I have a distant (distant, distant) cousin who decided to stop smoking several years after he got out of the penitentiary. As a life-long smoker with a criminal record a mile long who referred to his time in prison as "being away at college," he wasn't exactly the kind of guy who excelled at self-control and self-discipline. And yet when he decided to stop smoking, his strategy wasn't to remove the temptation to smoke from his life. His plan was to practice intense self-control.

He put a pack of cigarettes on his coffee table-- out in the open and easy to access-- and each time he looked at it, he said, "I'm gonna beat you."

He didn't.

What my distant (very, very distant) cousin failed to realize is that it's easier to avoid temptation than it is to resist it. Unfortunately, even those of us who are a bit better adapted than this cousin of mine make the same mistake. We make plans to improve or change some facet of our life but leave everything else exactly the same. Metaphorically speaking (or perhaps quite literally for some of you), we're leaving the cigarettes within reach. Even if we're wanting to quit, they're still there; the fact that they're still there makes it easier to justify falling back on our old ways or picking up the cigarettes when it's convenient.

For some of us, that may mean we're keeping our phone close by and subsequently wasting hours on social media. Maybe we're determined to read more, but once we pick up the controller, we play video games until it's nearly time to go to sleep and then it's too late to pick up a book. Perhaps you've decided that you want to start a workout routine, but each day goes by with so much to do that it's impossible to fit it into your schedule on a consistent basis, so you just go when it's convenient or when you feel particularly motivated.

As long as our environment stays exactly the same, there's a good chance that our habits– positive or negative habits– will stay exactly the same as well.

How Does Our Environment Influence Our Habits?

Take a moment to think about the things you did today without really thinking about it. For me, once my alarm went off, that looked something like this:

  1. I got out of bed
  2. I turned off my alarm clock
  3. I used the restroom
  4. I walked into the kitchen and started brewing coffee

Each of these actions occurred more or less on autopilot. I didn't really need to think about what I was doing because it's what I always do. Even some of the nuances of this routine occur almost entirely without thought. For example, my bedroom has two doors– one that goes out into the hallway and one that goes directly to the master bathroom. After I turned off my clock, I took the door out into the hallway to go into the master bathroom from its door that's connected to the hallway. The door in my room that goes directly to the master bath would have been quicker and more direct, but the knob also has a tendency to get stuck since I haven't taken the time to fix it yet. Still groggy and pre-caffeine, I didn't think through the likelihood of the door being stuck. I just walked, peed, and went about the rest of my morning because that's what my environment has conditioned me to do.

In their article "How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world," Lally, Van Jarrsveld, Potts, and Wardle write that, "As behaviours are repeated in consistent settings they then begin to proceed more efficiently and with less thought as control of the behaviour transfers to cues in the environment that activate an automatic response: a habit." (emphasis added)

Whether we realize it or not, we're constantly taking cues from our environment and associating those cues with a specific behavior. For example, when I sit down on the couch in the evenings, I pull out my phone and go directly to Instagram. When I'm at work and see in one of my tabs that the number of unread emails in my inbox has changed, I immediately click on that tab to see what the new email is. When I start to get writer's block, I open a new tab on my computer and scroll through Facebook. When I'm feeling unfocused, I play YouTube videos in the background while working on something else.

Each of these behaviors is habits that occur automatically because my environment encourages them. What's particularly challenging with these habits is that they create a feedback loop that's generally counterproductive and works to feed itself. As an example of what I mean, think about my habit of playing YouTube videos when I'm feeling unfocused.

  • I'm having a hard time focusing on my work and decide to put on a video as background noise.
  • Listening to the video further splits my attention, drawing me away from what I'm working on.
  • Eventually, I'm neither immersed in my work nor in the video.
  • I'm feeling even more distracted, so I watch more videos.
  • Watching videos provides entertainment and amusement, so I paradoxically associate the negative sensation of being distracted with the positive feeling of being entertained.

Because my work environment means that I'm always on my computer and always have my phone within arm's reach, it means that YouTube is always just a couple of clicks away. Because it's a couple of clicks away, my environment is encouraging the feedback loop outlined above.

And yet, I've noticed that this behavior does not occur when I work from a coffee shop instead of my home office. When I'm at the coffee shop and surrounded by the people and sounds that come with that environment, I put on noise-canceling headphones and listen to white noise or binaural beats. Even though those soundtracks often come from YouTube, I don't have the temptation to click away from the binaural beats to another video that would engage and distract me. Instead, I let the tracks drown out the background noise and I focus on the work at hand.

In this case, I haven't changed, but my environment has. There are a few factors at play. First and foremost, when I'm working from home by myself, I'm only accountable to myself. If I play something mindless and silly as background noise, there's nobody there to notice except for my dog and he's unlikely to judge or complain. Second, I've been conditioned when I'm in coffee shops to think "I should block out this sound so that I can focus," which immediately puts me in a position where concentrating is at the forefront of my thoughts. Third, I'm usually under a time constraint-- all of the parking within two blocks of my usual coffee shop has a two-hour limit. While I know where I can park for up to four hours before parking enforcement will ticket me even though it's marked as two-hour parking, there's still this sense that I have to be in and out within a specific window of time, meaning that I have to get as much work done as possible within that time. When I'm working from home, there's not the same sense of urgency; if I meet a time constraint or not, it doesn't really matter because I can always just sit with my computer in my lap while I watch Charmed re-runs in the evening if it's necessary.

