Why you’re not “addicted” to technology (and it’s dangerous to say so): An interview with behavioral designer Nir Eyal

Take a look at the news and it’s easy to believe we’re hitting a global crisis of focus. The culprit? The technology we’ve let into our everyday lives.

Facebook’s former president warns the social network is designed to exploit our vulnerabilities. Two of Apple’s largest investors are urging the company to take action against smartphone addiction in children.

While movements like the Center for Humane Technology and Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global aim to help us take back control of the tech that has usurped our attention.

At the core of a lot of these conversations is Nir Eyal. Since publishing his Wallstreet Journal best-seller, Hooked: How to build habit-forming products, Nir has become a spokesperson for the way technology influences and even designs our behaviors.

Yet, while he has always maintained that these practices should be used ethically, it’s clear to him that we’re hitting a breaking point.

In his upcoming book, Indistractable, Nir looks at how we can co-opt the strategies companies use to get us coming back and regain control over our tech usage:

“When I first started out, the problem that a lot of clients came to me with was, ‘Look we’ve got this great product but people aren’t using it. How do we get them to use this great product that will improve their lives?’

“Today, we have the opposite problem. Products are so good that a lot of people have trouble disconnecting from them.”

In this interview, we asked Nir to take his in-depth knowledge of how products are designed to take our focus and offer some solutions for taking back control and balance over our lives.

Jump to section:

This is part 1 of our interview with Nir which covers personal tech usage. In part 2, we’ll cover how to control our over reliance and susceptibility to technology in the workplace.

A primer on how technologies and apps ‘hook’ you

Nir’s professional career coincides almost exactly with the rise of Facebook—one of the most habit-forming and universally used apps of all time (current numbers say users spend a collective 1bn hours a day on Facebook).

After growing and selling multiple startups, Nir started to notice a trend among this rising group of popular apps and technologies: They weren’t just passively waiting for you to use them, but actively trying to change your behavior to bring you back.

This realization led him down a path of research, an MBA at Stanford, and the release of his highly acclaimed book, Hooked—which acts as a step-by-step guide for creating habit-forming products.

First, there’s the trigger—what Nir calls the “pings and dings and things that notify you and email you all day.”

Next, comes the action phase—the simplest thing you can do in anticipation of a reward, like scrolling through your feed or pulling down to refresh Instagram.

After that comes the reward—which is what you came for. Most apps, however, employ some form of variable reward system, meaning we’re always uncertain of what we’ll get, making it more appealing and habit-forming.

“If you think about what makes slot machines so interesting, it’s the same thing that keeps us watching a good basketball game, reading a good book, or even engaged in a romance. It’s all about uncertainty. Uncertainty is captivating.”

Finally, comes the investment—where we, the users, put something into the product—data, content, social value, etc…—that enhances the value of the product. For example, the more friends you have on Facebook, the better it becomes.

Where these products succeed, according to Nir, is when they change the trigger from an external to an internal one:

“After that first successive cycle through the hook, we begin to use these products without an external trigger at all. Instead, it’s an internal one that pulls us back. An internal trigger tends to be a negative emotion—so fear, loneliness, boredom, uncertainty, any of these things we look for satiation of that discomfort with the products we use.

“Once a product can attach itself to that emotion—you’re lonely, so you check Facebook; you’re uncertain, so you check Google; you’re bored, so you check Reddit—then, the habit is truly formed.”

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Why you’re not “addicted” to technology (and why it’s so dangerous to say you are)

Hearing Nir explain digital products this way makes tech companies sound more Machiavellian than he means to. Like any superpower, there is a level of responsibility that comes with wielding it.

The issue that we’re seeing creep up more and more now, however, is a lack of understanding just how powerful habit-forming technology is. Yet, while it’s easy to lay all the blame on companies who profit from our attention, Nir says we need to be especially cautious not to give them more power than they deserve:

“I’ve been working on this since 2010, and so I’ve known for quite a while that my own behaviors are being influenced by technology. I’ve found myself checking Twitter when I was spending time with my daughter or looking at emails when I’m around my friends or my wife. I’m acutely aware of the problem.

“But what people and the press don’t like to talk about, is that you have way more agency and control than they make it out to seem.”

Nir says the idea that technology is “hijacking your brain” or that the general population is “addicted” to their phones is rubbish.

