On Planning and Planning Prompts

by Site Author

It’s the middle of autumn. You know that cold and flu season is coming. And you know that you need to schedule a flu shot. But you’re busy. So when a flyer comes in the mail, reminding you to get your flu shot, your instinct is to throw it out.

But this flyer is different. A little cartoon box at the top asks you to jot down the date and time when you’re planning on getting the flu shot. And—what the hell!—you jot down a date and time.

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Unbeknownst to you, you’re part of a randomized trial. A team of researchers designed the flyer to test whether nudging people to write down a time for the flu shot made it more likely that they would actually get a flu shot. A randomly selected control group of workers received a similar flyer, but with no cartoon box at the top.

Months later, the researchers tabulate the results. The flyer with the nudge—what the researchers call a “planning prompt”—makes it more likely that recipients will actually get a flu shot. Those who received the flyer with the planning prompt were 12 percent more likely to get a flu shot.

The experiment suggests that planning prompts work. When people jot down a plan, they are more likely to follow through with it. The authors argue that such results can inform policy. Public health professionals constantly try to get people to exercise, eat better, or go to the doctor. Perhaps planning prompts are one way to make those efforts more effective.

For that matter, experiments like this one remind the rest of us of the importance of writing things down. Most people constantly think of things they should be doing. When such things come to mind, it’s important to get them “out of your head” and onto paper.