Mental model: Environment design

Mental model: Environment design

Whilst reading this morning, I came across a great term which I’m going to steal, so I can name a mental model for which I didn’t yet have an actual name. The term was “environment design”, and this is what I mean by it.

Our lazy default

There has been significant research to show that when we’re feeling lazy and uninspired, we don’t necessarily do the things that make us happiest. Instead, we automatically revert to the easiest option; the path from A to B that will take the least effort. If you think about the last time you spent hours watching cat videos on YouTube – was that a conscious decision based on your carefully-deliberated choice for what would make you happiest? Did you sit there and say “For the next three hours, I will trawl YouTube for videos of cats stealing cushions from dogs?” The answer is almost certainly no. Instead, you chose the easiest available option to keep yourself doing something (as opposed to nothing) and at the time, the easiest option would have been to click the next funny cat video in YouTube’s “related videos” menu. Three hours later, the cumulative effect is that you’ve clicked through sixty cat videos. Why did you do that? Because simply clicking the next video was easy. Not because it was your highest priority, or the option that made you happiest, but purely because it cost you the least amount of effort to avoid simply staring at the walls.

(I use the term “you”, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wasted my fair share of time on YouTube / Facebook / counting grains of rice / training small animals to take over the world / etc. Nobody’s perfect – least of all me! – but what really interests me is how we can study our weak areas and extrapolate meta-knowledge about avoiding this in the future to begin sending yourself in the right direction. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a 100% efficient productivity machine, because absolutely nobody is. I don’t think it’s hypocritical, therefore, if you occasionally lapse and waste a load of time even if you’ve really been trying to implement a little more productivity – it’s simply human nature. Forgive yourself, and – most importantly – move on. That’s the important part, and as long as you’re moving in the right direction, that’s what you need to be taking notice of. Beating yourself up for past errors will actually take up even more time, and it’s absolutely pointless.)

It does seem, therefore, like we’re wired to be lazy. However, if you’re actually aware of this in the first place (after all, the hard parts of life are when you don’t know what you don’t know!) then you can manipulate this to your advantage.

If we know that we usually default to the easiest option, how can we turn this into a useful piece of information? One of the potential answers here is: by controlling your environment.

Specific examples

If you’re trying to be conscious of eating less junk food, try to manipulate your environment into complying with your aims. The great thing about this is that it’s very low-pressure, which usually translates into very high rates of success because you don’t allow it to become a huge, overpowering beast of a problem in your head, and therefore you’re most likely to follow through with it. A practical example in this case would be avoiding the chocolate aisle whilst doing your shopping. You can lower the pressure still further by saying to yourself “I’m going to ignore this aisle for now, but if I get home and want some chocolate, I’ll let myself go out to buy some.” There we go. No pressure at all. No beating yourself up or telling yourself that you will never eat chocolate again. You’re simply saying that for the next ten minutes, you won’t go into the aisle – but of course, if you don’t go into the aisle, the biscuits and chocolate don’t get into your basket, which means they don’t get to the checkout, which means they don’t make their way back to your cupboard. Instead, you buy a few vegetables and make your way home. Easy.

The result here is that when you get the inevitable junk food cravings at home, you don’t actually have any in your immediate environment, because you’ve engineered it that way. You could go out and get some, but if the default behavioural model is to tend towards laziness, you’ll avoid the hassle of actually leaving your house once more to buy some – because that’s a more difficult and deliberate option – and you’ll eat the vegetables that you bought instead. This isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a fairly reliable method of tricking your lazy self into complying with what you actually want, instead of the easy option.

An important note: this tends to work only if you give it some thought beforehand, because we’re very susceptible to impulse urges. It would be a lot harder to avoid eating junk food if you’re already opening the fridge and trying not to look at the chocolate, but it’s much easier to stick to this by not being in the aisle in the first place and therefore not buying it. By giving a bit of thought beforehand to whatever you want to do, you can begin to plan accordingly.

Using environment design to get started with daunting tasks

You can also use the “environment model” to trick yourself into doing things that you find difficult to begin. For instance, I’ve written before about the example of going for a run. The absolute hardest part of anything is starting – once you begin, your task is generally much easier than you made it out to be (another phenomenon that could be a very useful mental model – closely related to the “no zero days” mental model which I will cover another time). You can therefore use the environment model to “hack” yourself into starting.

