Nir Eyal is a bestselling author and entrepreneur with a special expertise in how to make products and services engaging and habit-forming. In his book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, he harnessed that expertise to develop simple guidelines on how we can maintain focus and tune out the ubiquitous distractions that buffet us all day, every day.
Eyal is the last guest for season 5 of the WorkLab podcast, in which host Molly Wood has conversations with economists, technologists, and researchers who explore the data and insights about the work trends you need to know today—from how to use AI effectively to what it takes to thrive in our new world of work.
Three big takeaways from the conversation:
Eyal points out that we often convince ourselves we are being productive when we’re actually being distracted. He differentiates between reflective work, the kind where you think deeply and really get things done, and reactive work—reacting to notifications, emails, office chatter. “We have to spend some amount of our time reacting to our customers and clients’ needs,” he says. “But strategizing, creative work, and thinking requires us to do so without distraction. So you’ve got to plan at least some time in your day for that reflective work.”
He’s been touting the huge potential for business applications of AI for over a decade, and he predicts that we’ll soon begin to harness the power of generative AI to help us stay focused and working on the things we want to prioritize. “What I could see happening someday is that we have these little AI assistants who know our greater intentions, who know what our schedule should look like, and who help us formulate how we can turn our values into time,” he says. “They can help keep us accountable and say, ‘Hey, I see you’re doing this thing as opposed to the thing you planned to work on, is that what you really want to be doing?’”
Eyal is a strong believer in timeboxing, arguing that filling in the white space in your calendar is how you mindfully determine what you want to focus on, and also the best way to pinpoint when and how you get distracted. He also points out that watching TikTok clips and surfing social media is not a distraction if you actually build time for it into your day. “Dorothy Parker said that the time you plan to waste is not wasted time,” he says. “So if you have planned time in your calendar to watch something online, or to go on social media, or to play a video game, that’s great.”
WorkLab is a place for experts to share their insights and opinions. As students of the future of work, Microsoft values inputs from a diverse set of voices. That said, the opinions and findings of the experts we interview are their own and do not reflect Microsoft’s own research or opinions.
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Here’s a transcript of the episode 8 conversation.
MOLLY WOOD: This is WorkLab, the podcast from Microsoft. I’m your host, Molly Wood. On WorkLab, we hear from experts about the future of work, from how to use AI effectively to what it takes to thrive in our new world of work.
NIR EYAL: We have reactive work, and we have reflective work—reacting to notifications, reacting to emails, reacting to what your colleagues and boss wants. That’s reactive work. We have to spend some amount of our time reacting to our customers and clients’ needs. But, if you don’t also have time for reflective work—planning, strategizing, creative work, and thinking requires us to do so without distraction. If you don’t schedule that time, you’re going to run real fast in the wrong direction.
MOLLY WOOD: Today I’m talking to Nir Eyal, a bestselling author and entrepreneur with expertise in how to make products and services engaging and habit-forming. He has harnessed that same expertise to develop guidelines on how we can maintain focus and tune out the ubiquitous distractions that buffet us all day, every day. Nir has said that being able to control your own attention is the most important skill of the century. And he lays out a process for how to do that in his most recent book, Indistractible: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Here’s my conversation with Nir.
MOLLY WOOD: For starters, I’d love to get your take on what distraction is and how we can possibly get it under control.
NIR EYAL: The best way to understand what distraction is is to ask yourself, what is the opposite of distraction. Now most people will tell you the opposite of distraction is focus. But that’s not exactly right. The opposite of distraction is traction. They both come from the same Latin root, trahare, which means “to pull.” So traction is any action that pulls you towards what you said you were going to do—things that move you closer to your values and help you become the kind of person you want to become. Distraction is any action that pulls you away from what you plan to do, further away from your values, further away from your goals. Now let’s talk about triggers. We have these two kinds of triggers. External triggers are all the things in your outside environment that tell you what to do next—it’s the pings, the dings, the rings. But it turns out, studies find, even though we tend to blame these things as the source of our distraction, it turns out they only account for 10 percent of our distractions. The vast majority of distraction begins from within. These are called internal triggers. Uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to escape—boredom, loneliness, uncertainty, stress, anxiety. That is the source of 90 percent of our distraction. So now, we have our indistractible model, we have our four steps. Step number one is to master those internal triggers. Step number two, making time for traction. Step number three, hack back the external triggers. And then finally step number four, prevent distraction with pacts. And so using these four steps in concert, anyone can become Indistractible.
