20 Common Values [and Why People Can’t Agree On More]

20 Common Values [and Why People Can’t Agree On More]

When you replace the typical definition of ‘values’ with a better one, your life suddenly becomes clearer.

When I recently came across the headline “The World’s Most Influential Values, In One Graphic,” I couldn’t help but click–a good data visualization is like catnip for me. The chart, compiled by global research company Valuegraphics, shows the results of 500,000 surveys, across 152 languages, about what people think are common values. A few of the answers on the list: freedom of speech, leisure, financial security.

I was disappointed. Not because any of those things are bad, but because they aren’t actually values. For the survey, the authors defined values as “what we care about,” which is the definition that a lot of people probably have. The thing is, what we care about changes every day–every minute, even–and that’s why it’s hard to agree on common values. When your kid is throwing a tantrum, you care about getting some peace and quiet. When you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic with an empty fuel tank, you care about whether there’s a gas station nearby. But these things are not your values.

Why? Because values are more forward-thinking than simply reactions to the immediate moment. They are attributes of the person you want to be.

For example, kindness is one of my values. Every day, I will try to embody that attribute. And if I’m kind to people, then I know I’m living according to my value of kindness. Money, on the other hand, is not one of my values. Rather, money is a thing I value, and there are many ways to get it. One way is doing a job and getting paid for it. Another way is mugging a guy who’s wearing an expensive watch. Only one of those methods is compatible with my value of kindness.

Here’s a simple test: If someone can take it away from you, then it’s not one of your values.

Freedom of speech is certainly valuable, but under an oppressive government, it can be taken away from me. Therefore, freedom of speech is not one of my values; it’s a thing I value. Honesty, in contrast, is something I can own–and it’s a common value shared across cultures. I can choose to embody honesty, or I can choose to lie to people. If I’m honest, then I’m living according to my value of honesty.

Why is this distinction important? Because values are central to human flourishing. We need to define and understand our values if we want to live with personal integrity.

My wife and I believe that our common values are the foundation of a strong marriage. But if we define our values as “things we care about,” we get a noisy and long list full of disagreement. She cares about wearing matching socks; I, on the other hand, will wear two different ones just for fun. Does that make us incompatible? Of course not.

When we define values as attributes of the people we want to be, we can more clearly see our next steps, the actions we can take to move forward. My wife and I both “care about” our daughter–but that’s not actionable. What’s actionable is the desire to be attentive parents. Attentiveness is a value. And if we both want to be attentive parents, we can talk about what that means, and we can strive every day to live up to it. For us, it means being fully present when we’re together, without getting distracted by our phones.

What Are Some Common Values?

Here are 20 common values that embody traits of the person you might want to be:
  1. Loyalty
  2. Spirituality
  3. Humility
  4. Compassion
  5. Honesty
  6. Kindness
  7. Integrity
  8. Selflessness
  9. Determination
  10. Generosity
  1. Courage
  2. Tolerance
  3. Trustworthiness
  4. Equanimity
  5. Altruism
  6. Appreciation
  7. Empathy
  8. Toughness
  9. Self-Reliance
  10. Attentiveness
There’s a difference between the things you value and your actual values. The former come and go. But your values can guide you throughout your life, no matter the situation. In the end, you have a better measuring stick: real failure is failing to live by your values, and real success is taking action every day to embody them.
Why Do People Believe the ‘Social Media is Mind Control’ Myth?

Why Do People Believe the ‘Social Media is Mind Control’ Myth?

In our search for easy answers, we give up control.

The evidence is overwhelming: we are far more powerful than the technology that is supposedly mind-controlling us. It’s not even close.

As I’ve discussed in other articles, we need to give ourselves more credit. Instead of passively accepting the idea that we’re all being puppeteered by some sort of menacing tech bogeyman, we can hack back distractions.

To be clear, too much social media can be harmful. No one disputes that too much of all sorts of good things can be bad, whether it’s too much news or too much booze.

But the popular narrative that distractions, particularly those emanating from our tech devices, have the power of mind control lacks scientific support, and is more harmful than helpful.

It’s as if, for some reason, people want to believe tech is more powerful than they are. Why is that? Why do people so readily give up control and admit defeat?

Understanding why people reflexively give up control helps us better understand all sorts of self-defeating tendencies.

We love the social media mind control narrative.

The story that something can control our minds is a tale as old as time. For thousands of years, the practice of trepanning (basically banging a hole in a person’s skull) was thought to release evil spirits that controlled a person.

During Prohibition, the bogeyman was alcohol–drink was said to take over people’s minds, rendering them helpless and making them do awful things.

Smart phone as puppeteer, controlling a man via social media apps according to the popular narrative.

Even today, domestic abusers use this excuse of having “one too many” to claim that they weren’t themselves when they landed that punch. They slough off blame and play the victim, saying they were under the influence.

Of course, the law and common sense don’t let people get away with blaming booze for their bad behavior. As we all know, the person should have known better than to allow themselves to do dumb things while drunk.

And yet, when it comes to other supposedly mind-controlling influences, like too much tech, we believe we’re powerless to resist.

Why the double standard when it comes to our gadgetry?

Techno-panics are nothing new–radio, TV, graphic novels, video games, even the written word were all said to control people’s minds against their will. While past technologies seem benign in comparison, it’s important to remember they were just as feared in their day as our tech is now.

Why is the “tech is mind control” narrative evergreen?

For one, there’s Brandolini’s law, which states “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.” With so many unscientific claims about tech companies hacking our “lizard brains,” using “dopamine hits,” and “hijacking” our neural circuits, there is plenty of scary-sounding bullshit to reign in.

Once a story captures the public’s imagination, it’s hard to dissuade people with facts. Familiar narratives beget more of the same as traditional media companies keep the storylines (and clicks) coming. They use clickbait headlines like “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” to pull readers in. It’s hard for publications to resist, particularly when it’s a story their readers want to believe.

Deflection is easier than reflection

Deflection is a defense mechanism we use to avoid having to act on a problem.

In some cases, we deflect responsibility onto other people: we may point fingers and play blame games, finding all kinds of reasons why mistakes were made by other people (but not by us).

When there’s no one else around to blame–for example, if I skip a workout–it can feel soothing to deflect by thinking “I didn’t have enough time.” In reality, I wasted time by not sticking to my schedule. But it feels bad to admit that. So, I deflect. It’s not my fault; I just ran out of time! It’s easy to deflect responsibility away from myself onto the vague bogeyman of running out of time.

Man prostrate before smartphone as it dictates, and thus is responsible for, his actions

Similarly, there are lots of big, hairy problems in our society, and it’s easy to deflect responsibility onto a scary new technology. For instance, Americans are getting lonelier with each successive generation. While it’s easy to blame increasing isolation on our screens, the research reveals this is a long-term trend that started well before the invention of social media.

