Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour. I implemented some behaviour hacks to set myself up for change this year. Simple yet very effective (so far!). When you're creating a habit, you want to make it obvious & easy. I want to incorporate movement into my morning routine. I want my body to ache for it, anticipate it, become something as effortless as brushing my teeth in the morning. So, I lay my yoga mat out every night - ready for me in the morning. I'm stacking “move" as a habit after my morning meditation. I've also written this down “ I will move after my morning meditation upstairs in my lounge, each week day”. The key here is TIME & ENVIRONMENT - because these are strong cues to initiate habits. I'm still in the process of mastering the art of turning up. James Clear talks about this in “Atomic Habits”. Have you read it? There's a reason why it's a best seller for sure. Another goodie, is the 2 minute rule. It's a hack to fool your ego; get past the weighted feeling of staying put, stuck in the familiar - and into forward motion. Get to the mat - stretch for 2 minutes; that's it. That's all I have to do. You see, as human beings we have strong neural pathways that fire together - and when they fire together often, they wire together. Which is great if that behaviour is working is serving you. When we're implementing new habits, the struggle is real - and we can't rely on Willpower alone.
Willpower is overrated. Don't rely on it!
Willpower is a muscle not a skill. Meaning it's not something to master, it's something to practise, in small doses. There was a study conducted by a psychology PhD candidate called Mark Muraven. He ran an experiment with 2 groups of people. 67 undergraduates were recruited for experiment & told to skip a meal. One by one the students sat in front of two bowls. One bowl had radishes & one bowl had cookies. They were told that this experiment was to test taste perceptions - which was untrue. The point was to force them; but only some of them to exert their will power. Half of the students were told to eat the cookies and ignore the radishes; the other half were told to eat the radishes & ignore the cookies. The theory, it's bloody hard to ignore the cookies, and it will use willpower. Ignoring the radishes however, easy peasy.
“Remember,” the researcher said, “eat only the food that has been assigned to you.” Then she left the room. Once the students were alone, they started munching. The cookie eaters were in heaven. The radish eaters were in agony. They were miserable forcing themselves to ignore the warm cookies. They were then told they needed to wait a bit longer for the sensory memory of the food they ate to fade and were given a puzzle to solve. It looked simple, but it was impossible to solve.
And here is where it gets interesting. It took enormous willpower to keep working on the puzzle, particularly because each attempt failed. The researchers observed both groups & the results were startling. The cookie eaters, with their unused reservoirs of self-discipline, looked relaxed, hit a roadblock and would start again. And again. And again. Some worked for over half an hour before the researcher told them to stop. On average the cookie eaters spent almost 19 minutes apiece trying to solve the puzzle.
The radish eaters, with their depleted willpower, acted very different. They muttered as they worked. The got frustrated. One complained that the whole experiment was a waste of time. Some them put their heads on the table & closed their eyes. On average the radish eaters worked for only about either minutes, 60 percent less than the cookie eaters, before quitting. They surmised that by making people use a little bit of their willpower to ignore cookies, they had put them into a state where they were willing to quit much faster. Since then there's been more than 200 studies on this idea and they've all found the same thing.
Willpower is not a skill, it's a muscle. And like the muscles in your arms or legs, it gets tired as it works harder, so there's less power left over for other things. However just like our muscles, if we practise, we will get better. Start small. The power is in the small changes. If we go big & make sweeping changes, the likely hood of throwing in the towel is high.
Hence why if you've been slogging it out at work, using all your willpower to keeping going, solving problems, having difficult conversations - it can be hard then to have willpower to come home & think about relaxation habits or exercise habits after work. Hence why I didn't say I would do yoga for an hour each day. Just get to the mat. And every day except 2 days so far in the past month, I've stayed there longer than 2 minutes. Something kicks in once you've started, you kind of think, well while I'm here…….. nothing extreme, 10 - 20 mins so far. Once I master the art of showing up & build that habit, I'll work on staying longer. Standardise, then optimise. And it starts the night before - laying my yoga mat out.
Some more design examples:
Want to be more present instead of looking at your phone?
Charge your phone in another room when you have dinner & going to bed.
Want to paint more?
Create a space where you can set up an easel & paints - where you can see it.
Want to reduce your alcohol intake?
Remove alcohol from the house / replace it with appealing non-alcohol options
Want to remember to read your book instead of looking at your phone everytime you’re bored?
Set your phone’s lock screen photo to be a photo of the book you’re trying to finish. And have the book visible.
Want to play video games less? (This is part of making a habit you want to change hard / invisible)
Unplug the console & put it in the closet after each use.
It's all about knowing our human nature, & using it for us. What could you do today to design your environment for small, powerful changes?