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Environmental design helps you take control of your life

If you know you should eat more vegetables, have plenty of vegetables in the home

Why is it so hard for us to replace bad habits with good habits, even when we know we should lose the fat and gain the muscle? Why do we find ourselves in the drive-through lane of our favourite fast food restaurant, when we know we should be eating nutritious food? Why do we decide to spend our weekend morning’s watching reality TV, instead of getting a gym session in? Why do we drink 10 beers on a Friday night, then get a kebab on the way home when we know a good night’s sleep would be much better for us? Do we lack motivation? What about willpower? What about some sort of ‘guts and determination’ the fit buff guys must have that we don’t? The truth is we don’t need any of that stuff to keep us on track. Instead, intelligent environmental design will make it easier to make healthy choices, and more difficult to make choices detrimental to our health and wellbeing.

What’s the default option?

Have you ever received an email of some kind, and the ‘opt-in’ box has already been checked for you? For example, you get invited to enter a competition. You enter your details and in small writing at the bottom, there’s an option to join the mailing list, or agree to receive promotional material from third parties, or something like that. Next to this writing is a small box, and in that box is a tick. That’s the opt-in box, and the company that has sent the email has already checked it for you. They know that most people will leave it like it is, even if it means getting heaps of junk emails in the future. Why? Because most people go for the default option, even though changing the option is just one click of the mouse away. On the other hand, if the box was unchecked, most people would go for that option.

We choose the default option all the time without even noticing it. Ever found yourself singing along to a song you know without even realising it? Or eating something just because it’s there? Or place something in your shopping trolley without even thinking about it? Or reaching for your Smartphone and checking your emails as soon as you wake up? These are our default options to these specific circumstances. We think we’re in total control of our actions, but most of the time we’re just responding to the environment in the same way we always have.

What has environmental design got to do with exercising and eating nutritious food?

Keeping a water bottle on your desk is healthy environment design

Not long ago my wife, son and I moved from an apartment to a house. In my apartment, I could see the fridge from anywhere in the open plan living area. I always had water in the fridge, so I found myself drinking plenty of it throughout the day. In the house, the fridge is hidden in a wall recess, and the only time I see it is when I’m deep in the kitchen alleyway. The result? I drink far less water. Even though the water is always in the fridge and kept in the same spot, the additional step of only being able to see the fridge from a certain spot has seriously reduced the amount of water I drink.

If we’re so influenced by the environment around us, why not incorporate environmental design strategies so the default options are healthy? Make it easier for yourself to make healthy decisions, and more difficult to make unhealthy decisions. Here are a couple of ideas:

  • It’s a great idea to have a fist sized portion or two of vegetables with every meal. So, always have a container of cooked vegetables in the fridge, and keep them on the shelf at eye level.
  • It’s a great idea to get eight hours of sleep every night. So, set your TV to turn itself off at 10pm every night, and keep the remote control in a drawer away from where you sit. That way you’re less likely to turn it back on.
  • Foam rolling is a great way to increase flexibility and recover from a tough training session. So, keep the foam roller on the lounge room coffee table. That way you’re more likely to use it while watching TV.
  • Having an hour before bed without watching a screen is great for getting a good night’s sleep. So, charge your Smartphone in another room overnight, and not next to your bed. That way you won’t be on it before you go to sleep, or reach for it as soon as you wake up. And if you use it as your alarm, go and buy a cheap clock from the discount store!
  • Drinking lots of water has many health benefits, but plain tap water might be too boring for you. Invest in a Soda Stream, throw out any syrups that come with it, and make sparkling water. To add flavour cut up a couple of slices of lemon, lime, orange or a few berries, and put them in the bottle. Keep the Soda Stream in plain sight so you’re constantly reminded to make and drink soda water.

Remember, it’s all about reducing the number of roadblocks there are for making healthy decisions, and increasing the number of roadblocks for making bad decisions. If you have a love of chocolate brownies, don’t keep them in the house. You’ll then have to drive to the shop if you really want one. That’s another roadblock you’ve put in the way of making an unhealthy choice. Conversely, put a water bottle on your desk at work and leave it there. You’ll be more likely to drink water at your desk if there’s a water bottle sitting in front of you.

You don’t need motivation or willpower

Any Given Sunday is one of the greatest sports movies ever made. Al Pacino plays Tony D’Amato, the coach of a professional football team, and one of the most important scenes in the movie is when he gives a speech to his players. It’s incredible, and after watching it I would have run through a brick wall for him as well. This is it…

Yes! I get goosebumps watching that. But here’s the thing, how long do you think the motivation those players got from that speech lasted before the environment they found themselves in started controlling their actions? Motivational speeches are great, but the environment you create because of the systems you’ve put in place are far more important. Let me ask you this, if Tony D’Amato had sent his team out with just the speech and no systems in place, could they have possibly won? What about if we reverse that question. Could his team have won without the speech if he’d trained them to use great systems in game situations?

Motivation and willpower are not that important to achieving your goals. The environmental design systems you put in place are far, far more important. I don’t need to try and inspire you to act, because that won’t work in the long run. What I need to do is help you change your environment, that way you’ll follow healthy guidelines without even thinking about it.

Now it’s your turn. What roadblocks can you add to your environment to make it more difficult to make unhealthy choices? And what roadblocks can you remove to encourage healthy eating and exercise?

Over to you…

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