Complicated problems rarely have easy solutions, but deflection is so much easier than reflection so we tend to scapegoat rather than get to the sources of our suffering.

We trade power for control.

We deflect responsibility because we crave control, or even the illusion of control. As paradoxical as it sounds, it’s empowering to tell ourselves we’re helpless.

Once we decide that nothing can be done–that our minds are being controlled–we absolve ourselves of responsibility. The conclusion we reach is “there’s no point in trying to stop”–so overuse is no longer our fault.

By extension, anything I do while being controlled by an outside factor isn’t my problem. People leave nasty anonymous comments online for the same reason they might do horrible things while drunk. It’s not the drink or the app that told them what to do, but rather they give themselves an excuse to act like irresponsible jerks.

Of course, the problem with deflection is that it doesn’t actually solve any problems.

Woman reads a book on her couch with her cat while ignoring ringing cell phone

While social media companies certainly play a role in limiting antisocial behavior on their platforms, users must also step up. But if we allow ourselves to get seduced by the story that our minds are hijacked, it becomes true. We do nothing to change our behavior and wait for someone else to fix the problem.

The good news is we don’t have to trade in our power. We can realize that we ultimately do have control if we want it. We can take simple steps to ensure we control our devices as opposed to letting our devices control us.

Timeboxing: The Most Powerful Time Management Technique You’re Probably Not Using

Timeboxing: The Most Powerful Time Management Technique You’re Probably Not Using

Timeboxing is the nearest thing we have to productivity magic, yet most people don’t utilize it. Here’s how to overcome the top 3 reasons why.

“I can’t seem to get enough done.”

“I’m always distracted.”

“Why can’t I focus?”

I hear these complaints from my clients and readers all the time.

But when I recommend perhaps the most effective technique ever devised to help people stay on track, most of them balk.

“You want me to plan every minute of my day?”

Yes! Now what are you waiting for?

What is Timeboxing?

Timeboxing is among the most well-studied and powerful methods we know for getting things done. It amounts to boxing out periods of time to work on distinct tasks each day, using a tool like this schedule maker:
Screenshot of a schedule maker with timeboxed activities

It’s far more effective than running your life with a to-do list, and it’s a critical component of becoming indistractable.

Despite all the complaining about how distracting the world is given the cacophony of beeping and buzzing emanating from our digital devices, most people have no right to complain.

You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from. But how do you know what you got distracted from if you don’t plan your time?

In order to finally destroy distraction and live the life you want, you need to start living your life with intent.

If you don’t plan your day in advance—according to your values and your schedule—someone else will plan it for you.

Whether it’s the social media sites, the news, your boss, your kids, or something else, you’ll always get distracted unless you decide in advance how you want to spend your time.

Timeboxing will change your life. It works because it uses a well-researched technique psychologists call, “setting an implementation intention,” which is just a fancy way of saying, “planning out what you are going to do and when you will do it.”

Sadly, people often give up before they’ve even tried timeboxing. As a result, they miss out on the almost magical benefits.

Here are the three most common reasons people don’t timebox with their solutions.

Pitfall #1: What-Aboutism

It’s maddening how many people spend hours scrolling for productivity hacks, read books they hope will contain secrets to success, or pay thousands of dollars for courses and gurus they hope will have the answers they seek—and yet, when they finally find a technique that will actually 10X their effectiveness and life satisfaction, they immediately find reasons why it won’t work for them.

I hear it all the time.

“But what about… [insert something that makes your case the special exception].”

Timeboxing works. It is the most studied, most verified technique for sustaining good routines, maximizing productivity, and acting on your values in general. There is a huge amount of evidence to support its effectiveness, and that pile of evidence grows every year.

Yet despite the overwhelming number of studies, many people look for reasons why it won’t work in their super special circumstance.

This is “what-aboutism”—searching for excuses for why a methodology won’t work instead of giving it a real try to find ways to make it work.

Solution: Start small.

If you’ve never tried timeboxing before, suddenly switching to building a whole schedule for the week is daunting.

That’s okay—you can start small.

Try timeboxing one day per week, or even just one afternoon per week. Try that for a few weeks and see how it works out.

Did you turn your values into time? Did you do what you said you were going to do? Then slowly build to more days per week.

Keep in mind the only measure of success is not “how many boxes did I tick-off on my to-do list?,” but rather, “did I do what I intended to do without getting distracted.”

You’ll find that consistently working without distraction for set periods of time will make you more productive than flailing around from one task to the next.

Pitfall #2: Not realizing it’s an iterative process

Look, I wrote the book on being indistractable, and even I occasionally get distracted.

Timeboxing has made my life astonishingly more peaceful and productive, but I still fall off track from time-to-time (though very rarely.)

When circumstances suddenly change, life can throw us for a loop, but that doesn’t mean we stop timeboxing. It means we adjust our calendars to make our schedules easier to follow on the next go-around.

Timeboxing is an iterative process.

If you’ve started timeboxing and you find yourself deviating from the schedule, don’t give up. Once you timebox a day, follow your schedule to the best of your ability and get back to the next thing you planned to spend your time on.

When you do get distracted, write down what happened so you can make sure you don’t succumb to the same distraction in the future.

But don’t beat yourself up for getting distracted. Instead, simply adjust your schedule for the day or week ahead to see what would work better.

It takes time to get into a groove, and that’s okay. You’ll also need to make adjustments to accommodate life changes. But as long as you make those changes in advance, and not in the moment, you’ll live your life with intent.

Solution: Think like a scientist, not a drill sergeant.

Once you understand that timeboxing is an iterative process, not set-it-and-forget-it, you can make your schedule work better for your needs as you learn the best ways to allocate your time.

By approaching timeboxing like a scientist, not a drill sergeant, you’ll run experiments based on your hypotheses of how to build the best possible schedule for your needs.

Every week, I have a 15-minute slot on my schedule to review the week that passed and the week ahead. That little time slot is all I need to make adjustments and prepare for the timeboxed week to come.

Pitfall #3: Succumbing to psychological reactance

Psychological reactance is an emotional response we feel when someone tells us what to do (or what not to do).

It’s that knee-jerk feeling of, “Don’t boss me around!”

Everyone feels it. Whenever we feel our autonomy is threatened, we tend to rebel. It’s human nature and studies support this widely observed phenomenon.

Weirdly enough, that knee-jerk reaction kicks in even when it’s you telling yourself what to do.

This misplaced reactance can happen even to advanced timeboxers. More often, I hear the siren song of psychological reactance when people complain that timeboxing is “too rigid” or “no fun.” Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

As Jocko Willink says, “discipline equals freedom.” We all know we do our best work when we have constraints, and timeboxing gives us just that in the form of time on our schedules.

The truth is, when people resist timeboxing, they are most often afraid of actually having to do hard work.

