[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than a million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode we discuss how to use mind control techniques to create any habit you want. Why we’re driven much more by pain than pleasure. We look at the hook model for describing human behavior, talk about how to hack your rewards to change your behavior, look at the power of tiny amounts of friction, and much more with Nir Eyal.
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In our previous episode we discussed what happened when our guest; the astronaut, Chris Hadfield, went blind during a spacewalk and how he made it out alive. We talked about the mental toughness necessary to survive extremely dangerous situations. We discussed in depth how astronauts deal with fear, looked at the vital importance of having training to deal with powerful risks, and much more with Chris Hadfield. If you want to learn how to crush through any fears standing in your way, listen to that episode.
[0:02:52.2] MB: Today we have another awesome guest on the show, Nir Eyal. Nir is an expert in behavioral design, having worked in both advertising and vi9deo gaming helping companies build and create more engaging products. He is the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, and has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today and more. He’s an active angel investor and currently writes and helps companies create good habits and behaviors in their users on his blog nirandfar.com.
Nir, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:25.9] NE: Thanks so much, Matt. Great to be here.
[0:03:27.2] MB: We’re very excited to have you on here today. For listeners who may not be familiar with you and some of your background, tell us your story and how you got started down the path of behavioral design. I'm curious, especially, I’m a huge gamer myself, so I'd love to hear especially kind of about the video gaming side of your world.
[0:03:45.7] NE: Sure. The last company that you mentioned they was at the intersection of gaming and advertising, and that company gave me a lot of insights into persuasion, mind control, behavioral design, whatever you want to call it, that those lessons I found were very powerful and very effective. I saw my clients using them time and time again and I became fascinated with these techniques, but what I found was that there wasn't a book out there. There wasn't like a resource into how to use these techniques, and in fact many of the gaming companies that I worked with and the clients, the advertising clients I worked with, they just use these techniques because they worked. They didn't know what they were called. Certainly, they didn’t know the psychology behind these principles. They just kept using them again and again and again because they produced better results.
I really became fascinated say with how these technologies persuade us, and I came to a hypothesis that technologies of the future will be the ones that are able to persuade us to form these long-term habits. Originally I wanted to learn these techniques for my next company. My company was acquired and I wanted to figure out what to do next.
When I started doing research into, “Okay. I'm going to figure out how to compile all these into a resource that I would use into my next company,” I started blogging about what I was learning. I spent a lot of time in the Stanford Library. I started to spent a lot of time talking to people who are building these technologies, folks at Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and WhatsApp and I just learned so much from them and the more I blogged about it the more interest there was in people reading my blog and learning more. One thing kind of led to another. The blog became a class at Stanford that I taught for many years, and then that class turned into the book that you see today, which is called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
[0:05:30.7] MB: Let's start with something really simple. How do you define habits? What are habits?
[0:05:38.2] NE: Right. Habits are defined as the impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought. It’s about half of what you do every single day is done purely out of habits, and these habits are by and large very good for us. It’s just another form of learning that human beings have evolved. Many animals have evolved habits, where our brain is able to put these tasks into automatic mode if you will, so that we don’t have to think about it while we’re doing these behaviors.
These repetitive tasks that you do day-in and day-out without really thinking about why you're doing them, those are our habits, and my contention is that we can actually use the psychology of habits to help us live better lives. In fact, technology can facilitate those healthy habits. Now, of course, technology can also facilitate a bunch of unhealthy habits as well. Many of us feel that we are overly dependent on our devices that many times these habits can be bad habits as well, but I think it's imperative to understand the psychology of habits so that we can hopefully, as business people, design products and services that create healthy habits in our lives, helping people stay connected and helping people save money and helping people exercise more and eat better. We can do all these things through these miracles of today's technology, but then also understanding how these technologies hook us. We can also make sure that we put technology in its place to make sure that we control the technology and that the technology doesn't control us.
[0:07:05.8] MB: I think one of the most important things that you said is this notion that the habits are unconscious, right? I forgot the exact percentage, but like 50% of everything we do takes place unconsciously. We’re not consciously thinking about it. Some sort of random queue or trigger from our environment sends us into this habit loop, which I find fascinating.
[0:07:28.3] NE: Right. By and large, these things are great for us. We benefit from having all these habits. You can see from an evolutionary basis, if every time there was danger, you had to think as a caveman a hundred thousand years ago, “What should I do when this sabertooth tiger is charging after me?” If you deliberated, you’d be dead. That branch of the human evolutionary tree died off. Whereas the people who had these instincts, who had these quick response behaviors, who had these learned responses that they didn't have to deliberate, these were the people who had survived and became us.
