One critical factor influences our behaviors more than any other. It’s often left in the dark, but just as gravity keeps us planted on this blue planet, so does this power ultimately shape who we are.
That power is our environment design.
Up until a few years ago, if someone had asked me what separates those who succeed from those who fail, I’d have made some generic statement like, “Luck. Being at the right place at the right time.”
These days, I lean much more on the small daily actions and the environment we live and work in.
My First Gym: I Remember It Like It Was Yesterday
When I was seventeen, I began lifting. It was a small gym near my home and, at the time, I felt like that was all I would ever need.
The gym was nothing impressive. There were no benches, squat racks, or place where I could deadlift. There wasn’t even a standard 20-kilo barbell there. The dumbbells only went up to 28 kilos (~62 lbs.), there were a couple of leg isolation machines, a smith machine, one adjustable pulley system, an E-Z bar, 300 pounds worth of weight, and a lat pulldown machine.
The gym wasn’t any bigger than a medium-sized apartment, and the strongest people could bench 90 kilos (~200 lbs.) on the smith machine.
I cringe now, but at the time, I was happy just because I was consistent with fitness for the first time in years. But now that I think about it, that gym served its purpose - to help me develop consistency. But had I stayed in that environment, I would have crippled my progress significantly.
I couldn’t do the barbell bench press. I couldn’t do deadlifts. I couldn’t squat. I couldn’t even do barbell rows (well, except maybe if the E-Z bar happened to be free). There was nowhere I could do pull-ups, and I didn’t care. I didn’t know any better. I was surrounded by weak bros who were only there to get some bicep pump and leave.
I left that gym a few months later and, oh boy, was I in for a surprise.
Different Gyms, New Environments, Incredible Progress
In the following years, I went to a few other gyms. Each of them was bigger, and each had the essential equipment I love so much today. Plus, now benching 90 kilos was, at best, an early intermediate feat.
Doing movements like pull-ups, barbell rows, barbell presses, and squats was the norm.
I was now surrounded by relatively stronger people and my puny 60-kilo smith machine squat shot up to a solid 100-kilo barbell squat in mere months. And it wasn’t like I wasn’t training hard at my first gym; I just saw weakness as normal.
At my first gym, squatting 60-kilos on the smith machine made me feel like Arnie himself. I was complacent. Then when I switched gyms and saw a dude squat 200 kilos for reps, I knew that my wobbly 50-kilo barbell squat was nothing short of hilarious.
But it Extends Far Beyond the Gym Environment
These are just some examples from my past that illustrate just how profound your environment can be. But it doesn’t only apply to lifting and the gym.
Our environment is a mighty force that drives our behaviors and habits much more than we think. When most people fail to make a lasting change, they often pin the blame to a lack of motivation, willpower or discipline.
They start eating better but are unable to stick with it for longer than three weeks. Same goes for exercising, reading, stretching, meditating, or any other positive behavior you can think of. They quickly reason that it’s the lack of willpower that’s tripping them up.
And while I’m all for willpower, how we shape our environment often dictates how we act and what habits we adopt.
If you are new to fitness or want to get more serious and start making better progress, you need to take a look at your environment design and ask yourself, “Is my current environment a positive influence on my fitness goals or not?”
For example, you might have read about the importance of getting your 8 hours of sleep every night. But does your environment support that? Do you keep the TV out of your bedroom? Is your mattress nice and soft? How about the pillow? Is your room dark, quiet, and cool?
You see, how we shape the environment of our bedrooms can have a significant effect on our sleep quality and quantity.
How about your work productivity? If you work from a computer with internet access, have you installed software that blocks certain websites from distracting you?
How about your nutrition? If you want to lose some weight and become healthier, are you supporting the goal with the environment? Is your kitchen filled with whole, nutritious foods? Or are there sweets, sodas, and other trigger foods everywhere, just waiting for you to notice them?
With a bit of thought, you can design an environment that seemingly automates good behaviors while making bad ones more difficult to do.
For example, I’ve taken the TV out of my bedroom and instead keep a book on my nightstand. This makes the act of watching TV before bed much more difficult and the act of reading for half an hour much easier.
I’ve also placed a yoga matt on the floor which I use for meditation and stretching every morning. Again, environment design.
To ensure I eat mostly whole foods, I keep my kitchen filled with fruits, veggies, grains, meats, dairy, and nuts. I rarely have any junk food around. This makes the act of eating healthier easy. If I were to leave a bag of cookies on the kitchen table, I would be much more likely to snack on them instead of an apple or a kiwi.
Improve Your Environment Design and Allow It to Improve Your Behaviors
Much like the subtle changes I made to my environment, you can also do the same and automate good behaviors.
I got the TV out of my bedroom and instead put a book on my nightstand, so I began reading more before bed. I’ve set a yoga matt in the middle of my room, so when I wake up each morning, I remember to meditate and then do some stretching. I keep my kitchen stocked with whole, nutritious foods, so It’s much easier for me to eat healthy meals and snacks.
The one common theme in all of these environmental changes is that I’ve made positive behaviors easy to follow through with. That way, I have no excuses not to do them.
Take a look at your daily actions and see where you might do better with some environmental tweaking. For example, if you want to improve your work productivity, but always feel the urge to check your email or Twitter, install software that blocks these sites during specific times of the day.
If you want to hit the gym after work but always give up when you get home to grab your bag, eliminate that possibility. Take your gym bag to work and drive there straight from work.
But there’s something important to keep in mind:
The common theme in my environment design is that I’ve replaced triggers for bad behaviors with triggers for good ones. Such as how I strive to keep my kitchen filled with healthy food and little to no junk food.
If you want to design a better environment, you should aim to replace rather than eliminate. Don’t just remove junk food from your kitchen, replace it with a healthy alternative. Don’t just get the TV out of your room, replace it with a book or a journal. Focus on what you get to do, rather than on what you shouldn’t do.
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