How to Stick With Good Habits Even When Your Willpower is Gone

Most people think that building better habits or changing your actions is all about willpower or motivation. But the more I learn, the more I believe that the number one driver of better habits and behavior change is your environment.

Let me drop some science into this article and show you what I mean…

Willpower vs. Environment

Anne Thorndike is a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Recently, Thorndike and her colleagues completed a six month study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

This study secretly took place in the hospital cafeteria and helped thousands of people develop healthier eating habits without changing their willpower or motivation in the slightest way.

Here’s what happened…

Thorndike and her team proposed that by changing the environment and the way that food was displayed in the cafeteria, they could get people to eat healthier without thinking about it. There were multiple phases of the experiment, but the portion that really interested me focused on what Thorndike refers to as “choice architecture.”

Choice architecture is just a fancy word for “changing the way the food and drinks are displayed.” But, as it turns out, it makes a big difference.

The Impact of Choice Architecture

The researchers started by changing the choice architecture of the drinks in the cafeteria. Originally, there were three main refrigerators, all of which were filled with soda. The researchers made sure that water was added to each of those units and also placed baskets of bottled water throughout the room.

The image below depicts what the room looked like before the changes (Figure A) and after the changes (Figure B). The dark boxes indicate areas where bottled water is available.

choice architecture

Image Source: American Journal of Public Health, April 2012.

What happened?

Over the next 3 months, the number of soda sales dropped by 11.4 percent. Meanwhile, bottled water sales increased by 25.8 percent. Similar adjustments and results were made with food options. Nobody said a word to the visitors who ate at the cafeteria. The researchers simply changed the environment and people naturally followed suit.

The usual argument for sticking to better habits is that you need more willpower, motivation, and discipline. But studies like this one showcase just how important your environment can be for guiding behavior.

Environment design becomes even more important when you understand the daily fluctuation of willpower.

The Willpower Muscle

Decades of research have discovered that willpower is not something you have or don’t have, but rather it is a resource that can be used up and restored. Like tired muscles at the end of a workout, your willpower can become depleted if you use it too much. Much of this research is explained in excellent books like The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal and Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.

A classic example can be found by looking at college students. During finals week, students use all of their willpower to study and everything else collapses as a result. People eat whatever they can find, students who haven’t smoked all semester start lighting up outside the library, and many people can’t even muster the strength to change out of their sweatpants. There is only so much willpower to go around.

We don’t typically think about willpower and motivation as a finite resource that is impacted by all of the things we do throughout the day, but that’s exactly how it works.

And this is where choice architecture and willpower come together.

Choice Architecture in Everyday Life

When your willpower is depleted, you are even more likely to make decisions based on the environment around you. After all, if you’re feeling drained, stressed, or overwhelmed then you’re not going to go through a lot of effort to cook a healthy dinner or fit in a workout. You’ll grab whatever is easiest.

And that means that if you take just a little bit of time today to organize your room, your office, your kitchen, and other areas, then that adjustment in choice architecture can guide you toward better choices even when your willpower is fading.

For example, in Richard Thaler’s best-selling book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, he discusses research that reveals that items on the top shelf of supermarkets (near eye level) tend to sell more than items on lower shelves.

It’s easy to apply this discovery to everyday life: simply place healthier foods in more visible spots in your refrigerator, pantry, and around the kitchen. Meanwhile, you can tuck away cookies, treats, and other unhealthy choices down on the lower shelves. This is one way to use choice architecture to make it more likely that you’ll grab healthy food, even when your willpower is fading.

To Change Your Behavior, Change Your Environment

Like the visitors in the hospital cafeteria, choice architecture can help you automatically do the right thing without worrying about willpower or motivation. If you design your environment to make the default choice a better one, then it’s more likely that you’ll make a good choice now and have more willpower leftover for later.

Environment design works. Talking about tiny changes like moving your healthy foods to a more visible shelf might seem insignificant, but imagine the impact of making dozens of these changes and living in an environment designed to make the good behaviors easier and the bad behaviors harder.

When you’re surrounded by better choices, it’s a lot easier to make a good one.

24 Comments

  1. Heather Zeigler says:

    Thanks for sharing. This is why I choose to frequent local markets and healthier grocery stores verses many big chains. If I am spending time in the checkout line shielding my child from seeing the magazine covers, then it probably isn’t the right store for my health, my mind and my energy to be spent at.

  2. David says:

    This is one of the most helpful, useful and interesting sites on the Internet. Love it!

  3. Scott Christ says:

    Good read, James. I hadn’t heard of the cafeteria study before but it’s a cool study. I think your point about willpower being a trainable muscle is spot-on and a very important insight for people who don’t think they have any.

    Oh, and I’m reading Mastery per your recommendation … what a great book.

  4. aletheia33 says:

    I second you, Heather Zeigler.

    And for me, one of the most powerful environment influences is living in a home where no junk food is to be found. Likewise, no television. I’m so susceptible to brainwashing, I do better just keep my home environment advertisement-free.

