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

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

Most people think that building good habits or changing their 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…

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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.

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choice-architecture

    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.

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    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 towards better choices even when your willpower is fading.

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    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.

    More by this author

    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on March 24, 2021

    8 Smart Home Gadgets You Need in Your House

    8 Smart Home Gadgets You Need in Your House

    We’ve all done it. We’ve gone out and bought useless gadgets that we don’t really need, just because they seemed really cool at the time. Then, we are stuck with a bunch of junk, and end up tossing it or trying to sell it on Ebay.

    On the other hand, there are some pretty awesome tech inventions that are actually useful. For instance, many of the latest home gadgets do some of your work for you, from adjusting the home thermostat to locking your front door. And, if used as designed, these tools should really help to make your life a lot easier—and that’s not just a claim from some infomercial trying to sell you yet another useless gadget.

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    Take a look at some of the most popular “smart gadgets” on the market:

    1. Smart Door Locks

    A smart lock lets you lock and unlock your doors by using your smartphone, a special key fob, or biometrics. These locks are keyless, and much more difficult for intruders to break into, making your home a lot safer. You can even use a special app to let people into your home if you are not there to greet them.

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    2. Smart Kitchen Tools

    Wouldn’t you just love to have a pot of coffee waiting for you when you get home from work? What about a “smart pan” that tells you exactly when you need to flip that omelet? From meat thermometers to kitchen scales, you’ll find a variety of “smart” gadgets designed to make culinary geeks salivate.

    3. Mini Home Speaker Play:1

    If you love big sound, but hate how much space big speakers take up, and if you want a stereo system that is no bigger than your fist, check out the Play:1 mini speaker. All you have to do is plug it in, connect, and then you can stream without worrying about any interruptions or interface. You can even add onto it, and have different music playing in different rooms.

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    4. Wi-Fi Security Cameras

    These are the latest in home security, and they connect to the Wi-Fi in your home. You can use your mobile devices to monitor what is going on in your home at all times, no matter where you are. Options include motion sensors, two-way audio, and different recording options.

    5. Nest Thermostat

    This is a thermostat that lives with you. It can sense seasonal changes, temperature changes, etc., and it will adjust itself automatically. You will never have to fiddle with a thermostat dial or keypad again, because this one basically does all of the work for you. It can also help you to save as much as 12% on heating bills, and 15% on cooling bills.

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    6. Smart Lighting

    Control your home lighting from your remote device. This is great if you are out and want to make sure that there are some lights on. It is designed to be energy efficient, so it will pay for itself over time because you won’t have to spend so much on your monthly energy bills.

    7. Google Chromecast Ultra

    Whether you love movies, television shows, music, etc., you can stream it all using Google Chromecast Ultra. Stream all of the entertainment you love in up to 4K UHD and HDR, for just $69 monthly.

    8. Canary

    This home security system will automatically contact emergency services when they are needed. This system offers both video and audio surveillance, so there will be evidence if there are any break-ins on your property. You can also use it to check up on what’s happening at home when you are not there, including to make sure the kids are doing their homework.

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