To Change Your Life, Change Your Environment

Some people enthusiastically set goals in January while others avoid New Year’s resolutions altogether. Regardless of which camp you fall into, cultural milestones like the dawn of a new decade tend to get us thinking about our priorities.

For me, the arrival of 2020 has driven home the fact that time is passing at an alarming rate. (Y2K was twenty years ago? Seriously??) In response, I’m earnestly evaluating my priorities so I can make the most of my precious time going forward.

Maybe you’re feeling the same sense of urgency; you’ve decided it’s finally time to tackle that important habit or life change you’ve been thinking about for months or years. Perhaps you’d like to start meditating, make time for a new passion, or spend more quality time with friends and family.

Two friends having coffee

My goal is to help you find ways to reduce stress and increase the amount of joy and fulfillment you experience on a regular basis. Change experts tell us that our quality of life is largely influenced by our habits. If we want to make a meaningful change in how we live, addressing our habits is key.

That’s fine, you might be thinking, but where do I start?  Whatever change you’d like to make, your environment is critical to making or breaking the habits that will bring this change about.

“First you make your habits, then your habits make you!” - Lucas Remmerswaal

Habit change experts agree that there is a powerful sequence of events governing our behavior. B.J. Fogg (Director of the Stanford Persuasive Lab), Charles Duhigg (author of The Power of Habit) and James Clear (author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones), all agree that habits adhere to a basic cycle.

Clear describes the cycle this way: First there’s a reminder or cue, a trigger that initiates the behavior. This is followed by the routine, the behavior itself, and then comes the reward, the benefit you gain from doing the behavior.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, all habits are initiated by a cue - a trigger in our environment that puts the habit into action.

For example, certain sounds on our phone get us to perform a certain behavior (answer the phone, check our texts or Twitter feed, etc.) without us consciously thinking about it.

The “reward” is the end of the cycle - the benefit we ultimately seek. The reward of checking your texts is getting the information you need or want. The reward of losing weight is feeling and looking better.

Routines and rewards don’t happen without an effective trigger. If you want to change your behavior, you must change your environment to provide regular reminders so the new routine can take root.

Clear states that “the key to choosing a successful cue is to pick a trigger that is very specific and immediately actionable.” I use a special alarm tone on my phone as a cue to meditate or take relaxing breaths at key times throughout my work day. To encourage regular exercise, I put my workout clothes at the foot of my bed, so I put them on right away in the morning. This initiates my “exercise routine”, and makes it much more likely that I’ll get to the gym.

Habit expert Gretchen Rubin advocates the idea of pairing”, in which the cue for a new behavior is hitched to an existing behavior. For example, if you wish to journal on a regular basis, place the journal and a pen next to the coffee pot you automatically head to each morning.

Picture of coffee and a journal

If you wish to trade a bad habit for a better one, Duhigg recommends that you keep the cue of the old habit but find an improved way of getting the reward you seek.

For example, I had a bad habit of eating chips when watching TV every night. When I examined the reasons why I did this, I realized what I wanted most was to feel relaxed. Now, instead of eating snacks (which bring unwanted calories) I will often use a back massager while watching TV.

I use the same cue (TV) but altered the routine so that I get the same type of reward (relaxation) without the unwanted weight gain. (Ok, ok... Yes, I still sometimes give in to the siren call of potato chips. But hey - progress, not perfection, right?)

Whether you wish to make small or large changes, your environment is critical to your success. As Duhigg says, “There’s just one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment.”

Be your own champion this year. First, identify the rewards you seek and the routines that will get you there. Then, take the time to identify effective habit cues, thoughtfully arranging your home and office so your environment encourages the changes you seek to make.

At the dawn of an exciting new decade, let’s make it our mission to harness our habits and move closer to the life we really want to live!

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