Grow awareness, but nudge yourself

Recently, Maharashtra banned the use of plastic bags. Shops stopped handing out polythene bags overnight and people found themselves carrying things in their hands or going back home to set out with a cloth bag. It caused some confusion and friction for a week. Then everything felt okay. Carrying a cloth bag seems like second nature as Maharashtra has accepted and fully integrated the ‘no plastic’ rule.

Why wouldn’t people bring their bags before the ban? Why did it take a ban to spur them into action? And how could people change so quickly?

People already knew that use of plastic is questionable and that cloth bags are environment friendly. There were thousands of awareness programs about the ‘evils’ of plastic. But the systems were in favour of plastic. With polythene bags costing a fraction of a Rupee, shops would give you polythene bags free of cost. People didn’t need to carry bags with them and would set out empty-handed. Not anymore. With cloth bags being costlier, vendors stock up only paper bags. But paper is unsuitable for wet (curd) or really heavy (watermelon) grocery. People had to take stock of their behaviour and alter it. They needed a nudge.

And nudge, we too did. The featured image of this post shows our home’s front door, with a cloth shopping bag attached to the hook. It is nearly impossible for us to forget our bag behind. In this post, I want to emphasise the importance of nudges and triggers. I want to say why mere awareness is not enough and why you should have a system of triggers to make you really do something you plan.

Why just awareness is not enough?

Asha reads about the benefits of Amla (gooseberry) juice. She buys a bottle of Amla juice and keeps it in her fridge. She is motivated to drink a glass everyday before breakfast. After all, she read 20 articles on the benefits of Amla. Surely she has the knowledge and can use it to make her a glass of juice everyday. But wanting to reach office by 9 am, Asha finds herself rushing every morning, right from waking up to the moment she catches her bus. It is only when she sits in the bus that she remembers her forgotten glass of Amla juice. Sometimes she remembers to drink. But her success is sporadic, never changing into a habit.

This happens to all of us. We know that something is good / not good for our family and us. We keep feeding ourselves new data to keep our motivation high. We attend awareness programs. But with so many inputs crowding our brain, all our knowledge is pushed deep down the stack, where it is forgotten. Usually, we remember only when our brain becomes less crowded or when a sudden trigger from somewhere reminds us. E.g. Asha remembers the juice when she is in the bus, with nothing to do. She also remembers it when she sees an Amla vendor while the bus passes the market-side. By that time it’s too late.

For knowledge to surface at the right time, we must find a trigger to retrieve that knowledge. To be motivated to act, we must keep our targets within easy reach. A system with triggers and easy targets is the only practical way to remember acting on our goals. Author Richard Thaler calls these triggers ‘nudges‘.

Principles of a good nudge

To make us act upon a nudge, it is not enough to have a plain reminder. Nudges follow certain principles that affect their quality. Let’s see them one by one.

The right context: Nudges can be based on one or more of the following conditions: time, place, person and activity.
Here are four nudges, each based on one of the four conditions.
Time: Alarm to wake up at 4:30 am.
Place: Next time I am at the super market, remember to get a mouse trap.
Person: Next time I meet Ian, I should talk to him about how he invests in stock.
Activity: Next time I go swimming, I need to cover my ears.
The combination of one or more of these conditions is called context. When designing triggers, it is very important to identify the right context and use the tools appropriate for it. E.g. it is unsuitable to use an alarm for 7:30 pm to remind you to buy a mouse trap, hoping that you will be at the market at that time.

A vivid call to action: A nudge should tell you exactly what to do. It is a lousy idea to set a trigger that says, “It’s 7:30… remember?” Well, you may not remember! Likewise, you cannot tape a vague note saying, “Clean this” on your bedroom window. Good triggers are specific. “7:30 pm. Webinar on Internet security at”, “Grease stain on glass. Clean with benzene.”

Use sparingly at one place: Some fridges and whiteboards have so may Post-Its and some Trello lists have so many to-dos, that it is exasperating just to look at them. Use nudges sparingly at a single place. In my opinion, no more than 4 pieces of reminders should be in a single area. You should prioritise and display your top four reminders, while archiving the rest for a later context.

ONE step away from your activity: To be effective, your reminder should put you ONE step away from your goal. It should be so close to the activity you want to trigger that you cannot miss it. Need to take a cloth shopping bag for shopping? Hang the bag on a hook on your front door. Need to remember to discuss something with a friend over phone? Put a small paper chit with a reminder in the same pocket as your phone. When you reach for your phone, you will feel the chit.

Discard a reminder as soon as it is done: A reminder lying around after its job is done is just clutter. You need to deal with it immediately. If it is a one-time reminder, delete or dispose it. If it is a recurring reminder, put it in a place for archived reminders and fetch it when you need to trigger yourself later.

A system to set triggers

Here is a good system to plan your triggers.

