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Nir Eyal: One Diagnosis Away From Becoming a Leader in Behavioral Science

Nir Eyal is the bestselling author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” and “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.” He has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. His writing on technology, psychology, and business, appears in the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today.

His life took a turn when he was diagnosed with obesity as a child. This moment awakened Nir to desire to better understand why he did things against his better judgment. Nir’s fascination with behavior served as the linkage to his career with behavioral design where he helps companies create behaviors that benefit their users while educating people on how to build healthful habits in their own lives.

Transcript

BRYAN WISH: Do you mind sharing your One Away moment with us today?

NIR EYAL: There’re many things in life that kind of lead you along your path. But, when I look back at my life and think what most affected this trajectory to do the work I do today which is behavioral design – I’m a behavioral designer. I help companies build habit forming products to build healthy habits in people’s lives. I work with healthcare companies, education companies, all kinds of different companies that are trying to change behavior for good to help people do the things they want to do.

My more recent book Indistractable is all about how to break bad habits. I’ve really been fascinated for pretty much my entire professional career around human behavior. I think, for me, my One Away moment was a condition in life that I faced for many years which is I used to be clinically obese when I was younger. I’m 42 years old now and am in the best shape of my life but that was a long road to get here because for a good chunk of my life, I really struggled with my weight. I wasn’t just overweight. I remember my mom taking me to the doctor and the doctor saying, “Here’s the chart. Here’s normal weight. Here’s overweight and here’s obese. Here’s you. You are obese” and showing me on the chart where I fit in. I went to fat camp and the whole nine yards. I have all those horror stories.

The reason I wrote this book – I think there’s a perception that you write a book if you kind of know everything about the topic. That’s not why I write books. I write books because I’m looking to understand the topic. Gretchen Rubin, a friend of mine, a fellow author, she always says, “Research is me-search.” We always talk about how authors, in this space, are the most screwed up people because that’s why we write these books. We’re trying to figure out how to fix ourselves.

For me, it really was this desire to better understand why I did things against my better judgement starting from a very young age. I was fascinated by how food seemed to control my behavior. I went through these various stages. Probably the first and most damaging stage was this shame and blame stage where I remember my family telling me, “Why don’t you just have more willpower? Why don’t you just have more self-control? Stop eating so much.” Of course, that didn’t help at all. That’d send me down this shame spiral of thinking I was somehow broken, deficient, or something was wrong with me and I wasn’t good enough. That made things a lot worse because what did I do to escape the discomfort of shame? I’d eat more. I’d eat to escape these uncomfortable sensations.

I didn’t eat because I was hungry. Very few people who are obese overeat because they’re hungry. We overeat because we are looking to escape discomfort in some way. I’d eat when I was feeling ashamed. I’d eat when I was lonely. I’d eat for all kinds of reasons that had nothing to do with hunger. It was my coping mechanism. 

I think there’s a direct line connecting why we overuse certain substances whether that’s too much food, too much news, too much booze. There’s lots of things we overuse and abuse as an emotional escape. I think that directly connects to my fascination with how products and services can change our behavior many times in a good way and sometimes in not such a good way. That’s the linkage to why I’ve been so fascinated throughout my career about human behavior.

Most recently, with my book Indistractable, so many of the reasons why people overuse or abuse food is directly analogous to why we today overuse and abuse various distracting technologies. It’s the same exact stuff that makes us overconsume. Too much Facebook, too much football, too much whatever. It’s the same principle again and again. 

BRYAN WISH: It must have been hard to grow up in that environment. Inspiring though that you have not only created positive change but you started with yourself to do that and are helping others do the same. You’re using human behavior as a mechanism and conduit to connect your work to people. You became fascinated with human behavior through your experience with obesity. What made you realize, “I want to change this?” What were your first steps? How did that apply to the work you’re able to build on after?

NIR EYAL: In 5th grade, 10 years old, I weighed more than I do now as a 42 year old, 6-foot man. I weighed about 190. I remember my pants were larger than my dad. I outgrew my dad’s waist size. To be totally honest, what changed things for me was girls. I grew up in Central Florida and I lived in a condominium complex with a pool that everybody in the community shared. What we did after school back then, way before the internet, was 9 times out of 10, we’d go to the pool.