    I have yet to find a way to keep the internet, with all its temptations to avoid work, out of my work-at-home “environment.”

    Hope James will post on this some time. I’ve tried various ways to turn off the internet and my favorite is “self control”. Unfortunately, “self control” stopped working on my computer so I am back to square one. One way is to simply unplug the ethernet cable. Unfortunately, I’ve become very attached to getting music via the internet while working. If i could just stick to the music!

    Thanks James Clear for another great post. Your work stands out. Keep it up.

  5. Travis LeFever says:

    I enjoyed the article as well.

    When I read the article and it’s conclusions, it appears the researchers documented the effects of “choice architecture” (what most marketing students would call “product placement”), and the availability bias.

    Daniel Kahneman wrote an interesting chapter about availability bias in Thinking Fast & Slow, if I remember correctly.

    My only other comment would be about your advice – You say “It’s easy to apply this discovery to everyday life: simply place healthier foods in more visible spots in your refrigerator, pantry, and around the kitchen. Meanwhile, you can tuck away cookies, treats, and other unhealthy choices down on the lower shelves. This is one way to use choice architecture to make it more likely that you’ll grab healthy food, even when your willpower is fading.”

    You know a lot about the power of habits. You know it is not easy to simply place healthier foods around the house while hiding unhealthy choices. That would be akin to “simply” putting cigarettes on top of the fridge, or “simply” eating less. When willpower is fading, the internal argument over whether to engage in a detrimental behavior requires interrupting the habit loop, controlling the emotion that accompanies it, investing in a better choice, and then engaging memory circuits to solidify that success with carefully designed emotional rewards.

    Either way, enjoyed the post and will be following and learning more!

    Travis

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks for reading, Travis!

      Just to clarify, I wasn’t claiming that by merely moving your food you would magically eat better all the time and always avoid junk food. (After all, some people at the hospital still bought soda even though water was placed in a better area.) I was simply saying that implementing better choice architecture was relatively easy and that these small environmental changes add up.

      No habit is created through just one decision or adjustment, but 1 percent improvements here and there add up very quickly (see more evidence here).

      Regardless, I’m sure I could have explained that part better and I appreciate the feedback. Thanks again!

  6. Rok Sprogar says:

    Judging from the pictures, they made some pretty big modifications in favor of water. They basically put it in every possible position people were expected to go. And to get a relatively minor improvement in soda sales, while bringing in a little extra water revenue from this whole “water-everywhere-you-look” is what I would call a marginal improvement at best. I’d love to hear your opinion on my case against relying on willpower and “environmental modifications” when it comes to successful behavior modification.

    • AntónioD says:

      You’ve got a point. Most of the change was due to persuasion (phase I) and not to choice architecture. They delivered information, had a dietitian available for two weeks, even produced some kind of information for people to take (leaflets?) and cued buyers using a familiar colour coding. “Choice architecture” had a smaller effect on choices and even some adverse reactions (“don’t you try to tell me what to buy!”)

      The reason why we hear about sodas is because they were able to cherry pick their numbers afterwards, and in that sense their study is very thorough. It would only make sense to talk about sodas if the intervention was solely aimed at getting people to drink better. But it wasn’t.

      I’m also not sure you can apply these findings to readers of this blog: we are all somehow motivated, we all have information and most of us have the ability to consciously influence our environment – unlike the subjects in this study. When we learn to use these at the right moment – when making choices at the supermarket, for example, we don’t really need to use much willpower at home. In short, I agree with James conclusions but disagree with the premises of this article.

  7. Debra C Lakin says:

    Your article was interesting and informative. From experience I know that “product placement” of food at home is helpful to a better way of eating. How would one put this principle into practice relative to daily living? Example: I want to get up earlier and do my bible study first thing then go workout. What typically happens is I get out of bed, feed dogs, gather my study materials then go to my study spot. I may or may not ever start bc I get distracted by something. Usually involving my electronic devices, ie, Facebook and texts. Or I get ready to start and am overcome with sleepy head and doze off. I’ve tried several modifications to this routine (changed study spots, varied routine, scheduled appointments earlier in the day) and so far have had limited success. Any suggestions?

  8. Tyler says:

    Google did a big study like this in their employee cafeterias with multiple changes and very fascinating results:

    http://www.fastcompany.com/1822516/cafeteria-google-gets-healthy

  9. Lon says:

    Your articles are so well written and researched. Thank you for this eye-opening article, in particular! It is true – I put a bowl of organic green apples in a bowl on the counter over a week ago and found that I was reaching for one of those before even thinking of the chips in the pantry! Hoping to further implement these ideas for greater success – keep up the great work!

  10. Anna says:

    Great article, James.
    People are so scared of changes, of acquiring new habits or developing new behavior because they mistakenly think that these processes require an enormous willpower, determination and discipline. Of course, in some cases extreme measures are required, but many decisions and choices can be easily made by changing an environment, which you clearly illustrated in you article.

