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  • Writer's pictureAlana Dell

Use mindfulness to overcome the power of nudges

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Every morning after the school run activity and chaos, I made a habit of going to the local supermarket parking lot and practice 15 minutes of meditation. I would sit in the car, close my eyes, take some long deep breaths and take time to quieten my mind, observe it and withdraw my senses. Sigh. Breathe. Notice.


While I don’t remember when I first started meditating, I know that I made it a habit after learning we make decisions primarily using our unconscious mind. In my work we’d been learning that we all use shortcuts or heuristics to enable us to make decisions quickly and efficiently. Since we take in over 11 million bits of information in a second but can only consciously process 40 bits in that time*, we have to rely on shortcuts to make decisions and have biases to guide us in where to put our attention. Most of our decison-making, let alone our body activities, takes place without our direct conscious control.


This had huge implications for the way in which our team designed our adverts, menus, packaging and stores. We focused on reducing the cognitive load of content, on designing content and restaurant environments to demonstrate subconsciously key attributes such as comfort, excitement and taste quality. We paid more attention to the details such as rounded edges of tables, steam graphics rising off menu visuals, using familiar symbols of food quality and using actors instead of models to more naturally communicate a message. We focused much more on designing the context in which people make menu or brand decisions, to intentionally nudge them towards us.


If most of our activity is unconscious, this suggested to me that I should train the circuits in my brain to automatically think and carry out actions which fit with my values. That it would be important to have a mindfulness practice to train my own mind if I wanted my actions and thoughts to be less influenced by what others put out in the world. To be less of a puppet in the commercialised world that we lived in — one which I was partly responsible for creating — I also needed to train my mind to become more conscious of what I was paying attention to and build my ability to consciously choose my actions.


With that I began my parking lot meditation sessions. At first I sat for 10 minutes, then, slowly over the months the sessions became longer as I built my ability to meditate. I became more aware of my thoughts, of the constant thinking and repetitive thoughts. I learnt to repeatedly let go of thoughts, to return to my breath, physical sensations and other types of anchors that grounded me in the moment. I learnt to be compassionate with my practice too, to be kinder towards myself and to others. Some days my mind was messy and the medtiations were hard work, but most days I finished a meditation feeling calmer and more focused.

We’re nudged all the time, this way and that. App pop-up alerts, adverts and actions we witness amongst those we care about. Even holding a warm drink can influence your reaction to someone else. I am hard-wired to be nudged by all these things, just as you are, since our brains have been shaped so that we can use these cues to help us make decisions more quickly and efficiently. Social proof, a visual bias towards faces and the power of the status quo, to name just a few cues. Yet, with practice and mindfulness training, I have become stronger and better at choosing to ignore the nudges when they don’t serve me. I have better focus and conscious awareneness. I am better at seeing my thoughts, becoming aware of a prejudice or bias and choosing to let it go.


These days I practice mindfulness throughout the day, beyond the formal sit-down mediation. While driving the car, while folding the washing and when I sit down in my chair at the beginning of a meeting. By taking the practice into the everyday moments I strengthen my ability to be in the moment, to choose my thoughts and my actions.

Oh, don’t get me wrong and think I’m all-mighty when it comes to my mind. I still get caught up by a 50% off sale, still constantly check my phone for Whatsapp messages if the phone is in reach and get distracted if someone hot walks by. I’m human. Those marketing nudges will always be powerful! I feel fortunate that my behavioural science training has come in handy, not just for work, but also for teaching me to create helpful nudges when I want to steer myself away from undesirable or towards desirable directions. Yet it is the daily practice to train the mind that has helped me, above all else, to be aware of my thoughts and to choose my response, as I am nudged.


*For more on conscious versus unconscious brain processing power, check out Timothy Wilson’s excellent book, Strangers to Ourselves.

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