April 19, 2023

Nir Eyal on using your values to filter, when to consume information, the best apps for content, and using audio for reading [REPOST] (Ep60)

‘’Determining what information is important to you starts with your values.’’

– Nir Eyal

Tim O'Reilly

About Nir Eyal

On this episode we learn from Nir Eyal, who writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. He is the author of two bestselling books, Hooked: has sold over a quarter of a million copies and heavily influenced the tech industry and Indistractable which has been named best business book of the year, among other accolades.

What you will learn

  • How to turn your values into time (05:15)
  • You absolutely can multitask as long as you multi-channel multitask (09:50)
  • A process to make sense of all the information that you consume using Pocket, emailing yourself, and Evernote (10:25)
  • Use tags to efficiently file ideas (15:50)
  • Any endeavour is hard work, and you can’t wait for inspiration to strike (18:12)
  • Once your schedule is set, follow it (20:39)
  • The opposite of distraction is traction (21:33)
  • Being Indistractable means understanding why you got distracted and doing something so it doesn’t distract you in the future (23:58)
  • Call yourself Indistractible because doing so actually empowers you (24:57)
  • The 4 steps to becoming Indistractable (26:23)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Nir, it is an absolute pleasure to have you on the show.

Nir Eyal: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

Ross: I think you are a wonderful exemplar of thriving on overload. You are able to create wonderful books to gain deep insights into what’s happening in the world. How do you do it?

Nir: It’s not easy. I don’t know anyone who says it’s easy, but I will say that I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think we should start, first of all, by reframing this idea that sounds pejorative, information overload as in incredible blessing.

Ross: Absolutely.

Nir: We have the luxury to have information overload. I would much rather live in an age today where the world’s information is at my fingertips than in past generations, where the seat of power and influence was how much information you had access to. Now, we are drowning in information, we have so much information. Now, the scarce commodity is our ability to make sense of all that information, and make sure that it doesn’t divert us and distract us into things that are not congruent with our goals and our values. But starting off, it’s a wonderful thing; that past generations, spent a lot of their time very bored, and we don’t have that problem.

Ross: You’ve got to the entire thesis of what I’m doing.

Nir: Is that right?

Ross: Yes. This is an opportunity.

Nir: Exactly, it is a huge opportunity, but opportunities also present challenges. It’s really the people who are able to rise to this occasion, people who can make the most of all this information are really the people who will succeed in the century to come. This ability to make sure that we harness our time and attention properly is a super skill. A lot of my research is around distraction, and my book “Indistractable” is all about how to control your attention and choose your life. This is definitely something that’s near and dear to my heart.

Ross: I want to dig into what you do. Obviously, we’ve learned what you do quite a bit from your book, and we wanted to hear, and learn from that. But in terms of just information, I think, part of it is scope. What is the purpose? What information is going to be useful and relevant to you? How do you start off by framing that as to what information is going to be relevant to you, and how you seek it and find it, or make it come to you?

Nir: Determining what information is important to you starts with your values. What are values? I define values as attributes of the person you want to become. You have to ask yourself, how would the person I want to become spend their time? That’s how you define your values. Now values, by the way, are very different from things you value. Money is not a value. Why? Because money can be taken away from you. Money is a thing you value, it is not your value. However, the idea of being a dependable person, being honest, being someone who lives with integrity, are the things that can’t be taken away from you; those are values.

We have to start by turning our values into time. When we ask ourselves, how would the person I want to become spend their time, I like to use these three life domains starting out with you. You are at the center of these three life domains. 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 you have to start with you.

What I recommend is that we start by asking ourselves, how would the person you want to become spend their time tomorrow? Starting with the very next day, how would a person who lives at your value spend their time in this life domain of taking care of you? If physical health is important to you, do you have time on your calendar for exercise? For rest? We all know how important sleep is. We’ve heard this research to death now. We all know about it, but how many of us have a bedtime? Very few. We yell at our kids and say, you have to have a bedtime, but we’re hypocrites because we don’t have a bedtime.

Making that time for prayer, meditation, video games, whatever is important to you, has to have that time on your calendar. Namely, this time that you spend consuming information, for the vast majority of people, it seeps into whatever cracks of time we have in our day, whenever we feel bored, whenever we feel lonely, whenever work is too hard, that’s our escape. I’m doing something good for myself, I’m reading the news, I’m checking on our newsletter, I’m going through email, and we think that’s something productive, but it is a distraction if it’s not what we plan to do with our time. Remember, the opposite of distraction is not focus, the opposite of distraction is traction.

