“The Constant Temptation to Succumb to a Mindless Habit Like Checking Email Is a Constant Threat.”

Habits interview: Nir Eyal.

I first learned about Nir Eyal through his terrific blog, Nir and Far, which is about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. Then I met him at a conference, and had a chance to talk to him in person. A few weeks ago, I read his thought-provoking new book, Hooked: a Guide to Building Habit-Forming Products. Next month, I’m speaking at a summit he’s putting together, on the subject of habits (March 25, Stanford University).

So I couldn’t wait to interview Nir, to hear more about what he’s thinking.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded? What aspects of habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Nir: I think I’ve been most fascinated and surprised by how products change our daily habits. Many of our behaviors are in fact designed for us — that’s a scary thought but it can also be a good thing. If we allow some habits to get out of hand, we can find ourselves in a mindless reactionary vortex of Facebook checking and email pecking. However, I think we may also be on the precipice of an age where forming new healthful habits becomes easier than ever. If used to enhance our lives, new devices may actually provide the cues to prompt us to alter our actions in positive ways that help us lead richer and more meaningful lives.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

What makes me happy is not succumbing to certain habits. As a writer, I depend on focused concentration to synthesize new ideas. To me, the constant temptation to succumb to a mindless habit like checking email is a constant threat. I feel consistently happier when I successfully overcome habits I don’t want in my life and maintain focus on the things I want to accomplish. Truth be told, this isn’t easy and I’ve had to implement several strategies to prevent distraction. When I work for example, I use a program to shut off the Internet for a fixed period of time and makes it impossible to turn back on — that’s the only way I can get any writing done.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

One thing I now know about habits that I didn’t when I was younger was that one size does not fit all. There is a popular myth that bad habits can be overcome and good habits can be formed through sheer will power —  I think that’s just not true. I think there are four distinct types of behaviors and each requires its own method for change. For example some behaviors require tiny repetitious changes to take hold, like starting a flossing habit. However other behaviors, like smoking cessation, can’t be stopped with the same strategy. Each type of behavior requires the appropriate change method. I write more about this in an article on how to design behavior change.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Sure, I constantly struggle with technology habits — that’s probably why I’m so fascinated with habit-forming products. My wife and I had to take some drastic action to regain the love life our gadgets had destroyed. (See: here.) I’m glad to say though that by understanding how products change our habits, we could begin to unravel the behaviors that weren’t serving us.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Rebel, for sure. [In fact, my conversation with Nir about how he sees things, and how he manages himself, as a Rebel, is one of the most illuminating conversations I’ve had on the subject of the Rubin Tendencies.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Disrupting my routines really throws me off. I’m happiest when I can effortlessly begin doing the things that are most important to me. However, most of these things (like researching, writing, and exercising) can be difficult at times. So the key for me is to remove triggers for the bad habits that distract me from my objectives. Having a predictable routine helps me not have to think about what to do next.

Have you ever made a flash change, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Every household changes certain habits after a baby is born and we were no exception. But with the exclusion of a big life change like a move or a new baby, I’ve never successfully made a dramatic sudden habit change. New Year’s resolutions have never stuck for me. However, I have made several small changes, which over time have had big results. For example, with food, I give up the things I know are not good for me but that I also know I won’t miss. Many people do the opposite and I think that’s a mistake. They want to lose weight so they give up their favorite desert. That method requires way too much will power. Instead, I give up the things I don’t really like, bit by bit, but commit to it for the rest of my life. Giving up things you won’t really miss is easy. For example, when I wanted to drink less soda, I decided to only drink it in restaurants. For me, not having soda in the house was not a big deal but it cut down on a few drinks a week. Then, about a year later, I decided I’d cut out a bit more and would only drink sodas with a burger or on airplanes. Later, I decided sodas would be a treat only during flights. Finally, I gave them up all together. The process took about two years but no step felt like a sacrifice. I promised myself I would not make the change until I was ready to stop that behavior for the rest of my life and I gave myself the time to change.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Both! I seek to understand how to create healthy habits and break the bad ones.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

My wife has had a huge impact. Triggers are a very important factor in stopping or starting new habits. I’ve found it is nearly impossible to stop bad habits or start new ones without my wife on board.

