This is Mike. He has developed a ton of good habits in his life. He reads, meditates and exercises every single day.
But he has one bad habit that he can’t seem to shake. And that is his love for chocolate and other sweets. He’s been eating them almost every day for years now. Mike already knows that eating processed sugar is bad, however one day he reads an online article outlining all the bad consequences that come with along with it. This persuades him to quit eating processed sugar for good.
The next day, Mike comes home from work, tired and hungry. He goes into the kitchen to prepare himself a meal, but there they are. Chocolate chip cookies are on the counter, but this time it almost seems like they are calling him. Mike knows he’s trying to quit so he musters up all of this willpower and ignores them, while trying to prepare a different meal.
However as his dinner is cooking, he passes by the cookies again, but this time he can’t resist them. His hunger gets the best of him, as he grabs a handful and eats them all. It took just 1 day for Mike to fail with his goal to quit eating processed sugar. He could blame himself for lacking discipline and willpower or inefficient goal setting. However, he was bound to fail, as he didn’t optimize his environment in a way that supported his goal.
Let’s take a look at a slightly different scenario.
Mike comes from home from work, again, tired and hungry. He goes into the kitchen to prepare himself a meal, but this time on his kitchen counter, there are no cookies. Instead there is a bowl of apples. Mike is really hungry and he wants to eat something, so he grabs one apple and eats it to satisfy his hunger.
In this scenario, Mike didn’t fail. He optimized his surroundings in a way that supported his goal. The cookies that were always on the counter, visible whenever he went into the kitchen, where nowhere to be found. Instead a healthier alternative was waiting there for him.
Our environment. This is one of the invisible forces that shapes human behavior. We would like to think that the choices we make are our own and not influenced by external factors.
The truth however, is that many of the actions we take each day are shaped by the most easy and obvious option.
Let’s say you’re thirsty and want something to drink. Usually you drink either soda or water. This time you would prefer soda, so you check your fridge and see there’s isn’t any. You could:
A. Simply drink a glass of water. Or
B. You walk to the store that’s 2 miles away, to get some soda.
Most people will choose the option A. Not necessarily because they want to drink water or because it’s the healthier option. No, they choose to go for water because it’s the easier option and no extra effort has to be expended. If you had to walk 2 miles every time you wanted a can of soda, you would think twice if it’s really worth the effort. I mean water is within an arms reach and will also satisfy your thirst. And more often than not, whenever there’s an obstacle, we will settle for something more accessible, even if it’s not as enjoyable. In this case, a glass of water.
If you’re overweight, a smoker or a video game addict, you might think that it’s because you lack the self-control to quit.
Research however, shows something different.
When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous amounts of self-control, it turns out those individuals are not different than you. Instead, the evidence says that disciplined people are better at optimizing their environment in a way that does not require massive amounts of self discipline. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.
For example, if your house is filled with unhealthy food, how are you supposed to eat healthily? If TV and video games are always available, how can you not get distracted by them? And if you always have soda waiting in the fridge, can you really expect yourself to drink tasteless water? I have never seen anyone consistently be able to avoid all that temptation.
They’re bound to fail sooner or later, because they’re constantly exposed to those things. However disciplined people have optimized their surroundings, so they are not tempted and they don’t have to resist their urges. If someone has only healthy food in their house, they obviously won’t stuff their face with doughnuts. If they don’t have access to TV and video games, do you think they have a hard time resisting them? What if instead of a TV they have an instrument they can play? And instead of video games they are surrounded by books they can read. If there’s no soda in the fridge, do you think they have a hard time drinking water?
change behavior model is easy for them, simply because they optimized their surroundings in a way that supports it. In the short run, you can choose to overpower temptation. However in the long run, you become a product of the environment that you live in.
So to change your behavior model what you need to do is: Make your good behaviors as easy as possible. While making your bad and unwanted behaviors as hard as possible.
Let’s say you want to start reading more books, while also cutting down on how much TV you watch. What you could do is; have a book ready next to the couch where you usually watch TV. This way it’s in a visible place and you’ll be exposing yourself to books more often. Likewise, move your TV remote which is usually next to the couch, somewhere out of sight. A drawer in a different room for example. Now every time you feel lazy and you jump on that couch, there is no remote, but instead there’s a book waiting there. If you really want to watch TV, you’ll just have to get up and go look for the remote in a different room.
However the more obstacles you put in the way of your behavior and the less you expose yourself to it, the harder it becomes to follow up on it. It’s hard to start reading if you have to spend time searching for a book hidden somewhere on the top shelf. Furthermore, if you have to go across the house to find the remote, you’re less likely to watch TV. If the book is always ready and in a visible place, it’s easy to pick it up at least once in a while. The same with the remote. The more visible the thing is, the more likely it is for you to indulge in that behavior.
change behavior model is never easy, but by manipulating your surroundings to work in your favor you can dramatically increase your chances of succeeding. While motivation and willpower play a role in helping us achieve our goals, it’s the invisible force of our environment, that truly shapes our behavior. When you are constantly surrounded by bad choices, it’s hard to make good decisions. Likewise, if you’re surrounded by good choices, bad decisions are the ones that become hard to make. You may be able to resist temptation once or twice, but it’s unlikely you can muster up willpower whenever you want to do the right thing. Ultimately, you don’t have control over how motivated you will be tomorrow, but you do have control over your immediate environment.