WASTE NO POTENTIAL - EPISODE 3
A.B.O. - Always Be Optimizing
What is the opposite of distraction? The surprising answer is the key to success.
A.B.O. - Always Be Optimizing
Distraction is Nir Eyal’s nemesis. Throughout his life, entrepreneur and author Eyal believed the biggest threat to completing goals was navigating the vast ocean of distractions — like the pings, dings & rings from our ubiquitous devices — that cause lack of focus. Ultimately, these distractions lead to regret: the regret of not making the most out of our day, year, or life. Eyal’s best-selling book, Indistractable, talks all about it. Yet after diving deeper, he discovered that the antidote for distraction isn’t focus: it’s something far more powerful.
In this episode, we hear stories from Eyal and Ernesto Valdes, the VP of Engineering at Traction on Demand, on how they feel optimizing one’s life is a key to success. Growing up in a tech-starved Cuba at the end of the century, Valdes knows a thing or two about making the most out of what you have — his perspective on the importance of reiterating turns the concept on its head and offers insight anyone can pull from.
Whether it’s making small changes or altering course completely, the most important thing when chasing success is to always be optimizing. After all, what is the only constant in our lives? Change.
- 3:13 - 7:34 “Nir discovers how we become distracted.”
- 16:33 - 18:24 “The trick to optimization with Ernesto.”
- 24:27 - 26:40 “Getting traction and reclaiming your life.”
[00:00:00] Office Worker: Alright, what's on the agenda today?
[00:00:04] Alexandra Samuel: Have you ever started your day focused and then this happened?
[00:00:10] Office Worker: Okay. *Cellphone notification*. What's this on the news?
[00:00:12] Alexandra Samuel: …something you didn't plan for grabs your attention.
[00:00:16] Office Worker: Oh, okay. No, wait. *Cellphone vibrating* Emails, right.
[00:00:20] Alexandra Samuel: But by then, you're already distracted.
[00:00:23] Office Worker: Did I put the coffee on?
[00:00:25] Alexandra Samuel: And in your busy-ness, you've forgotten the first thing you were trying to accomplish.
[00:00:31] Nir Eyal: I was one of the most distractible people you'd ever met. I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, constantly and doing a hundred different things, being taken in a million different directions. And that wasn't working for me. I had regrets, you know. I would say I was going to do one thing, exercise, eat, right, focus on my work, be with my daughter, whatever the case might be and, darn it, something else always came up. I was always doing something that wasn't the thing I said I was going to do. And I got sick of it.
[00:00:56] Alexandra Samuel: So I sometimes wonder does our eagerness to get ahead, make us end up falling behind?
[00:01:07] I'm Alexandra Samuel, and this is Waste No Potential. From what you just heard, you can probably relate to how easy it is to become distracted in this day and age. One study from the UK found an average employee typically only has two hours and 53 minutes of productivity and pretty much the rest of the workday…. well, I think you get it.
[00:01:31] We're always looking for ways to take back our attention and live a more productive, focused, and optimized life: from meditation, to cold showers, to even phone apps to manage all the distracting ones. The point is despite our attempts to always be optimizing healthier and happier lives, there's usually something that pulls us away from it.
[00:01:58] It grabs our attention and before you know, it we're hooked. So for today, I spoke with the person who literally wrote the book on that very thing. Getting hooked.
[00:02:08] Nir Eyal: So my name is Nir Eyal and I'm what you call a behavioral designer. I'm also the author of two books. The first book was called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
[00:02:16] So you think about Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, WhatsApp, Slack, Snapchat. So the idea was to take their secrets and give them out to the rest of us so we can use them for good, as opposed to just, you know, uh, whatever you want to call spending time on Facebook. So that was the idea of the first book.
[00:02:34] The second book is called Indistractable and it looks at the other side of the coin. If Hooked was about how to build good habits, Indistractable is about how do we break bad habits. Specifically around our habits around distraction, broadly defined as anything that pulls you away from what you plan to do with your time, your attention, and your life.
[00:02:51] Alexandra Samuel: Distractions, habits, things that take you away from your optimal performance. Nir's journey to understanding the mechanisms of these things began when he was quite young.
