Nudging Towards your Goals

How to use "nudges" to help you get what you want.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

The theory of “nudging” is interesting, a little disturbing, and might change how you think about you your own choices (or “choices,” as it were). Nudge theorist Richard Thaler, who won a Nobel Prize in economics for his idea, basically posits that people are more likely to do what’s good for them, if we make the better choice easier. A much touted example from Thaler’s book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness comes from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, which put black dots in their urinals. Why?

“It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess, but if they see a target, attention and therefore accuracy are much increased” (Thaler, Nudge).

According to Nudge, you can hang dozens of signs imploring people not to pee on the floor—even threaten penalties for doing so—and still men will sprinkle when they tinkle. But if you put a target in a urinal, most people will happily pee at it. And that’s how nudges work: ideally, there are people using this theory to make sure we do what’s best for ourselves by making “good” choices (like saving for retirement or having enough insurance or aiming when we pee) easier.

In practice, it’s being used by companies like Amazon to clean out our wallets. If you like how easy it is now that Amazon has one-click shopping, don’t think they did it for your benefit. They’re employing nudge theory to make purchases easier. Those books, clothes, toilet paper, and assorted succulents are only one click away, which means you’re more apt to buy them.

But if Amazon and Apple and Facebook can use nudges to manipulate us, we can goldarned use them to manipulate ourselves, for our own good, just as Thaler intended. But how?

Basically, you want to think of nudges as lube coating a tube shooting you straight to your goal. Unless that image makes you uncomfortable. In that case, just think of it as removing impediments from achieving your goal.

But most goals are pretty hard to see in terms of nudging. Goals like “getting fit,” “becoming more mindful,” or “writing a book” seem way to big to nudge. But the habits that lead to these goals are much easier to lube.

So, for example, my one major writing nudge is to prepare for the next morning, when I normally write, before I go to bed. To do so, I:

  • prepare my coffee maker and set it to start percolating 15 minutes before I get up. Set a mug in front of it.

  • prep my work space, which right now is my dining table. I set up my computer and lay out my goal setting journal, so I’m ready to get to it when I walk downstairs.

  • set my alarm…and leave it in my ensuite bathroom! This means I get OUT of bed and don’t hit snooze.

  • lay out some clothes to throw on first thing in the morning.

  • go to bed at an optimal time. I know this is more of a habit than a nudge, but I rocket out of bed if I get enough sleep, which is my ultimate nudge.

You commonly see some of these suggestions for fitness. I was just reading an article that exhorted me to wear my entire running outfit to bed if I want to jog in the morning, which I think is bonkers, but there it is.

Anyway, these things are really simple and may not seem like a big deal. But when I wake up groggy on a morning I was out too late, and I didn’t do any of these things, I really struggle to get started. Just knowing I have to make the coffee makes me want to stay in bed, or skip writing and go buy a liter of iced coffee from my local cafe. But when I pop downstairs (already wearing pants!) and my mug is waiting to hold the hot coffee that’s already brewed, AND my computer is staring at accusingly from the table…it’s a lot easier to get at it.

So if you’re struggling to stick to a habit, or you keep procrastinating something that’s important to you, can you create a few nudges to ease your way into starting? You’ll find that even the smallest things increase your chances dramatically.

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