Planning ahead and mindfulness weren't my cousin's strengths, but imagine how much more likely he would have been to be successful at quitting smoking if he wouldn't have had a pack of cigarettes within reach. He didn't have a license at that time (it had been suspended for quite a while) or a vehicle, so if smoking would have required walking several miles to the gas station in the cold in order to get his hands on some cigarettes, his environment would not have been conducive to smoking in the situations in which he was conditioned to smoke. Since they were within reach, even though he told them he was going to beat them, it was convenient to grab one in the situations in which his environment gave him cues that it was time to smoke.

We see this system of conditioning often playing out with people who are getting out of rehab. They're in a specific environment that encourages and reinforces their addiction. They go to a treatment facility and get clean, and they no longer feel like they are addicted. They come home to an environment that is exactly the same as it was before and the same cues still exist, causing them to either struggle with sobriety or to fall back into the same habits they were in before.

Whatever the habit is, it's cued by something in your environment and this can be a double-edged sword. If an environmental cue is triggering a habit that's holding your back, that habit is likely to persist as long as the cue exists. If a cue is there that encourages a positive habit, you can reinforce the habit by reinforcing the cue.

Using Your Environment to Your Advantage

If you want to develop a beneficial habit or diminish a bad habit, start by analyzing your environment, and then look for small changes that you can make.

For example, for the longest time, I said that I was going to get up early and go to the gym. Yet, night and night again I'd get in bed, not feel tired, grab my phone, scroll through social media for a while, eventually fall asleep, and then be too tired to get up and go to the gym before work. In fact, I'd usually stay in bed until the very last minute (sometimes later) and continue scrolling through social media upon first waking. It sucked and I could tell it was draining me of my energy and starting my day on a bad note, but no matter how much I wanted to stop doing that, it felt like once I got in bed I had no willpower to break the conditioned response of reaching for my phone.

So, eventually, I decided that having my phone next to my bed was a problem. I went to the store and bought a radio alarm clock– like the one I used to have back in the pre-smartphone days. I placed my alarm clock on my dresser at the opposite side of the room from my bed, and I moved my phone charger from beside my bed to the living room (on the opposite side of my house).

The change to my behavior, and therefore my mood, was immediate. Now, once I get in bed, I have nothing to do but go to sleep; as a result, I'm falling asleep much faster. In the mornings when my alarm goes off, I have to get out of bed and walk across the room to turn it off; as a result, I'm not hitting snooze, rolling over, going back to sleep, and then repeating that process. Since I'm already up and standing by my dresser after I turn off my alarm, it's easy to go ahead and grab a pair of shorts and a t-shirt to put on; as a result, I'm already dressed for the gym.

As a result, I'm at the gym most mornings by 6:35 AM. When I come home and shower, I'm feeling energized, motivated, and ready for the day. On days when I need to rest and recover instead of going to the gym (I try to take one day off for every three days on), I'm still getting up and getting moving just to turn my alarm off, so rather than going back to sleep I brew my coffee and then go outside and sit on the porch to read and do some journaling and get some fresh air before work. Once again, I'm energized and motivated when it's time to start working.

Seemingly overnight I've gone from hating mornings to being a morning person. Nothing about me has dramatically changed, but I made the small change to my environment of removing my phone from my bedroom and using an alarm clock instead. All it required was the $10 to buy the clock and the 10 minutes it took to figure out how to program the clock to go off at 6:15 AM for each day of the workweek. That's a very small investment in changing my environment, but it has been a huge payoff in eliminating the habits I don't want while reinforcing the habits that I do want.

I'll wrap things up with a challenge: write down one habit that you know isn't good for you. For me, it was feeding my smartphone addiction. Yours might be the same or it might not be– that's perfectly fine. Just identify one habit for now.

Once you've identified your habit, brainstorm the ways in which your environment reinforce that habit. After you've identified some of these environmental cues, tweak them so that the cues aren't as present as they were before.

Are you eating junk food because it's out on the counter but fruits and nuts are hidden in the pantry or fridge? Put your fruit out in a bowl and move your junk food to the back of the pantry.

Are you drinking more soda and less water because it's easier to grab a bottle of Coke out of the break room fridge than it is to walk down the hall to the water fountain? Buy a reusable water bottle and fill it up before you leave the house or stock the fridge with bottled water (I encourage the reusable bottle method since it's better for the environment).

Are you skipping the gym because you feel like you don't have time for it? Pencil twenty minutes into your calendar at the same time each week– since it appears on your calendar at a specific time, you're more likely to stick with it and the more you stick with it, the more you'll realize you've had time to go all along.

Do you find yourself reaching for your phone each time it buzzes, making it impossible to concentrate on your work? Put your phone on airplane mode and lock it in your desk drawer until your lunch break.

Whatever environmental cue you're working to change, remember that small changes will have a huge impact. You don't have to do something drastic to cause a big change. Focus on making baby steps because they add up quicker than you might expect.