Ahead of Nudgestock 2018, our annual festival of behavioural science on the cliffs of Folkestone, we caught up with speaker Caroline Webb about her talk, 'Nudge Thyself'.

A British author and business consultant, Caroline's bestselling book, How to Have a Good Day, argues that insights from behavioural economics, psychology and neuroscience can - and should - be used to improve our working lives. 

Caroline is also an economist, executive coach, and former McKinsey partner.

Your book, How to Have a Good Day, argues that insights from behavioural economics, psychology and neuroscience can - and should - be used to improve our working lives. How do you nudge yourself in your everyday life?

Well it's interesting - most people in the audience will have thought about ways to use behavioural science to encourage change in other people's behaviour, whether they're customers, colleagues or citizens. And I think that's fascinating work - my first career was in public policy and my second in organizational consulting, so I care a lot about finding intelligent and efficient ways to drive positive change in society and across organizations. But I also get excited about doing the same for ourselves - applying the same behavioral science research insights to boost our performance, productivity and wellbeing as individuals and teams. 

For example, a solid understanding of selective attention can quite dramatically shift the way we perceive everyday situations and make it easier to navigate difficult experiences. We make better choices if we understand the key decision-making biases and develop some easy-to-remember cross-check routines. Acting on the implications of the fundamental attribution error can be transformative for our trickiest relationships. And my job is to help people see how these sorts of insights translate into easy changes they can make to the way they approach their to-do lists, their schedule, their conversations and tasks. Those changes are often tiny, but they can add up to a life that's a lot more satisfying and less stressful.  

What can we expect to learn in your talk?

In my talk I'll pick out a couple of examples of science-based techniques that I use every single day - including things I do to start and end the day effectively. I will admit that it's hard to choose which techniques to talk about because I had a rule for the advice in my book, which was that everything I included had to be something I do myself! But there are a few of the 100 or so techniques that I personally go back to again and again, so I'll major on those, and I'll share some real-life examples of how they've helped me.

Wellness in the workplace is a hot topic at the moment. When it comes to the office, what is an example of a simple nudge we can employ to improve our wellbeing?

There are dozens, but one of my favourites is implementation intentions - or what I call "when-then" rules. So many of us want to exercise more, or meditate more, or take more time to reflect. But our good intentions so often get crowded out in our hectic days. Research is clear that you lighten the cognitive load on your brain by creating a very clear situational cue to prompt you to do the thing you say you really want to do. So, instead of saying something general and vague, like "I will exercise more", it's far more powerful to say something more specific, such as: "WHEN I am standing in front of the lift and my destination is less than 5 floors up, THEN I will take the stairs." If your when-then rule is sensible and doable, studies suggest you're three times more likely to do the thing you say you want to do. 

You get even more robustness to your intentions if you do what's called "mental contrasting." That's where you think about what you're ideally going to do, then take a clear-eyed look at the thing that's going to get in the way, and create a when-then plan for dealing with that barrier. For example, "WHEN I am not sure where the stairs are, THEN I will remind myself that they are usually at the end of the corridor and it won't take more than 10 seconds to find them."

The power of implementation intentions is now pretty widely applied in political campaigning. Volunteers have learned to ask potential voters to make a clear plan for getting to the polling booth on election day. But most of us don't use the insights in our own lives, and it can make such a big difference to our sense of personal progress.

From your experience as a management consultant and executive coach, what role do you see behavioural science playing in these fields in the future?

My colleagues at McKinsey have found that even with today’s technology, 60% of all occupations could have at least 30% of their activities automated. With robots increasingly taking on repeatable tasks, what's going to be left to humans? Tasks that require human strengths like creativity, empathy and wisdom. And for organisations to be able to create environments for those human strengths to flourish, it's going to be crucial for managers to have at least some basic understanding of how the human mind works. So I have to hope that insights from behavioural science go mainstream in the way that we train, coach and develop people. Everyone is going to need to understand the machinery in our heads if we're to flourish in the workplace of the future. 

 

Find out more about Nudgestock 2018 here.

There's more from this year's Nudgestock speakers including Mark Brooks on the psychology of online dating here and Ruth Morgan on the misinterpretation of forensic evidence here.