My degree in college was in Interior Design. We did a little bit of decorating—I was trained in stylistic periods, materials and furniture. I was taught fabric types and color theory. But, the majority of my training came in three parts: determining the problem, solving that problem and presenting a solution. It just so happened that the problems I was solving had to do with environmental spaces that people lived or worked in. We learned how to make spaces functional to solve practical issues but at the same time, we solved psychological issues as well.
For example, you want your bedroom to function well as a bedroom, but you probably also want it to be a restful space that promotes sleep. You want your office space to allow the right number and different types of work that need to happen, but you also need it to promote the right quality of work or promote sales.
Our environments influence our behavior, often unconsciously. When restaurants want to turn tables faster, they can change the music to be more upbeat and a faster speed. You’re more likely to eat faster and leave than if the music played is relaxing and calming. Research has shown that a subtle background aroma of cleaning liquid in the air influences people to be perceptibly cleaner and tidier than they would otherwise be. This leads me to believe I need to diffuse Lemon Scented Pledge in my son’s bedroom and whenever I want him to take a shower. Mark Tyrrell says,
Another fascinating piece of research reported in the journal Science in October 2008 involved hot and cold cups of coffee. Students were asked to hold a cup of coffee in their hands for a few seconds before reading an information pack about a hypothetical person and then assessing this person's 'character'. The students who had held a hot cup of coffee were significantly more likely to describe the hypothetical individual as 'warm and friendly' than the students who had held an iced coffee. Just the immediate environment of their hands had seeded their unconscious minds, and, although they all read the very same information about the imaginary individual, their responses were largely in accord with the environmental 'suggestion'.
Environment influences behavior. Designers of all kinds know this to be true. I know how your eye is likely to move across a web page and I can influence your behavior with what I put in those locations. Landscape designers know how they want you to use an outdoor space and create environments that lead to the outcomes they want.
I could go on with examples for a very long time. But, instead of creating paranoia about how every environment you enter has been designed to affect your behavior…let’s talk about how this idea can help you influence your own behavior. Last week we talked about how to beef up your internal ability to make changes. We talked about motivation and skills. This week, let’s talk about ways we can make external things work in our favor. I’m going to focus on incentives and environment.
Let’s start with incentives. You know how this works. Companies offer incentives for employees to work there. Stores offer incentives for people to buy there. The dictionary says that an incentive is "a thing that motivates or encourages one to do something” or "a payment or concession to stimulate greater output or investment." You probably have thought about using incentives to change your own behavior before. It might sound like this, “when I lose 20 pounds, I’ll buy a new wardrobe” or, “if I eat right for six days, I’ll eat whatever I want on the seventh day.” Do incentives work? Yes, they can. But we need to be very careful to use them strategically.
Give yourself a reward for studying an hour each day, not for obtaining a specific grade. Orient your incentive to train a behavior that leads to a change. Reward what you do, not what you achieve.
Small incentives have the power to influence our behavior, but not be the sole reason driving us toward change. If your incentive is too large and becomes the primary motivation for behavior change, then once that incentive is gone, a relapse is pretty certain. So, think of incentives as small encouragements and as supplements to the other tactics we’ve talked about.
Another reason to use small incentives along the way is that your motivation needs help in the beginning and middle. Momentum has a way of helping the final push. The odds are greater that you will stop or quit in the middle or be overwhelmed at the beginning. So, reward small wins along the way (during the process) and don’t focus on a large incentive at the end.
We humans are wired to be more motivated to avoid losing things than we are to gaining things. In other words, we’ll work harder to avoid a loss than to receive a gift. What if every week that you didn’t work out at least five times, you require yourself to send $20 to a charity whose purpose you really hate? This is technically a bit different than punishment because, with punishment, you’re trying to decrease a behavior. Apply negative incentives to behaviors you’re trying to increase.
The other external factor that influences your behavior is your environment.
