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- “Designing” your environment to support your values and goals constitutes one of the simplest and most powerful ways to increase your chances of embodying and realizing them.
- Specifically, this means surrounding yourself with people and things that facilitate positive behaviors, and shunning the people and things that don’t.
- Keep reading to learn the easiest and most effective changes you can make to your environment to instill good habits, avoid temptation, and support your goals in life.
Show me a man who is not a slave! One is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear.
Most people know what’s good for them and what’s not.
Most of us know that we should eat well, exercise, drink less alcohol, stop smoking, and spend less time on social media and in front of the television.
Most of us have also tried to apply what we know and failed, only to fall back into our old, dysfunctional ways.
If you’re like me, you’ve chalked up some of your failures to a lack of willpower, self-control, or grit. Those things matter, but they’re rarely the only culprit.
What few of us spot is something far more influential than we realize, and far simpler to change than our personalities. Something inescapable that pushes and pulls at our ideas, feelings, and actions, every minute of every day.
This invisible hand molds our attitudes, decisions, habits, and over time, our life, and sways us to continue in the same unwanted behaviors.
This is why organizing your environment to support your values and goals constitutes one of the simplest and most powerful ways to increase your chances of embodying and realizing them.
Don’t believe me?
To understand the surprising power of the environment, let’s start by reviewing a study conducted by scientists at Columbia University that analyzed organ donors by country.
They found that donation rates differed around the world, with countries like Denmark and Germany as low as 4 and 12 percent and others like France and Poland with near-perfect scores of 99.91 and 99.5 percent. Even more puzzling were the rates of culturally homogeneous states like Denmark (4 percent) and Sweden (85.9 percent), and Germany (12 percent) and Austria (99.98 percent).
If not for meaningful geographical, cultural, or social differences, what could explain this? As it happens, the extraordinary discrepancies stemmed from the most ordinary of things: the forms used to recruit donors.
In the low-donation countries, the forms contained this line: “If you want to be an organ donor, check here.” In other words, you had to volunteer for the program. In the high-donation countries, however, the forms read like this: “If you don’t want to be an organ donor, check here.” That is, you had to decline the program.
Think about that for a second.
The way you’re asked a question can dictate your decision on something as personal as what to do with your body when you die. Imagine how much time, money, and effort politicians might spend trying to increase organ donation rates with education, incentives, or even coercion, when all they need to do to reach nearly perfect compliance is change a single line of text in a humdrum government form.
The researchers of that paper concluded the following about human psychology, which also applies to how our environments inform our lives:
“In most cases, the majority of people choose the default option to which they were assigned.”
Put differently, most of us go along with the design and flow of the people and things that surround us—the paths of least effort. If a box on a form is unchecked, we’ll leave it unchecked. If cars are lining up in a lane on the highway, we’ll join them. If we display fruit in our kitchen instead of junk food, we’ll eat more fruit.
How Your Environment Influences Your Actions and Decisions
None of this is shocking, but what came as a surprise to me is just how many aspects of our lives run on near autopilot, guided by the scores of cues provided by our environment.
For instance, studies show that high-priced entrées on restaurant menus lure us into ordering more expensive items. At the supermarket, we’re more likely to buy things at eye level, and showing men pictures of bikini-clad women makes them act more impulsively. People who are dieting will skip a “milkshake” on a menu and turn down “candy chews” in the checkout aisle, but have no qualms about drinking a “smoothie” or eating “fruit chews.”
Curious, isn’t it?
Also surprising is how many elements of our environment have been carefully and scientifically engineered to elicit desired responses—responses that rarely benefit us.
In their bestselling 2009 book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein referred to this as “choice architecture,” and they believe powerful organizations like corporations and governments can—and should—help create environments that incline us toward personally and socially responsible behaviors. A “soft paternalism,” if you will.
I say, why wait for someone else to do it?
Why not design our own environments as a personal project, so they nudge us toward the specific outcomes we desire?
Why not prearrange better default choices for ourselves, so we can better stay on course, even when we’re cruising on autopilot?
Start by thinking about how you can change your environment to make good habits easier to adopt and bad habits harder to continue. A simple way to do this is to remove steps from the former and add them to the latter.
Read: A Scientific Guide to Habits: How to Build Good Ones and Break Bad Ones
For example, if you’d like to eat more nutritious foods, place them front and center in your refrigerator, kitchen, and pantry. This makes them easier to grab when you’re hungry. And if you’d like to eat less junk food, tuck it away in a cabinet you don’t open, making it harder to access.
If you’d like to get better about doing your morning workouts, set your clothes out the night before, removing an obstacle that might dissuade you from leaving the warm embrace of your bed.
If you’d like to drink more water, keep a water bottle at your desk at work instead of soda, and fill it up every time it’s empty. But if you want soda, you have to go to the kitchen or vending machine.
The options here are endless. All you have to do is brainstorm ways to make whatever you want to do more visible and convenient and the things you want to stop less so.
If you take the time to do this—to sprinkle your environment with cues that lead to positive behaviors and remove their destructive counterparts—it might surprise you how much easier it is to change your life.
Remember too that throughout this powerful, transformative, and occasionally miserable fitness journey, you’ll meet many people who’ll tell you many things. In fact, these fleshy automatons will have so much advice that if you scribbled it all down on pieces of paper, you’d singlehandedly decimate entire swaths of the world’s forests.
