How to Curb Your Phone Addiction, According to the Guy Who Helped Create It
Nir Eyal, who literally wrote the book on how to hook people on technology, has a new guide to help us free ourselves from its grasp.
When Nir Eyal wrote his first book, Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, the world of tech was a bit different. There was little talk of screen addiction. In fact, the big conversation of the moment was: why is my gadget so hard to use? How can we create products people want to keep on them at all times? That’s why Eyal wrote his first book, which acted as a psychological primer of sorts on how to create tech that people won’t put down. Times have certainly changed. Now, Eyal, like many of us, found himself distracted, struggling to put his phone down and focus on his family. It wasn’t the tech’s fault, he realized. It was his.
The behavior technology expert’s a-ha moment came during a day he spent with his his daughter. They pored over a question: “If you could have any superpower, what superpower would you want?” Eyal remembers the question. He doesn’t remember the answer. He was looking at his phone.
From that moment forward, Eyal wanted to figure out how to gain back his time from the dependency he had on technology. His new book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life dissects why we get distracted and serves as a resource to find healthier tech routines and help people understand that we often turn to technology when we don’t want to confront our uncomfortable feelings of boredom or anxiety. Our distraction, in other words, is our fault. Not our phones. Definitely not our phones. Understanding that, per Eyal, is crucial. Eyal may have flipped sides to write this book, but it is convincing none-the-less.
Here, Eyal talks to Fatherly about how to take control over the tech in your life, why the root of distraction is uncomfortable emotional sensations, and why screen time for kids isn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be.
You decided to focus on screen time and distraction because you found yourself more and more distracted as a parent.
Yeah. That’s when I realized, I know how this stuff works on the inside, as an industry insider who understands the power of persuasive technology, and I still struggle with this. Every book on the topic on tech distraction all basically said the same thing: Get rid of your tech. Tech is evil.
I tried that. I got rid of my laptop, I got my computer from the 1990s with no internet connection. I got a phone that had no apps on it, and I still got distracted, because I’d say, “Oh, let me organize my table; or, let me take out the trash, or, I’ll do the laundry.”
I still did everything to avoid my work. Distractions have been around for a very, very long time: let’s watch tv, or read the newspaper for today’s gossip, as opposed to being present and doing what you really want to do.
So technology was not really the problem. Technology is, if anything, the symptom, not the disease. The disease is that we don’t understand how to deal with the root cause of our distraction, which is uncomfortable emotional sensations.
What do you mean?
It’s not just about technology. It goes much deeper than that. We need to be able to equip ourselves and our kids with what I call “the skill of the century”: Indistractability. If you think the world is distracting now? Just wait a few years.
If we don’t teach our kids how to be indistractable, while not being technophobic — kids need to be comfortable with technology —they’re going to get scared of tech. They’re not going to get the best of it.
Becoming indistractable is about living with personal integrity, and doing what you say you’re going to do. If you say you’re going to exercise, do it. If you say you’re going to eat right, do it. If you say you’re going to be fully present with your loved ones or do the work you said you’re going to do at work, do that. That’s the goal.
We are certainly reaching a time when we need to prime our brains to handle distractions better.
Let’s start with the definition of distraction. What do we mean when we say distraction? The best way to understand what it is to understand what it’s not. The opposite of distraction isn’t focus; the opposite of distraction is traction. Both words come from the same latin root, which means to pull, and both end in the same six letters, “Action.” So, traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do. Things you do with intent. If you intend to watch television, great. That’s traction. If you intended to play a video game or read the newspaper — that’s traction, as long as you plan to do it ahead of time.
Distraction is anything that pulls you away from what you plan to do. The fact of the matter is, you cannot call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from. Technology isn’t evil; it’s not melting our brains; it’s not addicting everyone. It just needs to be planned for. So, don’t check tech when you have nothing better to do. Use it on your schedule. I have time in my schedule, in my day, for social media. It’s something I value. I like to connect with friends and stay up to date with my industry and reach readers of my book. But it’s planned for in my day. It’s not something I turn to based on my two triggers.
What are your two triggers?
By that I mean two things: external triggers and internal triggers. External triggers are what we typically think of: the pings, the rings, the notifications. All of these things in our environment either prompt us towards traction or distraction. They’re not necessarily bad. A reminder on your phone that tells you it’s time to work out? That’s great.
But if it’s a notification on your phone while you’re with your daughter, as I was, and it takes you off track — that’s a distraction. That’s not serving you. The question with those external triggers is to ask yourself: Is this external trigger serving me, or am I serving it?