Fear of doing the things we know we need to do elicits reactance. Of course, this is completely nuts! If anything, we should be jumping for joy that we finally have a proven method to get ourselves to do the things we know we should.

Yet, when we feel psychological reactance, we sabotage our own best interest by concocting excuses to escape the feeling of being told what to do.

Solution: Disarm psychological reactance.

Disarming psychological reactance is easy.

Remind yourself, “I don’t have to follow this schedule; I get to follow this schedule. It’s my choice. I’m in charge.”

You run your own life. You are the boss. Your time belongs to you, and by timeboxing, you get to have maximum agency over how you spend it.

Become indistractable

While timeboxing is a fantastic tool, on its own, however, it isn’t enough.

Rather, timeboxing works as part of the four-part indistractable model—which involves understanding the foundational psychological concepts that are at work in your brain, such as understanding internal triggers, managing external triggers, and utilizing precommitments.

Indistractable distraction traction triggers diagram
Timeboxing works and is a life-changing practice. Now that you know how to overcome the three biggest barriers to utilizing the well-studied technique, give it a shot. No excuses!
Children and Technology: 3 Things Parents Need To Know

Children and Technology: 3 Things Parents Need To Know

Whatever your view of tech’s impact on our children, here are three common sense rules we can all follow.
Nir’s Note: this article is a collaboration between myself and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Jon researches moral and political psychology and business ethics. He has delivered four TED Talks and written two best-selling books.

Recent research in social science has parents concerned about whether deep immersion in digital technologies is bad for their children.

A variety of studies find that rates of teen anxiety, depression, and self-harm have risen since 2012 in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada, although the evidence that this rise was caused by smartphones and social media is hotly debated.

It may take another decade for researchers to reach agreement, but parents need guidance now if their kids are to develop a healthy relationship with technology.

To limit or not to limit, that is the question many parents are asking. The question has become even more pressing during the Covid-19 pandemic as children spend more time indoors and on their devices.

Jon and I are participants in the debate, and we are to some extent on opposing sides. Jon’s 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, points to social media—and the option it provides for kids to withdraw from social interactions and other stressors—as a major obstacle to healthy psychological growth.

On the other hand, my book Indistractable concludes that tech overuse is a symptom, not the cause of the problem. I ask parents to understand the deeper reasons children seek to escape through digital distractions.

Though we have different opinions on the effects of technology use, one thing we have in common is our role as fathers to energetic gadget-loving preteens.

In fact, we first met each other at an event in New York City’s Washington Square Park, where we staged a spontaneous public debate over the effects of smartphones on children while our daughters ran off to play.

When Jon and I stopped debating the studies and asked each other what we actually did in our own households, we found we abided by nearly identical principles.

Here we offer three commonsense, research-supported approaches for helping kids learn to control their use of technology instead of letting it control them.

1. Screens and sleep don’t mix.

The importance of sleep for health, well-being, and academic success is well established. Kids need lots of it. Yet researchers believe between 50% to 90% of kids don’t get enough.

External triggers like the pings, dings, and rings from smartphones can interrupt sleep? and damage mental health. Moreover, even if they turn off all notifications, some kids will use their digital devices under the covers after the lights are out or when they wake up during the night.

Not all technology needs to be removed from the bedroom, but anything that may interfere with sleep has to go.

While asking Amazon’s Alexa to read a bedtime story can help them drift off, scrolling through their Instagram feed can keep them up. Kids need to close their eyes and let darkness tell their brains that it’s time to switch into sleep mode.

It’s best to teach kids to put potentially sleep-interrupting devices outside their bedrooms at a fixed time each night that is at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Perhaps set up a central charging station in your home where everyone keeps their devices.

2. Delay social media until high school.

From Instagram to TikTok, tech companies have an age requirement to use their products. For most social networking apps, the minimum age is 13.

However, that age was not chosen based on health and safety considerations; it’s a remnant of privacy policies first implemented in the late 1990s when the U.S. Congress had to decide the age at which companies could collect and use data from children without their parents’ permission.

So 13 should not be considered a “safe” age. What age is safe? Nobody knows for sure, but the existing research offers us two suggestions for how to think about when to let kids have which kinds of technology.

First, when links are found between screen time and depression or anxiety, the links are usually strongest for social media use rather than watching videos, playing video games, or searching the internet.

“Screen time” encompasses many activities; the one that we should scrutinize most closely and delay the longest seems to be social media, where users generate content that is rated or commented on by dozens or hundreds of others. It’s perfectly fine to let elementary school kids watch age-appropriate videos on an iPad (in moderation).

Second, the increases in self-harm and suicide for American teens has been largest, percentage-wise, for preteen girls, which is a group that may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of cyberbullying and chronic social comparison that social media can facilitate.

We meet many parents who say that they didn’t want their preteens on Instagram, but they also didn’t want their kids to feel excluded, so they gave in and allowed them to open accounts by lying about their age. (“But Mom, everyone else does it!”) Each parent’s capitulation then puts more pressure on the next parent.

Until researchers can figure out why rates of hospitalization for self-harm have nearly tripled for American preteen girls, we think it wise to keep social media out of elementary and middle schools.

Let kids deal with the awkward beginnings of puberty, and let them master basic skills of face-to-face social interaction before they dive into the social networks. What’s the rush?

The only social network kids should have before high school should be IRL–that’s “in real life” for those of us who didn’t grow up with a cellphone.

Both of us agree that “free play”–the physical interactions and games kids invent when free from the direction of parents, teachers, or coaches–is among the most valuable activities that kids can engage in.

Of course, time for free play with friends has been curtailed during the pandemic, but research shows that time for free play has been declining for decades. To give kids what they need, parents should make more time for free play, ideally outdoors.

Given the research on the importance of free play to children’s psychological well-being and the dangers of overprotection or “mollycoddling,” free play may be their most important extracurricular activity, and it’s important to make more time for it once the pandemic has passed.

3. Agree on a time budget.

Touch-screen devices engage us like no other consumer product. Their quick feedback, beautiful design, and endless possibilities draw children as well as adults to reach for them habitually. We may intend to stay for just a few minutes yet often fail to put them down for hours.

Of course, tech companies designed their products to do that, as I described in my book on habit-forming products, Hooked. If you and your child don’t set clear policies, these apps will keep you both using them longer than you intend–but we’re not powerless.

The solution, we both found, is to talk with our children about how they want to spend their days. There’s only so much time, so work with your child to think through how much of it should be spent doing homework, playing sports, and being with the family as well as how much is worth spending watching videos or playing games online.

In the days before Covid, Haidt and his kids set a fixed number of hours per day and then used the Apple Screen Time feature to help the kids enforce it. Within that limit, each child could do whatever he or she wanted (other than open a social media account). Once Haidt’s family began using Screen Time this way, the daily struggles ceased, the kids learned to manage their own screen time rather than hide it from their parents, and the kids began playing more with each other rather than slinking off separately with their devices.