[00:03:03] How did you get interested in that whole question of habit formation? What was the role of habits in your own early life?
[00:03:10] Nir Eyal: Yeah. So for me, it really started from my struggle with my weight.
[00:03:14] So I was clinically obese. I remember my mom took me to the doctor and he had this chart on the wall that showed, you know, the different zones. And he said, "okay, this is normal weight. This is overweight. And here's you, you're in this red category here. You're obese." And, um, yeah, like the whole nine yards of going to fat camp and that that whole trauma.
[00:03:35] So I remember when I was a kid, I watched this television show about how to be a smart consumer and about how the cereal companies made cereal boxes with characters, you know, like the Trix bunny looking down. Because they knew that that's what would grab the attention of a child passing by. I was always fascinated by how products seemed to manipulate me.
[00:03:59] That food seemed to control me. And at one point in my life I blamed the food. I blamed McDonald's. I blamed the food companies. I blamed all these things outside of me for my situation. And it wasn't until I think I stopped and understood, "look, it's not just about that. Of course that plays a role," but it was also that I was dealing with emotions that I couldn't handle on my own. The reason I was overweight, it wasn't because I was hungry, it was because I was eating my feelings. I was eating when I was bored. I was eating when I was lonely. I was eating when I felt ashamed at how much I had eaten. And so I think that's kind of from an early age, created this fascination of how do products persuade and what role does the individual play.
[00:04:50] Alexandra Samuel: And, and so what was it that you found? I mean, what is the magic secret that these companies use to get us hooked?
[00:04:56] Nir Eyal: So the pattern that we see designed into these products again and again, is called the hook. So I can actually walk you through the four steps of the hook. A hook starts with a trigger, and there are two kinds of triggers.
[00:05:11] The external triggers are all the things in our outside environment, the pings, the dings, the rings, anything that tells you what to do next. The internal trigger is an uncomfortable emotional state. So when we're feeling lonely, we might check Facebook. When we are uncertain, we Google, when we're bored — oh, lots of solutions to boredom, right? You can check stock prices or sports scores or, oh, let's, let's watch the news so we can worry about somebody's problem 3000 miles away, as opposed to having to deal with our emotion right now. So that's the trigger.
[00:05:42] The next step is the action phase. So this would be an action as simple as opening an app, scrolling a feed, checking a dashboard, a very simple action that you can do with little or no conscious thought.
[00:05:51] The third step is called the variable reward phase. The variable reward phase uses this research from way back from the 1950s called intermittent reinforcement. And this comes from the work of B.F. Skinner.
[00:06:06] Skinner did these experiments where he took pigeons, he put them in a little box — today we call this a Skinner box — and he let the pigeons peck at a disc to get a reward, to get a little food treat every time they pecked at the disc. And very quickly he could train his pigeons to do just that.
That's called operant conditioning. No big deal. If you have a pet at home, you probably trained your pet that way. Maybe you train your kids that way through this kind of reinforcement learning. But then one day Skinner had this problem. He walked into the lab and he realized he didn't have enough of these food pellets to last him the day.
So he couldn't afford to give the food pellets to the pigeon every time that the pigeon pecked at the disc. He could only afford to give it to them once in a while. So sometimes the pigeon would peck at the disc, no food pellet would come out.
The next time the pigeon would peck at the disc, they would receive a reward.
And what Skinner observed was that the rate of response, the number of times, a pigeon pecked at the disc increased when the reward was given on a variable schedule of reinforcement. So this turns out to spike activity in an area of the brain that we call the nucleus accumbens and it spurs this desirous response, this curiosity, this wanting reflex. It's what makes movies fun to watch. What makes books worth reading. What makes romance romantic. It's all about uncertainty. So that variable reward is hardwired in us as well as other animals, and so that's what keeps us engaged. And it's through successive cycles through these hooks that these habits are formed.
[00:07:36] Alexandra Samuel: Now Nir didn't know about any of these strategies when he was just a kid struggling with his weight, but it became the crux of the book that he would write years later. But that's the secret of getting people hooked, using habits to keep people coming back to the same distraction. So how do you break that habit?