I was always the kid, throughout middle school and for early high school, that never went in the water without my shirt on because I didn’t want anybody to see my rolls. Around puberty, guys were getting attention from girls and vice versa, I was the nice, fat friend and I didn’t like that. I wanted to also have romantic relationships with girls and nobody was paying much attention to me. I think that’s what started it. I wish it was a less hedonistic motivation but to be perfectly honest, that’s what I was looking for.

BRYAN WISH: Your traumas from a young age stay with you and they drive the behaviors until you work through them. It’s a powerful motivator.

NIR EYAL: I want to be clear that I don’t want to put my struggle in a way that makes me sound like a victim. Even calling it trauma, eh, not in my case at least. I’m not saying trauma doesn’t exist for others. Whenever I have thought of myself as the victim, it doesn’t serve me. I like to say that just because something’s not your fault, doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility.

Was it my fault that, as a kid, my parents fed me full of all kinds of junk food that today I wouldn’t dream of feeding my daughter? I remember the way we used to eat in the 80s. It was a twinkie and a Little Debbie every day after school followed by a Coca-Cola chaser. That’s what we did. We didn’t have any idea of the impact all that sugar would have on us. I think I had 5 or 6 cavities by the time I was in 5th grade. I was constantly at the dentist. We just didn’t know back then. Was that stuff my fault? No. Today it’s clearly my responsibility. I bristle a little bit with trying to call myself a victim from this stuff. 

BRYAN WISH: If it makes you feel any better, Asmir, when he was at your book event in the fall, I’ll never forget something he said to me after. He goes, “Nir is so in shape. His biceps and chest are just gunning out of his shirt. It was unbelievable.” It was a moment for me I’ll never forget. If you knew Asmir, you’d know why he made that comment. It was a compliment to you. You’ve turned a situation from your past into something that doesn’t define who you are and it has clearly driven you in positive ways. Did you start to make these changes in high school?  When did you realize this was an area of your life you really wanted to give focus to professionally?

NIR EYAL: It was a pretty circuitous route. I became fascinated in high school. I’m also dyslexic. It’s really ironic that now I’m an author. That was the subject in school that I got terrible grades in. I hated language arts. English isn’t even my first language. At home, we didn’t even speak English. I remember spelling tests were the worst. They’re just impossible for me. I’m still a terrible speller. I have to write in all caps. I can’t write cursive because nobody can read it. I can’t even read my own handwriting when I write in cursive.

I learned all these tricks and hacks to not overcome my dyslexia but harness it in a way. Looking back, it was terrible because standardized testing and the American system of how to get into school and how to excel in institutionalized learning is very much about these arbitrary metrics of speed, how quickly you can fill out bubble sheets, and that’s a nightmare for a dyslexic. Where I utilized this disability to my advantage was that because I read so slowly, my comprehension was through the roof because my mind was working so much faster than my eyes could input written information. I was thinking in the margins.

As it was taking me so long to read a page, I was thinking all these thoughts and I think that’s kind of what I utilize today. I still read really slowly. In fact, most of my “reading” I listen to. Thank goodness we have these amazing technologies that can read the written word to us. When I read, I can read at about 150 words a minute. When I listen, I can listen at like 500 words a minute. It’s amazing. It’s a life changer. I think finding that way to overcome these things – I didn’t know I was dyslexic until well into college. Finally when I understood how much effort – you know, just seeing things were so easy for other people. I had to work like crazy and didn’t understand why in these particular fields. Now I’ve learned to use them to my advantage.

One thing that was a pivotal moment for me is in high school, I had this English teacher who was the football coach. I never played sports because I was obese. I was awful at sports. I still am the most uncoordinated person. I can run. I can do things that I can do by myself but put me on a basketball court, I’ll embarrass myself. The football coach taught this English class and he was pretty lazy.

He didn’t actually want to teach anything. What he did every week was he brought in TIME Magazine and every week, we would do some stuff during the week and then Friday, he took off and would say, “Okay, today we’re just going to discuss the editorial of this weeks’ TIME Magazine. We flipped to the back page of the magazine and everybody got a copy. I think they sent it to the school for free or something.

