If you know anything about behavioral economics, you’re probably familiar with Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler’s famous ‘nudge theory‘. If you’re not, it is essentially a body of research supporting the idea that crafting one’s environment in a certain way can influence – though not dictate – one’s choices (also known as “choice architecture“).
A prime example of this in the wild is the very strategic placement of candy and sodas in the checkout aisles of most grocery stores (and in the U.S., ironically, retail pharmacies). These companies have likely made insurmountable profits from the aggregate of shoppers who impulsively snag a Hershey bar or a Coca Cola as they wait in line for the shopper ahead of them to finally finish bagging their groceries. We’ve probably all been victims of this – myself included – even though we know we are falling prey to their sneaky but successful tactics.
They “nudge” you to purchase candy or soda by intentionally creating an environment in the checkout aisle where you will see them and therefore make the last-minute decision to buy them – even though you otherwise wouldn’t if they weren’t right in front of you.
There are countless examples of nudge theory in practice and the benefits of it – if you are interested in learning more, check out Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.
However, the purpose of this post is to introduce a few ways in which you can apply nudge theory to your own life. After reading Nudge, I have been able to successfully incorporate these strategies to help me maintain good habits in my own life – so of course, I wanted to share them to help you!
Fitness: Leave work-outs where you can see them
While I’ve always been an active person, I’ve never formally set fitness goals, scheduled gym times or followed any particular plan. This lack of structure has forced me to rely on being “in the mood” to do a workout, or waiting until it’s too late in the day to exercise and I compromise with a yoga video instead.
Recently, I came up with a sneaky, nudge-y plan to trick myself into working out 4-5 days per week: I wrote down my workouts – one for each day of the week – on cards. I keep them on my desk, on top of my work planner. Every morning when I sit down to clock in, I whip out my planner – and since my workout is right there sitting on top of it, I put it to the side where I can see it all morning.
Because of this, my workout is physically right in front of me and it almost forces me to remember to work out as soon as it’s my lunch hour. While it might not be practical for everyone reading this to workout at noon every day, that is not necessarily the point. What helps me is being able to physically see my pre-determined workout, which in itself nudges me to take action and actually do it.
Food: It starts at the grocery store (and before)
My mom once told me that my cousin refused to buy potato chips at the grocery store so that she wouldn’t be able to give in to temptation when she suddenly craved chips at home. In a way, this is a prime example of nudging” yourself to be healthier.
You can “nudge yourself” by making healthy decisions before even heading to the grocery store. Making decisions about what healthy meals you want to cook during the week, and adding those recipes’ ingredients to the grocery list, is a great method to curate a healthy environment in your kitchen.
Sure, I could technically fill my fridge and cabinets with whatever I wanted to – but I recognize that while at the store, I am much more likely to impulsively buy 10 boxes of Annie’s mac and cheese and call it a day if I don’t plan out what I want to eat that week ahead of time. If there are 10 boxes of mac and cheese in my kitchen and I need a quick bite for lunch, that’s what I eat.
Being proactive about keeping healthy food items in the kitchen so you have easy access to them – and to have less easy access to the junk foods when crave a snack – will help you make easier, healthier decisions when you’re at home considering what you want to eat.
Finances: Notify yourself, regularly
As previously discussed in my post, Budgeting 101: This Financial Hack Will Revolutionize Your Spending Habits, one way I have successfully kept up with managing my finances is by creating and maintaining a spreadsheet. Check out that post for more details on how to build the initial spreadsheet and how I track my expenses.
The kicker here is to “nudge yourself” with a notification system. While I mostly religiously remember to update my spreadsheet and track my expenses every Monday after dinner, I am only human and sometimes will completely forget (especially on a day off from work or outside my normal routine). My saving grace is my reliable sidekick – iPhone reminders. This has also had a tremendous impact on my ability to remember to pay rent, utilities and other important bills.
It may seem simple, but again, setting up reminders for yourself is a way of curating your environment – or rather, your phone or computer screen – to help yourself maintain your habits in the future.
These are just a few examples of how “nudging” has helped me, but these tactics can be applied to any goal you might have, or any habit you want to form (or kill).
How have you “nudged yourself” to improve your habits?