We'll get into that in a bit, but before we do, I want to bring in another guest to speak to our broader theme of "Always Be Optimizing." It's something that people Traction on Demand think about a lot. This is Ernesto Valdes, their VP of Engineering. His story begins somewhere far, far away.
You have an amazing backstory for a guy who's ended up running engineering at a Vancouver tech company. Tell me where it all started.
[00:08:21] Ernesto Valdes: Thank you very much for having me here. I guess my life story started in Cuba.
[00:08:27] Alexandra Samuel: Ernesto's family lived through a difficult time in Cuba's history. It was during the Cold War and the country had recently gone through a revolution led by Fidel Castro. The instability at that time triggered a lot of Cuban families to try and leave for the United States, including Ernesto's family.
[00:08:46] Ernesto Valdes: So my grandpa and the older kids in the family moved to the United States to try to make a beachhead, you know, to get a job. Things got pretty bad with the Cold War. Communications between the two countries, uh, fell apart, and also chances of moving across for about 30 years.
[00:09:01] Alexandra Samuel: That period split up Ernesto and his family. Some parts of his family made it to Miami, other folks were stuck in Cuba. And as the decades progressed, Cuba became really restrictive about things like outside imports and access to technology.
[00:09:17] Ernesto Valdes: We had some friends that had a satellite TV and it was clandestine. It was like a pirated satellite TV. And if the government finds out you're doing that you're getting in trouble, serious trouble. And then my dad was able to make a visit in Spain in the late nineties and bring back basically the parts for a computer that then he assembled at home so that he could show me. And he put a bunch of games that we'd play together.
But that had a huge impact on my life because I still remember sitting down in front of that computer and just thinking, “Whatever I do with my life, it's going to be with regarding this device. It's going to have to do with these things. These things are fascinating, magical devices.” And so it definitely set me on the course that it was gonna have to do with computers, my career. One way or another.
[00:10:06] Alexandra Samuel: Once Cuba's relationship with the United States started to shift, Ernesto and his mom were able to make it to Florida. They were able to reunite with the rest of their family after 30 years. And since he was no longer living under the Cuban government, Ernesto was finally able to explore his fascination with computers.
[00:10:24] Ernesto Valdes: So in the United States, you know, I was able to get that free access to dial up. Old school, old internet, and it was free.
[00:10:33] Alexandra Samuel: Bit by bit, he inched forward. His interest in all things tech led him to college and to a computer engineering degree when he was 21 years old. Eventually he made his way to the Canadian west.
[00:10:46] Ernesto Valdes: When I first arrived at Canada, I had a degree, but no experience. And so, um, it was hard. I got a job at a tofu factory in Victoria. Just packing tofu.
My boss at the tofu factory, who is a wonderful person, his wife knew through friends the wife of somebody that worked in a small startup. And so I interviewed with this warehouse at 6:30 AM, and I told them I'd work for free.
That just, they should just give me a job. That I would prove myself and I just needed to start my career. They didn't have me work for free. They actually gave me a job. And yeah, I've been with Traction (Traction on Demand) since then. And, and who knew that that small company in that warehouse would just happen to grow into this large consulting firm today.
[00:11:38] Alexandra Samuel: Now, there are a lot of links between Ernesto's story and the theme of this episode "Always Be Optimizing." Because what we're really talking about is being open to, and aware of, the many paths that can lead us to iterate and improve. Whether you're working to pull yourself out of a bad habit, reinventing a business, or striving to make your skillset better than ever, this is a journey that is never really over. Through Ernesto's journey, you can really hear the many iterations that happened in his life and that led him to where he currently is. From his father taking a gamble by piecing together a computer, to Ernesto moving to the US and getting a computer engineering degree, and finally, to the moment he took a chance coming to Canada, where he eventually became the VP of Engineering at Traction on Demand.
Iterate, iterate, iterate.
The sense of forward motion in this story is palpable. Of course, like Ernesto, we all pick up lessons and make decisions along our path that guide us in how we evolve. That's exactly what happened to Nir Eyal after he graduated from college.
