Is Your Environment Working Against Your Health Goals?

It’s often said that we are a product of our environment, but what does this mean exactly and how can it help us change who we are.

Well if we look below the surface of the saying, a more accurate statement could be said that we are a product of our habits.  And our habits, are a product of our environment.

From the moment we wake each new day we are destined to perform a bunch of automatic routines.  How long we sit in bed, what time we shower, the first action of the day.

They are all set in motion before we even have a chance to give them a second thought.  Once established they are very much automatic, but how do we sustain our habits?

If we look to Charles Duhigg, we can learn that habits have three primary components.

The cue is like a trigger, something that sets your habit off in motion.

If you think of all those spy movies where a sleeper agent lays dormant until a secret word is said to trigger them to assassinate the unsuspecting leader, the cue is very much like this.

The majority of the time we are completely unaware of cues that drive our habits, just like the unsuspecting sleeper agent we go about our business thinking we are in control of our lives.

Little do we know we are being programmed every moment of every day, by ourselves and by third parties using human psychology to sell more.

The routine is what we perform when the cue triggers our pre-programmed neurons to perform the associated action.

The reward is what we get from performing the action.  The reward comes in many shapes and sizes, and like the cue, they can mostly be subconscious too.

We may get a hit of dopamine from the sugar-filled sweetness of a Krispy Kreme doughnut.

Or we may get an emotional hug from ourselves when sitting down to watch The Bachelor football.

Much of this system runs on autopilot and without great self-awareness, the majority of us aren’t even aware of the great influence everything is having on us every day.

Given our eyesight is one of our largest autonomous senses, it’s no surprise that the majority of our habit triggers are based on visual cues. Click To Tweet

Not only are third-parties programming us, but we are also programming ourselves, unknowingly for the most part.

Something as simple as hitting the snooze button each morning may sustain our bad habit of sleeping in.

Driving past McDonald’s on the way to work may influencing your habit of buying a McMuffin and double-shot expresso on the way to work each morning.

If you’ve ever paid close attention to the layout of a supermarket you may notice how all the popular junk food items are placed at eye level.

And popular soft-drink items like Coca-Cola are placed near the end of aisles to ensure they are visible to both aisle and horizontal foot traffic.

Popular soft-drink items are placed in high traffic areas to act as a cue to purchase.

Even lollies and sweets are placed lower to the ground at the child’s eye level to trigger habits in children.

  • Cue:  Child see’s lollipop
  • Routine:  Child asks the parent for a lollipop
  • Reward:  Child receives a lollipop

Remember, the eyes see all.  

Given our eyesight is one of our largest autonomous senses, it’s no surprise that the majority of our habit triggers are based on visual cues.

Simply seeing an object which we relate with a routine is often enough to have us perform the routine, as long as we have also associated a positive reward with the routine.

Keep in mind, that while the majority of us know that eating unhealthy is a bad habit, the reward we get from shovelling six cookies down our throat is often more powerful.

That’s because as humans we favour instant gratification over delayed gratification.

Environment Design to Stop Bad Habits

Now that we have covered how much influence environment design plays in our habits, both good and bad, let’s look at some practical ways how you can re-program your habits, and thus re-shape your future identity.

As we mentioned before, awareness is the very first step is identifying cues that trigger bad habits and feed the cycle.

For example, if you want to stop your bad eating habits, it’s not enough to want to stop.  Willpower and motivation will only get you so far, and if the environment is wrong you won’t be able to sustain it.

First, you need to identify what triggers bad eating habits, and what rewards you are getting to re-enforce the behaviour.

This could stem all the way back to your shopping routine.  We all typically shop from the same place, and we quickly become accustomed to shopping on autopilot.

We often browse the same aisles and go straight for the foods that we are comfortable with.  Unfortunately, we often give little thought to whether these foods are doing us any good.

So we could start there by shopping mindfully.  This may mean going to a different supermarket to get out of our comfort zone.

By short-circuiting the mindless automatic shopping habit, we place more emphasis on paying attention to where things are and what we are purchasing.  We are more “awake” as such.

Environment design can also be based on who we are with, as well.  For example, if you always catch up with friends over pizza then you are allowing the ritual to influence your eating choices.

If you want to make healthier eating choices, maybe you could change the location of where you catch up with friends to somewhere with healthier food.

Worst case, if your friends or family aren’t on board with your desire for healthy eating habits maybe you need to move the catch ups outside of meal times or locations.

Follow these simple rules when trying to change bad habits.