We just read the editorial, the 500-1000 word editorial on the back of TIME Magazine every week and we’d debate it. It was amazing. It was a game changer for me because it was just so interesting and current. I liked to see how somebody could take the written word and in 500-1,000 words change people’s minds or at least open them up to opinions that might be different from their own. I thought that was incredible.

I grew up in a very conservative part of the country and I was used to having this weird name when everybody else was a Billy or a Joanna or a Julie. Here comes Nir from Israel. I left when I was three years old. There was maybe one other Jewish kid in my entire school. Every weekend, we’d have someone knocking on our door because they’d see the mezuzah on our door telling us we were going to go to Hell because we didn’t accept Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Central Florida is the deep south. It’s not like South Florida.

Back then, in the 80s, it was even more homogenous. I always felt different but I remember reading those essays and seeing how these super conservative kids, who were very sheltered and all their politics and world view was dictated by what someone had told them, and now this other person had come with this other opinion that they just so happened to read in this editorial and some of these kids changed their minds about stuff. I thought that was absolutely amazing. 

In college, I was a journalism co-major. I didn’t like writing. I liked persuading. Going back to the persuasive capabilities of products. I think persuasion is what has always fascinated me. 

BRYAN WISH: What have you found to be the common ways to overcome these obstacles? 

NIR EYAL: This concept that I don’t think I knew at the time but I think really informs my worldview now is this idea of internal versus an external locus of control. This is a field of research in psychology where we know that people who believe that they can affect their environment. They can affect their place in the world. They mostly believe that they can impact what’s going on around them versus people who have an external locus of control that everything happens to them. I used to think it was optimism versus pessimism and I think my dad…

My father and mother started businesses in their day. My dad is probably the most optimistic person you’ll ever meet. Like somehow he just believes that nothing can fail. Everything will be fine. He’s had a lot of ups and downs. He started a business in Israel. He came to America. He basically got fleeced by some American shysters that basically took all his money because he didn’t speak English very well and they basically took advantage of him and almost took everything he had. He had to start from scratch and build up a business.

At one point, he almost had to move us back to Israel  but managed to scrounge a few pennies together and make a life for us. He just has always been such a positive person. I think it’s even more than that. It’s more than just positivity. It’s this belief that I can change things. We’ll figure it out as it comes. That’s something I’ve had to learn. I’m much more of a skeptic which I think is a good value. I think it’s good to be skeptical. Now some people are on the other extreme. They’re cynical.

Nothing can turn out right. Everybody is against me. Those people tend to not be very successful in life. There’s a balance between figuring out what you can control and leaving the rest to chance. This is not a new message. This is probably the least original message out there but it’s something I think is really difficult to understand because we all have what’s called a negativity bias. It’s one of our heuristics.

It’s one of our default modes that we tend to look at the bad in situations because fear is a very protective instinct. We have evolved to have this negativity bias because it protects us. Good things are nice but bad things can kill you. We’re constantly on the prowl. This is why the news business makes money. The news business doesn’t care if it gives you an accurate representation of the world. New York Times and CNN and Fox News could care less whether you have an accurate picture of the world.

They want to give you whatever you will tune into and what you will tune into is fear and loathing no matter how inaccurate that portrayal is because we all have this negativity  bias. We’re constantly looking around for threats. The problem is if we immerse ourselves in that world view, it blinds us to the opportunities. It blinds us to the reality that the world has gotten better and better and better. Almost nobody will tell you that. 

There’s a wonderful book that every  human being on the face of the earth should read called Factfulness by Hans Rosling. It talks about how much better the world has gotten. There’s another book Better Angels of our Nature which is also fantastic. It’s around a similar theme. Basically how people, even very educated academics, statistically get wrong their assessment of how much better the world is getting.

The problem with that is that when we have this overly negative view of the world, we distort our own chances of improving it. That is suicide. It is productivity suicide because what you are resigning yourself to is “Well, things aren’t getting better. Why even try?” That drives me crazy because it’s not based on fact. It’s not realistic. It’s based on our negativity bias. 

BRYAN WISH: I’m hearing you say it took the internal locus of control and realized you had more control over the situation and how you interpreted the world and were able to make changes around it. 