[00:12:43] Nir Eyal: Yeah, in my first job out of college, I was a consultant at Boston Consulting Group and hated that job. It was terrible. And funny enough, it's actually, you know, the reason I hated working there was the company culture at the time was awful.
So I remember we had what we called crack berries at the time, these, Blackberry devices, this was way before the iPhone, and we were tethered to it all day and all night. I mean, I remember just talking about it right now, I get that visceral feeling of, "oh, my boss needs me. My boss is calling me. What if, what if my boss needs something?"
And it's a horrible feeling. And you were expected to be on 24/7.
[00:13:22] Alexandra Samuel: What was your exit ramp from there? How did you get out of that trap of being at the beck and call of your BCG overlords?
[00:13:31] Nir Eyal: I quit. I decided to start a company.
[00:13:35] Alexandra Samuel: In all fairness to the Boston Consulting Group, Nir says the culture there has now evolved to be much healthier. But at that moment, at that point in his personal trajectory, the decision to start a company would lead Nir down the difficult and unexpected path of becoming a best-selling author.
[00:13:54] You're listening to Waste No Potential, a new podcast about incredible stories of spotting untapped potential. The show is brought to you by the good folks at Traction on Demand. And I'm your host, Alexandra Samuel. If you're enjoying the podcast, don't forget to follow us wherever you're listening from. You can also find us at tractionondemand.com.
So here's another iteration on Nir Eyal's path to always be optimizing. Nir just started a new company, and what was his bold idea for his business?
[00:14:27] Nir Eyal: I wanted to get into the renewable energy space. And this was back when the US was going into the second Iraq war and I thought it would be a good time to get into renewable energy because gas prices were spiking. And I started a solar installation company, my wife and I started the company together. And yeah, I started installing solar panels on roofs in Long Island, New York. It was pretty awful, but we managed to build a business. But I was reading these stories, uh, about these tech companies who were, you know, selling nothing. Like they were selling code. And I just thought that was incredible because I had a warehouse full of solar panels that if I couldn't sell, I was personally liable for. And I thought, "well, that's a dumb business. Let me look at, look at these people in Silicon Valley! They can make all this money and build these amazing products and they don't have to sell any physical things. They have a, you know, they just have code."
And so after let's see, four years we managed to sell it to a private equity firm. We started another company together at the intersection of gaming and advertising, and we literally got our term sheet the week my daughter was born.
[00:15:40] Alexandra Samuel: It was a rollercoaster ride for Nir.
He took what he learned from the job he hated and used it first to build his solar energy company and then a new one in gaming and advertising. Nir was working himself incredibly hard to make things work. But optimization is a tricky master. And sometimes despite your best efforts, things don't always go according to plan.
[00:16:02] Nir Eyal: That was okay. That wasn't as much of a success as the first one. I mean you know, we returned money to the investors. But it was kind of a base hit. But then I had some time on my hands. I knew I wanted to relax. I ran myself ragged in my last business. It was really, really hard. A very, very difficult time.
And I just wanted to take a break. I just wanted to collect my thoughts.
[00:16:28] Alexandra Samuel: So now Nir is figuring out what he's doing next as a businessman, a father, and a husband. At this point, I want to come back to some advice from Ernesto about learning how to optimize so that we can find those helpful first steps.
[00:16:41] Ernesto Valdes: Well, the framework that I used to understand optimizing is something that I learned called the OODA Loop. Which is an acronym O-O-D-A: observe, orient, decide, and act. You observe the environment, you orient yourself around what's the right decision. You decide on the best decision. And then you carry out that decision, and then you repeat. You observe the consequences of what you did, orient again, an act.
This is a way that you can basically map out anybody's actions towards any goal. With that as the kind of framework optimizing is about enhancing each of those steps and then enhancing the interaction between them.
And then most importantly, this is where oftentimes people miss the mark, is in speeding up the speed at which you can iterate through that loop. And I'll give you an example: imagine 90% of the decisions you make are good decisions and only 10% are mistakes. And you can make one decision a day so you can observe, orient yourself, decide, and then act once per day.
