Apple or cookies? Running or TV? Sales calls or facebook?

All day long, we have to make these tiny decisions between good and bad, productive and fruitless, long-term versus short-term. On their own, these decisions might seem insignificant, but if compounded over time, these small choices will make or break your success in any area or life.

We all would like to think that our decision making is always rational, but that is not really the case. In fact, most of our daily decisions are based on two things: Convenience and immediate gratification.

In 2012, Google faced a problem that might pale in comparison to the usual projects, but nevertheless led them to create a team of behavioral science PhDs to investigate the following:

Why do employees eat too many M&Ms? And how do we stop them?

According to their rationale, eating too much of the free candy might hinder Google´s efforts to keep employees happy and healthy.

So their team went to work, and they surveyed employees, collected data on the proximity of employees to the M&M bins, consulted academic papers, and eventually launched an experiment.

What if the company kept the sweets hidden in opaque containers and covered them with a lid while openly displaying healthy snacks such as pistachios and dried figs?
The result: In the New York office alone, employees consumed a mind-blowing 3.1 million fewer calories from M&Ms over only 7 weeks. That´s 9 vending machine-size packages of M&Ms for each of the office`s 2000 employees!

Now, did the employees suddenly decide to eat healthier? Certainly not. All Google had to do was make the convenient choice the healthy one. If you still really wanted M&Ms, you could get up and get them. But because only healthy choices were displayed publicly, workers went with the new easy choice without even thinking about it.

The Power of Default Choices

This concept can be explained in one single picture:

Now, why is there such a vast difference in organ donors in similar countries? Coming from Germany, I can tell you that there is not much of a difference between us and Austria, for example.

The reason is so simple it´s nearly unbelievable. You would think that people actually make rational decisions when it comes to important things such as organ donations. But the truth is, environment nearly completely determines whether you are an organ donor or not. Here´s why:

In countries with low donor rate, the form was opt-in, meaning that you had to check the box to become an organ donor. In comparison, countries with donor rates close to 100% have an opt-out form where you have to check a box in order to drop out of the organ donor program.

When people are then faced with a choice, even an important one like this, they simply go with the default choice because it requires less thinking.

Now, if a simple difference in a check-box can determine whether you become an organ donor or not, you can bet that default choices affect every other area of your life as well.
For example, when you come home Friday night after work, the choices you make are largely determined by one question: What is convenient, readily available, and leads to gratification?

If you have chocolate bars lying around the house and cake at eyesight in the fridge, that will likely be what you eat. But if you hide the sweets (or get rid of them entirely), and instead display healthy snacks like Google did, the choices you make will be significantly improved.

Using the ladder

A few years ago, BJ Fogg, researcher and professor at Stanford University, decided to restrict his ever-increasing popcorn consumption. Because he knew about default choices, what he did was simple:

Fogg took the popcorn, went in his garage, took a ladder, climbed up, and placed the popcorn on a shelf. Now, if he really wanted his popcorn, he could still climb up the ladder and get it. But because he made it harder to get, Fogg dramatically decreased his popcorn consumption.

You, too, can use the same technique to change your default choices. Whether it is climbing up the ladder, hiding sweets in the closet, or changing the way you use to get home in order to avoid the supermarket you usually get alcohol, sweets, or cigarettes from, making it harder for yourself to engage in the activities that you want to avoid will pay off in a huge way.

Creating Default Choices for Good Behaviors

The same principle can be used to create more positive behaviors when you often lack the willpower to follow through.

Struggling to begin a workout routine in the morning? Place the alarm clock or your phone far enough that you need to get up in order to turn it off. Increase the room temperature over night so you feel comfortable getting up. Have your running clothes ready so you have one less excuse not to run. Have a friend pick you up at 6am so you can´t back out.

By designing all these small environmental changes before actually making the decision, you make it much easier for yourself to follow through even when you don´t feel like it.

Want to make better food choices? Throw out all the garbage and replace it with healthy snacks that you can openly display in all the areas where you usually just mindlessly gobble down two chocolate bars. Go to organic food stores instead of the supermarket because the food choices they offer will naturally be better and you will make good choices simply because there are no bad choices to distract you.

The Takeaway

Whatever changes you want to make in your life, design for laziness. Assume that when it is time to make decisions such as what to eat and whether to run or watch TV, your brain will usually go for the easiest choice. To make sure that it is also the good one, make your bad behaviors harder to do and your good behaviors easier. Design for laziness, and you can save your willpower for other choices.

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