Oh, robot vacuum! How I love thee! Thine drunken meanderings around my kitchen doth make swoon.

As I write this, I’m still a little flabbergasted at the impact that a small, round robot vacuum has on my life. It’s not that our floors weren’t clean before this, but now they are really clean! It vacuums! It mops! And it wanders around the house like the proverbial drunk sailor, bonking into walls, chairs, and cabinets.

Ok, a little reality check. The robot vacuum cleaner is nice, but by itself, it isn’t all that amazing. Yes, it’s nice not to have to grab the vacuum cleaner after every meal to pick up the odds and ends that somehow landed on the floor. But, it’s not as automatic as you would think. It still gets stuck and needs human intervention. And sometimes, it just randomly goes back to its dock without a notification.

But there has been a definite change because of the robot vacuum and it has nothing to do with this little round machine.

The Robot Vacuum and the Nudge

The real change has been in the behavior of all of the little humans living in our house. Suddenly, they’ve realized that anything that is left on the floor at night will be “eaten” by the vacuum cleaner when it begins its nightly roll around the house. Socks, masks, shoes, and even small pieces of paper are quickly disappearing off the floor before bedtime because no one wants the vacuum cleaner to get them.

This has resulted in a house feeling less cluttered and more manageable. We’re not dodging shoes that are left lying in the hallway because the kids don’t want their shoelaces wrapped around the vacuum cleaner’s tires. The kitchen table is getting cleared off more regularly because we’re picking the chairs off the ground so that the robot vacuum can get to all of the Cheerios underneath it. The disappearing clutter has made the adults feel calmer about the state of the house which is making us just a little calmer, too!

The robot vacuum is providing just a little bit of behavior change that is going a long way. Behavioral economist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler refers to this phenomenon as a nudge. It’s a small manipulation that brings about a bigger change in behavior.

Usually, we talk about the impact of nudges in financial decisions, like having employers automatically enroll new employees in a 401k plan. Or requiring someone to opt-out of organ donation instead of opting in.

The robot vacuum and its scheduled appearance on our floors every night at 10 pm is a nudge. We know that it is coming out and this has changed our behavior. We’re reacting to the nudge by getting the floors cleared off and reducing the clutter accumulating in the house. And this is why I love my robot vacuum.

Bringing the Nudge Home

Nudges can be anything. A sign reminding you to do something. Putting the healthy snacks in front of the junk food so that it’s harder to grab the cookies. Or in the case of my family, a small robotic vacuum. We want to make things easier by manipulating what’s in front of us when we make a choice.

The key is to think about the behavior that you want to change and look for the simplest shifts you can make that will lead you to the choices you want to make and not the ones that you are making by default.