For my daughter and me, the solution was also using tech to limit tech. After asking my 12-year-old how much time she felt was appropriate, she asked for 45 minutes of extracurricular screen time per day.

That time doesn’t include screen time spent homeschooling, Kindle reading, or chatting with grandparents, but it does include games and videos. She enforces her own limits by asking Amazon Alexa to set a timer to let her know when her time is done.

By teaching her to set her own timer to a number that she chose, Daddy doesn’t have to be the bad guy, and your kid builds a skill that will last a lifetime.

Simple philosophy, simple rules.

Despite our differences, Jon and I have each developed similar philosophies with similar rules in our own households. We both love technology ourselves, and we want our children to gain the benefits–including sheer fun–of these nearly magical devices and apps.

But because these technologies are so alluring and because time spent with them comes at the expense of other activities, we have developed these three simple rules in our own households:

  1. All screens out of the bedroom before bedtime.
  2. No social media until high school.
  3. Work out a screen time budget in a way that helps children develop their own sense of agency and self-control.
The goal of setting such rules should be to help kids cultivate good habits and make wiser decisions even when their parents are not around.
The Influencers Dinner: An Interview with Jon Levy

The Influencers Dinner: An Interview with Jon Levy

Nir’s Note: What do Bill Nye, break dancer Crazy Legs, cyber illusionist Marco Tempest, and economist Nouriel Roubini have in common? They’ve all been guests at a little-known “Influencers dinner” regularly hosted by behavioral scientist Jon Levy at his New York apartment. Jon is the author of You’re Invited: the Art and Science of Cultivating Influence, a New York Times bestseller about the value of creating meaningful connections and building trust with the people that can most influence your life. Jon’s dinner parties and his decade-old club of “Influencers” have been featured in Forbes and Business Insider.

Nir Eyal: Why did you write this book?

Jon Levy: This is going to sound super strange, but as the founder of “The Influencers Dinner” (see this TED Talk), I have made a career of having Nobel Laureates, Fortune 500 Executives, and celebrities cook me dinner, wash my dishes, clean my floors, and then thank me for it. In the process, I realized that the greatest predictor of success isn’t IQ or what college people went to. It is who we are connected to, how much they trust us, and the sense of community we share.

We all know these things are important, but as a behavioral scientist, I jumped into the research and found that most of the strategies that we use tend to reduce our success. In this book, you won’t get a single piece of networking advice. Instead, you will learn the science and stories of how to create deep and meaningful relationships with the people you admire most and the ones that could have the biggest impact on the things you care about.

I wrote this book because I wanted people to connect and to succeed.

NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?

JL: There are two things that I found funny:

  1. People absolutely hate networking: Research from Harvard found that our implicit association to networking is feeling dirty. We will do just about anything to avoid it. Meanwhile, we love making friends. We just don’t realize what it is that will make people want to be our friends. That’s one of the things my book breaks down.

  2. Stop spending money: It’s near impossible to win people over with business dinners or gifts. Instead, the opposite is true. This is known as the IKEA effect, people care more about their IKEA furniture because they had to assemble it. It turns out, people will like us more when they put effort into the relationship. So we need to give them the opportunity to do that.

NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others?

JL: If you have ever been to Walt Disney World, you will notice there is a 23-minute monorail or boat ride from the ticket counter to the entrance of the Magic Kingdom. This isn’t to build anticipation, but rather to deal with buyer’s remorse. Apparently, Disney realized that if they wanted people to spend money and be happy, they should get over their buyer’s remorse first and it takes about 23 minutes for them to do that.

Disney designs a journey for guests that takes into account our biases, mechanics, and emotions so that we leave happy, and their business succeeds. The big takeaway is that when you are aware of your mechanics ahead of time, you can design a journey around them.

NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?

JL: There is a very frustrating trick I use based on incomplete work. At times, I will intentionally not finish the paragraph I’m working on, even though I know what I want to say. Our brains tend to obsess when things are incomplete. As a result, it gets me really excited about getting back to writing the next time I’m at my computer.

When I know I have to meet a deadline, I will hire an editor off of Upwork to work with me in real-time and make sure I stay focused and productive. It can be easy to justify pushing off my own schedule, but when I am paying another human being to be there with me, it’s like having an appointment with a trainer at the gym–you are more likely to show up and get in the work you need.

NE: What’s one thing you believe that most people would disagree with?

JL: The Mona Lisa is not as deserving of its status as the greatest painting of all time!

Before 1911, no one had heard of the Mona Lisa. It had hung in the Louvre among a collection of other paintings, but on one Monday while the Louvre was closed, a man walked into the Renaissance section, simply ripped off the smallest painting from the wall that he could find and walked out with it. Over the next three years, the painting reached global attention as newspapers printed photos of the work, and high rewards were offered.

Thousands of people stood in line just to see the empty spot on the wall. When it was finally returned, France celebrated. But it was not the quality of the painting that made it spectacular, but the legend it had garnered. This is known as the Mere Exposure Effect. The more we are exposed to something, the more we tend to like and trust it. People think the Mona Lisa is the greatest painting simply because it is the painting they have seen the most.

NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?

JL: I don’t evaluate the quality of my decisions based on the results.

When we succeed we think we made good decisions, and when we fail we tend to think we made bad ones. But the two are often unassociated. You can make terrible decisions and win, and great decisions and lose. What matters is the quality of our thinking, not if we were lucky.

To quote one of the greats:

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.” Captain Jean-Luc Picard

NE: Are you working to change any bad habits?

JL: I have tons of bad habits, I think they are a byproduct of being human. Right now, I am trying to tackle my breathing. It turns out that as a mouth breather, I am doing terrible things to my body. To deal with this, I’ve hired a level three Wim Hof breathing instructor. These are the people who go hiking in the snow just in their underwear. They have some of the most advanced breath training in the world.

I believe if you are serious about something, you should find a coach and develop a practice around it. I train with a resistance breathing mask four to five times a week. I tape my mouth when I sleep so I only breathe through my nose. And I do private classes with my coach. What is incredibly clear is how uncomfortable it can be to improve bad habits, but there is an incredible satisfaction from seeing the improvement from week to week.

NE: What one product or service has helped you build a healthy habit?

JL: Before sheltering at home, I fell in love with ClassPass. I found it hard to find fitness classes when I travelled or add variety to my routines so they didn’t get boring. Having a fairly priced place to find fun, new, and interesting fitness activities helped me get back into shape and helped me maintain the habit.

NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading this book?

JL: Fundamentally, the most universal strategy for success, regardless of what success means to you, is creating meaningful relationships with the people who can have the greatest impact on the things you care about.

A few fun facts:

  1. Living a long life: The greatest predictor of human longevity is not exercise or eating organic but #2 close social ties (having friends) & #1 social integration (being part of a community).
  2. Business success: You can correlate company stock value, employee sick days, and profitability to the level of oxytocin in employees bloodstream.

