To drive recurring revenue, you need products and services that people use. Habitually. Repeatedly. Organizations strive to design addictive subscriptions. But for every beloved membership, there seem to be a dozen offerings that drive subscription fatigue. How do you design for engagement, retention and expansion, while ensuring the you’ve earned the right to do so?
Bestselling author Nir Eyal has looked at this problem from both sides.
His first book, Hooked, is a how to guide for building habit-forming products.
More recently, he wrote Indistractable, to help individuals control their attention and choose the lives they want.
On this episode of Subscription Stories, Nir and I talk about the specific processes and tools that drive habits, what it means for your subscription business, and how to be more deliberate about how we form our own habits.
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Bestselling Author Nir Eyal on How to Ethically Hook Your Subscribers
To drive recurring revenue, you need products and services that people use habitually and repeatedly. Organizations strive to design addictive subscriptions, but for every beloved membership, there seemed to be a dozen offerings that drive subscription fatigue. How do you design for engagement, retention and expansion while ensuring that you’ve earned the right to do so?
Bestselling author Nir Eyal has looked at this problem from both sides. His first book, Hooked, is a how-to guide for building habit-forming products. He also wrote Indistractable to help individuals control their attention and choose the lives they want. In this episode, Nir and I talk about the specific processes and tools that drive habits, what it means for your subscription business, and how to be more deliberate about how we form our own habits.
Nir, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much, Robbie. It’s great to be with you.
Let’s jump right in. You write at the intersection of psychology, technology and business. You call that space behavioral design. Before we dive into that, can you define what this space is and how you came to be focused and an expert on this very unique and narrow area?
I would say that behavioral design is the practical application of consumer psychology, specifically in tech products. Most of my clients over the years have been financial services, technology companies, FinTech, educational products, EdTech, and healthcare products. It’s all kinds of products and services that rely on repeat behavior.
Habits are my specialty. That’s why we’re connected in terms of repeat behaviors. You’ve got on your book cover the infinity symbol and that’s my model as well. I use that similar metaphor of bringing people back again and again. The idea here is that we are designing products and services to persuade and help people do the things they want to do but don’t do for lack of good product design. That’s our opportunity as product designers. It is to build the kind of products and services that improve people’s lives if they would only use the product. As you know, there’s this huge gap between intention and action. Our job as behavioral designers is to bridge that gap.
You’ve written two books. I feel like they are almost in conversation with each other. One of them, the first one, Hooked teaches entrepreneurs and product designers how to make products become habitual and maybe even addictive. The second book, Indistractable, seems more targeted to the consumers and explaining to them how to focus on what matters most and to recognize and avoid distractions. Did you know that there were going to be two books and two sides to this coin or did that happen organically?
When I wrote Hooked, I didn’t know that there would be Indistractable as the follow-up book, but I knew ethics were going to be an issue. There’s a whole section in Hooked called The Morality of Manipulation, which is all about how to apply this stuff ethically, but that was more targeted to the product maker. Hooked was about stealing the secrets of the most habit-forming products on Earth like Facebook, Instagram, Slack, WhatsApp and Snapchat, and figuring out what is it about these companies that make their products so sticky so that the rest of us can use them too.
Why should it just be the gaming companies and the social media companies that make products that we seem to enjoy and that we love to interact with? What if we could use that same psychology and the same principles that make those products so sticky to help people eat healthier or communicate with loved ones more often or be more productive at work? There are all kinds of things we can do to use those same methods not just for quality, but for life-enhancing purposes. That’s the purpose of Hooked.
Indistractable is about the other side of the coin. If we can build products to build good habits, what do we do about those that build bad habits? It’s not a negation of each other. I want to make sure I’m very clear that this is not about addiction. An addiction is a pathology. It’s a persistent compulsive dependency on behavior or substance that harms the user. As product designers, we would never want to intentionally addict people because addiction causes harm. Addiction can be an unfortunate byproduct of a product that is engaging. If your product is sufficiently widely distributed, somebody is probably going to get addicted to it because people get addicted to all sorts of things.If we can automate or habituate certain behaviors that improve our lives, that make us happier, healthier and more productive, that’s facilitated through some kind of technology, that’s a great thing as long as the user, as well as the… Click To Tweet
Just because something is potentially addictive to somebody, it doesn’t mean we’re all addicted or the product is intentionally designed to addict people. I would argue that designing for addiction has some serious, not only ethical but also business consequences, which we can get into in a bit. It’s about habits. Habits are nothing more than a behavior done with little or no conscious thought. About 50% of our day-to-day behavior is done out of habit. It’s something we do on autopilot.
