The environment is a better foundation for behavior change than willpower. If you are committed to a goal, your environment should reflect that. It needs to protect you from temptation. Studies of recovering addicts had concluded that they are far more likely to relapse on days when they had to exercise a lot of self-control unrelated to their rehabilitation. A properly designed environment reduces your need to exercise self-control. It makes good habits easier to do than bad ones.
Change doesn’t have to be difficult. The belief that “change is hard” is one of the biggest myths about human behavior. When we design a positive environment, change happens naturally. Making the right behavior the easier or only option is the key. The more committed you are to shape your environment, the less willpower you’ll need. Anyone serious about losing weight should throw away all the junk food in their home. This would make eating junk food impossible.
The most common excuse I hear for not throwing away junk food is, “I don’t want to deprive my kids.” Having children should be another reason to get rid of the garbage, not keep it stocked in your pantry. You are arguing to feed your kids “junk food,” food engineered in labs to light up our reward system like a Christmas tree. Junk food is designed to reduce satiety and increase hunger. The less satisfied we feel, the more we will consume.
Food manufacturers want to produce unnatural cravings equivalent to narcotics. And while this is devastating to our waistline, it is good for their bottom line. I’m not suggesting that you never indulge your sweet tooth. I’m suggesting you make it an occasional indulgence. These things are better purchased infrequently, in small amounts, not stocked in your pantry or freezer.
Obesity rates continue to climb since the 1980s when the food industry mastered the art of designing highly palatable foods that produce unnaturally intense cravings. They have determined the ideal ratio of sugar, salt, and fat to promote excessive consumption. Researchers have learned how to make hyper-palatable foods that can compel a feed rat to cross an electrified grid to eat them.[i] They understand that cravings compel us.
Fruits are natural desserts, lower in calories, and full of fiber, vitamins, and other vital nutrients. Why not keep a bowl of fruit conspicuously located on your kitchen counter instead of stocking your pantry with junk food? Unless your kids are especially addicted to junk food, I think you’ll discover they won’t miss it. We often choose what to eat based more on where it is than what it is. If they are addicted, it is another reason to remove the junk before those cravings follow them into adulthood. Fruits and vegetables are almost as convenient as processed foods, and they contain water and fiber, which helps promote satiety. They also help maintain steady blood sugar levels, which have been shown to improve willpower. Low blood sugar is predictive of a wide range of willpower failures.[ii]
If you cannot muster enough willpower to design a positive environment, your failure is inevitable. The environment always wins. A negative environment will ceaselessly chip away at your willpower until it’s gone. No environment is neutral. It is always nudging you in one direction or another. If you cannot exercise enough self-control in a “cold state” to shape your environment, be assured that you won’t be able to exercise willpower when gripped by desire.
The more visible and accessible something is, the more likely we are to select it. We are very susceptible to visual cues. Human beings have over eleven million sensory neurons; approximately ten million neurons are dedicated to sight. It is difficult to convince people to change their eating and drinking behavior. It is much easier to design their environment to alter their choices.
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[i] David Kessler, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, Rodale Books; 1 edition (September 14, 2010) p. 28
[ii] Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Avery; Reprint edition (December 31, 2013) p.63