NIR EYAL: That’s right. Figuring out what you can control and focusing on those and leaving the rest. The rest don’t matter.

BRYAN WISH: What was that path for you? What made you pick Emory as you were gaining interest? You went into language arts even though you’re dyslexic. It’s crazy to me but fascinating. Then studying human behavior and going to Stanford. How did this interest in human behavior and curiosity continue to permeate throughout your life that drove the decisions and behavior of your own?

NIR EYAL: In undergrad, I took an economics class and economics blew my mind. Macroeconomics. Microeconomics, I had a terrible teacher. I didn’t like it at all but macroeconomics and learning about how incentives matter. To be fair, a lot of us have heard about behavioral economics and consumer psychology. It’s all very fascinating. I will admit to you, as someone who all I do all day is behavioral economics, it’s on the margins. Big picture, if you want to change human behavior, standard economics work pretty darn well.

There are some exceptions that don’t make the rule but there are some exceptions that we call behavioral economics that don’t fit into classical economics. I remember when I took that macroeconomics class, it really blew my mind about how much incentives matter. They matter way more than intentions. That’s what’s so fascinating. We all know the phrase “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That road is paved with people stepping on economic thinking that when we don’t understand that incentives matter, we create these high fluent ideals that end up usually backfiring. I remember that class really changed my outlook. 

After high school, I took a year off to be an AmeriCorps volunteer because at the time, I thought the way to fix things was through direct service, direct action. Today it’s very popular. This was only the second year it was in existence. This was 1997. I think we were the second class that had ever done it. I served in an underprivileged school in Southwest Atlanta. It was a pretty rough school and here I was, 18 years old, as a teacher because the school was understaffed. I had to teach. I didn’t know what I was doing.

That year of service really changed my political view in many ways because I thought the solution was direct action. That if we invested more in something that we’ll get results. That proved not to be true unfortunately. I saw a lot of things working in the public school system that you would not believe. Teachers treating children like dirt. Children behaving terribly because they were being treated like animals and behaving in inhumane ways to each other because they were treated inhumanely. I became really jaded around not considering systemic change. That in many ways, I had diluted myself into thinking that good intentions were enough. Like I’ll go in and save the schools. I didn’t realize that there were systemic problems that needed addressing. 


When I got to college and I took an economics class, I said, “Oh, this is the missing link. This is what I didn’t understand.” I didn’t understand how incentives work. Those incentives aren’t necessarily just economic incentives. There’s all kinds. It’s not just about carrots and sticks clearly. That really shaped my worldview. Then after college, I went and took a consulting job at BCG and did that for a couple years. Did not like it. Decided to start a solar energy company and start a business with my wife. Met my wife in college. Started a solar energy company and sold that company three years later. We had really good timing.

I took basically what I had learned from consulting, started a company that’s kind of like SolarCity. We started that company, sold it off to a private equity fund, and then went to Stanford for business school. The only reason I went to Stanford is it was the only school I applied to. I applied to one business school. I applied to one undergrad as well because I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. I thought if I didn’t get in, that’s fine. I’ll just keep running my solar energy business. I thankfully did get in and said, “Wow, this is an opportunity that’s too good to pass up.” Then while at Stanford Business School, I started a second company also with my wife. We’ve been business partners in three businesses now. This company was at the intersection of gaming and advertising.

We had great timing in that we were in Silicon Valley right as Twitter and Facebook and Google and all these companies were hitting the stride. I had many friends at these companies. I kind of had a front row seat to see how these companies grew. Some of these companies were my clients. I saw the rise and fall of some companies that didn’t make it and also got to see why some companies became these world changing entities. That’s where I learned, on the job, what would become my first book and the class I ended up teaching at Stanford. 

BRYAN WISH: What’s fascinated me about your work and getting to know you is your ability to, let’s just say hooked and what you’ve done with Indistractable. A common thing I’ve taken away from each read is it’s getting to the root cause of human behavior with why people are making decisions from a product design perspective to how to persuade people and then Indistractable, how to make better choices for your life and get to the root cause of maybe why you’re taking actions in various ways.