[0:08:04.3] MB: Let’s dig into how do habits get formed, and what are some of the components that go into creating habits.
[0:08:13.1] NE: Sure. The basic habit loop that a lot of people know about is a trigger, something that queues us to action habits are environmentally dependent. These are things that occur with little or no conscious thought based on our environment, so there's always some kind of trigger, some kind of queue. Then there is the action, and then there's the pay off, some kind of reward.
Now, what I’ve changed in that model, looking into the research that I did, is not so much how do habits form in our day-to-day lives. I think that’s pretty well understood stuff. I think what I wanted to push the field forward in a direction of how do we build products and services, or how do products and services build habits within us. What I added to that model is a few things. One is this idea of internal and external triggers, that when it comes to the products and services we use, there is only one reason that you use any product or service, one reason, and that reason is to modulate our mood. I don't care what the product is. You use that product to feel something different.
The internal trigger, meaning external triggers you know all about. External triggers are things in our environment that tell us what to do next; your phone dings, or you get an email, or friend tells you to do something. These are all external triggers, they tell you what to do next.
What we also have are what’s called these internal triggers that when we are in a certain situation or routine around certain people or places or when we feel certain things, before we even understand what's going on, we already have the itch. We already have this unconscious trigger to get us to do something.
For example, when you're feeling lonely, you check Facebook or Tinder. When you're feeling uncertain about something, before you scan your brain to see if you know the answer, you're already Googling it. When you're feeling bored, before you even ask yourself what you're feeling, your brain is already telling your fingers to type in New York Times, or Reddit, or YouTube, or something else to ease that boredom.
This is a very important thing to understand, that our behaviors are driven not by the seeking of pleasure per se, but the quelling of an uncomfortable emotion. What I call this internal trigger. That’s one very important thing to understand both when we’re designing products and services. When I advise Silicon Valley companies on how to build more habit-forming technology, part of my advice is you’ve got to figure out what that frequently occurring internal trigger is.
Then from a personal development standpoint, we have to understand that we are driven by pain, right? That it’s not the pleasure principle that Freud espoused that everything we do is for the pursuit of pleasure and the denial and quelling of pain. It's just pain all the way down. Everything we do is just to avoid pain in as much as even when we think we are driven by pleasure, we’re not actually driven by pleasure. We’re driven by the urge to satisfy the pain of wanting the pleasure, and this is a really important point, because, really, the superpower that we all have within us is to understand that we are driven by pain and find ways to deal with that pain. There is no end to what we can accomplish when we can deal with our dissatisfaction, with our pain.
Anyway, that’s one important addition. Another important addition has to do with the next what I call the action phase of the hook. In my book I talk about the hook model. the action phase; we see this manifested in all sorts of products we use, that what’s happened today, the reason so many of our technologies are so habit-forming is that they have become so much easier to use. Meaning they’ve made the action way easier to do.
The fact that I can open an app with one tap, that I can scroll a feed, that I can watch a video anywhere at any time with very little effort makes that behavior more likely to occur. The more friction is removed the easier the behavior is to do. Then the third part of the hook model is what I call the reward phase, which is not just the reward, it's a variable reward. This comes straight from Skinner. We know that variable rewards, when it comes to Skinner's famous experiments with his pigeons, when he gave them a food pellet as a reward. When it was on a predictable schedule of reinforcement, they clicked X-number of times when it was on a variable schedule of reinforcement, meaning sometimes when the food pellet came out, sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. When there was variability, when there was an intermittent schedule of reinforcement, Skinner observed the pigeon clicked on the little food pellet dispenser many, many more times.
Variable rewards are everywhere. We’ve thought traditionally in psychology as variable rewards being something that is only about food pellets, but it turns out it's everywhere. It's what makes slot machines so enticing. It what makes the news, right? Why are we all glued to the news these days, because we all want to know what the next stupid thing that's going to come out of the president's mouth, is that we want to know what's going to happen next. The first three letters of news is new. We watch a movie, we want to know what's going to happened at the end of the movie. It’s all about the unknown.
When you think about online, scrolling the newsfeed and scrolling and scrolling and searching and searching, is it uses the exact same psychology as pulling on a slot machine. They’re both variable schedules reinforcement.
Finally, the last part of the hook, which has never been articulated before, but I've kind of added to the conversation when it comes to habit-forming design is the investment phase. If you think about all these technologies, what’s really special about technology today and why it's particularly habit-forming, is that we are co-creating the technology with the manufacturers. Now, that's never been possible before. If you're Henry Ford in the production line, you decide how to make the model T. You design it on paper that you tool it, then you create the machines to build the machines. This takes years, or at least it used to take years. Now, that’s gone.
