What is 'self-nudging'? A simple trick to make healthier choices

Practicing healthy lifestyle habits can be challenging — here are 7 ways to trick yourself into making better decisions.
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By Jen Laskey

We’ve all heard advice like keep a fruit bowl on the counter, so it’s easier to grab one of those apples or oranges instead of going for the box of cookies that’s stashed in the pantry — or to brush your teeth directly after a meal to make the temptation of sweets less appealing. These are examples of a behavioral science technique known as self-nudging.

“Self-nudging is a way to help you overcome temptation and lack of willpower,” Tara Swart, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, senior lecturer at MIT and author of “The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain,” told TODAY in an email. “Whether it’s food, drinks or other bad habits, you can make it harder for yourself to succumb.”

The technique relies less on the conscious exercise of willpower and more on anticipating where challenges of self-control may arise — and planning for them, explained Samuli Reijula, a theoretical philosophy professor at the University of Helsinki, in an email to TODAY.

Reijula co-authored a behavioral science theory paper about self-nudging with Ralph Hertwig, director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, that was published in the March 2020 issue of Behavioural Public Policy. In the paper, the philosopher and the psychologist discussed how self-nudging techniques can help empower people to make healthier choices and, more generally, overcome what both of them see as limitations of nudge theory.

How can self-nudging help us make healthier choices?

“Every day we make hundreds of — often small — decisions about what to eat, drink, what information to consume, whether to exercise or not,” Reijula said. All of these decisions “make a big difference to our health and well-being.” But we’re not always up for making the best choices. That’s where self-nudging can turn things around for us.

Reijula explained that making strategic changes at home and work can help stave off the impulses and temptations that lead to unhealthy choices. For example, he said, “we all know what will happen if we end up staring at that chocolate bar on the kitchen table again and again.” But if you self-nudge and remove the chocolate from your sight, you remove the immediate temptation. “[It] seems like an obvious thing to do, but surprisingly few people actually go through with such simple changes.”

Swart underscored that self-nudging is mainly about avoiding the thing that creates temptation. “We can totally avoid having cookies or alcohol in the house. We can make an exception at weekends,” she said. “We can also create rewards for not doing the things we’re trying to avoid.”

Hertwig offered another example: “Who has not caught themselves compulsively checking their smartphone, or emerging from a rabbit hole of Twitter threads, breaking news, or YouTube videos after initially intending to take just a moment to respond to an urgent e-mail?” Hertwig told TODAY in an email that an easy self-nudge to reduce unnecessary distractions is to switch off push notifications or delete social media apps from your phone and only access them from your computer. “Often the sheer opportunity to check email or social media can lead to almost compulsive behavior,” he said.

How to start practicing self-nudging on your own

“It’s far more effective to change 10 things by 1% than one thing by 10%,” said Swart. She recommends starting out by making “micro tweaks” to nudge yourself, like setting out an extra glass of water on your desk to remind you to stay hydrated, walking an extra 1000 steps in a day or setting a sleep alarm to remind you to go to bed half an hour earlier. “You can take on bigger challenges as you develop the skill of self-nudging,” she said. “Change takes time, but if we pick a few items each quarter, in a year they are effortless habits.”

There are a number of tactics that self-nudgers can employ in their daily lives, said Hertwig. Here are seven he and Reijula recommend.

1. Exploit the power of positioning. That’s right, go ahead and push the cookies to the back of the cupboard, and then place the nuts right in front of them.

2. Manipulate accessibility. An example of this, said Hertwig, would be subscribing to a vegetable box. Getting the vegetables delivered to your home each week removes the planning, time and effort that’d be necessary if you had to go to the supermarket to get them. This increases your accessibility to veggies, and thereby, the likelihood you’ll eat them. In other cases, you may want to limit accessibility, like if you have a weakness for potato chips, don’t keep them in the house. Instead, treat yourself to chips on special occasions.

3. Observe a cooling-off period. Delaying gratification can sometimes help you make better choices. Rather than giving into an impulse to go straight for the junk food, take a timeout. Check in with yourself a little while later to see if you still want that ice cream sundae, or if you’d be satisfied with a piece of fruit or a square of dark chocolate instead.

4. Use reminders and prompts. Hertwig suggests leaving your trainers by the front door so when you see them it’ll be easier to slip them on and go for a run. Swart recommends placing your yoga mat in full view or creating virtual or paper reminders to nudge yourself toward healthy choices. Either way, such prompts will help you bring your healthy intentions back into focus.

5. Reframe the situation. When the idea of working out feels like a big drag, remind yourself of how good it makes your body feel. Think about the mental boost it gives your brain — not to mention, the calories it burns and the benefits for your heart.

6. Set implementation intentions. Another simple technique that has been proven effective for goal achievement, said Hertwig, is creating precise action plans in advance. The plan should take an if-then approach. In other words, he said, “if situation X arises, I will do Y.”

7. Harness the power of accountability. Make a public declaration about a healthy lifestyle habit you’d like to commit to, and enlist your family, friends or social media network to help you make good on it.

“Initial motivation alone is often not enough for creating lasting behavior change,” said Reijula. “We often gradually slide back to our old habits.” Even though we’re often conflicted between various goals and desires, "we can also think ahead and avoid some of the unnecessary struggles,” he said. “That’s where [self-nudging] can make a big difference.”