“People try to tell us a story about the devices that are plundering our brain. I don’t buy it,” says Nir Eyal. “More than that, I think the choice of helplessness is defeatist and won’t lead us to anywhere positive.”
We’re meeting in a café in midtown New York on a sultry August day, ahead of the September 10 publication of Eyal’s new book, “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life” (co-written with Juli Li; BenBella Books).
Eyal’s 2014 book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” was a favorite among executives in the high-tech industry. It starred on The Wall Street Journal’s best-seller list and has become Amazon’s top-selling book in the industrial and product design category. Officials from Google, Facebook and Instagram have come to consult with the person who claims to know how to create addictive technology of the kind that consumers will never want to stop using. The new book addresses the other side of the equation – those same users – and offers tools for staying focused in a technological world that offers us endless distractions.
Hadera-born Eyal immigrated with his parents to Florida in 1983 when he was 3. After obtaining an MBA at Stanford, he and fellow students established a company for placing ads in Facebook applications, becoming the CEO. While employed in the company he began taking an interest in the psychology of users and became a product-design consultant for startups. He publishes a blog, nirandfar.com, dealing with the “psychology of technology.” In 2012, he became a lecturer at Stanford, where he gave a course on the effect of the nervous system on human behavior; he now lives in New York.
How many hours a day do you spend on your phone?
“Many. But it’s correct use. Even when I waste time in aimless surfing, I do it from choice, as a healthy habit. After all, we are human.”
So you’re on the social networks?
“Of course. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. The thing is to control behavior and set a schedule. I set aside times in my schedule that are devoted to social networks and email.”
On his phone, Eyal shows me the next time slot he has designated for those activities: 6:30 to 8 that evening. “When the time is up, I close the email and Facebook. The idea of being undistracted is to succeed in doing what you set out to do.”
It seems to me that we all want that: to be perfect people who surf Facebook only at a time they decide on in advance. But for most of us it doesn’t actually work like that.
“Yes, it took me five years to figure out how to make that happen. The first step is to understand that you have power and not to believe the nonsense that the media is bombarding us with: that these technologies have control over us. We use those ideas as an excuse. Our children don’t behave well not because they are hooked on technology, but because we aren’t good enough parents. It’s easier for us to accept assertions that say companies and technologies hijack our children’s brains, than to contend with the fact that we allow them to spend many hours in front of screens.”
Do you think you exercise effective control over your 11-year-old daughter’s use of technology?
“Completely. I had a talk with her when she was 5. I didn’t tell her that screens take control of the brain and melt it. I read the research, and there is no study that shows negative or extreme influences, or any at all, from using the technology two hours a day or less. So I explained to her that the cost of the technology is her time. Instead of being in the swimming pool, playing with friends outside or being with your parents, you are opposite a screen. I asked her how much screen time she wanted every day, and she said two episodes of [shows on] Netflix, meaning 45 minutes altogether.
“I didn’t want to be the policeman who would be responsible for that time allotment, so I explained to her that she needed to take responsibility for it. Not the person who created the application, not her parents – her. I asked how she could make sure she wouldn’t spend more than 45 minutes in front of the screen. She came up with a great idea: She set the microwave timer and it would beep when the time was up, and she turned off the device. I told her: If we see that you are not being honest with yourself and with us, we’ll have another talk like this. Six years later, that talk hasn’t happened.”
But not all children display such advanced levels of self-control. I know quite a few adults who do intensive bingeing on TV shows and can’t stop themselves after two episodes. Isn’t this a somewhat exaggerated demand of our children?
“Would you throw your child into the pool without teaching him how to swim? Probably not – so why do it with digital devices? Before I give my child a device, I need to be sure that he knows the rules of its use: to put it aside when doing homework, to turn it off when friends come over. Children in our society have deficiencies in their basic needs, and when they don’t have enough of what they need in the real world, they look for and find it in the virtual world. Our children need autonomy and a sense of control in their life, but the levels of regulation that are exercised today on youngsters, at least in the United States, resemble those applied to prisoners. They are told what to eat, where to go, what to do. And then they play Fortnite and for a moment they’re able to feel like God in their universe.
“Our children also need a connection to others. It used to be that in every neighborhood in America you would hear the sound of children playing outside. Today they’re all in the house, because the parents are afraid of kidnappings. It makes no difference that this is the safest period in history – that isn’t what the media is selling us. So either they are alone at home or they have a schedule as packed as that of a CEO, moving from extracurricular sports to a group learning Chinese. Our kids don’t have free time, they don’t have time to play with other kids their age, and so they look for – and find – all of that online. I am speaking as a parent. We have to stop accusing the devices and start doing something about the real problem, which is to provide for our children’s real needs.”
I was with my family on vacation, and in the hotel restaurant there was silence: All the children were hooked up with headphones and screens, except my kids, who naturally were making the most noise. It was hard for me to decide who was normal and who wasn’t. Maybe the right thing to do is to set our kids up before a screen in situations when we want them to be quiet.