Now, that’s gone. Today we are co-creating products with the manufacturers. When you think about Facebook, every time you like something, you add a photo, you friend someone, you comment on something. You are giving them data to modify your feed in the future. You are making the product better and better with use, so that if you were to log into my Facebook account, it would be super boring for you. It would make no sense, because it's been tailored to my needs based on my data. Now, that’s super special.
When we think about habit-forming technology today, the four key steps are trigger, an action, a reward, and finally an investment, and it’s through successive cycles through these hooks, this is how consumer preferences are shaped and how our product habits are formed.
[0:15:15.2] MB: There’s a lot I want to unpack out of that. Before we start, I want to explore more deeply this idea that we only seek to avoid pain. Tell me more about that.
[0:15:24.2] NE: Yeah. When you look at the biology of what's actually going on in our brains, a lot of people think that we do things because we want to feel good, but that's not actually biologically true. When you think about the reward system, when you think about what's happening inside the nucleus accumbens, it’s not the pursuit of pleasure per se. It's the need to quell the wanting, what we call the stress of desire. That’s the way the reward system operates, is it creates this itch, this psychological state of hetero stasis where there is an imbalance, where there's some discomfort that drives us to action. This is when we are most focused. This is when we are most engaged, and this is when we pursue something, is to quell that feeling of wanting.
Wanting doesn't feel good. If you think about some of the things that we think are driven by pleasure. Let’s think about love and sex. It’s not actually the orgasm itself. It's not the love affair itself. It’s the pursuit, right? That’s what makes us lovesick, and if you think about, in fact the language of love, it’s very similar to the language of addiction, that when you think about someone that — I could spout off song ballad after song ballad of how love hurts, and many people will describe this longing that they have for another person in very similar terminology. In fact, there are scientists out there who believe that the same mechanism that drives addiction today comes from the hardwiring that drives love, that drives sexual desire, is basically the same hardware that is hijacked by someone looking for a sensation, looking to quell some kind of negative sensation, but through other means. That a very important understanding. When it comes to driving our own behavior and how we shape what we do in life, is understanding that it's really all about the dealing with pain.
By the way, this is fancy psychology terminology dropped on something that has been a knowledge that people have had for thousands of years. Every major religion, Buddhism comes to mind first and foremost, has ways to deal with the pain of this world through different means.
[0:17:48.5] MB: Let's get into — I think this is a really interesting discussion of how triggers function. I want to kind of move into the next phase of the hooked model. Tell me more about the action phase.
[0:18:02.4] NE: Sure. The action phase is really about making the behavior as easy as possible. This is really been the innovation that we’ve seen from personal technology over the past several years, is making it as easy as possible to do the intended behavior. The easier you can make the behavior, the more likely people are to do it. What seems trivial to people outside the industry has a huge impact on how people will do something.
Just the positioning of a button, or which button comes before a different button, or the color of the body, or the contrast of the button. All of these things make a profound impact on how likely you are to do a particular behavior, and I know because we test these things all the time. There are armies of people behind the apps you use every day who are there to do nothing but make that behavior easier to do. Now, that’s nothing new. Technology has always been defined as the process by which a behavior becomes easier to do, and I don’t care if it’s the cotton gin to the iPhone. Every technology we use is adopted because of the work it saves us.
Now what we’re seeing with this manifestation through personal technologies is that companies are investing all sorts of ways, some of them seem trivial, but fact turn out to be quite persuasive to make the job easier to do. When you think about how we went from desktop. to laptop, to mobile phones, now to wearable, and now to voice interfaces, like the Amazon Alexa or the Microsoft Cortana, what we’re seeing is the technology is helping us make the day-to-day tasks of our life even easier.
Again, it seems trivial when you first interact with some of these technologies, but what happens is that people adopt them because of these small bits of effort that they save us. I can ask my Amazon Echo what the weather is, and that will save me a couple taps over going to my iPhone, that will successfully change my habit over time.
[0:20:09.2] MB: That's a great example, because my wife and I have actually two Amazon Echoes in their house because.
[0:20:14.8] NE: Oh, they got you.
[0:20:15.9] MB: Recording everything that we say and do. It’s so funny, because that's probably the biggest use that I have for it, is just asking it, “What's the weather today?” It's great, because if you’re in your closet getting ready, you can kind of shout at the Alexa and it will tell me as supposed to having to dig out my phone and fidget around and figure out and look at the weather app.
