Habits, Willpower, and Regulating Our Environment

Jed Applerouth, PhD
October 13, 2020
min read
Graphic of a notepad and pencil.

Our behaviors and mental states are influenced, even largely driven, by our environments. My colleague and friend Gary Glass, a clinical psychologist working for Emory University, asks that when evaluating the well-being of a student, we consider the “water,” not just the “fish,” for individual behaviors cannot be meaningfully evaluated outside of the environment in which an individual operates.

Twenty-five years ago, I had a conversation with another mental health practitioner from Emory, one of the heads of psychiatry, Dr. Zachary Stowe, who was discussing mental health outcomes for his clinical patients. Dr. Stowe mentioned that there are three pillars to health and well-being: 1) internal factors, i.e. genetics and neurochemistry; 2) individual behaviors; and 3) the environment. I was always struck that we can influence 2/3 of the key variables, that we have much more agency than we frequently claim. Pharmacological interventions were certainly part of Dr. Stowe’s protocol, but he encouraged his patients to examine their environments: are they conducive to healing or dis-ease? Are the people in your orbit healthy or harmful? Are you socially connected or isolated? Are you in darkness or getting ample sunshine and time outside? Are you exercising regularly and eating properly? Our environments and our behaviors can shape our inner states.

Water Jugs, Candy Corns, and Stationary Bikes

In my own life I’ve been thinking a great deal about habits, routines, willpower, reinforcement and learning. My little daughter Juliette is now 6-months old, and she’s experiencing an explosion of learning. I cannot help to think about all those brain regions lighting up, myelin sheaths enveloping newly linked neurons as they begin to fire and wire together. Every day something slightly new happens, her dexterity builds, she recognizes something, she finds a new sound. So much of our time is spent forming the habits that encourage this growth to occur: time on the tummy, moving on the floor, playing with objects, listening to stories, dancing in the kitchen. I think about how we are structuring her environment, keeping things consistent and nurturing to give her the best chance to develop.

And I’ve been thinking about my own environment, and how I’ve structured it. As I type this article, I’m staring at the monitor, and off to the periphery of my visual field there’s a small yellow sticky note with the words “drink water every hour” written upon it- a gentle prod to remind me of a behavior I’d like to achieve. Over the years, though, I’ve learned to ignore that sticky note. Now, I almost never notice it. While the sticky note failed, what has actually changed my behavior are the gallon jug of water and drinking glass currently sitting on my desk. Every night I refill the jug and bring it to my desk in the morning; it provides a visual/behavioral cue that is much more powerful than the yellow sticky. And it’s so easy. It’s right there. That matters.

Just as the instantly accessible drinking water has led to greater hydration, having an exercise bike 11 steps from my desk has dramatically changed the frequency of my cardio workouts. Years ago my doctor advised I work in three good cardiovascular workouts per week, but I was inconsistent with my follow-through. All of this changed when my wife purchased an exercise bike for the house. Now I’m much more consistent with my cardio, and I keep track of my workouts on a paper calendar in the kitchen. The calendar provides visual feedback on my progress, and I don’t have to go more than 11 steps to hop on the bike and knock out a fast workout.

These examples speak to the power of environmental design. If we change our environments, we shift our behaviors. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, writes about how to make our good behaviors the path of least resistance through regulating and designing our environments.

Rules help when environments are outside your control

Although environmental design is the first line of attack, sometimes you have to change your behavior without physically changing the environment. Ten days ago my wife returned from a shopping trip to Publix with the usual groceries and a big ole’ bag of candy corn and other confectionery delights. “Candy corn, okay, those will go into the “Box O’ Joy” we keep at the top of the pantry where all the sugary treats live, out of sight, and mostly out of mind.” But no. This time the candy corn ended up in a bowl on our dining room table that I pass every time I go to or from the kitchen. Knowing my sweet-tooth tendencies, I never, ever leave candy out in my direct line of sight, for that sets up the resource-intensive inner battle between impulsivity and inhibition, which I tend to lose. It’s really not a fair fight.

I strongly prefer keeping sweet things out of sight, but holiday-themed candy bowls make my wife happy. As a participant in a happy marriage characterized by give and take, it’s up to me to manage myself and find a way to co-exist with the candy bowl. Because I cannot environmentally design this one away, I’ve adopted a cognitive reframe. Rather than attempting to flex my willpower which waxes and wanes throughout the course of the day, I’ve adopted a hard-fast rule: “I do not eat from the candy bowl.” And this is a rule. Like “I brush my teeth at night.” That’s also a rule. Brushing my teeth is not contingent upon my feelings or upon willpower; it’s just what I do. Rules are helpful. They help build good habits. And the candy-bowl and I are now copacetic: when I walk past its colorful confections, I don’t weigh the pros and cons or bother with any inner mental calculus whether I’ve earned a dip into the candy bowl. I walk on by, every time, no longer seeing the candy as food. It’s merely a table decoration. That’s the power of the cognitive reframe!

Self-regulation, habits and academic success

Exercise bikes, water jugs, and candy corn. What, if anything, do these have to do with academic success? Quite a lot, actually. The ability to self-regulate one’s behavior and environment is the cornerstone of academic success and success in most arenas of life. When students are struggling academically, one of the primary interventions is to examine the physical state of their learning environment. Is their study spot well-organized or mildly chaotic? Is it a struggle to find assignments, or are assignments consistently in the same location? If you have to use scarce cognitive resources to find an assignment, you are already behind the curve. Are students engaging with their cell phones during homework or study time, or are they creating a clear separation between work and play? An environment full of distractions will invariably degrade the quality of study and make everything take longer than it needs to. Environments matter. They shape behaviors and influence outcomes.

And rules can be helpful too. I don’t study with my phone turned on or in my visual field (the mere physical presence of the phone makes processing more shallow, with the distracting anticipatory effects of a potential text/snap/message). I do take on more cognitively demanding assignments first, while I’m fresh, rather than saving them for when I’m fatigued. I do use my planner and break up hard assignments/study periods over multiple days rather than cram them into one session. Having rules makes decision-making easier, and less resource-intensive. Save your brainpower and attention for the work itself.

If you want more tips on structuring your environment and managing academic challenges, look for two of my upcoming webinars: a discussion with Executive Functioning Expert, Seth Perler, and Five Executive Functioning Strategies for students.

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