January 6, 2021 8 min read
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We have all talked about how technology can compel us to act in ways that aren’t in our best interests, even making us less happy, less authentic, less free, less empathic and more isolated.
Nir Eyal, an author, lecturer and technology investor, has deep-dived into this area as the author of two bestsellers, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Eyal isn’t your regular “technology controls us” guy. He believes we only need to take simple steps to gain back control of our lives, and that how we behave as consumers of technology is more choice than compulsion.
I spoke with Eyal recently about habit-forming behaviors surrounding technology and social media and their implications for small-business leaders and general users alike.
What are the primary factors influencing habit-forming behavior? How can small businesses and startups leverage it?
Every habit-forming product has to have a hook. A hook is a design pattern that connects the user’s problem to your product with enough frequency to form a habit, and these hooks have four steps: a trigger, an action, a reward and, finally, an investment. Through successive cycles of these hooks, preferences are shaped, our tastes are formed, and our habits take hold.
Could you cite an example of an organization doing that?
If you think of any of the popular habit-forming products out there — whether it’s Facebook, Tik Tok, Snapchat, Amazon, Google, Slack — all of these products have these four steps embedded in them. Instagram and Facebook have a very similar hook. The external trigger is a notification on your phone. The action is to open the app and scroll the feed. The variable reward is the uncertainty around what you might find, and the investment is the data that you give the company every time you friend, like, comment, share — which is then used to improve the product so that eventually it doesn’t require external triggers.
Ultimately, the product utilizes what we call internal triggers, and for a product like Instagram or Facebook, the internal trigger becomes loneliness or boredom. Anytime you’re seeking connection, you’re using the product with little or no conscious thought.
Do these platforms leverage social media addiction to sell products?
We never want to addict people intentionally. Creating an addiction with intent is unethical. My book is not called How to Build Addictive Products, but habit-forming products, because habits are simply behaviors done with little or no conscious thought, and about half of what we do is done out of habit. And we have good habits as well as bad habits. We want to use the same techniques that social media companies use to create good habits in users’ lives. Now sometimes, some people do become really addicted to all sorts of things. People get addicted to gambling, but not everyone who has ever played poker is a gambling addict. People get addicted to alcohol, but not everybody who has a beer is an alcoholic. So we have to stop calling ourselves addicted to social media. It’s a misnomer. The vast majority of us are simply distracted, just as we were distracted by football and the news and all kinds of other things that can take us away from what we want to do with our time. So that being said, we can use habit-forming technology for good, to help people build good habits in their lives through the products and services they use.
Is this a feasible approach for small businesses and startups?
Absolutely. Five years ago, I got a call from a gentleman named Johan who read my book and liked it, and he had a dream to start an education company based on the hook model. And he shared with me the four steps of his product, and I was so impressed that I asked if I could invest in his company, and that company today is called Kahoot, and it’s worth over $3 billion. They started with a very, very small team. Their competitive advantage was learning to build a habit before anybody else did around this space.
What do you think is the pandemic’s influence on habit-forming products?
I think what we’re seeing is that we are suddenly very thankful that we have these tools at our disposal. I mean, can you imagine trying to go through this pandemic if it struck 30 years ago? What the heck would we do, right? We’d all be stuck at home without Netflix, without WhatsApp, without Zoom. I think many people realize that there’s some bad aspects of this technology, [but] we also need to acknowledge that there are many benefits. When it comes to working from home, when it comes to our ability to connect, I think many of us are thanking Silicon Valley for these fantastic tools.
How do you propose to constructively “unhook” from products if need be?
So, that’s the subject of my second book, Indistractable, and the reason I wrote that book was because I was tired of this ridiculous narrative. If everybody’s first response to products that are designed to be good is that we want to use them, that’s a good thing. That’s not a problem. That’s progress. Now, we also need to simultaneously realize that sometimes when a product is designed to be engaging, some people can overuse it, and so we need to understand that we are much more powerful than they are. All we need to do is simple stuff like turning off the external triggers.
We can all turn off the notifications, and there’s nothing that Mark Zuckerberg can do to turn them back on. Some of the more complicated and thoughtful actions are planning our time. How many of us go through our days complaining that we’re distracted. But when you ask people, “Well, what did you plan to do today,” [they say,] “I don’t know.” I mean, how many of us have blank calendars? We can’t call something a distraction unless we know what it distracted us from.
Could you elaborate on the steps to getting better at not being so distracted?
The first step is to master the internal triggers, the uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to escape from. All habit-forming technologies are designed with uncomfortable emotional states in mind, whether it’s boredom, anxiety, fatigue or loneliness. All we have to do is find better ways to deal with that discomfort. Because if we’re in the habit of turning on the news every time we’re worried about the world or checking Facebook or WhatsApp every time we feel lonely, that’s what we’re going to keep doing.
It’s all about an internal state, not what’s going on outside of us. Distraction begins from within. And we need to stop blaming the stuff outside of us and ask ourselves: What am I escaping from? Why can’t I sit with my family for dinner without checking my phone? Why can’t I walk into my apartment without taking take turning on the TV? Why can’t I go out with my friends and not always look at my phone? What am I running away from? And if we don’t deal with that, we’re just going to keep blaming stuff instead of looking inside ourselves. Mastering the internal triggers is an essential step.
Step number two is to make time for traction, to plan our day to decide what we want to do with our time. Even if what you want to do is play video games or go on social media or watch a movie on Netflix, that’s great, as long as you do it on your schedule, not the tech company’s schedule.
The third step is to hack back the external triggers. Right now, there’s an explosion of free tools that we can use to hack back that technology. Why do I use the term hack? We know that these companies are trying to hack our brains. They want to hack our attention. Well, who says we can’t hack back? We can use tools like Facebook newsfeed Eradicator, which scrubs out the newsfeed; we can use tools like YouTube DF to rid YouTube of that autoplay feature and rip out all those ads. All this stuff is free, and anybody can install these tools.
And then finally, the fourth step is to prevent distraction with a pact — a promise with ourselves so that we don’t become distracted. We also need to stop complaining; algorithms aren’t doing it to us. People love to be victims.