[0:20:35.6] NE: Right, and you think to yourself, “What’s the big deal?” If you compare that to the way we use to get weather a generation or so ago, the iPhone is way easier, right? It used to be, if you want to know whether, you had to wait for the weatherman on television to tell you what the weather was going to be like. There was no magic tablet that we could just touch and instantly know all these information or our fingertips.
If you take the perspective of a few decades, certainly, a generation, these things are magical. We couldn’t have imagine these things are real today when we were children. Yet even they aren’t easy enough. Even now there are opportunities to make that behavior even easier to do with these new technologies that are just becoming widely adopted.
[0:21:21.8] MB: This may be kind of leading into the next phase of the hook model, but tell me about the idea that — And this is something you've written about and spoken about, this notion that when we complete the action is not actually when we get the reward, but it’s more in the anticipation itself.
[0:21:41.0] NE: Right. This whole idea of pain versus pleasure, what these products often stimulate is not the reward itself. What keeps us coming back is the anticipation of the reward. When we think about how the reward system is structured in the brain, it’s back to that stress of wanting, that pain of desire. That's what keeps us coming back.
The reason you are waiting for Alexa to tell you the weather, is that there’s unknown there. There’s uncertainty. There’s variability. In that period of time, you’re not going to do anything else in that second. It’s the same reason why when you pull the handle of a slot machine, you're going to want the results, because there’s uncertainty about what you might get.
In a softer form, this is what keeps us engaged to all sorts of things, is this variability, this uncertainty, this mystery around what you might find next.
[0:22:37.2] MB: Tell me more about the different kinds of rewards that can impact us and how — Let’s dig into, and I’d love actually to talk even maybe as a starting point a little bit more about Skinner's work with pigeons and the power of variable rewards, and then kind of dig in to the different types of rewards you’ve seen be really effective at driving human behavior.
[0:22:59.5] NE: Sure. The type of verbal rewards that I identify in my book, they come in three forms. There are rewards of the tribe, rewards of the hunt, and rewards of the self, and you’ll see these in all sorts of products and services that you use every day both online and off-line.
My book is mostly around technology products, but the same exact rules by the way apply to all sorts of things. If you think about spectator sports, if you think about what makes books and movies interesting, why we watch the nightly news, why we subscribe to a particular religion. They all have hooks embedded in them. They all have these elements of variability.
Rewards of the tribe are things that feel good, that come from other people and have this element of variability. When you think about — We talked about what makes Facebook so habit-forming. You’ve got this endless stream of information in your newsfeed and it’s all about your friends, what are your friends doing. Are they going on vacation? Did they post pictures of their kids or their puppy or an interesting news article? There's uncertainty around what you might find when you keep scrolling that newsfeed. Of course, all about your friends, all about information about people you really know.
In a workplace, when you think about Slack, or email for that matter, it's all about information from other people. That's rewards of the tribe. This is also the base of what makes romance romantic, right? That romances is romantic in the beginning of a relationship when it's uncertain. Now, I’ve been married for over 15 years now, I know that other things become what keeps a couple together. To be honest with you, very few couples who been married for any lengthy period of time still feel the butterflies that they felt the first time they held hands or the first time the kissed. That uncertainty, that variability, that mystery is extremely exciting and extremely engaging. It's almost a high that you don't get later in life when you know everything about your partner.
Of course, it doesn't mean that you can't stay in love certainly, but it’s a different type of engagement. It’s a more intellectual type of engagement. You have to remind yourself, “This is why I'm here,” as opposed to this love sickness that is a mindless kind of attraction. That's rewards of the tribe. Competition is another form of rewards of the tribe, cooperation. These are all forms of things that feel good, that have an element of variability and come from other people.
Then you have rewards of the hunt. Rewards of the hunt stem from our primal search for food and other material possessions. In modern society we get these things in the form of money. When you think about a retention bonus, a year-end bonus, why does a year-end bonus key people retain? Why do they keep coming to work for a year-end bonus, also known as a retention bonus? Because there's uncertainty there, “How big is my bonus going to be? How well did I do?” That’s all about this uncertainty, and that's why it works to keep employees engaged.
If you think about the stock market, people play the stock market as day traders, although anybody who specializes in the science of how to make money in the stock market will tell you that day trading is a fantastic way to lose money. That playing the markets, you might as well be playing on a slot machine. Of course, that metaphor is very apt, because it's the same exact psychology the keeps people playing. The ups and downs of the stock market, it's a variable reward. There’s uncertainty there, so that's why day traders do what they do not because it makes money, but because it's as habit-forming and sucks us in as engaging as a slot machine.
