How to Turn Off Harmful Stress Like a Switch

How to Turn Off Harmful Stress Like a Switch

Let’s play a game of “would you rather.”

Would you rather speak in front of 500 people for an hour or be stuck in an elevator with your ex?

Would you rather get a cavity drilled or be forced to take a four-hour Zumba class?

Would you rather lose your car keys before work or lose your internet connection before an online meeting?

None of these options are good, but they all have something in common: they invoke stress.

What stresses you out? How do you deal with that dreaded feeling? And did you know there’s a bullet-proof method for disarming stress?

Illustration of several stressful situations, including dental appointments and public speaking.

Where Does Stress Come From?

Stress is defined as “mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” We’ve all felt it, but where does stress come from?

Stress comes from the future, but not in the Marty McFly way.

A watch with 4 settings: -- referring to the concept of stress as the anxious anticipation of an unhappy future.

Humans are unique in our capacity to predict what might happen next. We rely on our amazing ability to anticipate the future better than any other animal, and this ability is a feature of our unusual intelligence.

Unlike other animals, which (as far as we know) react solely to what’s going on in their environment, humans can imagine entire realities in our heads. These alternate realities make us act in all sorts of strange ways. For instance, while zebras will run from the sound of a lion in the brush, humans will stampede at the start of a Black Friday sale, imagining the deals we’ll miss if we don’t elbow our way through.

While imagining the future motivates us to pursue what we want, it also comes with a cost. All that thinking about what might happen next is stressful.

Does that mean humans are doomed to lives of constant stress? Does our ability to imagine many futures mean we’re destined to feel constant emotional strain?

Not necessarily.

You’ve no doubt heard the story of Viktor Frankl, the inspiring psychiatrist who survived imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust. He observed firsthand the profound difference between his fellow prisoners who lost hope—and soon died—compared with those who found a purpose. Focusing on that purpose allowed them to take back some measure of psychological control. The difference was literally life and death.

What if I told you that same powerful difference in focus and mindset is impacting you right now?

You’re about to learn how to create a real-life forcefield against the stress you face every day.

Viktor Frankl knew something science would later verify: perception can mediate the effects of stress. In other words, two people faced with exactly the same stressful situation can have very different physical and emotional reactions. How does that happen? To answer that question, let’s take a look at some fascinating research about the power of feeling in control.

The Power of Control

A classic study of two rats (journal article by D.L Helmreich et al) reveals an important insight about the role control plays in the experience of stress. The two rats are in separate cages connected to the same electrical circuit. The circuit administers random shocks through the metal floor of their cage. One rat has a lever in its cage that enables it to turn off the shocks while the other rat does not.

The rat with the lever in its cage is called “the executive rat,” because it has control. It has the power to turn off the electric current flowing through the cage. The rat with no control is called the “subordinate rat.”

When the experiment begins, both the executive rat and the subordinate rat show signs of stress, indicated by a sudden surge of the stress hormone, cortisol. Then, something interesting happens. The executive rat’s stress levels drop back to normal, while the subordinate rat’s stress remains high. Why? In a word, control.

Two rats in an experiment about stress, one with a lever to relieve random electric shocks, the other without.

The executive rat has discovered that it can turn off the stressful stimulus (the random shocks) by pressing the lever in its cage. For the executive rat, it’s as if the physiological effects of its stressful situation have been turned off completely. In contrast, the subordinate rat’s health steadily declines due to the stress, leading to secondary effects including a suppressed immune system.

Here’s what’s happening. The electrical shock is the stressor, and both rats experience exactly the same amount of that stressful stimulus. Yet one rat feels in control of the stress. He can turn it off at will. On a psychological level, this makes all the difference. Let’s consider why that’s the case, and what it means for our ability to cope with the daily stress we all face in the human rat race.

Two people affected differently by stress: one negatively and the other positively because her greater sense of control.

Psychological Immunity to Stress

The stress we experience is based on our perception of what’s going to happen next. If we anticipate a threatening situation, our body releases stress hormones to prepare us to face the threat.