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  • Sarah Kerner

    Great interview! I only ever drink sodas on airplanes, too. (Ginger ale, specifically.)

  • Emily

    Fantastic interview! Your conversation with Nir provided me with lots of golden nuggets to think about.

  • vicky

    I have a telecommuting job and need the internet to work, I get paid by the line, I can make good money if I can stay off facebook and e-mail. I tried a program to limit my time on facebook and lock me out of it during work hours but it messed up my entire computer. Any other ideas?

    • Paige

      Not sure what program you were using but SelfControl works like a charm & is free.

  • Terra Stephenson

    I have been trying Amy Brucker’s method of 25 minutes on (focused attention, no facebook, no email), 5 minutes off, 25 on, 5 off. Eventually you take a big break, however big you want, 10 minutes to an hour. You can download a timer app for your cell phone. This has been very effective (so far!)

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Like the timer app on the phone idea. In the house I use the kitchen timer, but it has a loud, long ring that I know annoys my live-in elderly Mom. I bet the phone timer is a little less of an annoyance.

  • YVee

    Many thanks Gretchen! This is an incredibly timely post for me and a wonderful resource. I’m pondering the habits I’ve broken in the past couple of months (cut down TV, exercise, clean kitchen) and quailing at the prospect of recreating the habit because now I know how hard it was to get them set up in the first place. The fact that these tasks require so much will power to sustain was invisible to me until you/Nir pointed it out. Many thanks!

  • peninith1

    Loved the shift of the format to ‘habits’ — works really well!

    Especially appreciated the link to Nir’s “how to design behavior change” article, which confirms that I’m approaching food addiction the right way–with highly structured tasks like recording food and keeping within calorie and nutritional guidelines on a daily basis (or nearly so). I have found this very helpful in what needs to be a long-term weight loss and habit change program.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Love the change to ‘habits’ in your interview format, Gretchen!

    Also love the article about the four ways to change habits! It validated the way I am going at weight loss–with strict tasks and guideposts, and an online journal that I use to track food, calories and nutritional values. I seem to really NEED this! Good to see that I have apparently got very good reasons for needing to use these tools.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Well my goodness . . .I thought that my post as peninith1 was not showing up . . . now I am plastered all over here. Sorry folks! Gretchen, pick whichever one you like and delete the rest!

  • PNW Gal

    Oooh, I love the gradual giving up things you don’t care that much about.

  • I can totally relate to the soda example. I used to eat McDonald’s at least twice a week about 5 to 6 years ago until I decided to eat more healthily. By about 2 year ago, I have it probably once every few months and my craving for it almost went away entirely. So I believe habits can be formed or corrected through small consistent steps.

  • Tracy Jones

    Thank you Gretchen for this timely post! I have been reflecting on my life a lot. Reflecting on the mind-numbing habits that I unconsciously enter into, which then take over my life. The constant need to check and respond to emails, check my phone, grab quick meals that lack nutrition to save a precious few minutes. I often feel like my true self has been replaced with soulless automaton, that goes through all the movements of living and responding, but isn’t really present, living, experiencing. I am really working on breaking the habits that impede happiness.

  • Leanne Sowul

    I love the idea of giving up things you don’t really care about. That’s how I manage my time, but I never thought of managing my health habits that way; when I try to lose weight, I generally give up the things I love most, and of course, I’m not successful long-term. But giving up things I care less about makes so much more sense! I feel like I just took a dunce cap off my head!

  • Great interview! Nir’s story is so inspiring make me reflect on myself a lot. Do you know where I can buy his book? Would like to know more about him.