Environment Hacking – How Your Surroundings Matter More Than You Think

Be conscious of your environment. The successful formation of habits and behaviour can depend on the environment you’re in. Your environment can trigger certain behaviours, and with repetition, they can become automatic. To initiate healthy habits, you should set up cues in your environment that encourage you to engage in certain behaviours – for example, if you want to start running regularly, put out a pair of running shoes near your door. Getting rid of unhealthy habits involves removing cues that trigger poor behaviour, for example, if you are easily distracted by your phone while doing work, leave your phone in another room or somewhere out of sight.  

Let’s be honest here. Humans are lazy by nature – we are constantly looking for an easy way out… but maybe it’s not such a bad thing. We’re hardwired to conserve our energy – to our ancestors, it was essential for survival. Take this example of organ donation. Citizens in countries like Sweden and Austria are organ donors by default. That is, you are automatically registered unless you manually opt out, and nearly all of the population are organ donors (Johnson & Goldstein 2003). Now take countries like Denmark and Germany, where citizens are not organ donors by default – to be an organ donor, you’d have to manually opt in. Comparatively, less than a quarter of the population are organ donors (Johnson & Goldstein 2003)! This kind of information just goes to show how unconscious our behaviour is and how large an influence our environment has on our actions.  

Positive Habit Formation 

So how is this information relevant to hacking our environment to form healthy habits? We can learn to structure our environment with salient cues that encourage us to engage in a certain behaviour. The simple task of setting an alarm for the morning or keeping track of a to-do list are all examples of salient cues that help us to stay on track. Let’s say you want to start the habit of reading before bed. By rearranging your environment like putting a book on your nightstand, the book acts as a salient cue that reminds you to read and you will be more inclined to read your book. Over time, you will begin to associate reading with your bed and before you know it, reading before bed will turn into a habit! 

Getting Rid of Unhealthy Habits 

But what if I wanted to break a habit? Same logic is applied here. Removing or changing particular items or aspects of your environment can break unwanted habits because you are getting less exposure to the cues that originally initiated those habits. Say you want to start eating healthier. It is more likely that you’ll reach for junk food if they are readily accessible, rather than opening your cupboard and reaching for an apple. Hiding your junk food (or getting rid of it entirely) and replacing it with fruits and healthy foods would make it easier for you to automatically grab that apple instead of reaching for the chips.  

Long story short, your environment has the potential to make or break your habits. 

To learn more about the relationship between environment and habit making: 

Phillippa Lally & Benjamin Gardner – Promoting habit formation, Health Psychology Review
Stulberg, B. – The Key to Changing Individual Health Behaviors: Change the Environments That Give Rise to Them
Babauta, L. – Creating Your Habit Environment
Johnson & Goldstein – Do Defaults Save lives?

Author: Cathy Xie 
Editor: Zac Lo 
Researcher: Zoya Haroun 

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