Change Habits By Altering Your Environment

crispydoc Uncategorized 4 Comments

Jerome Groopman, a Harvard Professor of Medicine, recently wrote in his capacity as staff writer for the New Yorker about using science to change habits. The piece provided insights and support from the literature about why certain strategies (from financial to healthy living) work while others fail.

One fascinating aspect was a new understanding of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment. It turns out there were several variations:

  • Stick a kid in front of a marshmallow and time how long they could resist eating it.
  • Stick a kid in front of a marshmallow and if they could resist eating it for ten minutes reward them with 2 marshmallows to eat.
  • Stick a kid in a room, inform them a marshmallow is hidden on the other side of a panel, and time how long they could resist asking to eat it.

The widely disseminated conclusions of follow up studies on kids who were subjects in the experiment showed a strong correlation with ability to delay gratification in the study and eventual educational attainment, SAT scores, and future Body Mass Index among other indicators.

The facet that Groopman highlighted in his article was that all kids did better resisting temptation if their marshmallow was hidden from view. Out of sight truly was out of mind.

This seems entirely consistent with the pay yourself first and automatic millionaire concepts of making retirement contributions occur before income becomes a spendable sum in your checking account.

Your salary is automatically deposited in your 401k, and your student loan and mortgage payments are automated, depriving you of the opportunity to spend funds earmarked for those specific financial purposes.

If you never see the money, like the invisible marshmallow, you can resist temptation more successfully.

The article similarly debunked the idea that education is sufficient to create change. Citing public health initiatives intended to increase daily servings of fruits and vegetables, improved information failed to translate into changed eating habits.

Getting out the word will not get the job done.

What, then, will actually get the job done? Turns out we need to tweak our environment to remove temptation.

The college students who study more effectively are not those who have innate will power superior to their peers. They are the students who leave the dorm/TV/neighbor's game of hallway beer pong and instead decide to study at the law library.

The folks who eat healthier aren't bizarre carrot lovers. They are the folks that rid their home freezers of ice cream and get rid of the flaming hot Cheetos in their pantry.

Making bad habits inconvenient is what makes them recede. Conversely, reducing the friction in execution improves the odds of adopting good habits.

I was unaware of this rationale when I undertook certain changes in middle age that validate the concept. For the better part of a year, I've been riding a road bike 2-3 times a week as part of a virtuous cycle (see what I did there!).

I awaken at dawn, get out before the morning commute, and I'm back in time to enjoy breakfast with my kids before they take off for school. Because my ride takes ~45 minutes, it's an efficient workout after which I can attend to the day's remaining activities.

On days that I don't ride, I'll either do situps and pushups, lift with a used weight set bought off craigslist, or (less often) hike with a friend. All but the final activity take ~45 minutes and require little energy.

By scheduling exercise in the morning, I not only make it routine; I do the hard thing first, then ride the victory of that early win to retain productivity momentum for the rest of the day.

My digital dump is the latest attempt to change distracting habit by altering my environment. It's not surprising that the best way to stop checking facebook was to shut down my facebook account.

You want an effective New Year's Resolution? Instead of promises you are unlikely to keep, alter your environment so that it supports your doing the right thing.

Comments 4

  1. If you time travel back to inorganic chemistry there was an equation called the Gibbs free energy equation dG = dH – TdS and whether a reaction would go was mostly dependent on the temp in absolute degrees. For a reaction to go, an energy of activation needed to occur. If the reaction was exothermic the added energy of activation released a net amount of energy in excess of what was provided. The energy of activation also provided a barrier form the opposite reaction. If A + B activation energy -> AB + heat you needed activation energy + heat before you could go backward from AB once it formed.

    In your example timing (getting up a little early) choice and location of activity all go to reducing the activation energy. The payoff (heat) is the feeling of accomplishment when the exercise is done. You also get a payoff in how your body feels while exercising.

    A hidden marshmallow is merely an experiment with an increased activation energy. An increased reward is a situation of competing activation energies, one to eat one to wait, and a single marshmallow is a normal control level of activation energy. Becoming wealthy is the same, it’s a process of activation energy elimination which is a byproduct of a right sized lifestyle overlaid on a good economy. If you live a right sized life you can’t help but succeed.

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      Fascinating perspective.

      I’d always been under the impression that investing wisely requires input of significant up front activation energy in the form of education and willingness to take informed risk through investing, reducing fees, avoiding scoundrels and identifying catalysts for wealth.

      Your take is complementary, yet I’d never considered it – starting a lifestyle based on parsimony requires an arguably lower initial activation energy yet is sufficient to forgive (or at least largely offset) rookie mistakes like trusting scoundrels, paying high fees, and delaying financial literacy.

      Leading with your approach seems wise, and indeed sets one down a path where success is more inevitable than accidental.

      Thanks for the insight.


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