Draw some lines in the sand. If you overspend when you go to the mall, don’t go to the mall. Simple, right? Or, leave your credit card at home and only take the amount of cash you’re willing to spend with you. If you can’t avoid the chocolate croissant and fancy sugared-up drink at the local coffee shop, don’t spend your Saturday mornings hanging out there.
Boundaries can be created in your home as well. If you want your TV time to be an intentional choice rather than a default behavior, move the TV to the basement family room where you have to intentionally choose to watch.
Two cautions about boundaries. They work so well that we can rely on them the same way we can rely on large incentives. Use them as part of a plan for change, not your sole approach. And make sure you create and maintain the boundary by choice. Someone else cutting up your credit card, telling you to avoid the bars or ice cream is never going to work as well as boundaries you create and maintain yourself.
Make the behaviors you want to do easy and habitual. Make the behaviors you don’t want difficult and keep them far away. If I find myself snacking on something when I don’t want to at a table with friends, I move the snacks to the other side of the table. If you want a better relationship, spend time with that person. If you want to exercise more, make it easy and convenient. If the effort of going to the gym will be too much and you won’t get there, then figure out something more convenient like a subscription to a yoga site that will let you workout anywhere you have room to lay down and wifi access (here is one option and a second one).
On the other hand, loss aversion can come into play as well with a gym membership…if you pay enough that the idea of wasting the money becomes a strong enough incentive to get you there, that’s legit too. If you’re not enforcing a no-chocolate (or alcohol, Dorito, or Oreo) boundary, then keep the undesirable item in the most difficult to reach location in your kitchen. Make it inconvenient and difficult to get to.
Create physical cues that remind and reinforce the behaviors you want to encourage. Create a pre-flight checklist for walking into your home in the evening with the right attitude after work. Put a photo of an active, healthy person inside the snack cabinet door. Put a poster in your office showing the behavior you want to encourage. Put a mirror behind the phone in your workspace to remind you to smile and be friendly when answering a call. Put a behavior reminder on your phone lock screen to remind you of the change you want throughout the day. Make a wall-hanging checklist for habit tracking. Be aware that you might need to periodically change these, visual cues tend to have a half-life. My five commandments have been on my lock screen and bathroom mirror for about two months now and I tend not to notice them anymore, it’s time to change things up.
We have a default bias. Our brains want to conserve energy and any decisions they can create a default for, they do. So, make your default the behavior you want to encourage. Do you want to spend more time with your spouse? Buy season tickets to something you’ll enjoy and find a babysitter in advance. Put it on your calendars and it will become a default. It then becomes something you’ll actively have to cancel instead of actively have to pursue.
Another great way to encourage default behaviors is habit stacking. Tack behaviors you want to encourage on to other things you already do habitually. It’s ridiculous, but I have trouble washing my face and brushing my teeth in the morning. I’m groggy, I’m rushed and it just often doesn’t happen. So, I decided that it was part of my initial wake up routine. Before I even let my dog out of his crate. I get up, use the bathroom, brush my teeth and wash my face. I don’t leave the bathroom to start my day without doing that. It totally worked, I almost never miss a morning now. Instead of a decision I have to make, it’s a pattern in my life.
There are tools available to help us do so many things these days. Track food and water intake, sleep schedule, steps walked, heart rate and habits formed. I have a friend who wanted to intentionally spend a few moments with her spouse uninterrupted reconnecting after work every day. She painted up a bench, put it in her kitchen in a very prominent spot, and christened it "the love bench". She and her husband spend time there each day and the kids know that’s parent time and they can wait a few moments for whatever they need. This is a tool to add intentionality and togetherness to her marriage.
How can you use your phone, TV, video player, yoga mat, notepad, journal, furniture, or bookshelf to help you succeed? How can you harness tools that are easily accessible in your every day to work for you and not against you? There are dozens of trackers, reminders, equipment, and tools available. Find them. Try them. Get creative. Make them work for you.
Next week, we’ll finish up this series on change-making by putting it all together. We’ll review all the tactics we’ve talked about by creating a plan to make a change using all of them. I’ll bring you along on my plan for change and you’ll see one example of a way to put it all together.
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