But if we believe we have control over a threatening stimulus, then we don’t need to prepare for that threat in the same way. We don’t need to be on full alert with the fight-or-flight response gearing us up for survival. How can we regain a sense of control when faced with stress and uncertainty?

Let’s return to the story of Viktor Frankl. Faced with unimaginable hardship, he had no idea how long the torment would continue. There was no guarantee of rescue, and many of his companions died of starvation, illness, or worse. What did he do differently to cope with the stress?

He changed the focus of his attention. Frankl searched for meaning and purpose in the smallest daily actions, like caring for a friend or saving a scrap of string that might be useful later. He also found long-term meaning and purpose in the idea of survival itself. He reminded himself continuously that surviving this hardship would be meaningful to his family and friends. They needed him to come back to them alive.

This change in focus—from the many uncontrollable aspects of life to the few controllable ones—can have a profound effect. That’s because our perception of reality is, to a large extent, created by the focus of our attention.

Illustration of a lab rat focusing on a controllable aspect of a stressful situation so as to reduce its stress level.

Are you facing the stress of an uncertain future? If so, it helps to focus on what you can control. Sometimes that means bringing the finish line closer by setting goals for today or this week instead of trying to figure out what you’ll do if you lose your job three months from now. Sometimes, it means making a list of 10 ways you can stay connected with friends and choosing the best one to put into action.

Our human tendency is to focus on threats and problems. For the sake of our emotional wellness, it makes sense to modify that automatic tendency. You can’t control the stressors that come your way, but you can influence the focus of your own attention. That’s why we recommend you focus on the things that give you back a feeling of control.

Want another tool to combat stress? Counterintuitively, one of the best things we can add to your toolbelt is an entirely different belief about stress—one befriending it instead of battling against it.

The Power of Your Beliefs

In her TED talk, psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal revealed an important insight that changed her own mind about stress. After decades educating people about the dangers of stress and imploring them to reduce stress for the sake of their health, Dr. McGonigal discovered an unexpected trend in the data.

When people believed stress was something bad that must be avoided, it had a far worse impact on their health. In contrast, among those who perceive stress as a normal part of pursuing goals, there was no correlation between higher stress and poor health outcomes.

Once again, how we perceive stress matters. If you believe stress itself is a threat, something you must reduce for the sake of your health, and yet can’t effectively reduce it, you feel trapped. You have no control, just like the rat getting shocked at random.

Feeling out of control makes us feel even more stress, perpetuating the harmful cycle. Perhaps it’s time to consider an alternative view of stress. What if we stopped seeing stress as something abnormal or threatening to your future health and instead thought of it as something that empowers us to be our best?

For instance, speaking in front of hundreds of people can be debilitatingly stressful. Many people try to fight stage fright, thinking the stress will make them more likely to stumble over their words and embarrass themselves. However, instead of thinking the stress is a bad thing that we must resist, we can think of it as an asset. A racing heartbeat for instance, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s a sign of the body sending more oxygen to the brain so you can do your best.

After we learn to see stress as something to harness rather than run from, we can take things one step further. Let’s see what happens when you pursue stress deliberately, on your own terms.

Stress for Success?

In his book, The Power of Full Engagement, peak performance coach Jim Loehr recommends oscillating back and forth between pushing hard and relaxing. Observing both athletes and executives, Loehr noticed that we engage more fully in our work if we push hard for periods of time and then pull back toward rest and recovery.

An athlete who knows there’s a short break around the corner is capable of pushing harder during periods of extreme exertion. And if you think about this in the context of your own life, it probably makes sense. It’s easy to push hard for the last two days of work before a vacation, or even the last hour of a typical workday. That’s because you know you’re about to get a break.

When you intentionally push yourself outside of your comfort zone and schedule periods of rest and recuperation, something interesting happens—your capacity to endure stress increases. It’s as if you’ve created a new set point for what feels normal.

For example, an entrepreneur who feels constantly pressed for time during her nine-hour workday might experiment with doing a 14-hour workday once per week for three weeks. Each of these long workdays is followed by a shortened workday of only six hours. In this case, she is stretching her sense of what’s possible by working longer than what feels comfortable. Then she recovers, taking it easy the next day.

