Surfing through TED Talks on YouTube recently, I saw a piece of a talk about healthy eating. One simple idea caught my attention and stayed with me. The speaker was making the point that in order to make a lasting change in behavior, it is important to have one’s environment match one’s goals. So if you want to eat more healthfully and you look in your refrigerator and cupboards and see lots of unhealthy foods, then your food environment is not matching your goals and the change will be that much more difficult to make.

Stop and think

The concept is straightforward, even common sense. Yet we probably don’t think about it enough or implement it enough. Thinking about it means spelling out the two components of the idea. First, what are my goals exactly? It’s easy to go through life without giving this serious thought. It’s easy to get caught up with doing what is expected of us, or what is popular to do, without really choosing our own destination.

The second piece is taking a fresh look at our personal environment and noticing the impact it has on us and whether it is consistent with our goals or not. The stimuli we are exposed to affect us more than we think. Somehow, it’s easy for us to habituate to our environment and experience it as normal, even when it may be toxic. The frog in the pot of water doesn’t seem to realize that it’s getting too hot until it’s too late.

People, places and things

“People, places and things” is one of many catchy, yet profound, phrases made popular by Alcoholics Anonymous. “People, places and things” are the main components of our personal environment. These are the things we need to change if they do not match our goals. Hanging out with heavy drinkers, going to bars and social gathering where there is an abundance of alcohol and having a microbrewery in the basement is not consistent with a goal of not drinking alcohol. As many who are in recovery can tell you, making these changes can be a large undertaking.

Design your environment for success

Ultimately, we have the freedom to choose what we do, but the environment does play a part in our behavior. It either encourages or discourages certain choices. If you walk into a large gymnasium with 100 ping pong tables and everyone is playing ping pong, laughing and drinking water, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up doing the same. If you walk into a large buffet restaurant with 100 tables of people getting second helpings of unhealthy food, drinking soft drinks and quietly staring at the table cloth, there’s a good chance you might do some of the same even if it wasn’t your original plan.

Take charge and design your environment to maximize the chances of achieving your goals. To start, define your goal. Where do you want your life to go? What change are you wanting to make? Do you want to go to college, or find more meaning in your work? Do you want a lasting relationship, a life with more meaning, freedom from addiction? Then, assess your environment. Is it consistent with and encouraging of your goals? Are you spending time with the right people? Are your hours in front of the TV or on Facebook enhancing the quality of your life? Thinking of people, places and things, what specific changes do you need to make? Dig deep and muster the courage to make the necessary changes. Be willing to let go of people, places and things if they are destructive forces in your journey toward a healthier life. Consciously craft a new environment of people, places and things which will encourage and celebrate the life you want and deserve. Set the stage for the act you want to create.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of mconnors/ morguefile.com