Change Your Habits by Thinking Small.


Think Small highlights how Gallagher and Service have personally used concepts from behavioral science in order to drink less, exercise more, and actually meet long-term personal goals.

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Using insights gained from work in Britain’s, Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), also known as the "Nudge Unit”. they've created a seven step process that helps individuals learn how to change their own behavior in order to be more successful in achieving personal goals.

These insights are particularly important if you're trying to live more mindfully, reduce excess consumptions, or be more thoughtful about your health. 


What is the Nudge Unit?

The Nudge Unit is a half-government agency, half non-profit, that uses 'insights from behavioural science to encourage people to make better choices for themselves and society.' (, 2017)

By using the social norm nudging methods, the Nudge Unit has met with particular success in getting more British citizens to pay their taxes promptly. Here’s how it works. Citizens who haven’t yet paid their taxes are informed via a letter that most citizens have all paid their taxes. It’s also shared that they (the non-taxpayers) are part of the very small percentage of citizens who haven’t yet paid their taxes. Faced with the social norm of most citizens paying their taxes promptly, most non-tax payers, pay up. 

In this same study, letters to taxpayers who owed the most taxes, seemed to respond better to different social insights. 

Step 1. Set your goal.

This is about as basic as it gets. Most of us have heard that the best way to reach a goal is to write it down. Make it concrete. Perfect right? Well sort of. While taking the time to write down your goal is important — it’s more important that your goal be specific. 

Let’s say your goal is, ‘I want to eat healthier.’ In order to make this more specific you might change your goal to, ‘I want to eat more vegetables.’ Or, ‘I want to stop eating out.’ Or, ‘I want to stop snacking on soda and candy bars throughout the day.’ The key is to make your goal specific and actionable instead of vague and open-ended. 

Small changes in language or access to previously unknown information can have dramatic outcomes in people's long-term behavior. 

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Step 2: Make it simple.

The second step in making a goal actual stick is to make it simple to achieve. How can you create a path of least resistance? If your goal is to eat more vegetables, or stop snacking on sugary snacks throughout the day, then you should first focus on how you can make it easier to do so.

You might decide to remove temptation to eat any sugary foods by removing all the junk food in your home or office. Then you might decide to increase the amount of sleep your getting, because you realize you crave more sugar when you don’t get enough sleep.

If you’re trying to eat more veggies, you might plan a month worth of meals that only use vegetables. Or if you know that you’re strapped for time and don’t like to cook, maybe you sign up for a meal delivery service such as HelloFreshWhatever the case, the first two steps in achieving any goal is to make it specific and make it simple to achieve.

Gallagher and Service also recommend using what’s called a ‘bright line’ in order to know when you’ve faltered on your goal. For example, let’s say you’re trying to eat more vegetables. A bright line might be that every meal you eat, your plate should be at least 3/4 vegetables.  Or if you’re trying to drink less, maybe you never drink at home or don’t drink Sunday through Wednesday.

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Step 3: Use a Commitment Device.

The third step in achieving a goal using the concepts from behavioral economics is to use a commitment device. 

For Gallagher, who’s goal was to exercise more, he had co-workers keep him accountable by writing that he would exercise twice a week on the shared white board. This worked because he didn’t want his co-workers to see him fail. 

However, simply telling someone that you are going to eat healthier is not enough. It’s too vague. It also creates a sense of false accomplishment and can decrease your drive to obtain that goal, because you’ve already ‘won’ praise for talking about it. 

‘In order for a commitment device to be effective, you need to make it specific. You need to write it down and make it accountable with a referee. So those small details can make all of the world of difference between people thinking they’re using these tools and actually potentially backfiring and using them in the way that they’re intended and having the outcomes that we want.’ (Freakanomics, 2017) 

Gallager and Service also note that your referee should not be your partner. Apparently, most partners will conspire with you if you’re feeling like breaking your commitmentto your goal, instead of motivating you to stick with it. They recommend you find a friend or colleague to hold you accountable.

In our example, perhaps you have a friend who is also trying to eat healthier by including more veggies in their diet. A great way to keep each other accountable would be to meet up on Sunday afternoons, go shopping, and do all of your meal prep for the week together. 

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Step 4: Use Temptation Bundling.

Another way to keep your goals on track is to use temptation bundling. The phrase was coined by information management professor, Katherine Milkman, from the University of Pennsylvania. 

The basic idea is to create a situation where you get to give yourself a reward only when you’re doing something you might normally dislike. For instance, binge watching Jane the Virgin, while exercising. Or eating brussels sprouts, while enjoying a glass of your favorite wine. 

For others, temptation bundling might not be enough. You might need to use public punishment/shaming instead. When Gallager was attempting to exercise more, not only did he write it on the white board for all of his co-workers to see, but he also said if he missed a week that he would wear his soccer team’s arch-rivals jersey to work. For him, that was motivation enough to exercise twice a week. 

Obviously, temptation bundling or self-inflicted public shaming will work differently for each person and situation.

The point is to understand how small tweaks in your goal setting and public commitment devices can be adjusted to make you more likely to achieve your goal.

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Step 5: Share.

The fifth step in creating goals that stick is to make sure you share with people about how where you’re at in achieving your goal. If you’re struggling to find vegetable based recipes you love, you might ask a friend who’s a vegan if she has any recipes she’s recommend. Or, if you’re more likely to eat healthy when having friends over, you might try to make dinner plans at least twice a week.

Step 6: Feedback.

Another important step in achieving your goal is to have timely, focused and actionable feedback. This way you can evaluate how you’re doing on meeting your goal and make slight tweaks as you go along. If you’re trying to eat more veggies, you could keep a journal of the food you eat each day. By reviewing this journal on a daily or weekly basis, you’ll be more aware of what causes you to falter and make changes that ensure you continue to eat healthy. Maybe there are certain vegetables you like more than others, by focusing on eating more of certain types, or changing up how the vegetables are prepared you’re more likely to enjoy them for longer.

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Step 7: Make it Stick.

Step seven is all about how to make your goal stick. Achieving your goals can be tricky. So taking the time to think about small changes that can positively effect your behavior can make a big impact. How can you find the grit or determination to keep going even if you have a momentary lapse. 

Becoming more mindful about our decisions and changing small elements in our environment can have massive impacts on our actual behavior.