Traction is any action that moves you towards your goals, towards your values. Distraction is the opposite, anything that moves you away from what you said you were going to do. That’s why it’s so imperative to start with the time that something takes. Dealing with information overload doesn’t start with, what do I want to consume? It starts with, when do I want to consume? When in my calendar, will I make time to consume this information? Now, why do I say that’s so important? Because I’m forcing a constraint. When people say what do I want to do with my time, I want to write a book, I want to have a beautiful family relationship, I want to have a big business, I want to make sure I’m up to date in all the news in the world, you can’t do it all. You only have 24 hours in a day. What you have to do is to make tradeoffs. You can only make tradeoffs when you impose constraints.

By looking at your calendar and saying, okay, I want X amount of hours with my family, I need to do work for this many hours in the day, I want this much time for prayer, meditation, I want this much time for whatever else it is, how much time do I have left to do this important thing that is consuming information? Starting from that constraint, you will have to give something up. There’s no way you can do it all, you only have 24 hours, everybody does. By doing that, you will understand how much time you even have. What you might find is a lot less time than you think. Maybe if you’re lucky, you have an hour or two to consume information. That forces you to be very frugal with your time.

I often say that people are stingy with their money and generous with their time, and it should be the exact opposite. We should be generous with our money, and stingy with our time because we can always make more money, we can’t make more time. You have to start by asking yourself, this is a nonrenewable resource, your time in your day has to be accounted for first. By saying to yourself, hey, look, after all my other priorities and values, I only have 45 minutes in a day to consume information; What can I consume that provides 45 minutes of information that is actually valuable enough to warrant that time allotment? That’s the first place to start, I think.

Ross: For you, what time do you allocate when?

Nir: I typically do it in the morning, where I have time, when I go through my email; I have time booked in my day to go through email, an hour and a half of email per day. I have a separate folder; I use a product called SaneLater, which is a wonderful product that will sort out the important from the less important information; the emails that you need to respond to versus the emails that you simply consume. For about 30 minutes of my day, I have time on my calendar when I go into this folder, and I look through these various new sources and places that I want to consume this information. I use a little trick that I talked about in my book “Indistractable”, that I do believe in multitasking. I know that this is killing a sacred cow, that everybody in the productivity spaces tells you, you can’t multitask, that’s not true; You can absolutely multitask, as long as you multi-channel multitask.

What we can’t do is receive inputs of information on the same channel at the same time. You can’t listen to two podcast episodes, one in each ear, you can’t do two math problems at the same time, you can’t watch two television screens at the same time, because you’re using the same channel. But you absolutely can multi-channel multitask as long as the information is coming through different sources. What I do is I have 30 minutes on my day for deciding what’s worth consuming.

I open up the New York Times, Daily News Digest, I’ve subscribed to several newsletters, I open those up, I don’t read them, I save them. Immediately, when I see an article that I want to read, I have a rule, I never read articles on my web browser. I immediately save them to this wonderful app called “Pocket”. Now Pocket will scrub out the text. Instead of all those linkbaity headlines, all the links, and all the stuff that will distract you, it just gives you the text in the app. Then I use multi-channel multitasking, as the reward for doing something I don’t really want to do. In my case, it’s exercise, to reward myself with these articles read to me.

You can have this app “Pocket” read these articles to you while you’re doing something else. This is called temptation bundling, this comes from the work of Katy Milkman. She has these studies where she finds that you can actually use a reward in one area of your life to help incentivize you to do something else that you don’t really feel like doing in another area of your life. I like exercising, I don’t love it, but it’s an extra boost of motivation to be able to listen to these articles while I’m in the gym exercising, or taking a walk. That becomes how I use this multi-channel multitasking to consume this information while I’m doing something else.

Ross: Are all those articles that you’re consuming in audio?

Nir: Yes, pretty much 100% of them.

Ross: Right. Obviously, it’s not as if you’ve got dozens of articles every day, because…

Nir: No, I get through probably 30-40 articles a day during my exercise session.

Ross: How long does that last?

Nir: About an hour.

Ross: Okay. Do you put it on faster than normal speed?

Nir: Yes, definitely. I use another app called “Voice Dream”, which works with Pocket. It has these great text-to-speech voices that read about 800 words a minute. I can’t listen to 800 words a minute, but I listen to about 600 words a minute. It’s fantastic. You can get through a ton. Many articles are fluff. You’ve got the opening, you’ve got the closing, the summary. But to get the new information, you can listen to it pretty quickly.

