Tag Archives: decisions

With Habits, “It Helps to Adopt Simple Rules.”

Habits interview: Cass Sunstein.

I’m hard at work on Better Than Before, my book about habits, which focuses on how to change a habit – whatever you want your particular habit to be.  (To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

As part of my research, I’ve read innumerable books and papers on various topics related to habits. One of my favorite sources is the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

I started my career in law, so I knew a lot about American legal scholar Cass Sunstein and his work. Nudge, however, isn’t about law. It’s about how people and institutions can “nudge” behavior, to help people achieve better health, better finances, and better outcomes in many different areas, by shaping default choices that lead people to make better habits (often, without even realizing it), and by making better choices easier. “Choice architecture” takes advantage of the Strategy of Convenience: the simple facts that many people choose the default decision presented to them, rather than take the trouble to choose for themselves, and that when things are easier, we more likely to do them, and when things are harder, we’re less likely to do them (for good and for ill).

Sunstein and Thaler offer many practical suggestions about how to put this approach into practice; people are still free to make their own decisions, but they’ve been “nudged” in the right direction.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Cass: Probably this: It helps to adopt simple rules, which are easy to follow. For example: Exercise on specific days every week.  I play squash (an obscure racquet sport), and it’s good to have a plan to play with a specific person at a specific time every Monday, and another every Wednesday, and another every Friday. In fact it’s often best to adopt a practice that operates by default, meaning that unless you take active steps to alter the practice, you’re on the path you want. Example: Pay bills (credit cards, mortgage, etc.) automatically and electronically, so that you’re in the habit (so to speak) even if you aren’t thinking about bills at all. Habitual behavior isn’t something that we have to work at — though it might take a lot of work to make certain behavior habitual, or to turn something that is a struggle into part of life’s furniture.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That one’s tastes can change a lot, and that you often like some things more, or dislike them less, when you keep doing them. When I was 18 years old, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which new habits and new tastes can develop over time — and how much control people ultimately have over their own habits.

Here’s something that I also didn’t know: In thinking about habits, it’s useful to focus on two things: the costs of decisions and the costs of errors. That sounds like econo-speak, and it is, but when we have a good habit, the decision costs are low (because it’s a habit!) and the error costs are also low (because it’s a good habit, e.g., a healthy one). Bad habits tend to have low decision costs (because the relevant behavior is habitual) but high error costs (because they make your life worse). When we lack a habit, the decision costs are often pretty high, because we have to keep thinking about what to do. That can be a strong argument in favor of developing a habit; it simplifies life. True, the decision cost-error cost framework will hardly appeal to everyone, but I think it’s useful.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

I try to find at least two hours to write every weekday morning, between 9 am and noon — that is pretty helpful for productivity.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

After I left government, I developed a new habit, which is that I generally don’t do interviews. I am breaking that habit right now! [Gretchen: Which I very much appreciate.]

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Actually I haven’t.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Depends on what they are! Some of them are helpful, of course, but others less so. One question is whether it is possible to object to habits as such. I think it is; some of them can be stultifying even if they are pretty good (or great). If you have a habit of eating only healthy foods, your life might be a bit boring. Another question is whether it is possible to endorse habits as such. I think that it is, because they simplify life, and make it more easily navigable.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Dick Thaler, my coauthor on Nudge (and several academic papers). I’ve learned a lot from him about the importance of default rules. He’s also responsible for the term “snudge” (meaning, self-nudge), which is admittedly awful. (But it’s a lot better, and more useful, than “selfie” — wouldn’t you agree?) If you keep your refrigerator pretty empty, and don’t fill it with unhealthy things, you’re snudging. In fact good lives are full of good snudges (but I am now considering whether to develop a new habit, which is not to use that particular word).

Secret of Adulthood: Most Decisions Don’t Require Extensive Research.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:


Agree, disagree?

Whether or not research is required, some people love to do research.

A desire to do extensive research may be related to whether you’re a satisficer or a maximizer, or where you fit in the Four Rubin Tendencies of Upholder, Questioner, Rebel, or Obliger. (Yes, for lack of a better label, I’m calling these the “Rubin Tendencies.”) Questioners, in particular, love to do research.

What’s true for you?

Have You Ever Been Stuck Between Two Options, and Unable to Decide?

I love teaching stories–parables from the Bible, Zen stories, paradoxes, Aesop’s fables, koans. That’s one reason that I now use my weekly video to tell a story.

One such story is the story of “Buridan’s ass.” In it, an ass stands between two identical piles of hay, and unable to find a reason to choose one pile over the other, dies of hunger.

I know this story well, and I was struck by how absolutely perfectly it applies to Geoff Dyer’s description of his struggle to decide what book to write next, as set forth in his fascinating book, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. Dyer writes:

Although I had made up my mind to write a book about Lawrence I had also made up my mind to write a novel, and while the decision to write the book about Lawrence was made later it had not entirely superseded that earlier decision. At first I’d had an overwhelming urge to write both books but these two desires had worn each other down to the point where I had no urge to write either. Writing them both at the same time was inconceivable and so these two equally overwhelming ambitions first wore each other down and then wiped each other out. As soon as I thought about working on the novel I fell to thinking that it would be much more enjoyable to write my study of Lawrence. As soon as I started making notes on Lawrence I realised I was probably sabotaging forever any chance of writing my novel which, more than any other book I had written, had to be written immediately, before another protracted bout of labour came between me and the idea of what I perceived as a rambling, sub-Bernhardian rant of a novel. It was now or never.  So I went from making notes on Lawrence to mkaing notes for my novel, by which I mean I went from not working on my book about Lawrence to not working on the novel because all of this to-ing and fro-ing and note-taking actually meant that I never did any work on either book.