If you think about sports, for example, why are we obsessed with a little bouncing ball going back and forth on the field? It might as well be a pachinko machine. It's the same exact thing. It’s uncertainty, it’s variability, it's these things keep us engaged. If you were to go into a sports bar during the World Cup or during March Madness, there’s a reason they call it March Madness, because it is madness. It doesn't make any logical sense why we do this, but it's fun, it's engaging. It has this element of mystery around who is going to win. In the moment, it’s incredibly important to us. Of course, if I told even the most diehard March Madness fan who won five years ago, who won three years ago, it’s going to take them a minute to remember. In the moment, it was everything to them.
All of these comes from terrible rewards of the hunt. That's variable reward of the hunt. Of course, we see the same exact phenomenon online and we talked about the slot machine, effect of scrolling on a newsfeed, whether it's Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn. So many products these days have this newsfeed element, because scrolling on this newsfeed, hunting for information, is this reward of the hunt. Searching and searching and never down searching for that next interesting bit of content.
Finally, we have rewards of the self. Rewards of the self are things that feel good that have this element of variability, but don't come from other people and aren’t about these information or material rewards. These are things that feel good in and of themselves. The search for mastery, consistency, competency, control all examples of variable rewards of the self.
When you think about gameplay, for example, online games, you may not win anything in terms of material possessions when you play Angry Birds or Candy Crush or one of these online games. You don’t really win anything. Most of these you don't even play with other people, but there's something fun and exciting about getting to the next level, the next accomplishment, the next achievement. Those are all rewards of the self.
We also see this online when it comes to email, for example. Checking those unread messages, finishing the to-dos in your to-do-list, or tapping on an icon on your home screen that has a little message that says something is waiting for you, all examples of variable rewards of the self. The search for competency, consistency and control.
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[0:30:25.7] MB: This is something we talk about a lot on the show, but I think it bears repeating, and I love the verbiage you’ve used on here, the rewards of the tribe, the rewards of the hunt. These psychological tendencies are baked into the human brain by evolution. One of the most powerful things about the hooks model and something the more broadly we talk about on the show all the time is that the more you align yourself with the inmate sort of way that evolution has shaped our brains. The more you align yourself with those forces, powerful things can happen, but the more you try and fight them, the more you try to challenge and refuse to accept natural biases and the way that our brains are structured, you're fighting a serious uphill battle.
[0:31:09.7] NE: Right. I think understanding this is incredibly important. Now, I think the worst thing we can do — One of the worst cognitive biases that we have is when we learn helplessness. A lot of critics of technology — If you listen to what I've just said or you read my book, one interpretation is that these companies are out to get us. They are using our psychological tendencies to get us to buy more junk and to get us to use their apps. That is all true. They are doing that. They have always done that. Persuasion has always been about changing behavior. If you dress a certain way to impress a mate, that is persuasion, and that has happened for 200,000 years of human evolution.
Now, what's beautiful about the human species, what makes us so special, one of things that makes us so special is that we are adaptable. If I took a Siberian tiger and I put them with their cousin, the Indian Tiger, in the middle of the Indian forest, that Siberian tiger would die because it can't adapt to its environment. Human beings who can adapt to every single continent on the planet and they can even adapt to life outside the planet, in outer space. We are the only species that can do that.
The lesson here is that we need to use that adaptability. The reason I wrote this book is twofold. One; I want people to build technologies that help change our habit, because I really do believe that we can use this new generation of technology to help people live better lives. The second reason I wrote the book is because I want us to understand how these technologies change our behaviors so we can do something about it.
I don't want people to think that these technologies are somehow taking away your agency, that you're powerless to resist them, because that is in fact the worst thing that you can believe. There’s been some great studies that have shown that — There was a study back in 2015 that found that alcoholics who believe they were powerless to resist the temptation of alcohol were much more likely to relapse after treatment. In fact, there are beliefs about powerlessness, were as much of a factor as the physical dependency itself. That should stop everybody in their tracks. Think about that. Their beliefs about the addiction and their powerlessness relative to temptation was as much of a factor as the physical dependency itself.
The lesson here is that as an adaptable species, I have never found any technology to date that makes us powerless. There is nothing I can show you on a screen. There’s even nothing I can inject into your body that turns you into a zombie. What that means is that we need to be aware of how these technology work, how these products and services can potentially hook us and sometimes addict us, so that we can do something about it. So that we can put these products in their place.
Now, most of the time, these products and services serve us, we love them. They help improve our lives. Of course, sometimes we can go overboard with all sorts of different bad habits, and so this is an instruction manual just as much to help people build healthy habits as it is to help us break unhealthy habit that don't serve us.