    Parents (at least wise ones) know that having a stick in the room where the toddler can easily reach it, means dents in the walls, or broken objects. So, instead of screaming or punishing your toddler for not being careful, give him “unharmful” toys to play with.

    I have recently helped a lady loose weight. She had a big sweet tooth, and tried to convince me she couldn’t help sneaking into the pantry to have some sweet goodies. “Why are you keeping them in your house then?” I asked. “Don’t buy any to avoid temptation. And delegate shopping to your husband for a period of time”. The lady was surprised by the simplicity of that trick and followed my advice. She was happy to report it worked.

    So environment design DOES work.

    Thanks again, James.

  11. Martin says:

    This is old knowledge, but you (James) deliver anyways.

    You make old knowledge easily digestible and interesting to consume. I have read about availability many times before, but this is the best and most understandable version I can remember.

    On a side note, following your advice I have started up my own website. Doing a little everyday really is the way to go. That way you slowly erode any problems on the way.

    For example, yesterday I tried to add Google authorship to my website. I spend over 4 hours (after my normal work) and couldn’t get it to work. It even resulted in me first eating supper at 10pm…

    Then the next day, today, I have tried again. It took me 5 minutes to get it working. As they say, your brain works on the problem while you sleep.

    Point is when you make things a habit and do them every day, you make progress and overcome problems.

    So thanks a lot to you James.

  12. Mary Bast says:

    What an absolutely brilliant post, James! I just recently re-read your “Habits” free ebook we get with signing up for your newsletter, and it has been one of the catalysts in sparking my commitment to healthy living this year. The difference between now and before is that I don’t use one day of “falling off the bandwagon” as an excuse to not jump right back on it. :)

    This is just another wonderful post that reaffirms and re-encourages me to keep making these small but manageable changes. Thanks for the insight! And that’s a great study you quoted.

    Have a great day!

    P.S. I just thought of this–just to share a little bit of personal insight, one thing that’s really helped me in terms of environment is being mindful of how I feel when I participate in activities that don’t contribute to my greater well-being (e.g. staying up super late watching TV). When I remember how that makes me feel, I’m not as encouraged to enter that environment and ruin small, but healthy progress. Be mindful of your environment’s impact on yourself–that’s certainly helped me. :)

  13. Reena says:

    This is a great post!

    I’m in the last year of my doctoral degree, and at the beginning of this year, I stopped bringing anything unhealthy home from the grocery store. I’m vegetarian, but almost vegan when I’m at home, and I’ve been brutal with what I cut out of my shopping list. Once I realized that the fastest thing to eat could also be the healthiest (making shakes from fruits and veggies is faster than cooking even the simplest meal), I used that to my advantage. If I go out, I’ll still have gluten, refined sugars, etc. but I never ever bring them home. (Consequently, they feel like such an awesome treat when I do have them! I appreciate them way more.)

    Also, I know myself, and know that I don’t have the willpower to leave the house unless it’s necessary, so I use that to my advantage. There are many unhealthy delights to be had within a block of where I live, but especially during this winter season, I know I won’t leave the house if I don’t have to, and that I won’t make any extra stops on my way to class. If I need to get some fresh air, I never take my wallet, and if I need to take my wallet, I’ll make sure I’m not hungry.

    Consequently, I’ve managed to stay in pretty good shape with very minimal excercise (which has never happened before in my life – usually it’s a total willpower battle to stay in shape), and the confidence of knowing that I don’t have to fight that losing battle gives me creates some extra positive energy in my life, and some extra willpower to use on other important things :)

  14. Christina Gillick says:

    Hi James, Great article! I often pick the junk food just because it’s easier. Looks like I’m going to have to exercise some choice architecture and hide the bad stuff and replace it with healthy choices. Thank you for the advice!!

  15. Matthieu says:

    Hi ! Quite the same as Reena: I never take cash out home (or only what I will need).

    So much energy spared for whatever deserves, instead of struggling with bad habits :)

  16. Vanessa says:

    Hey James. I wish you had mentioned more practical advice in the article, and not only about food in the fridge.
    Best wishes to you, nice blog!

  17. Jeremy says:

    I just cleared the pile of messy books on my desk! It doesn’t quite have the same effect as what you’re talking about in this article, but it still does change the way I work and feel about myself.

  18. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for another insightful, easy to apply, research-based inspiration!

  19. Troy Wruck says:

    Fantastic article that explains well why sometimes we are weak and how to counteract our weakness!

  20. Janice H says:

    Hi James! Great post, with easy strategies to apply to make one’s life & health immediately better.

    Product placement — very smart. And smart of you for thinking of applying it to the home and including it in all the great info on your blog.

    Looking forward to your next seminar!!!

  21. George Rodriguez says:

    James,

    Great post! Three books that touch on similar ideas are “Eat Move Sleep” by Tom Rath (just finished it and loved it), “Salt Sugar Fat” by Michael Moss and “Mindless Eating” by Brian Wansink.

    Keep up the great work.

  22. Yehuda says:

    James — awesome as always.

    Got me to think of moving my computer to a less visible spot.

    Thanks.

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