Using the Nudge Theory to Your Advantage

What do urinals and houseflies have to do with improving your health habits? Two words: nudge theory.

In the 1990’s, maintenance staff at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport set out to reduce “spillage” from male urinals in their restrooms. Their solution? Paint a small image of a housefly in the desired target of the ceramic urinal.

And it worked! The image of the housefly subtly “nudged” facility patrons to pay more attention to their aim, reducing time, labor, and costs for the airport’s cleaning staff.

The nudge theory really isn’t all that new. Supermarkets have been using it for decades. Ever notice how certain products tend to be placed at eye level, while other brands are placed near your ankles? In this way, the grocery store is nudging you towards buying a certain product, possibly one with a greater profit margin for the store.

An important note about nudges and behavior change: nudges are not mandating and don’t force you to take a particular action. They do however, make one option (the one you want to occur) easier or more accessible.

Let’s say you want to build the habit of going for a run or working out when you get home from the office. In the past, however, you’ve struggled to avoid turning on Netflix and sinking into your comfortable couch, extinguishing any momentum you had built towards starting your exercise plan. An effective nudge may be to lay your fitness clothes over your television each morning so that, when you get home from work, you have to remove the folded clothes from your television in order to avoid your fitness plan. It’s possible you may decide to do this regardless, but creating an obstacle for yourself to avoid exercise can only make it more likely that you’ll go for your planned run or workout.

The same thing can be accomplished with food choices. If you have goals to eat more fruits and vegetables, placing them at eye level in the front of your refrigerator – rather than stashed in the produce drawer to spoil – may help nudge you towards choosing those foods more often.

Think about your daily habits and which behaviors you want to encourage. How can you nudge yourself towards those goals? It’s all about making the choice you want more convenient and obvious for your future self.