x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sometimes we need a gentle nudge to not hit the snooze

We're hard to motivate without a lot of pushing and cajoling, especially when the task at hand is a difficult one.

At one time or another, we've all felt at war with our own impulses. It's easy to resolve to wake up early and go for a long run, but when the alarm buzzes in the groggy pre-morning hours the firm dedication of the night before can turn pretty easily into another whack at the snooze button. It's human nature. We're hard to motivate without a lot of pushing and cajoling, especially when the task at hand is a difficult one.

Not surprisingly, money is often a better motivator than a hastily-made mental promise, a fact that researchers have in recent decades begun investigating and learning how to exploit. While we will always to some degree be slaves to our blundering psychology, adding the carrot of money (coupled with a good dose of peer pressure) can seriously affect how we behave, whether we are trying to quit smoking, lose weight, exercise regularly or stick to a savings plan.

In their book Nudge, published last year by the Yale University Press, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein describe regimes that have been shown to change how people act simply by engineering the range of choices they are given. Thaler and Sunstein, both professors at the University of Chicago, show how "choice architecture", when put into place by governments and companies, can help improve the population's health and financial well-being.

When schools rearrange how cafeteria food is presented, placing unhealthy choices below eye level and spotlighting the better options, they found that students gravitated towards healthier food. The same psychology is beginning to be used by companies to encourage better saving habits in employees. Many companies in the US now put employees in saving and investment plans by default, requiring them to opt out to avoid regular contributions.

A few companies even automatically ratchet up contributions to savings when employees get raises. Workers are allowed to get out of these savings schemes, of course. But in practice, few do. Inertia, it turns out, is a powerful thing. Ideas like these, which take advantage of our natural tendencies to do bad things (or, just as often, nothing) and turn them into good, haven't yet taken hold among companies in the UAE. That doesn't mean that you can't harness this new research yourself to nudge your way to wealth and health.

Financially, the best self-nudges are those that take decisions out of your own hands. Usually, that means automation. All banks allow customers to set up standing orders, or directives that the bank executes monthly to transfer money from your current account to somewhere else. Many people use them to send money back home or to pay off utility and credit card bills. But you can also set up a standing order to fund your savings or investment account, enforcing your resolve to keep up on saving for retirement - or funding any other financial goal.

All it usually requires is a call to your bank, and because of the inertia effect, you are unlikely to go back and cancel the standing order. In all likelihood, you'll naturally adjust to having less spending money. You can thank your laziness for that. If you want to push yourself even harder, a number of new websites can help you harness the power of nudging. StickK.com, a website started by three Yale University professors last year, allows users to enter into contracts in which they promise to quit smoking, exercise regularly, lose weight, run a marathon or complete a number of other predetermined and customisable goals.

To keep you honest, the site requires that you appoint a "referee" to monitor your progress and punish you if you slip. You specify what your per-violation penalty will be and where it will go (you can designate a friend or a favourite charity, but if you want to add a little extra motivation, you can pick a foe or a charity you don't like). It's that simple. Other sites focus on specific health and financial goals. Makemoneylosingweight.com enters people into so-called diet pools that dole out financial rewards to people who reach their weight-loss goals. Still others, such as hassleme.co.uk, send you annoying reminders at random intervals about whatever it is you're trying to accomplish. Many HassleMe users focus on getting fit, but plenty of them also have financial aims in mind. One person, for example, told the site to send a reminder to "check my bank balance and bill pay" once every five days or so.

These newfangled methods may not work for everybody. If you're prone to sabotaging your good intentions, forcing yourself into an automatic savings plan you're likely to cancel, or entering into a contract to put more money towards retirement may well prove futile. The research shows, however, that these kinds of commitments do work for most people. They're at least worth a try. afitch@thenational.ae