Use Behavioral Economics to Get Your Life Unstuck

Ever feel like your head is foggy, you can’t seem to focus, or like problem-solving just isn’t going your way? We all have days where we just feel stuck…especially now. We’re all adjusting to a new normal, and many of us are spending most of our waking hours primarily at home.

Staying in the same place, completing the same routine day after day can really put your brain in a rut! Well, I have a secret to share with you all: There are ways to trick your brain into jumping out of that rut and return to creative problem-solving with a little regular practice!

Let me walk you through the basics of behavioral economics and a few tricks you can try to help you unstick your brain.

What are Behavioral Economics?

Here’s the situation: Some behavioral scientists believe humans are not always able to make decisions in their own best interest or to their own maximum benefit. Rational decision making is not, in fact, how we operate as a species. The basic theory in behavioral economics posits that people’s feelings (rarely rational), their surroundings, and other external factors influence decision-making in a way that creates ample opportunity for poor decision-making.

But the good news is that we can modify the design of the world we live in to help us make better choices! In public health, we try to use the behavioral economic theory to benefit the greater health of populations by manipulating these external factors to encourage healthy behaviors on a large scale and on an individual level.

For example, the layout of some grocery stores forces shoppers to walk through the produce section before they can access any of the other aisles. The idea is that out of sheer convenience and proximity shoppers will be more likely to add fruits and vegetables to their carts as they walk by.

Another example can be found in how Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems are designed to prompt providers when they interact with patients based on their individual risk factors.

Say a patient is at high risk for diabetes or another chronic disease based on their health, their family history, or where they live. An EHR designed to recognize these risk factors might prompt a primary care doctor to ask this patient more in-depth questions about the issue or counsel them on preventive measures to reduce their risks.

Policies are a great example of behavioral economics used on a larger scale. Want to avoid disease spread through vermin and pests? Institute littering fines and trash collection regulations in cities. Want to drive down asthma and rates of other respiratory issues across the country? The Clean Air Act has you covered (mostly) through national regulation of pollutants and emissions.

How Can You Use Behavioral Economics to Get Your Life Unstuck?

If you’re feeling stuck, first think about your daily routine. Write it all out on some paper ― even the small stuff! Consider what parts of your day you might want to change or add to (i.e., redesign) to make it as convenient as possible to engage in healthy behaviors.

Here are four small behavioral economic tricks to add to your routine which might help your brain unstick.

1. Schedule brain breaks.

Taking small breaks from work throughout the day has been shown to prevent brain burnout and improve productivity when you do get back to work. I’m not just talking about randomly picking up your phone to scroll through Instagram for a few minutes every couple of hours. I’m talking about design!

At the beginning of the week, set scheduled phone alarms, timers, or use the Pomodoro Method, etc. throughout the day, and make sure these scheduled breaks are difficult to ignore. Use these breaks to walk away from your work and engage in a completely different activity regularly between tasks. This could be going for a quick walk, petting your animal(s), reading a book, starting a crossword puzzle (my preferred brain break), or anything that makes you happy.

Working for shorter stretches makes each chunk of work seem to go by more quickly ― there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The promised reward of a short break doing something you love will put you in a better mood. (Remember, your feelings play a big role in decision-making throughout the day!) This will help you focus better and feel more satisfaction upon completion of each work stretch.

2. Use incentives to reach a brain break daily goal each week.

Try to use brain breaks every day you work during the week. But how can you trick your brain into better holding yourself accountable for these brain breaks? Use positive and/or negative reinforcement.

Often referred to as carrots and sticks, positive or negative reinforcement can act as an incentive to complete a behavior. In this case, decide which works best for you (everyone is different). Does looking forward to a new movie or a delicious meal at the end of the week motivate you to work towards a weekly goal (i.e., carrot incentives)? Or you might respond better to a negative incentive, like having to put $10 in a rainy-day jar if you don’t reach a set goal (i.e., stick incentives).

Whether you use carrots or sticks, make sure your carrot incentives are large enough that you’ll be disappointed if you don’t get them, and stick incentives are large enough where you would rather avoid them. However, be wary that setting unrealistic incentives that are too big or too small will most likely not act as sufficient motivation to reach your goal. Having an accountability buddy to enforce these incentives (both carrots and sticks) is one of the more helpful ways to make sure you stick to your plan.

Pro tip: Make sure your incentives are tangible! Working towards a prize or punishment that feels very real yields better results. Use money, food, or items when designing your carrots and sticks.

3. Track and reflect on your results.

Many healthy behaviors don’t bear an immediate, tangible outcome, which makes the work required seem pointless and wasteful when there are so many other options for instant gratification. For example, diet and exercise take time and regular practice to show physical results on the body, which is why so many diets or exercise routines don’t last in the long run. In this instance, it will be easier to continue regular use of brain breaks in your work schedule if you can see your improvements in real time.

You might want to use a notebook or diary/reflection app to track how many projects or tasks you can finish using the brain break method and record how you feel at the end of each workday. Being able to see an aggregate of your achievements, productivity, and overall mood may entice you to stick to the method in your daily schedule.

4. Reframe your working style.

Finally, don’t think of this as something you’re just trying out for a bit. Think of it as an experimental lifestyle change! The way we think about things hold immense power over how we make decisions about them. You can call a stormy day a bummer because you can’t go outside or reframe it as an opportunity to cozy up inside and read a book. In this case, you cannot look at the brain breaks as a chore. Try your best to reframe it as an opportunity to create a lifestyle where you have better productivity and higher rates of satisfaction.

I’ve merely scratched the surface of the design applications for behavioral economics. I focused on a hyper-personal application to promote a more productive workday in a single user. However, behavioral economics are an important part of how our world is designed and how we can improve the health of entire populations. If you’d like to discuss further, please send me an email at victoria.kontor@ibx.com.

As always, be sure to check out our Innovation Design Toolkit at innovation.ibx.com to learn more about design thinking and innovation at IBX.