More than anything I hope people will reach out to others, and make friends, as we have become far too isolated during this pandemic.

What Is Motivation? You’ve Probably Been Thinking About It All Wrong

What Is Motivation? You’ve Probably Been Thinking About It All Wrong

What is motivation: Understanding the relationship between motivation and discomfort

It took me five years to write my last book, which was a lot longer than it should have taken. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do–I did. I just didn’t do it. I wasn’t motivated.

My book, Indistractable, is about how to stop getting distracted. Ironically, the problem was that I kept getting distracted. That is, until I learned the key to finally doing what I set out to do.

When I finally understood the biology behind why we do what we do, I didn’t just write the book; I became more productive at work, started exercising and eating healthier, and spent more time with the people I love, all because I finally realized I’d been thinking about motivation all wrong.

What is the biology of motivation?

Like most people, I only had a vague understanding of what motivation really meant. I thought of it like the wind: it came and went, and,if I were lucky enough to catch it in my sails, I could steer my ship toward my goals.

The problem with this thinking is that if the wind isn’t blowing, you’re dead in the water. If we depend on feeling motivated to do what we don’t feel like doing, we’ll never accomplish hard-to-achieve goals.

To understand what motivation is and how to harness it correctly, we have to understand our brains a bit better, starting with the very basics. Why do we have brains, anyway? Plenty of life forms don’t have brains and get along just fine.

Biologists believe the reason creatures evolved brains was to facilitate motion. It’s no coincidence that the word “motivation” stems from the same root as the word “motion.”

Snail on the move, in search of food, motivated by uncomfortable hunger registered by its brain cells.

A fascinating study on freshwater snails (I know, stick with me here) found the creatures could make complex decisions with only two brain cells: one for sensing the presence of food and one to tell the snail whether it’s hungry or not. These two neurons determine, for the snail, whether it’s worthwhile to move in the direction of a potential food source. If the hunger pangs are painful enough, the snail moves toward the food (albeit ever so slowly).

More complex brains evolved to help animals escape what psychologists call an “aversive stimulus”–something that feels uncomfortable. Bears and birds leave the cold of winter by respectively hibernating in warm caves or flying south. When our brains register that discomfort, it spurs us to put on a coat. When it’s too hot, discomfort triggers us to take it off again.

This seesaw influencing our behavior is an example of homeostasis. It’s the physiological and psychological process our bodies use to keep us level.

The body’s desire to maintain homeostasis governs all sorts of bodily functions, both conscious and unconscious. But when the body can’t regulate itself, our brain spurs us to action. It makes us do something to fix the problem, just like the snail moving toward food when that one brain cell registers hunger pangs. If our brains determine we’re missing something, whether it’s food to nourish our bodies or friends to nourish our psyche, it creates the feeling of hunger or loneliness to make us feel bad enough to do something to meet that need.

How does this help us answer the question of “What is motivation?”

Motivation is the desire to escape discomfort.

Evolutionarily, our brains are similar to snails’ brains. They’re more complex, sure, but the motivational drive is the same–when we are uncomfortable, we are motivated to restore homeostasis. Even wanting is its own form of discomfort, which means that what looks like a lack of motivation is often simply someone escaping discomfort in an unhealthy or unproductive way.

Let’s take, for example, a teenager who spends all their free time playing video games. Despite what their parents may say, it’s not quite right to say they lack motivation. After all, it takes hours of focus and practice to emerge victorious from an epic battle. Rather, the teenager is motivated to play video games because, in them, they find a way to escape boring schoolwork, social pressure, and nagging parents. It’s a quick, easy relief from dealing with discomfort.

That’s the other important thing to remember–humans, like water, seek the path of least resistance.

Feeling bad isn’t bad.

When we realize that every action we take is about a need for homeostasis, we can change our mindset and design our life accordingly.

So what lessons can we draw to manage our own motivation?

First, we must realize that discomfort isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Thinking that feeling bad is always bad is an unhelpful notion propagated by clueless self-help gurus and modern-day snake oil salesmen. Discomfort doesn’t always need to be relieved. It can be leveraged like rocket fuel to propel us forward.

Instead of looking for the easiest way to rid ourselves of pain, we can look within to understand what’s driving our desire to escape the way we feel. What are we avoiding when we don’t do the things we really want to do?

For me, when I realized I was avoiding the hard work of writing my book, I finally saw that it was nothing more than my feelings standing in my way. I procrastinated instead of writing my book because I didn’t feel like writing. But who said I needed to feel like writing?

My impostor syndrome did. I believed that if I were a “real” writer, writing would be an effortless habit, and I’d always find my work easy and fun. My urge to give in to distraction was my brain’s way of avoiding bad feelings like frustration and self-doubt. Once I realized that, I was able to let go of my ridiculous notions and start working, whether I felt like it or not.

Second, after identifying the uncomfortable emotional states, we can prepare ourselves for what we will do the next time we experience those negative emotions.

As I detail in Indistractable, we can use dozens of well-studied techniques to prepare ourselves for the inevitable urges that can lead to self-defeating behaviors. Practices like the 10-minute rule have been shown to be a highly effective way to master the internal triggers that lead us off track. And finally, we can rely less on our feelings and more on our routines. By deciding in advance how we want to spend our time, according to our values and our schedule, we pave a clear path for our future actions. Instead of depending on motivation, we can do what we said we would by glancing at our calendar.

Work on my book shifted into high gear when I finally learned about setting what psychologists call an “implementation intention,” the practice of planning out what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. A distractible person waits for motivation, then doesn’t understand why they fail to accomplish their goals day after day after day. An indistractable person knows why they got distracted and takes steps today to avoid getting distracted by the same thing tomorrow.

By finally understanding what motivation really is, and what it is not, we can harness it when we have it and use other methods when it runs dry.

“Just Say No” Is Bad Productivity Advice

“Just Say No” Is Bad Productivity Advice

Try schedule-syncing instead.

You’ve probably read this advice before: “The best thing you can do for your productivity is to say no more often.” By freeing yourself from unnecessary tasks, the thinking goes, you can spend more time working on the things that really matter.

At first blush, this sounds smart. Many things people ask of you aren’t really necessary or can be accomplished more efficiently by someone else. But in practice, this advice often backfires. After all, while you can set boundaries around your work, you can’t straight-up refuse a task when your boss asks you to take it on. In the same way, simply bowing out of a partner’s requests to share the household labor won’t exactly make for a happy home.

But you can figure out a better question to ask, which will in turn lead to an actionable solution. Here’s how:

Figure Out What Kind of Worker You Are

There are two types of workers: schedule-makers and schedule-takers.

