The best books are like stepping stones through a stream — they can help us through obstacles on our path. However, it’s only in retrospect that we realize which books were critical and which were superfluous.
I’m surprised I ended up an author.
I’m dyslexic, English is not my first language, and writing was always my worst subject in school.
Just as surprising as my unlikely path are the mix of behavioral design books that got me here.
Knowing is half the battle
Behavioral economics is all the rage. A recent explosion of books explore the “irrational” side of human decision-making.
While these books often make for entertaining reads, people often forget that the heuristics and biases described are often the exceptions, not the rules.
Economics teaches us that, in general, people respond to incentives. If we want to understand and motivate behavior (our’s and others’), understanding the costs and benefits of particular actions is still a good place to start.
Of course, it’s important to know when the generalizations don’t hold true, but it is even more critical to know what moves people most of the time.
As a young adult, two behavioral design books opened my eyes to the power of knowledge.
The T-Factor — I was a fat kid. I weighed more in the sixth grade than I do now as a six-foot-tall man.
I remember the horrible feeling that food controlled me. The powerlessness of not understanding why I was overweight and what I could do about it left me depressed and hopeless. That is, until I picked up this tiny calorie counting guide.
There’s nothing particularly special about The T-Factor. It’s just a list of common foods and their respective calories and macronutrients — fat, protein, and carbs — per serving. But in the days before the internet and fitness apps, the book was a life-changer.
I didn’t know why some foods are more likely to make me put on fat than others. For instance, I thought orange juice was “part of a balanced breakfast,” and was shocked to discover it is full of calories and sugar.
I carried the book with me all the time and when my friends weren’t looking, I would look up the nutritional content of food, just to know the macros. I soon started gaining a better understanding of what was in the food I ate and that made a huge difference in what I put on my plate and in my mouth.
Counting calories isn’t necessarily the only or best way to lose weight, but the book showed me the importance of understanding the trade-offs of certain choices.
For instance, instead of eating a small bag of Doritos, I could have several times more air-popped popcorn for the same calories. Now I could make smarter choices and felt empowered. I lost weight and felt more in control of my life.
Get a Financial Life — After watching my older brother fall into credit card debt in his early twenties, I knew I wasn’t going to let that happen to me. The trouble was, since I was 10 years younger, I had only a vague idea of how a credit card worked and why my brother owed so much money.
As was the case with my diet, I read up on the difference between healthy and harmful decisions when it came to money. Although I didn’t have much of it, perhaps a few hundred dollars from birthday gifts and washing cars in my neighborhood on weekends, I wasn’t going to let anyone dupe me like they did my brother.
In Get a Financial Life, author Beth Kobliner taught me why credit card debt can grow so quickly, why saving early is important, and the sneaky tricks banks and financial services companies pull to get more of your cash, that is, unless you know how to avoid their traps.
Whether you’re tracking a financial deficit or caloric deficit, you can’t make good choices without understanding inflows and outflows. These two books helped me understand that incentives can work to change behavior as long as we know what’s good for us.
But sometimes, despite knowing a behavior is harming them, people seem to not control their decisions.
When Knowing Is Not Enough
Addiction by Design — After business school, I became fascinated with why some people become obsessed with certain behaviors. In Addiction by Design, Natasha Dow Schüll profiles people unable to stop gambling and the sophisticated machine gambling industry that preys upon them.
I had known about some of the tactics casinos use to keep people playing, like blocking out natural light so players can’t tell the time of day and pumping them full of booze, but these techniques always seemed feeble. Gambling machines looked sort of boring to me. I didn’t understand why people played them for hours (or even days) knowing perfectly well that in the end the house always wins.
But after reading Addiction by Design, I realized I wasn’t the casinos’ target. Casinos aren’t in business for the tourists who come to town for the weekend to play table games. Rather, they make their real money on the “whales,” the tiny percentage of players who make up the vast majority of casino revenue and profits. The business model wouldn’t be viable without them and casinos fall over themselves to lure whales in and keep them coming back until they spend all their money.
Who are these whales? They are addicts: People who know they are wasting their time, money, and lives, but don’t stop.
Schüll paints a bleak picture of people targeted by the casino industry with free trips, VIP rooms, and games designed to make them feel they’ve won, even when they’ve lost. But the most interesting revelation is why these high-rollers keep playing.
According to Schüll, addicted players don’t play to win necessarily. Rather, they play to stay in the “machine zone,” a semi-conscious state where they can escape their troubles. Anything that may burst the machine zone bubble must be minimized. Addicted players stuff toothpicks in the buttons of the machine to keep them rolling continuously and wear adult diapers so they don’t have to leave their seats.
Schüll profiles a mother whose son died in a car crash. She gambles away his insurance settlement to escape the pain of her unbearable grief. Every obsessive gambler in Schüll’s book seeks to numb themselves and the machine zone is the drug they desire.
Memoirs of an Addicted Brain — While Schüll explains how some people get addicted, Marc Lewis explains why they get addicted.