“Yes, there’s a very small percentage of people that very much are addicted—which is a completely different conversation—but this ‘addiction to technology’ is not the generalized disorder the media and others would have you think it is.”

Nir calls what we see a lot of today as “techno panic”—the fear that we’re completely out of control over how and when we use our technology. And that the mass adoption of the phrase “Tech addiction” is actually working against us.

“There was a great study done a few years ago on alcoholics—and remember, this is a totally different category we’re talking about. Something you put in your body is very different from an app or product. But in this study, they wanted to discover what trait made alcoholics most likely to relapse after treatment,” he explains.

“What they found was that it wasn’t the level of physical dependency. It wasn’t the drug itself. It was their belief in their own powerlessness.”

The same thing, Nir argues, happens with technology and our ability to live without.

“Despair is the first step to defeat. If we believe that there’s nothing we can do, we don’t do anything about it. We say, ‘Oh, it’s not my fault. It’s Facebook.’ Or, ‘It’s email.’”

“When you believe you are powerless, it actually becomes true.” - @nireyal Click To Tweet

Being distracted by tech isn’t your fault. But it is your responsibility

The first step in separating yourself from distracting technologies is to understand that you do have control over your usage. However, while this frees you from the tight grip of tech, it also means that the responsibility to fix the situation is squarely on your shoulders. As Nir explains:

“If you hold your breath waiting for these companies to fix their products and make them less good, so that we don’t want to use them as much, you’re going to suffocate.”

Instead, we need to actively change our behaviors to create a separation between us and the triggers these technologies provide.

A 3-step plan to create barriers between you and your distracting tech

The reason it’s so hard for us to put technology in its place is that for the most part, it doesn’t feel like it’s harming us.

For the majority of users, it’s only in retrospect (or when using a tool like RescueTime that helps you understand how much time you’re spending on specific apps) where you realize the issue.

Most technology is fine. It might even be good. But it’s everywhere. Always asking for our attention.

As Nir explains it, opening our phones or going online is like walking down a street filled with bakeries. You know it’s not in your best interest to gorge yourself on carbs and sugar, but it’s too damn good to give up all the time.

“The solution isn’t to walk into the bakery and take the baker by his collar, shake him, and say ‘Stop baking such delicious things that I want to eat all the time!’”

“The same applies when it comes to technology. You might say ‘I love these tools. They improve my life. But not when I overuse them.’ Then, you have to decide when and how you’re going to use them. It’s about moderating your behavior. And that takes work.”

Step 1: “Sync up” your calendar with your goals

The first step, according to Nir, is to do what he calls “syncing up”—committing to and writing down a daily schedule filled with the things you want to do, but that you feel your technology use is getting in the way of.

“People say to me, ‘These products are so addicting. They’re so distracting. I can’t get stuff done.’ And I ask them, ‘What is it distracting you from? Let me see your calendar”. And they show me their calendar app and it’s blank!

“In this day and age, you cannot call something distracting unless you know what it is distracting you from.” - @nireyal Click To Tweet

“So for God’s sakes, plan your time. If you’re going through life from task to task to task, of course you’re going to be distracted because you didn’t plan anything that you wanted to do.”

To fight digital distraction, the first step is to know why you’re fighting it. Fill your calendar with your most important, meaningful work as well as time for breaks and less important tasks (Nir says you should even schedule time for Facebook and emails).

Take the time to review that schedule with the stakeholders in your life—both at work and at home—to make sure it’s realistic and doable.

“If you don’t plan your day, someone else will. It might be your boss, or your spouse, or a football game or Facebook. Something is going to take up that time if you don’t.”

Step 2: Remove the external triggers

Going back to his Hook model, Nir says we can actually use the same method these companies use to change your habits, to break free from them.

Every habit-changing product starts with a trigger—something that sets you off down the path of usage. So the simplest way to stop the habit is to remove the trigger.

“We talk a lot about how powerful and sinister these technologies are but there is nothing that Mark Zuckerberg can do when you uninstall that app from your phone,” he explains. “There is nothing that Zuckerberg can do to re-engage those notifications once you’ve checked the notification settings and turned them off.”

But here’s the crazy part. According to his research, 2/3 of smartphone owners never change their notification settings.