If we can automate or if we can habituate certain behaviors that improve our lives that make us happier, healthier and more productive that’s facilitated through some kind of technology, that’s a great thing as long as the user, as well as the maker, are aligned on that behavior. It’s something that people themselves want to do but don’t do for lack of good product design. We all know we should eat healthier but we don’t. We all know we should exercise but it’s hard. We all know we should learn a new language or whatever it might be that we have these aspirations to do, but the fact that it’s hard to do makes us not do it. That’s where a good product design and behavioral design can be very helpful.
Indistractable is about what happens to those behaviors that sometimes can take us off track from what we want, from our values, and from the life we desire. What do we do about that? The idea behind writing that book is given the insider’s perspective I have into how these products are designed, I can also tell you how you’re much more powerful than these products are. As good as behavioral design is and as persuasive as these techniques might be, they’re good but they’re not that good. It’s not mind control. You can’t make people do things they don’t want to do. It’s fundamentally about aligning those interests. It’s not the same products. That’s the takeaway.
I want people to get habituated to the language learning app, the fitness app, and the productivity software. I want them habituated to that. We all do, but I also want to know in my own life and the lives of my children, my family members and my friends, how do we stop overusing or abusing products that don’t serve us and that distract us? By the way, it’s not only about tech.
Plato talked about distraction 2,500 years before the internet. The story of Adam and Eve is fundamentally a story of distraction. It’s about eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. We’re curious. We want to know and we get distracted based on these things that we later regret. The idea here is not the same product. You want to get habituated to the good habits and you want to break those bad habits. That’s where my background and my research comes in handy in both sections.
They’re both important in subscription models and membership models because a big part of it, and I’m glad you brought up ethics, is the element of trust. The reason that I subscribed to something and don’t look for alternatives and habituate myself to that product is not because I’m stupid. Hopefully, not because I was inadvertently made addicted to some product. It’s because I believe that the vendor or the product designer is trying to help me achieve an ongoing goal or solve an ongoing problem.
I love what you said about you can’t be addicted without your knowledge. You can’t be forced to use the product if you don’t want to use it. It reminded me of when you go to a show and you see a hypnotist. Some people can’t be hypnotized because they don’t want to be. There is an agreement between the product designer and the consumer. The consumer says, “I’m going to trust you and I’m going to go along for the ride. You’re going to make it easy for me to eat my broccoli and run my laps.” It’s important to think about that and that element of trust and ethics that have to be woven in, especially as consumers become more sophisticated about what’s going on behind the screen.
The reason that companies don’t want to design for addiction is that addiction typically leads to burnout when someone is overusing a product. For the vast majority of us, 95% and 97% of us who aren’t pathologically addicted, what happens is we use a product a lot. It’s fun for a while and then we say, “This is too much.” What do they do? They don’t moderate the use. Many times people just quit, which is terrible.
Tech companies, the successful ones, don’t want you to burn out on a product. Think about gaming. We oftentimes talk about gamification. Gamification is a terrible model for repeat engagement because what do people do with games? Who still plays Pac-Man? Almost nobody. Angry Birds is years ago. Nobody does that anymore. That’s old news because what happens is you play and play. You burn out, then you get sick of it and you stop. What successful long-term habit-forming products do is they don’t want you to use it a lot for a little while and burn out. They want you to use the product for the rest of your life.
That’s why we see companies like Apple and Google putting ways to use your phone less into the operating system. How many products can you name that do that? The reason is that they found that there’s a healthy balance. They want people to not overuse their products that they resent their products. They want them to use their products for a very long time. That’s one very important point. Designing for addiction typically is not good for business.
