When we find ourselves doing the things we don't want to do and not doing the things we want to do, we're quick to blame ourselves: If only I had more willpower! If only I felt more motivated! If only I wasn't so lazy and distracted!
What if achieving your goals and sticking to habits isn't so much about how much willpower you have, though, and instead about the smart strategies you use? Good news—many researchers agree that it is!
The behavior techniques that help us stick with good habits, kick bad ones, and achieve our goals have been heavily studied. One technique that rises to the top is changing our environmental cues. Today we're going to dive into why environmental cues are so powerful in habit formation and how you can implement them in your goal setting today!
What is a habit cue?
In habit formation, a cue is the hook that initiates a habit. It triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It's a bit of information that predicts a reward—and a reward, whether big or small, is the end goal of all habits.
As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, a cue (stage one) is about noticing a reward. A craving (stage two) is about wanting the reward. A response (stage three) is about obtaining the reward. If any of the stages are insufficient, the behavior will not become a habit. Put another way, a cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and ultimately becomes associated with the cue. This neurological feedback cycle is known as the habit loop.
What is an environmental cue?
Cues can come to our senses in many forms, but visual cues are some of the most powerful. An environmental cue is anything in the spaces you inhabit—your bedroom, your kitchen, your office at work, even your digital environment—that sparks a habitual behavior.
Since humans are so dependent on vision, a small change in what you see can lead to a big change in what you do. This is why changing environmental cues is so powerful in habit formation and achieving goals.
How can I use environmental cues to my advantage?
Environment is the backdrop that shapes behavior—often without you noticing. By more purposefully shaping your environment, you can help it work with you instead of against you, to increase desired behaviors and reduce unwanted ones.
What does this look like?
- It looks like intentionally adding cues that lead to positive behaviors.
- It looks like making cues that lead to positive behaviors more obvious.
- It looks like hiding or making more subtle cues that lead to negative behaviors (this makes them easier to ignore!).
By sprinkling triggers throughout your surroundings, you increase the odds that you’ll think about your goals throughout the day. "Make sure the best choice is the most obvious one," writes James Clear. "Making a better decision is easy and natural when the cues for good habits are right in front of you."
Most people accept the status quo of their spaces, even if they created them themselves. But a few simple tweaks in your spaces can drastically change the trajectory of your goals!
What are examples of changing environmental cues?
Once you start brainstorming and experimenting with changing environmental cues, you'll notice it's slightly addicting, like a game or puzzle—it's amazing the difference small changes can make! Here are a few examples to get your wheels turning.
Adding or making more obvious cues that lead to positive behaviors:
- Finding a place in your home where you can have your yoga mat always rolled out
- Laying your sneakers and workout clothes next to your bed so they’re the first thing you see in the morning
- Placing a giant water bottle next to your laptop if you’re trying to drink more water
- Putting a container of cut veggies at eye level in your fridge so it’s the first thing you see when you open the door
- Leaving your smoothie supplies and protein powder in a basket on your counter instead of having to gather them from all around your kitchen
- Storing your light weights next to the tub so you can get in a few reps while your children bathe
- Hanging your guitar on the wall instead of storing it in the closet if you'd like to play more
Hiding, removing, or making more subtle cues that lead to negative behaviors:
- Moving your phone charger to the bathroom so you’re less likely to scroll at night and can get good sleep
- Cleaning out your pantry and throwing away junk food
- Moving your TV to another room in your house with less-comfy chairs
- Deleting Instagram off your phone when you want to have a social-media-free weekend
What would you add? What's worked for you?
What about digital spaces?
We can also think about digital spaces as physical environments that we can reshape to our advantage—ones that we can restructure, add objects to, and reduce cues in. Reshaping digital cues is helpful for phone or screen time goals, yes, but also for other types of goals!
For example, you might consider:
- Deleting or adding apps
- Blocking certain websites
- Disabling or enabling notifications
- Setting patterns for Do Not Disturb or Downtime
- Using reminders
- Adding, removing, or rearranging apps on your home screen
- Changing your phone background
- Putting your phone in a certain place at a certain time (to charge, during the workday, during the evening, etc.)
- Disabling Touch ID or putting your phone on grayscale
With a little creativity and a posture of experimentation, changing your environmental cues can be a powerful (and fun!) aspect of goal setting and habit formation. We can't wait to hear your tiny wins—please share below!