Remove the obvious

This one should be obvious, but sometimes we can be blind or stubborn in our own ways.

If you’re trying to give up a soft-drink habit, then keeping the fridge stocked with 30 cans of Cola-Cola isn’t going to do you any favours.

As such, continuing to visit McDonald’s but telling yourself you will just have a small burger meal isn’t going to help you develop better eating habits either.

Maybe one day, once you have mastered the habit, then sure, moderation is fine.  But until you have rid yourself of these bad habits, it’s best to avoid the obvious cues entirely.

Self-compassion

If you’re human, and if you’re reading this then you likely are, show yourself some self-compassion.

Remember, habits are part of our DNA.  They’re here to stay and will continue to shape who we are.  And in a world of capitalism and marketing, there’ll always be organisations out there using this to their own advantage.

So show yourself some self-compassion.  You will slip up sometimes, I know I do all the time.  But that’s okay.  It’s not how many times you fall down that matters, it’s how many times you get back up.

Change the reward

If the bad habit has an instant reward associated with it, try and substitute the reward with a different reward.

For example, if the reward of drinking an ice-cold Coke is an apparent feeling of thirst being satisfied, can you test this by replacing the Coke with a cold glass of diet cordial with extra ice.

Try an alternate rewards to satisfy the same craving with a healthier option.

Experiment mindfully with awareness and test your rewards, quite often cravings can be satisfied in a multitude of ways and simply following our default is due to the path of least resistance.

But it doesn’t need to be that way, we can try to satisfy our cravings with alternate, more helpful behaviours and over-time these new healthier habits can become our go-to for satisfying the cravings.

Environment Design to Develop Good Habits

On the flip side of the coin, you can use visual cues to help yourself create new healthy habits.  If you want to drink more water, then buy a few drink-bottles and place them strategically around the house.

I use this one personally, using the Camelbak insulated drink bottles often cooling 2-3 in the fridge at any one time.

By placing one in the bedroom on the bedside table, one in the living room table and one on the kitchen bench the majority of rooms are covered so as I walk between rooms, a drink-bottle catches my eye which triggers me to have a sip.

If the bad habit has an instant reward associated with it, try and substitute the reward with a different reward. Click To Tweet

This bypasses the need to ask myself have I been drinking enough?  Am I thirsty?  By regularly seeing and drinking I know the daily liquid intake is high, especially if all the bottles are empty by the end of the day.

You can use similar techniques with other visual cues.  If you want to eat more fruit and vegetables then buy a fruit bowl and keep it on the kitchen bench or table, stocked full of apples and bananas.

Using the same programming as the supermarket example, place vegetables in the fridge at eye-level so you’ll be more inclined to use them in meals.  Although the crisper is technically better, it’s only useful if you are actively preparing from it.

If you want to start walking before or after work, place your track pants and walking shoes prepared in a neat package in a visible location in the bedroom, preferably so you see them as soon as you wake up.

Place all the required items to perform a walk or workout in a visible location to reduce friction and act as a cue.

Follow these simple rules when trying to develop better habits.

Start small

If you are a beginner to habit creation, start small.  There’s no rush, and no need to go from couch potato to 5K runner overnight, even if the program is called “Couch to 5K”.

Start small, a walk around the block for a mere two minutes.  Maybe even smaller, simply put on your runners after work but don’t go for a walk yet.

Aim for 1% better every day, forever.  Not 100% better every day, for a week.

Make it obvious

It should come as no surprise that the visual cue should stand out and be obvious.  If it’s subtle and in the background, you may not notice it.

You want the items to almost appear “out of place”, eye-catching.  For example, piling your workout clothes on top of other clothes on your floordrobe makes it harder to distinguish the workout clothes.

A better option would be to keep a clean place to the side of your bed where just the workout clothes, runners and carpet is all you see when you look off the side of your bed.

Make it simple

If you want to start drinking more water, there’s not much use placing empty glasses around the house.  This still requires effort to walk to the fridge.

By utilising pre-filled drink bottles, friction is reduced and the only effort involved is lifting the bottle to your mouth.

Simple, right?

One at a time

Focus on just one or two easy habits at a time, initially.  Once each habit has stuck (after at least 2-3 weeks), you can begin adding another habit on top.

But the focus of building new habits should be restricted to the least amount of effort.  We all love to think we can multitask, but honestly, we can’t.

What we can do is context-switch, but often this leaves us forgetting parts of the previous context as we bounce between them.

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