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I Nudge Myself
Many years ago, I was being driven to the airport and observed something stupid about myself. Then I used science (kind of). I remember this so clearly because it has symbolised other challenges since then.
I had a bag of snacks — Doritos or Chex Mix or something — sitting on my lap. I was eating them and talking with the driver. We were discussing business or something. I noticed I was eating the snacks rather quickly. Even after becoming aware of the speed, I found it hard to hold off on eating one for more than 10 seconds. (I probably ate a handful every ≤5 seconds.) The delicious taste of Chex Mix was in my mouth, making me want more.
As I thought about it, I was able to focus on the taste at least, and appreciate it, but I still found it hard to slow down.
I decided to do a little experiment on myself. I put the bag of Doritos at my feet instead of in between my legs. The next time I reached for the snacks I had a few more deciseconds to stay my hand—and it worked. The amount of time (or was it the effort?) it took to lean my torso forward gave me enough time (or was it inclination?) to think: “Do I really want another one yet?” and answer “No” more of the time. I started snacking more like every 30-60 seconds.
I decided to take the experiment one step further. (This is part of experimental science, right? You notice the beginnings of a trend and then you test more input values to see if the trend extrapolates.) I put the crisps (or squares, or whatever) behind my car seat. So, I needed to twist my torso, crane my neck, and put my arm into a fairly awkward position — costing more than a second and even more effort than leaning forward. That was enough to reduce my snacking to one every 2-5 minutes.
Certainly this is far from gold-standard science. But, I was satisfied with the findings (and until now, I didn’t publish them, so there was no-one else to satisfy.)
Years later Richard Thaler coined the wonderful phrase “libertarian paternalism” — and I thought, it doesn’t just have to be about governance. I can nudge myself as well. (Nudge is co-authored with Cass Sunstein, another hero.)
Here are some other tricks I’ve used to nudge myself into doing what I really want:
- shutting my laptop when I leave it
- putting my laptop in a drawer and closing it
(both these give me more time to think: Is getting out the computer really what I want to do right now? What am I going to do on the computer? When am I going to be done?)
- Standing at my desk improves my mood and energy and also makes me spend less time at the computer. (a key challenge is getting a monitor at eye level and a keyboard just below elbow level.)
- Close my eyes if webpages take a long time to load. (why burn them out / hypnotise myself any more?)
- If sitting at a computer with a monitor, I aperiodically stand up, walk away, and face away from the computer. (I face a wall, sitting or standing, or look outside, and think about what I actually need to accomplish on the computer.)
- move email conversations quickly to phone call (in business)
- send “to-read” Amazon previews to Kindle
- I use the “Save for Later” extension for Chrome. (Even if I don’t actually read it later, I can believe that illusion for long enough to kick the tab out of my immediate view.)
- If I open a new tab/window for goofing off when I really shouldn’t, I say the word “No” out loud so I can hear myself. That sometimes helps me close the tab and get back to work, only 2 seconds wasted.
- Whenever I spend a lot of money on myself (electronics or a trip), I donate to charity. (I guess that’s more about habit formation as self-discipline rather than nudging myself into compliance.)
- putting snacks / dessert higher up or behind cupboards
- leaving a nice-looking knife & cutting board out in plain sight
- leave vegetables and beans out in plain sight
- Spend time organising my workspace so that more important things to do (or symbols of things I want to do) are in plain sight.
For example, I might stack “to read” papers out of the way (I’ll find them when I’m bored). But if I decide I need to work out more I might clear my workspace and put my gym card or shorts in plain view.
- write to-do lists on paper instead of on the computer
I haven’t developed any really good tricks for avoiding procrastinating on the Internet.
Partly it’s because of blurred boundaries about what’s worth reading and what’s not. Partly it’s because with three keystrokes I can pop open a Twitter window or tumblr or reddit or facebook or … on-and-on … and make my “strategic” decision from there.
Advices? Similar experiences?