Schedule-makers go to work and decide how to spend their time and attention every day. Knowledge workers tend to fall into this category—salespeople, marketers, managers, software engineers, and most other white-collar laborers are schedule-makers. If you have a say in how you spend your time (as long as you get your work done), you’re a schedule-maker.

Schedule-takers show up to work and generally have their schedules made by someone else. Customer service reps, restaurant workers, manual laborers, and other operators fall into this category and are often paid hourly.

It’s rare that a job is entirely either schedule-making or schedule-taking, but most tend to skew toward one category or the other. Even if you can decide how you’ll spend most of your time at work, for example, there may be mandatory meetings you have to attend.

A schedule-taker can’t tell their boss, “Nah, I don’t want to” when they are asked to do a task. They’re on the clock, and, in the trade of time for money, they agree to do what they were hired to do under the terms of their employment.

For the schedule-maker, though, things get more complicated. Since these kinds of jobs require workers to make their own schedules, managers often have no idea how employees spend their time. As long as their work is delivered on time, most managers don’t care much when it gets done or how long it takes.

This can be where the trouble starts.

Instead of Saying “No,” Ask “When?”

Without an understanding of how a schedule-maker spends their time, managers can heap on more and more tasks until the employee is burned out and work has slipped through the cracks. The result is frayed nerves, poor quality work, and stressed relationships.

But instead of saying “no” to your boss, try schedule-syncing.

Schedule-syncing gives others transparency into how you intend to spend your time, and it’s a practice that will change your life, at work and outside of it. You can schedule sync with colleagues, managers, and even family members—anyone to whom you owe some amount of time and attention.

How to Schedule-Sync

The first step to schedule-syncing is time-boxing your calendar—blocking off time on each day of the week, clearly labeling each time box with what work you plan to do and when. You can use this free schedule-maker tool to get started.

Next, you’ll want to sit down with your manager (or whoever else you owe time to) and look over your schedule together. You can share a printout of your schedule and say, “Okay, here’s everything that’s on my plate for the week ahead and how I plan to allocate my time for the tasks you’ve given me.”

Now you can ask, “Is there anything not on my schedule, and when would you like me to work on those tasks?”

By asking “when,” you’ve asked your manager to do their most important job: prioritizing which work needs to get done first. And with transparency into how you spend your time, they can finally understand when your schedule is full. Without knowing this critical information, they’ll just keep throwing more work your way.

This transparency is just as valuable at home. Before my wife and I started schedule-syncing, we found ourselves bickering about why certain tasks weren’t getting done around the house. “Just saying no” to the dishes or laundry was obviously not okay—that stuff had to get done by someone.

To start schedule-synching at home, we:

  • made a list of all the household tasks we needed to do
  • agreed on a way to split the load
  • synced up our schedules accordingly

After syncing, we both knew when these tedious tasks would get done.

This practice has made our home far more harmonious, since we now have visibility into how we’re both spending our time to help the family. Whether at home or at work, when we have clear expectations based on how we intend to spend our time, we can fulfill our obligations to others and to ourselves.

The New York Times Uses the Very Dark Patterns it Derides

The New York Times Uses the Very Dark Patterns it Derides

‘Dark patterns’ aren’t always malicious mind control. They’re often a symptom of disjointed company culture. Will the Times change?’

A recent New York Times op-ed, titled “Stopping the Manipulation Machines,” derided the use of dark patterns: design tricks that push people to do things online by confusing or deliberately inconveniencing them.

Kudos to the writer, Greg Bensinger, a member of the Times’ editorial board, who does a laudable job calling out obnoxious dark patterns.

His first target is the Amazon Prime unsubscribe process, which he calls “a labyrinthine process that requires multiple screens and clicks.”

Bensinger claims Amazon deters customers from canceling their Prime subscriptions with a confusing series of steps involving many more screens and clicks than the effortless sign-up process that got them paying $119 per year when they signed up.

The dark pattern Amazon uses is called, “the roach motel,” so named because like the insect trap, people check in but never check out. It’s an example of an unethical design practice because the right thing to do would be to make it as easy to cancel a subscription as it is to start one.

Having written two books on how tech products get us Hooked, I was very familiar with this technique.

I was surprised, however, to find the New York Times uses the very same dark pattern it derides to prevent its own subscribers from canceling.

Even more intriguing is how this sort of unethical design happens in all sorts of organizations, the Times is just the latest example.

I’ll first explain how the paper uses the roach motel to keep customers from unsubscribing. Then, I’ll dive into how these sorts of ethical lapses happen at corporations and what companies can do to prevent using dark patterns.

How The New York Times roach motel works

Signing up for a NYT subscription is easy—with just a few clicks, anyone can sign up in seconds, without having to interact with a representative.

But canceling your subscription? That’s another story. Take a look at everything I had to do to unsubscribe:

First, I had to find where to unsubscribe, a process taking at least three screens after logging in and accessing my account.

First screen when trying to unsubscribe from the New York Times: Manage Your Subscriptions
Second screen when trying to unsubscribe from the New York Times: Cancel Subscription.
Third screen when trying to unsubscribe from the New York Times: Chat or Call

Then, once I found the right buttons to click, I had to either call to speak to a representative (but only during the specified business hours) or use the online chat function.

Already the process of unsubscribing was more time-consuming than the original sign-up, but here’s where the Times uses an intentionally sticky user interface to get customers to stay.

Since it was later than the specified business hours, I had to use the chat function. I knew I’d forget to call later, so I went ahead and clicked on the “begin chat” option. Little did I know this would lead to a several-minute negotiation with an agent who tried to convince me to stay.

I told the representative I wanted to cancel. Then I was offered reasons not to. I responded with “no thanks” each time. Then, I waited for the representative to reply and come back with several rounds of offers to get me not to cancel. On and on, the process went until I was finally allowed to leave.

Chat transcript on New York Times website where rep tries to dissuade customer from unsubscribing.

Isn’t cancelling your subscription easy?

While it took seconds to start the subscription, it took several minutes of back-and-forthing with the representative to cancel—classic roach motel.

Of course, I did eventually get to my desired result, but that’s not the point.

Dark patterns don’t completely prevent an action; they slyly tax our cognitive resources and eat up our time so we become more likely to do what the designer wants.

Why does the Times do this? Simple—they know it makes them more money.

Why do they keep doing it despite a member of the editorial board calling out the practice? That’s a matter of company culture.

Bad ethics is a symptom of bad company culture

The cringeworthy hypocrisy illustrated by the Times is an important case study in how companies adopt unethical design practices.

I’d bet the author never attempted to cancel his subscription. How would he know the company was using the same tactics he railed against?

Thousands of people work at The New York Times, and the team responsible for this cancellation workflow is likely in the single digits. It’s a blip on the radar at a big company; the manipulative tactic is not some evil scheme or conspiracy among the NYT staff.

