Rely less on willpower and more on environment design to develop good habits leading to a happy, healthy, and productive life.
Relying on your willpower to live an intentional and disciplined life is usually a recipe for disaster.
Instead, you want to design your environment in such a way that it eliminates distractions and promotes the lifestyle that you want to have.
Here’s what James Clear says about environmental design in his book Atomic Habits:
Many of the actions we take each day are shaped not by purposeful drive and choice but by the most obvious option.
How do you make choices obvious? By carefully designing the environment you live in. The environment can be your bedroom, living room, bathroom, car, or desk setup.
You should strategically place items and products across your apartment or house so that the most obvious thing to do is the thing that helps you lead an intentional life.
By sprinkling triggers throughout your surroundings, you increase the odds that you will think about your habit throughout the day. — James Clear
You need to establish good habits to live an intentional life. The best way to culture new habits is by reducing friction. Design your surroundings in such a way that the easiest thing to do is the thing that helps you build good habits.
How to design your environment
When designing your environment, keep the following in mind:
Make sure the best choice is the most obvious one. — James Clear
Remembering this quote from James Clear, let me walk through a few practical ways you can set yourself and your surrounding up for success.
I will talk about a few lifestyle choices you might want to consider, and explain how designing your surrounding in certain ways can help you accomplish those.
If you want to read more
Most people will benefit from reading books.
Reading helps you learn more about the world, grow as a person, develops your critical thinking skills, and improve your attention span.
Let’s say you want to start reading more. How do you do that?
Make reading the most obvious choice. The first step to doing that is by keeping a book on your nightstand. Now, whenever you are going to bed or about to wake up, the most obvious thing to do is to pick up your book.
What if it’s more tempting to pick up your smartphone instead, I hear you ask? That’s the second step. Make your bedroom a phone-free (or even device-free!) zone.
Now, whenever you come to bed or are about to get up, your book is right there staring at you. If this tempts you to read even 5 pages a day, that’s 150 pages a month. On average, you will be finishing a book every 1.5 or 2 months which is amazing!
This is an example of environmental (or surrounding) design. By replacing your phone with a book in your bedroom you are making reading the most obvious choice around your bedtime.
If you want a good night’s sleep
Everyone loves sleeping. However, not everyone is good at sleeping.
If you are doom-scrolling on your phone before going to sleep or picking up your phone first thing after waking up, most likely you are wasting time or degrading your sleep quality.
Most of the bad sleeping habits can be traced back to the presence of a charging dock or smartphone near your bed.
That’s the first thing you will want to change. Make your bedroom a device-free zone. Buy an analog alarm clock if your argument for keeping your phone in your bedroom is to use it as an alarm clock.
When you wake up, instead of grabbing your phone and going back to bed, let the phone keep charging outside your room, while you get ready to tackle the day. Only pick up your phone when you are completely away and already started your day.
Another environmental design to consider is changing your apartment’s lighting. Three or four hours before bedtime, dim all the lights. Also, switch the display of all your devices to night mode to reduce the amount of blue light around you.
If you want fewer distractions
The biggest source of distractions in today’s world, in my opinion, is notification.
Our smartphones are designed to be addictive. Notifications supercharge that addiction.
Yes, environment design doesn’t only apply to physical spaces — how you design your digital spaces matters too.
Turn off all notifications and clean up your smartphone’s home screen. Delete all social media apps. Or any other app that distracts you more than it provides value.
Buy a pair of good noise-canceling headphones and keep them on your desk. Whenever you are starting to work, put your headphones on, switch your phone to airplane mode, and then start working.
If you want to eat healthily
Good eating habits always involve cooking at home. Bad eating habits, more often than not, involves eating out or ordering in every other day.
Let’s look at the latter first.
If you want to stop ordering food too often, delete food delivery apps from your phone. Apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash make it insanely easy (and tempting) to re-order food that we loved earlier! They also blast you with different promos and other incentives.
Delete these apps. When you really want to order, just go through the hassle of downloading, logging in, and placing the order. By increasing friction, you are reducing the likelihood of ordering in.
Now, let’s look at cooking at home. It of course starts with groceries. If you want to eat healthily, don’t buy anything unhealthy, even if you promise yourself you will eat it seldom.
A good example is cookies. In most healthy diets, cookies do not deserve a place. However, you can still buy cookies to eat occasionally and depend on your willpower every day to not convince yourself that today is “some occasion”.
Instead, take willpower out of the picture by not buying cookies in the first place. If you do that, your surroundings or environment won’t have cookies; hence you have no choice but to have something healthier when you are hungry.
Don’t rely on your willpower if you can almost guarantee certain behavior by careful environmental design.
By making sure that the best choice in your environment is the most obvious one, you can easily develop good habits that will help you lead a happy, productive, and intentional life.