Understand what drives user behavior.

Download the official Hooked workbook to learn how.

Indistractible: Focus In and Tune Out Digital Distraction

Is the world filled with more digital distration? Sometimes it seems that way. With our digital devices buzzing, world events demanding our attention, and more things to entertain us than ever before, it certainly seems harder to focus on what’s really important. And yet, understanding how to stay focused is exactly what it takes to get things done and get ahead.

Distraction might appear more available than ever, but it is nothing new. Over 2,000 years ago, Socrates and Aristotle debated the nature of “akrasia,” (pronounced uh-crazy-uh), our tendency to act against our better judgement. To the ancient Greeks, mere mortals were prone to distraction due to our weakness of will. Easy for them to say — Socrates and Aristotle never had to resist binge-watching “Game of Thrones.”

Who’s Really Addicting Us to Technology?

The technologies themselves, and their makers, are the easiest suspects to blame for our dwindling attention spans. Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” wrote, “The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention.”

Online services like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Buzzfeed and the like, are called out as masters of manipulation — making products so good, people can’t stop using them. However, as good as these services are, there are simple steps we can take to keep them at bay. After all, we’re not injecting Instagram intravenously or freebasing Facebook. For example, we can change how often we receive the distracting notifications that trigger our compulsion to check.

Can Distraction Be a Good Thing?

Is distraction a curse or a blessing? Not giving full attention to what we should be doing makes us miss deadlines, fail classes, and crash into other drivers. Distraction certainly has a price. Nonetheless, we love our distractions! Social media, spectator sports, movies, books, TV shows, the news, video games – what would we do without them?

Clearly, there are benefits to distractions as evidenced by the fact that nearly everyone on earth seeks them out. But why? Although they seem to pull us away from more important things, what purpose do they serve? And, when at times we seem to give in to distractions, how do we ensure they serve us well?

Can Distractions Ease Pain and Make Us Better?

Our brains have a limited ability to focus. We can’t pay attention to everything around us all at once so we must choose what to focus on. For example, we may choose to focus on work while struggling to resist more interesting distractions.

Multiple studies have demonstrated the power of distractions to lessen negative experiences. For example, a new virtual reality game designed by scientists at the University of Washington Seattle demonstrated the extraordinary power of distractions in fighting pain. In fact, playing the virtual reality game was more effective at reducing pain than using medication. The researchers concluded that the more immersive and engaging the game was, the more it helped direct attention away from the pain of the procedure.

The ability to shift our attention away from negative experiences is also helpful outside of a hospital setting. Distractions can help us cope with the pains of everyday life. Research on how distractions can be used to control our urges and impulses show that certain games, like Tetris for example, can help reduce cravings for fatty foods and even addictive drugs. Researchers suspect the cognitive demands of these games redirect our attention away from craving triggers, reducing the painful urge to indulge. Playing matching puzzle games like Candy Crush, Puzzle Blocks, or Interlocked might actually help us distract ourselves away from digging into that pint of ice cream in the fridge.

When are Distractions Destructive?

Clearly, distractions can help us deal with pain but what about the many products and services, like video games and social media sites, designed to be so good we want to use them all the time? Sometimes we have trouble limiting their use and find ourselves sucked into distractions.

Identifying why and how you engage with personal technology may be the difference between healthy and destructive behavior. Take a look at your favorite digital distractions — social media, video games, puzzles, television shows, podcasts, news, and spectator sports — and ask yourself whether you are using them as tools to build strength, skills, knowledge, and self-efficacy for the future or for temporary escape from an uncomfortable reality. If it’s the latter, you may want to reconsider the role these distractions play in your life. If the pain you’re escaping is permanent, no distraction will ever heal it. You must either learn new coping strategies or fundamentally fix what is broken.

How Can We Manage Digital Distraction?

Personal technology is indeed more engaging than ever, and there’s no doubt companies are engineering their products and services to be more compelling and attractive. But would we want it any other way? The intended result of making something better is that people use it more. That’s not necessarily a problem, that’s progress.

These improvements don’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to control our use of technology. In order to make sure it doesn’t control us, we should come to terms with the fact that it’s more than the technology itself that’s responsible for our habits. Our workplace culture, social norms and individual behaviors all play a part. To put technology in its place, we must be conscious not only of how technology is changing, but also of how it is changing us.

Check out our articles on digital distraction to better understand the underlying psychology and how to effectively manage digital distraction by putting it in its place.

