The title for today’s blog post comes from a line in the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. He is speaking about the powerful effect that environment has on behaviour. In fact, Clear argues that environment is often a better predictor of behaviour than motivation. (page 86) If that is indeed the case, how do we leverage that to develop healthy habits and improve upon our behaviour?
Design your physical space: define different places for different activities of your life
The YouTuber CGP Grey put out a video a year or so back titled “Spaceship You” in which he suggests having different spaces for different things. For instance, have a work space, a sleep space, an eating space, and a recreation space. Don’t use your workspace for recreation, don’t use your eating space for work, don’t work where you sleep (like your bed), and so on. If you work where you eat, you might be tempted to eat more snacks than is necessary. This is because the space acts as a cue for your mind which triggers a desire to eat food. Your mind is, in a sense, conditioned to think of food the moment you enter the eating space.
Having spent quite a few days attending online classes on my bed, I can tell you how ineffective my studying was during that time. When I sit on my desk on the other hand, I listen to classes better. In fact, this is one reason why I started going to campus physically for offline classes from the day I could (although it was optional and I had to change three buses to reach). My mind goes into study mode when I go the campus.
Design your digital space
In the same section, Clear also says, “Most people live in a world others have created for them.” I would argue that everyone, at least to an extent, lives in a world others have created for them – at least everyone who uses technology. The very architecture of much of the technology we use ensures that we don’t really decide when we use them. For instance, my behaviour of unlocking my phone is often not something I initiate and decide to do on my own. I do it when the phone sends me a notification. Think about it. My phone dictates my movements. So, how do we try to lessen the power our phones have over us?
1. Disable your notifications (as much as possible)
Disabling notifications for most apps has significantly reduced the time I spent on my phone. I do allow notifications for calls and text messages (since most people only call if it’s urgent, and I often get One Time Passwords through text while people generally use WhatsApp). Instagram, YouTube, Spotify, WhatsApp, Facebook, LinkedIn, and any other app I can think of – I disabled notifications for all! And I’ve been a happy man since.
2. Make good use of apps, widgets, wallpapers, etc.
The previous point was the negative aspect of designing your digital environment – what we want to reduce. This can be the positive side of it – using the digital environment to motivate behaviour. Here are some ideas. Set a recurring alarm or a reminder if you want to develop a habit (such as reading, exercising, etc.). Or you could use a widget on your phone that reminds you. You could also use wallpapers with text that is perhaps motivating. Every time you look at your screen, you could be reminded of something like “Make the best use of time.” I’ve seen people use sticky notes on their computers with tasks to be done so they don’t forget. It’s the same idea.
This is not really a strategy but more of a trick. Cal Newport says, in the book, “Deep Work” that performing grand gestures by spending significant time, effort or money to create an environment can increase motivation and reduce procrastination. He points to examples such as JK Rowling who rented an expensive hotel room from where to write her novel. (page 122) This is something I have been experiencing recently. I spent money to get a premium subscription to a task management software, called TickTick. I could probably have managed with the free features. But I took a yearly subscription so that I’d be more motivated to make good use of it. And boy has it helped! Another example is what I mentioned earlier about going to College. Spending the time and effort to go there ensured I don’t waste all that effort, just like because I spent money I ensured I didn’t waste that money.
Of course you don’t need to spend money or travel across the city to create this effect. Cleaning up and setting up your workspace neatly could create the same effect.