Lewis is a renowned neuroscientist who was once an addict himself. As a teen, Lewis got into hard drugs and his book takes us on a wild ride through nearly every intoxicant there is.
What makes this book unputdownable is not only Lewis’ riveting personal story, but also his rich description of each drug. With incredible detail, Lewis explains the effects of each narcotic in the brain. Reading the book is its own trip.
Lewis also explains why drugs require a welcoming host. He controversially disagrees with the disease model of addiction and believes that addiction is a confluence of factors starting with traumatic experiences the user is ill-equipped to deal with. While most people can use drugs recreationally and never become addicted, Lewis shows why specific people at certain times in their lives use substances to deal with pain they can’t otherwise escape.
He shows how addicts pick their drug of choice based on what they’re missing. If their life is boring and lacks meaning, cocaine provides the excitement they’re looking for. But if the world is cold and lacks tenderness, the loving embrace of an opiate high can provide the feeling of pain-free peace they seek.
Lewis shows why addiction isn’t only about the drug being abused and why the vast majority of people never get addicted to anything. But for the unfortunate few who are disposed to addiction and find themselves unable to otherwise escape their pain, addictions can refocus their attention on nothing but getting more of their drug. They don’t seek a “high” as much as they want to escape the low of constant craving.
Thankfully, Lewis also shows how people can escape addiction by changing their life path by learning new ways of coping with hard times. The most successful treatment, Lewis says, is time. “Ageing out” naturally by finding new reasons to live and more important things to focus on is why most people grow out of drugs and is the most common form of recovery.
As a child of the “Just Say No” 1980s, I grew up with a simplistic and unscientific understanding of addiction. The behavioral design books by Lewis and Schüll helped shape my view of compulsive behaviors and the factors underlying addiction. Addicts don’t chase a high, they run from their lows.
Very few people actually form an addiction. Of course, those who do require our help. But just because something is engaging, doesn’t mean it’s going to create an addict of everyone.
I now understand that any analgesic is potentially addictive in the wrong person’s hands. As for the rest of us, we can use the psychology of what makes things engaging for good.
Turning Theory into Action
The last two behavioral design books in this collection were direct inspirations for my work. After learning about the power of knowing what to do, then studying why some people overdo it, I let my interest swing to the middle ground of tackling the question of how most people can design their daily behavior.
The Power of Habits — My first book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, was inspired by Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habits. Duhigg’s entertaining prose did a masterful job of turning the dense academic literature of habit-formation into an accessible book. It’s funny, educational, and inspiring.
However, working in tech at the time, I didn’t find the book to be practical. While The Power of Habits does a great job of explaining how individuals can form habits in their own lives, it doesn’t say anything about how products and services can be designed to change user habits for good. This seemed like an opportunity!
What if apps could use habit-formation for more than just frivolity? I wanted to learn how the tech giants like Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon, got people hooked. The more I explored, researched, and spoke with my friends in Silicon Valley, the more I understood designing for user retention and engagement is at the heart of their businesses.
My goal was to uncover their secrets and democratize them so that entrepreneurs and companies in all industries could help their customers and users do things they themselves wanted to do, but for lack of good design didn’t do.
Since Hooked was published in 2014, it’s sold half a million copies and has been used to make educational apps more engaging, health services more interesting, and saving money through financial services products more habit-forming.
Hooked exceeded my expectations but the more people read the book, the more demands were placed on my time. Soon, I was overwhelmed with speaking engagements and consulting work. I found I was getting distracted from doing what had made me successful — namely, the research and the writing.
Deep Work — Cal Newport’s book tapped into something many people are missing, the satisfaction that comes from working with focus. Doing our best work requires our full attention. Newport’s manifesto is a call to action to stop filling our days with “shallow work,” like checking endless emails and attending pointless meetings, and do more deep work, the work that can only be done without distraction.
Like The Power of Habit, I found Deep Work to be highly inspirational and entertaining, but not practical enough. I was convinced about the why but now I wanted the how. After finishing Deep Work, I tried to work without distraction. I turned off my digital interruptions and even bought a flip phone with no internet connection or apps so I could finally get deep work done. Except it didn’t really work. I kept getting distracted.
I would see a book on the shelf I wanted to read. Or I’d convince myself that now was the right time to organize my desk or take out the trash. I kept getting distracted even though the distractions were not digital.
That’s when I decided the problem wasn’t not knowing what to do. I was already convinced I wanted to do more deep work. The problem was I didn’t know how to stop getting distracted. The answer had to be deeper so I began to explore the psychology of distraction.
I wanted to know why we go off track despite knowing what to do.
Over the next five years, I combed the academic literature to write an empowering book that didn’t point the blame at our tech gadgets. The result was my second book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, which has since outsold Hooked to become a bestseller as well.
It’s been an exciting road from reader to writer. I’m incredibly grateful and lucky to have found my path. I get to learn for a living and help others in the process.
I’m not sure where my writing journey will take me next but I look forward to continuing to explore the intricacies and mysteries of human behavior.