  1. Identify the goal precisely: Your goal should be vividly described. A vague goal leads to confusion and questions. A reminder to ‘always use a cloth shopping bag while shopping’ is better than, ‘Never use a plastic bag while shopping’. You can visualise the first one better and plan a concrete action with it.
  2. Identify the context applicable to the goal: Every goal has at least one context, but many goals have multiple contexts. Take a moment to identify all those applicable to your goal. E.g. one way to remind you to drink your protein shake is at 7:30 pm (time-based) every evening. That may be the time you return from the gym. However you can have a place-based reminder too. How about you stick a post-it on your main door before leaving for the gym? When you return, your front door will remind you to have your shake. Think through how you can use each of the contextual triggers: time, place, person or activity, to nudge you towards your goal.
  3. Brainstorm solutions: The real world never has a one-size-fits-all solution. People are different, with different strengths. If you are punctual by nature, then time-based nudges will work for you. If you meet a lot of people everyday, then person-based nudges should be your go-to. Given a goal and its context, come up with 4-5 solutions on how you will nudge yourself towards it. Can you use an alarm? Should you leave reminders for when you meet people? Is a sticker on your tennis racquet a good reminder (activity-based)?
  4. Pick a solution that leaves you ONE step away from your goal: Eliminate all those solutions that need you to take too many steps to get to your goal and pick one that leaves you ONE step away. There can be many one step solutions, but make sure there really is just one step. Multiple steps may demotivate you and make you ignore your goal.
    E.g. Let’s talk about taking your cloth shopping bag while shopping. If you simply leave a sticker on your front door that reminds you to take your bag, that’s multiple steps. Retrace your steps towards the room that has the shopping bag, pick it up and walk back to the front door. Why not fix a hook to or near the front door and hang your shopping bag right there? That is literally ONE step away. Just pick up the bag.
    Likewise, if you need to watch a webinar at 6:00 pm today, make sure that the reminder also has a hyperlink to the landing page of the event. One click will take you there.
  5. Decide where the nudges go: Once you pick a solution, it is time to plan the stationary that will go someplace to remind you. A very important rule here. The notification should go someplace where it will grab your attention without you having to voluntarily look for it. Here is a table that presents a reminder system and also explains what I mean by automatic and voluntary reminders.
    Context Digital Non-digital
    Time Several apps are good. Google Calendar is my favourite since a single account can be accessed on both phone and laptop. For a simple purpose like a stop-watch, you can use Timely. It is hard to set up time-based reminders on non-digital media. Alarm clocks ring, but they cannot show for what purpose they are ringing. Is it time to wake up or is it time to cook breakfast? On a day, when you need several time-based reminders, non-digital alarms are not good enough.
    Place GPS has grown over the years, but I still don’t trust a GPS-based reminder to ping me as soon as I reach a certain building. A broad area or locality works well. Also, if you are driving, it is hard to fish out your phone when it pings on reaching a desired location. However, a phone fixed to a phone stand on the handlebar of your bicycle works well. A small note stuck to your car dashboard to stop at the fruit shop is effective. You can start peeling off the notes as you cover each place. For a motorbike, you can use the petrol tank housing and for a bicycle, you can use the handlebar. If you are riding with your spouse, he/she can remind you to stop at every place.
    Person While talking to a person over phone, it can be hard to look at the screen if it pings any reminder for a topic that you want to cover with him/her.  But, for a landline call, you can tape a note either to your fixed phone or in small notebook nearby. If you are meeting a friend in person and giving him/her something, a small note along with the object, reminding the topic of discussion can be effective. Another option is to tell your friend to remind you to talk about something the next time you meet. You can do this through a call, email or message. With luck, when you meet, he/she may remember the topic when you don’t.
    Activity It is not a good idea to use a phone reminder in the midst of an activity. You won’t be responding to a phone reminder while you are swimming or while taking a tennis shot or while singing at a group singing event. Your best option may be a smart watch which vibrates and shows your reminder on a small screen. A note taped to your tennis racquet can work great. Any equipment relevant to your activity can be tagged with post-it notes. Your swimming buddy can remind you to wear your ear protectors before you get into the water.

    As you can see, digital tools are excellent for time-based reminders, while non-digital ones are still the best bet for place-based, person-based or activity-based reminders.

  6. Put the nudge where it belongs: It is time to actually create the nudges and put them in place. Get your post-it notes, reminder app and alarms. Put your plans to use.
  7. Act on the nudges: Once the nudge triggers, you are ready to act on your goal.
  8. Discard the nudges: Once done, nudges should either be discarded or returned to a repository for future use. Nudges which linger after the job is done are simply clutter and they may confuse you or others.
  9. Tweak your system from time to time: Certain nudges work better than others. Some of them may not work. You should constantly review your nudge system and tweak them such that they are effective. E.g. if your friend always forgets to remind your goals, then you should switch to an app. If your underperforming phone fails to ring on time for your time-based nudges, then switch to an old-style alarm.


In today’s life, you are constantly being pulled in all directions. You can easily forget to remember certain things. Hopefully this post gives you a framework for remembering things for you through effective nudges. If executed well, you can feel a load lightening off your shoulders.

Published by

Harikrishna Natrajan

Unleashing life's full potential