You Don’t Design Your Environment, Your Environment Designs You

What is the first thing you see when you walk into a Whole Foods grocery store? It is usually a huge display of flowers. Your first impression of the store is freshness, color, and delicious smells. This sets the tone for your entire shopping experience. The flowers flip a switch in our brain that tells us everything else in the store is also fresh; produce, baked goods, ready-to-eat meals.

In an article for, Hiranmayi Srinivasan writes that “Every aspect of a store’s layout—from the produce display near the entrance to the dairy case in the back to the candy at the register—is designed to stimulate shopping serendipity.” The entire design of the store is give you, the shopper, an image of what you want and make you more likely to purchase it. Most of the time, this includes items you don’t need and didn’t come to the store for. Once your mind is primed towards freshness by the flowers when you walk in, all of the food you see seems just a little bit more enticing. This isn’t an accident. Teams of highly educated sociologists, psychologists, and designers lay out stores to prime you to purchase and then provide you things to purchase. The good news is that you can use these same strategies to banish bad habits, build and maintain good habits, and make progress towards your goals.

“Environment is the invisible hand the shapes human behavior,” writes James Clear. James Clear definitely understands human behavior and habits; he is the author of New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits and his blog, which has more than 10 million visitors per year and covers topics such as starting and sticking to good habits, making better choices, building better systems and processes, and accomplishing more in less time. Clear writes that “You may think that you control most of your choices, but the truth is that a large portion of your actions every day are simply a response to the environment design around you. The forms you are mailed, the food on your kitchen counter, the items on your desk at work — they all impact your behavior in one way or another.” You don’t control your environment, your environment controls you. Here is how to use this to your advantage.

First, design your environment to make bad decisions harder. If your goal is to be more productive, start by removing distractions from your work environment. If your goal is to eat healthier, having a bag of potato chips on your kitchen counter won’t help. If your goal is to get up early and workout, don’t put a sleep button on your alarm that will keep you in bed longer. For myself, I am very easily distracted by my phone. The typical wormhole of social media isn’t the only attention grabber. Sometimes I ‘think’ I should look at my workout stats for the week in my fitness tracker app for no apparent reason. Or maybe look at the weather for the third time today. Or maybe I should check and see if there are any homes for sale in my area that are 10x my budget (and I already own a great house). Sometimes I even convince myself that reading some meaningless articles is good for me. It isn’t the phone’s fault that I am distracted by it. And maybe I can claim it isn’t my fault either. I have created an environment where distraction is so easy, it’s easier to be distracted than not be distracted.

The fact is, my phone is usually within arm’s reach and visible out of the corner of my eye. It is physically and silently tempting me to pick it up and takes zero effort to grab. So when I am reading a great book or attempting to write a blog post, reaching over and losing 5, 10, or 20 minutes is so simple it’s hard NOT to do. The best way to avoid falling into the phone distraction trap is for me to create a barrier. I need to literally make it harder to be distracted by my phone. To accomplish this, I will sometimes leave my phone in the kitchen. Once I am comfortable on the couch with a good book or my laptop ready to write, getting up to get my phone in the kitchen is much harder then barely even needing to reach my arm. And having my phone out of sight makes me even forget it exists for a while. I’m not perfect, and if you ask my wife I am addicted to my phone, but creating a barrier is a huge step for me to do more of what I want to be doing.

James Clear’s advice is to reduce mindless eating by “removing unhealthy food from your view.” Clear says to reduce watching TV, “Pick up your remote and put it in a drawer, a closet, or somewhere out of sight” or even redesign your living room so every chair and couch isn’t facing directly towards the TV. Maybe even unplug the TV completely so that if you want to watch it you have to make the necessary steps. Sometimes adding that extra step will give you to the time to rethink your decision instead of being 10 minutes into a reality show before you even know what happened.

Next, make good decisions easier. I like to get up and workout in the morning before work. One way I make that decision easier is to have my general workout planned the night before. I have learned that if I wake up in the morning and am laying in bed trying to plan a workout, I have created a barrier and make it easier to talk myself out of it or reduce the difficulty or time of my workout. Another way is to have my workout clothes ready to go in the closet so I don’t even need to think about what I am wearing. I try to make my good decision so easy that it isn’t actually a decision at all. If my workout plan is made and my clothes are ready, there isn’t a decision to make. I just do it.

I read a blog post by Kunal Shandilya and saw the idea of contextual zoning. To make good decisions and habits easier, create zones where you do those things. Shandilya writes “… I now like to associate all different kinds of work I do with very specific zones: a sleep zone, a write & read zone, an eating zone, etc.” For example, if you associate your bedroom with sleep, you will sleep better vs. if you associate it with playing video games or working on your laptop. “By strictly maintaining these contextual zones, I’ve prepared my subconscious mind to automatically prime itself according to the zone it sees,” writes Shandilya. Contextual zoning can do for your goals what fresh flowers do in a grocery store; it puts you in a state of mind that makes the subsequent actions more likely to happen.

Another tip from James Clear is to “…design your habits so they fit in the flow of your current patterns.” For example, Clear writes that “you are more likely to go to the gym if it is literally on the way home from work than if the gym is only five minutes away, but in the opposite direction of your commute.” If you have to go out of your way to do something good, but don’t need to change anything to do something bad, that is a problem. If your gym is in the opposite direction of home but your favorite bar is between your work and home, it should be no surprise that you are having a beer and a burger instead of doing sets of pull ups.

All of this being said, you still have control over the choices that you make. If you really want something, you will make the right choices. I don’t want you to think that I am suggesting we are all just mindlessly reacting to environmental cues all of the time. If you can practice mindfulness to make deliberate and purposeful decisions, the negative environmental factors around you will have less of an impact on you. The point of environment design is the make the good choices easier and the bad choices harder. James Clear writes “It can be tempting to blame failure on a lack of willpower or a scarcity of talent, and to attribute success to hard work, effort, and grit.

James Clear writes “It can be tempting to blame failure on a lack of willpower or a scarcity of talent, and to attribute success to hard work, effort, and grit. To be sure, those things matter. What is interesting, however, is that if you examine how human behavior has been shaped over time, you discover that motivation (and even talent) is often overvalued. In many cases, the environment matters more.” On one hand, each of us needs to take personal responsibility – or as Navy SEAL commander Jocko Willink says, Extreme Ownership – of our lives and the choices that we make. But on the other hand, we also need to take responsibility for the environments around us. Being self-motived is still important. But as Clear writes, “Imagine if your world — your home, your office, your gym, all of it — was crafted in a way that made the good behaviors easier and the bad behaviors harder. How often would you make healthy and productive choices if they were simply your default response to your environment? And how much easier would that be than trying to motivate yourself all of the time?”

So in conclusion, we shouldn’t exclude grit, will power, and choice from the equation. We should simply take into account how the cues around us are influencing those choices. If you can use a little bit less grit, willpower, and avoid decision fatigue by designing your environment to help make some of your choices easier (or harder), you will have more for those times when you really need it. Don’t make decisions based on the person you are right now, make decisions based on the person you want to be tomorrow.

Let’s keep the conversation going! Please comment, share, or message me.

-Tyson Simmons

Sources, Notes, and Inspiration


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