A running “environment” could be as simple as changing into running clothes (shorts, t-shirt and running shoes) and standing outside of your front door, closing it behind you. That’s it. You don’t even need to talk yourself into going for a run; you just have to talk yourself into standing outside your front door. That’s the entire plan – no pressure at all, and the expectation is extremely low – which, again, makes it very easy to fulfil. Yet, you’ve manipulated your environment so that you’re in the perfect position to actually go for a run – you’re outside and in workout clothes, with the door shut behind you – which means that your chances of beginning your run are now astronomically higher than they would have been had you not taken the steps to put yourself in that environment. It almost makes the outcome inevitable, as doing anything else other than going for a run from that point forward seems silly.

Throughout my life, I’ve been terrible at persisting with things – a trait about myself which I can’t stand – so I use this mental model to force myself to do things whenever I judge them to be important. All it requires is a little bit of thought beforehand.

An admission: I’m terrible with the snooze button. Absolutely awful. Given half the chance, I will lie in bed mashing the snooze button relentlessly for an hour and a half, which means that I’m neither sleeping successfully (instead being awoken every ten minutes) nor actually getting up. So how do I ensure I get up if it’s important? I set my alarm on my phone, which I then leave across the other side of the room. When the alarm rings, my only thought upon waking is to turn it off. I am therefore instantly out of bed and across the other side of the room – quite literally before I’m even aware of it – but once I’ve turned it off, I’m beginning to be just about awake enough that I realise I’m already out of bed, so I can then start getting ready.

Yes, it’s a pretty cheap trick. However: it works, and that’s all I’m interested in. Leaving those types of decisions to your 6am, brain-fogged, sleep-addled self is almost always a terrible idea, because you default to whatever the easiest option is at the time. By spending 10 seconds the previous night deciding that you need to get up, setting the alarm, and leaving it on the other side of the room, you’re engineering the environment so that the easiest solution the following morning is not to hit snooze, but is instead to get up before even realising you’re up. It works.

Need to take a letter with you to work, but worried you’ll forget? Wedge it into the front door so that you are literally unable to leave for work or even open the front door without noticing it. Environment design.

Do you forget to drink water on a regular basis? (I do – another one of my bad habits.) Fill a bottle of water and set a reminder on your phone to drink the entire thing at a specific time. Once you have, refill it and set another reminder to go off in two hours’ time. That way, you will a) remember it and b) actually have a bottle to hand when the time comes, meaning that the hassle and friction of stopping whatever you’re doing in two hours’ time to go and get a bottle of water is entirely removed. Environment design.

Reverse-engineering environment design

The main point thus far is that environment design can be about removing the number of hassle-filled steps between where you currently are and what you need to achieve. Of course, by considering this further, we can reverse-engineer this to realise that we can also add some extra hassle in order to prevent ourselves from defaulting to the lazy option.

There are numerous apps such as Freedom and Cold Turkey which you can download for your computer which allow you to disable your internet connection for a specified period of time in order to remove distractions and get more done. Avid hackers will note that it’s not a be-all-and-end-all solution – if you desperately wanted to get online, you could probably restart your computer, disable the program, or worst-case scenario, just leave the house and visit a friend to use their laptop instead. However, the cognitive load of doing this means that there’s a significantly larger hassle present in trying to re-activate your internet prematurely, and therefore most people will default to the easiest option, which is leaving it disabled, and this therefore allows you the distraction-free time that you need in order to get something done. Hardcore procrastinators might be able to find something offline to distract them instead, but getting rid of instant access to cat videos goes a long way towards eliminating distractions and manipulating your environment so it’s closer in line with your desired end result. Environment design goes both ways.

The TL;DR summary

The main point about the environment design mental model is that you engineer your immediate environment to remove as much friction and hassle as possible from your intended goal. That way, when we run out of willpower and we default to the easiest option out of laziness, we find to our surprise that this time, it’s the actual calculated and desired outcome that just happens to be the easiest option, rather than the almost-inevitable cat video. Don’t dismiss it as a cheap trick if it actually works.

Ultimately, the most important take-away is to begin consciously addressing your needs and problems and begin finding practical workarounds with solutions that work, even if they are unusual or unorthodox. It’s not as simple as finding a one-size-fits-all life hack (a term which I would like to like in theory, but which I find is all too often used to justify needless bullshit to fill up endless productivity articles such as “97 ways to do x in a tenth of the time!” ), but rather, it’s beginning to be aware of your cognitive faults and dissonances in order to be able to better address them when you find problems. In my personal experience, environment design can be extremely useful in the right circumstances, especially when you’re running out of willpower. We can’t get it right all of the time, but we can try to minimise the damage when we run out of steam by manipulating your surroundings to try to help you out if it all goes wrong.