“That’s ridiculous. Why would you let all these pings and dings and notifications bug you all day? You should use the apps on your schedule, not on the app maker’s schedule. Take just five minutes and turn off all the notifications you don’t want to hear from.”

Step 3: Dig deeper to understand the root cause of distraction

With external triggers like notifications out of the way, the final, and hardest step, is to understand the internal triggers you’ve developed.

“The cold, hard, dirty truth nobody wants to talk about when it comes to distraction, is that it comes from within.” @nireyal Click To Tweet

“If I put you in a sealed, silent room and asked you to sit there and just meditate and focus on your breathing for just 10 minutes, unless you had practiced meditating for a long period of time, this is going to be exceedingly hard for you.”

As Nir explains, our natural state is one of distraction. If it’s not Facebook or social media, it’s email or a friend or a chore or what’s on TV.

“At the end of the day, you can use every cool attention retention technology, you can turn your phone into a million different customizations to reduce distractions but if fundamentally you don’t focus on what’s going on inside your own head, distraction will always be a problem.”

To solve this, Nir offers a couple solutions:

Use a commitment pact to keep yourself in check

This could be as simple as working with a friend for a set period of time where you keep each other accountable. Or, using technology like website blockers, focused work sessions, or “dumb” tech to make sure we don’t do the things we don’t want to do.

Set up a system to understand what’s distracting you

Fundamentally, Nir says, the source of all distraction is always pain. It’s discomfort or feeling some uncomfortable emotion. We need to set up some sort of system to understand why we’re being distracted. Whenever you feel yourself pulled to check email or Google something when you don’t need to, stop, step back, and write down what you’re feeling.

Ask “Is this product serving me? Or am I serving it?”

Once you identify the distraction, the next question is: Is this helping me? Is using this technology right now giving you traction in your life—is it moving you forward? Or is it a distraction—is it taking you away?

Humans have been doing things against our better interests for thousands of years

“This is simply our latest distraction, but distraction has been a problem for mankind forever,” says Nir. “Aristotle and Socrates debated the nature of Akrasia 2500 years ago. They talked about our tendency to do things against our better interest.”

Yet, while we’ve been distracted for most of our history, Nir says we’ve also been incredibly good at adapting to change. Which is exactly what we need to do with our current digital distractions.

“If we believe we are powerful enough to change, if we take steps to make sure that we’re not abusing or overusing these products, then we can. And the good news is that there’s a whole industry of products and people helping you make that change.”

This is part 1 of our interview with Nir which covers personal tech usage. In part 2, we’ll cover how to control our over reliance and susceptibility to technology in the workplace.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

11 comments

  1. Great piece with some really clear ways to deal with tech distraction! There’s one thing I’d like to know… what about for people who don’t realise there is a problem? Anecdotally, “many people” I know – coming from a wide range of backgrounds – will be dragged from valuable work, important conversations or meaningful encounters by The Ping, and they seem totally oblivious to the damage it can cause. I’d love to know if there’s a resource, an experience, something I could say to or show to them, so they could see “oh yeah, liking that macaroni probably was unimportant right now”…

    1. Great comment! In my own experience, it’s difficult to explain to people the impact that distractions are having. Especially if the distraction is so engrained in their habits (like checking your phone). There are scary stats like how one study found we “touch” our phones more than 2600 times a day that can put things in perspective. Or that it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain focus after a distraction. But in many cases, I’ve found the best route is to explain how that person prioritizing the distraction over meaningful work (or a meaningful conversation) affects other people.

  2. Great article. Thanks! The hardest thing for me is separating distraction from work. I do tech support and offer 24/7 support. I also manage social media for some clients. So when there’s a ding, it could be a text message from a client, or an email from a client that needs help. It could be a review posted on Facebook or Google that requires a quick response. I look at the notification and quickly determine whether or not it requires immediate attention. If it does, I move forward with it, like responding to the text message. Then I try and determine the real severity, like can it wait or is it really the emergency they think it is. For Facebook, I may have to jump on and respond to a comment or review, since I’m getting paid to do it. The most difficult part, however, is closing the app after I take care of the response. It’s so easy to get sucked in to other stuff going on around it

    1. I think that “triage” aspects of dealing with notifications and distractions is so important and it sounds like you’ve got a good process in place. I definitely deal with the same issue of keeping the app open and getting sucked into doing a whole bunch of things I never intended to. Have you found any ways to help stop yourself from getting pulled in?