Most likely, someone who specializes in conversion rate optimization (CRO) simply followed the numbers to the “optimal” workflow, and it might not even have occurred to them that they created a dark pattern.

That’s why it wouldn’t be fair to criticize Bensinger individually, or even the New York Times as a company. At many big companies, the left hand does one thing while the right hand does another.

The bigger the company gets, the harder it is to see everything that’s happening. Unfortunately, that includes unethical practices that in this case can lead to the company putting its proverbial foot in its mouth.

How might the Times go about fixing this?

Will the Times change?

Now that one of the Times’ own writers has helped expose this unethical design practice, the company should clearly remove this dark pattern.

But how does an organization avoid unintentionally using dark patterns or other coercive design practices?

Waiting for regulators to tell companies exactly what they can and cannot do risks ham-fisted legislation that limits innovation. It also puts the onus of companies to wait to be policed rather than doing the right thing right now.

I humbly propose the regret test.

When building any tool, the designers can ask:

If people knew everything the designer knows, would they still take the intended action?

In this case: If people knew what it would take to cancel, would they still subscribe?

My guess is that a significant number of potential customers would opt out.

Many might be fine with the Times’ roach motel, but the question for the company is how many people objecting is too many? If only half of your customers are okay with the design, while the other half are miffed by the dark pattern, that’s clearly too many. Companies should set a minimum bar for passing the test.

If users would regret taking the designed action, the technique fails the regret test. Such techniques shouldn’t be built into the product since they coerce people into doing something they wouldn’t do if they had full information.

So, how do we tell if people regret using a product? Simple! We ask them. Companies test possible features all the time. It’s called usability testing.

The test wouldn’t necessarily require much added effort or cost. In a recent article, Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group wrote that he believes usability test results can come from testing with as few as five people.

The regret test is well worth the resources if it helps weed out unintended consequences, putting the brakes on undesirable design practices before they go live to millions of users.

The future of design is unregrettable

Nearly all companies, including The New York Times, would like to earn and keep users’ loyalty and trust. Ignoring ethical design, or worse, chiding others while using dark patterns yourself, turns customers against the company as people vent their frustration online to others, warning them not to do business with the company.

Like many people, I’ve uninstalled distracting apps like Facebook from my phone because I regret having wasted time scrolling through my feed instead of being fully present with the people I care about. Wouldn’t it be in Facebook’s interest to alter their product so people like me don’t abandon it? Likewise, it’s in The New York Times’ best interest to know that their cumbersome cancellation design repels people from subscribing or coming back after they cancel.

If any company, be it Facebook, The New York Times, or another business, doesn’t listen to users who increasingly resent it for one reason or another, it risks more people ditching its service altogether. Ignoring people who regret using your product is not only bad ethics; it’s also bad for business. Product leaders who listen, on the other hand, will find that their users value their work more than ever.

Can We Regulate Social Networks To Curb Addiction—Without Making Them Suck?

Can We Regulate Social Networks To Curb Addiction—Without Making Them Suck?

Social networks can help addicted users while leaving the rest of us alone. If they wanted to.

About five years ago, I sat down in a series of meetings with leaders from Reddit, Snapchat, Facebook, and other social media networks. My goal was to discuss social media addiction and how companies might self-regulate to curb it.

At the beginning of each meeting, I said something like, “You’ve got users on your platform who really want to use your products less, but they’re struggling to do so.”

Oddly enough, I explained, some people were actually using social media to help each other stop using social media! For example, some Facebook users had created Facebook groups specifically to help each other spend less time on the site. At that time, many tech executives didn’t know this was happening.

Then, I basically said, “If you’re able to find the users who want to stop using your products, you should try to help them. It’s an ethical obligation.”

Unfortunately, my advice fell largely on deaf ears. Now, regulators are trying to make all sorts of wacky new laws, including the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act, to get tech companies to reduce the risk of addiction.

There’s only one problem: these regulations almost always miss the point. Usually, the government “solution” is to ban specific features, like infinite scroll, autoplay, and gamification, but these bans aren’t likely to help addicts. Banning specific features is not going to make this problem go away; it will only make products less fun for everyone else. And by “everyone else,” I mean upwards of 90% of us.

Yeah. Contrary to popular opinion, only 3% – 10% of people are pathologically addicted to social media. For the other 90%, it’s a distraction, not an addiction. And in fact, for those of us in that 90%, thinking we’re “addicted” is counterproductive. Instead, we can and should take simple steps to keep this distraction at bay, along with all the other distractions in our lives.

There’s a better way to help.

Instead of banning the features that make these platforms fun, we should require social networks to implement Use and Abuse policies—systems designed to protect people who are vulnerable.

Specifically, tech companies should identify the users who want to stop using their products, then help them do that. We know that most people suffering from addiction try to stop on their own. They want to stop, and they know it—but they struggle to change their behavior. A similar pattern exists with social media overuse and abuse; there are people who want to stop, but they struggle to change their behavior.

A dialog box, presented to addicted social media users, offering them ways to cut back on their usage -- an example of social media self-regulation.
A respectful and sincere message can help people who may be struggling with social media addiction.

A Use and Abuse policy would make a real difference in these situations. One of the things I’ve proposed, illustrated by the image above, is a feature that prompts heavy users with an offer to help. After all, tech companies know how much time each user spends on their platform. So, when a super-heavy user pops up on their radar, they should ask, “You’ve been here a lot—do you want help cutting back?”

If the user says no, that’s fine. They should be left alone, at least for some time. Maybe that “super user” is a social media professional. Maybe they live in an isolated region where social media is the best way to connect with people. Plenty of people can use social media, even heavily, and suffer no adverse consequences.

But if the user says, “Yes, I do want help,” then the company should have a support structure in place for them. For instance, they could provide easy toggles for removing triggers that can lead to overuse, offer guidance on learning to moderate use and provide access to free online mental health services.

I’ve been suggesting this to tech leaders for years, anticipating that the call for regulation would continue to get louder over time. But for the most part, social media companies have disregarded the message, and they’ve failed to build Use and Abuse policies or systems to protect addicts.

It’s time for that to change. My hope now is that leaders will understand they have an obligation to protect people who abuse their products without making their services less useful for the rest of us. With nearly half of the world’s population using social media, implementing a Use and Abuse Policy is an ethical and business imperative that should no longer be ignored.

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So, You Want To Become a Great Product Manager? [Q&A with Jackie Bavaro]

So, You Want To Become a Great Product Manager? [Q&A with Jackie Bavaro]

Nir’s Note: Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jackie Bavaro about her latest book, Cracking the PM Career—a complete guide to the skills, frameworks, and practices you need to become a great product manager. Jackie serves as the Head of Product Management at Asana and has held senior product manager jobs at Microsoft and Google, where she launched Google Place Search and Geo-IP Based Local Search. Based on her experiences hiring other product managers, she wrote her first best-selling book, Cracking the PM Interview, with co-author Gayle McDowell.

