Pay Attention To The Defaults


Our life is a matter of choices. We make decisions every day that affect how we feel, what we do, and the quality of our life. Some decisions feel like conscious choices, and others are more automatic. Either way, many of our decisions are largely influenced by defaults.

In order to highlight this, I am going to share a random, but pretty powerful example of this. I want to talk about organ donations in Germany and Austria. The neighboring countries are quite similar in culture yet only 12% of Germans are registered organ donors compared to a whopping 99.98% of Austrians. How can such similar populations be so opposite when it comes to organ donations? While you may think that Austrians simply care more about saving lives than Germans, that obviously isn’t the case. The real reason lies in the default options on their driver’s license forms. In Germany, you have to check a box to opt-in to being an organ donor. In Austria, you have to check a box to opt-out of being an organ donor. Despite each form having a similar box with opposing outcomes, in both countries, the majority chose the default option - to not check the box - regardless of the outcome. This exact scenario has played out in several other countries with the same results.

In fact, in most areas of life, 80-90% of us accept the default option. Defaults are typically the easy, go-to options that are readily available to us. Some are super simple - like the factory settings that come on your appliances, computer, and phone; others are more complex - such as the design of the city you live in, the buildings you enter, or the placement of the products you purchase. Default settings are everywhere, and more often than not, they make decisions for us that we’re not even aware of, such as in the organ donation example. This has big implications for the designers of the default in influencing our behavior and choices.

So, why do the majority of us easily accept the default? There are a lot of theories about this that include our dislike of making decisions to our assumption that whoever designed the default knows best. In many cases, these can be true. But there is another reason that warrants discussion - most of us aren’t even aware of the default settings and their prevalence in every aspect of our lives.

Take most multi-story buildings. Once you walk in, the elevators are usually prominently positioned, front and center. You don’t have to go looking for them. But what about the stairs? They are almost always tucked away in an obscure place, behind a poorly marked door, in a dimly lit stairwell. Taking the stairs requires a conscious effort on your part. By design, it is much easier and more likely that you will take the elevator simply because it’s there, and you don’t have to think about it. It’s the default option.

The same thing goes for most work environments. Between 9 and 5, Monday through Friday, walk into most offices and you will see people sitting at their desks, staring at a computer screen. It has become the standard norm to work this way. It has become the default.

The default mode of transportation is now the car. The default meal now comes in a package. The default way of eating that meal is often at our desk, in our car, or on the couch. The default method of entertainment is watching TV or surfing the internet. The interesting thing is that we didn’t always sit at desks all day long or move from place to place in a car. And we didn’t always scarf down meals while doing something else. Through the years, the default has changed. As the default changes, so do our choices. Just look at how our main communication has shifted over the past decade from talking on the phone to texting. More often than not, today’s defaults are set for convenience - it’s why we pick up fast food or microwave a frozen meal; it’s why we take the elevators rather than stairs; it’s why text rather than pick up the phone; and it’s why we drive most places rather than walk or bike.

That isn’t to say that all defaults are bad - much of the time they make our lives easier and are often designed with you, the user, in mind. But there are a lot of things in your life that are designed for someone else’s interests, rather than yours - in fact, they may directly compete with your interests. So it’s important to be aware of these defaults.

You can’t change the fact that the world around you shapes your habits and choices, but you can be instrumental in shaping it, rather than someone else. You can customize the default settings, especially when it comes to leading a healthy lifestyle. And while there are definitely circumstances out of your control, your health, for the most part, is ultimately your choice. It isn’t up to your doctor, or your family, or your friends. You are the one who, every day, over and over again, makes decisions that impact your health - whether you are aware of them or not. You decide what you eat; when you go to sleep; if, when, and how you socialize with family and friends; and how often you move your body and exercise. It’s these lifestyle factors that play such a big role in your overall health and wellness - not only how likely you are to develop a chronic disease or condition but also in determining your quality of life - how much energy you have, how good you feel, how you move. Sadly, most of us tend to feel like crap most of the time but we think it’s normal. It isn’t normal but it has become the default. The good news is that it’s possible to create a new default.

In order to get different outcomes, you can’t just accept the default that has been created for you by someone else. You have to customize the settings so that they work for you and your interests; so that they promote health and quality of life. The key to this is engagement and behavior change. This means designing a world where it’s harder to make unhealthy choices and easier to make healthy ones. Creating an environment so that it supports healthy choices will,  by design, make the healthy choice the easy choice. Doing this creates a new default that promotes health. As the default changes, so does your behavior. And then being healthy won’t have to be a conscious effort, it will just be a normal part of your everyday.

Doing this takes small, conscious choices at the beginning. It requires you to redesign your environment, one step at a time. Depending on your goals:

  • It can be rearranging your kitchen to make healthy options more visible and accessible, and less healthy options harder to see and harder to reach.

  • It can be packing your gym bag each night and having it ready by the front door; or putting your running shoes right by the bed so you see them first thing in the morning.

  • It can be moving your phone to another room at night so you are less likely to scroll through it before bed or upon waking

  • It can be keeping a water bottle with you throughout the day, so you are more likely to drink more water

  • Or taking a page out of the organ donor example, it can be scheduling an exercise class or walk with friends in advance, which requires you to opt-in before actually doing it; canceling requires you to opt-out of something you have already committed to, which is less likely.

The idea isn’t to make huge sweeping changes all at once - in fact, that almost never works. You have to take it one step at a time and realize that the first step is simply being aware of the default. The main two concepts I want you to take away are that your decisions are largely shaped by the defaults in your life, and that you can choose to be part of designing those defaults rather than accepting them as-is. Customizing those settings will make it easier to live a better, healthier life, that serves your interests rather than someone else’s.

Try these two exercises to start customizing the defaults in your life:

The first, is simply paying attention to the defaults in your life. Awareness is the first big step towards changing them. Pay attention to your daily life and what that looks like - what do you default to, whether it’s how you move, what you eat, what you buy, or how you spend your free time. There is no judgment here. It is simply just recognizing what is.

The second is to choose one of those defaults, one that you want to work on customizing, and make one small change with it, just once. If you always take the elevator, one time choose the stairs. If you tend to reach for your phone every time you get in bed, one night try putting it in another room. Again, there is no judgment. Notice what it felt like and if it was easy or hard. If you had trouble doing it, notice that and think about what would make it easier.

While this may seem super simple, maybe even pointless, it’s actually a critical step towards making change. Without awareness, you can’t make active decisions in favor of or away from the default. Give it a try and see what you think.