How To Steer Yourself Towards Success
Using intentional tricks like these can help you make healthy decisions by default — even when you’re tempted to veer off course.
A food’s location in a grocery store is never a coincidence. The chips-on-sale display right when you walk in is meant to make you grab a bag or two, because what you see first tends to significantly sway your decision to purchase it, according to food psychologists. Those peanut butter cups at eye level in the checkout aisle? Same idea.
That’s just one example of how you’re subtly but strategically persuaded, a phenomenon experts dub “nudging,” on a frequent basis to make a particular choice — good or bad — without even realizing it. But you can self-nudge your way to healthier, more proactive decisions.
“Self-nudging is a way to make yourself aware of how often the surprisingly little things influence your behavior so you can take back control,” says Samuli Reijula, a lecturer in theoretical philosophy at the University of Helsinki in Finland. It isn’t about rigid self-control or restriction, says Reijula, who recently co-authored a study on the concept, published in “Behavioural Public Policy.” It’s about making the things you want to do easier and the things you don’t want to do harder, adding and removing friction as needed, he says.
“Avoiding temptations by resorting to sheer willpower can be exhausting,” says Reijula. When we’re torn between conflicting impulses, like grabbing candy because it sounds good and passing on it to avoid added sugar, we don’t always act in our own best interest. (Not to mention, we can waste a lot of internal energy deliberating over the decision.) “But you do have the power to think and plan ahead so you can avoid unnecessary struggles and set yourself up for success,” says Reijula.
“Self-nudging is a way to make yourself aware of how often the surprisingly little things influence your behavior so you can take back control.”
Lecturer in Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki
Practicing self-nudging doesn’t take that much effort. Here’s your expert-recommended plan.
- Send yourself a message.
Leave notes where you’ll see them, write to-do lists, and set reminders on your calendar. You don’t have to rely on words alone: You could, say, stick an illustration of protein sources and their greenhouse emissions to the fridge door to help you reduce your meat and dairy intake, as Reijula and his co-author, Ralph Hertwig, the director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, suggest in their research. (Hey, whatever works.)
You could also do as Hertwig does and put your yoga mat or gym clothes by your bed in the evening to nudge yourself to work out in the morning. Prompts like these can help you take action because they have an “in sight, on your mind” effect. Try to combine them with an “if-then” plan — as in, if you see your greenhouse sticky note, then you reach for a veggie instead of cheese — for best success.
- Reframe your frame of mind.
To make a better decision in the short term, consider the potential long-term consequences, says Reijula. Let’s say you’d planned on going for a run in the morning, but you woke up to rain. If it’s just a toss-up between two ways to pass the next hour, staying in bed will be pretty hard to resist. But if you reframe your decision as choosing between having more energy or feeling tired, or setting a precedent for whether you’ll exercise or not every time it rains, then getting up and out seems much more compelling.
- Play hard to get.
By making something less convenient for yourself, you can also make it less desirable. Seriously: Just moving a food farther out of sight and reach makes you less likely to eat it, says Reijula. So put treats at the back of the cabinet or fridge and healthy foods toward the front. You’re not depriving yourself, he says, you’re just cutting down on mindless consumption by adding friction. When you really want the treat, you’ll go through the effort it takes to get to it.
If you tend to order unhealthy takeout, you could delete your food-delivery apps, knowing you’ll be less likely to order a burger and fries if you have to go through the trouble of reinstalling and logging in (you’ll never remember that password anyway).
The best part about self-nudging is that the more you do it, and the more you see it pay off, the easier it becomes to continue down the right path. Now, go write yourself a sticky note reminding yourself to self-nudge. A bit meta, maybe, but totally worth it.