Environment Design: How to Improve Your Health and Productivity Without Thinking About It

Making changes can be difficult. It’s hard to get motivated to do something over and over again — even if you know that it’s good for you.

But what if I told you there was a different option? Something that didn’t require an ounce of motivation.

Here’s the deal…

Eric Johnson is a researcher at Columbia University and Daniel Goldstein is a researcher at the London Business School. Together, they conducted a surprising study that revealed just how much your environment impacts your behavior — often without you even realizing it.

Here is what they discovered…

Would You Like to Be an Organ Donor?

The researchers collected data from 11 countries in Europe. The data showed the percentage of people in each country who had selected to be an organ donor.

The following chart shows the differences in organ donors by country. Notice that there is one group of countries where the percentages of organ donors are very low (on the left) and one group of countries where the percentages of organ donors are very high (on the right).

environment design and organ donations

When the researchers looked at this graph, it was somewhat confusing. Initially, they thought the difference in donations would be caused by factors like religion and culture, but that wasn’t the case.

For example, Denmark and Sweden are located right next to one another. They have many geographic, cultural, and social similarities. You would expect their donation rates to be roughly the same. And yet, only 4% of the population in Denmark has chosen to become an organ donor while almost 86% of the population in Sweden has chosen to donate.

What could account for such a drastic difference? Are the people in Denmark just more selfish than the people in Sweden?

What Made the Difference

As it turns out, the people in Denmark aren’t more selfish than the people in Sweden.

The difference in donation rates was due to the type of form that each country sent out. The countries with low rates of organ donors sent out a form that said, “If you want to be an organ donor, check here.” In other words, the form required people to opt–in.

Meanwhile, the countries with high rates of donation sent out a form that said, “If you don’t want to be an organ donor, check here.” In other words, the form required people to opt–out.

The difference was astounding.

environment design and organ donations

Here’s why this is important…

If someone asked why or why not you chose to be an organ donor, you would probably come up with an important reason for your answer. After all, being an organ donor seems like a very personal decision. But the truth is, whether or not you chose to be an organ donor had more to do with the type of form you were sent than anything else.

Consider the impact of this. If a simple form can make such a drastic difference in your choices, how do other pieces of your environment impact you on a daily basis?

What is going on here? And how can you use it to improve your life?

How Your Environment Impacts Your Behavior

The researchers summarized the impact of the environment by saying, “In most cases, the majority of people choose the default option to which they were assigned.”

In other words, most of us respond the same way to the cues that surround us. If you are sent a form that asks you to make a tough decision, you will probably go with the default option. If you see a cookie on the counter, you will probably eat it. If you hear music, you will probably start tapping your feet.

You may think that you control most of your choices, but the truth is that a large portion of your actions every day are simply a response to the environment around you. The forms you are mailed, the food on your kitchen counter, the items on your desk at work — they all impact your behavior in one way or another.

Bringing it back to the researcher’s quote, we could say that your environment is the “default option to which you are assigned.” The environment you surround yourself with determines the default actions that you take on a day–to–day basis.

Guess what? This is good news because you can design your environment for success!

Here’s how…

How to Design Your Environment for Success

By changing your surroundings, you can place a hurdle in the way of bad behaviors and remove the barriers to good ones. I like to refer to this strategy as environment design.

Here’s an easy way to apply environment design to your own life: think about your environment in relation to the number of steps it takes to perform a habit. To make good habits easier, reduce the number of steps to do them. To make bad habits harder, increase the number of steps between you and the habit.

Here are some examples…

Eat more vegetables. Buy dark green plates and you will automatically serve yourself 30% more when you eat foods that are dark green in color (like spinach, broccoli, and leafy greens). I covered the science behind this pattern in this article.

Reduce mindless eating. I don’t know about you, but if I see a cookie sitting on the kitchen counter, then I’m going to eat it. I don’t even need to be hungry. It’s just there, so I respond. I’m simply reacting to my environment. Make life easier on yourself by removing unhealthy food from your view. Put healthier options like fruit and nuts on the kitchen counter.