There are some industries I won’t work with that prey on addicts like gambling companies, alcohol and tobacco. There are certain companies that without the addicts, they wouldn’t survive. There’s an ethical line there, but for the vast majority of companies, trying to addict people is bad business. Habituating people, however, can be a very good thing for the user, as well as the company.
One more point around any kind of design tactics is what we call dark patterns. Dark patterns are when we use these behavioral design tactics in a way that is not persuasive but in fact coercive. Persuasion is helping people do things they want to do. Coercion is getting people to do things they didn’t want to do. The big difference is one word. That one word is regret. If a customer regrets using your product, not only will they not do business with you, they’re going to tell all their friends on social media that you’re not ethical.
It’s bad for business and ethics to try and trick people. You definitely can. I wrote an article about The New York Times subscription business that uses dark patterns. They use what’s called the Roach Motel technique. The Roach Motel is like those bait traps for roaches. The roaches go in and they never come out. That’s the Roach Motel. That’s what The New York Times does, which is ironic because they were calling out Amazon or some tech company. The New York Times loves ragging on tech companies because they’re in competition for attention.
In The New York Times, they’re saying this. I went back and said, “How hard is it to cancel The New York Times?” To join The New York Times is super easy. You just give them your email address and they start sending you a subscription. To cancel, you have to call a phone number from 9:00 to 5:00 PM Eastern Standard Time on weekdays only with the exception of lunch. If you call, you’ll be on the phone for over 30 minutes with somebody giving you every deal and discounted program. You can’t just cancel the way you signed it up. It’s a big ordeal to cancel. They add all this friction to the backend. That’s something I regret. I regret signing up for The New York Times. If I had known that it was so hard to cancel, I wouldn’t have done it. That’s why it’s so important to do that.
Can you define dark patterns?
It’s using these behavioral design tactics in a way that coerces rather than persuades.
The New York Times is a great example. A lot of other news organizations are doing similar things. They are also having very inexpensive trials. $1 for six months or something along those lines, and then in month seven, it’s $100, let’s say. I’m exaggerating, but is that also a dark pattern because they’re hoping that you’ll forget that you subscribed and not notice that change from $1 to $10 or $100 or whatever the price change may be? It’s the same thing with, “Wait. There’s more,” or As Seen on TV kinds of subscriptions.
That’s why I think the ethical test for how to apply these techniques appropriately is what I call the regret test. If you’re in the conference room with your product team and you’re thinking about how to apply behavioral design tactics, somebody can raise their hand and say, “We should run a regret test.” A regret test is when we bring in users and we do what we always do in product design. We do user testing. We’ve done this for decades.Plato talked about distraction 2,500 years before the internet. The story of Adam and Eve is fundamentally a story of distraction. - @nireyal Click To Tweet
With the regret test, we see if the user would do what we have designed for them to do knowing everything we know. We do this with a small number of users. We do this with 5 or 6 users. We say, “If you knew that your subscription is going to go from $0 free trial to $60 next month, would you still subscribe?” We’re doing that small user test and saying, “We have an ethical bar.” I remember back in the day when I started in tech, we had the three-nines technique. Everything had to be that level of quality. It had to be uptime of triple nines.
You need some ethical bar as well. Let’s say 100% of the users we do user testing with, 10 out of 10 need to say that they would pass the regret test. They wouldn’t regret doing business with us, knowing everything we use as designers. That’s a very simple and cheap technique that you can use to make sure that you’re on the right ethical side. The good news is you almost never have to run this test because even the threat with your product team of saying, “We should run a regret test,” people very quickly say, “Let’s not use that technique because we may not pass.” You want to know that now rather than later.
It forces you back into good behavior. Something that I was thinking about as we’re talking about dark patterns, addiction, and people who can’t say no and can’t separate themselves from your product. To be honest, in my experience of working with companies, it’s a very small percentage of them that have products that are so addictive that people can’t stop using them.