“That reminds me how a few days ago, my wife and I and our daughter went out for dinner with our neighbors and their two delightful daughters. Through the entire meal, our neighbors’ daughters were on their phones. Well, we went out for dinner with them once, but we won’t do it again. They don’t share our world of values. If their girls had hit our daughter, or if the parents had smoked at the table, I also wouldn’t go out with them again. That’s just rude behavior. A child shouldn’t be using technology during a social encounter, or at a meal, or in the middle of a class.”
At what age would you recommend giving children a smartphone?
“There’s no reason for a child to have a smartphone before age 13. I don’t understand parents who do so at a younger age. If you need accessibility in an emergency, give your child a phone with no apps, which you can buy for $12 online. If you want to locate your child, get him a watch with GPS. The technology companies themselves recommend the use of these devices only from age 13 and up, so why should we go against that recommendation? As for the use of social networks, I would recommend age 18 and up. I think that children don’t need to be there before they’re ready, and certainly not just because they want it. The test of technology maturity is whether the child can regulate his use of the device. If you can’t, you’re not ready for that technology and you haven’t earned the right to use it.”
Is your wife also successful in applying the operating methods you propose?
“Juli Li, my wife, helped me edit the new book, and we are totally coordinated on this subject. I naturally have a greater tendency to distraction and I have less self-control, so I think it’s easier for her, and in any event she uses these tactics with herself.”
‘Source of all evil’
What’s your opinion about the use of screens as learning aids in schools? It’s becoming a profitable business and is very widespread in the United States.
“It’s difficult for me to give a first-hand reply, because we chose homeschooling for my daughter; we felt she was getting lost in a huge class of 30 students. We thought it wasn’t the right place for her. So I can say that my daughter definitely learns in front of screens, but in a measured and rational way. It’s easy to treat technology as the source of all evil, but we should also recall that before this technology burst into our lives, children had more sex, had more accidents and committed more crime. Technology can also save children’s lives and keep them safe at home. Even though rates of anxiety, depression and suicide are said to have risen – this is the safest time to be a child in America.”
One of our problems as parents is a feeling of hypocrisy. We order our children to detach themselves from the screens, while we ourselves aren’t capable of doing that. Even after I close Whatsapp, I keep thinking about what I was reading there and am preoccupied by thoughts that distract me from the work I’m supposed to be doing.
“I think it’s not a good idea to blame the technology. After you read a newspaper, your brain also continues to process the information. The idea is not to turn these things off completely. It’s like saying, ‘I don’t want women’s hair to distract my attention, so I’ll cover it up.’ It’s not a logical idea. We need to protect children and all people who have an addiction pathology from all kinds of things, but in most cases, in regard to adults, we are not addicted. Choice is the price of life in the modern world; anxiety is the dizziness that freedom causes us. So, how can we assume control over our use of screens? The government can take control of it, but before we turn to our friends in Washington… we as private individuals can take control of our use of screens, or business can invent tools to make rational use of these devices.
“Companies want to create applications that help people, they turn to me to assist them, so I know for sure that this is the truth and not just lip service. Google has Digital Wellbeing, iPhone has Screen Time. These companies see what people buy in the apps store and then make them it an integral part of their operating systems, as they did with Night Shift [an iPhone app that regulates screen color at night]. These companies aspire to provide better service. They know that if you become addicted and suffer, you will try to wean yourself off the device. The value of these companies depends on forecasts of future success, and they understand that the future lies in a more moderate use of the devices. You know, car manufacturers introduced seat belts 17 years before they became compulsory under the law. Why? Because that way they could sell more cars. It’s an economic incentive, and it also works for the cellphone companies.”
Could it be that are absolving the tech companies of responsibility because you are a consultant for them?
“I work with technology companies, but I have never taken money from YouTube or Google. They have offered to pay me, but I turn them down so that I can maintain my objectivity. There are many bad things I could say about Facebook and Google, about their monopoly status and about the use they make of our information. But when it comes to the problem of overuse, that’s something for which we need to take responsibility. All the companies I work with understand that the goal is to build a product that will create habits, an interesting product, but not one that’s actually addictive. They know that if people overuse a product, they’ll get burned out. In England, Facebook use has declined of late by 30 percent, which is definitely a dramatic change, and one that proves that people are not just puppets on a string. If a product is harmful to us, at some stage we will stop using it, and the companies understand this very well.”
But our use comes at the expense of other activities that are perhaps preferable.
