The environment is powerful in shaping our behavior. According to author and psychologist John C. Norcross, Ph.D, in his book Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions, this is a key lesson from social psychology. (One example of this is this infamous prison experiment.)
Fortunately, we also have the power to shape our environment.
This ability becomes especially important when we’re trying to make positive changes in our lives, everything from quitting smoking to not drinking to getting more sleep to improving low self-esteem.
But, interestingly, even though it’s so helpful, according to Norcross’s research, the technique of using our environment is underused. “People can be so preoccupied with examining their inner thoughts and feelings that they neglect to keep their surroundings in sync with their goal.”
In Changeology, Norcross shares five key ways we can make the most of our environment to support our goals.
1. Remember environment extends beyond geography.
“Your environment is not defined simply by where you are; it’s also characterized by the people who surround you and the situation you’re in,” according to Norcross. He reminds readers that we can adjust our contact with people, places and things.
For instance, if you’re trying to quit smoking, what situations make this goal especially hard? If you’re trying to improve low self-esteem, which people are especially critical or supportive?
2. Identify the “detractors” and the “facilitators.”
Think of yourself as a detective, and notice “what detracts from and what facilitates your change.” For instance, problematic factors might include the time of day and your own feelings.
When you’re stressed out, you might reach for a drink. When you’ve had your morning cup of coffee, you might reach for a cigarette. When you get home from work, you might start to feel your self-esteem sinking.
3. Create a positive environment.
According to Norcross, “If you don’t see the appropriate environmental options around you, create the environment you need.” He quotes writer Orison Swett Marden: “A strong, successful man is not the victim of his environment. He creates favorable conditions.”
What kind of environment can you create to help you engage in positive changes? What things does your supportive environment include (or exclude)?
4. Add reminders to your environment.
Research has found that text messages help people quit smoking, and reminders help people who’ve stopped drinking stay on track, Norcross writes.
He also observed the power of reminders while consulting with a pharmaceutical company. The goal was to help patients take their medication. The medication was highly effective. But the regimen was complicated.
Norcross gave the patients a variety of reminders, including special pillboxes, watches with pre-programmed alarms and stickers for their calendars. These reminders led to a 90 percent compliance rate.
You might use the following reminders to foster your positive changes: Post-it notes on various mirrors; to-do lists on your desk and in your bag; and messages on your phone and computer.
5. Avoid problematic people and situations.
“Avoid high-risk situations and people that rekindle the problem,” according to Norcross. He gives the example of Andrew, who wanted to stop overspending and over-partying, which his environment made all too easy.
Here’s how Andrew changed his environment to support and sustain his goals: “He made the default behavior a quiet night at the movies with nondrinking friends; he had his employer put his paycheck into direct deposit so that he was not flooded with cash on Friday; and he scheduled chores, church, and breakfasts for Sunday morning instead of sleeping into the afternoon.”
Our environment plays a powerful role in shaping our behavior. Use that to your advantage when making positive changes in your life.
Learn more about Changeology at John Norcross’s website, which also offers additional resources to help you accomplish your goals.