How would you advise someone to get to the root and make changes around these root causes that will ultimately allow them to change their behavior over time in the direction that they want? When they’re looking at symptoms of actions of things that they’re doing and they might think it’s X but it’s really Y? How do you get to the root?

NIR EYAL: Something I’ve learned over the past few years that really changed my worldview was the nature of human motivation. I used to believe and I think most people still do believe that human motivation is all about carrots and sticks. It’s all about pain and pleasure. Freud called this the pleasure principle. Jeremy Bentham said something very similar. Most people believe the way you motivate yourself is through incentives and rewards and punishment. Pain and pleasure. Carrots and sticks.

When we look at the research, neurologically speaking, this is not true. It’s not the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. In fact, the root of all human motivation, everything we do, if we really  boil it down from a neurological perspective, everything we do is about the desire to escape discomfort. We call this the homeostatic response and it makes common sense when we think about our physiological sensation. If you go outside and it’s cold, the brain says, “Oh, this is uncomfortable. You should put on a jacket.” If you come back inside and now it’s too hot, the brain says, “This is not comfortable. Take it off.” If you’re hungry, you feel hunger pangs and so you eat. If you eat too much, now you’re stuffed and you stop eating. Those are physiological senses, responses to discomfort.

The same holds true for our psychological sensations. When we’re feeling lonely, check Facebook. When we’re uncertain, before we scan our brains, we Google it. When we’re bored, you can watch Netflix, Reddit, Pinterest, check the news, worry about somebody else’s problems halfway across the world as opposed to think about what’s going on in my own life. Once you have this realization that all behavior is a desire to escape discomfort, this is incredibly empowering. Now you realize the root of everything we do whether it’s something in our best interest, a distraction, something taking us off track, it’s all about the desire to escape discomfort.

If we understand this fact, then we realize that time management is pain management. If you are procrastinating, if you’re getting distracted, if you’re veering off course in life, it’s always about the discomfort. We only have two choices to make. We can either deal with that discomfort. Figure out what it is that’s causing us that pain. What is the deeper issue there and fix it. Do something about it. Sometimes in the self-help community, right now we’re in this megatrend around meditation and mindfulness and I’m all for it. I think they’re wonderful tools but the answer to everything is not to meditate your problems away.

Sometimes you have to stop meditating, get up off the meditation couch, and do something. Fix it if you can. Sometimes you can’t fix the source of the discomfort. There are problems outside our control. For those types of problems, it is appropriate to use mindfulness, meditation, and other techniques. I talk over a dozen different things you can do to help us master those internal triggers and gain greater control over them. I think from a fundamental truth aspect, from a strategy in terms of how you do life, I think that’s an incredibly important technique. I think the self help industry, these days, tries to promote this ridiculous idea that we’re supposed to be happy all the time. Isn’t that common sense? We all want the pursuit of happiness? No. Stop pursuing happiness.

What the research finds  is that if you want a way to be miserable, think about why you’re not happy all day. Happiness is a byproduct of living a good life. It should never be the goal of living a life because the species was not evolved for happiness. If there was ever a group of homo sapiens who were happy all the time, who were perfectly content, everything was awesome all the time, our ancestors probably would have killed and eaten them  because that’s not an evolutionarily beneficial trait. We want a society to crave, to desire, to lust, to build, to invent, to create. That’s what drives us forward. That perpetual disquietude is a healthy aspect of our behavior. What many people do if they’re not happy then something is wrong. I need a pill. I need a drink. I need relief. I need advice.

No, you’re human. Being human is not about being happy all the time. We need to stop perpetuating this myth that feeling bad is bad. It’s not bad. We can learn to harness that discomfort to drive us forward, to use as rocket fuel towards traction rather than trying to escape it, trying to leave it, trying to find a distraction to take our mind off of those uncomfortable, internal triggers. These uncomfortable emotional states. That to me is a real keystone learning around the fact that you’re not designed. Evolution didn’t design you to be happy and comfortable all the time. That’s not your default state and that’s okay. We can embrace that to make us better. 

BRYAN WISH: I love what you said about how we can deal with it and lean right into it and the things out of our control, we can apply the techniques to work and handle it better without leaning on the booze or on unhealthy behaviors. Share with us what you mean by using traction in a healthy way.