Top Articles on Digital Distraction

How to Regain Focus at Work by Slaying the Messaging Monster

Technology is taking over our lives, especially in the workplace. What can we do to put technology in its place to finally get focused work done? Below are resources, tools, and articles for regaining focus in your digital life. These are tools I use myself but is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Full disclosure – I am an investor in Pana.com, one of the companies mentioned in the presentation. If you have tools and tips you’d like to suggest, please share them in the comments section below… Here’s my presentation on how to find focus at work by Slaying the Messaging Monster.

read more…

Technology Is Not Hijacking Your Brain (video)

Some tech critics will have you believe that technology is “hijacking your brain” or that it’s “irresistible.” Not only is that not true, believing such nonsense is dangerous.

In my recent talk at The Next Web conference, I discuss:

  • The difference between technological addiction and distraction.
  • The moral obligation of tech companies who knowingly addict people.
  • What to do about our dependence on technology in the workplace.
  • How to put personal technology in its place by asking one a simple question.

read more…

When Distraction is a Good Thing

Is distraction a curse or a blessing? Not giving full attention to what we should be doing makes us miss deadlines, fail classes, and crash into other drivers. Distraction certainly has a price.  Nonetheless, we love our distractions! Social media, spectator sports, movies, books, TV shows, the news, video games – what would we do without them?

Clearly, there are benefits to distractions as evidenced by the fact that nearly everyone on earth seeks them out. But why? Although they seem to pull us away from more important things, what purpose do they serve? And, when at times we seem to give in to distractions, how do we ensure they serve us well?

Distractions Can Ease Pain

Our brains have a limited ability to focus. We can’t pay attention to everything around us all at once so we must choose what to focus on. For example, we may choose to focus on work while struggling to resist more interesting distractions.

However, in some situations, we can leverage this biological limitation to our advantage. In her book, SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully, Dr. Jane McGonigal, describes how distractions can be a powerful tool for reducing the impact of painful or negative experiences.

read more…

Tech Companies are Addicting People! But Should They Stop?

To understand technology addiction (or any addiction for that matter) you need to understand the Q-tip. Perhaps you’ve never noticed there’s a scary warning on every box of cotton swabs that reads, “CAUTION: Do not enter ear canal…Entering the ear canal could cause injury.” How is it that the one thing most people do with Q-tips is the thing manufacturers explicitly warn them not to do?

read more…

Technology is Distracting and Addictive. Here’s How to Fix It. (Video)

Our personal technology is becoming more pervasive and persuasive. Critics claim it is addictive, irresistible, and hijacking our brains. Instead of offering another knee-jerk reaction, here’s my take on the peril and promise of persuasive technology.

This is the talk I gave at the 2017 Habit Summit where I discuss and offer solutions for:

  • Stopping unethical design practices.
  • Getting control of tech at work.
  • Dealing with tech distraction throughout the day.

read more…

Why Our Tech Obsession Might Be a Work Obsession

Nir’s Note: Below is the transcript of an interview I did with David Burkus, an award-winning podcaster and author of Under New Management: The Unexpected Truths about Leading Great Organizations. This interview was part of a Heleo Conversation on the topic of technology obsession, work-life balance, and challenging assumptions in order to change behavior. I hope you enjoy it.

Nir: When companies call me and say, “We want to make our product habit-forming,” about half the time I say, “Sorry, you don’t meet the test. Your product will never become a habit.” There is a list of criteria around what even has potential to become a habit-forming product. That doesn’t mean that they need to go out of business; there’s lot of businesses that are very successful without forming a habit. Do you [ever] look at a company and say, “Look, your workplace just isn’t going to be engaging. You’re not going to get high performance from people, this is just a standard, run-of-the-mill, do your job, go home, kind of gig.” Or do you think every company has the potential to become a more engaging workplace?

read more…

How to Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind

Around the election, in a desperate search for answers about our nation’s future, I found myself scrolling, reading, and watching everything I could. I was trapped in an endless pull-to-refresh cycle of consuming more news, tweets, posts, and videos than was good for me. I told myself that I was staying informed, that this was part of my civic duty—and that not staying up-to-date 24-7 would leave me politically ignorant and impotent.

I’ve since changed my mind. In fact, I’ve decided to give up consuming news online, and I think you should consider doing the same. Here’s why:

How to Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind Click To Tweet

read more…

Conquer Distractions With This Simple Chart

Is the world more distracting? Sometimes it seems that way. With our digital devices buzzing, world events demanding our attention, and more things to entertain us than ever before, it certainly seems harder to focus on what’s really important. And yet, focus is exactly what it takes to get things done and get ahead.