MOLLY WOOD: So you’ve worked with companies to devise products and experiences that are habit-forming. But you also stress that we can use technology to master our attention, right? Is there a little bit of contradiction there?
NIR EYAL: You know, the idea is not to negate—because we want to keep the good habits. We want to build products that are engaging, that help people live happier, healthier, more connected lives, right? We want the apps that help us learn a new language or help us exercise more, eat right or save money or connect to loved ones. That’s great. But we also want to break the bad habits that take us off track. This is not a new problem. In fact, part of the research when I first started looking into this psychology of distraction, some of the first mentions of distraction came all the way from Plato. The Greek philosopher talked about akrasia in the Greek, the tendency to do things against our better interest. That’s a 2,500-year-old concept. It can’t be social media’s fault. It can’t be the internet’s fault. It can’t be the technology’s fault, because people have always been distracted from one thing or another. Now, do they play a role? Absolutely. Is it a symptom of a larger problem? Absolutely. And so what we need to do is to stop blaming and shaming and rather look at the root cause of the problem itself. Mankind has always done two things when it comes to the role of technology in our lives. Remember, as Paul Virilio said, when you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck. You know, there used to be lots of shipwrecks. Today, you almost never hear about shipwrecks. What did we do? Did we stop sailing ships? No, we made ships better. We use technology to improve the last generation of technology. And so that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do two things: we’re going to adapt and we’re going to adopt. We’re going to adapt to these technologies by changing our norms, by changing the rules of society. What we’re also going to do is we’re going to adopt new technologies that fix the bad aspects of the last generation of technologies. And that’s exactly what’s going on. Right? We see all these tools today, thousands of apps and websites and devices that actually help us fix this problem of distraction. Part of it is a technologist solution, right, creating new technologies, but we also have a personal responsibility role. And then that’s what Indistractible is for, learning how to better live with these devices, and make sure that we use them as opposed to letting them use us.
MOLLY WOOD: You’ve talked about how with every new innovation that’s introduced, we develop new norms around when and how we use that innovation. But how does that apply to helping us with focus and attention?
NIR EYAL: Sure, so maybe it’s helpful to see how we’ve overcome these challenges in the past. I remember as a kid, I was born in the 1970s, and one thing that’s really profoundly different from the world I grew up in—when I grew up, everyone I knew had ashtrays in their home. People used to collect ashtrays, in fact. My father used to smoke, he gave up smoking, and we still had ashtrays in the house. And I remember people would come to our house, as they did everybody’s house, and adults would light up a cigarette without even asking. That would be unheard of, unconscionable for someone to do that today. But that’s just what people did back then. Until people like my mother took away the ashtrays. And when one of her friends came over and lit up a cigarette without asking, she said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, we are non-smokers. If you’d like to smoke, kindly go outside.’ So she used what we call in sociology a social antibody. She used this identity moniker to identify herself as somebody who doesn’t do a particular behavior. And so that’s part of what we’re going to see happening when it comes to technology. And I already see this among young people. It’s ironic, because when I talk about technology, people often think, oh, the young people, they’re the ones who are addicted to technology. But actually, they’re the people who are adopting these norms first. When I used to teach at Stanford, the first few years that I taught, everybody was on their phones. In the middle of my lectures, almost the whole class was checking their phones. When I moved to New York, by the end of my time there, almost nobody was on their phones.
MOLLY WOOD: Let’s talk a little more about using technology to help us deal with those menial tasks. How can AI assistants, do you think, give us some of that time away from the phone back, for example?
