We may think that we control most of our choices and that our motivation and willpower have a lot to do with making those choices, but the truth is that our physical environment determines a great deal in our choices. In many ways, our actions are directly related to our environment. Our physical environment (home, work, car, etc.) plays a big role (much bigger than we think) in shaping our thinking, decisions, actions, and our lives.
Imagine if we could design our homes, workplaces, etc. to make the good behaviors easier and the bad behaviors more difficult by using cues in our environment.
Here are some of the reasons for designing our environment to our benefit:
- It’s easier to make good choices when we are surrounded by them because we don’t have to think about it.
We tend to choose the default option (in the environment) as it takes more work/resistance to choose a different option, especially when we are tired or lack willpower.
We no longer have to motivate ourselves to do the “right” things since we are going to be doing them by default.
When the default option works well for us, it reduces decision fatigue, and that means we can focus on more pressing matters and use our attention to make decisions about things that really matter.
When things don’t go as expected, we are quick to “fix” our people, which never works. When we focus on fixing the environment, we get much better results with less effort.
As leaders, shaping our environment (at home or work) is our responsibility. We can’t “fix” people (nor do we want to), but we can fix our environment, and, in the process, get much better results.
We must use our environment to our benefit rather than letting it work against us. When you want to build a positive habit, make it easy for yourself to do it. For instance, it’s easier to eat healthy food if that’s all you keep at home. When you want to stop a negative habit, make it harder for yourself to do it. The same example applies — stop keeping junk food in the house. Of course, we can use this idea to make all kinds of positive behavioral changes at home and at work.
At home, we can provide an environment conducive to growth for our children. That means giving them freedom and responsibility without micromanaging them. Also, children learn more from what we do than what we say, so we need to be good role models for them.
At work, we can provide a safe environment for our staff. For instance, if we want them to live a healthier lifestyle, we can provide them healthy options in the cafeteria. If we want them to collaborate more, we give them the space that will automatically invite them to work together rather than simply telling them to collaborate. If we want them to have productive meetings, we make it a part of the organizational culture to not have electronic devices.
Here are some ways I have designed my environment:
I only use my home office area for doing the work. If I am not working, I am not there, period.
I also have a designated area in the house for exercising. On a related note, I drink more water during the day by having water in the different areas of my home/work. I don’t have to think about drinking water because its presence is enough to remind me to drink it.
I don’t have junk food in my house. This means I don’t have to actively decide against eating it.
There is no cable TV in my house. I use TV only for renting films. The chances of me watching a film randomly are slim because there are a few steps required from turning on the television to renting a film. Plus, I’ve blocked time during the week to watch a film (as it is important to me), which makes it even less probable that I will watch it randomly.
There was a time not too long ago that I used to check my website analytics on my computer and phone obsessively. I would find myself pressing the keyboard shortcuts and tapping on the bookmarks on the phone to visit those websites. Once I removed those links from the bookmarks list, I stopped checking the analytics altogether. Now, I have to manually enter the address of the website, and then navigate to the section I’m interested in. Obviously, this took more effort. But, the result was I stopped checking it altogether. This is not to say that one shouldn’t check analytics; in my case, it wasn’t serving me because of my compulsive behavior.
Another example of using my devices is I use my devices in a way that I’ll call contextual computing, which is a fancy way of saying that I use devices with purpose. I mostly use my computer for doing work, email, and research; I use the phone mostly for communication — making calls and sending texts; and I use my tablet for reading articles, browsing the web, and learning about things.
I would suggest removing social media apps from your phone to discourage usage and to improve attention span. Turn off most of the notifications on your phone and only keep the essential ones. Use your phone for outgoing/scheduled calls only. That means no interruptions. By the way, this is not the same as not returning calls, which is important.
We are shaped largely by our physical environment. At the same time, let’s not discount our power to shape it and use it to our advantage. We can design our environment so that we make good choices by default without having to think about it. By doing so, we can reduce decision fatigue, make better decisions on things that matter, and live a more proactive life.