Ross: This takes us in a way to sense-making, which you talked about at the beginning. Yes, we got a wealth of information; we can carve out some time to be able to pull out what’s relevant or interesting to us. Is there a process for you to make sense of the world from all of this information? Do you take any notes? Do you do anything visually? Do you build any frameworks in your mind? Do you do it simply by writing? Blog posts or books? What is the process by which it makes sense?

Nir: The first pass will be to just listen to these articles, as we just described. But if it’s something that I feel like I want to dive deeper into, if it’s a particularly good article, that maybe it’s relevant to something I’m actually working on at the moment, or something I think I might work another moment, I email that article back to myself. It goes from, let’s say, this email newsletter, I just read the headline, and I immediately send it to Pocket.

I don’t read the article itself. I listen to the article later on. If I say, Wow, that was really good; maybe one out of 20 things I listen to, I’ll say, Wow, that’s really insightful. I want to remember to come back to that, I’ll email it back to myself. Then when I have time in my schedule to do that type of work, to do the work that requires me to look through these articles, and think through these and extract the value in accordance to what I’m working on, that’s when I’ll do it.

I’ll open up these articles, and then if it’s something that I’m working on directly, if I’m writing an article, then that goes straight to the Google Doc, where I’m working on that article. If it’s not something that I’m working on, right this minute, but I think I might work on it at some point, I file it into Evernote. I just save it into Evernote. I’ve got 100 different book ideas and article ideas, I just tag it based on that subject. Then I’ve got this nice file in Ever note, I can just type in the topic and I’ve got 20-30, maybe 100 different articles that I’ve saved over the years around this particular topic.

It makes for a very rich source of reading, to get up to speed on a topic that when I’m ready to write about it, is there. Then in terms of how do I add something new? How do I not just consume but actually create? That’s where writing comes into practice. For me, I can’t remember who said it, but I remember this quote that you can’t write clearly without thinking clearly. Writing is really my process to understand new ideas. By processing these ideas, and thinking through them, and chewing on them, and then presenting them to others, that’s how I get to the truth.

Ross: I think one of the interesting nuances in what you described is choosing those tags. You’ve got like 100 tags; this could be a book idea, or this theme, or this topic, or this idea. How is it that you have developed that particular array of tags that you can attach meaning to the content you’re getting?

Nir: It just comes through the years of thinking about… that’s an interesting topic. It’s unanswered questions. It’s the mysteries. What drives my writing is curiosity. I think it was Dorothy Parker, who said, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity”. It’s really about the unknown, that’s what drives me. What do I not really understand? What do I want to get clear in my own head? Those tags come from these areas of interest. I have hundreds of different tags of things that I’m still curious about, that I don’t quite understand, so I file them under those tags.

Ross: Do you relate these back in any way to your values, or is this just something which has just emerged in terms of… this is interesting.

Nir: Yes, usually it’s in terms of either topic areas, or sometimes like a book title. If I have a book title in my head that maybe I’ll write someday, then I’ll have to file it under that title. Sometimes it’s just vague categories, race relations, or neuroplasticity or behavioral design or there might be broader categories, and most of them I’ll probably never dive back into, but should I need them, they’re there.

Ross: In “Indistractable”, you talk about moving beyond distraction to traction. In that sense of traction, I think that there are different levels of focus or different types of focus, so you can have your deep dive where you close the world off. There are others where you may be consuming information or writing, or it could be less immerse things where you may be exploring for things. Within this world of traction, do you think about different types, or levels, or kinds of focus, or traction?

Nir: There are times where the topic might be easier to write about, and you feel more focused. If it’s a subject, I’ve chewed on a lot, and maybe I’ve spoken about, and digested, and shared with others, and I’ve come to some conclusions, then, of course, the writing is much easier. Other times, when it’s a brand new topic, sometimes it’s a slog. I really have to think through things, and thinking is hard. Many times we believe that we can just spout out ideas on a page, and I don’t know how to do that. Thinking is really hard work. To come up with anything interesting and novel, that you’re proud of, takes a lot of time, takes a lot of thought. That requires sitting down and doing the work.
I try not to put a burden on myself to think that I have to reach this cloud-nine level of focus and flow. I’m not a big fan of flow. This concept by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I think it’s really great if you can get it, but it’s not a requirement. This concept of flow that time moves quickly, and you feel like it’s effortless, I think that’s great for some of the things that Csikszentmihalyi talks about in his book; Basketball players playing basketball, and surfers surfing… okay, great, you got into the flow because it’s fun. What happens when the task is not fun? Many times when I’m writing, it is not fun. It sucks. It’s really hard work. Yet, I want to do it because it’s a hard type of fun, but it’s certainly not the flow.
I don’t try and put those requirements of “oh, I’m not focused enough”. Steven Pressfield talks about this a lot as well in his book, “The War of Art”. A professional does the work. A professional doesn’t wait for the muse to strike. A professional doesn’t wait to be in a state of flow. A professional doesn’t wait to be focused. A professional puts their butt in the chair and does the work. That’s why it’s so important to be Indistractable, because Indistractable teaches you the skills to do this at the drop of the hat, to sit down and do the work, whether you feel like it or not.

