Do you know that soft drink companies compete to get their products displayed around eye level in grocery stores? Why is that? Because decades of marketing research have taught them something important about people: we’re lazy! Our brains have adapted to gravitate towards whatever is easiest to choose when given a choice between two things, often contradicting our goals and values (we choose the soft drink because it is the first thing we see, even though the water is right there, just 30cm lower in the same fridge). The worst part about this is that we don’t even know we’re being influenced. We think we’re free agents, able to make rational choices at all times, but unfortunately, we’re not. In fact, Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for his contributions to the field of judgement and decision-making science, helping us understand why we are cognitively “lazy” and why we often make poor decisions despite knowing better.

One of the findings in this body of work is that, much of the time, our decisions are heavily influenced by our environments (even if we aren’t aware of it), yet we often forget to consider our environments when we are trying to achieve our goals.

Here’s an example: let’s presume you have a habit of sharing a bottle of wine with your best friend every Wednesday evening at your favourite bar. Although you love spending time with your friend, you want to drink less alcohol as it’s not in line with your fitness goals. Every Wednesday, you intend to order a bottle of water instead… but each time, you give in, and order the wine.

It’s easy for us to judge ourselves as being “weak” or having poor discipline when this happens. However, you’re not accounting for the powerful effects that your environment is having on your decision-making. In fact, because of the ways our minds work (favouring familiar experiences that require little cognitive effort and are guaranteed to produce a reward), your willpower stands little chance against your environment. Research shows that our self-discipline or willpower is finite, and the more decisions we have to make, the more prone we become to decision-fatigue - and to making decisions that require less effort. It’s like having a battery bar of willpower that gets depleted during the day. At the end of a long day, with limited willpower left, being in an environment that encourages you to have a drink with a friend makes it all the more difficult to choose that bottle of water. Even with a “full battery” of willpower, the environmental cues to choose the wine are powerful.

Relying on willpower alone can be a taxing, uphill battle. An optimised environment does the majority of the work for you. Imagine, instead, that you had arranged with your friend to meet for a walk, or for a cup of coffee, or at your home. Suddenly, the temptation of the wine disappears, and you get the benefits of the social engagement without having to compromise on your goal to drink less alcohol. And you didn’t even have to worry about trying to resist the pull of your old habit - because the temptation wasn’t even there in the first place. Simply adjusting your environment helps you stay on track to achieve your goals, without having to expend any willpower in the process.

Ultimately, you want to design your environment - whether it’s your kitchen, bedroom, or office space - to align with your goals instead of oppose them. The golden rule to optimising your environment in favour of your goals is to make unhealthy/unhelpful options more difficult or impossible. Imagine you cultivated a space that made making helpful decisions a default mode. How many times have you set out to achieve a goal with all the motivation and willpower you could summon, only to stop your goal-achieving behaviour a few weeks later? Wouldn't it be far easier to create a goal-achieving environment than to constantly rely on motivation and willpower?

Designing our environments to be optimally supportive of our success is an overlooked step in our plan to achieve our goals. Here are some environmental tips to get you started:

  • Goal: Eat more fruit and veg. Tip: Put the fruit in a bowl in the middle of your kitchen, not in the fridge drawer where you can’t see it. Display your veggies at eye level in your fridge. Wash and prepare your veggies as snacks ahead of time to ensure that you have healthy alternatives ready when you get hungry.
  • Goal: Eat less sugary foods, like sweets and chocolate. Tip: Don’t keep it in the house. Know your “trigger foods” and avoid stocking up on those goods.
  • Goal: Stop hitting the snooze button. Tip: Use a loud, old-school alarm clock and put it on the other side of the room.
  • Goal: Drink more water. Tip: Leave a full 500ml glass of water at your bedside each evening, and drink it first thing in the morning when your alarm goes off.
  • Goal: Exercise in the morning. Tip: Put your shoes and exercise gear right next to your bed, and put your kit on as soon as your feet hit the floor.
  • Goal: Improve the quality of your relationship. Tip: Set an alarm on your phone to send your partner a message telling them one thing you appreciate about them.
  • Goal: Save more money. Tip: Set up a monthly debit order to go to your savings account at the beginning of the month.
  • Goal: Cut down on social-media usage. Tip: Use your social media accounts from your desktop only. Set screen-time limits on your apps and turn off your notifications.
  • Goal: Cultivate kindness towards yourself. Tip: Put up positive affirmations in spaces you can see them.

When your environment is optimally designed to be in alignment with your goals, your chances of success improve dramatically. Why try and rely on your limited and precious willpower when you can remove the need to rely on it at all?

Written by: D. Goldstone (M.A. Clin. Psych.) & T. Olivier (M. Soc. Sci. Clin. Psych)

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