The effect is less stress. Can you guess why? She has expanded her sense of what’s possible. She feels in control of the stressor (time pressure to get things done), because she knows that if the worst comes to worst, she can put in a few longer work days to get caught up. Things no longer feel out of control.

Alternatively, she can practice timeboxing. This time management tool gives her better control over the focus of her attention when too many things are competing for her time. Timeboxing allows her to translate her highest priorities into blocks of time she’s reserved to get the most critical things done. Once again, the result is a feeling of control.

Since stress comes from feeling out of control, you can sometimes put yourself back in the driver’s seat, deliberately steering toward stress so you have greater control over deciding when to steer away toward rest.

Achieve More with Less Stress

You don’t have to choose between a healthy life and a life of full engagement with high, hard goals. You can have both.

The way to have both is to take control of the stress you put on yourself. By proactively seeking stress in forms that further your goals, you can change your set point for what feels overwhelming. Doing so will eliminate the feeling that stress is happening to you. It’s instead something chosen by you. You’re taking control of stress before it takes control of you.

If you want to take action on this idea, here’s what I recommend. Choose one area of life to experiment with (e.g., your physical fitness, tolerance for periods of intense concentration, or handling rejection on sales calls). Apply the concept of steering toward stress and then away from it.
 A man dancing back and forth with a figure representing stress, inviting it and distancing from it.

If done correctly, as you steer toward stress, difficult challenges will begin to feel more like an adventure. Emotionally, you’ll experience a sense of thriving and empowerment as you navigate your way toward difficult goals rather than a feeling of being crushed by their weight. Then, when you steer away from stress, you’ll experience a deeper level of relaxed contentment that contributes to your well-being, both mentally and physically.

Bottom line—stress isn’t your enemy. It’s not even a bad thing. Stress is, in a very real way, what you make of it. You can take control of it, or you can let it control you. The choice is yours.

Handling Life Transitions: Interview with Bruce Feiler

Handling Life Transitions: Interview with Bruce Feiler

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down for a Q&A with Bruce Feiler, a Ted Talk veteran and seven-time bestselling author, who most recently wrote Life is in the Transitions, a guidebook for navigating the times when our lives pivot dramatically. You can find out more about Bruce from his website, Here’s our chat:

NE: Why did you write “Life is in the Transitions?”

BF: We’re all experiencing a crush of change that’s nearly overwhelming. A few years ago, I got consumed by a back-to-back-to-back set of disruptive life experiences. First, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer. That gave birth to The Council of Dads, both the book and the NBC series. Then I almost went bankrupt. Then my father, who was suffering from Parkinson’s, tried to kill himself. In the midst of that, I started sending my dad questions about his life. This went on for years, until he had written an autobiography.
illustration of the author suffering under the weight of three loads on his back: his cancer, his bankruptcy, and his father’s illness.
This whole period got me interested in how we navigate and make sense of transitions in our lives. For the next five years, I crisscrossed the country, collecting life stories of hundreds of Americans in all 50 states who’d been through similar life disruptions. With a team of twelve, I then spent a year coding these interviews for 57 different variables—from what emotions they most struggled with, to what advice from friends was most helpful, to what habits they shed—identifying patterns and takeaways that can help all of us survive and thrive in times of change.
illustration of the takeaways from a life transition: habits that were shed, emotion dealt with, and advice that helped.

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

BF: The big idea of my book is that expectation for how we should behave and how we should approach our lives is outdated. There are three big parts of this:

1) The linear life is dead. Americans have been told for decades that our lives will follow predictable, linear paths interrupted by periodic “crises” on birthdays that end in zero. The backbone of this paradigm was a series of carefully calibrated progressions—from dating to marriage to children to empty nest; from low-level job to mid-level job to senior-level job to retirement. Today that idea is preposterously behind the times. We no longer expect to have just one job, one relationship, one spirituality, one sexuality, one source of happiness from adolescence to assisted living.

