Picture this scene: You wake up in the morning feeling refreshed and motivated. Your duffel bag is packed with your towel, water bottle, and a change of clothes. All you have to do is roll out of bed, make your way to the gym, and get your workout on. You arrive at the 24-Hour Fitness and suddenly you’re confronted with a Big Decision. There are two ways into the gym and they’re both right next to each other, staring you down: a flight of stairs and an escalator.
So which do you choose?
Logically, it would make sense to take the stairs. You’re on your way to the gym, so you want to exercise, right? But the escalator is beckoning you. It’s just so easy and effortless.
If you’re like most people, you’ll probably opt for the escalator.
Why would someone who obviously wants to work out (because, hello, they’re on their way to the gym) choose not to exercise?
If you’ve studied economics before, you’re probably familiar with the concept of “rational behavior.” If not, it basically means that people will always act in a way that ultimately benefits them. For example, if you want to be healthy, you will always choose the option that brings you closer to healthiness (like walking up the stairs instead of taking the elevator).
The problem with this way of thinking? Turns out most people aren’t perfectly rational. They can have good intentions, but small factors in their environment (like a perfectly placed escalator leading to the gym) can have a surprisingly large impact on their decisions.
Behavioral economists have become aware of this trend and try to design processes that will “nudge” people in the direction of making a choice that is ultimately better for them. Some examples of this include placing healthy foods at eye level in cafeterias (people tend to buy more of whatever is in their line of vision) or automatically enrolling people in 401k programs (because people are more likely to keep something they’re automatically subscribed to than go out of their way to sign up for something, even if it is in their best interest). For more about this topic, be sure to check out the book Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.
But how does any of this relate to you and your job search?
First of all, it’s important to realize that even if you have good intentions, you might not always make choices that are in line with them.
Here’s an example that might sound familiar: You know you should get started on your job search while you’re still in school, but it’s so much easier to focus on your immediate concerns like writing the paper that’s due this week or figuring out what you’re going to wear to the “Swinging Sixties” party you’re going to on Friday. So you procrastinate your job search.
You might also realize that when given the option between two courses of action, you will almost always choose the easier one. Now I’m not going to say that sending out tons of job applications is exactly easy, but it’s the path of least resistance when you compare it to doing things like writing your own manifesto and approaching networking like it’s your job or sending out emails to people who don’t even have job openings and asking them to hire you.
This is not to make you feel bad—I just want you to be aware of this aspect of human nature.
Scientists even have a term for it: “intention-action gap,” where we intend to do something, but don’t quite follow through.
So how can you apply behavioral design tactics to your job search?
Here are a few ways to overcome procrastination and nudge yourself to do something that might seem intimidating or overwhelming.
1. Take baby steps
Break the task down from something formidable (cold-calling people from at least 50 Fortune 500 companies) to something achievable (call one person in the next two days).
2. Set deadlines
Even if they’re artificial, giving yourself a deadline to achieve these steps can help you stay on task (call at least four people by the end of the week) and reinforce the progress you’re making.
3. Use commitment devices
It’s much easier to flake on yourself than it is to flake on a friend. Make a date with a buddy at a coffee shop to get started on that manifesto, and make sure you both accomplish your goals (or figure out the next few baby steps you’re going to take) by the time you finish your coffee.
Homework time! Create a list of baby steps you’re going to take to achieve your goal, like finding one person to job shadow or to conduct an informational interview with or connecting with five people on LinkedIn. If you need more ideas of baby steps, we also outline a series of baby steps to help you through your senior year job search in our “Job Search Survival Kit.” No matter which goals you set for yourself, remember to set a deadline and find an accountability buddy, too!
Now it’s your turn: Have you figured out any ways to trick or “nudge” yourself into making good decisions when it comes to your job search (or anything else)? Leave a note in the comments section below to let us know!
Special thanks to Katy Davis, Vice President at ideas42 for sharing her insight into behavioral economics and inspiring this post.