Most product designers are struggling to build habits. Going back to your original example of “I want to get healthy. I know how. I don’t need anyone to tell me to eat less, exercise more, eat better foods and exercise thoughtfully. I just don’t want to, I don’t make time, I forget,” or whatever. Let’s say you’re designing a weight-loss program or fitness, there are so many now, can you take me through the Hook Model, trigger, action, reward, investment? Talk about if you were a product designer, how you would build good and healthy whatever example you want, fitness, food or something else that would be a good habit.
I’m glad you said that because the real problem for the vast majority of products out there is people talk about ethics and they worry about addicting people, but nobody is getting addicted to enterprise software. That’s not a problem. Nobody is getting addicted to language learning. These are good things. We want these habits in our lives.
“I’ve gone too far in my Spanish and too fluent.”
“I can’t stop learning Spanish.” I’m sure somebody might be addicted, but it’s not a problem you need to worry about as a product designer. The real problem is that nobody cares. People won’t use the product that they themselves want to use. What is so difficult about product design is that people will tell you, “That’s such a good idea. I would use that product,” but when they have it in their hands, they don’t.
The reason why is that people have what we call articulatable needs. They will tell you what they want, but what they do will be very different. The right place to go when it comes to product design is not just talking to the customer. It used to be when we designed products, we would send a bunch of designers and engineers into a room where we would hire some design firms and say, “Build this.”
They go away and then we would see them six months later and say, “Here’s a finished product,” 99 times out of 100, that product would fail because it didn’t get out there. It wasn’t tested with users. Now, we’re enlightened. We do customer development. We use The Lean Startup Methodology, which is very good. We definitely should talk to our customers, but that’s not enough. Because of the fact that people will tell you one thing and do something else, we also need to look at consumer psychology. We need to base our product design based on a model that helps us fail less often. We still need to fail. It’s going to be part of the process. You build, measure, learn as Eric Ries taught us. You have to iterate, but the idea is to save time, money, blood, sweat and tears by building less of the wrong stuff.
What I offer to the conversation is what’s called the Hook Model. The Hook Model is an experience that connects the user’s problem with your product with enough frequency to form a habit. Frequency is a big deal. The first criteria for forming a habit is that the behavior has to occur within a week’s time or less. The number one reason I’ll tell a client or a company I’m thinking about investing in that I’m going to pass is frequency.
It’s very difficult to change a customer’s habit if the behavior does not occur within a week’s time or less. There are some exceptions but they don’t make the rule. The most important criteria is whether the behavior occurs with sufficient frequency. Let’s say it’s checking an app, looking at dashboards, opening a feed or whatever the case might be. Do these behaviors occur with sufficient frequency? By the way, the more frequent the better.
It’s part of the reason that these products are so habit-forming. If you think about our phones, the average smartphone user checks their phone 150 times per day. It’s a very high habit-forming potential because of that incredible level of frequency. Let’s say you have a product that’s used at least once a week, preferably once a day or several times a week.
The first step in the Hook Model is the trigger phase. There are two kinds of triggers. The first one, you’ll be very familiar with. These are called external triggers. An external trigger is a ping, a ding, a ring or some kind of call to action in our outside environment that tells us what to do next. I’ll get back to the second type of trigger in just a minute.
Let’s say you have an experience that sends you a notification, an email or whatever it might be. That’s the first step, the external trigger. The next step is the action phase. The action phase is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. The idea here is to make that behavior as easy as possible. The first rule of usability design is the easier something is to do, the more people will do it. This is where we look at every potential factor of ability to make that behavior as easy as possible to do.
The third step of the Hook Model is called the Variable Reward phase. Many product designers will give people what they want and we’re done. That’s a missed opportunity because what you find endemic to habit-forming products is that there are some elements of variability, some bit of mystery or something that keeps us guessing and checking. That’s a big part of what we call intermittent reinforcement that we see is at the core of habit-forming products. Something different, something that changes or something variable is the engine of the Hook Model.
The fourth and final step is the investment phase and this is the most overlooked of the four steps of the Hook Model. The investment phase is where the user critically puts something into the product to make it better with use. When the user puts something into the product, data, content, reputation, skill acquisition or any of these things that the user is putting into the product, what they’re doing is creating what’s called stored value. Stored value makes the product appreciate with use rather than depreciate it. What’s revolutionary about tech products is the investment of stored value. Finally, I told you I’d get back to the second type of trigger.
