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Becoming Indistractable: How Nir Eyal Manages His Productivity

Nir Eyal is the bestselling author of Hooked and more recently, Indistractable. Here, he shares how he gets his best work done and the real secret to being productive.
by Eugene Yiga | Aug 26 2020

Nir Eyal helps entrepreneurs and people who are involved with product development (like user experience designers and product managers) understand how to build the kind of products and services that can build healthy habits in people’s lives. Our writer spoke to him to learn more about what Eyal does, how he gets things done, and why his number one tool for success is about push and pull.

How do you describe what you do?

I study habit-forming technology and habit-forming products. There’s a lot we can do by helping people live happier, healthier, and more productive lives by building habits to help them save money, exercise more, or connect with friends and family. There’s also a lot we can do by making the kind of better technology we want to use by understanding these fundamental principles of consumer psychology.

What do you hope to achieve through your work?

I want people to understand how technologies persuade us so that we can put them in their place. I want people to understand that technologies (like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Slack, and WhatsApp) are designed to hook you and keep you engaged. And so, if we are to put them in their place and make sure that we control them and they don’t control us, we have to understand the underlying psychology of how they work.

How long have you been working on this?

I’ve been working on this for the past several years (since I sold my last company). But even before then, I was in the advertising and gaming space where I learned these techniques. So I’ve been thinking about consumer psychology and the application of these principles for quite some time.

Which aspects of your work do you love the most?

I teach, do workshops, and consult with startups, venture-backed companies, and sometimes with larger companies as well. My favorite part of the job is when someone’s in my workshop and they’ve been working on a product or service that isn’t engaging people but can’t figure out why. Then all of a sudden they see the hooked model that I describe in the book or through my workshop and I can see the light bulb go off.

Because the fact is, the vast majority of people I work with are making products and services to improve people’s lives; that’s what’s so frustrating. They know that their customers could benefit from using their product or service, if they would only use it. That’s where I come in. I help them design the products and services that people want to use.

What parts of your work are challenging?

I have to do a lot of thinking and writing, neither of which are easy. And it’s easy to get distracted and to lose focus. Sitting down, concentrating, and not letting something distract me are probably the most challenging parts of my job. It’s only when I concentrate that I can come up with the unique insights that excite me and that are useful to others.

How do you spend the first hour of your day?

First thing in the morning, I’ll get up and typically do a quick check of email to see if there’s anything urgent that came in overnight. I don’t process the email; I just label the email (more on that later) because processing the email at that point would take way too long. That’s the first hour or so.

What is your typical daily routine after that?

I’ll make some breakfast and get to work on my focused writing time for two hours. Then at 10:30, I’ll go to the gym or do some kind of physical activity (I’ll take a walk, go for a run, or do something else for about an hour). I’ll come back and have lunch or sometimes I’ll take a lunch meeting. Then I’ll do another two hours of writing, email processing, and either stay in and have dinner with my family or, if I have some kind of event I need to go, I’ll do that in the evening. Unless I’m travelling, I try to follow a strict routine that is almost the same every day.

How do you overcome the obstacles to getting work done?

The secret is to plan literally every minute of your day. Every minute needs to be blocked up, even if it’s for buffer time. I think that’s helpful because it gives me the psychological headspace to work on the hard stuff knowing that I’ll get to email in the apportioned time in my schedule. It also doesn’t allow things to interrupt you. For example, when someone says they need to talk, you can say, “Okay, no problem. I’ve got my meeting time later, but right now I’m in focused time so I can’t talk.” That’s important.

What’s your number one productivity tool or app?

I use an app called Freedom to help me focus. There are a bunch of different apps that disconnect you and prevent you from using the internet when you want to focus; that’s important when you’re trying to do focused work. And sometimes you need a tool to make it a little more difficult to get back online when you know you’re going to be tempted and you know it’s going to be hard to focus.

What are your top web/mobile apps to help you get work done and achieve your goals?

  1. ​Forest tracks the time you’re in focused mode and doesn’t let you use your phone to do frivolous stuff when you need to work. I use this every day.
  2. Braintoss allows you to send a quick email to yourself as a reminder. What I’d find is that when I opened my email, I’d see something, get distracted, and then try to respond real quick. That’s silly. Instead, I just use Braintoss when I need to email myself an idea.
  3. Pocket is great because I’d often get distracted reading news articles online. I don’t do that anymore. Instead, I have a rule that whenever I see an interesting article, I never read it on my desktop. I always send it to Pocket and then I read it later in my apportioned reading time. Many times that’ll be in the gym where I have the app read out loud to me. That means I get the added benefit of listening to articles every time I go to the gym.

What’s your strategy for dealing with email?

I label my email into three categories: things I need to respond to tonight; things I need to respond to this week; or things I need to respond to whenever. Doing that helps me not to have to keep reopening emails until an apportioned time in the day. And so, instead of having to process all 100 emails in a day, I just have to process the ones that deserve or warrant a response that night. Then I have time at the end of the week to do all the ones I need to do that week. And for the ‘whatever’ emails, those can either be ignored or, if I have extra time and feel like responding, I can. I also like an app called Sanebox, which has been helpful in sorting out which emails are low priority versus high priority.

What’s the best productivity advice you ever received?

Productivity is about ruthless prioritization. You can’t do everything so you need to pick well what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. That’s the secret.

What other tips or life advice you can share with our readers?

No amount of productivity tools and tips and tricks will ever compensate for a lack of motivation. You have to be interested in the things you do. In fact, it’s way easier to do things when you’re excited to do them, when you’re interested in the topic, and when they pull you as opposed to something you have to be pushed to do. No, that’s not always possible; many times things that are fun at first require hard work later on, and that’s when you might need some of these tips. But it would suck to go through your entire life always having to push yourself as opposed to having something that pulls you.

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