  3. What is the difference between this and the hopelessly misguided “Just Say No” campaign against drugs and opioids? I don’t see a difference. Worse: the last section, “Humans have been doing things against our better interests for thousands of years,” makes it clear where the author is coming from: addiction is not the responsibility of the peddlers and the deep pocketed merchants who pump billions of dollars behind crafting and pushing their products, but you, the end consumer. And besides, we have always done bad things! A classic — and BORING — pro-industry, not pro-consumer, or pro-human being, stand.

    1. Thanks for your response Ahmed. I won’t try to speak on Nir’s behalf, but from our conversation I believe his focus is on empowering tech users who are not facing truly addictive behaviors, but that still feel like their usage is problematic. During our talk, he was clear to state that there is a group of tech users who do face addictive symptoms and that helping those people should be the responsibility of tech companies and manufacturers, however we weren’t able to dig deeper into that topic due to time constraints.

      Tech companies most definitely have a responsibility to create ethical products, and I think the more this conversation happens in public, the more pressure there will be for them to comply.

  4. For an article talking about addiction (and the claim that most tech “addiction” isn’t), there wasn’t much of anything from the actual addiction science side. The reason there is concern about technology addiction is because there is a spectrum of technology use that meets the “addiction” criteria, and the only attempt in this article at pulling actual addiction studies into the conversation (the alcoholism study) was wildly inaccurate and misleading.

    Addiction, medically speaking, is about continuing a behavior or substance use in the face of escalating negative consequences to one’s relationships, finances, work/school, health, or legal standing.

    Reminding readers that technology “addicts” don’t end up on the streets like severe alcoholics is fine, but glosses over important parallels between tech overuse and substance abuse – many people continue to use their tech after negative consequences to their lives, even to the point of driving “impaired” and endangering themselves and others in the process.

    Nir’s arguments are especially hollow as they pertain to the “we’ve been worried about tech addiction forever” trope. Should the parents of children addicted to ever-more-potent opiates be comforted that kids have been experimenting with drugs forever? Just as we should be especially concerned about drugs specifically engineered to deliver more potent highs and thus more easily trigger addictive mechanisms, we should probably be paying close attention to technologies designed specifically to capture and retain attention, because the way they do so is largely to target the same neuro-psychology as do addictive drugs.

    Get a researcher with an understanding of addiction science to help next time – if it was as simple as “oh, just exert more will power and you’ll be fine,” there wouldn’t be much need for an article at all. The very fact that people care about the subject of being too attached to tech should be evidence that willpower alone is insufficient for most people, and we should be paying attention to what real addiction science says about the problem.

    1. Thanks for your insight John. I won’t try to speak on Nir’s behalf, but I believe that the focus of his argument is on how there are very real ways for the majority of people to lessen their daily tech usage, and that the use of the word “addictive” is harmful in looking for those strategies. During our conversation he was clear to state that there is a group of users who do have technology use behaviors that are in line with other addictions, however we weren’t able to dig into that given the time constraints.

      I would be definitely interested in talking to someone with alternate views and a background in addiction science. Perhaps it would make a great follow-up article.

  5. I think what the article misses is the concept of “powerlessness”. This isn’t the same as being helpless, it’s more likened to “surrendering”- in the good Buddhist type of way. In 12 step programs, the first step is “We came to believe we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” This is not a statement of defeat and helplessness, it’s a statement of leaving denial and realizing that you have a serious problem that you need help with and it’s screwing up your life in many ways (“unmanageable”).

  6. This is classic. The guy who wrote a guidebook on literally how to addict people in the most manipulative and sociopathic way is now pivoting to provide the solution. Sorry but I would not look to a man with zero integrity for advice on how to undo the harm he has caused

    Its like the writer of a book on how to manufacture crack cocaine trying to become the spokesperson for addiction recovery. Sorry, not credible.

    1. Hey Handro. I won’t try to speak for Nir, but I do know that in all his writing, as well as the writing of B J Fogg who really pioneered a lot of these ideas, they explicitly state that these techniques should be used ethically. Of course, developers and startups will do what they want. And there will always be people that abuse systems and discoveries for their own gain. However, it’s not all bad. The best example for me is Duolingo, which has most definitely built a compulsive habit and changed my behavior, but in a way that is beneficial and productive (in my mind).

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