Monday Mornings with Madison

To Change a Behavior, Change the Environment

At the beginning of a year, many people make resolutions to change.  They want to break a bad habit or start a good habit.  Or they want to improve or reduce how or how much they do something.  For some, the change is personal.  Lose weight.  Eat healthy.  Exercise.  Stop smoking.  For others, the change is professional.  Stay organized.  Find greater work/life balance.  Be on time to work.  Have more patience.  Be more pleasant to customers.  For each person, it is a different resolution.  Yet, everyone basically wants to do the same thing:  change a difficult-to-change behavior.  (After all, if it was easy to change the behavior, there’d be no need for a resolution!)

Indeed, changing a behavior is not easy.  Even when a person really, really wants to change their own personal conduct, behaviors persist.  Eating the wrong foods.  Drinking too much.  Smoking.  Being tardy.  Why is that?  In part, it is because humans are creatures of habit.  Habits — which live in a specific part of the brain (interestingly independent from the part of the brain that houses memory) — control of much of the automatic behavior we perform each day… often mindlessly.  Many behaviors are done on auto-pilot with very little thought.  If so much behavior is done on auto-pilot, how does a person break a bad habit or start a new behavior?  For decades psychologists suggested that to change a behavior, one simply had to first change one’s attitude.  But, it turns out that that is not really true.  To change a behavior within, start by changing the environment outside.  How is this done?  And is there a way a manager or employee can use this to improve productivity, short-circuit undesirable work behaviors and increase profits?

Habits Don’t Follow Intentions and Willpower is Fragile

According to Dr. B.J. Fogg, Director of the Stanford Persuasive Lab, “There’s just one way to radically change your behavior:  radically change your environment.   That’s because behaviors are mostly habits, and … habits don’t follow intentions.”  One of the mind’s chief functions is to spot and utilize patterns as shortcuts, in order to process the multitude of information we take in every day.  While this mental programming saves time, it has one major drawback:  it ensures that many behaviors are done automatically without pausing to determine if that is really what we want to do.  Our internal programming takes over and has us engage in many behaviors triggered by environmental cues.  Teeth brushing.  Driving.  Walking the dog.  Getting dressed.  Each behavior is done with little or no thought.  The mind picks up on environmental cues that trigger habitual behavior.  But if you change the environment, the habit is broken.

This was first realized during a scientific study done of soldiers returning from Vietnam.  It was found that about 20% of the soldiers who served in Vietnam had become addicted to drugs while there.  To deal with the problem, President Nixon created a new office — the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention —to help soldiers with rehabilitation.  Psychiatrist and researcher Lee Robins was assigned to study the problem and given unprecedented access to all soldiers in the Army.

Those soldiers still in Vietnam, who were identified as addicted, were put in a rehab program in Vietnam and not allowed to return home until they were clean.  When those soldiers returned, it was thought that most would relapse, as was found to happen when soldiers went into rehab in the U.S.  Instead, however, they found that only 5% of all addicted soldiers who went through rehab in Vietnam and then returned to the U.S. relapsed.  However, addicted soldiers who were treated in the U.S. and then returned to their homes had a relapse rate of about 90%.  The only difference was that the soldiers underwent rehab in Vietnam instead of the U.S.   Apparently, radically changing their environment helped keep most soldiers from relapsing.

This fact has been proven in scientific studies again and again.  Studies published in Mindless Eating show how small environmental cues can greatly impact behavior.  For example, if a person uses a big spoon, he will eat more.  If a person serves herself using a big plate, she will eat more. If a small bowl of chocolates on a desk in an office is moved six feet away, that person will eat half as much. If, on the other hand, a person eats chicken wings and removes the bones from the table, she will forget how much she ate and will eat more.

Leverage the Environment to Modify Behaviors

If it is true that changing the environment affects behavior, is there a way to use this to one’s advantage to stop a bad behavior or start a good behavior?  Can this be used at work?  Could environmental changes be used to get staff to do difficult tasks regularly.   Here are some tips on how to leverage this to one’s advantage.

Tip 1:  Associate a Wanted Behavior with a Place or Disassociate a Bad Behavior by Changing the Setting

Make a setting trigger a behavior.  If the goal is to increase productivity by wasting less time online, eliminate all other distractions than the task at hand.  Close all other emails, articles and web pages on the screen.  Keep new emails from popping up.  Put the phone on vibrate or send all calls to voice mail.  Close instant messaging systems.