That’s really where we can live the life we want. It’s not just about work. It’s not just about productive stuff. It’s about being fully present with people you love. It’s about exercising when you say you will, eating healthfully when you say you will. It’s about following through. I try not to attach any requirements that I’m at a certain level to do in order to do the work. I just do the work.

Ross: Right. But if it is going to be the harder work, as in the book writing, would you put that out for a certain minimum time of day, at a particular time of day that works best for you?

Nir: Yes. Right now, I do it in the afternoon. I do it right after lunch. I like to write from a coffee shop typically. I like a little bit of ambient noise while I’m writing. But I’ve played around with it. I used to write first thing in the morning. Then I moved to Singapore, and I needed to take calls in the morning, so I don’t write first thing in the morning anymore. Now I write in the afternoon. I’ve moved my schedule around. The important thing is that once my schedule is set, and it might change from day to day, once my schedule is set, I follow it. Once you’ve made that schedule, and you said this is what I want to do, now that is traction. Whatever it is you said you were going to do, that’s in your calendar, that’s traction, everything else is a distraction.

Ross: There’s a distinction. People talk about focus a lot, whereas your theme is around being Indistractable. Do you draw a distinction there? What is the theme of “Indistractable” which people who haven’t read the book or already, can benefit from in understanding perhaps that distinction?

Nir: Focus is something you can do with your attention but it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be… it’s not the end goal. The end goal is to do what you say you’re going to do. If you want to divert your attention, let’s say you want to watch a movie, play a video game, play with your kids, be spontaneous, awesome, you can do that. There’s nothing that says that focus is the pinnacle of our existence. It’s alright to let yourself divert your attention from one thing to another. That’s fine, but don’t regret doing it. The way we minimize regret is to decide in advance what we will do. That’s the difference between traction and distraction.

Both words come from the same Latin root “Trahere”, which means to pull. You’ll notice both words end in the same six letters “ACTION”, which spells action. Traction is any action that pulls you towards what you said you were going to do, things that you do with intent. The opposite of traction is distraction. Distraction is any action that pulls you further away from what you plan to do. It’s all about intent. It’s all about deciding in advance, this is what I’m going to do, even if it’s something fun, frivolous even, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with scrolling Instagram or playing a video game or being silly with your kids. That’s great. That’s wonderful. But do it on your schedule and according to your values, not someone else’s. If what you want to do with your time is to be focused on your writing, wonderful. But that’s not necessarily the requirement, which is why I don’t think that the opposite of distraction is focused. The opposite of distraction is traction.

Ross: “Indistractable”, I think a key part of that is identity, as in understanding and believing yourself is Indistractable, being able to get traction in whatever it is you’re doing. But there’s a whole series of tools or techniques in order to enable you to align your actions with the belief that you are Indistractable and able to be there, doing what you’re planning to do.

Nir: Absolutely, yes. This is why I titled the book “Indistractable”. “Indistractable”, it’s a made-up word. I made it up so I could define it in any way I like. Being Indistractable doesn’t mean you never get distracted. Even I get distracted from time to time. Being Indistractable means you understand why you got distracted and you do something about it so you don’t get distracted by the same thing in the future. Paulo Coelho has a wonderful quote, he said, “A mistake repeated more than once is a decision”.

How many people go through life constantly complaining about how they didn’t get this done? And they got distracted from that, and they had this goal and this thing on their to-do lists, and they didn’t finish it? How many times do we keep getting distracted by the same thing again and again before we say, enough, I’m going to do something about it? A distractible person chooses to be distracted because they don’t do anything about the problem. An Indistractable person says, okay, you got me once, now I’m going to do something about it.

What I teach in the book “Indistractable” is this model around knowing exactly why you got distracted and using this toolkit to prevent it from happening again in the future. Once you become that person, that person who strives to do what they say they’re going to do, the person who strives to live with personal integrity, you are Indistractable. It doesn’t matter if you read the book or not, if you’re listening to my voice right now on this podcast, you can call yourself Indistractable, because doing so actually empowers you to change.

