Build Habits You Want Into Your Environment

You’re more likely to maintain good habits if you build them into your world.

Posted Sep 29, 2020

Ryan McGuire.
Source: Ryan McGuire.

An overlooked part of starting and maintaining habits is the “where” of it, and how you can use “place”—whether in your office, your home, or the great outdoors—to support your goals.

In fact, one of the most effective pieces of advice for changing behavior comes from psychologist and fellow blogger Art Markman, who recommends building the habit you’d like to have into your environment in a way that makes it hard to forget about or avoid.

“Your environment is a powerful driver of what you do,” writes Markman in “Smart Change.” “Because your habits involve a consistent mapping between the environment and behavior, your habits are activated by the world around you. Do not assume that behavior change is a purely internal structure.”

For an example of how an environment supports a habit, Markman explains that we design our bathrooms to support our habit of brushing our teeth through toothbrush holders built into the sink or placed near it. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning, we see our toothbrush and what is there to do but go a few rounds on our teeth?

Flossing, on the other hand, is easily forgotten. Granted, we don’t love doing this. Markman concedes that there’s a yickiness for many of us in sticking our fingers in our mouth. Likewise, it doesn’t help that the benefits from flossing (or possible detriments from not doing it) come in the long term.

However, Markman explains that the biggest problem is “the floss container itself.” The packages are unattractive, and different brands and types come in different shapes and sizes.  “As a result, it’s not clear where to put it in your bathroom.” Floss gets tucked behind something in the medicine cabinet or tossed in a drawer—where it’s easy to forget.

Using Markman’s wisdom on building habits into your environment, I’ve changed that, buying a nifty squat ceramic jar for my toothbrush that also fits my package of floss. I’ve likewise used the environment to foster other habits; for example, remembering to take my Vitamin D in the morning (which I couldn’t for the life of me do). I write in my  "science-help" book, "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence”:

There is no day of mine that starts out without coffee assuming I am not being held hostage by herbal tea-drinking barbarians. I grind beans for each cup that I get out of a big clear jar, so I stuck the vitamin D bottle in the jar on top. It took me about a week and a half until vitamin D was so natural for me to grab for in the morning that I could get the annoying thing out of my path to my coffee beans.

The “build it into your environment” principle of habit creation can even be used to make exercise a natural part of your daily life.

Say you want to tone your arms. Gyms are closed now, and if you plan to do some lifting at home at the end of the day, it’s easy to give in to the lure of wine and streamed grisly British crime shows (not speaking personally or anything!).

However, if you put two small barbells next to the toilet, as my former doctor’s father-in-law does, there they are beckoning you while you’re sitting on the throne. If you get in 10 lifts every time you need a pee, well, you’ll have Wonder Woman arms in about a week.

Personally, though I don’t use the bathroom as my mini-gym, I have a 25-pound kettlebell in front of the TV, and I do sets every time there’s a commercial break between the knifings, bludgeonings, and stranglings.

Here’s to your new, environmentally built-in habits!

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