[0:34:35.6] MB: Let's unpack each of those, maybe starting with building healthier habits. What are some specific recommendations or habits that you talk about that maybe somebody listening could use the hooked model to create healthier habits for themselves.
[0:34:51.3] NE: Sure. The book is really about products. I will give you a few examples of a few different products. Now, I have to state for full disclosure, I've invested in some these examples that I’m going ot share with you, so I just want to get that out of the way, because I want to invest in companies that are using my techniques for good. One product that I'm particularly proud of is a product called Bite. Bite is this — It tackles this problem of food deserts. food deserts happen when there are people located in areas where they cannot get access to healthy food.
This particular company tackles the problem of folks who work in office buildings, and many times the only options for accessible food are vending machines. Think about nurses that are working late, or people in office buildings maybe in more rural settings where they can just walk downstairs to a cafeteria that’s serving fresh food. Literally, millions of people are stuck in these effective food deserts where the only food they can get if they didn’t bring something from home are Cheetos in the vending machine and soda.
The current thinking around the obesity epidemic is that people don't eat healthy, because they don't understand. I see this over and over and over again, that many people the first knee-jerk reaction as to why people don't change their behavior is because, well, they just must not know. It turns out that’s almost never true. That people know more than you think. That people generally know what is healthy and what is unhealthy. That a bag of Cheetos and a Coca-Cola are not as healthy as a fresh salad.Tthere's very few people who don't know that, so why don't people eat better?
It turns out it's really about availability. It's about access to these food items. In fact, making that behavior just a little bit easier can have dramatic results. We talked about the action phase of a hook. We have seen that there are — We can dramatically change people's behavior just from moving the access to food a little bit closer, and sometimes I'm talking about just a few floors closer can have dramatic effects.
In fact, there was a study done at Google that have found that just moving unhealthy food in the snack room a couple of shelves up so that people had to reach for the cookie dramatically reduce the amount of cookies eaten and increase the number of healthy snacks chosen instead that were placed at reach level.
This company that I started to tell you about, Bite Foods, they basically took these refrigerators, the size of vending machines. They slapped an iPad on top of each one of these vending machines so that all you have to do is swipe your credit card, the machine unlocks, and you take out of this vending machine farm fresh foods; salads and fresh made food that was made that day that's delivered from local restaurants, and this has dramatically increased the number of people who are eating healthier and losing weight and getting their bodies in better shape just because they made it easier to access these foods. That's one example of a company that I've invested in that’s using the hook model. They’re also, of course, using variable rewards, because the food changes regularly. Also using investments, because the products — They will bring you more of products that you are consuming, so they you’re your preferences. If you like yogurt and you rated it as something you like, they’re going to bring you more of that Greek yogurt next time or the salad or whatever it is that your preferences are. They are using the hook model in that way.
Another company that's building healthy habit that I've invested in is called 7 Cups. 7even Cups was started by a psychotherapist by the name of Glenn Moriarty, and Glenn called me a couple of years ago. On my website, many people read my book and they'll ask for time with me. They want to figure how to build a habit-forming product or they have a question about the book. I actually give out time for free. Anyone can call me just by going to my website.
Glenn booked time with me a couple of years ago and he said, “Look. I’m a therapists, and I know that there are far more people who could benefit from therapy that don't get it, because that’s too hard. There's social stigma. There is expense. There’s time involved. All these things that make getting therapy something that people don't do because it's too darn hard.”
Glenn built this beautiful app called 7 Cups, that is essentially something that whenever someone's feeling down, let’s say it’s a parent of a child with a disability or a soldier suffering from PTSD or just someone who’s feeling down and need someone to talk to. With the click of one button, that’s the action phase, a click of a button. The internal trigger by the way is loneliness, that negative emotion. The action is clicking with one of the button. The variable reward is that you are instantly connected to another human being, and the investment is that the more you participate with this product, the more you use it, you are actually offered the opportunity to invest in the platform by learning how to become a trained listener yourself.
It turns out that people who do this find the service to be as effective as traditional psychotherapy, which is really amazing, because it’s a free service that I think right now is in a 140 countries and they’re doing 180,000 sessions a week. These are two great examples of companies that are using the hook model to build healthy habits in people's lives.
[0:40:14.3] MB: We’ll make sure to include those in the show notes so that listeners can check them out. On the flipside of the coin, what are some strategies we can use to break negative habit loops that we get stuck in? For example, looking at Reddit or constantly checking Twitter, something like that.
