We begin to see, therefore, the importance of selecting our environment with the greatest of care, because environment is the mental feeding ground out of which the food that goes into our minds is extracted.
Our everyday environment is something that affects us more than we know.
When we go to the store, all of the milk is placed in the back. Why? So that we have to walk past everything else in the store. And we’ll probably end up buying more because of it. What influenced you to buy the cookies in addition to the milk? Was it because you planned on it? No matter what you would have searched for the cookies? Or was it the store layout – deliberately designed by the owner?
Environment design: any intentional physical change to your surrounding environment with the goal of modifying behavior.
I want to argue
that this is one of the most critical components of creating sustainable positive changes that encourage the type of behaviors that will lead us towards our long-term goals.
The reason it matters? There are so many external stimuli in our environment that we can’t trust ourselves to stay focused on the one thing we really need to be doing.
Right now, as I’m sitting here writing this post, there are ~20 icons on the bottom of the screen of my Mac staring me in the face. Hey, maybe I could stop writing and check my email real quick. Then I might as well check my Google reader, and the stock ticker, and then maybe Twitter. But guess what? None of those actions have any effect on the success of my blog.
Why do I do them? Simply because they’re there. Because writing is painful sometimes and, subconsciously, I’m looking for any possible way I can find to get out of writing for that moment and do something “easier.”
Now I could berate myself. Get angry. Or I could try to motivate myself and tell myself I’ll do better next time. Or I could start tracking how many times per day I clicked away on distractions and manage that over time.
Or I could just do one simple thing that would fix the problem: hide the icon bar.
That’s environment design.
This is the same concept that Chip and Dan Heath talk about in Switch (shaping the path), and that Thaler and Sunstein talk about in Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (choice architecture).
So I’ll tell two stories that exemplify this concept and the first comes from manufacturing.
I encounter this concept almost daily at the manufacturing company I work for.
Essentially, it’s the idea that you want to remove any opportunity that an operator has of making a mistake while assembling a product on the production line. Make it impossible for them to make a mistake.
Now, it’s not that we’re assuming that all assembly line workers are stupid, or don’t have the ability to perform the operation correctly, but just that they’re human. And because they’ll be performing a specific task thousands of times, there are most certainly going to be a few moments of distraction. A few moments when you zone out, or are worrying about what’s for lunch, or bend down to pick something up off the floor. And those are the moments where you’ll make a mistake or injure yourself.
So mistake-proofing assumes, at the outset, that you will make those mistakes. It’s realistic in that you’re planning for the worst, because inevitably over time the worst will happen.
The other thing that mistake-proofing does is remove all conscious thought of the action. It becomes automatic, and that reduces variation and increases consistency.
And this is something I really care about. Because as I’ve said before, for sustainable productivity, any opportunity you have to make a good behavior automatic, you should take. To me, Shingo’s poka-yoke concept is invaluable.
So take, for example, a press on the assembly line – a mechanical device that takes two components and joins them together. This operation, on it’s own, is rife not only for errors, but injury as well. The operator can get in-between the two components and crush a hand. Or the components can be mis-aligned and assembled incorrectly. Here, the mistake-proofing solution is to design the machine so that there are two activation switches that must be pressed simultaneously, placed away from the machine itself, and far enough away from one another so they cannot both be pressed by one hand. This design feature removes the opportunity for placing a hand in the machine.
You can also add sensors to tell the machine if the two components are oriented correctly, and prevent the machine from starting if those sensors are not activated. A design feature that makes it impossible to make a product incorrectly (assuming the two components are made properly).
Our takeaway here: I think these are the types of activities that can be carried over to environment design for behavior change. If we want to accomplish something, why not make it impossible not to accomplish that thing?
Want to lose weight? Go on a two-week backpacking trip and only bring enough food for two weeks. Put a padlock on your snack cabinets and give the key to your wife. These may be extreme examples but that’s the kind of thinking were talking about there.
The other story I want to tell is slightly different. It’s more along the lines of shaping your environment rather than creating a mistake-proofing mechanism. And it comes from Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage.
At one point in the book, Shawn writes about trying to learn to play the guitar. Repeatedly he would start to practice, and after about a week would stop. This happened every time, without fail. He simply could not get himself to practice on a consistent basis.
But then he tried something else. Before, he had had the guitar in the closet, and would have to pull it out every time he wanted to practice. But this time he set up the guitar in the center of the room, ready to be picked up and played.
The difference? He immediately practiced for 30 days straight without missing a day.
This is the power of activation energy. A little background on why this makes sense:
Your most basic brain (the lizard brain) is always trying to figure out ways for you to conserve energy, and this happens subconsciously. Evolutionarily speaking, energy is a scarce resource for an organism, so our brains are designed to obtain it and conserve it whenever possible.
Is it any surprise that we love fatty sugary foods? They’re the most energy dense. And is it any surprise we find the elevator more comfortable than the stairs? It requires less energy expenditure.
But this principle also applies to thinking as well. Your most advanced brain (the neocortex), responsible for conscious thought and reasoning, also requires the most energy. So by extension, any activity that will require hard thinking faces a similar resistance. (This is why we tend to avoid hard, important problems in our work when we’re fatigued.)
Here’s why it matters: the more you can decrease the activation energy to start something, the better the chances are that you will continue to do that thing over time. So with the guitar example, that’s what Shawn did. He removed as much resistance as possible to starting the task, and from that point on motivation takes over.
Leo Babauta is always writing about the importance of starting. Why? Because getting yourself to start is the most difficult part. But once you do, momentum takes over.
There’s that tipping point where something occurs all the sudden because it becomes easy to get started. And when the activation energy is low, any amount of desire or motivation will push you over the edge to start.
The key is to (1) make the things you want to do much more accessible, and (2) make the things you don’t want to do really hard to start.
One more example: every Friday my girlfriend and I used to get pizza from a really good place that was within about 5-minutes driving distance from our old apartment. This would happen, without fail, every single Friday, even when we were trying to eat healthy. Then we moved, and now that place is a 10-minute drive away. And on Friday nights, when traffic is bad, it can become a 20-minute drive. So we don’t go there anymore. It’s too much of a hassle. Even though every Friday my brain is repeatedly telling me “eat that pizza,” the activation energy is too high to overcome, and we don’t order…
Environment Design Fundamentals
What Shingo’s poka-yoke manufacturing practice, and Achor’s guitar-playing example illustrate are two fundamental principles of environment design for behavior change that we should walk away with.
Adopt a poka-yoke mindset: create an environment that makes it impossible not to succeed.
Modify activation energy: decrease it for the things you want to do by making them more accessible, and easier to start; and increase it for the things you don’t want to do by making them less accessible, and much more difficult to start.