Turn on the TV less often. Pick up your remote and put it in a drawer, a closet, or somewhere out of sight. Where your remote used to be, put a book. If you want to watch TV — not just when you’re bored, but when there is actually a show on that want to see — you can walk up to the TV and turn it on. This also prevents mindless channel surfing and makes it more likely that you’ll pick up a book instead of the remote control.

Another TV stopper. Watching TV is a perfect example of responding to your environment. If you walk into any living room in America, where are all of the couches and chairs facing? Directly toward the TV. The screen is the first thing you see when you sit down, no wonder you turn it on when you’re bored. Turn the couches and chairs in your living room, so that they don’t all face the TV. You’ll watch less TV and, hopefully, read more, talk more, or move more. If you’re really bold, unplug the TV and put it in a closet for the next week. Give that a try and you’ll begin to notice how your environment impacts your behavior.

Workout more frequently. When you get home from a long day of work or when you’re tucked into a warm bed in the morning, it doesn’t take much of an obstacle to keep you from working out. You can remove one hurdle in your environment by laying out your workout clothes the night before. When your shoes, water bottle, and gear are ready and waiting for you, there is one less hurdle between you and a good workout.

Start flossing. I floss everyday, but it wasn’t always that way. Previously, I never remembered to take the floss out of the drawer and use it. Then, I bought a small bowl, dropped a handful of pre–made flossers in it, and set it next to my toothbrush. That simple change in my environment was all I needed to start flossing consistently. What small visual cues can you make for yourself?

In each example, you are adjusting your environment so that the number of steps between you and a good behavior is less than before and the number of steps between you and a bad behavior is more than it was previously. You can use this general idea to adjust many behaviors in your life.

Environment Design: Where to Go From Here

Most of the time we assume that to take a certain action, we need to have an incentive. You hear people say this all the time: “I need to get motivated.” or “I need to have a good reason for doing X.”

We also assume this same approach for managing and motivating others. Managers and leaders will often assume that they need to incentivize their employees, teammates, or students to take a particular action. (It’s easy to imagine the countries in the organ donation study sending out an educational mailing to motivate their citizens to donate or offering an incentive to the people who chose to become organ donors.)

Environment design paints a different picture. It proves that our choices and preferences can be crafted by the environment around us. Suddenly, it becomes apparent that we don’t need to be motivated or incentivized to take action — we simply need to be surrounded by the right cues.

Imagine if your world — your home, your office, your gym, all of it — was crafted in a way that made the good behaviors easier and the bad behaviors harder. How often would you make healthy and productive choices if they were simply your default response to your environment? And how much easier would that be than trying to motivate yourself all of the time?

Most of the time, you don’t actively choose the environment that surrounds you, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

How is your environment impacting your choices? And what will you do to improve it?

33 Comments

  1. At our hostel we do not have a TV. Everyone’s got their own computer nowadays. But we keep our living room a quiet space with only a piano & guitar & only limited wifi hours so enviornment is conducive for people from all over the world to interact.

    Everyone comments on how pleasant & refreshing this is a place for relaxation and contemplation with no constant noise of a TV.

    • Susan – cool! Being from Flagstaff I would love to check out your hostel! Funny, for as much backpacking as I have done in other countries, I’ve only really backcountry backpacked in the U.S. Maybe it’s time for me to see my own country via my own two legs and public transport!
      Be well

    • Susan — that’s a good side effect of ditching the TV as well! People actually talk more.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. What does everyone else do to design their environment? I love hearing new ideas that I can incorporate!

    A very important area for me to design is the bedroom – if I allow computers, T.V.’s, or even books in the bedroom, it will distract me from my purpose of sleeping. The only devices I allow are 1. My journal (reminds me to write my 1 grateful sentence per night) and 2. My emwave (reminds me to meditate for a few minutes). It’s a hard sacrifice for some people to make, but in the name of productivity and contentment I think it’s totally worth it.

    You probably know I also am a big supporter of removing the internet from your house – for me it allows me to write while disconnected (it is so easy to feel the need to get online for ‘research’) and actually read a book (it is so easy to just read online articles instead).

