When you walk into your local supermarket, the first thing you are greeted with is a plethora of freshly stocked fruit and vegetables. The milk and bread you popped in for, is annoyingly located at the very back of the store. This is no accident.
For a long time now, supermarkets have understood a simple fact about human psychology. From the moment you wake up, every decision you make is influenced by your environment. From the size of your shopping trolley to the placement of your favourite cereal. Every aspect of your weekly shopping trip is meticulously planned so that large companies can take as much of your money as possible.
It’s not just your shopping habits that can be influenced in such a way. In fact, one of the key reasons it is so difficult to form better habits is because we set-up our environments to work against us.
This doesn’t have to be the case. In this article I will explain 4 powerful strategies for re-designing your environment go that good habits flourish.
In a fascinating study carried out by Brian Wansink, moviegoers were offered a free bucket of popcorn as they entered the cinema. This popcorn was either served in a large or medium-sized container. Perhaps unsurprisingly, whilst no one actually finished the whole portion, those who ate from larger buckets consumed more of this delicious snack.
However, what is intriguing, is that a second group of moviegoers also ate more from the larger bucket even when the popcorn they served was stale.
That’s right. These movie lovers found themselves gorging on stale, unenjoyable popcorn simply because it was sitting right there on their lap. But how often do we act like this in our own lives? We mindlessly surf the internet or watch hours of television, simply because it’s right there in front of us.
One of the most effective pieces of advice for sticking to better habits, is also the simplest. Remove distractions from your life. Do you want to start eating healthier? Well don’t stock sugary foods in the house. Do you want to become more productive? Well delete social media apps from your phone.
You won’t miss these distractions. They don’t add any value to your life. They simply detract. You won’t miss watching TV or mindlessly surfing YouTube anymore than you would miss a bucket of stale popcorn at the cinema.
As human beings we only have a limited amount of willpower and every temptation we have to resist drains it just a little bit. By removing distractions from our environment we can focus our energy on the things that truly matter.
Create action triggers.
In his book ‘The Power of Habit’ , Charles Duhigg explains how all habits consist of a cue, a routine and a reward. One of the key ways in which we learn new behaviors is through the process of classical conditioning. Over time our brains learn to associate certain environmental triggers with specific behavioural routines.
For example, a smoker who enjoys a cigarette with their morning brew, may over time, crave a cigarette at the mere scent of freshly made coffee. If we wish to create more productive habits in our lives, we need to establish some environmental cue to serve as a trigger for this new behaviour.
One technique is to employ, what the authors Chip and Dan Heath refer to, as action triggers. Essentially, this involves setting a specific time and place when you will perform a given action.
Some specific examples of ‘action triggers’ might include:
1) After I brush my teeth I will complete 10 push-ups.
2) After I eat my lunch I will meditate for 10 minutes.
3) As soon as I arrive home from work, I will go for a 15 minute run.
4) After I finish my meal, I will drink 1 glass of water.
When crafting such action triggers it’s vital that you start with modest goals. It’s far easier to establish a habit of going for a 5 minute jog after breakfast than to run a half-marathon after lunch!
Find your herd.
As human beings we are massively susceptible to the effects of social pressure. To demonstrate this point, let’s turn to a classic study carried out in 1951, by the psychologist Solomon Asch.
In this experiment, participants were presented with a simple task. All they had to do was match the length of two lines. The task was simple and the answer obvious. All the participants had to do was to state the correct answer, aloud in front of 7 other individuals who were also taking part in the study.
But here’s the catch. The 7 other ‘participants’ were not really participants at all, they were actors who were deliberately instructed to give obviously incorrect answers.
What the study was really measuring was social compliance. Would the genuine participant in each trial, succumb to social pressure and give an obviously incorrect answer just to fit in with the rest of the group? Well, it turns out that in about 35% of cases, the answer was yes.
For those taking part in the study, fitting into the social group was more important than actually giving a correct answer.
Once again this study has a real life application. By surrounding ourselves with people who share the same goals as us, we can use social pressure to our advantage.
If you’re trying to lose weight, having a group of friends who eat out at fast food restaurants every night, is only going to make the journey more torturous. However, imagine eating out with a group of friends who all opt for the salad. What do you think you would end up ordering then?
Whatever habit you trying to establish in your own life, try to surround yourself with people who have similar goals. If you want to exercise more find a gym buddy. If you want to improve your grades at school then join a study group. It’s significantly easier to skip the chocolate cake and order the fruit salad, when all your friends are doing the same.
Make things easy.
Take a look at the following chart. It was taken from a paper published by Johnson and Goldstein in 2004.
The graph shows us the organ donation rates across a variety of European countries. What you probably notice is the significant difference between the countries on the left, where the donation rate is very low and those on the right, who are faring much better.
So what could possibly explain this divide? Well as it turns out, it all comes down to the design of the forms people complete when applying for their driving licence.
In the countries where the donation rate is lowest, you are explicitly asked whether you would like to donate your organs once you die.
However, in the countries where the donation rate is much higher, the default option is to donate your organs unless you specifically choose not.
This study highlights another important fact about human psychology. At our core we are fundamentally lazy. We don’t like having to make lots of decisions and more often than not, we tend to stick with the option which was chosen for us by default.
This can help explain many of the bad habits we develop in our own lives. It’s far easier to order a take-away than prepare a healthy meal. It’s takes far less effort to stick on the television after a hard day work, rather than go the gym. So often we simply take the path of least resistance.
Once again we can turn this insight to our advantage. We can learn to manipulate our environments so that healthy, productive choices become our defaults. A few practical ways to implement this might include:
1) A common tactic used by bodybuilders is to prepare all their meals a week in advance. That way, whenever hunger strikes they always have a nutritious snack ready to go.
2) If you want to start exercising more, prepare your gym bag the night before and leave it at the end of your bed. If you can, pick a gym that you pass on your way home from work.
3) Set up a dedicated study area in your house, try to find a peaceful place, with plenty of natural light and free of distractions.
4) If you want to start reading more, remove the television from your bedroom and keep a selection of interesting books around the house. Keep these in plain sight.
So often in life, we want to develop better habits, but we insist on making things difficult. We have seen how our environment can hugely influence the habits which we form. We have also seen 4 powerful strategies for re-designing our environments so that good habits flourish.
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Until next time then, take care.
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