2) This linear life has been replaced by a new paradigm—the nonlinear life—in which each of us experiences our life as a complex swirl of celebrations, setbacks, triumphs, and rebirths across the full span of our years.

3) The nonlinear life comes with a greater number of life transitions–three to five spread across our adult lives.

At its simplest, a life transition is the way humans cope with these periods of change. When we get hit by a major life disruption, we often freeze with indecision and fear. The life transition is how we get out unfrozen and move into a period of reinvention and renewal. My book offers the first new toolkit for navigating life transitions in 50 years.

illustration of a linear life model: transitions from birth to education to relationships, then career and then death.
llustration of a non-linear life model with multiple transitions for different careers, relationships, and career pathways.

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

BF: There’s no such thing as a midlife crisis.

The idea of the “midlife crisis” was first articulated by a psychoanalyst named Elliott Jaques in 1957. He claimed that people in their mid-30s go through a depressive period brought on by first contemplating their mortality. Jaques didn’t do any research; he just read a bunch of biographies of famous men. He didn’t include women, he said, because menopause “obscured” their midlife transitions.

When Gail Sheehy popularized the idea in the 70s, based primarily on some very iffy research by Dan Levinson at Yale (he interviewed only 40 people, and again only men), she said the midlife crisis must start in the 40th year and will end at 45 ½.

This is all bunk. My research shows that we suffer a series of three to five lifequakes, as I call them, all across our lives. These could be medical issues, career shifts, change in sexual practices, as well as divorce, social movements like #MeToo or #BlackLiveMatter, or external events like a tornado, a financial crisis, a downsizing, or a pandemic. Some of these are voluntary, others are involuntary.

The signature finding of my study is that the average length of the transitions that grow out of these lifequakes is five years. Do the math, and that means we spend half our lives in transitions. You or someone you know is going through one now. What’s unique about this particular moment in history is that for the first time in 75 years, the entire country is going through a life transition together.

What’s your most important good habit or routine?

BF: When you’re stuck, try something new.

My research found that transitions involve three phases – what I call the long goodbye, the messy middle, and the new beginning. In the long goodbye, we confront our emotions and turn to rituals to put our past behind us. In the new beginning, we unveil our new selves and update our personal story. But the messy middle is the hard one for most people. We shed certain habits: mindsets, routines, delusions, dreams. Also we create things: new attitudes, aptitudes, skills, talents.

Reprise of illustration depicting three phases of life transitions.
People gravitate to the phase they’re best at—their transition superpower—and bog down in the one they’re weakest at: their transition kryptonite. I would say a superpower of mine is that I’m good at starting things. In my life, the best ideas have come from the worst times in my life. I had the idea to create the Council of Dads in the most horrific week of my life, when I learned I might die. I had the idea that became this book when my entire family was struggling to deal with my dad.

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

BF: Transitions are essential to life. The single most powerful idea that emerged from years of listening to life stories is that all of us go through tumultuous periods—and not just once or twice, but multiple times in our lives. As long as we have to do all this heartrending and heart-mending, along with the rebalancing of sources of meaning that comes with it, why don’t we spend more time trying to master them?

William James said it best a century ago: “Life is in the transitions. We can’t ignore these central times of life; we can’t wish or will them away. We have to accept them, name them, mark them, share them, and eventually convert them into fuel for remaking our life stories.”

If you found this interview interesting, you might also like other articles on my site about introspection and motivation. What about you? In what ways did major life transitions change you? What helped you get through them?


Thanks to Fru Pinter for the illustrations and Nick Gray for the referral.

Why You’re Not Good at Changing Minds (and What You Can Do About It)

Why You’re Not Good at Changing Minds (and What You Can Do About It)

Dr. Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies how products, ideas, and behaviors catch on. He’s written two bestsellers, Contagious and Invisible Influence, and his newest book, The Catalyst, recently hit bookstore shelves. In this interview, Dr. Berger discusses discoveries from his latest book. He’s also generously allowed NirAndFar readers special access to the first chapter of The Catalyst, available here.