Before you go to the second trigger, let me ask to make sure I’m understanding. I understand the trigger. The health example might be a ding. It’s time for you to get up and walk 250 steps or whatever. That’s an external trigger. The action is I walk and that’s easy to do.
The action would be to check the app, not the walking. You get a ping and ding on your phone, let’s say. You open the app. The variable reward would be, “What is the app telling me to do? What’s the message?” The habit is to open the app. That’s what we want you to do. The investment is then logging what you did, for example, or committing to something or liking something. Anything that tells the product what you’re doing and how you’re getting better and making the app better in the process.The Hook Model is an experience that connects users’ problems with your product with enough frequency. To form a habit and a free frequency is a really big deal. - @nireyal Click To Tweet
When you say the app is better in the process, it’s better for me as the consumer so the next time I come back, I will have a better experience. Because it knows me a little better and it has a little more information, it gives me a little more than it gave me the first time. Back to this infinity model, part of this model is that each time I come back, it’s better.
That’s a critical step so that the net result of the four steps of the Hook Model eventually is you don’t need external triggers anymore. The way you know, “We accomplished our goal. We created a consumer habit,” is that the user starts using the product without an external trigger. They begin to prompt themselves with what’s called an internal trigger. An internal trigger is an uncomfortable emotional state that we seek to escape.
Notice every habit-forming product. When you get home from work, you’re tired, and you just want to zone out, check Netflix. You open up Netflix with little or no conscious thought. When you don’t know what to do at work, you’re on email or Slack. Even without notification, you’re opening these apps. You’re using these services not because of ping, ding or ring, but because of a feeling.
I was with my mother-in-law and she loves her Fitbit. There’s a certain number of steps you’re supposed to take every hour. It reminds you that you have to do it or close the rings or something like that. What was interesting is that sometimes at the beginning of the hour, she would say, “I’m going to do my steps now so that I don’t have to worry about it later.” She almost couldn’t go do the thing that was going to take more than an hour because she knew she’d miss her timing. I think that’s a good example of this intrinsic motivation. She almost doesn’t need to be reminded anymore of the hour. She feels it. If she hasn’t walked in an hour, she knows she needs to do it.
Think about that from a business model perspective. The fact that a company no longer has to spend money on advertising or has to risk sending you spammy messages that you may unsubscribe from, you now have formed an association with a feeling, whether that’s fear, boredom, uncertainty or stress. When I feel this way, the solution is found in the products you use. That’s where this habit takes hold and where it becomes very powerful in people’s lives.
Now, they’re changing their behavior on their own facilitated by this product. They don’t need the notifications anymore. The external triggers are almost the training wheels to send people through the four steps of the Hook Model so that eventually, they use it on their own habitually because every time they feel an internal trigger, they use the product.
That makes great sense. For a product designer, just going through those steps and saying, “What’s the external trigger? What’s the desired action that I want this consumer to do? What is the intermittent reward?” That reward is different every time or sometimes surprising and delightful. What kind of investment am I going to ask them to make or better yet, is the product automatically going to learn from the behavior that will make the product more valuable?
You said that ultimately turns into the internal trigger or that second kind of trigger, which is much more valuable. A lot of product people have said, “When you build a subscription-based product, the product is the marketing tool.” In other words, it’s the experience of being in the product that makes you want to use the product more as opposed to external emails or reminders that direct you back. It’s something about the way the product itself is designed that is fulfilling the role that used to be fulfilled maybe by a more calm person.
This is what’s so revolutionary. If you think about the great brands of the past, the way they change consumer behavior was through what’s called the mere exposure effect. Coca-Cola had to advertise ad nauseam to make you see that logo again and again. We know that the more you see the logo, hear a jingle or see a celebrity’s face, the more affinity you have for that object. That’s super expensive.
Whereas now, if you look at what is the ad budget of Google, Facebook or Slack, these companies spend almost nothing on ads. Of course, they do, but in proportion to how much money commodity products have to spend or for a non-habit forming product, and how much money they have to spend on these mere exposure ads, it’s puny in comparison. The reason is it’s not the mere exposure effect they’re using. What they’re using is the product design itself. Because the product is designed to be habit-forming, that’s what creates that association, not the expensive ads.
