Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to keep up that workout routine or why you can’t stay on top of your diet? Maybe you can’t seem to make that work deadline because social media or video games rob you of much needed time. We often think we can change our habits through willpower and discipline.
According to James Clear, the answer to effective behavior change may be, literally, outside us.
Reading through Clear’s Atomic Habits, I noticed a simple statement that has echoed with me recently. “Your habits change depending on the room you are in and the cues in front of you. Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior,” he writes.
This is not a new concept. Clear cites the 1936 work of Kurt Lewin, who wrote, “Behavior is a function of a person in his or her environment.” In other words, our actions are at the mercy of our surroundings.
To take it a step further, this can be attributed to our relationships with the objects in the environment. We begin and maintain certain habits because the items are readily available. If you have a pantry full of junk food, you are probably not going to establish a healthy diet. To use a couple of Clear’s analogies, if you have a guitar sitting in the corner of the living room, you might be inclined to practice more than if it was in a case under the bed. Or going to the gym would be easier if it was on your way to work instead of being 15 minutes out of the way.
Because of these relationships and interactions with our environment, it can sometimes be easier to change our habits if we first change our surroundings. This minimizes the cues for harmful habits and can encourage the cues for helpful habits.
That’s all well and good, but what if you don’t have the money to move to a new apartment? What if a crazy new virus has you quarantined to your house and it has to double as your office, school for the kids, and vacation getaway on the weekend?
If we stick close to Epictetus’s concept of controlling what we have the power to control, we make the best of it.
Clear suggests, “When you can’t manage to get to an entirely new environment, redefine or rearrange your current one. Create separate space for work, study, exercise, entertainment, and cooking.” A way he keeps things orderly is to decrease the amount of overlap between spaces. Clear says, “One space, one use.”
But what about willpower and discipline? Are they completely useless?
It’s easy to say discipline is the key to better habits, and it can definitely be a factor. But if certain cues are highly persuasive, changing our environment may be easier than adding discipline. Clear suggests that perhaps disciplined people don’t possess “heroic willpower and self-control,” but instead are better at controlling their environment. They have created a “more disciplined environment.”
Once established in our brain, a habit sits and waits on its chance to be performed. As soon as a cue arises, the habit appears. Once you see the cue, a craving occurs and the habit follows. Clear says that often, once a habit is hardwired, we can break it, but we will likely never forget it. Short-term use of willpower can be effective in stopping bad habits or starting new, but to increase your chances of real change, remove the cue, or in other words, change your environment.
I recommend Atomic Habits if you want an easily readable book on how to change your life through habits. Stay tuned to the next installment for more on environments…
What habits do you need to take a look at in your life? Is there an environment you need to change to increase your chances of success?