We know that monikers have a huge impact on our behavior. If you look at the psychology of religion, when devout Muslims call themselves Muslims, they don’t have to use willpower to do certain behaviors. A devout Muslim doesn’t wake up in the morning and say, I wonder if I’ll have some alcohol today? No, a devout Muslim doesn’t drink alcohol. It is who they are. A vegetarian doesn’t wake up and say, I wonder if I’ll have a bacon sandwich for breakfast? No, they don’t eat meat. It is who they are. They are vegetarian. You are now Indistractable. Indistractable sounds like indestructible, it’s a superpower. It’s who you are. It’s your identity. You’re the person who strives to do as they say they’re going to do, someone who lives with personal integrity, and who is as honest with themselves as they are with others.

Ross: To round out, what would be your advice beyond anything which we’ve already covered to someone who’s saying, this is a lot of information, I’m trying to work out what to do. What are the steps which I should take? How can I thrive in this world?

Nir: The four steps to becoming Indistractable are pretty simple. They took me five years to uncover, but these are the four basic steps that are the four pillars, the strategies that we have to use. Strategies are why we do something, tactics are what we do. It’s much more important to understand the strategy than just the tactics. But if you follow these four steps, number one, mastering your internal triggers, understanding where distractions come from, that’s step one. Step number two is, make time for traction. What we talked about earlier, planning out your day, understanding what you define as traction so that you can know what is distraction. You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from.

Step number three is, hack back the external triggers. Removing all the pings, dings, and rings in your outside environment that can lead you towards distraction. Finally, prevent distraction with Packs. Packs are the last line of defense. They’re the firewall against distraction. We use them as this barrier when we fall off track. After we’ve tried the other three strategies, we use them as the last line of defense. When we use these four strategies in concert, this is how we become Indistractable. There’s a lot in the book, but really, it boils down to these four basic strategies that anyone can master.

Ross: Given the world we’re into, I think that there are many people that are very distracted and could benefit a lot from being able to take your advice. In a way, that’s the future of where we are, it is to the degree to which we become a distracted race, or something else. This is a bit of a pivotal moment in human history, isn’t that?

Nir: This is very autobiographical. They say, “research is mesearch”. I wrote this book for me more than anyone else; because I found I was incredibly distracted. It was because the world is such an interesting place. There are limitless videos to watch. Now with these amazing technologies, like the one we’re using right now, you can speak with people all over the world, and things you can learn, and incredible things you can see and do. But the price of progress, the price of these amazing technologies that we have at our fingertips today is you know what, you got to learn some new methods, you got to upgrade your own skillset to make sure that you can live in this modern world, and use these tools to your advantage, to use them as opposed to letting them use you.

It’s not that hard. This isn’t rocket science. Simple things like planning your day, understanding your internal triggers, turning off the external triggers, simple stuff, we can all do it, if we stop complaining about it long enough to take action. Many of us, all we do is whine and moan about the crazy world these days but we don’t do anything about it. I really think the world is bifurcating into two types of people, people who let their time and attention be manipulated and controlled by others, and people who stand up and say, no, I decide how I will control my time and attention. I will control my life. I am Indistractable.

Ross: Absolutely agree, Nir. It’s fantastic to get your insights on thriving on overload. I’m sure many people will benefit from them. Thanks so much.

Nir: My pleasure. Thank you.

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“A how-to for turning a surplus of information into expertise, insight, and better decisions.”

Nir Eyal

Bestselling author of Hooked and Indistractable

Thriving on Overload offers the five best ways to manage our information-drenched world. 

Fast Company

11 of the best technology books for summer 2022

“If you read only one business book this year, make it Thriving on Overload.”

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Global Co-leader, Digital Transformation Practice, Norton Rose Fulbright

“A must read for leaders of today and tomorrow.”

Mark Bonchek

Founder and Chief Epiphany Officer, Shift Thinking

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Joyce Gioia

CEO, The Herman Group of Companies and Author, Experience Rules

“A timely and important book for managers and executives looking to make sense of the ever-increasing information deluge.”

Sangeet Paul Choudary

Founder, Platformation Labs and Author, Platform Revolution

“This must-read book shares the pragmatic secrets of how to overcome being overwhelmed and how to turn information into an unfair advantage.”

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CEO, Constellation Research and author, Everybody Wants to Rule the World

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Justin Baird

Chief Technology Office, APAC, Microsoft

Ross Dawson

Futurist, keynote speaker, author and host of Thriving on Overload.

Discover his blog, other books, frameworks, futurist resources and more.