Most people think that to get in shape, they need strong willpower or they need to find their shining light of motivation.
Over the years, I've watched first hand as clients rebound after losing weight. Initially, the natural response was to blame the client. How could they give up everything they worked so hard to gain, I'd think to myself.
But as my coaching progressed, and the more I learnt about human psychology and behaviours, the more I understood that long-term change has little to do with willpower or motivation.
Your environment is by far the most important determinant of whether you will succeed long-term, or not.
You see, all the clients I mentioned above had one thing in common - none of them actually changed their environment or habits. They kept buying the ice creams and putting them in the freezer. They kept the cookies in a cookie jar on the counter. While they were highly motivated, they relied on willpower to say no to these treats. But when that motivation slipped, they were in an environment where they could easily access these 'bad' foods.
They never changed their environment.
To explore this point further, let me tell you about a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Anne Thorndike and her colleagues conducted a six-month study that secretly took place in the hospital cafeteria and helped thousands of people develop healthy eating habits without changing their willpower or motivation in the slightest way.
Thorndike and her team utilized a concept known as “choice architecture.” Choice architecture is just a fancy word for changing the way the food and drinks are displayed, but, as it turns out, it makes a big difference.
The researchers started by changing the choice architecture of the drinks in the cafeteria. Originally, there were three main refrigerators, all of which were filled with soda. The researchers made sure that water was added to each of those units and also placed baskets of bottled water throughout the room.
The image below depicts what the room looked like before the changes (Figure A) and after the changes (Figure B). The dark boxes indicate areas where bottled water is available.
What happened? Over the next 3 months, the number of soda sales dropped by 11.4 percent. Meanwhile, bottled water sales increased by 25.8 percent. Similar adjustments and results were made with food options. Nobody said a word to the visitors who ate at the cafeteria. The researchers simply changed the environment and people naturally followed suit.
Again, nobody said a word to any of the subjects about what was going on, or that there was a study even being conducted. The fact that the environment had changed allowed the cafe visitors to naturally choose healthier options because they were simply more available.
Choice architecture is even more important when you're already stressed, tired, or distracted. If you're already worn-down, you’re probably not going to go through a lot of effort to cook a healthy dinner or fit in a workout. You’ll grab or do whatever is easiest.
So making sure there are healthy options within your environment is possibly the most important driving factor towards long-term success.
"Make healthy choices more convenient, and less healthy choices less convenient" is a mantra I use to get clients to understand that what you have available is what you're going to eat.
If you have Tim Tams in the cupboard, you're going to eat those Tim Tams. You're not going to let them go to waste.
The environment we shape will reflect the results we see.
Drew is a personal trainer and nutritionist and is the co-founder of Evexia Wellbeing. Drew specialises in long-term habit change, body composition training, and mindset.