Change Your Life by Changing Your Environment

Zat Rana
Zat Rana
Aug 24, 2017 · 7 min read

Hong Kong has more than 1,300 skyscrapers. That’s almost twice as many as New York.

It’s one of the most densely populated areas in the world; a relatively small region with more than seven million people crammed into it. That’s what’s forced them to build upwards instead of outwards. The skyline is a spectacle to be experienced.

Expats from North America and Europe can be found in large numbers there. There’s a constant recycling of people, and a vast majority of them make one observation in particular.

The byproduct of a small area and upward development is that homes are often significantly smaller than most Westerners are used to. They feel cramped, and even more money doesn’t buy too much more. It’s a big incentive for them to spend as little time there as possible.

The result is a more vibrant and lively expat community. People spend more time outside doing things, and you can feel it in the general atmosphere on almost any day of the week.

Introducing Environment Design

Of course, this isn’t hard science. Correlation doesn’t imply causation. You might easily reason that the result is simply because Hong Kong is a major metropolitan area and people away from home want to make the most out of their experience, so they get out and do more.

That would overlook one thing. The general consistency with which people from big cities and small, people that have only ever lived in one city or five, and people from one country or another all seem to notice the difference. Herd bias? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Environment design is one of the most important factors influencing behavior in our lives. It’s subtle but incredibly powerful, and in different contexts, it can be manipulated for personal benefit.

Here is how.

Remove Negative Influences to Discourage Bad Behavior

Almost everyone has a habit they wish they didn’t have. It can be anything from binge eating to procrastination. It often feels like no matter how hard we try to avoid it, somehow, this habit continues to find its way into our lives. It isn’t easy to get rid of.

For most of us, to eliminate a bad behavior, our first instinct is to set a goal and a deadline, hoping we follow through by not acting. Rarely is there a strategy in place, and even more rarely are the circumstances around our behavior evaluated. That’s a problem.

If we break down bad behaviors, we find that they’re guided by certain negative influences. These act as pivots in our environment that push us to move in a particular direction. It doesn’t matter if you choose not to want to do it. As long as the pivot is there, you’ll automatically act.

Paco Underhill is an environmental psychologist and the author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. He’s spent 25 years researching shopping behavior, and he suggests that up to half the things we buy at a grocery store, we have no intention of getting when we walk in.

The reason for this is that stores are savvy at subconscious marketing. They use psychology to leverage behavioral details, so they can deliberately design their layouts to maximize revenue.

Why and How Does This Work?

For example, stores place expensive brands at eye level so that they’re more visible and thus more likely to be bought. Similarly, they leave candy by the checkout line because they know that by then we’re tired of making decisions, and it’s more likely to be picked up in temptation.

It all works, and it isn’t hard to see how this plays out in other aspects of our lives, too.

Let’s say you’re a binge eater. You’ve thought about your problem and discovered that it occurs later in the night. When you’re feeling distracted, you find yourself looking through the fridge and picking up a ready-made snack before going back to doing what you have to do.

If you are serious about cutting the habit, there’s an easy solution. Stop buying ready-made food. That’s the negative influence. The 5-minute detour you routinely make won’t be long enough to cook from scratch, and it’ll force you to find another outlet. Maybe a healthier one.

If you’re diligent in recognizing the root cause of your bad behavior and the harmful influence responsible for it, you can simply eliminate or substitute it from your surroundings.

Design for Convenience to Influence Desired Behavior

When it comes to change, people have a tendency to be drastic in their goals and their expectations. Thinking big is often needed to fuel inspiration, but it isn’t the best way to build momentum. The only way to do that is to break things down and start small.

It’s hard to get a behavior to stick. When it’s new, it isn’t automated, and to make it last, we need a high dose of motivation to follow through. Now, if motivation came easy, that wouldn’t pose much of a challenge, but as most of us can attest, that isn’t how it works.