    As always, great thought-provoking material James. Be well.

    • I love journaling Marshall!

      Using a journal has been more educational than I ever thought possible. Really helped me realize how heavy emotions can play a role in our actions on a day-to-day. The way I’ve designed my environment for consistent journaling has been keeping my journal on Evernote which is conveniently on the launch bar of my phone. So any time I want to jot down my thoughts or emotions it’s right there with 1 swipe to unlock the screen and 1 touch to open up Evernote. 2 simple actions.

      In addition to that, my browser’s home page on my phone and laptop are both Lift so I’m reminded at the beginning of the day, and throughout that I have to complete the habits I’ve set out for myself to do everyday.

      And lastly, my to-do list outside of Lift is my home screen (thanks to the flexibility of Android). So any time I take a look at my phone, I am always reminded of a list of things I need to get done (pay credit card bill, see doctor, call someone, buy something at the store).

      Altering my environment in this way has really made things much easier for me to achieve my goals. Getting rid of a lot of barriers to good actions has made it so simple to defeat myself and my own laziness :).

      Thanks for the good writings James :)

      • Andrew – I keep hearing about Evernote from so many sources! I really need to check it out – thanks for the tips on it! Seems like a great way to design the digital environment you are in! I think I will run a little self-experiment with it and see how it turns out for me – results to come

        Be well everyone!

    • Hey Marshall,

      I have a rule with Starbucks: I only use it to get work done. I never have meetings there, never socialize, I only do work when I’m there. I also don’t let myself go online, or do anything else unproductive.

      The first few times it was hard, but now that I’ve made it a habit I can always go to Starbucks for effortless productivity. I’ve made getting to Starbucks a cue to start working, and the reward is getting a lot more done in less time than I would anywhere else.

      It’s a great way to counter the un-productivity of working in my bedroom at home where I also goof off a lot.

  3. This was an awesome article. I’m wondering how these environmental cues can apply to non-profit giving. We have a huge audience with a lot of engagement but we recently had our first donation appeal and it was met with virtual silence. Any ideas how we can apply the theory in this article to creating a donation-friendly cues?

  4. Great ideas here! Definitely can tell already that the success in a few areas in my life comes down to creating environments that foster it. This is so crucial in the little and in the big ways. One example is wifi vs a cable modem for internet. The web is a wonderful thing (using it right now wouldn’t you know!) but its so easy (in my own experience anyway) to overuse it when its available literally everywhere all the time.
    Thanks for the post!

    • I’m glad you found the article useful, Zach. Keep rocking with your own environment design strategies. It sounds like they have been helpful thus far.

      And thanks for reading!

  5. Just moving the TV to our basement, into a comfortable but out-of-the way area of the house has reduced the amount of time I spend watching TV tremendously. I had nothing against television, except as was mentioned, the lazy factor of watching when I really wanted to do other things.

    Now I do this with other things I consider things to be enjoyed in moderation, such as chocolate or other snack-type foods. Some of those I no longer keep in the house, but will allow myself occasionally as a trip to get, such as ice cream. I actually enjoy them all more now that they are not as easy to obtain, and am feeling better from keeping a healthier diet.

    • Donna — it seems like we share similar philosophies. Like you, I don’t necessarily have anything against these things … I just want to make sure that I am actively choosing to use them rather than mindlessly consuming them.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Excellent article James!

    I’m looking forward to some up coming environmental changes in my own life soon. Apartment lease is up in Sept, and leaving roomates and back into my own place again.

    A new apartment which will be designed for a health nut

    • That sounds great. It will be fun to craft an environment specifically to your goals. Good luck with the move, Leon!

  7. James,

    It’s amazing how environment design has such a big impact without us even thinking about it. I no longer keep bread and cereal in my house and as a result, I rarely eat these foods anymore which has helped improve my health and physique. More importantly, since the habit has been built and maintained, I no longer even crave these foods anymore so I dont even feel like I’m restricting myself. It’s just become a part of my lifestyle.