And now compare that to a competitor who has only 50/50 good decisions. So, they don't make as many good decisions, but they can iterate 10 times a day. So they could make 10 of those decisions, whereas you can only make one a day. That person has the advantage. Even though their decision-making is worse, even though the individual stages of their OODA loop, you know, the decide, the orient-- they might not be optimizing, they might not be making the best observations, and the best decisions. The mere fact that they can cycle through that so much quicker means that by the time you make one good decision, they will have made ten.
[00:18:25] Alexandra Samuel: So with that in mind, let's see what decisions Nir makes to iterate the next stage in his life. Remember he sold his company, he's exhausted, and suddenly he finds himself sitting at home with time on his hands.
[00:18:39] Nir Eyal: And so that's where I started- I got back to one of my first passions, which is writing. But I hadn't done it in years and years because I just didn't have time for it. And so I just started blogging and writing about my thoughts, around these ideas around how products can build habits and what I was learning. And I was really doing it for myself. I didn't care if anybody was reading. I was just wanting to collate my thoughts in a way that I could find useful to do my next thing. I got an email from one of my professors at Stanford who said, "Hey, I really like your stuff. I like your model. What do you think about teaching a class together?"
And so he invited me to teach with him. And that's where I taught for several years. And then I got to teach my own class over at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford as well. So in the process of making this class, readers kept asking me like, "Hey, I really like your blog posts. Like how can I get a collation of blog posts?" And I thought, okay, maybe it'd be 15 pages or so, well, 150 pages later it turns out I had a book! And so I self-published it at first. I just put it on KDP, which is a platform that Amazon owns just to kind of self-publish a book and it started getting some good reviews.
And then once it got to about a hundred reviews, I got an email from an agent that said, "I read one of your articles and I see you have this book here. This is really interesting. Why don't, why don't you publish it professionally?" Then we republished it as a real book, as opposed to a self-published book.
Self-published books are real too, but this was a little nicer.
[00:20:10] Alexandra Samuel: I mean, so what was it like when the book just blew up?
[00:20:12] Nir Eyal: It was amazing. It was great to see-- one of the best things for an author is when you pour your blood, sweat, and tears into a book, is when you find people using it in unexpected ways. I would get calls and emails from folks saying, "Hey, I read your book and here's the business I'm building."
I got a call about five years ago from a guy by the name of Johan, who called me up and said, "Hey, I read your book and I am going to use it to revolutionize education."
"Ok, cool. Tell me more."
And so he said, "Here's my hook model."
He walked me through the same four steps I walked you through trigger, action, reward, investment for his business. I was so impressed with this idea that I said, “Can I invest right? Can I put a little money into your company?” And he said, "Sure. You know, we'd be happy to have you."
I invested a little bit. A few years later, this company is worth four and a half billion dollars. It's called Kahoot. It's one of the world's largest educational software companies.
And so that's been amazing, seeing people use this work to actually do good in the world by using these methodologies.
[00:21:15] Alexandra Samuel: Now that sounds like a happy ending, doesn't it? Nir has gone from being a college grad, stressed and glued to his phone, to a successful author and investor.
But wait. Optimization eludes us again as the old villain from the beginning of our story returns: distraction.
[00:21:33] Nir Eyal: So what I think was true for my eating habits, I saw re-emerge when it came to my habits around content consumption and specifically distraction. That after I wrote my first book about how to build healthy habits with the products we use, I found that I was becoming more and more distracted because of good things, right? Good reasons. I was busier because I had more opportunities to do speaking engagements, and more emails came in, and I was busier and it was all good stuff. But I found that I was getting more and more distracted from doing the things that were important to me.
And I remember there was one afternoon when I was with my daughter. We had this beautiful day planned, just some daddy-daughter time. And we had this book of activities that had all kinds of games and things that daddies and daughters could do together. And one of the activities in the book was to ask each other this question, “If you could have any superpower, what superpower would you want?”