[0:40:30.9] NE: Yeah. Basically what we do is we put the hook model in reverse. The idea is that we want to break the hook. Habit-forming products of all sorts — By the way, we talked a lot about technology. Again, there's just as many habit-forming technologies off-line as there are online. What we want to do is put space between the steps of the hook.
For example, the simplest thing you can do is to remove the triggers. Let's say you got a bad habit of checking Facebook too much. The simplest thing you can do is to remove the Facebook app from your cell phone. How about this? Take 15 minutes and adjust your notification settings. About two thirds of people with smartphones never adjust their notification settings. That’s madness. Take a few minutes and just make sure that the app makers are not interrupting you, are not triggering you on their schedule. Make sure that only the apps that are important to you can notify you, can send you those triggers. Remove unwanted triggers.
The best thing you can do if you're on a diet and you find yourself eating unhealthy food, is to remove those foods from your house, for God sakes. If you're trying to cut down on sugar, don't have cookie and ice cream all over the house, because it's too powerful of a trigger. You have to remove them.
In my house, for example, we’ve dramatically cut down on our sugar consumption. There’s doctor in America that's going to tell you sugar is good for you and you should eat more of it. The science there is pretty darn ironclad, that we don't need more sugar. We still eat dessert from time to time, but we don't eat it in the house. What a simple rule. If we really want something sweet, we have to go outside, go to a restaurant and go but it.
Just that added friction has dramatically reduced how much of that thing that we don't want to consume we actually consume in our lives. Just removing the trigger, the next step is of course making the action more difficult. We talked a little bit about how now that added effort of having to go get a dessert outside the home, that's increased friction.
When it comes to technology, for example, how could we make the action more difficult? Here's what I do in my house. I was finding that every night I was spending more and more time online as supposed to being with my wife, someone I love very much. Our relationship was suffering. Our sex life was suffering because we were spending more time fondling our iPhones than actually being together. We did something very simple. I went to the hardware store and I bought myself a $10 outlet timer, and that outlet timer every night at 10 p.m. turns off my Internet router.
Now, I could go over and take out the Internet router and unplug it from the timer and re-plug it in. I could do that, but of course now that requires more effort. I just inserted a bit of friction to make the action a little bit more difficult to do. Why? Because now it gives me this moment of mindfulness to say to myself, “Wait a minute is this really important right now? Do I really need to be online, or do I need to get to sleep, or do I need to spend some quality time with my wife?” That bit of mindfulness, that’s what we’re looking for, just a moment of reflection to stop a mindless habit.
When it comes to the variable reward phase, I use a technique called temptation bundling. What you want to do here is to make sure that these variable rewards are not something that keep pulling you in. What I do is use a technique, and it’s been well studied now, called temptation bundling, which is when you take something you want and you couple it with something that you don't really want to do.
Here’s what I do. Here's a bad habit I tried to break, where particularly with new administration, with the elections, I was reading the news all the time and that was not healthy for me. I just kept wasting time. I’d read one article and then I’d see a link for another article and another article and I’d be pulled in and 45 minutes later I was scrolling the web and I didn’t get anything done.
Instead I have a rule that whenever I see an article that looks interesting I save that article to an app called Pocket, and there're other apps like it. I think previously there is another app that does this. Basically, you can save that article into an app. Then there're variable rewards there. What's in the article is the variable reward, the content itself. I want to know what the story is about. Instead of reading it right then and there where it's going to be a big waste time, I have this rule that I don't read on my desktop. Instead, I only can read that content when I'm on the treadmill, or I use this other app called VoiceStream that will literally read what's in my pocket queue to me. I can go on a walk. I can ilft weights. I can do something that I want to do, but it’s a little bit more difficult to do, I need some extra motivation, so I’ve put it in my headphones. I can listen to these articles, and I’ve removed the reward from that immediate circumstance and then coupled it with something that I want to get done, namely; workout in the gym.
Finally, when it comes to the investment phase, the fourth step of the hook, you want to make sure not to invest. Here's the rule; never do something that you don't have the end in sight. I like video games. I like movies, but I don't play social games and I don't watch series. I had this terrible experience. Do you remember the Series 24? Did you ever watch 24?
[0:45:38.1] MB: Oh, yeah. I remember 24.
[0:45:40.0] NE: All right. With Kiefer Sutherland. He got me bad. Kiefer Sutherland got be real bad. I went with some friends to a ski retreat and somebody brought 24, and we sat there the entire weekend and we watched every episode of this stupid show and we didn’t do any skiing, it was horrible, because of this stupid show.
