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Nudge Theory and the Power of Positive Patterns

Small beneficial “nudges” can help build healthy habits – both personal and financial.

If change is inevitable, and the only constant thing in life, then why does it tend to be so difficult to manage? You’d think we’d be collectively able to better adapt since we’re so aware of change. But human nature gets us once again. From healthy habits to finances to relationships to practically anything, the question really should be: How can we4alter our behavior for the better – and make it stick?

There’s been some interesting progress in the area of subtly being led toward better decisions and habits. An area many would call a science, focused on something becoming more and more known as a nudge.

In 2008, economist Richard Thaler’s book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness,” introduced “Nudge Theory” as a method for helping people make wiser decisions and exercise better self-control.

Thaler proposed nudges as valuable due to the fundamentally irrational ways humans can behave – ways explored by social psychologist Kahneman, who established our brains operate on two different systems of thought. The first system provides the automatic reflex responses that prompt us to move quickly if something is heading toward us. The second system, slower and more rational, controls our conscious thought processes.

Breaking it down

So, what exactly is a nudge? Thankfully, it’s not as complicated as the science and psychology might have you believe. Nudge Theory basically comes down to presenting small, practical stimuli (nudges) as little guides toward decisions that are beneficial in the long term. All without direct instruction, enforcement or punishment. A tiny step to get brains and behaviors moving in the right direction.

Maybe putting a portion of your monthly salary into retirement savings has been hard to do consistently. You could try setting up systematic contributions through payroll then create a habit to increase those every time you get a raise or a bonus. The work will be done for you, and the financial boost will be automatic.

Or let’s say you want to get more exercise and lose weight, but ice cream is calling your name. A nudge in the right direction might be allowing yourself the treat, so long as you walk to get it.

You can also nudge your family to be healthier. One idea is to organize your pantry with the smarter snacks up front, making them convenient to grab.

When it comes to relationships, the thought of reconnecting with someone you haven’t talked to in a long time can feel overwhelming, with so much to share and likely hear about. A simple “Just thinking of you” text can give both you and your friend the helpful nudge you need.

Habit stacking

Once you’ve nudged yourself toward something, consider trying another simple method for instilling positive change, known as habit stacking. According to James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits,” the best way to build a new habit is to identify a current one and then stack another behavior on top. It works because your current habit is already built into your brain. By linking a new habit to an existing pattern, you are more likely to stick with your new behavior.

Stack ’em up

Can gradual, manageable habit stacking beat the ever-popular, all-at-once New Year’s resolution? You could try a pattern like this and see for yourself. The trick is to wait until your current behavior becomes habit before stacking the next one.

Switch: The moment you take off your work shoes, put on your workout clothes.
Go: Head to the gym and spend at least five minutes inside with or without exercising.
Do: Complete one exercise of your choosing.
Add: Mix in at least one more exercise before returning home.
Continue: And so on, and so on, until your new routine is in place and part of your lifestyle.

Staying aware

When it comes to Nudge Theory, keep in mind others might be nudging you on occasion. This could be perfectly harmless and likely helpful. But we are talking about influence, which means marketers could have a whole bank of nudges waiting to be released. One example is a monetary reward for picking up your food from a restaurant instead of having them deliver it. So, it’s good to consider whether incoming nudges are for your benefit or the greater good, rather than someone else’s potential advantage.