Nir Eyal: Why did you write this book?

Jackie Bavaro: I want there to be more great products in the world. 

So many people are pouring their energy into building, launching and supporting products that through no fault of their own, will fail. Sometimes the failed products just don’t sell well, but sometimes they actively do harm, such as when a vaccination appointment website is too complicated for seniors to use. 

Imagine how much better the world could be if we could catch those wasted efforts sooner and steer those products in a better direction.

I believe that for there to be more great products in the world, we need more people who think like great product managers. These don’t need to be people with the official title of “product manager”; they can be engineers, designers, marketers, founders, or any other role at the company. 

Cracking the PM Career book cover

Unfortunately, not everyone with the potential to be a great product manager gets the opportunity and development they need. In Cracking the PM Interview, I tackled the opportunity piece by publicly sharing the interviewing approaches and advice that well-connected candidates already knew. With this new book, I’m tackling the development piece. It shares both the best practices that help people reliably ship successful products, and the career advice that helps people expand their impact over time.

NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?

JB: The most surprising thing I’ve learned is how many people get told they need to “be more strategic” and have no idea what that means. It’s incredibly common feedback, but people don’t get actionable advice on how to address it.

What I found is that there are three distinct phases in a product management career: shipping products, product strategy, and organizational excellence.

When you want to break into Senior PM roles, being a great PM is no longer just shipping products that delight customers and hit the goals. You enter the phase of your career where being a great PM means identifying new opportunities and coming up with strategies to win the market. It’s a brand new responsibility.

You’ll need to paint a picture of an inspiring future (product vision), lay out your big strategic bets and pillars (strategic framework), and chart a course to achieve that vision (strategic roadmap). Contrast this with the non-strategic approach of setting a roadmap based on the incremental improvements your customers and sales team ask for.

There’s a lot more to being strategic (persuading people of your strategy, communicating the strategy, matching the work to the strategy, accounting for long-term implications), but if you draft a product vision, strategic framework, and strategic roadmap, you’ll start getting much more actionable advice on how to be strategic.

NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others?

JB: The most broadly applicable lessons are: 1) start with the goals and 2) validate your ideas. If you just follow those two guidelines, you’ll see a huge improvement in the success of your work.

Starting with the goals takes conscious effort, because people are naturally drawn to solutions. We tend to come up with an idea and rush to start building it without reflecting on the problem we’re trying to solve. If we slowed down just a bit, we might realize that there’s a more important problem to solve, or a better way to solve the same problem.

I’ve made this mistake a few times, both for my work, and personally. At work, I often want to build V2 of a feature, but when I go back to my goals (more people using the feature), I realize a better approach is to improve the discoverability of V1. Personally, I went 5 years in my career before I stopped to really think about my career goals. I’d absorbed an idea around getting promotions and salary increases, but when I paused to reflect, I realized that wasn’t the only option. Once I had that epiphany, I decided to join a startup with a lower salary and no job title.

Validating ideas is a powerful technique that requires a real mindset shift. Instead of trying to be the person with the best ideas, try to be the person who’s the best at learning which ideas are promising. The greatest product thinkers don’t get their ideas right on the first try all the time, but they do test their ideas with real people and quickly discard the bad ones. They’re also not just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see which ideas stick. Instead, they form a robust mental model with hypotheses about what a successful solution looks like. Each time an idea is invalidated, they update their mental model so that the next iteration will be better. Validating ideas can mean the difference between spending 6 months on a bad idea and finding the flaw after only 2 weeks.

NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?

JB: With both writing and building products, I’ve found that spending too much time in the early stages saps my motivation for making improvements in the later stages.

Roughly, I think about the stages like this:

  1. Getting ideas out of my head
  2. Iterating by myself
  3. Iterating based on feedback from a coworker
  4. Iterating based on feedback from my real target audience.

So for me, the trick is to zoom through the early stages and show my work early.

I used to try to do the first two stages at the same time. I’d start typing the first sentence, get stuck on the sentence structure, write a few more sentences, then reorder the ideas, and usually need to take a break by the time I finished the first paragraph. It felt draining. The worst part is that when I looked at what I’d written the next day, I’d see a much better way of getting my points across, and I’d throw away all those carefully crafted sentences.

Now, I do a first pass where I write every idea down in the order it comes to me. It usually feels like I have lots of thoughts swirling in my head, but they’re blurry until I write them down. I’ve gotten better at catching myself when I start to wordsmith too early. The goal is to get the ideas out as fast as possible.

It’s almost magical, but somehow when I come back to those notes the next day, I can see how to organize the ideas into something coherent and persuasive. I think my brain was working while I was asleep. I’m now excited to wordsmith, reorganize, and rewrite because I can start to see the shape of what I’m building.

When I can feel myself start to slow down, I know it’s time to get feedback from my co-author, the amazing Gayle Laakman McDowell. She brings a new perspective and knows how to make the content really engaging. We also had several beta readers for this book who helped us understand what was landing and what needed more work. Their feedback really helped us stay on track.

NE: What’s one thing you believe that most people would disagree with?

JB: Career ladders are frequently misleading. They show a rubric that maps a large number of skills and behaviors to levels, and many people think “okay, if I study this guide and work on these skills I’ll be promoted.”

The thing is, you don’t need all those skills to get promoted! And, you won’t always get promoted even if you have them. The rubric isn’t a checklist of how to get promoted, it’s just a set of examples and descriptions of what people who already reached that level look like.

It’s as if someone created a rubric for Olympic sprinters that listed body dimensions, blood oxygen levels and how fast they could run on a treadmill. The rubric might be an accurate description of the top olympians, but the way you become an olympic sprinter is by winning races.

In reality, promotions aren’t about skills, but rather scope, autonomy, and impact. You get a promotion when you show that you can deliver impactful work at the next higher scope, without too much help. For product managers, you get promoted when you ship successful products.

illustration of person unlocking promotion via scope, autonomy, and impact

NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?

JB: I live out of my calendar, much like you recommend in Indistractable. I schedule many “meetings with myself” to block off the time for an important task.

Before I started this habit, I felt embarrassed that I wasn’t more productive. I never knew how much work I could, or should commit to. I knew that I ought to dedicate more of my time to my most important work, but I wasn’t sure how to make the space.

Now, I feel good about how I spend my time. I still can’t say “yes” to everything that I wish I could, but I accept that there are only so many hours in a day. I’ve become a better teammate and keep my commitments.

NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading this book?

JB: Every team should have a person who thinks like a product manager.

The old way of building—assuming “if you build it, they will come”, investing months without getting validation from potential customers, incrementally improving without a vision, leading by authority instead of influence—that way leads to failure more than success.

Plenty of teams have gotten lucky with the old way, but product management gives you the tools to make your own luck and reliably deliver successful work.

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