Nir Eyal: Why did you write your book?

(Jonah Berger) Since Contagious came out, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a range of organizations — big companies like Google, Nike, and Apple to small start-ups, B2B and B2C, products and services. But regardless of whether the project involved marketing or some other aspect of the business, I realized they all had something in common: they all had something they wanted to change.

Salespeople want to change the client’s mind and marketers want to shift consumer behavior. Employees want to change their boss’s mind and leaders want to transform organizations. Parents want to change their children’s behavior, startups want to change industries, and non-profits want to change the world. But change is hard. We make pitch after pitch, send email after email, and make sales call after sales call, but often nothing happens. I started wondering if there might be a better way.

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

(JB) I interviewed startup founders to learn how they drive new adoption of disruptive products and services. I talked with CEOs and managers to discover how great leaders transform organizations. And I spoke to superstar salespeople to learn how they convince the toughest clients. I even spoke to hostage negotiators to see how they get hardened criminals to come out with their hand up and substance abuse counselors to learn how they get people to finally seek help.

Again and again, the same theme came up. The most successful change agents don’t push. They don’t add more facts and reasons or provide more information. They take a different approach. They remove barriers. Rather than adding pressure, they reduce friction and lower the hurdles to action.

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

(JB) There are five key barriers to change. Whether you’re trying to change minds, organizations, or even your own behavior, five common roadblocks that often get in the way: reactance, endowment, distance, uncertainty, and corroborating evidence. Taken together, that forms an acronym, R.E.D.U.C.E., which is exactly what great catalysts do. They REDUCE roadblocks. They change minds and incite action by reducing barriers to change.

Each chapter of the book explains the science behind each of these barriers, why they prevent change, and how to mitigate them. The Reactance chapter, for example, talks about how, when pushed, people push back. Just like a missile defense system protects against incoming projectiles, people have an innate anti-persuasion system — radar that kicks in when they sense someone is trying to convince them. To lower this barrier, catalysts have to encourage people to persuade themselves. The chapter explains how reactance works, how warnings become recommendations, and the power of tactical empathy. I discuss how a public health official got teens to quit smoking and how a hostage negotiator got hardened criminals to come out with their hands up, just by asking.

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

(JB) Close everything else — email, social media, the phone; put it all away. It doesn’t make writing any easier, but at least it makes the outside option less enticing.

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

(JB) That you have to be smart to be successful. Sure, talent helps, but nothing can replace hard work and being curious.

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

(JB) Blocking off time for the big stuff. Doing smaller things like responding to emails and having quick conversations is important, but if you’re not careful, the whole day can go by doing just that. So it’s important to block off time for the big stuff to make sure it actually gets done.

(NE) What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading your book?

(JB) Whether you’re trying to change one person, transform an organization, or shift the way an entire industry does business, there’s a better way to do it. If you understand the key barriers that are preventing change and how to mitigate them, you can change anything.

Here Is How to Practice Stillness and Increase Focus

Here Is How to Practice Stillness and Increase Focus

Ryan Holiday is the author of ten books which have sold over 2 million copies. His books, including The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego Is the Enemy, The Daily Stoic, and Conspiracy have been translated into thirty languages. In this interview, Ryan discusses his latest book, Stillness is the Key.

Nir Eyal: Why did you write your book?

Ryan Holiday: Stillness is this timeless idea that appears in almost every religion and every ancient school of philosophy. People have been complaining about how busy and overwhelmed they are for thousands of years–and about the need to slow down. Yet when you say the word stillness, it feels very urgent and timely. I suppose we are actually busier than we’ve ever been before, but it’s a pretty timeless problem. We’re all trying to get to that thing that Cal Newport calls “deep work.” We’re trying to get to a place where, as crazy as things are on the outside, we can be calm and clear on the inside. This allows us to do what’s really important, whether that’s being a father, being an author, or accomplishing whatever it is you are trying to do in this life.