That makes sense. It’s very Marie Kondo.
If the external trigger is serving you, keep it. If it’s not, hack back. There’s no reason you can’t change those notifications to make sure that they don’t constantly lead you towards distraction.
But the root cause of most distraction is not what’s outside of us: it’s what’s going on inside of us. Those are these uncomfortable emotional states when we’re bored. We check ESPN, stock prices, get on Reddit. If we’re lonely, we get on Facebook; uncertain, we Google.
Recognizing why we are looking for an escape from our discomfort is critical. If we don’t deal with it, something is always going to distract us. This generation has smartphones, and the last had television. If we don’t understand why we are looking to escape – what the uncomfortable feeling we are trying to escape from — distraction is always the way to get us.
So there are four steps: the first step is to master internal triggers, the second step is to make time for traction. The third step is to hack back: to make sure that your tech serves you. And then finally, we can prevent distractions with pacts. These are these commitments we make with ourselves and with other people to make sure that there is some kind of friction or effort involved with getting distracted so we can do less of it.
These four steps are, I imagine, the same ones you’d teach kids.
Yes. We have to make sure that for kids, most of their day is planned out already, because they’re at school most of the day. When they come home, do they have time to do things they need to do? Do they have time to do the things they want to do?
No study has shown that two hours or less of extra curricular, age appropriate screen time has any negative effects on kids. Parents should sit down with their kids and have a conversation about how much time they want online. As long as that content is age appropriate, that’s fine. When my daughter was just 5 years old, we sat down with her and asked her how much time she wanted, given that the cost of screen time is just not doing something else: spending time with her friends outside, or playing with mommy and daddy.
She said, “two episodes.” She meant two episodes of Netflix, about 45 minutes. At the time, we had a microwave that was below the counter. She could type in how much time she needed, so she’d put in 45 minutes, set the timer, and then the microwave said: “okay!” it beeped at 45 minutes.
Today, she actually uses tools on the devices, like screen time on Apple’s iOS or Alexa. And the beauty of it is, I’m not the bad guy.The Amazon Alexa that she set herself is telling her that time is up. The second big benefit is that she now has learned a skill that she is going to have for the rest of her life.
What do you mean?
We’re not raising kids. We’re raising future adults. We need to help kids learn these skills. If they don’t, we know what’s going to happen when they go to a friend’s house or they go to college. Without that skill, they’re just going to do whatever they want, anyway. We have to train them with this skill so that they can become indistractable themselves. It’s perfectly okay for your kid to have time in their day to watch age-appropriate content on Netflix or to play video games. That’s fine! As long as it’s scheduled.
Now on to external triggers: kids need adequate sleep. It’s bad enough that school starts so early, and kids just don’t get enough sleep and homework keeps them up at night. I cannot think of a good reason why a healthy child needs a television in their bedroom. I don’t understand why our kid needs a computer in their room. They don’t need to sleep with their smartphone. That stuff should be kept outside.
The third is around pacts. There’s this great app called Forest. You dial in how much focused work time you want to do. You hit go and this virtual tree is planted. If you pick up the phone and do anything with it, the virtual tree dies. The more you don’t use the phone, the more you grow this forest of focus. It’s a great app, and it’s free, and it helps my daughter stay on task. You can use technology to block out tech distractions.
If we ask ourselves: Why do kids overuse technology? We need to understand that this stuff doesn’t live in a vacuum. If we magically got rid of Fortnite, Instagram, and TikTok, do we really think kids are just going to start reading Shakespeare and Chaucer in their free time?
Not at all.
Of course not. Kids have been doing all kinds of things with their times that parents disapprove of for a very, very long time… Kids will do something with their time – they always have. It’s about harm minimization. For many kids, we have to ask ourselves: What would they be doing instead?
Give kids time to interact with each other. Studies have found that since we’ve started recording how much time kids have for free play, free play is at an all time low. This is why kids are so psychologically fragile today. It’s one thing when your parent or coach tells you to do something. It’s another when your peer tells you, “If you don’t change how you’re acting, I’m not going to play with you, you’re mean.” We need that. This is the most important thing you can do for your child. Let them play. But we don’t do that anymore because our kids are so hyper scheduled between Kumon and lessons and baseball practice that we have no time for free play.
So where do kids go to interact? TikTok! Instagram! That’s where they go, just like we used to do on the telephone. That’s where they go. I’m not going to say these tools are good for them: overuse is bad. But if we want to stem overuse, we have to understand why they are overusing. If we don’t, we’re putting a bandaid on a gash.