81 - Habit-building 9: Design your environment for good habits



Between my wife and I, we have a top priority. Make the milk sipper disappear. We agree that’s the only way for us to maintain a semblance of mealtimes for our 20-month-old toddler. The alternative is to have the day disrupted several times by the chirp of “Milk! Milk!” because of the sight of a stray milk sipper.

We all have our milk sippers. These triggers are carelessly left on the kitchen counter, on the couch, in plain sight. Once we see them, we’re nudged to take a certain action. We may not feel hungry but our hands will grab that bag of potato chips; we may not be thirsty but we’ll chug that ginger ale. And so on.

The science behind nudging rests on what is called choice architecture. It is a fancy phrase for designing our environment in a way that pushes us toward positive outcomes. Imagine walking into a cafe and seeing salads first because they are placed at eye level. We’re much more likely to have a salad than if we had seen pastries first.

Our decisions are hugely swayed by small changes in how we see cues. Dutch designers reduced spillage in urinals at Schiphol airport by a third by painting a fly at just the right spot. All previous attempts requesting passengers to pee responsibly had met with little success.

We tend to under-appreciate the power of well-placed cues because we overestimate our self-control. We think we are always mindful of what we need and why. So, we thoughtlessly rely on self-control instead of thoughtfully designing our environment. Yet, the fact is that we’re no better than those men who peed aimlessly for years until they had a fly to aim at.

To nudge yourself in the right direction, you need to set your default well. As a rule of thumb, the less you’re required to think before making a choice, the more likely you’re to make it.

Want to do focused work? Hop across to your neighbor and leave your phone with them. Want to limit your portion size? Serve yourself in quarter plates only. Want to save more? Make sure a fixed portion of your income goes directly into a fund you cannot touch.

Most of us act as if we cannot choose our environment. So we act as we’re nudged by what surrounds us. But that need not be the case. We need not be victims of our environment. We can be architects of it.

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