Conquer Distractions With This Simple Chart Click To Tweet

Distraction might appear more available than ever, but it is nothing new. Over 2,000 years ago, Socrates and Aristotle debated the nature of “akrasia,” (pronounced uh-crazy-uh), our tendency to act against our better judgement. To the ancient Greeks, mere mortals were prone to distraction due to our weakness of will. Easy for them to say — Socrates and Aristotle never had to resist binge-watching “Game of Thrones.”

In this Golden Age of distraction, what does it take to focus? How do we do what we must so we can have the lives we really want? Instead of blaming our puny attention spans, read more…

Why People Check Their Tech at the Wrong Times (and the Simple Trick to Stop It)

pic

Illustration by Liz Fosslien

Chances are you’ve experienced the following: You’re with a small group of friends at a nice restaurant. Everyone is enjoying the food and conversation when someone decides to take out his phone — not for an urgent call, but to check email, Instagram, and Facebook.

Maybe you’ve witnessed this behavior and found it unsettling. So what do you do? Do you sit idly by, thinking disparaging thoughts? Or do you call out the offender? read more…

Who’s Really Addicting You to Technology?

pablo (1)

“Nearly everyone I know is addicted in some measure to the Internet,” wrote Tony Schwartz in a recent essay in The New York Times. It’s a common complaint these days. A steady stream of similar headlines accuse the Net and its offspring apps, social media sites and online games of addicting us to distraction. read more…

How to Clear Your Computer of Focus-Draining Distraction

By the looks of his laptop, Robbert Van Els could be mistaken for a secret agent. His screen is an explosion of urgent files — a master control center for managing clandestine operatives. The man of mystery persona is typified by a side-sliding sports car winding through an onslaught of Word docs and Jpeg files. Just looking at his desktop can raise your blood pressure.

But Van Els is not a secret agent. He’s a mess. read more…

Latest Tech Trends: Products to Eliminate Distractions and Increase Willpower

HemingwriteFour minutes into pitching the wonders of his invention to an influential reporter, Patrick Paul gets hit with the kind of snarky comment startup entrepreneurs dread.

Paul is the founder of Hemingwrite, a “distraction free writing tool with modern technology like a mechanical keyboard, e-paper screen and cloud backups.”

At first glance, the Hemingwrite could be mistaken for an old-school typewriter inlaid with a Kindle display. Despite its “modern technology,” it looks like a 1980s throwback from Radio Shack. Two gaudy dials sit on either side of chunky black plastic and a huge red button — which could easily be mistaken for an ignition switch — turns it on.

The company website calls this esthetic “retro.”

Despite its looks, the Hemingwrite has struck a nerve. read more…

Email Habits: How to Use Psychology to Regain Control

“You teach best what you most need to learn.” – Richard Bach

editorial portrait of Nir Eyal | Engage Magazine

I don’t usually write about personal and revealing matters, but recently I’ve noticed something I don’t like about myself–I check email too often.

This confession doesn’t come easily, because, ironically, I am the author of a book titled Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming ProductsIt is a guidebook for designing technology people can’t put down. There’s just one problem–I can’t put my technology down. read more…

The Psychology Behind Why We Can’t Stop Messaging

Today, there’s an app for just about everything. With all the amazing things our smartphones can do, there is one thing that hasn’t changed since the phone was first developed. No matter how advanced phones become, they are still communication devices — they connect people together.

Though I can’t remember the last time I actually talked to another person live on the phone, I text, email, Tweet, Skype and video message throughout my day. The “job-to-be-done” hasn’t changed — the phone still helps us communicate with people we care about — rather, the interface has evolved to provide options for sending the right message in the right format at the right time.

Clearly, we’re a social species and these tech solutions help us re-create the tribal connection we seek.  However, there are other more hidden reasons why messaging services keep us checking, pecking, and duckface posing. read more…

Is Some Tech Too Addictive?

Addictive products: a hand raised for help from a phoneAddiction can be a difficult thing to see. From outward appearances, Dr. Zoe Chance looked fine. A professor at the Yale School of Management with a doctorate from Harvard, Chance’s pedigree made what she revealed in front of a crowded TEDx audience all the more shocking. “I’m coming clean today telling this story for the very first time in its raw ugly detail,” she said. “In March of 2012 … I purchased a device that would slowly begin to ruin my life.” read more…

How to Break 5 Soul-Sucking Technology Habits

Nir’s Note: In this last in a series of guest posts on the topic of technology habits, Jason Shah shares practical tips he used to regain control over his devices and break bad habits. Jason is a Product Manager at Yammer and blogs about user experience and technology at blog.jasonshah.org. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonyogeshshah.

