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Build Better Habits

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How to Design Your Environment for Success

Welcome! At this stage, you know the desired identity you're trying to build. You have a two-minute version of your habit that reinforces that identity, and you've designed a clear and specific implementation intention for inserting this small habit into your daily routine.

Now it's time for us to discuss a few strategies to optimize this process and make it even easier to stick with your new habit day in and day out.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to make the cues that trigger and prompt your habits as obvious and as visible as possible.

Every habit is initiated by a cue, and we are more likely to notice the cues that stand out. Creating obvious visual cues can draw your attention toward your desired habit.

Unfortunately, the environments where we live and work often make it easy to not do certain actions because there is no obvious cue to trigger the behavior. It's easy to not eat fruits and vegetables when they are out of sight in the bottom of the fridge. It's easy to not do yoga when your yoga mat is hidden away in a box in the basement. It's easy to not write "thank you" notes when the stationery is stashed away on a seldom-seen shelf. When the cues that spark a habit are subtle or hidden, they are easy to ignore.

For this reason, redesigning your environment can be one of the most effective steps you can take to instill good habits. James Clear refers to this process as "environment design", and I've experienced the power of this approach in my own life.

Let's say you brush your teeth consistently but struggled to floss every time. You can try to build a flossing habit by implementing some of the ideas we already discussed. Flossing is a quick action that takes two minutes or less to do, so it satisfies the two-minute rule. So we are good to go there.

Next, we can create an implementation intention: I will floss my teeth after I brush my teeth in the bathroom. But even with this simple and effective setup, we might have everything we need to be constantly successful. So let's look at our environment.

Is the floss in a drawer in the bathroom? Is it hidden out of site, making it difficult to remember to do it? Even with a good plan and a clear implementation intention, we may not think to open the drawer. We don't see the floss – so we don't use it. The cue isn't obvious.

Environment design can be the strategy that gets us over the hump. Maybe we put the floss inside a little bowl and place it directly next to the toothbrush. Its out in the open, on the counter where we can easily see it. Almost like magic, this simple environment change might be all it takes to stick with the habit of flossing. When combined with an implementation intention, it can be easy to follow the new behavior. I will pick up the floss after I put down my toothbrush in the bathroom.

Let's discuss a few ways to use environment design to support and reinforce your habit intentions. Here are a few ways you can redesign your environment and make the cues for your good habits more obvious:


  • If you want to remember to do five burpees before you get in the shower, add a Post-It note to the shower door.

  • If you want to remember to refill your water bottle every time it's more than halfway empty, use a Sharpie to draw a small line at the halfway mark on the water bottle.

  • If you want to remember to write in your journal for five minutes at 7am, store the journal on the kitchen table so you see it when you sit down for breakfast every morning.

  • If you want to remember to read a book instead of looking at your phone whenever you're bored, set your phone's lock screen photo to be a photo of the book you're trying to finish.

  • If you want to remember to go for a run every morning, lay out your workout clothes and shoes the night before.

  • If you want to remember to practice your Spanish, lay out your flashcards on the kitchen table so you can flip through them as you eat.

Say you want to write five hundred words each day. When you leave your bedroom in the morning, close the door and put a Post-It Note directly at eye level that says, "Write 500 words." At bedtime, you are not allowed to open the door until those words are written.

Similarly, if you want to begin each day by reading a good book, doing yoga, or meditating, put a Post-It Note on your phone when you go to bed that says, "Do 5 minutes of yoga". When you wake up, you're not allowed to take off the Post-It Note and use your phone until you've completed the habit.

I think we can summarize this strategy as follows: If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, you need to make the cue a big part of your environment. Make sure the best choice is the most obvious one. In the long run (and often in the short run), your willpower will not beat your environment.

You can alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues. Making a better decision is easy, and natural even, when the cues for good habits are right in front of you.

What environment change you can you make to support the habit you've chosen to work on? Please share it in the comments.

Julie

Jeanie Faue
Jul 14, 2023

Leaving a book set out on the coffee table. When I walk by it in the morning to open the shade there it is to pick up and read a quick inspirational message.

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