to believe in your capability to delay that distraction. 


Mark Divine 25:53

I mean, it’s very similar, just the idea of delaying gratification, right? If you’re quick gratification with that which you your mind wants to do, because there’s less resistance to the work you should be doing or the intentionality, you know what you want to be doing. 


Nir Eyal 26:06



Mark Divine 26:06

It’s just pushing that off of a bit.


Nir Eyal 26:08

When we realize, you know, we used to think in psychology that motivation was about pleasure and pain, right carrots and sticks. Freud said this Jeremy Bentham said this. Today we know neurologically speaking, it’s not true. The carrot is the stick, there is no carrot and stick. The carrot is the stick. What do I mean by that? This is kind of a matrix moment, right? There is no spoon. What does that mean? It means that the way the brain gets us to do things, is always by getting us to avoid discomfort. Even the things we want the pursuit of the carrot, pleasure, wanting craving, lusting, these things are psychologically destabilizing. The way the brain gets us to act, even for things we want, things that we think we’re going to get that are going to make us feel good. The brain does it by making us feel discomfort, right? One thing is itself uncomfortable. But when you realize that it’s nothing more than a sensation, it’s just a feeling you can overcome it. 


Mark Divine 27:01

I agree with that. I think the way I’ve looked at that, as is very similar in that it’s not a polarity, right? It’s actually just a movement toward and simultaneously away from, like you said, discomfort. So that’s fascinating. 


Nir Eyal 27:15

But that’s just step one I should mention. So mastering the internal triggers is step one, there’s still those, there’s still three other big buckets that we have to cover. 


Mark Divine 27:23

Well, so kind of what’s next? Is it a process? Or is it kind of my holographic kind of approach? Do we approach it from all four at the same time? 


Nir Eyal 27:29

So step number one is mastering the internal triggers. And there’s a dozen different techniques you can use, like the 10 Minute Rule, there’s a bunch of others as well about how we see that discomfort. Step number two is making time for traction. So we talked about the difference being traction and distraction. Problem is that, you know, I’ve been working in this field for quite a while now. And I’ll tell you, the vast majority of people I see who really struggle with distraction, people who say, look, I’m capable of more, and for some reason, I’m not able to follow through, I’m not doing what I say I’m going to do, I’m not living the kind of life I know I’m capable of. When I asked them to show me what they got distracted from, what did you get distracted from? I say, show me your calendar. And nine times out of 10, that calendar is blank. Maybe they have a to do list. Oh, but look at my to do list. I have 100 to do lists, look at all the things I needed to do today that I didn’t get to. I said, No, no, that’s not the question. I want you to tell me, what did you get distracted from? And the fact of the matter is, you can’t say you got distracted from something unless you know what you got distracted from. So if your calendar has lots of whitespace in it, you have no right to complain. Because what the hell did you get distracted from?

You can’t call them in distraction unless you know what you got distracted from. So making time for traction requires you to plan out your day. And I mean, down to the minute. Now if you say oh yeah, but you know what, I need to stay creative. I need to be spontaneous, I need to make sure you know, I need to be available for people. These are all excuses. Because fundamentally, when we decide in advance how we want to spend our time, that is the only way we know the difference between what is traction and distraction is to decide in advance how we want to spend our time. 

Now you can block out that time to be available, you can block out that time to check email, you could block out that time to go play video games for all I care. The point is that I want to help you do whatever it is you say you want to do with your time and attention by planning out in advance how you want to spend it. So that’s step number two is making time for traction.


Mark Divine 29:08

Let me pause just a moment. Sorry about that. Because you said earlier that that to-do list will kill you. 


Nir Eyal 29:12



Mark Divine 29:13

And it seems to me like you just gave us the answer as to why. Right? Right. If so, if you’re running your life by a to-do list, then you’re not being intentional with how you plan your time? 


Nir Eyal 29:21



Mark Divine 29:22

Is that what your point is? 


Nir Eyal 29:23

That’s exactly right. So to-do lists have all kinds of prompts. Let me just be clear. I’m not saying it’s bad to get things out of your head and put them on a piece of paper or put them in an app. I definitely recommend that. 


Mark Divine 29:30



Nir Eyal 29:30

The problem is if you wake up in the morning, and you say to yourself, how do I need to spend my day? How do I want to spend my time and the first thing you look for is your to-do list rather than your calendar, you’re already done, you’ve already lost. Because to-do lists have no constraints. This is the big problem with to do lists. There’s no constraint, you can always add more and more and more and more so you get home from work at the end of the day. You feel like you’ve run ragged, and you look at your To Do lists and you still got 100 things on it. But what does that do to your self-perception? What does that do your self-image? You said you’re going to do these things and you didn’t do them. Loser.