This description struck a real chord with me. I’ve had that feeling of paralysis when I just couldn’t decide between two options. A very unhappy feeling.

Sidenote: This also reminds me of my Secret of Adulthood: Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

Have you ever been stuck between two choices?

Want an Exercise Routine You’ll Stick To? Ask Yourself These 11 Questions.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or Quiz Day, or List Day.

This Wednesday: Want an exercise routine you’ll stick to? Ask yourself these eleven questions.

When I ask people what they’d like to do for their own happiness projects, they often say something like, “Exercise more regularly.” Exercise is very important for health and mood, and everyone knows this–and yet it’s often tough for people to stick to an exercise routine.

I think that one mistake is to choose a form of exercise based on a) what your friend recommends, b) what kind of change to your body you want to see, or c) what is the fashionable form of exercise. It’s helpful to consider these factors, but in the end, we’re far more likely to stick with an exercise routine that suits our nature and our schedule. If you’re struggling to exercise regularly, this is not the place to fight your nature! If you’ve been a night person all your life, vowing to get up at 5:00 a.m. to run isn’t very realistic.

Ask yourself these questions, and when you’re done, think about what kind of exercise routine would suit you best:

1. Are you a morning person or a night person?

2. Would you like to spend more time in nature?

3. Would you like more time in solitude; or more time with friends; or more time to meet new people?

4. Are you motivated by competition?

5. Do you enjoy loud music?

6. Do you do better with some form of external accountability, or does that just annoy you?

7. Would you like to challenge yourself with exercise (whether by learning a new skill or pushing yourself physically)–or not?

8. Do you like sports and games?

9. Would you like more meditative time, or more time to watch TV, read newspapers, etc?

10. Do you have a lot of control over your time?

11. Are you sensitive to weather?

Your answers should guide your thinking about exercise. Work out with a trainer? Take a class? Be inside or outside? etc.

For instance, if you’re a morning person who craves solitude and time alone with your thoughts, but has little control over  your schedule and hates feeling accountable to anyone, you might enjoy walking in a park every morning before you leave for work.

If you’re a night person who loves music and meeting new people, and is also motivated by accountability, you might like to take a dance-based exercise class after work.

Often, people will say, “Go for a twenty minute walk at lunch? That’s nothing. I really need to get in shape.” Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good! The twenty minute walk you take is so much better for you than the three mile run you never do. You get the biggest health boost going from no exercise to some exercise.

Just a little tweak in a routine sometimes makes a big difference. For instance, to exercise on the weekends, I go for a long walk. Generally, I like to think while I walk, but I do a lot of walking every day, and I found myself getting bored on the long walks–and so finding excuses to skip them.

One of my Twelve Personal Commandments is to Identify the problem. What was the problem? “I’m bored during these walks, so I don’t want to go.” For the first time, I bought myself an audiobook, and for the past few weeks I’ve been listening to The Golden Compass when I walk. It makes me so happy! I haven’t missed a day’s walk since I started.

How about you? What aspects of your nature and your schedule make it easier–or harder–to stick to an exercise routine? What works for you?

7 Tips for Making Happy Decisions about How to Spend Your Time, Energy, and Money.

We all have to make decisions about how to spend our time, energy, and money. Because of my happiness project, I now explicitly ask myself, “Will this decision make me happier?” I’m determined to get the most happiness bang for the buck.

Here are some questions I consider:

1. Is this decision likely to strengthen my relationships with other people? Strong relationships with other people are a key—the key—to happiness, so decisions that help me build or strengthen ties are likely to boost my happiness. Yes, it’s a hassle and an expense to go to my college reunion, but it’s likely to have a big happiness pay-off.

2. Will this decision provide me with novelty and challenge? Novelty and challenge make me happier—but they also make me feel insecure, intimidated, frustrated, and stupid. To get past that hurdle, I remind myself that in the end, I usually get a big shot of happiness. When I considered adding video to my blog, I reminded myself that the process of mastering the process would likely make me happier. And it has.

3. What is the opportunity cost of this decision? (“Opportunity cost” describes that fact that doing one thing means foregoing alternatives.) Energy, time, and money are limited. Even if a decision would bring happiness, if it means that I have to give up the opportunity to do many other happiness-boosting activities, it may not be worth it. I could dedicate many hours to learning about classical music, and in the end, I might enjoy classical music more, but that activity would crowd out too many other things that I want to do more.

4. Does this decision help me obey my personal commandment to Be Gretchen? I want to shape my life to reflect my temperament, interests, and values. I ask myself: Am I making this decision to “Be Gretchen,” or because I want to impress other people, pretend that I’m different from the person I actually am, or deny a truth about myself?

5. When I consider a particular course of action, do I feel energized or drained?

6. How happy are the people who have made that particular decision? In Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, he argues that the most effective way to judge whether a particular course of action will make you happy in the future is to ask people who are following that course of action right now if they’re happy, and assume that you’ll feel the same way. Going on a family trip to Disneyworld. Getting a hamster. Learning to use Instagram. Working as a paralegal. Volunteering. In evaluating the likely consequences of a decision, other people’s experiences of happiness—or lack thereof—can be very instructive for me.

7. I remind myself to “Choose the bigger life.” People make different decisions about what the “bigger life” would be, but when I ask myself that question, it always helps me see the right answer, for myself.

This list might help answer questions such as:

  • Should I join Facebook?
  • Should I buy a tent?
  • Should I throw a Labor Day party?
  • Should I buy a new kitchen table?
  • Should I sign up for Spanish lessons?

There’s no right answer or wrong answer — only the right answer for me.

How about you? Have you developed questions for yourself, or other strategies, to help make wise decisions?