Nir Eyal On How To Become Indistractable

I met for the first time Nir Eyal, at The Next Web Conference in Amsterdam, back in 2017. I already knew Nir for his book “Hooked” and ever since I’ve followed him, as Nir is the best resource when it comes to building up engaging products, and also a go-to source when it comes to behavioral design.

We have the chance to interview Nir for the blog and ask him a few questions that might help you both from the business and personal standpoint.

Gennaro: Honored to have you with us Nir! I’ll take the chance to ask you a few questions that can benefit the FourWeekMBA community!

In your first book, “Hooked” you taught companies how to build habit-forming products.

Would you mind giving us a bit of context of how that book came to life?

Nir Eyal: Hooked came out of my experience with my last company. It was at the intersection of gaming and advertising, and this was about the time that the Facebook platform was just starting to hit its stride.

This was circa 2007 or so. It was even before we had the app store. This was back in the day of Facebook apps. I had the front row seat to observe this explosion of different companies that were using behavioral psychology to get people started with these games.

And so, I could observe some companies and some products were so good at changing consumer behavior very, very quickly and attracting millions and millions of users, while others weren’t as good. And so I was really fascinated by that and when my last company was acquired, I had this opportunity to try and analyze why was that the case.

And I came up with a hypothesis that the companies of the future, the ones that would really be able to dominate markets would be the ones who understood consumer habits.

That I realized that as interfaces shrink from desktop to laptop to mobile devices to wearable devices, and now to audible devices like the Amazon Echo or Apple Siri, habits become even more important, because if you are not top of mind, if you are not the first to mind solution the consumer asks for, looks for, and knows what they’re looking for, then you might as well not exist.

And so, I really needed to understand how these habits were formed, but I couldn’t find any book or resources that really told me how to build habit-forming products, so that’s exactly what I did.

So, the book’s called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, and it outlines this four-step model that we see at the core of all these habit-forming, both online, offline, consumer-facing, enterprise-facing, all of these products fundamentally use this hook model at the core of the consumer experience to keep people engaging on their own with little or no conscious thought out of habit.

Gennaro: Your Model is among the most used frameworks in the startup world.

How does the Hook Model work?


Source: nirandfar.com

Nir Eyal: It’s pretty simple really. It’s a four-step model that goes from a trigger to an action to a reward and finally to an investment. And it’s through successive cycles through these hooks that customer preferences are shaped, that our tastes are formed, and that our habits take hold.

A trigger, there are two types. There are external triggers, and there are internal triggers. External triggers are these pings, dings, rings, these notifications that tell us what to do next with some information in our outside environment.

The internal triggers are negative emotional states, so these are problems that we want to solve with a product. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, that’s why we do everything. All human behavior is spurred by the desire to escape some kind of discomfort. So, that’s the trigger phase.

Then we have the action phase, which is the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. So, this is gonna be something as simple as a scroll on Facebook or Instagram. It could be clicking a play button on YouTube, a quick search on Google, these very simple behaviors done in anticipation of an immediate reward.

And then you have the variable reward phase which is probably the engine of the hook model. This is where there’s uncertainty that resolves the emotional itch, that resolves the internal trigger.

So, this is a very Skinnerian type of mechanism, this variable reward of seeking what’s called an intermittent reinforcement that keeps people checking with some kind of uncertainty.

Now, of course, the product has actually to scratch the user’s itch. It’s not good enough just to glob on points and batch some leaderboards. That almost never works. What you really have to do is scratch the customer’s itch and yet leave them wanting more.

And then finally, the last step of the hook is the investment phase, and this is where people put something into the product in anticipation of some kind of future benefit, so that can be data, content, followers, reputation, anything that makes the product better and better with use, and loads the next trigger so that through successive cycles through the hook, we no longer even need those external triggers. We use the product on our own. We’re internally triggered to use it out of habit.

Gennaro Cuofano: I was extremely glad to be part of the group of editors that had the chance to comment and edit your new book, “Indistractable.”

On the one hand, with the Hook Model, you gave companies a way to understand their users’ needs deeply and create habit-forming products.

On the other hand, I saw Indistractable as a framework for anyone who is trying to develop a strong “immune system” against tools and apps that have become too distractive. And it is not an easy match.

We have teams of engineers and psychologists tapping into our internal triggers. And, we’re left alone to use those apps, that if used properly can really enhance our lives! So how do we strike a balance? And…

How can “Indistractable” contribute to people’s lives?


Source: nirandfar.com

Nir Eyal: I wrote Indistractable because I kept getting this feedback after I would give a presentation on how to use habit-forming products for good, by the way, that’s the context for everything I wrote in Hooked was for Facebook and YouTube. And these companies, they already know these techniques, and they have for a very, very long time.

My goal was to democratize those techniques so that people building all sorts of products, you know, why can’t we make exercising as interesting as being on Facebook? Why can’t we make eating healthy as engaging as Instagram? Well, we can. We can actually use those same techniques, and in fact, thousands of companies have.

The problem is that people don’t exactly know how to put these products in their place sometimes, and I have to admit that the inspiration for writing the book came from my own personal challenge that I found that I was spending time in ways that I didn’t always like, and I didn’t always understand why I was using these products as much as I was, even though I knew how they were designed, right, I understand how these products are built to be engaging, how they get us hooked, in fact.

But what I realized was that we really need a new set of techniques, a new set of practices to understand how to put distraction in its place. And I realized that I was in a really good position because I knew these companies Achilles’ heel. I helped them design how to make their products very engaging, which means that I also understand the Achilles’ heel of distraction and how we can put distraction in its place.

And originally I thought, oh, you know, it’s all about the technology, it’s all about the products, that’s what’s wrong, and so I went on a big digital detox, I did digital minimalism.

