Design your Environment to Improve your Habits without Dependent on your Discipline

” There is only one way to radically change your behavior: radically changing your environment ” – Dr. BJ Fogg

In the first part we introduced the analogy of the rider and the elephant. The rider represents our rational brain, located in the prefrontal cortex. The elephant is our ancestral, impulsive and emotional brain.

To achieve your goals, you must bring clarity to the rider and calm the elephant .

Today we focus on the third component of human behavior: the road . The elephant’s instincts will be more controllable if the path leads you to good destinations.

For millennia, we know that context shapes our behavior . The Odyssey of Homer presents a good example, when Ulysses is tied to the mast of his ship so as not to succumb to the sensual siren songs. He is aware of his weakness, and chooses to alter the environment so as not to depend on his willpower .

Today we will see how the environment represents an invisible force that directs our decisions, and you will learn to design your environment to align it with your objectives.


Our brain is governed by the law of minimum effort . In a wild environment, spending energy was dangerous, and laziness was a good survival strategy.

The decision action itself requires effort, making our brain often follow the default option .

For example, governments allow their citizens to indicate if they want to be organ donors through a simple form. But the design of this form has a big impact on the result. There are two ways to propose the election:

The countries that use the second option achieve much higher donation rates than the countries that use the first, where the box to donate must be explicitly marked ( detail , detail , detail ).

That is to say, to a large extent we do not “decide” to be donors or not, we simply choose the decision that requires less effort: not to mark anything. Laziness defeats ethics . Many other studies indicate that modifying the default options could make people save more or make better decisions in general.

In the book Nudge , the Nobel laureate in Economics Richard Thaler calls this approach libertarian paternalism . The freedom of choice of the population is not limited, but the road leading to the best decision is paved.

Applied to the world of health, a recent meta-analysis evaluated the effectiveness of different strategies when improving our dietary choices. He classified them into three types:

Cognition . Educate the rider, adding for example additional information on the nutrition label .

Affective / Emotional . They appeal to the elephant, trying to make healthy products more appealing and attractive. They do not offer new information but they try to create an emotion .

Behavior . They do not offer information or try to appeal to emotion. They simply alter the environment to try to modify the behavior.

The result was enlightening. The least effective is to provide more information. Going to the elephant works a little better, but the results are still mediocre. The most effective strategies are those that modify the environment , hindering access to unhealthy products or reducing the size of the portions by default.

Unfortunately, the modern environment is designed to exploit our ancestral cabling, making us overeat  ( review ). The industry sells us pleasure and comfort, hiding that in the long term the result will be weakness and illness ( detail ).

The goal is to use this knowledge to reverse the process. Instead of being victims of our environment we become their architects , designing a new environment where doing the right thing requires less effort.


Of all the elements that surround us, our group is perhaps the one that most affects us . We see discipline as an individual battle, but it is very influenced by society. In fact we do not choose our first habits, we simply imitate them. Unconsciously we become what surrounds us .

We feel the need to fit in and be respected for the rest, and easily give in to social pressure. When in doubt about how to act, we observe the behavior of others.

Multiple studies indicate that to modify the general behavior it is more effective to use social pressure than to appeal to the moral sense .

For example,  this study in several hotels compared two different messages to try to save water:

“Help us save the environment by reusing towels.”

“75% of our guests reuse their towels.”

The second message was much more effective. That is to say, it seems more important to follow our group than to save our planet .

The habits spread like germs , jumping from one person to the next. If the people in your group get fat, your chances of gaining weight also rise. In a way, obesity is contagious  ( study ,  study ,  study ).

Unfortunately, we live in a society where bad habits are socially accepted . No one looks at you weird for breakfast croissants, being sedentary and drinking alcohol every day.

Luckily, they do not infect only the bad habits, also the good ones . The most effective way to improve your habits is by surrounding yourself with a group whose expected behaviors are your desired behaviors.

It is not about looking badly at others or exacerbating our tribal thinking , but it is important to determine what your goals are and spend more time with the people who will help you achieve them . If you have a group left to train frequently or go up the mountain at the weekend, you will adopt those habits more easily.


By designing an environment that suits you, you will need less discipline, and you can devote your energy to more productive things.

There are two types of objectives:

Develop a good habit.

Eliminate a bad habit.

In the first case we must modify our environment to facilitate the new behavior, reducing the necessary steps to carry it out and making it more attractive. Instead of trying to find more motivation, you simply reduce friction.