I open the book with a scene from one of Seneca’s letters and, honestly, what he’s describing–the noise and the struggle to write–is pretty identical to what I went through with my open hotel window in New York City this morning. So here’s this thing that people have wrestled with for thousands of years, and they’ve come up with some good strategies for tackling it. We’ve forgotten many of them, yet we need them more than ever. What I wanted to do with this book, why I wanted to write it, was to share those principles and strategies for cultivating stillness.

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

RY: Originally, I thought stillness was a most eastern idea. Even with all my reading of the Stoics, I basically missed it. Marcus Aurelius talks about stillness about a dozen or so times in Meditations. But I guess that’s sort of the point–if you don’t slow down, you can miss things. So the most surprising thing was really just how universal this idea of stillness is. The Buddhist word for it was upekkha. The Muslims spoke of aslama. The Hebrews, hishtavut. The second book of the Bhagavad Gita, the epic poem of the warrior Arjuna, speaks of samatvam, an “evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.” The Greeks, euthymia and hesychia. The Epicureans, ataraxia. The Christians, aequanimitas. Whether you were a pupil at the feet of Confucius in 500 BC, a student of the early Greek philosopher Democritus one hundred years later, or sitting in Epicurus’ garden a generation after that—you would have heard equally emphatic calls for this imperturbability, unruffledness, and tranquility.

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

RY: As I was saying, I open the book with a story of Seneca struggling with this exact problem. He’s in his apartment in Rome in the late first century AD trying to write, and there’s a deafening cacophony of disturbances—think New York City construction loud. It was enough “…to make me hate my very powers of hearing,” he said. Yet, somehow he pushed through the chaos and created some of the best work of his life. “I have toughened my nerves against all that sort of thing,” he wrote. “I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within.”

It’s sort of what you’re talking about in your book. It really takes work and discipline to become indistractable. But if you can, it’s like a super power.

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

RH: Each morning, usually after a long walk on my farm, I go upstairs to my office and pull out three small notebooks. In the first one—a small blue gold leafed notebook—I write one sentence about the day that just passed. In the next, a black Moleskine, I journal two quick pages about yesterday’s workout (how far I ran or swam), what work I did, any notable occurrences, and some lines about what I am grateful for, what I want to get better at, and where I am succeeding. And then finally, I pick up The Daily Stoic Journal to prepare for the day ahead by meditating on a short prompt: Where am I standing in my own way? What’s the smallest step I can take toward a big thing today? What blessings can I count right now? Why do I care so much about impressing people? What is the harder choice I’m avoiding? Do I rule my fears, or do they rule me? How will today’s difficulties show my character? The whole ritual takes maybe 15 minutes and then it’s done. By the time I am finished, I am centered, I am calm, and most importantly, I am primed to do the actual creative work by which I make my living.

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

RH: About six months ago, I was invited to a challenge Spar! to not touch my phone for at least 10 minutes after I woke up. I’d been sleeping with it in the other room for years, but I still usually grabbed it first thing in the morning. The challenge came with a powerful incentive—each time I failed, I’d have to pay $10. But the real draw was that it meant I could focus on being present with my son in my first waking moments. Soon, I started challenging myself to stretch 10 minutes into 30, then 45, then an hour. Now some mornings, if I am writing, I might not touch my phone until lunch. On those days, I’m happier and more productive.

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

RH: Just that word stillness is a big one. It’s a powerful word, you know? I write in that book that when “all the wisdom of the ancient world agrees on something, only a fool would decline to listen.” I want people to realize that stillness is not some soft New Age nonsense or the domain of monks and sages, but in fact desperately necessary to all of us, whether we’re running a hedge fund or playing in the Super Bowl, pioneering research in a new field or raising a family. It is an attainable path to enlightenment and excellence, greatness and happiness, performance as well as presence, for every kind of person.

So if they just walk away from the book with the word as a kind of mantra, that’s success to me. But obviously I hope they really get in and do the work I am talking about too.

How to (Finally) Put an End to Pointless Arguments

How to (Finally) Put an End to Pointless Arguments

Count me as a Buster Benson fan. His 2016 Cognitive bias cheat sheet is legendary among behavioral designers. I have a framed print out of his codex in my home and I’ve enjoyed his writing on various topics for years. He has extensive experience building products that move people at Slack, Twitter, and Habit Labs.

