Habit forming using supermarket psychology

When I was a kid, mum would often bring me grocery shopping.
Driving to the supermarket, she’d let me switch gears from the passenger seats.
Inside the shop, we would split the grocery list, and fill up the shopping cart in minutes.
It was fine teamwork.

Except for that one accident at checkout.

One day, as we were queueing to pay, I saw a pack of chewing gum hanging next to the moving belt.
I asked mum. She said no.
Fine. I waited for her to look away and…I took a pack and hid it under the rest of the groceries.
“She’ll never notice.” She did. I can still remember the look of disappointment.

But those gums were irresistible.

temptation chewing gums

Unless your butler does all the shopping, you know what I’m talking about: impulse purchases.

Supermarkets use data, layout testing, and sneaky psychology principles to make sure you’ll end up buying more than you intended to.
They position each product to make a fortune exploiting your brain’s autopilot.

Can you use the same principles to stick to new habits and routines without thinking?

1. Use purpose-specific objects

Have you ever wondered what is the difference between baking chocolate and standard eating chocolate? They are stocked in different aisles.
To cope with information overload, our brains rely on categories to reduce the need for processing power. This is why products are becoming more specialised: it’s easier to package the same chocolate in two different products than it is to convince the human brain that one item can belong to two categories at the same time.

When forming habits, use action-specific objects.
Journal on paper, rather than on your phone.
Buy a cushion if you want to meditate every morning.
Read on a Kindle or a paper book instead of an iPad or iPhone.
Your brain will associate that one object to one category, and trigger a reminder for your positive habit every time you see it.

2. Use appearance and perception to your advantage

Speaking of chocolate, some time ago I tried a Mast Brothers bar.
The stylish wrapping and the minimal text screamed “I am the best chocolate on the shelf”, and the thick paper reassured me that the extra money was totally worth it. It’s a great experience.
The chocolate wasn’t even that good, but I’d buy it again.

mast try

Celebrate your new habits by giving yourself the best possible experience.
If you want to floss every day, buy the best dental floss you can find.
If you want to start writing, buy a pen or a keyboard you’ll be looking forward to using.
Make it a great experience it’s impossible to say no to.

3. Use strategic positioning to trick yourself into buying

In September, I started journalling again.
I bought a beautiful Leuchtturm pad made of special paper that can be easily scanned and saved into Evernote.
I wanted to journal every night before sleep and yet, it waited on my desk until I would notice it in the morning and feel guilty. Then it got me: the desk isn’t where I end my days!
I now keep it on my bedside table and move it to my pillow in the morning: I never skip a day.

mindful habit

Think about the places and objects around you when it’s habit-time.
Want to run in the morning? Leave your running shoes in the hallway.
Want to read after waking up? Move your alarm clock away from arms reach and put a book under it.
Make sure objects are in the right place at the right time, like those chewing gums at checkout.
Use these three principles combined, and you’ll be impulse-buying your way to a new routine.

What about yourself: what is one habit you’ve been struggling to keep up?
If you want to share your thoughts with me, email me. I really want to know!

— Matt

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