Hooked on phones


I’ve been working with startups for a long time, and one of the concepts I’ve taught many of them is the “hooked” model. Nir Eyal’s book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, is an excellent summary of how habits work and how we can build products that use these habits for our purposes.

The gist of the book is that we’re triggered by actions, and those actions lead us to other actions. Say you get a push notification. That action leads you to unlock your phone to open the app that sent it, and once you’re in the app, the expectation is that you’ll get rewarded.

Perhaps a social post of yours is getting tons of likes and replies, or you’re getting a message from a friend — those would be positive rewards. But there’s also a chance LinkedIn is just telling you that there are “people looking at your profile.” Either way, these rewards lead to an investment in the app: either you’ll be motivated to post a cute picture or reply, or you’ll try to unsubscribe from the LinkedIn mailing list. Based on that investment, new triggers are generated because the app now knows a bit more about how to target you better.

Looking at all the discussion around digital awareness and defined disconnectedness and focus, I feel like we are all solidly trapped in a hooked loop with our phones. The trigger, action, variable reward, investment loop our phones generate for us exactly aligns with the hooked model, and it’s the driving force behind most modern software design.

Having lots of apps using the hooked model on our phones — all competing for our attention, all the time — has created what could be called a super hook. The supercomputers in our pockets have become so tuned to our behavior that they’re triggering the same brain regions that get triggered when consuming drugs or having sex.

Most of us have learned how to deal with addictive substances over the years, but our brains haven’t caught up to phones yet. As a society, we’re just now beginning to recognize that there might be a problem. So here’s what I currently do to minimize the effects my phone has on me:

  • leave it in “do not disturb” mode as much as possible
  • always set it face down so no push notifications can be seen
  • ideally, leave it in a different room
  • check it only when actively looking for a distraction
  • when checking, clean up all notifications so there’s nothing hooking my brain
  • explain to people that asynchronous communication is pretty much the only way to get ahold of me

While far from perfect, this action list keeps me out of the hooked loop as much as possible — short of replacing it with a flip phone and pretending the last decade didn’t happen. Let’s see how long it lasts.