From that day forward I decided I will never watch one of those serialized shows. I'm sorry. Maybe I'm a dork that I don't know what happens in Games of Thrones. I don’t know what happened with the House of Cards. That's okay to me. You know why? Because I like movies, I like things that have an end. I like things that have two hours, and then I know that’s how much time I’m putting into it, but I don't start things that go on and on and on and on. Why? Because they are designed. There are thousands of people at that studio trying to figure out how to keep you coming back. Every episode ends with a cliffhanger, and that emotional investment of your of wanting to know what happens next is what keeps you watching the next episode and the next episode and the next episode. Do not invest in things that you don't have the end in sight.
[0:46:47.1] MB: Very good recommendations, and especially Pocket. Pocket is something that I personally love using and recommend to people all the time as a great way to stop a random article from disrupting the middle of your workload. Just save it to Pocket and then have that time set aside to actually look into it. That's when you go and you sort of batch that time to read articles or you use dead time, like time when you're waiting in line or somewhere.
What would be kind of one simple piece of homework that you would give a listener as a starting point to implement some of the ideas that we’ve talked about today?
[0:47:23.8] NE: Sure. If you're trying to build a healthy habit, maybe if you're trying to build a habit-forming product, that you want to make sure that you have a hook built into that product. If you're working at a company and you need to form a customer habit, you want to make sure that you have trigger action reward and investment built into the product design. It’s not that every product has to have a habit. It’s that every product that needs a habit has to have a hook. That’s if you're trying to build a habit.
Now, if you're trying to break a habit, the first thing to ask yourself — I think this is something that we’re going out to become more and more familiar with, is this simple question of; is this technology serving me, or am I serving it?
We all need distractions. Distractions are something that human beings have had forever. Socrates and Aristotle debated the nature of a crazy, this tendency to do things against our better interest. In fact, distractions can be very useful in life. They help us cope with uncomfortable situations. However, when we rely on distraction to escape an uncomfortable reality and we never learn how to deal with that pain, well then the person who can alleviate that pain can take advantage of us. Whether it’s drugs, whether it's television, whether it's watching too many sports, frankly, whether it’s listening to this podcast. If we’re using a distraction to escape something that we don't want to deal with, and that goes on for an extended period of time, that can harm us.
The real question here is when does a distraction serve us and when are we serving it? By asking us that critical question, that’s the homework, is to ask ourselves that critical question. Then we can start to categorize, “You know what? This technology actually does serve me. I enjoy it. I like this distraction. I'm not serving it.” A way you can test that is to disconnect for a little while. What would happen if you didn’t use Facebook for a week or two? What would happen if you stop watching sports for a week or two? How would you deal with that? If the answer is, “It’s no big deal,” then that’s probably not addiction. It's not something that causes you any kind of long-term harm. If you find that, “Wow! This is really difficult for me to cope with, or I'm unable to cope with,” then you might need to bring out the heavy artillery and understand with the deeper needs are, what the deeper reason. What kind of pain are you really escaping from?
For the most part, what you'll probably find if you're not actually addicted, there is a portion of the population that is actually addicted, but it's a very small proportion. If you're like most of us, you're not struggling with addiction. You're struggling with distractions. The key question here is to understand when is the distraction serving you, when are you serving it, and then to put technology in these distractions in its place by adapting your behaviors around these technologies and distractions and adopting new technologies.
We talked about how you can use these other technologies. Like I told you the story about that router that shuts off the Internet — The outlet timer that shuts off my Internet router. There are literally thousands of apps and technologies that you can use to shut off technology during certain times of the day so that you can focus, so that you can get the kind of work done that you want to get done.
We talked about Pocket, all these new technologies that help put technology in its place. Lots of solutions out there if you ask yourself this critical question of; is this serving me or am I serving it?
[0:50:42.2] MB: For listeners who want to dig in more, where can people find you and your book and your blog online?
[0:50:48.0] NE: Sure. My website is called nirandfar.com. Nir is spelled like my first name, N-I-R, so nirandfar.com, and my book is called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and it’s available wherever books are sold.
[0:51:00.7] MB: Nir, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing all these wisdom. I know listeners are going to get a lot out of this and to have some really concrete strategies to both implement using technology to build better habits, but also how to combat negative habits and distractions.
[0:51:13.7] NE: Awesome, it is a real pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
[0:51:16.7] MB: Thank you so much for listening to the Science of Success. We’ve created this show to help you, our listeners, master evidence-based personal growth. I love hearing from listeners. If you want to reach out, share your story or just say hi, shoot me an email. My email is email@example.com. That's firstname.lastname@example.org.
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