With the release of his new book, Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement, I suspect many more people are about to become Buster Benson fans. His book is a beautifully written and illuminating look into why we so often fight with the people we love. It’s a guide for productive disagreement. Benson argues that conflict need not be unpleasant and if done right, can lead to greater understanding and cooperation.

Could there be a more timely and needed book for our disagreeable times?

Nir Eyal: Why did you write your book?

Buster Benson: TLDR; I wrote this book to learn how to survive today’s world without going insane.

I’ve been working in tech at places like Amazon, Twitter, and Slack, as well as a few of my own startups, for over 20 years. I’ve always been drawn to this question of how can we change ourselves for the better, because I sincerely believe that the only way to change the world for the better is to start with ourselves.

2016 was a big turning point for me, and for a lot of people. I had always suspected that the world’s steady march towards progress was a bit bumpy, but was at least guaranteed to trend upward. It was easy to cite high level stats like literacy rates, poverty rates, unemployment, having basic needs met, etc, to show that the world was getting better even if it kept feeling worse. But it’s now becoming obvious to more and more of us that there are some other pretty dark threads weaving into our timeline that we would be unwise to ignore (I also feel ashamed about not spotting some of these much earlier, as a willfully blind member of the privileged class).

Problems like income inequality, mental health, gender and race-based harassment, climate change, and anxiety are all well past boiling over and are even bringing our average life expectancy down in the US. Our political discourse is completely dysfunctional, both in the US and beyond. Our media, broadcast, and social networks are falling on their faces as they attempt to stay ahead of our shifting expectations of them. Things just feel extremely unright on so many levels.

Like many product managers and entrepreneurs in our industry, I’m a fan of looking for root causes of problems rather than settling for the naive answers. The naive answer here is that people are just idiots, and everything is doomed. I can’t resign myself to hatred, cynicism, and futility. I’ve always been interested in taking on the discomfort of learning difficult truths and acknowledging when a blind spot has been hiding something from me. We’re all complicit in the problems around us. The least we can do is to try to use our energy to make things a tiny bit better, rather than worse.

How we argue and how we communicate with people who hold perspectives we find to be deeply wrong seems to me to be at the very heart of many of these problems. We’re arguing at the starting line of so many debates, when we should be racing to fix problems despite differences of opinion. What are we missing in the formula to having more fruitful disagreements?

Most people tell you to write a book about what you know. I’ve had a career that has put me in the middle of resolving disagreements for several decades now, but I have to admit that when I came to this book it wasn’t because I had all the answers, but exactly the opposite: I deeply needed these answers, and didn’t know how or where to find them.

I’ve spent several years reading and trying to understand what many of the experts on the subject had already learned. Pulling from my own past. Running myself through the crucible of disagreements in my own life trying to find the practical tips we can apply to our everyday disagreements across all domains of life. We don’t need new theories, we need new practices that help us have more productive political disagreements, personal disagreements, professional disagreements, and everything in between.

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

BB: There was a quick cascade of “aha moments” early in my exploration of this topic. I thought my goal was to help people make their unproductive disagreements more productive. But time and again I found that the real problem was that people everywhere are avoiding disagreements entirely.

Many of us have already given up on the idea of the productive disagreement, and think anyone trying to have one is really just trying to trap us in some kind of sales pitch or false promise that will end up being a waste of time. Early on I tried forming a few groups that would discuss topics with lots of moderation to prevent them from going off the rails. Nobody wanted to do this. In hindsight it makes sense… we’re burned out, tired of ranting, and out of ideas.

So much of the book is really an argument against conflict avoidance, rather than an argument against yelling, despite the title. If anything we should be yelling more, because there are very important things to discuss with one another, and our emotions should be invited to the table.