I want to move on to the research that you did for Indistractable and some of these ideas on the consumer side. How do we live in harmony with all of this technology? I know on the edge cases, there are some addictive products that are dark and we need to be aware of them and avoid them. On the other end is this whole slew of products that nobody wants to use even though they said they were going to use them.
In the middle, there are products that you can use the right amount. For example, let’s talk about Netflix. You gave that example. I’m tired. I come home. I want to Netflix and chill. If my Netflix and chill end up keeping me from getting my job done or taking care of my family or being present for my loved ones, it becomes an issue. How do you recognize when a product is going from persuasion to coercion? It’s going from helping me achieve an ongoing goal which might be I want to relax, I want to be entertained or I want to have a little treat at the end of my hard day into, “This is a problem.” How do I recognize that and what can I do to manage my time better?
It’s funny you mentioned Netflix because Reed Hastings, the CEO, said that their biggest competitor for Netflix is not YouTube. It’s not TikTok. The biggest competitor for Netflix is sleep. The first thing we need to realize is that these companies are not going to do it for us, and it’s not just tech companies. The New York Times is not going to say, “You’ve read enough news. Go have a life.”
The NFL is not going to say, “Enough football. Go be with your kids.” It’s not going to happen. Every media company designs its product and service to be engaging. That is why we use them. We’re not going to say, “Netflix, stop making such good shows.” “Apple, stop making your product so user-friendly. I like to use it all the time.” That’s the point. We want them to be engaging.
When I asked you about ethics, I feel like you went straight to almost illegal. Things that are regulated and are obviously harmful, but there is this gray area and Netflix is a good example. I love Netflix. I did a lot of work for them. It’s a great company. It is about enjoyment. It is about entertainment. It is about relaxation. Even the fact that Reed Hasting says Netflix’s biggest competitor is sleep and we know that most people don’t get enough sleep, it could be seen as a little dark. It’s not the best outcome.
Would they regret it? The regret test. I think a lot of people would say when they look at Netflix that it does not pass the regret test. “What did I do? Why did I stay up until 3:00 in the morning watching episodes of some show?” I’m not exactly sure what my question is here, but I think there’s a piece of this ethically from the designer’s side. Personally, how do I manage against a company that isn’t always in my best interest?
For the people who deserve protection like children, as product designers, we have to design for that use case of children who might not be ready for our products. That’s obvious. For addicts too. I’ve been advocating for years now that products like Netflix and Facebook need what we call use and abuse policy. I think there should be some kind of stopping cue inside Netflix that says, “You’ve been watching for a long time. Are you sure you want to keep watching?”
They do have something similar but it’s not for the right reasons. They do have a thing that comes up that says, “You’ve been watching for a long time.” That’s because they think people are playing in the background and they want to make sure you’re still there. I think we should say, “Do you know that you’ve watched this much TV? Is that still what you want to do?” It’s not so much for the overwhelming majority of people who are not addicted, but for the people who are using Netflix as a numbing agent and as an escape mechanism who are pathologically addicted.If a product is designed to be habit-forming, it naturally creates an association with the users and won’t need to rely on expensive ads. - @nireyal Click To Tweet
I think they deserve special protection because these companies know how much people are using them. They have that ethical bar as opposed to the alcohol companies. They don’t know who the alcoholics are, how could they reach out? If you know someone who might be abusing your product, I think you do have an ethical responsibility. Let’s put that aside. That’s the company’s responsibility. When it comes to our personal responsibility, 95% to 97% of us who are not pathologically addicted and who are not children, I hate to say, it’s our responsibility.
It’s not our fault. You didn’t create Netflix. You didn’t create Twitter. You didn’t create these things that distract you, but it is your responsibility. The price of progress and the price of living in a world with so many cool interesting things in it is that we have to learn how to be indistractable. That’s the price, folks. You get to live in the greatest time in human history. The price is you got to learn some new techniques and it’s not that hard. How do we do it? It’s pretty simple. Number one, we master the internal triggers.