Nudging Charity: The KFC way
If you recently walked into a KFC in India, you may have noticed that the restaurant adds Rs. 5 to your bill as a small donation towards a charity. If you haven’t, do not worry. The restaurant does not explicitly inform you of this amount addition. In fact, you would have to be an eagle-eyed (or extremely bored) customer to notice a written message at the bottom of the posters in front of the billing counter. For those who haven’t noticed, the posters say that KFC will add Rs. 5 to your bill amount as a charitable donation. In case you do not want to donate the amount, you can inform the friendly KFC staff and they will subtract the amount from your bill.
Now, how many of you would take up that option? A very small percentage is my guess. Once you’ve read the message in the posters, you would probably think that a small donation of Rs. 5 should not be such a problem for you considering you dished out over Rs. 100 for your burger. It just doesn’t seem right to behave in such a stingy way in public, does it? Moreover, the preparation time for the bill is so short that the war between your intellect and your morals is still being waged by the time the cashier asks you for money.
Now, while you were sheepishly suppressing the protests of your intellect and paying the cashier, did you take a time-out to see what exactly happened here?
- The amount was too insignificant for you to raise a fuss
- You had very little time to refuse the cashier
- The default choice in this scenario was to donate the Rs. 5
Let’s move back a couple of months to the same KFC restaurant. KFC launched a similar campaign for charity then, albeit with one major difference. Instead of adding the donation amount to your bill by default, the cashier asked every customer at the billing counter whether they would like to donate some money towards charity. I am not sure if they got a lot of donations with this strategy but the very fact that they go about it in a different way now implies that it was not very successful. Possible reasons for this:
- The amount asked was ambiguous, and customers had to decide for themselves how much to donate
- Customers were given a right of refusal, which many probably took up considering that acceptance would lead to the next choice- what amount they should donate.
While I do not have the data to prove this, I am willing to wager that KFC currently gets a lot more donations than it did with the previous strategy.
The two methods have such a tiny difference but one makes a world of difference to hungry children around the world that the charity helps to feed. A default donation of Rs. 5 is a much easier choice for most people as there is hardly any decision needed from the customer here. On the other hand, the earlier strategy asked the customer to make two choices, thus increasing the number of decisions. Herein lies the beauty of good Choice Design.
The concept of Choice Design is wonderfully explained in the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Thaler, an economist, is best known for his work with Daniel Kahnemann in laying the foundations of behavioral economics. Sunstein is a legal scholar who has also extensively worked in the field.
Nudge talks about how the design of choices plays a great role in influencing the choices of people. One major factor in this is the role of defaults. Essentially, humans have huge inertia towards the defaults in a set of choices and tend to pick out the default regardless of whether it is the best choice for them. When we are forcibly put into a position of making a choice, we find ourselves uncomfortable and delaying the decision. Nudge espouses a concept called Libertarian Paternalism which essentially means that although people should be given choices, they should be benevolently nudged towards making the best choice (that would benefit their lives). A practical way to achieve this is to make that choice the default option.
Among other things, the book also talks about how governments can make it easier for people to choose health care and retirement plans, how telecom firms can design plans in such a way that customers pick the best offer for them, and how charitable donations can be increased by making the default choice as ‘to donate’.
KFC, knowingly or unknowingly, seems to have hit upon the right strategy to increase charitable donations.
PS: A current head of the state was so impressed by Nudge that he bought copies and distributed the book to each of his cabinet members. After finding out that his contemporary had hired Cass Sunstein to help with public policy design for his country, this statesman lost no time in hiring Richard Thaler’s services to assist his government. Which statesmen, which countries?
Governments have learned a cheap new way to improve people’s lives. Here is the basic recipe:
Take data that you and I have already paid a government agency to collect, and post it online in a way that computer programmers can easily use. Then wait a few months. Voilà! The private sector gets busy, creating Web sites and smartphone apps that reformat the information in ways that are helpful to consumers, workers and companies.
Richard Thaler in, This Data Isn’t Dull. It Improves Lives