In 2003, Eric J. Johnson and Daniel Goldstein published a now-famous paper in Science, one of the top academic journals in the world, titled Do Defaults Save Lives? Their aim was to show the effects of default choice on organ donation rates in different countries.

At the time, approximately 85% of people in the US approved of organ donation, and yet, only 28% of people were signed up as donors. They observed a similar trend in countries like Germany and Spain. On the other side of the coin, places like Austria, France, and Portugal had donation consent rates higher than 99%. That’s a massive difference.

What Was the Cause Behind This?

They had an opt-out system of consent as opposed to an opt-in system. Rather than people having to go out of their way to sign up for an organ donation, they were automatically signed up as donors, but with the option to take themselves off if they disapproved of the process. Almost no one did, and it saved thousands, if not millions, of lives.

Depending on the degree of convenience, people showed a vast difference in whether or not they acted consistently with their beliefs. Making it easy changed everything.

In your own life, if you’re having trouble taking a necessary prescription drug that you’ve been assigned, don’t leave it in your drawer or a corner somewhere, hoping you don’t forget. That’s far too difficult. Put it squarely on top of your phone at night. When you wake up in the morning and reach for that phone, you’ll also be reminded to take a dose of those pills.

That’s one example in one part of your life. These small changes add up to produce big results.

Tactically Place Constraints to Encourage Automation

The difficulty in eliminating a bad behavior is that it’s often a habit, and the difficulty in inspiring a new desired behavior is that it often isn’t. There’s a connection there, and it’s been studied and written about extensively in the last few decades.

Habits are behaviors that occur repeatedly and without conscious effort. They’re a product of an efficiently evolved brain, and they’re responsible for up to 40% of our daily actions.

The thing that makes habits both dangerous and desirable is the fact that they take very little effort. They rely on a trigger to send them into a routine that leads to a form of reward.

It’s a tried and tested three-step process that can be used to design new habits, but alone, it still requires a heavy dose of motivation. That said, if we take it a step further, we can bypass this by building useful constraints into our environment. Let’s go back to Hong Kong.

The constraint in Hong Kong isn’t one that was intentionally designed by its inhabitants, but deliberate or not, it gives us an idea of how restrictions can direct and automate behavior.

The limitation of a cramped apartment is undesirable. It feels isolating, and that’s the initial trigger. It provides the person with an incentive to minimize the time they spend there.

What do they do? They become proactive. They call their friends, they look to see if any events are going on, and they seek out any excuse to be elsewhere. That’s the routine.

The reward is socialization. Because everyone else appears to feel the same way, they’re all looking to get out and do something fun, so that’s what they do. With time and repetition, it’s something they come to expect. They no longer need to be proactive. It’s a desired habit.

Most tactics for habit formation rely on deliberately designing the habit loop into our lives. With the right knowledge and motivation, it works. The problem is that it takes a considerable amount of effort and willpower to follow through until the automation process takes hold.

The more optimal method is to automate the automation process. By harnessing the power of constraints, you can place levers in your environment to guide your behavior in the direction you want without even thinking about it.

All You Need to Know

Change is hard. It requires you to be deliberate in your focus towards your goals. Even then, without the right tactics, such efforts can be pointless. Motivation and willpower aren’t easy to harness, and between the demands of day to day life, they can be difficult to spare.

One of the most effective ways to change your life is by lowering the barrier of motivation and willpower that’s required. That’s where environment design comes in. It’s the hidden force that guides much of human behavior.

Of course, productive behavior change doesn’t come without a battle. Even with informed knowledge on how it can be better accomplished, there’s more than one hurdle. The hurdle of commitment, the hurdle of compromise, and the hurdle of action. But it can be done.

A lot of what we attribute to luck is a product of environment. Good thing is that you can change it.

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Zat Rana

Written by

Zat Rana

Playing at the intersection of philosophy, science, and art. Trying to be less wrong. I write here now:

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

Zat Rana

Written by

Zat Rana

Playing at the intersection of philosophy, science, and art. Trying to be less wrong. I write here now:

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

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