Here’s the icky sticky truth that nobody wants to hear. The vast majority of distraction begins from within. Studies find that only 10% of the time that we check our phones are we checking them because of an external trigger. The external triggers are pings, dings and rings. The other 90% of the time that we check our phones, we are checking because of internal triggers like boredom, loneliness, stress, anxiety and fearfulness. That is 90% of the time we check our phones.
If we don’t master our internal triggers, they become our masters. Whether it’s too much news, too much booze, too much food, too much Facebook or too much football, you are going to find a distraction unless you understand the internal trigger that is driving you to deal with discomfort in an unhealthy way. Distraction is not a moral failing. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s simply that we haven’t learned how to deal with discomfort in a healthy way that leads us towards traction rather than a distraction. That’s step number one. You have to figure out what those feelings are. People don’t like to talk about it because we like to blame these big bad technology companies.
I’m telling you, even without technology, people have been struggling with distractions forever. They always will unless we know why and what we are looking to escape emotionally. That’s step number one. Step number two is making time for traction. There’s nothing wrong with watching Netflix. The thing is when we use these products to escape our life, which in moderation is fine. It’s okay to escape reality for a little bit and get immersed in a book, a movie, a videogame or whatever it is as long as it’s done on your schedule, not someone else’s. This is about making time for traction or what I like to call turning your values into time.
If the person you want to become is the kind of person who plays video games for an hour a day, great, but put it on your calendar. What you’re doing is you’re turning distraction into traction by scheduling time for it. It’s not just about tech stuff. It’s about your work. It’s about time with your family, your friends and time for yourself. We’ve got to start keeping what’s called the time box calendar. I show you exactly how to do that in the book, Indistractable.
The third step is to start hacking back those external triggers. I used the word hack because to hack means to gain unauthorized access to something like a computer hacker would gain access to your bank account. That’s to hack. We know these companies, whether it’s The New York Times, Fox News, CNN, Facebook, Twitter or TikTok, all of them are trying to hack your attention. We don’t have to let them. We can hack back.
How about we start changing those notification settings? It takes five minutes. Why the heck would you want these notification settings to constantly ping and ding you? You have control. It literally takes you five minutes and we can change those notifications settings. Two-thirds of people who have a smartphone never do. This is simple stuff. We can’t start complaining that these companies are addicting us and hijacking our brains before we take a few steps to change these settings so that they make it easier than ever to do, but that’s the kindergarten stuff.
What about meetings that are a complete waste of time? What about emails that are nothing more than distractions? I show you systematically how to go through each and every one of these external triggers. Finally, the last step to becoming indistractable is to prevent distraction with a pact. A pact is a pre-commitment that we use to make sure that as the last line of defense, we don’t go off track. We don’t get distracted. Those are the four steps or the four big strategies, master internal triggers, make time for traction, hack back external triggers, and prevent distraction with pacts. This is how anybody can become indistractable.
It’s great to have those tools. The one for me that’s the most meaningful is to recognize them. Start by recognizing what’s going on. You talked about the regret test for the product designers, but I think for the consumer, if I feel regret after I did something. If I wake up the next morning and say, “I shouldn’t have eaten so much. I shouldn’t have stayed up until 4:00 in the morning watching TV. I shouldn’t have ignored my family and read The New York Times cover to cover.” If I feel regret, that’s a good signal to start going through those four steps and say, “What can I do to get my time and focus back?
There’s a good quote by Paulo Coelho. He said, “A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.” If a distraction gets you one time, it happens to me. I get distracted from something new that I haven’t gotten distracted from before. You got me once, but if you constantly get distracted by the same thing again and again, “I want to work on a big project and darn it, I checked the email for 30 minutes.” “I wanted to be with my kids and look at me, I’m scrolling Twitter or reading the news instead.”
If it happens once, you get a pass. If it keeps happening, a distractable person allows the same distractions again and again. An indistractable person says, “No.” Distractions only have three potential causes: an internal trigger, an external trigger or a planning problem. That’s it. An indistractable person takes steps today to prevent getting distracted tomorrow.
Are you ready for a couple of questions?