NIR EYAL: I could see us having an age where we have these AI assistants that can mindfully look at what we’re doing, and help us stay on track, that help us stay aligned with our greater intentions. Because the difference between traction and distraction is intent. The time you plan to waste, as Dorothy Parker said, the time you plan to waste is not wasted time. So if you have planned time in your calendar to watch something online, or to go on social media, or to play a video game, that’s great, there’s nothing wrong with that—as long as it’s done with intent. Conversely, just because something is a work-related task doesn’t mean it’s not a distraction. In fact, I would argue that is the very worst, most harmful kind of distraction, is the distraction you don’t even realize is taking you off track. So if you are checking email rather than working on that big project that you said you would work on, just because it’s a work-related task doesn’t mean it’s not a distraction. It’s a more pernicious distraction, because distraction has tricked you into prioritizing the urgent and easy work at the expense of the hard, important work you have to do to move your life and career forward. So what I could see happening someday is that we have these little AI assistants who know our greater intentions, who know what our schedule should look like, and who help us formulate how we can turn our values into time and then help keep us accountable and say, Hey, I see you’re doing this as opposed to this thing you planned to do. Is that what you really want to do? Is that what’s really on your plan? So maybe there’s like a little accountability buddy that helps keep us on track.
MOLLY WOOD: So even before—long before—this recent explosion of interest in generative AI, you’ve talked about how virtual assistants and AI are a really fruitful area for innovation. What do you think of the potential applications of this tech now, especially around helping us make better decisions and prioritize our time?
NIR EYAL: Yeah. I work a lot in healthcare with various health tech companies to help people do the things that they want to do. It’s a very clear alignment of interests, right? People want to take their medication, they want to exercise, they want to eat healthy—but it doesn’t happen. And the reason it often doesn’t happen is because there’s an intention-action gap—that I intend to do one thing, but I don’t actually do it. So I foresee a day where there will be technologies that help interrupt the trigger and the response to bad habits. So let me give an example. I am sure there will be a device here a few years away, maybe less, where before I eat that french fry, I get a little notification that says, Hey, no problem if you eat that french fry, but you should know it’s going to put you over your calorie allowance for the day.
MOLLY WOOD: So it sounds like you’re not that surprised that generative AI has seized the public imagination, and also that all of these useful applications have appeared.
NIR EYAL: No, actually, I expected this to happen a long time ago. I think it was 2014 or so, 2015, that I was thinking that this revolution with these technologies—that I didn’t predict, of course, all that’s happened with LLMs, but I think I did expect there to be an interface that made it easier for a human being to scale responses. So now that they don’t need to serve just one client at a time, they can serve hundreds, if not thousands of clients at a time, because they have these preformed messages, which makes their throughputs so much higher. There’s still human accountability in the loop, but it’s greatly assisted by the technology. So I think we’re gonna see a lot of that as well.
MOLLY WOOD: How do you think about, for business leaders, adopting this technology, building these AI-powered organizations, which will involve a lot of, in some cases, brand new habits? How do you think about socializing that?
NIR EYAL: I think a big part of it, at least from the user experience perspective, is going to be that we are entering an age of mass customization. So this goes back to my first book, Hooked, around how do you build a habit-forming product. The real linchpin of a habit-forming product is that it gets the user to invest in the product to make it better with use. And that’s something that, really, the social media companies have mastered, the algorithms that the more you use the product, the better and better it becomes. But we do see this in enterprise applications and SaaS applications, and all sorts of products do this. It’s just been very, very expensive to mass customize a product. Well now with AI, and generative AI specifically, that’s going to be a requirement. I think you’re going to be left in the dust if you think that everybody should get the same product no matter who they are, the same product experience—that’s going to change, people are going to expect mass customization. It’s what I call data gossip, that we know that as much as—people, when you ask them, are you okay with people knowing your information? If you couch the question that way, they’ll say, no, that’s terrible. But if you ask them, would you like us to customize your experience to make it easier to use? They say, yeah, absolutely. That sounds great. Show me how. Where do I sign up? Customers are going to require you, they’re going to expect you to improve the product. If they already told you information about themselves and how they like to interact with you, you damn well better customize the experience to make it better for them based on the information they’ve given you.
