My default option

Photo by Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

How many of us consciously remember the exact number of digital apps for which we pay an annual subscription fee? Umm, I feel you’ll have to take a moment or two (at least) to think about it if you’re an average consumer in 2021.

A few years back, I paid for the annual subscription of New York Times to incentivize me to get into the habit of reading during my prep time for the super stressful “reading section” of the ACT [ Sidenote: If you don’t like to read, forget the standardized tests and focus on developing the habit of reading - trust me it's a superpower you want to have. Only read stuff you’re interested in]. Long story short, I read a bit here and there, moved on to books I’m actually interested in, gave the ACT, and got into college — where you get the annual subscription for free.

However, despite being reminded multiple times to cancel my original paid subscription, I always ended up delaying doing so— the fact is I had forgotten I was still paying for the damn thing before looking at some of my friends. At first, I felt it was quite strange and lazy of me to not take action to cancel a simple subscription. I just kept forgetting or procrastinating. It was as if they were deliberately playing mind games on me to make me keep the subscription for as long as possible — otherwise, why have an automatic renewal set as the default option when you can just send a “would you like to renew your annual subscription” prompt.  It was not until I read about Richard Thaler’s (Nobel Prize winner, famous behavioral economist)  commentary on the default option that I realized the impact that it could have on my everyday life.

The idea is simple. People hate to use their energy to intervene and change the status quo. So they are much more likely to go with the default option rather than taking action to switch to another alternative.  My science friends would call this “inertia”. Subscriptions of everything we use from prime to Netflix to Spotify to online gaming networks use this default option strategy to make it more likely for us to continue using them. Others like Adobe try to couple this strategy with student discounts to try to get you into the habit of using their applications early on [habit building stage] so you are hooked on to their ecosystem. STUDENT DISCOUNTS + DEFAULT RENEWALS = LIFETIME USER.

Thaler enthusiasts would know how this technique is being used by organizations to encourage employees to enroll in savings/retirement programs such as the 401K - by automatically enrolling employees in these programs and giving them the option to drop out, should they wish to do so. This strategy takes advantage of the fact that humans have a limited amount of willpower each day, everyone’s baseline might be different — however, everyone still has a finite upper limit, unlike the econs we study about in our economic classes.

But what struck me about this idea was how it actually helped me even before I knew about it:

I wanted to be a vegetarian for the longest time because I felt it was a healthier option for me and the animals - kind of a “win-win” situation [ or maybe this was just the story I was telling myself in my mind]. Since there was no other member in my household who was vegetarian, it was quite a struggle to resist the non-vegetarian dishes being put in front of me every evening — somewhere my willpower just wasn’t strong enough. However, six months later college started. And three of my best friends in college were vegetarian. Since I was always either busy talking or zoned-out doing something else while my friends ordered food, more often than not,  I found it easier to have the vegetarian dishes being put in front of me — as opposed to looking for a non-vegetarian dish that was tempting enough. My laziness  + the fact that my friend picked the right default option helped me transition into converting into a vegetarian. Believe it or not, I’ve been a vegetarian ever since.

NOTE: This simple behavioral gimmick probably did more for me than the Netflix documentary game changers when it comes to switching my diet.

However, I realize that most people aren’t so indifferent (like lazy me) to restaurant choices and the food-ordering process. So I tried to use this technique to deal with a problem that I feel everyone I know had during the pandemic at some point: abnormally high screen times.

Problem: With work from home, school from home, college from home, party with friends on zoom from home, the recommendation systems of online content platforms, and social media drastically increasing our screen times, I found it really hard to disconnect, have a real moment,  and just look around.

Solution: Screen Time. It works because it uses your laziness to defeat your cravings by placing the right default option in front of you. The “Screen Time '' feature on your iPhone allows you to select a window of time called  downtime each day — during this time your phone prohibits you from using almost any app except the ones you leave out by displaying the prompt “You’ve used up your screen time for today!”  Moreover, this application also allows you to allocate a maximum upper limit to your screen time usage for specific applications. Now, of course, you can evade the prompt or even turn off the whole Screen Time feature on any particular day — however, the fact that the default option right in front of you acts as a barrier/reminder to resist the temptation makes it more difficult for “lazy” you to choose the alternative of evading the barrier.

My personal experience with this little feature was quite a successful one. Eventually, in a matter of a couple of weeks, I was able to bring down my screen time to a little less than an hour.

However, the important takeaway here is not the screen time feature on your iPhone, but the realization that we are lazy and almost always go with the default option. Just like the application subscriptions automatically renewing our plans, we can also achieve our day-to-day goals by becoming smart architects — offering the right default options to ourselves at the right time. Unfortunately, there is no specific manner in which you can learn how to do so. It all depends on your specific lifestyle and daily struggles. The best I can do is share my experience.

Some other ways you might end up using the default option technique:

  1. Wanna get into the habit of reading and not binge-watching Netflix at night: Buy a book and keep it by your bedside and put a daily reminder to put all electronics out of your room one hour before you sleep. [NOTE: The hardcopy of the book or a kindle is important so that your reading source cannot be used for other purposes]
  2. Want to refrain from having unhealthy snacks at night: Keep a healthy snack in the jar by your bedside so when your brain signals your body that you need to binge on something, you are likely to go ahead with the default option.

Resources to check out:

For a deeper dive: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (check-out the cool chapter on “How to increase Organ Donations?”)

If you feel you don’t have time to read the whole book check this video out for sure - (Thaler's Talk)


If you've spent time thinking about anything I write — email me your thoughts at   arykhanna24@gmail.com or ak2253@cornell.edu. If nothing more, I promise you a meaningful conversation!

Aryan Khanna

Aryan Khanna