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A stable environment where everything has a place, and a purpose is an environment where habits can easily form.” James Clear, author of Atomic Habits
Change agents often find that what appears to be a people problem is a situation problem. They know the best way to change people’s behavior is by changing their environment. The Second Rule of Behavior Change, Shape the Path, makes behavior change happen naturally.
Instead of relying on workers following proper procedures, safety engineers install guards and controls to prevent workers from taking shortcuts. They know that it is easier to tweak the environment than force compliance. Likewise, we can tweak our environment to foster good habits and discourage bad ones.
We tend to look inward to change our behavior when it would be better to look outward. We often attribute good habits to willpower and discipline, and while these things are important, the environment plays a larger role. It is much easier to develop good habits in a positive environment. An environment that makes positive behavior easy and obvious is the key.
Theft used to be a huge problem for business owners in the 1800’s, but after the invention of the cash register, which locked the cash and receipts inside, the problem vanished overnight. People didn’t suddenly change their attitude toward theft. Their reformed behavior was purely a function of their new environment. The temptation to steal from the cash register was eliminated because they would be caught.
Our behavior improves when we know it won’t go undetected. If you have difficulty resisting the urge to surf the internet, some apps will send your recent web activity to someone of your choosing. This could be the little nudge you need to reform your time-wasting behavior. You won’t be as tempted to procrastinate if you know your dawdling will be shared with someone you respect. When people refuse to shape their environment, it isn’t a lack of willpower that’s the problem. It’s a lack of commitment. Willpower is the scapegoat of the uncommitted.
Better environment, better behavior. We continually change our behavior based on our environment – reacting to contextual cues. We walk into a library, and we talk in whispers. We walk down a dark alley, and we become guarded. Behavior change is only difficult when you are overly reliant on willpower – a clear sign you are operating in a negative environment.
ENVIRONMENT TRUMPS WILLPOWER
If you are committed to a goal, your environment should reflect it. It needs to protect you from temptation. A stable environment is one in which habits can flourish. The constancy of the environment makes it a better foundation for behavior change than willpower.
Our good habits have to survive our bad days. 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 positive environment protects us from temptation, thus reducing our need to exercise self-control.
The next best quality of our environment is its constancy. Unlike willpower and motivation, our environment doesn’t change day to day, hour to hour. You are going to have bad days. When they occur, a positive environment will protect you from temptation by putting obstacles between you and bad behavior while removing any roadblocks to good behavior.
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