Keep your eyes and ears open, but don’t let their moonshine move you off target.
“You shouldn’t do that,” they’ll say, wheeling out a litany of reasons why it won’t work out, why you should put time and effort elsewhere, and why you’ll regret it if you keep going.
And then you’ll say, “Screw it, I’m doing it anyway.”
“Screw it, I’ll wake up an hour early and get in my workouts every day.”
“Screw it, I’ll follow a proper meal plan for a couple of months.”
“Screw it, I’ll drink less alcohol and eat less junk food.”
You might be anxious, too. Uncertain. Afraid, even. All that is normal. Remember the first time you rode a bike? This is no different.
You move past all the head trash by getting to work. You put in effort, and you get better. You get better, and you build confidence. You build confidence, and you want to do more. It’s a virtuous cycle.
The hobgoblins of fear and doubt will always hop around in your mind, sometimes more noisily than others, and that’s okay. Some of it’s even good; it keeps you moving, doing, working. It reminds you that the way out is always the way through.
And it’s striking what you can accomplish if you just don’t stop, so think long term. Don’t overestimate what you can do in one year and underestimate what you can do in ten.
What You Can Do to Improve Your Environment Right Now
No matter how much we try to strengthen and develop our willpower and self-control, the more time we spend in environments that discourage positive habits and encourage harmful ones, the less likely we are to flourish.
If we spend most of our time in environments that prompt us to do things we want to do and abstain from those we don’t, however, acting on our best intentions becomes a lot easier.
To get a taste of this, write three things you want to start or stop doing, like drinking less alcohol, exercising more often, or getting into the gym on time in the morning. Next, write three ways you can adjust your environment(s) to help facilitate the things you want to do and curb the things you don’t.
For instance, with exercising on a regular schedule, let’s say you want to start your days with a twenty-minute walk. What simple changes could you make to your environment to make this easier?
Here are some ideas . . .
- Put your walking shoes and headphones in front of your bedroom door or in your car, so you see them when it comes time to walk (early morning or after work, for instance).
- Find a podcast or audiobook so you have something else to look forward to while walking.
- Go straight to the park after work and do your walk before going home.
Any of these things could help make the habit stick and become an automatic, integrated part of your life.
Let’s look at eating less at dinner. You could . . .
- Plate your meal and pack away the leftovers in the fridge before you eat.
- Take your dog on a walk after eating the amount of food you intend to eat.
- Brush your teeth after eating the intended amount.
These would work well because they make it harder or impossible to keep eating.
And for morning workout punctuality, you could . . .
- Go to bed thirty minutes earlier than usual, so you have an easier time waking up in the morning.
- Prepare your pre-workout meal the night before, so all you have to do in the morning is eat it and head to the gym.
- Set two alarms so you can snooze one and still get up in time to work out.
These things may seem trivial, but don’t discount their effectiveness. By removing all excuses you might try to find or make instead of acting, you can multiply your chances of following through.
Sometimes, something very minor like setting out your workout clothes can be the difference between getting out of bed and into the gym, or sleeping another hour or two.
Another example: Many people want to drink less caffeine and more water. Here you could . . .
- Downsize your coffee mug so you have to get up more for refills.
- Make a smaller pot of coffee in the morning.
- Make sure you drink at least two liters of water before you drink coffee.
And what about eating a salad for lunch instead of takeout? Some ideas:
- Find some salad recipes you like, so you can enjoy eating them every day.
- Prepare the ingredients for the week in one go—Sundays are good for this—so you don’t have to chop lettuce and vegetables every day.
- Prepare the salads at night (sans dressing) and place them in the fridge, so you can just grab them in the morning and go.
One final case, just to make sure this is crystal clear: “I want to get thirty minutes more sleep every night.”
- Remove the TV from the bedroom, so you’re not tempted to watch it instead of sleep, and so you can develop better sleep hygiene. (Sleep scientists say we should use the bedroom for sleeping and sex, and nothing else.)
- Use software like Cold Turkey to block access to your favorite websites an hour before bedtime, which is when you should avoid screens if you want to optimize your sleep.
- Set an alarm on your phone to remind you when it’s time to get ready for bed.
Here’s what I’m getting at:
We don‘t need to make our health and fitness harder and more complex than they already are, and by making small, almost imperceptible changes to our environments, we can greatly increase our chances of success.
Remember—every day is not a new day. Over time, our lives take shape like a sculpture, carved by our habits and routines, one strike of the chisel at a time, and because of this, where we are is far less important than where we’re going.
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What’s your take on environment design? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Manu Krishna. (n.d.). Eye level is buy level: The importance of in-store product placement | Trax Retail. Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://traxretail.com/blog/eye-level-buy-level-importance-store-product-placement/
- Van den Bergh, B., Dewitte, S., & Warlop, L. (2011). Bikinis Instigate Generalized Impatience in Intertemporal Choice. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1094711
- Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2006). The heat of the moment: The effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19(2), 87–98. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.501
- Irmak, C., Vallen, B., & Robinson, S. R. (2011). The impact of product name on dieters’ and nondieters’ food evaluations and consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 38(2), 390–405. https://doi.org/10.1086/660044
- Johnson, E. J., & Goldstein, D. G. (2004). Defaults and donation decisions. In Transplantation (Vol. 78, Issue 12, pp. 1713–1716). Transplantation. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.TP.0000149788.10382.B2