I am a writer, consultant, and I teach about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. I founded two tech companies and I am also an advisor to several Bay Area start-ups and incubators. My last company received venture funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and was acquired in 2011. I’m the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. For most of my career I’ve worked in the video gaming and advertising industries where I learned, applied (and at times rejected) the techniques used to motivate and manipulate users. I write to help companies create behaviors that benefit their users while educating people on how to build healthful habits in their own lives. As an active angel investor, I put my money where my mouth is by backing habit-forming products I believe improve lives. Some of my past investments include Eventbrite (NYSE:EB), Refresh.io (acquired by LinkedIn), Worklife (acquired by Cisco), Product Hunt (acquired by Angelist), Marco Polo, Presence Learning, 7 Cups, Pana, Kahoot!, Byte Foods, FocusMate, and Anchor.fm (acquired by Spotify). I attended The Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory University.
How did you stay focused long enough to write a book on staying focused?
There's an honest answer to this that might help people (though, of course, I get the joke!). At first, I researched and wrote “whenever I could find the time.” So the whole process was, well, chaotic. But after I discovered the research into how to conquer distraction, I built the time into my schedule. This is called setting an “implementation intention.” Every morning, two hours. And by “time-boxing” that segment of the day, I could actually get the book done. Now, it still took five years, because it took me that long to figure out how to cure my distraction issues. I tried a lot of different methods and read through thousands of academic papers. But the writing itself became much smoother because I used the techniques I learned while writing the book to, well, write the book.
What about gaming? I’ve found it to be a good way to really focus on something without distractions from my phone or work.
So here’s what I’d say: as long as you’re choosing to play a game during a set period of time, go for it. But if you’re turning to video games as a way of not doing something else, then I think it’s the same as being distracted by virtually anything. This is actually a broader point of my work: I think we’re too quick to apply sweeping judgments. “Social media is bad!” “Video games are good!” etc. The point isn’t to reduce things to crude categories. The point, I think, is to be able to say, “I’m choosing to spend the next couple hours on video games. This is a choice I’ve made in advance, so let’s rock and roll.” I literally have time in my schedule to have fun on social media.
How do your family and friends view your indistractability? Are there any downsides? Do they ever think of you as robotic, or inattentive, or one of the other terms that come to mind when I think of the opposite of distractability?
Quite the opposite! The reason I started down this path was because I was constantly distracted while with my friends and family. Now for the first time in years, I am fully present with the people I love. It’s been all upside for me, and I think my family and friends would agree.
So what is the best way to avoid being distracted by, wait hold up a sec, gotta answer this text. Oh man look a puppy!
Wait, what were we talking about? Seriously though, didn't people still have this problem before tech?
Do you think its more about technology or is it something else?
I couldn’t agree more. Can we honestly say that if Zuckerberg turned off Facebook or Reddit shut down (shiver at the thought!) that we’d stop getting distracted? Of course not! Distraction is nothing new. It was written about in ancient times. And our criticism of tech is almost as old as the problem of distraction itself. People have always blamed the latest technology for rotting our brains and taking over our lives. Before today’s technology, people said television, the radio, comic books, even the novel, were leading our minds astray.What is different today, however, is the fact that technology has created a world where distraction is easier than ever to find. It’s literally living in our pockets. If it is distraction you seek, distraction you shall find. The good news is that we will get through this the same way humans always have: we will adapt and adopt. We will adapt our behavior by learning new ways to deal with distraction. And we will adopt new technologies to fix bad elements of the last generation of technologies. Fundamentally, I’d say tech is the “proximate cause” of distraction, not the “root cause.” Like in the game of pool, the white ball isn’t the reason the colored ball goes into the pocket. It’s the player who incites the proceeding actions. With tech distraction, there are deeper causes for why we get distracted that have driven us to distraction since time immemorial. If we don’t learn tactics to cope with the real source of the problem, we’ll always be distracted by something.