I’m beginning to realize the lack of control I have over my actions. When I’m with certain friends, I act differently than I would with others. Where I go, will determine what I wear. How I’m feeling, will impact my decision-making. Even the time of day can have an effect on my patience. We have so much less control over our decisions than we think we do. Our behavior is largely influenced by our environment.
If I get a compliment on a new shirt, I’ll be more likely to wear it again. But if I feel out of place, I’ll think twice before putting it on. But that makes sense, right? Past experiences help form future behaviors through trial and error.
When I get a positive reaction, it reinforces behavior and a negative one will deter me from it.
What makes up your environment?
Our environment can be broken down into 5 categories, which influence behavior.
Environment Example Behavior
1. Location / At work / Dress appropriately
2. Time of Day / 9:00 / Drink coffee
3. After event / After eating / Rinse dishes in the sink
4. Social Influence/ With athletic friends/ Eat healthy food
5. Emotional State/ Stressed out/ Eat comfort food
However, our environment is subjective and can trigger a different response for you than it would for me. In the morning, you might drink coffee and I may drink tea. After eating, you might clean your dishes and I’ll leave them on the counter. When stressed, I might binge and you might exercise.
Your environment is the first step in The Habit Loop, which sparks a craving, behavior and then reward. But let’s focus on how you can design your environment to create good habits.
Why is your environment important?
It plays a role not only in your behavior but also on your mood.
Have you ever cleaned your desk and felt a weight lift off your shoulders?
I recently gave away a bunch of stuff in my office and felt more focused. While an otherwise messy desk causes me to feel overwhelmed.
This created a positive association between a clean environment and increased focus. The next time I feel my concentration declining, I might look to clean my environment.
Even better, I may even be proactive in keeping a clean desk to avoid losing focus. And that’s the type of habits we’re looking to create.
How does environment influence behavior?
Your brain is always looking for shortcuts to making decisions. Habits are a great way to make decisions automatic.
Therefore, you can design your environment to cue positive behaviors by reinforcing associations.
For example, how I associate a clean desk with feeling focused. Or when I get into the shower, my brain is cued to wash, and when I take a bath, it’s cued to read and relax.
Over time your mind prepares itself for a specific action primed by a particular environmental cue. However, if you do something different than what was expected, your mind will take notice.
If one day I decide to wash in the bath and read in the shower, my mind will say; “WTF Scott, this isn’t the association we developed!” That’s an extreme example. But the same thing occurs when you take a drink of Coke but find Sprite in your cup instead.
Design your environment for success
You can design your environment to establish certain behaviors. However, it will take time to create new associations. As described, start by creating positive associations within your environment.
This can be as simple as dedicating each location for specific actions – by giving every behavior a home.
My computer is for work.
Tablet for play.
Dinner table for eating.
Couch for watching tv or playing video games.
By devoting specific spaces to new habits will help in making them stick. The more environmental cues you use, the stronger the association becomes.
I meditate on the same chair (location), at the same time (time of day), after I shower (after event).
Combining environmental cues helps to make my meditation practice habitual. However, when I used to travel for work, changes in my environment made my habit more difficult. Another example is if you watch TV in bed; you’re creating multiple associations for your bed.
Watch TV and sleep, which can be confusing. Every time you climb into bed you’re brain may be primed for sleep or TV – which are 2 very different associations.
Try and use location cues for similar activities to avoid discrepancies. However, you can also design your environment through other cues.
Time – Around 9 am each morning, I drink a cup of coffee. After Event – After making a protein shake, I wash my blender right away. Social Influence – When I eat out with healthy friends, I’m more conscious of what I eat. Emotional State – When I feel stressed, I pause and take a few deep breaths to relax.
For this week’s habit challenge, design your environment according to the associations you wish to create.
1. Make a list of locations 2. Determine relevant associations for each location (+/-) 3. Design your environment to reinforce positive actions
Here are a few examples of how I’ve re-designed my environment to reinforce good habits.
I keep a water jug in plain sight to encourage drinking.
A book beside my bed as a reminder to read.
Sweets are hidden away in the pantry or fridge and healthy food in front.
I’ve even designated one side of the couch for reading and the other for watching TV!
The goal is to design your environment to make bad habits difficult and good habits easy.