What’s the first subscription you ever had?
I’m sure it was to a magazine. I think it was SURFER Magazine. I used to think I would be a surfer but I never did.
I didn’t know that you were a surfer.
I was not, but I like the idea of being a surfer.A “distractable” person allows the same distractions again and again. An “indistractable” takes steps today to prevent getting distracted tomorrow. - @nireyal Click To Tweet
What is the most valuable subscription you have now?
It’s to an app called Pocket. Pocket is this wonderful service that every time I see an article online, I have a rule I never read on my desktop. What you do is you save that article to this app called Pocket, and it will read to you the text. I’m dyslexic so I read very slowly. It’s ironic for an author to be dyslexic, but that’s the case. What I love about it is that I can r listen to articles read to me without all the clickbait, the ads, and the junk that’s designed in The New York Times to get you to keep scrolling and scrolling. Rather, I listen to these articles read to me when I’m exercising. That’s probably my most valuable subscription. I use it several times a day.
What is the most valuable course you took at the Stanford GSB that you’re still using now?
I took a class with Andy Rachleff, who is a legendary Silicon Valley investor. He is a VC. He used to be at Benchmark. I don’t think he’s there anymore, but he did the eBay deal, which at the time was the most successful investor in Silicon Valley history when he did that deal. It blew my mind in terms of the venture capital business. I didn’t know how venture capital worked at all. I didn’t know how Silicon Valley works at all. I didn’t know how an investment works at all. That class, I think the lessons I still use every day.
What’s a habit that you’re working on right now?
Many of the behaviors that we do are not habits and they never will be habits. They are routines. One routine I’m working on is that I only read after dinner. That’s not a habit because it’s not done with little or no conscious thought. It’s a practice. It’s a series of behaviors frequently repeated. I would call it a routine, but I think that answers your question.
I love the distinctions that you make and the definitions that you throw out there. A lot of times, not having clear definitions of things like habits, routines, and persuasion versus coercion, having precision in language is so helpful not only in designing products but in managing everything in your life. Kudos to you for that discipline and for your ability to be so articulate.
I learned a lot from this conversation. I want to thank you for being a guest on the show. It has been a real pleasure.
Thank you so much, Robbie. It’s always great to connect with you. I very much appreciate you having me.
That was Nir Eyal, Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Hooked and Indistractable. For more about Nir, go to NirEyal.com. Also, if you like this episode, please go over to Apple Podcasts or Apple iTunes and leave a review. Mention Nir and this episode, if you especially enjoyed it. Reviews are how people find our show, and we appreciate each one. Thanks for your support. Thanks for tuning in to Subscription Stories.
- Nir Eyal, Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of “Hooked” and “Indistractable,” Investor, Consultant, and Public Speaker
- Article: The New York Times Uses the Very Dark Patterns it Derides by Nir Eyal
- The Lean Startup Methodology
- Hook Model
- Reed Hastings, CEO, Netflix
- SURFER Magazine
- Andy Rachleff, Executive Chairman, Wealthfront Inc.
- Subscription Stories: True Tales from the Trenches on Apple Podcasts
- Roach Motel
- Angry Birds
About Nir Eyal
Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. Nir previously taught as a Lecturer in Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford.
Nir co-founded and sold two tech companies since 2003 and was dubbed by The M.I.T. Technology Review as, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.”
He is the author of two bestselling books, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
Indistractable received critical acclaim, winning the Outstanding Works of Literature Award as well as being named one of the Best Business and Leadership Books of the Year by Amazon and one of the Best Personal Development Books of the Year by Audible. The Globe and Mail called Indistractable, “the best business book of 2019.”
In addition to blogging at NirAndFar.com, Nir’s writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, Time Magazine, and Psychology Today.
Nir invests in habit-forming products that improve users’ lives. Some of his past investments include Eventbrite (NYSE:EB), Anchor.fm (acquired by Spotify), Kahoot! (KAHOOT-ME.OL), Canva, Homelight, Product Hunt, Marco Polo, Byte Foods, FocusMate, Dynamicare, Wise App, and Sunnyside.
Nir attended The Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory University.
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