In the second case we must do just the opposite, increasing the effort associated with the old habit. As a result, you will need less self-control to avoid temptation.

In both cases we must understand that many habits, both good and bad, are triggered by visual elements. A good architect knows that small changes in what we see has a great impact on what we do. For example, if you hide the trigger you reduce the desire.

Let’s see some examples.

I summarize below some ideas to reinforce two good habits: eat more vegetables / fruit , and train more.


Buy bags of washed and cut vegetables. If you get tired home for the week and you have to wash and cut the spinach, you probably will not. If you only have to serve yourself from a bag, your elephant will offer less resistance.

Buy vegetables that are already grated , such as carrots or cabbage, or frozen . Another great idea is the  spiralizer , ideal for making zucchini or carrot pasta. Not only streamlines the process but also adds novelty to your dishes, another important factor when it comes to improving our habits. We have several recipes in De Cero a Ceto .

The weekend prepares cream and store it in glass containers . For the week you should only serve and heat ( example of spinach cream ).

Place a fruit bowl in a visible area , and always have some fruit that does not require cutting or washing, such as bananas. Remember: what we see conditions what we do.

If you get hungry in the office at midmorning and you usually forget to bring something to snack on, put a small fruit bowl on the door or next to the keys. Or a bag of nuts .

On days when you have more time, wash and cut the fruit for the next day. Store it in transparent containers  to make it more visible.

Wash and freeze red fruits to add to yogurt or smoothies , such as strawberries, blueberries or raspberries. Or even easier: buy them already washed and frozen .


Place sportswear in a visible area , for example in a chair in your room.

If you want to go to the gym early, prepare the backpack with everything you need the night before , and leave it next to the entrance.

Learn to train at home . If you have to drive to the gym daily, you’ll probably end up leaving.

Place a pull-up bar on a door in your house . Each time you pass below, do a dominate or hang  30 seconds.

Place a kettlebell next to your desk . In each small break do 5 repetitions of an exercise. You can alternate swings, press, Turkish uprising, clean … By the end of the day you will have done without realizing a full body workout.

Looking for a partner . Meet someone to go to the gym or park. As we saw earlier, if you meet with people who train frequently, you will acquire their habits.


Within the bad habits, I detail ideas to eat less ultraprocessed and watch less television , but you can apply the same concepts to limit any behavior.


Buy more in markets and less in supermarkets . In traditional markets there are less ultraprocessed ones. When you do not see them, they will tempt you less.

When shopping at the supermarket, go directly to the fresh produce areas . Avoid the corridors of cereal and cookies.

If the previous strategies have not worked and some ultraprocessed one ends up straining in your house, keep it in an inaccessible place , for example in a shelf where you only arrive with a chair.

If you are going to fall into temptation, serve the portion on a plate . Do not eat from the bag or the original container. By eating directly from the container it is more difficult to control the quantity. If there is no visual feedback you will end up eating too much.

If you are going to store something unhealthy in the fridge, wrap it in aluminum foil to make it less visible. And remember that the remains of healthy food are wrapped in transparent containers.

Use smaller plates when eating undesirable foods. In this way you will tend to serve yourself less ( study).

Use narrow, long glasses for soft drinks . The vertical lines seem longer than the horizontal ones, so when using narrow and tall glasses you will tend to drink less ( detail ).


Hide the remote control . If you do not see it, you will be less tempted to turn on the television.

When you finish watching TV, unplug it . With this simple gesture you generate a little extra effort to turn it on later. If you want to be more radical, remove the batteries from the remote and store them in a separate drawer.

Where before you had the remote control, now place a book you want to read ( for example this  :)). Remember that what we see conditions what we do.

Disables the option to automatically show the next episode on Netflix ( here they explain how ). When Netflix introduced the Post-Play functionality I was looking for precisely manipulating your default option, and it was a great success. Before, to see the next episode you had to press a button. Now, they force you to press a button to stop seeing it. The difference is subtle, but as we saw earlier, we often fall into the default option, and this small change has generated a significant increase in the continuous episodes that people see. It is part of the so-called Netflix Effect ( detail ).

If your problem is social networks, read an earlier article where I give some ideas to reduce their attraction.


We believe that we make rational decisions, but our behavior is influenced by many variables of which we are not even aware, and our environment is one of the main ones. The perception of control is a mere illusion .

But if you understand how the environment conditions us unconsciously, you can modify it to become your ally. With a little practice, you will become the architect of your destiny .

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