MOLLY WOOD: Right. And of course, this requires a lot of data transparency and responsibility for companies like Microsoft, and employers as well. So, another key thing we’re exploring this season is how the smart use of things like generative AI can save you time, and what you do with the time you save. In your writing, you’ve specifically identified useless meetings as a productivity trap. How do you think AI can help us avoid those?
NIR EYAL: Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you what I advise. And this came from a pretty extensive study I did around what type of organizations hold effective meetings versus don’t hold effective meetings. The first rule is very simple, and this is something that I learned in high school student council, you would be amazed how many companies don’t do it, which is no agenda, no meeting. Turns out 80 percent of meetings, 80 percent of meetings have no agenda. We’re calling meetings to hear ourselves think. Let’s get together and brainstorm. Well, it turns out the science is pretty convincing that the optimal number of people for a brainstorm session is two or less—that is the optimal number. It turns out that when you sit and actually have the time and attention to think about a problem, what happens is when individuals then submit their ideas, that produces much better results. Why? Because when we call a meeting, without, you know, we call a brainstorming meeting, we get together, we start discussing an idea. What tends to happen, overwhelmingly, is that the loudest, the highest paid, and the most male person dominates the conversation. And we don’t hear everyone’s ideas. To gain consensus, you need two things. You need an agenda, you need to know what we’re going to talk about, and so the person calling the meeting has to do that in advance. That’s definitely something that an AI can help with. The next thing you need to do is a briefing document. A briefing document is when the person who called the meeting shows they did their homework, and they have an opinion after collecting data and doing the analysis that they need to gain consensus around. And so what they do is they say, Okay, please give me your opinion on XYZ. Do that, find the time in your schedule. Send that feedback to me, brainstorm, send me your ideas. I will synthesize them into a briefing document so that when we meet, we can read through this briefing document together and gain consensus. If you require this in your organization, you will eliminate almost all of your unnecessary meetings. Why? Because you’ve made calling meetings more difficult. This is the feedback I get, by the way—oh, that sounds like a lot of work. That’s the point. Because calling meetings today is way too easy. And so people call way too many of these meetings. What you want to do is you want to add friction to the meetings, so that they happen less frequently and are higher quality.
MOLLY WOOD: Or sometimes you’ll create a briefing doc, or have an AI assistant like Copilot help you outline a briefing doc, and discover that sharing the document means you don’t have to have the meeting in the first place.
NIR EYAL: Oh, that’s absolutely right. So that briefing document can be done a million different ways, right? To date, it’s been done manually word by word. But yeah, if there’s an AI that helps you generate this briefing document and helps you get to your conclusion, the whole point is that nine out of 10 times, you didn’t need to call the meeting in the first place.
MOLLY WOOD: With generative AI we’ve entered this world where we can offload a lot of menial tasks. And there’s a base level of work that can happen without us, which means we can take hours off of our calendar. So how should people think about using that extra time? Like, is it okay to schedule in a little Candy Crush? Or do we need to, you know, think of higher-level things that we can be doing?