Mark Divine 30:00

You got nothing done.


Nir Eyal 30:01

Right. And then you hear people after years and years of doing this to themselves, they say, oh, you know what, I probably have undiagnosed ADHD, or I’m no good with time management. No, you’re, there’s something wrong with you. You’re not broken. It’s a stupid time management technique called the to-do list that’s broken. Because if you don’t have those constraints of saying, I only have 24 hours in a day, how am I going to spend it? Right? If you don’t put those tasks on your calendar, you’ve made a big mistake. So the goal shouldn’t be what most people do in time management. So look how many cute little boxes I checked off, right. I’ve known people who will write things down after they do them just for the stupid satisfaction, which I think is ridiculous, ridiculous. You know, the technique is messed up when you have to cheat the system that way. Right? 


Mark Divine 30:43



Nir Eyal 30:44

That doesn’t work. And so what I want people to start doing is don’t measure yourself by how many cute little boxes you check off. Because you know what you’re gonna do, you’re gonna do the easy stuff, you’re gonna do the urgent stuff. Rather, what you need to do is measure yourself by one thing only. And that is, did I do what I said I was going to do for as long as I said I would without distraction. Notice, I didn’t say did I finish? Don’t measure whether you finish. That’s not the point. The point is did I do what I said I was going to do, for as long as I said I would without distraction? That’s the only goal. Even if it’s 5 minutes, 10 minutes, doesn’t matter. And here’s the kicker, studies find that people who do that people who simply track themselves by did they do what they say they’re going to do without distraction finish more than the To Do Lists people, they actually get more done than the box checkers. 


Mark Divine 31:27

Well, and also you can intend to use time to get better at constructing an effective to-do list. 


Nir Eyal 31:33



Mark Divine 31:34

And what I mean by that is organizing it by all the miscellaneous bold, like miscellaneous, and then like my top two to three projects that are going to move the dial toward my, you know, toward my vision, okay, so then let’s work on those in mind, you know, the deep work time. 


Nir Eyal 31:47

Absolutely. And this, this is what so also what to-do list can never give you, it has no feedback. People put, you know, a goal on their to-do lists, you know, finish to finish this project. Well, they work on it for five minutes. And then they get bored of it. So they do something else, they check email, oh, Stacy, stopped by my desk. And now I gotta do this. Now, here’s that and then five minutes later, they’ll get back to it, they have no semblance for how long a task takes. As we know, this is called the planning fallacy. It takes people three times longer to finish a task, and they expect three times longer. With timeboxing. However, you know, how long things take you because you have a feedback mechanism? How does it work? You say, Okay, I’m going to work on this task for 30 minutes. And then you stop, and you say, okay, well, in 30 minutes, I did two slides out of my 15-slide presentation. Okay, well, now I can begin to project how long it’s going to take me to finish the entire project. So it’s only through timeboxing that you get better predicting how long things will take to finish. 


Mark Divine 32:38

So what’s the third process or third step in your in your model. 


Nir Eyal 32:43

So the third step is relatively easy. It’s the easiest of the four, which is to hack back the external triggers. So this is what people tend to focus on, I think a lot of other books in a very shallow way, focus on you know, get rid of your smartphone, you know, things like that. But there is a lot you can do. Right? So our technologies today come with tools built in. Apple has screentime. Google has Google well-being. It’s all built into the technology, we just need to know how to use it. So this is all about hacking back the external triggers of your devices, not only your devices, but also what about the other external triggers? I mean, I cover about one page about how to hack back your phone. That’s that’s kindergarten stuff. But the much more difficult, external triggers to hack back? What about meetings? Right? How many stupid meetings do we attend that didn’t need to be called? How much time on Slack are we spending? That is a waste of time? How many emails are we getting that are a waste of time? So I show you how to systematically hack back each and every one of these external triggers. Kids are a good example. Right? So many of us are working from home today. We love our kids to death. But you know, they can be a huge distraction. So I show you systematically how to hack back each and every one of those external triggers. 


Mark Divine 33:45

That’s interesting. So what’s the number one tip? Right, the one that’s going to have the biggest ROI? 