The internet and how to break bad habits“Not long ago, in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Texas, a 17-year-old boy was weathering withdrawal at its worst. His body shuddered with convulsions. He hurled tables and chairs around the hospital.

Had he been hooked on heroin? Cocaine? Jim Beam? Joe Camel?

No, his psychologist said. The teenager had withdrawn cold turkey from the Internet.” read more…

4 Simple Things I Did to Control My Bad Tech Habits

Nir’s Note: In this guest post, Sharbani Roy explores techniques she used to break bad habits related to eating, sleeping and exercising. Sharbani blogs at sharbaniroy.com and you can follow her on twitter @Sharbani.

Change bad habitsIt’s 2 AM and you’re exhausted, but unable to sleep. You’ve been cycling through Facebook, email, and other online media for hours. You want to stop, but you can’t. This technology-induced insomnia will likely ruin your next day (or two) of productivity — and you’ve really achieved nothing according to your list of to-dos. Late-night surfing has become a bad habit you’d like to break, but just can’t figure out how.

Sound familiar? Let’s take a look at some data, read more…

The Real Reason You’re Addicted to Your Phone

Nir’s Note: This guest post by Avi Itzkovitch offers some clues as to why we can’t seem to put our cell phones down. Avi (@xgmedia) is an Independent User Experience Consultant. He is currently working from his Tel-Aviv Studio XG Media.

Why are you addicted to your phone?Do you constantly check your smartphone to see if you’ve received messages or notifications on Facebook? Does your phone distract you from your studies or work? Do your friends, parents, children, or spouse complain that you are not giving them enough attention because of your phone? You may be addicted to your phone.

The smartphone has become a constant companion. We carry it throughout the day and keep it by our bedside at night. We allow ourselves to be interrupted with messages from social media, emails and texts. We answer phone calls at times when it is not socially acceptable, and we put our immediate interactions with friends and family on hold when we hear that ring tone that tells us a message is arrived. Something fundamental in human behavior has changed: our sense of phone etiquette and propriety has caused us to get out of whack in our interactions with one another.

So why is it that we allow ourselves to be interrupted? read more…

Our More Addictive World

Nir’s Note: A few weeks ago, I wrote a brief post summarizing some thoughts for a potential book chapter. I asked my readers for help and you delivered! The comments were fantastic and I received several insightful emails. Therefore, I’ve decided to continue with the experiment with the article below. This week’s post is much shorter and less developed than my previous essays and is intended to solicit more of your thoughts and feedback for a potential book chapter. Give it a quick read and tell me what you think. 

We're in a more addictive worldWe’re in an addictive world. The world has become harder to resist. Products are getting better at giving people what they want and – for the most part – that has been good thing. Yet, the historical trend-line shows products are also becoming more habit-forming. read more…

This Will Be the Last Article You Read

HAL 9000If the Internet had a voice, I am fairly certain it would sound like the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

“Hello Nir,” it said to me in its low, monotone voice. “Glad to see you again.”

“Internet, I just need a few quick things for an article I’m writing,” I’d reply. “Then it’s back to work. No distractions this time.” read more…

Time for Digital Hat Racks

Hat rack for devices: don't use devices in meetings
The first thing Don Draper does when he gets to his office is give his busty secretary a suggestive wink. The second thing he does is take off his fedora. Finally, depending on the severity of the previous night, he completes his morning routine with a stiff drink.

What can we learn from Don’s habits? First, that scotch and submissive secretaries always equal drama. But what of that fedora? There’s a lesson there too.

As any Mad Men fan knows, it was once popular for men to wear hats everywhere they went — except that is, when they stepped indoors. When a gentleman went inside, he read more…

Escape From Message Hell

Inauthentic messaging calls for helpWe are caught in an endless cycle of messaging hell and the pattern is always the same. First, a new communication system is born — take email or Facebook, for example. Ease-of-use helps the product gain wide adoption and reach a critical mass of users. And then things turn ugly.

Some crafty entrepreneur figures out how to exploit the system read more…

Strange Sex Habits of Silicon Valley

Breaking Bad Habits

My wife put our daughter to bed, brushed her teeth, and freshened up before bed. Slipping under the covers, we exchanged glances and knew it was time to do what comes naturally for a couple on a warm night in Silicon Valley. We began to lovingly caress–but not each other, of course. She began to fondle her cell phone, while I tenderly stroked the screen of my iPad. Ooh, it felt so good.

If our nightly habits were any indication, we were having a love affair with read more…

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