Most of us have the freedom to make a wide range of choices whenever we please. But we often make decisions based on the environment where we find ourselves. For example, if I wanted to, I could be drinking a soda as I write this article. However, I am sitting at my desk drinking a glass of water. I have the option to go out to the store and buy a bottle of my favorite drink. But it is a lot easier to go with the alternative at hand — getting myself a glass of water.
This is a simple example, but we experience situations like this regularly. Many of our decisions are shaped by the options that surround us:
- If you set up your living room so sofas and chairs face the television, watching television is likely to be the default decision.
- If you sleep with your phone next to your bed, checking your e-mail and social media when you wake up is likely to be the default decision.
- If the only drink choice in your fridge is a bottle of Coke, drinking that when you’re thirsty is likely to be the default decision.
- If you place floss in a visible location (next to the toothpaste), flossing is more likely to be the default decision.
- If you keep a dumbbell next to your desk at work, pumping out some quick bicep curls is more likely to be the default decision.
The impact environmental defaults have on our decision-making is referred to as “choice architecture”. This impact is important when we want to achieve our goals. Your long-term goals are affected by the short-term influences of your surroundings. It is hard to stick with a positive habit while living in a negative environment.
Strategies for better Choice Architecture
Visual cues: This is a strategy commonly used in supermarkets. People are more likely to purchase items that are placed at eye level, making them easier to see. Outside the supermarket, you can use visual cues like the “Seinfeld strategy” or the “Paper Clip Strategy” to create an environment that visually nudges your actions in the right direction.
Opt-in versus opt-out: Multiple European countries — like my home country, the Netherlands — have passed new organ-donor laws. A lot of people want to donate organs, but never made the effort to register. And the waiting lists for organs are long. So governments changed the policy from opt-in to opt-out, greatly increasing the number of organ donors.
You can set up something similar in your personal life. If your goal is to do more yoga, enroll for upcoming classes now, when you feel motivated. When the class rolls around, you must justify opting out rather than motivating yourself to opt in. Chances are, you’ll go to more classes this way. While you might head to the class with some hesitation, you’ll feel good about joining afterward.
Simplicity: When you’re constantly surrounded by noise, it is hard to focus on a sound. If your kitchen is filled with junk food, it’s difficult to eat healthy. When you do multiple tasks at once, it’s hard to complete the one task that pertains to your goal. When you’re struggling to get something done, you have to eliminate everything that creates noise.
Automate good decisions: When possible, design an environment that practically makes the good decisions for you. For example, if you decide you want to lose weight by eating smaller portions, buy smaller plates. A study at Cornell University showed that people ate 22% less food when they switched from 12-inch to 10-inch dinner plates. Similarly, when you use software to block social media sites, you can overcome procrastination and keep your focus.
Get in a flow: Pet store PetSmart changed the process in their checkout. Right before making a payment, customers now saw a screen where they were asked if they want to donate to help save homeless animals. They raised over $40 million in one year.
This strategy can be applied on a personal level as well. You insert good habits in the existing flowof your normal behavior. For example, you are more likely to go to the gym if it is on the way home from work than if it’s a few minutes away, but in the opposite direction. If your goal is to learn an instrument, you can place it in the middle of your living room to enhance the chances of you picking it up.