Nir Eyal 33:53

Well, it depends what your external triggers are, you know, before I wrote the book, and right before COVID, and we found in research that the number one distracting external trigger for the American worker was other people. Right? People think it’s their technology. But actually, the number one source of distraction was, you know, your boss stopping by your desk asking for that TPS report or some office gossip. That was the number one source of distractions. So there’s a lot of things we can do in the workplace. I talked about in the book, this group of nurses at UCSF who found a way to reduce prescription mistakes by 80% 80%. Huge problem all over America, something like 200,000 Americans are injured because of prescription mistakes in the hospital. So healthcare practitioners, giving people the wrong medication, the wrong dosage of medication, and why does it happen? Distraction. Because when nurses are dosing out medication, on average, they’re interrupted 10 times per dosing round, and every time they’re interrupted, they make mistakes. And of course, everyone does this. You don’t have to be in the healthcare profession. Everyone does this. We, whenever we’re interrupted on a task, our likely to make a mistake increases. So what did these nurses do? They didn’t have some multimillion-dollar retraining program. They didn’t have some fancy new technology. They started wearing plastic vests.

Plastic vests, bright red, they look like trash bags almost they put on over their their clothing that says drug round in progress Do Not Disturb. And this reduced prescription mistakes by 88%. 


Mark Divine 35:17

Holy cow. 


Nir Eyal 35:17

Amazing, right? So how can we use this in our own life? Well, when we’re working in the office, every copy of my book in the middle of my book, right smack dab in the center, there’s a piece of cardstock you tear out the cardstock, you fold into thirds, and it’s, you put it on your computer monitor, and it says, I’m indistractable, please come back later. And what that does is send a signal to your colleagues that for the next few minutes, as long as this sign is up, I need to work by myself.


Mark Divine 35:42

That’s awesome.


Nir Eyal 35:43

You know, we, many of us work in these open floorplan offices, which are terrible for personal productivity. You know, many of us don’t have the luxury of having a door that we can close for our personal office and putting on headphones, we put on headphones, people think you’re watching YouTube or listening to a podcast. So it’s much better to make this explicit sign to say to people, hey, I’m indistractable right now. We can do something very similar, even if you’re working from home. So I have a daughter and for years, she would interrupt us in the middle of us doing our work because you know, poor girl, she didn’t know that we were working, how can your kid know if you’re working versus, you know, watching YouTube videos. So we actually did something similar with her as well, that we use the same technique to interrupting the interruption. Not only does it work really well, on my daughter, it also works really well on me. When my wife does this, I know to leave her alone, because she’s working right now. So there’s all kinds of techniques like this, when it comes to hacking back your external triggers.


Mark Divine 36:32

A good business opportunity to sell these red vests that say don’t distract me.


Nir Eyal 36:35



Mark Divine 36:37

Give credit to the nurses, that’s all. We’re running out of time. But let’s give us a summary of the fourth. I love this. You know, this really going deep on this model, because it’s fascinating. It’s really good stuff. 


Nir Eyal 36:46

Sure. Step number one is mastering the internal triggers. Step number two is making time for traction. Step number three is hacking back the external triggers. The last step is preventing distraction with pacts. This is the last line of defense, this is the firewall against distraction. So it’s something you do after you do the first three. A pact is when you make some kind of pre commitment that says; If I fall off track, this is what will keep me in. And there’s three types of packs, we have effort packs, price packs and identity packs. And basically what you’re doing is you’re making a promise in advance so that, you know, distraction is coming, but you’re erecting that barrier. So I’ll give you a great example. So we’ve been talking now for a while so I can get kind of personal. I’m going to tell you a little bit about my sex life. Okay, don’t get freaked out here. I’ve been married to the same woman for over 20 years now. And a few years ago before I started writing indistractable, my wife and I noticed that night after night, we would go to sleep later and later. And we would have less time for intimacy because I was caressing my iPhone, and she was cuddling her iPad. And we weren’t being intimate because we were on our devices. And so when I started doing this research around how to become indistracaible, I found this research around pacts. And so what I did was make an effort pact. An effort pack says that you put a bit of friction in between yourself and the the distractions, something you don’t want to do. And so what I decided I wanted to do was I wanted to get to bed on time. 10 o’clock, I wanted to get to bed on time. We all know how important sleep is for our physiological and mental health. But I also wanted that time to be intimate with my wife, potentially. So what did I do, I went to the hardware store, and I bought us this $5 outlet timer. Now this outlet timer, you plug into your wall, and whatever you put into that timer will turn off at any time of day or night that you set. And so in my household, every night at 10 pm, my internet router shuts off.