NIR EYAL: Well, first of all, let’s acknowledge that this is the highest-class problem you could possibly have. Right? So there’s many people, and we just acknowledge that we have tremendous privilege that we live in a day and age that we even need to worry about this problem—ooh, what do I do with my excess leisure time? But it is a problem nonetheless. And so I think the wrong approach is to use these distractions whenever we feel like it. Because what you’re doing when you’re habituating yourself to “every time I feel bored, every time I feel anxious, every time I feel lonely, every time I feel stressed, I need something to take my mind off of that discomfort,” you’re robbing yourself of the ability to deal with that discomfort in a healthy way. But, given that we have more leisure time, historically, than we ever had in human history, figuring out how to wisely spend that leisure time is very important. So what I would advise is to first start with your values. Values are attributes of the person you want to become. Ask yourself, how would the person you want to become spend their time in these three life domains. The first life domain is you. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others, you can’t make the world a better place. So take out your calendar, look at your week ahead and ask yourself, how would the person you want to become spend their time taking care of themselves. And that can include time for prayer, for meditation, for rest, for reading, for painting, for social media. If you want to go on Candy Crush, or you want to play video games, nothing wrong with that. The point here is to schedule it in advance, to put it on your calendar. Then, have time in your schedule for regular engagement with your friendships, it’s very important. Also, of course, with your family, with your extended community—put it in your calendar. And then finally, when it comes to the work domain, this is where we have these two kinds of work. We have reactive work, and we have reflective work. Reactive work is how most distractible people spend their day; they always look to their email to tell them what to do, their phone, their devices are constantly telling them what to do—that’s reactive work, reacting to notifications, reacting to emails, reacting to what your colleagues and boss wants. That’s reactive work. And that has a place in our day, of course, we have to spend some amount of our time reacting to our customers and clients’ needs. But, if you don’t also have time for reflective work—planning, strategizing, creative work, and thinking requires us to do so without distraction. So you’ve got to plan at least some time in your day, even if it’s 30, 45 minutes, maybe an hour of time in your day, for that reflective work. Because if you don’t schedule that time, you’re going to run real fast in the wrong direction.
MOLLY WOOD: Okay, fast-forward three to five years. What do you think will be the most profound change in the way we work?
NIR EYAL: When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And so I think there will be a real bifurcation between people who learn how to control their time and attention, and people who let their time and attention be controlled by others. So I think there will be a real difference between people who enter the workforce, or who are currently in the workforce, and learn the ability to become what’s called an autodidact—it’s one of my favorite words in the English language. An autodidact is someone who teaches themselves. And what we are seeing with technological progress happening so quickly, it is absolutely essential that we all become better at upskilling. Right? We see this already. If you know how to be an AI prompt engineer, well, you’ve got a superpower. But you had to learn how to do that. And so what I find is that the problem is not that people don’t have the motivation. It’s not that they don’t have the time, they don’t have the ability to focus on the task and get it done. And so I think there will be a real change between the high performers, who are masters of their time and attention, and everyone else. It becomes kind of this multiplier effect of, the better you are at learning new skills, the better you become at learning new skills. That macro skill is the ability to become Indistractible, because that allows you to be able to focus long enough to absorb all this amazing information that, so far, is pretty much free online. You can learn all these amazing skills, you just need the time and attention to put forth to learn them.
MOLLY WOOD: Thanks so much for sharing your time and sharing your great advice on how we should use our time.
NIR EYAL: My pleasure, Molly, thank you.
MOLLY WOOD: Thank you again to Nir Eyal, author, entrepreneur, and behavioral design expert. And that’s it for this season of WorkLab, the podcast from Microsoft. Please subscribe and check back for the next season, where we’ll continue to explore what leaders need to know about how to thrive in the new world of work. If you’ve got a question or a comment, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And check out Microsoft’s Work Trend Indexes and the WorkLab digital publication, where you’ll find all of our episodes along with thoughtful stories that explore how business leaders are thriving in today’s digital world. You can find all of that at microsoft.com/worklab. As for this podcast, rate us, review us, and follow us wherever you listen. It helps out a lot. The WorkLab podcast is a place for experts to share their insights and opinions. As students of the future of work, Microsoft values inputs from a diverse set of voices. That said, the opinions and findings of our guests are their own and they may not necessarily reflect Microsoft’s own research or positions. WorkLab is produced by Microsoft with Godfrey Dadich Partners and Reasonable Volume. I’m your host, Molly Wood. Sharon Kallander and Matthew Duncan produced this podcast. Jessica Voelker is the WorkLab editor.
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