That didn’t work. And the reason it didn’t work is that I never addressed the deeper psychological issues, that what I learned in my five years writing Indistractable is that distraction always starts from within, and we have to understand what’s driving us to distraction.

The fact is we are looking for distraction because we are incapable of handling uncomfortable emotional states. And so, that’s really where this journey began. That there are actually four things that we can do to become indistractable. We can talk about that a little bit here in your further questions.

But basically the inspiration was I wanted to understand how to put distraction in its place, and so that’s why I wrote this book Indistractable. My hope is that as someone who was an industry insider, I can give people the cheat codes, the secret weapon to make sure we put distraction in its place.

Incidentally, not just technological distraction. Distraction has been around for a very, very long time, and Socrates and Aristotle were talking about the nature of distraction approximately 2500 years ago. So, this is not a new problem, and so what I’m hoping to do is to give people the tools to fight any kind of distraction that gets in their way.

Gennaro Cuofano: On FourWeekMBA, I’ve covered the business models of most of the companies that affect our daily lives. Google and Facebook, in particular, make money by selling our data. This isn’t by itself a bad thing.

However, there are two mechanisms that I believe are distorted. First, those advertising business models have become pretty good in hiding from the same people that use them each day, how they really make money. In a mechanism defined as “hidden revenue generation.”

Second, those tech companies, in particular, are skewed toward advertising alone (Facebook makes over 99% of its money from advertising) while having a global scale.

Do you think a more diversified business model would make them become more “virtuous” or that isn’t an important factor at all?

Nir Eyal: Well, it’s interesting, you know. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with building a product that people want to engage with. That’s a good thing, right. And this is nothing new, you know, it’s interesting.

People kind of go crazy about Facebook and Fortnite, but what about football? What about spectator sports? How much time are we spending addicted? I mean, literally, some people are actually pathologically addicted to watching sports on TV nonstop.

And we don’t talk about all those old problems so, you know, the thing is that unless you are pathologically addicted, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with movies and books and media and sports.

Of course, it’s frivolous, you know, you’re not really producing much when you’re watching a soccer match, a ball bounces back and forth on a field for hours.

You’re not really doing anything, but so what? There’s nothing says that you have to spend your entire life being productive. There’s nothing wrong with a pastime, and being entertained by a game, whether that game is a video game or a football match.

So, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily evil about spending time online in these ways. The question is to what extent do we overuse, and that’s a personal responsibility issue. And then I think there’s a company responsibility when it comes to a select group of people.

Those are people who are actually addicted. People who are pathologically addicted, companies have a responsibility to reach out and do something to help them. And I’ve written about this for years now.

They need what’s called use and abuse policy to reach out and say, hey, you know what, you’re using this product to an extent that may indicate that you’re struggling with an addiction, how can we help? So that’s, I think, the company’s responsibility.

Other than that, you know, other than the one or two percent of people who actually struggle with a pathological addiction, guess what? For the rest of us, it’s in our hands. We can’t wait for these companies to make products that are less engaging, and we don’t want them to. We want these products to be engaging.

So, it’s really gonna be a personal responsibility issue.

What other business books do you suggest?

Nir Eyal: Well, there are lots of books. In fact, the bibliography of Hooked has hundreds of books that I reference in my book. I think from a business perspective, one of the most helpful books is the Lean Startup.

I think is a fantastic methodology for understanding your customers’ needs. If you’re looking to build a product to service your customers, no matter what business you’re in, The Business Model Canvas by Alex Osterwalder, I think is a really good book as well.

I think if you want to understand addiction and how machines can prey upon people who have a predilection for addiction, there’s a book called Addiction By Design by Natasha Dow Schüll, which is pretty good. It shows how vulnerable people can be taken advantage of through machine gambling.

And then there’s another book called Lost Connections by Johann Hari, who wrote this really, I think, a fantastic book on addiction and why addiction is very different from what we would call a habit.

What I do in terms of building products to create habits, you know, addiction it turns out is a much deeper issue. So, those are some books that are top of mind.

I’m not gonna say that those are my the best books I’ve ever read because there are books that I can’t just pick one favorite. But I think those are four that I read recently that I would recommend.

What blogs or resources would you suggest to help improve the psychological well being?  

Nir Eyal: So, in terms of resources, I would say that the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deasy around Self Determination theory. If you’re not familiar with Self Determination theory, it’s one of the most well-researched theories on human motivation, and it basically says if there are three components to psychological wellbeing, then all of us have a profound need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

And so, it’s a really great filter to understand why people do what they do, as well as why we might be missing something in our own psyche. I call these three, Deasy and Ryan don’t call it this, but I call these three things our psychological nutrients.

That just as we have physical nutrients, you know, we have these macronutrients of fat, carbohydrates, and protein, we also have these psychological nutrients of, that I mentioned earlier, of competency, autonomy, and relatedness.

And if you have those three things, this is really how you flourish, this is where the seed of motivation lies, and if you’re not getting those three things, you’ll do some very, potentially harmful things in the long term. It’s called the needs displacement hypothesis.

So, it explains why people over-abuse video games, for example. Kids are a great example.

They’re not using video games too much because video games are evil. They’re overusing video games because they’re escaping the fact that they don’t get enough of these psychological nutrients in their day-to-day life.

So, that’s a resource I would check out. I think it’s very effective and useful to understand, whether you’re in business, or just in your personal life.

What’s the best way to be able to reach out or follow you?

What’s the best way for people to reach you out or follow you?

Nir Eyal: So, my website is nirandfar.com. And on, for my book, my first book is called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. That’s available wherever books are sold.

And look out for Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, is the full name of the book, and that will be available wherever books are sold starting in September.

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