Wednesday, September 3, 2008

self control at a distance (a.k.a good defaults)

Halloween last year resulted in a big bowl of candy. It sat on the kitchen counter, and almost every time I walked by, I ate some. Each time I had some candy, I also had a nice helping of guilt for my lack of self-control. So, one day, I finally had the sense to take the bowl and put it on the top shelf in the cupboard -- making it slightly harder to get to -- and my candy consumption dropped to almost zero.

It's experiences like this that remind me that self-control is best practiced at a distance. I know that I will lack the willpower to skip the candy when it is right in front of me. I need to prepare in advance, because my future self is weak-willed.

It's silly to "trick" myself like this, but the most effective strategy is to:

Plan ahead to give the best option the path of least resistance.

This applies equally well with other people too. Let's take 401k plans as an example...

Many companies offer a 401k plan to their employees, often with some form of company matching, and there are a lot of good reasons for employees to participate. With so many benefits (not too mention the long term importance of saving for retirement), it seems like a no-brainer. But the numbers don't look good:

One-quarter of eligible workers choose not to participate in their employer's 401(k) plan, and, of those who do participate, less than 10 percent contribute the maximum.

So, if you can influence the 401k policy at your company, make it so employees are auto-enrolled. Give them a way to opt-out, but by default, they should get enrolled at a contribution level that will help them save enough to retire.

You're not doing it because the employees are dumb, or lazy. You do it because they are busy, and because the company cares enough to make the best choice the default.


This is the point where I should launch into a diatribe about the importance of good defaults for software, but the experts have been telling us that for years.