The same can be done with the larger environment. The ‘office’ or ‘work space’ should be a place to work, where no other alternative activities are performed.  Do not have a radio or television in the area.  In time, just walking into that place or space will associate with productive work.

If the goal is to eliminate a behavior, disassociate the behavior from the environment.  For example, if the front entrance of a building is where everyone congregates to smoke, enter and exit the building in the morning and at lunch time from a side entrance if possible.  Just avoiding that physical trigger can reduce or eliminate the desire to light a cigarette.

Tip 2:  Use the Environment to Simplify a Desired Behavior or Complicate an Undesirable Behavior

Challenging behaviors stick better when a behavior can be simplified.  Rather than focusing on doing a behavior either less or more, instead focus on making the behavior easier to do.  Eliminate steps.  Make it automatic.  Eliminate any environmental factors that might make a behavior harder to do to the point that the task is abandoned.

For example, if the desired behavior is to exercise first thing in the morning, but the challenge is to get ready in time to go the gym, make the process as turnkey as possible. When willpower is still strong (the night before), lay out workout clothes, socks and exercise shoes. Pack a bag with the gym card, towel and a change of clothes for after the workout and leave the bag by the front door. Set the coffee maker to brew automatically. Make it as simple as possible to get up and out the door to the gym. If the goal is to floss daily, place the dental floss next to the toothbrush so it is easy to reach.

Do the reverse to eliminate an undesirable behavior. Intensify and increase the obstacles to make it harder to do. Using the environment to increase friction is the most effective way to deter a behavior. For example, by designing for laziness, a behavior can be reduced or stopped altogether. A dieter might put bad snacks in the garage, on a shelf that requires a ladder. Since willpower is fragile and mental focus can be exhausted, energies should be focused on making the undesirable habits harder to do.

Tip 3:  Connect Existing Environmental Cues with New Behaviors

According to research, it is easier to make a habit consistent if it is linked to an existing chain of behaviors.  In other words, it’s easier to perform a new behavior regularly if it is always preceded or followed by one or multiple already-regularly-performed tasks.

Because one behavior happens at the same time every day, it is easier to add another task to that chain thereby leveraging a reliable trigger that happens every single day without fail.  Thus, to add a new behavior, it is best to schedule it in conjunction with a consistent part of the daily schedule.

If the desired behavior is to stay more organized at work, add that task to existing tasks.  For example, it would be easier to stay organized if 15 minutes was set aside to do filing and clear any desk clutter right after returning from lunch and checking voice messages.  Then the task could be repeated again 15 minutes before shutting down and leaving for the day, linking it to end-of-the-workday behaviors.

If the desire is to stop wasting time fraternizing with coworkers when going to the water cooler or coffee machine or vending machine, use the environment to disrupt the behavior.  Instead of walking to the water cooler, coffee machine, bring a thermos of coffee and a fill a large pitcher or bottle of water and sit it at the desk.  This would reduce the number of visits to the other side of the office and short-circuit the opportunity for chit-chats.  If a manager wanted to stop employees from fraternizing at the water cooler or coffee machine, more coffee stations and water coolers could be established in the office to eliminate the need for everyone to gather in one location.

Tip 4 – Embrace Repetition and Routine

Success is typically the result of consistent execution of a single repetitive habit.  Therefore options or choices are the enemy of routine.  Options make consistent behavior harder to maintain.  Therefore, use elements of the environment to help establish routine.  Make less important aspects of life routine in order to achieve consistency, and then tackle other, more-important decisions and actions with greater decisiveness.

For example, if the goal is to do a better job of saving money, instead of having to remember to set aside money each month, the behavior can be completely automated by having automatic withdrawals taken directly from a paycheck and deposited into a savings account.  The automatic withdrawal removes the need to remember or act to save and provides consistency and routine.

For a person who wants to lose weight, one way to support that goal would be to wash the dishes (or load the dishwasher) and then immediately go for a 20-minute walk right after dinner every night.  Making it a routine eliminates the need to plan or think.  Small systematic changes can have a measurable impact because it compounds over time. By making those behaviors routine, it eliminates the need to make a decision to do something which increases then the likelihood of success.
By leveraging the environment, behaviors can change without having to rely on willpower, self control or attitude and without having to overcome engrained habits.  Try it and see if little changes on the outside don’t make it much easier to make big changes on the inside!

Quote of the Week

“Human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside. The ‘situation’ is the external environment. The inner environment is genes, moral history, religious training.” 
Philip Zimbardo


© 2015, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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