    Alykhan

    • So true. Removing cereals and grains seemed to really help me as well.

      Thanks for sharing, Alykhan!

  8. Great article. Putting items that you want to use daily in a visible place is a trick that has worked well for me. For example, I leave my vitamins and medications out on a counter. They are in a neat row against a cabinet but visible. Since I stopped putting them away I have been much better about taking them every day.

    • Small changes can make the right choices much easier. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Lisa.

      And thanks for reading. It’s great to have you in our little community!

  9. Fantastic Article!

    I’ve started to do this recently, Lay out things the night before work or making my lunch, I have no choice next day to be lazy or slack off with what I eat!

    Steve.

    • I love it, Steve. A little bit of preparation goes a long way and makes the right choices much easier. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Great article! Here are some things that came to mind…

    Attitude. Having a good outlook on life, not letting things get to you, seeing teh beauty in all things in front of you… these can help you see your environment in a whole different light.

    Getting outside more. I am a big fan of being outdoors as much as possible.

    Playing. Whether it’s dancing, jumping rope, running around chasing a frisbee or playing with kids. Just play and have some fun!

  11. Thank you for the great article! I totally agree with it. I realized how much the environment impacted me several years ago. I wanted to spend my time more effectively and got rid of a lot of things which distracted me. For instance, I sold my TV and I still don’t have it. Actually, don’t really feel like I need it. :)

  12. Great article with some great tips from readers as well. My greatest challenge at the moment is getting to bed on time, and restricting work to work hours although I seem to have a huge list of things to do being self employed. Any suggestions about how environmental factors may help other than how to deal with the TV?

    Thanks Claudia

  13. US is opt-in for organ donation and the rates are around ~45% depending on the source, so it’s not as cut-and-dry as it’s made out to be. I’d take the data more to heart if it didn’t seem obvious that the data being chosen is data that proves the hypotheses, without regard to data that disproves it.

    • Melanie — great point. I was unaware of the US data for organ donations. Where did you find the 45% number at?

      Thankfully, I think the general point of our environment being a driver of our actions still holds true — even if it’s not as strong as the organ donation study makes it seem.

      Thanks for reading and sharing!

  14. While this information can be used to our benefit in our everyday lives, it brings something to light that strikes me as deeply disturbing. This is the kind of information that corporations use to manipulate the masses, which we are completely unaware of. Can you say “Big Brother”? This article, as well as the Choice Architecture one (http://jamesclear.com/choice-architecture) address the fact that because of environment design, we have been manipulated into buying more soda. The doctors (or whoever) that conducted the choice architecture study are more than a big step behind the soda companies who figured this out a long time ago… and we’re only just starting to catch up and realize that they’ve been getting us to make unhealthier decisions for a long time. Good eye opener.

    That said, while I was reading this article, I switched my mouse to the left side of my desk. I’ve been meaning to swap more often and use it in a more balanced way so that my right shoulder and arm aren’t overworked. On my way to being ambidextrous!

    • On a similar note, a very interesting book that talks about how our senses affect us in our everyday lives (and sometimes in ways we might not expect) is “A Natural History of the Senses” by Diane Ackerman. I’ve been reading this recently and it’s so incredibly fascinating! It’s divided into six sections: Smell, Touch, Taste, Hearing, Vision, and Synesthesia. See it on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/76611.A_Natural_History_of_the_Senses

  15. Great suggestions! I have a terrible time trying to get anything done on my new website idea with all the distractions of a home “office.” I believe that I can use many of your great tips by just spending a few hours moving things around. In a way, this is a bit like Feng Shui!

  16. Another great post James… I have tried this in small ways (i.e. I leave floss in my car and use it while stuck in traffic and at red lights). Sounds a little gross, but it works! Since we have placed a bowl of fresh fruit on the dining room table instead of flowers we eat more fruit and I make smoothies almost every day now. I am going to see how I can apply this philosophy to my office where it is much easier to space out on the computer than tackle important tasks first each day… any suggestions from anyone?