Mark Divine 38:37



Nir Eyal 38:37

Now, could I turn my Internet back on? Of course, I could. Right. But now I’d have to go fiddle with this internet timer and like plug it in and plug it out. I could do that. But I’m not going to because I’ve erected this effort pack. There’s friction to doing that now. So it allows me a moment of clarity, a moment of mindfulness as opposed to mindlessly scrolling the internet. I’m mindful for a minute and I say to myself, wait a minute, do I really need to stay online? Or can this wait till tomorrow? And so that’s what you do last? Don’t do that. First, you have to do that last after the first three. But that’s just one example of the pact that you can make to make sure you stay on track. 


Mark Divine 39:10

That’s a great device to use for your kids. So they don’t stay on their devices too late to and then you got to get up and go, you know, rectify and remedy that. 


Nir Eyal 39:18

Yeah, absolutely. And the beauty of it is that that it’s automatic. So what happens after a while now we all know, right? My daughter and my wife myself. Oh, 10 o’clock is coming, gotta wrap things up because the internet’s gonna shut down soon. So now we actually to be honest, we don’t even need it. Because we’ve all gotten into the routine of knowing when to turn off. 


Mark Divine 39:35

So what’s next for you? Your kind of research interest and everything seemed to go on these waves are flying in a certain direction. What’s next for you? 


Nir Eyal 39:42

Yeah, good question. You know, I write books about subjects that I struggle with, right, problems that I have. I don’t write books because I know things I wrote. I write books because I want to know things. And so you know, the good thing is that I’ve got lots of problems to tackle. So I’m looking for what the next, you know, most time, you know when I have a problem in my life, I try to figure it out myself. I’ll talk to my friends, my family about it. Then I’ll read books about the topic and nine times out of 10. Somebody’s written a good book on the topic already. But then every once in a while, you know, with these two books I’ve written, I just couldn’t find a book that properly addressed the topic. And so I had to do my own research. And each one of those took me about five years to write. So I’m not sure what the topic is going to be next, but I’m sure it’s gonna be something good. I’ll let you know. 


Mark Divine 40:25

And look forward to that. 


Nir Eyal 40:26



Mark Divine 40:27

Nir, I appreciate your time. This is a fascinating discussion. I think it’s going to be very helpful. So appreciate you and the work you’re doing and let us know if we can help with anything.


Nir Eyal 40:34

I really appreciate it. Thank you so much for having me. 


Mark Divine 40:36

Yeah, Hooyah.


Mark Divine  40:38  

Wow, I tell you what, that was a fascinating conversation. I thought, initially, we were just going to be having one of those, you know, fits your book conversations, but wow, this is really, really important stuff how to become indistractable. I love that Nir walked us through his four-point model. Nir, thanks so much for being on the show. That was amazing. Show notes are up on MarkDivine.com, the videos on our YouTube channel, which you can find there, the website you can reach out to me on social media, Twitter is at Mark Divine and Instagram and Facebook at Real Mark Divine, or you can find me on my LinkedIn profile. My Newsletter, Divine Inspiration comes out every Tuesday, where I bring you Show notes from the week’s podcast, my blog, and other really interesting things, including a book I’m reading that week, as well as a practice. So go to MarkDivine.com to subscribe, and if you like it, please share it. Shout out to my amazing team, Jason Sanderson and Geoff Haskell, and Catherine Divine. Yes, that’s right. My stepdaughter, Catherine Divine, who helps produce this podcast and finds incredible guests and bring them to you every week. Ratings and reviews are very, very helpful. So if you haven’t done so, please consider rating and reviewing the show wherever you listen. It helps keep the momentum going. Thanks so much for being part of the change you want to see in the world starts with you. It always starts with us. If you’re not training your mind, someone else is training it for you. So take control. And if you want to learn how to have a strong body, strong mind and work with a strong team, Navy SEAL style, something we really need in this world is to get stronger and tougher, more resilient, and overcome some of the mental challenges that are facing us. Well, we got a program to help you, and it’s called SEALFIT. So check it out at SEALFIT.com. It’s not just for Navy SEALs or Navy SEAL trainees, it is for everybody. And so you can really, really find some inspiring training from Navy SEALs at SEALFIT.com. Till next time, this is your host Mark Divine.


Transcribed by Catherine and https://otter.ai


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