Self-nudging is a way to encourage yourself to take ‘the road less traveled’ more often until it becomes ‘the road mostly travelled’. It doesn’t do this by solving problems, nor by eliminating incongruence, nor by setting a ‘big hairy audacious goal’. It does it by regularly engaging in a do-able behaviour which means that in those moments of choice, the coin is biased to turn up heads rather then tails so that we are nudged to take the path we know is good for us. There is no battle of wills and therefore no willpower is needed. All you are committed to is doing the biasing behaviour, monitoring the effect of the self-nudge and if necessary trying different biasing behaviours (‘trial and feedback’, as we call it).
The theory behind our idea comes from the continual discovery of more and more ‘cognitive biases’. At the last count Wikipedia listed over 100. Penny Tompkins and I thought, if we acquire so many biases without knowing, why don’t we add a few by design? (For how to do this see our article, Self-Nudging: unconscious decision-making and how we can bias our future self.)
Below is a report on how I have been doing in one area – running regularly.
For many years I was an avid recreational runner. But that was over twenty years ago. Then I got injured and … blah, blah, blah. Since then I’ve started running again many times but I never maintained it for any length of time. Last December I decided to try again, only this time I decided to do two things differently (i.e. belatedly apply the old adage, ‘if what you’re doing isn’t working, do something else’). First, I defined evidence of success as ‘a run’ –regardless of how long or how fast or how good I felt. Secondly, I decided to minimise my chances of getting injured or ill. (I have had a strong pattern of ‘forgetting’ I am not 30 years old anymore and upping my mileage too soon and over doing it.) I started with a 15 minute walk/run and have restricted my runs to a maximum of 20 minutes.
After six months I was still running but only in stretches of one, two or three weeks. These were followed by gaps where I would not run for four, five or six weeks before the cycle started again. I was pleased I hadn’t given up entirely, but clearly I wasn’t running as consistently as I would like. Also I recognised there was a high probability I would keep extending one of my not-running phases until I wasn’t running at all.
At the time, Penny and I were developing our model around self-nudge, and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to test our process.
I was using a running log as a motivator during my first six months but it obviously wasn’t working that well. So I decided to make a very small change. I instituted a new rule – something I had never done before: I would add something to the log everyday – whether I ran or not.
After a complete year I can report that I ran 50 times in the first six months and 88 times in the second. The former is equivalent to running almost twice a week, and the latter just over 3 times – every week. That’s a 75% increase.
I think all three changes played their part. The self-nudge daily log had the effect of reminding me that I hadn’t run for a day, two days, three days, and so on. In the past I had managed to ‘forget’ I hadn’t run for a week, then two, then three, then … Every extra day increased the incentive to not run – hardly setting up the self-reinforcing feedback loop I was aiming at. By presenting myself with undeniable evidence of ‘current reality’ daily I didn’t let the breaks build up. Only once did I go for more than a week without a run.
My assessment is that overall there has been a shift. I feel better physically and mentally, the old urge to go out running is back, and I’m not over-doing it. I am also aware that six months is not long enough to be sure. The next six months will provide more quality feedback. If I keep running for about 50% of days for a whole year I’ll count that as excellent evidence … and let you know how it goes.
Postscript Jan 2024
It’s now 12 years since I wrote this blog. Since then I have kept a log of all my runs – and crucially my non-run days.
Apart from two periods where illness kept me from running for several months, I have averaged a run every other day for the entire time.
This means I have achieved my desired outcome to “keep running for about 50% of days for a whole year” for well over a decade. Now that’s what I call “excellent evidence”.