NIR EYAL: Indistractable is about distraction. The best place to understand what distraction is is to understand what distraction is not. Many people think the opposite of distraction is focus. That’s not true. The opposite of distraction is not focus. The opposite of distraction, if you look at the origin of the word, it’s traction. Both words come from the same Latin root trahare which means to pull. They both end in the same six letters a-c-t-i-o-n. That spells action.

Traction, by definition, is any action that pulls you towards what you said you were going to do. Things that pull you towards your values and help you become the kind of person you want to become. The opposite of traction is distraction, any action that pulls you away from what you planned to do. Anything that is not in line with your values. Anything that pulls you away from becoming the kind of person you want to become. This is a really important distinction because I would argue anything can be traction and anything can be distraction based on one word and that one word is forethought.

As long as you plan what it is you want to do with your time, how you want to allocate your attention, it’s all fine in my book. If you want to play video games, if you want to go on Facebook, whatever it is you want to do with your time is wonderful as long as it’s done on your schedule and not somebody else’s; according to your values, not somebody else’s. 

BRYAN WISH: My takeaway from that is you get to set the things that are important to you around your value sets and build any mechanisms that create traction for you or create distraction for you. What’s a typical day look like where you’re creating healthy behaviors and traction points for yourself that align with your values?

NIR EYAL: This is what I call in the book “turning your values into time.” What are values? Values are attributes of the person you want to become. That’s my definition of values. I talk about these three life domains that can help you live out your values starting with you. You are the center of your three life domains. What we want to do is essentially turn our values into time. If you ask somebody, “What are your values?” Don’t listen to what they say. Their lips will lie.

What you want to do is look at how they spend their time. That’s how you can tell what somebody’s real values are. What you want to do with your domain is to ask yourself, “How would the person you want to become spend their time?” It’s not for anybody else to judge how you spend your time, what your values should be.

It’s up to you to decide. If taking care of your body is important, well, do you have time on your calendar for exercise, for taking a walk, for prayer, for meditation, for bedtime? Whatever is important to you, put those things on your calendar. You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. If you have an unplanned day, everything is a distraction. You have to plan that time.

Next comes the relationship domain where you’re planning time with the important people in your life. As opposed to giving them whatever scraps of time are left over, make sure the important people in your life have that time reserved for them on your schedule. 

Finally, when it comes to the last domain, what I call the work domain, this domain is bifurcated into two types of work. We have what we call reactive work and reflective work. Reactive work is how most people spend their entire day reacting to stuff. Reacting to emails. Reacting to Slack notifications. Reacting to phone calls. Reacting to meetings all day long. They get no time for reflective work. Reflective work is the kind of work that requires uninterrupted concentration. The planning, the strategizing, the thinking must be done without distraction. I understand it’s an unattainable goal to say, “I’m going to spend all my day in undistracted Zen-like focus.” That’s not realistic for most people.

You need some balance of reflective work and reactive work. The problem is, by default, most people spend their entire day doing reactive work because it’s easy. You just sit around and let things bother you all day. Let things distract you. What takes a little bit more effort is to ask yourself, “When in my day will I decide to plan time to think?” If you want a massive competitor advantage over everyone else in your cohort, make time to think. You know why? Because almost nobody is doing it. Almost nobody is putting time in their day to say, “What do I want? Where am I going? What’s important to me?” Even if it’s 15-20 minutes a day, make sure you have that time protected for that reflective work in your day.

When you put these three values on your calendar, you, your relationships, and your work, you don’t have to think about, “What’s my vision board? What’s my 5-year plan.” No, that’s pointless. How about next week? How do you want to live out your values in the seven days coming up? Or how about just tomorrow? Let’s take it one step at a time. This is how you can finally tell the difference between traction, everything that’s on your calendar and distraction, everything else that’s not on your calendar. 

BRYAN WISH: Where can people find you and buy your book?
NIR EYAL: My website is called Nirandfar.com. My latest book is called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. It’s available wherever books are sold. If you go to Nirandfar.com there’s actually an 80-page workbook there that’s totally free. Anybody can get it. You don’t have to sign up for anything.

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