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How to Make Sticking to Your Habits EASY
Why Willpower is Useless and Redesigning Your Environment Works
“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour.” -James Clear.
Look around at your environment right now. What do you see that are potential distractions? If you were to get stuck into some deep work, how long would you be able to focus before something starting pulling on your attention? You’re only on the first paragraph, and for some of you, you’re already itching to check your social media. Imagine you were at your desk, as some of you may be, what’s the best way to prevent yourself from being distracted by your phone? Is it, trying really really really hard to not look at your phone - in other words, using your willpower? Or is it easier to put it on silent and place your phone on the other side of the room completely out of reach?
Your willpower is inconsistent at best, and ineffective at worst. It’s certainly not something that you should rely on. When given the choice, you should always opt to change your environment by removing or minimising distractions completely, that way you won’t have to fight to stay focused.
In other words - stick to your habits and avoid bad ones by redesigning your environment.
First, let’s talk friction
Friction is the most influential thing when it comes to maintaining your habits. It’s everywhere. The good news is that friction is easy to manage. When I talk about friction I mean the thing that is potentially stopping you from completing an action. For instance, the friction of you going to the gym is getting into your gym clothes and travelling there. The friction between you making a home cooked meal is finding a recipe, getting the ingredients and actually cooking, compare this to ordering a takeaway. The only friction is opening Uber Eats.
You have to justify that the reward of the action will be greater than the friction itself, otherwise you won’t commit yourself to doing it. Change the friction, change the likelihood of you sticking to your habits.
If you want to commit yourself to good habits, make them as easy as possible to start. If you want to give up bad habits, make them as difficult as possible. Reduce or increase the friction depending on what you want. This can be done by changing things in your environment.
Imagine you are the sort of person who loves beer (you may in fact be one of these people), if there’s beer in the fridge, there’s a beer in your hand at the end of the day. It’s kept in the fridge. It’s cold, it’s tempting and it’s staring at you whenever you open the fridge. You can try use your willpower to resist it. It might work - for a while. But eventually you’re probably going to give in. You’re going to sit down on the couch and the beer will have magically transported itself into your hands.
This happens because there’s barely any friction between you and the beer. When it’s in the fridge you’ll see it often and it’s only an arm’s length away. It takes no effort to reach in and grab it. Now, how could we use friction to prevent this? Well I’ll give you an extreme example to make a point. Imagine if you moved your beers from the fridge into the back yard… to a hole in the ground. In a combination safe. If you wanted a beer you’d have to go through at least 20 minutes of arduous labour before you were able to sip on your beverage. Does a beer sound as appealing now?
You just redesigned your environment to help cut back on one of your bad habits. We added more friction to an activity, and therefore made it less likely to happen. You’re using your willpower against yourself. Most people don’t have enough willpower to go digging around in the garden for the purpose of having a beer. Or maybe you do, in which case - seek help.
Here’s a personal example of how I used a reduction in friction to help me take my daily workout supplements.
One day, I noticed that I hadn’t taken any in 5 days. The week before I wasn’t missing a single day. It was so bizarre, what was going wrong? When I got home I realised I had placed my supplements behind my new coffee machine, almost completely out of sight - it’s no wonder I wasn’t taking them. Our memories are useless when it comes to this. So, rather than relying on my memory (willpower) to take my supplements, I moved them back to an obvious place where I would see them. I immediately became more consistent in taking them. I simply redesigned my environment and removed as much friction as possible. It now requires almost no willpower on my part.
The bottom line is this: if you want good habits to stick, make your environment friendly to them. If you want to get rid of your bad habits, make your environment adverse to them. Make it a struggle to do the things you know you shouldn’t do. If you play on the Playstation too much, unplug all the cords and put the controller away in a drawer. You’ll be less likely to see the controller which serves as a visual cue to tempt you to play some games, and you’d also have to go through the effort of setting it up every time. This is friction. All of this is preparing how you want your future self to act. You’ll probably end up creating a love/hate relationship with yourself.
It doesn’t have to be overly complex either, it can be something really simple. I was in a meeting with others and there was an open bag of cookies right in front of me. I was snacking away and tried to resist having more. I tried to use my willpower to stop myself from reaching for another cookie, but I couldn’t. So instead of battling with myself, I literally just turned the bag away from me. People noticed and they laughed. But hey, it worked.
If I haven’t made myself clear enough, let me hammer home some more examples to help illustrate how good or bad habits can be changed through a redesigning of your environment. These are ones that I have done to much success:
I hope by now that I have helped open your eyes to the endless possibilities of how you can redesign your environment to help improve your life. Use friction, or lack thereof, to your advantage. It changes the likelihood of you doing simply by moving a few things around. This may not be 100% foolproof, but it helps take willpower out of the equation. Because willpower, is useless.