Use Environment Design to Create Your Perfect Life

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In This Post

  • Learn what environment design is and how it can benefit you
  • 5 steps to using environment design effectively
  • The essential laws of environment design
  • Examples of environment design and how you can use it to create meaningful change in your life

Environment design is very much what it sounds like. It is all about designing your environment in a way that helps encourage or discourage specific behaviours. Hopefully, creating a greater potential for you to reach a certain goal. It’s about curating and structuring your environment, like your bedroom, desk, or even your phone, in a way that best suits your needs. It encourages you to perform habits or tasks that will put you on the path to being your best self. Something that is incredibly useful when on a self development journey.

Environment design is especially good at helping us manage behaviours when our decisions that lead to our actions are usually impulsive or unconscious. For example, first thing in the morning, or when we’re tired. Our environment greatly influences us during these times, and this can be furthered by the concept of ‘behavioural spillover’. This is the idea that your past behaviours have implications for your current and future behaviours. Have you ever eaten more unhealthy food or skipped a workout because of previous ‘failures’ earlier in the day? Feels familiar doesn’t it!

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How Do I Design the Environment?

There are a few steps to using the concept of environment design that will ensure you get the most out of it. Here they are:

1. Enter a Growth-Oriented Mindset

By fully mentally committing to the goals you are about to make, you will be more likely to use this redesign in your environment as a key starting point. This fresh start will give you a little boost of motivation. Encouraging behaviours you want to do more, and helping you avoid ones you want to discontinue.

Changing your environment to encourage your desired pattern of behaviour is only as successful as you allow it to be. You still need a pinch (or a lot) of motivation, at least at the start. As cliche as it is, having a fresh start (symbolised by your changed environment) is good for us mentally. It helps us separate between the previous self, and past behaviour, we used to identify with. Our new environment is a physical reminder of the future self who we are trying to become.

2. Acknowledge That Your Environment Does Dictate Your Behaviour

It can be hard to acknowledge that you don’t have as much free-will as you previously thought. But in reality it makes creating habits and routines based on your environment much easier. Your decision power (the mental energy you have per day to make conscious, well thought-out decisions) is limited. So reducing the amount of energy you have to spend on trivial things, like what to eat for breakfast, or whether or not to go workout, will leave more room for the more meaningful and interesting areas of your life.

Our brains are designed to conserve energy, so it’s understandable why we spend so much time in auto-pilot. We can use this to our advantage, by designing an environment that encourages the preferred behaviour that will bring us closer to our goals. 

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3. Break Down Your Goals Into Smaller Steps, Habits and Routines

If you’re reading this you probably have some goals you want to achieve in life. The key thing to remember when thinking about your goals is that we do not do goals, we do projects, tasks and habits. Breaking down your big goal into actionable steps, routines and tasks is the easiest way to ensure you achieve them. Visualise what your days would look like, what routines and habits you would have that would allow you to reach them. Then consider how you can design your environment to help you do just that!

4. Temptation-Bundle and Use Gamification

We, as humans, have a tendency to prefer instant gratification over long-term, delayed gratification. This can make it hard to achieve goals like getting healthier or studying a new language. However, there are ways we can use environment design to encourage our behaviours. Therefore, allowing us to reach those long-term goals.

Temptation bundling is when you pair a task or behaviour you would like to do, but find difficult, with one you already find pleasure in. E.g., burning a candle you love while studying, only watching your favourite tv show after you’ve been to the gym, or my most successful example of drinking my green juice while my beloved coffee is brewing.

There are some behaviours that do not easily pair with something pleasurable. For example, it might be counterproductive to reward yourself with your favourite unhealthy food for going to the gym. For these activities, you can make them game-like and use tokens of rewards like points, badges or leaderboards. Using game-like elements to encourage or discourage behaviour has been studied and used successfully in many fields. Giving yourself gold stars for completing tasks sounds stupid but if it works, then it works!

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5. Your Social Life Is Part of Your Environment

As awkward as it may be to admit, you are heavily influenced by the people you surround yourself with. Social pressure can be a bad thing, but it can also be used for good! If you can surround yourself with people who have similar goals and dreams as you, or even better those who are already successful at things you’d like to learn, you can pick up on their behaviours. You can and should learn from their mistakes and copy their successes. Ensuring you ‘design’ your social circle by intentionally spending time with people you love and respect is a great way to use the theory of environment design.

What Are the Laws of Environment Design?

The two laws of environment design are as follows.

  1. For behaviours you’d like to do more often, make them easy and make them obvious.
  2. For behaviours you’d like to do less often, make them difficult and make them hidden.

Creating a purposeful environment is much more effective than constantly trying to behave purposefully. You are fighting your natural human nature of conserving energy by always having to actively think about what you’d like to do next. This also opens your brain up to ‘reasoning’ you out of doing behaviours you know you would like to complete…’I’ll just start tomorrow’ type of reasoning which isn’t always the most inspiring type of thinking! This is why designing your environment to make the decisions for you, or at least encourage you in one particular direction is so useful.

Another thing to consider is that you are happiest when you combine pleasure and purpose in your life. Finding a combination of both allows you to get the most out of them individually. Find a balance between work and play and you will be more fulfilled than if you focused only on one. And you can use environment design to strengthen both!

What Are Some Examples?

The main principle behind environment design is:

Goal → Design your environment to encourage/discourage behaviour → Outcome

You can use this structure to work on your own goals and associated behaviours.

FrequencyBig GoalTask to CompleteEnvironment DesignTask to Complete Goal
Increase behaviourYou want to be healthierYou want to workout in the morning before workYou put your clothes, keys, earphones, etc. on the floor in the middle of your room before bed each nightIn the morning when you don’t usually have a lot of decision-making energy, it is easy to pick up the clothes and then go to the gym because the decision was already made for you. And you made it obvious by putting it somewhere you can see it!
Decrease behaviourYou want to spend lessYou want to do less impulse shoppingYou unlink your bank details from your desktop and phone, and uninstall any apps you have downloaded that you browse and shop on regularlyYou have made it difficult to impulse shop because you have to actively go and find your bank details and you have made it more hidden as the apps/sites aren’t already downloaded or as accessible. There is more resistance between you and the behaviour you are trying to avoid, so you do it less! 

To Put it Minimally

  • You can use the principles of environment design to encourage or discourage certain behaviours and habits
  • If you want to increase your chances of an action, make it easy and make it obvious
  • If you want to decrease your chances of an action, make it difficult and make it hidden

Recommended Reading

If you enjoyed this post and would like to dive deeper into the topic, use our Amazon affiliate links below to get a copy of the books used to help make this post.

Atomic Habits – James Clear

How to Change – Katy Milkman

The Lemonade Life – Zack Friedman

Happiness by Design – Paul Dolan