“In my opinion, the use of Instagram is not inferior to or worse than watching a football game on TV, or even than reading a book. We like using these products. The question is not the activity itself, but the frequency with which we do it and at the expense of what. You say that reading books is healthy for the brain. But what if I read cheap romantic novels all day? I know people who read inferior books with a frequency that comes at the expense of their children and their family. Anything can distract our attention if we don’t plan the day properly. As such, I say hats off to Instagram for supplying me with a product that allows me to stay in touch with people about whom otherwise I wouldn’t have a way of knowing what’s going on in their lives, and I feel responsible for using the product in a way that serves me.”
What can we do to avoid being distracted in a world full of distractions?
“The model I suggest includes four key steps. The first step is to discover the internal triggers that drive this behavior of uncontrollable distraction. In high school, I was extremely overweight. I went to doctors, I went to a summer camp for fat children. But the reason I ate was not physiological hunger, it was emotional hunger. The reason people check Whatsapp obsessively is emotional. They need to be connected with their family, they’re trying to reduce anxiety or uncertainty, it’s a psychological haven. If we don’t recognize this and cope with the root of the problem, if we aren’t able to identify the situation, there’s no chance we will be able to make progress. The first step is to observe our feeling, write it down and explore it with curiosity, not apprehension. Instead of saying simply, I am addicted or I have an attention deficit disorder, let’s treat ourselves with a little compassion.
“The second step is to plan for time when we want to and are ready to experience distractions, such as being on social networks or dealing with email. I have a good friend who was furious at the technology for distracting her. I told her that it’s really hard, and asked her what was on her schedule for that day. It turned out that her calendar was empty. So, I have to admit that I have no sympathy for distracted people who don’t plan in advance what to with their time. You can’t say that your attention was distracted if your attention wasn’t aimed at anything to begin with. If you don’t plan your day, someone else will: your boss, your children. Everything can be a distraction, and it isn’t necessarily digital. If there’s something I preach every day, it’s planning in place of impulsiveness. That’s one of the things the human species can do better than any other species. We can takes steps today to ensure that our attention will not be distracted tomorrow. Does it require an effort? Yes! Welcome to 2019, the year in which you don’t have to hunt an animal or chop wood in order to make supper; all that’s required of you is to turn off the notifications on your phone.
“In the third stage we cope with external triggers – we remove all the pings and dings from our devices. The critical question at this stage is which external triggers serve us and contribute to our wellbeing, and when we become enslaved to the applications. Finally, in the fourth stage, we use the technology against itself. Every day when I sit down to write, I activate a free app called Forest, and then I put my phone down. If I don’t touch the phone, a blossoming tree grows on it; if I touch the phone, the tree dies.”
Okay, here’s what happens to me almost every day: I’m working on an academic article, and at some point I need to send an email to my co-author. I go into my mailbox and I find totally different email that requires my attention. I get swept up into reading and answering, and then I begin surfing other internet sites. Two hours later, I realize that I have abandoned my article.
“Excellent example. Let’s go through the four steps together. First of all, internal triggers. Why did you go into your mailbox while you were working on an article?”
Theoretically, it’s supposed to save me time. I want to make sure I’m not investing an hour in writing something that in the end we’ll end up needing to delete.
“Okay, you felt uncertainty. So you give yourself 10 minutes and in that time you take pen and paper and write down the question. Now, was the time you were devoting to writing on your schedule for that day?”
“Excellent. Did you disconnect all the technology, access to email and to the social networks during the time you decided to devote to work exclusively?”
“Okay. This is the time to install a free app called SelfControl, in order to do concentrated work and to understand that during this period, you don’t want and don’t need access to distracting technology. Those are your steps, and next time you will be able to avoid a scenario like that.”
You talk about taking short, 45-minute breaks from technology. What do you think about longer periods of time? I don’t use technology on Yom Kippur every year, and that’s terrific, I really enjoy it. Every year I swear to myself that from then on I will disconnect every Shabbat, but I never manage to do it.
“Look, on Yom Kippur you also stop eating and feel physical transcendence. When I was extremely overweight, I tried all kinds of diets, one of which was going 30 days without fast food. But you can guess yourself what happened to me on day 31. Going on a diet doesn’t help in the long term – not in the case of a technological diet, either. You have to learn to cope with your internal problems – which are not our actions but our emotions.
“We have to understand that it’s all right to want more and more, it’s human nature. We shouldn’t think that something is wrong with us because we have drives and desires. So we say: Technology hijacked my brain. To me, that’s an excuse for acquired helplessness. It’s the worst thing. I am trying to empower people and help them take responsibility for their own lives, with much compassion. Imagine that tomorrow Mark Zuckerberg announces that he’s made enough money and is shutting down Facebook. What happens then? Will people turn to reading Shakespeare? We have terrible feelings that we don’t want to experience. So a little bit of escaping is fine, but if we become dependent on it, that’s a problem that bandages won’t solve.”
Yael Pollak Hallak is a behavioral economist. Her book “Changing Your Life in a Year” – a calendar that helps people determine habits and goals – is due to be published in the coming week in Hebrew by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan.