Behavior change isn’t commanded by motivation and willpower.
There’s a limit to the number of times you can beat your inner-self and go running. Soon enough, the routine gets boring, you skip a few runs, and fall back to binge-watching Netflix. In the long-run, motivation is not a sustainable way to change behavior.
And willpower is like a muscle: we can strengthen it but ultimately it needs time to recover from overuse. Make too many decisions during the day to deplete your willpower and you suddenly crave fast-food for dinner, instead of your well-thought balanced diet.
But if neither can change behavior, how can we become the best version that we can be? How can we make sure we consistently make better decisions regarding our body and mind?
The answer: designing smart choice architectures.
What Is Choice Architecture?
Small and perceptibly insignificant details can have major impacts on our behaviors. And those details are often a result of how we design our environment. Thus, most of our decisions are not made by deliberate choice, but by environment design.
Choice architecture is the design of different ways in which choices are presented to consumers, and how the presentation impacts the consumer decision-making.
For example, think of the display of allied products in a supermarket. Retailers place an assortment of products — such as chocolates or magazines — near the checkout counter to entice you to buy on an impulse as you wait in line.
But choice architecture is not reserved for shops, brands, and sales. It’s present in our personal lives too, even if we don’t notice it. It’s drinking coffee at the office because the machine is always there and looking at the phone first thing in the morning because the device serves as an alarm clock.
Although we don’t notice it, our environment shapes most of our decisions.
Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage”, wanted to start practicing guitar daily. But it was hard to get started and he couldn’t motivate himself to do it. So he placed the instrument in the center of the living room, always on display and ready to be grabbed for a little practice. After that subtle change, Shawn practiced guitar for 21 days straight without exception.
That’s the power of our environment. And if we become smarter on how we design it, we can make better decisions in everyday life.
Choice Architecture and Healthy Food Choices
Can we promote healthier choices just using choice architecture? This was the question researcher Anne N. Thorndike was trying to answer when conducting a study at the Massachusetts General Hospital cafeterias.
After collecting baseline sales data for 3 months, researchers labeled every item in the cafeteria using a light system: green for healthy options, such as salads or vegetables; yellow for items neither healthy nor unhealthy; and red for unhealthy choices, such as soft drinks or Pizza.
And 3 months later, they rearranged the cafeteria items to make some of the green items more visible and convenient for purchase and some red items less visible. Green items were at eye level now in the beverage and sandwich refrigerators, there were baskets of bottled water throughout the cafeteria, and pre-packaged salads next to the pizza counter.
Sales of red items decreased from 24 to 21% while sales of green items increased from 41% to 46%.
The results were even more staggering in beverages: the proportion of red beverages decreased from 27% to 18% and green increased from 52% to 60%!
24 months after the study began, sales of unhealthy beverages were down by 39%.
Design Your Environment to Make Better Decisions
Your environment is the single most powerful factor that influences your decisions.
Much like the change in the cafeteria choice architecture led to healthier eating habits, you can design your environment to start making better decisions and change behavior.
“If we do not create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us.” — Marshall Goldsmith
Which leads us to the concept of “friction”. Think of it as the number of steps it takes you to perform a certain activity. Remove friction to make better decisions and add friction to quit bad habits.
Here are some examples:
Use your phone less often: start by removing all notifications and apps you don’t need. Then set your phone to airplane mode an hour before going to bed and only disable it after completing your morning routine. No more checking Facebook or email immediately after waking up or just before going to sleep. As a bonus, flight mode saves battery life.
Reduce mindless internet browsing: the websites you save on your bookmarks bar are the ones you will visit more often. Remove infinity scrolling websites — such as social media or news — from your bookmarks bar. Replace them with informative blogs and learning opportunities.
Eat healthier: remove unhealthy food by hiding them from view in the back of a high cupboard. Stock your fridge with vegetables, lean meat, and water. Cut fruit and veggies into snack-friendly sizes and keep them front and center in the fridge. Don’t buy soft drinks or sweets. Out of sight, out of mind. Eating healthier starts at the supermarket. If you want to automate healthier eating, buy a subscription of fresh, seasonal produce delivered to your door each week.
Watch less TV: put your remote in a drawer, out of sight. Where it used to be, put a book instead. Sometimes you will still want to watch TV, but others you might stop yourself and read instead. For a more drastic measure remove the batteries from the remote so you need to walk up to the TV to turn it on and change channels or volume. If you want to go all-in, unplug the TV and put the cable in your wardrobe. Soon enough you’ll have more free time than ever.
Exercise more frequently: lay out your workout clothes the night before and put them next to your bed. The moment you wake up, you’ll have everything ready to go. Get in your sports clothing and hit the gym or go for a run. If you prefer biking, leave your bike near the garage door so you can access it easily.
Walk more: always park your car a healthy distance from work, such as the far end of the parking lot or the opposite end of the block. This will force you to take a short walk to and from work. And always take the stairs when you have a choice. You’ll work more steps into your day without having to work in the time needed for a traditional workout.
Order and spend less eating out: waiters and what other people ordered can pressure you into eating more than you otherwise might, such as appetizers, drinks or dessert. Make your decision before the waiter comes and order before others. If you can, an even better option is to look at the restaurant menu online and make your decision in advance. Since portions in restaurants tend to be larger, order one main course and split or ask for a to-go box right away and stash a portion before you start.
Spend less money: multiple studies show that people spend more when using cards instead of cash. Withdraw a set amount of money each week, leave your cards at home and always pay in cash. The psychological reinforcement of having physical money in your wallet helps you spend less.
Save more money: each time you get a paycheck, pay yourself first. Withdraw in cash and put it in an envelope earmarked for specific purposes (like that trip you always wanted to take) or move in into the savings accounts. For daily saving, choose one small spending habit and pay yourself not to do it anymore. If you normally pick up coffee on your way to work, start drinking it at home instead. Put the money you would otherwise spend on the coffee shop in a jar before leaving home.
Make Better Decisions: The Next Steps
In each example above, you are adjusting the level of “friction”: decreasing the number of steps needed to complete a good behavior and increasing to make it more difficult to perform bad habits.
That’s all there is in designing your environment to make better choices: surround yourself with the right cues — such as veggies in the fridge — to reinforce good habits.
Use this general idea to adjust many other areas of your life. I discussed this idea when talking about productivity spaces. Craft your environments — home, office, car, etc. — for good behaviors, making it easier to perform them.
Motivation is overrated. Willpower can be depleted. Focus on what you control: impact your environment, so it impacts your choices.