And I remember that question verbatim, but I can't tell you what my daughter said. Because in that moment, I don't even know why, something on my phone grabbed my attention and I got distracted. And by the time I looked up, she was gone. I had blown it.
And it wasn't just with my daughter. It was also when I was at work and I would say, "Okay, I'm definitely going to work on that big project. I'm not going to get distracted. I'm going to stop procrastinating. Here I go. I'm going to get started."
And yet 20, 30, 45 minutes later, I was checking email or scrolling a Slack channel or doing everything but the thing that I said I was going to do with my time. At first my knee-jerk reaction was to blame the technology as I think many of us do. I blamed the thing outside of me once again. And I got rid of the technology. I read books that told me about digital minimalism and how technology is the source of your distractions. And I believed it and I got rid of it. I said, "Okay, fine. I'm going to go back to a flip phone. Like we used to have in the 90's."
[00:23:42] I got myself a word processor from eBay with no internet connection. All you can do is type on it. And I thought, “Okay, great. That's it. That was the problem. Now I'm going to stay focused. Now I can work without distraction.” And I would sit down at my desk on my little word processor with a tiny LCD keyboard. And I would look behind me and say, "Oh there's that book that I've been meaning to read a chapter in. Let me just, let me just peruse that chapter real quick. Or man, my desk is a mess right now. I should clean this up real quick. Or the trash needs to be taken out. Let me just do that for real quick sec."
And I kept getting distracted. So I realized that it wasn't the technology, there had to be something else. And so that's why I wanted to dig deeper into what's the real reason we get distracted? What's the root cause of the problems?
[00:24:28] Alexandra Samuel: And so how do you cut out distractions, live a healthy life, and optimize yourself for the future? Here's Ernesto again…
[00:24:35] Ernesto Valdes: Well, I think what I've optimized most of my life in the last few years is I became a morning person. I tried it out for a while. I decided I'm going to wake up at 5:00 AM every day, no matter how unhappy it makes me just set that goal, do it for six months.
And then exercise for the first hour, and then meditate, and read for the next half hour. And then I will begin work. And I noticed the difference.
And then I- you know, you have those swings back and forth where you're quite tight with your schedule, and then you loosen up a little bit because you got tired of the lack of fun. And then I noticed a difference there too.
[00:25:13] Nir Eyal: So the idea here is to understand, fundamentally, what is the difference between traction and distraction? Right? People think the opposite of distraction is focus: it's not. The opposite of distraction is traction. Traction and dis-traction. Traction is any action that pulls you towards what you said you were going to do, things that you do with intent, things that move you closer to your values and help you become the kind of person you want to become. But the fact of the matter is you can't call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. And this is why it's so important to understand how you want to spend your time. As knowledge workers our input is only two things. It's our time and our attention, that's it. That's all we have to optimize for is our time and our attention. So when we plan our time, as opposed to other techniques that I've tried, that have shown not to be very effective, like, for example, running your life on a to-do list, measuring yourself by how many cute little boxes you check off every day, it turns out to be very ineffective.
What you really want to do is to make sure that you have those things that you want to do with your time and your attention on your schedule. That's the only way we know the difference between traction and distraction, because you can't call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from. You can't complain that something distracted you if there's nothing on your schedule that you plan to do with your time. That's why we have to turn our values into time in order to become indistractable.
[00:26:42] Alexandra Samuel: Today, my guests have been Nir Eyal, author and behavioral designer, as well as Ernesto Valdes, VP of Engineering at Traction on Demand. It's been a pleasure to talk with both of them about what it really means to 'Always Be Optimizing.' It's not about achieving perfection. It's about trusting the iterative process.
[00:27:00] If you like what you heard from Nir, check out his book Indistractable or his blog at nirandfar.com. I'm Alexandra Samuel and this is Waste No Potential, brought to you by Traction on Demand with production support from JAR audio.
[00:27:16] So now I want to bring up something a little bit sensitive. Have you ever felt like you don’t fit in? Well, join us on our next episode as we hear a story of traversing the globe and not shying away from that fact, but embracing it in order to make huge change. So don’t miss our next episode. Subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening from.
[00:27:45] Until then, thanks for listening.