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

BB: I don’t have any “secret keys” in this book, but I do have 8 “things to try” which are the result of pulling together all kinds of experts from a bunch of different fields: cognitive psychology, game theory, communication, behavior change, mindfulness, and more. The 8 things to try are:

Each of these is about a small change we can bring to our everyday arguments and doesn’t require you to become fully in control of your emotions, or to become a perfect persuader. In fact, those skills can get in the way.

The real lesson I hope people take away is that we have everything we need to have more productive disagreements… we just need to practice the art more deliberately, and give ourselves and others forgiveness when we fail, and new opportunities to grow. That’s the only way we’ll get a true felt understanding of what a productive disagreement is, and it’s only then that we can begin to expect it of our leaders and elected officials as well.

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

BB: I follow the tips in Indistractable of course! I’m not just trying to flatter here. True story: when I read your book, I found more than a few parallels between improving our ability to stay on track with the art of productive disagreement.

The first step is always to notice the first trigger — perhaps this comes from our shared background in behavior change, but both of us talk a lot about that initial spark of anxiety that causes us to run a habitual program in our brains. It’s not always possible to notice when this happens, but when I find myself particularly distractable I know that there’s some part of my brain that is trying to do something it considers important.

I start most days with a long walk (from my house to the desk I rent about 2 miles from my house) and this is one of the times when all those distracting thoughts can have space to speak their mind. If that’s not enough I also run (turning 10 next month!) which is place to do morning pages and brain dump everything that needs to be dumped out. I’ve found that trying to just shut up those thoughts rarely works. I do what I can to just get them all out, do all those 2-minute tasks that I’ll spend way more time delaying than just doing, and then move on to what I really want to focus on.

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

BB: I have a beliefs file that I’ve kept for 7ish years: There are all kinds of things in there that I’m sure most people would disagree with. If I trotted all of them out here, people would seriously reconsider buying a book from a complete crazy person, but I’ve tried to defend a couple in various venues like and (two of my favorite sites on the internet). Here’s a fun one: We are better understood as a collection of minds in a single body rather than as having only one mind per body.

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

BB: I have a bunch that I feel have helped me tremendously throughout life, like private journaling, having a very low bar for reading self-help books (and not feeling bad if I don’t finish them), and being okay with drinking lots of coffee and staying up too late.

The one I feel has contributed most to my well-being in the long term is gonna sound weird, but it’s “talking to myself kindly and directly”. The habit of viewing self-critical thoughts as “feedback” rather than “truth” has (at least in my confabulated narrative of the self) improved my ability to learn from every mistake and misfortune in a way that has had pretty solid compound effects over time. I consider this skill to be different from plain overconfidence.

The difference is that I don’t have a louder voice in my head saying that everything I do is always good and right, but rather have some way to hear my thoughts as you might hear an untrustworthy narrator during a movie. It’s always worthwhile to get a second opinion (usually from someone else’s head).

NE: Are you working changing any bad habits?

BB: Yeah, always. Right now I’m trying to avoid eating too many hamburgers, because I love them so much, and yet tend to gain an extra 10-15 pounds if I do this too often. I recently took up intermittent fasting (with a 12pm-8pm eating window) and it has helped a lot. When noon comes around, I’m just as hungry for a giant salad as I am for a hamburger.

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

BB: Zero, for the intermittent fasting angle.

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

BB: Once you’re introduced to the art of productive disagreement, start practicing. Don’t start with the hardest disagreement first… think of it like the onboarding to a new game or sport, find some easy ones to calibrate your comfort level, then as they get easier stretch to more difficult ones. Conversation and disagreement is one of the oldest social skills we have… we’re remarkably equipped to find flow in a conversation once you start to look for it and notice it.

To find flow, get to know your own strengths and weaknesses, and when you find an opportunity to hop into a conversation that will push you a little past your comfort zone, that’s your opportunity to grow. Be kind to yourself if it takes a little longer, or feels a little harder than you thought at first. Learn what you can from the interaction and try again.

It won’t always work out. That’s the reality we have to accept, and the sooner we do the sooner we’ll be able to get 1% or 5% or 10% better at having productive disagreements. The fruit of productive disagreement compounds faster than almost any other investment we can make.