24. 4. 2019

How to Re-design Your Environment to Not Suck

It’s sunny Wednesday afternoon, and you have an appointment
about your dissertation idea with a professor of yours at her office. You live
near the uni; you just come through a park to get there. As you are going the
birds are singing and you can feel all the spring-wibe inside your bones.
Suddenly, you notice a 130 kg guy sitting on the bench. You start wondering how
lazy he has to be when he looks like that. While you are wondering about the
guy, you spot a lady who has set off for a jog but seems like a chicken with a
broken leg who tries to escape the butcher’s knife. You fully breathe spring
air and think about how unfair it is that some people are so ridiculously
untalented for sports. You come to the uni. You knock at your professor’s door
and step in. You start to introduce all your ideas to her, but she is writing
some email and barely listening. Whenever you expect some reaction from her and
stop talking, she tells you: “Hmm interesting– go ahead.” In the end, when she
finally turns over to you, she asks: “What can I do for you?” It is obvious
that she hadn’t listened to you at all. You summarize it in a nutshell once
more. She tells you it is “promising”, and you should make it clearer and come
for another consultation in a week. You smile politely at her and thanks while
you are thinking sth like: “OMG you crazy b*tch, how could you be so bossy to
me, if you wouldn’t be so high and powerful, maybe I could also take sth out of
this sess.”

Why the hell have I just read this badly
written story? you may ask. Actually, there are two reasons: 1) I am a bad
writer (for now) and 2) It illustrates a basic fact: We love to judge. Judging
others, their intentions, characters, and lives is our second nature.
Unfortunately, we are terrible and biased judges. There is so-called
Fundamental attributional error which says that in contrast to the
interpretation of our behaviour, we tend to emphasize the other people’s
internal characteristics, rather than external factors, when trying to explain
their behaviour.  Or as the Heath
brothers (2010) put it in their book Switch: “What looks like a problem of
people is usually rather a situational problem.”

Through these lenses, you should think about the possibility that the 130 kg guy in the park maybe works in fast-food 12/6 to take care of his family. It is also possible that the running-women has new shoes which are US size instead of UK size as she painfully realizes. Professor of yours may be dismissive[ but maybe just has table oriented to the wall instead of the door so people who come are not even in their field of vision in the first place.

Environment influences us a lot.  Many internalized convictions we hold about
ourselves such as we are: procrastinators, lazy, or unable to concentrate, may
have its roots in the environment instead of ourselves, and by changing it, we
can fundamentally challenge those beliefs. 

But how do we know that the environment matters?

You planned to watch just one episode of TV series while
eating your dinner. But you finished the food and somehow stayed and watched
three more. Does it ring a bell? You may be surprised, but this phenomenon has
even its scientific name. It’s yeah,
whatever heuristic
. That’s why there are no advertisements when one episode
finishes and the second starts straightaway. We tend to keep a status quo
whatever it is (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009). We have bad bank accounts,
subscribe to crappy newsletters, keep watching brain-washing TV series, or even
live with people we don’t like. But yeah, whatever we are used to it/it should
be done like that/there are still even worse options etc. No matter how you try
to rationalize it, the core stays the same.

In general, many people don’t like giving to random
others for free. Even if they are already dead. We speak about organ donations.
Nevertheless, some nationalities are much “generous” than others. How come? According to 2003
stats, there are 17.17% donors in the United Kingdom and 12% in Germany. In
contrast, in France, it’s 99,91% and in Austria 99.98% (Johnson &
Goldstein, 2003). How come? Might it be because of the Germans working too busy
and the English discussing the weather by the cup of tea? Even though it would
make sense, science tells us differently. In their experiment, Johnson and
Goldstein (2003) asked people through a questionnaire if they would like to
become organ donors. Some people have default option set as being a donor; some
as not, and some haven’t set any. About 80% of people with positive default
option or no option choose to be donors, whereas in a group with the default
option of not being a donor only 42% decided otherwise. People were highly
affected by the default option and as you may suspect, in 2003 the UK and DE
used the opt-in version of donations forms whereas FR and AU had the opt-out
ones. However, the decision about organ donations is kind of abstract, and
don’t have an impact on our daily life. Let’s have a look at another domain
where we have plenty of experiences: food.

In one study, participants were supposed to eat a bowl of
tomato soup from bowls. Half of the participants had a standard bowl. Another
half had one that was refilled through concealed tubing that ran through the
table and into the bottom of the bowl. People who ate from this “bottomless”
bowls consumed 70% more soup compared to another group. Nevertheless, they
estimated that they had eaten only 4.8 calories more (Wansink, Painter, &
North, 2005). In another study, a group of participants was given a stale,
14-day-old popcorn. The first group was given bigger (240g) popcorn buckets and
the second group was given smaller (120g) buckets. Even though the stale
popcorn was similarly disgusting for all participants, those with bigger bucket
ate 34% more of it. When they were presented with the fact that they were part
of the group with a bigger bucket in which people consumed on average 20%-50%
more and were asked how was that possible: 79% answered they were hungry, 12%
said they didn’t eat more, and 2% admitted that they were influenced by bucket
size (Wansink & Kim, 2005).

As you can see, we are not only super affectable by
environmental cues (such as “preclicked option,” bowl, or bucket size), but we
also have hard times to realize so.

Nevertheless, once you are aware of this, you can use it to your
great benefit. For example, if you want to lose weight, try to get smaller
plates and buy smaller packs of food you like (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009). It
is tough to resist the temptation when you have some junk food on your table.
But as Nicholas Taleb puts it: “I always make sure there is no chocolate in my
drawer.” You can take this further and put, instead of chocolate, healthy food
on your table. I’ve defined a specific law for this purpose: “Whatever you put
on your table will be eaten before the evening.” Just make sure there are nuts
instead of MaMs, and you will be fine.

Make the bad option harder

Imagine you would get an electric discharge every time you
open a messenger in your time intended for work. What would probably happen? (…next to having a couple of scarces)

I probably procrastinate less than most people do. I eat less
sugar than most people do. How come? Because I am lazy. To be honest, I am
super lazy. That’s my great advantage. Yes, I would love to get some cookies
right now, but I am too lazy to get up and go and buy them. Yes, I would like
to check an email but because I am logged out is so demanding to log-in that it
discourages me from doing it at all. Do you see? The options on how to re-design
your environment are endless. I will share with you ten things which made the
biggest difference for me, but I want to encourage you to think far above those
suggestions. You have to make hundreds of decisions on a daily basis and making
the worse options harder may be the ultimate trick to accomplish whatever you

Ten tips from my garden of magic

1. Delete all social-site apps from your mobile phone. I know they are cool. I know they are fun to use. I know, when we don’t use them a great FOMO grows in our heads. But think about it: how much value have you gained with all those Instagram scrolling hours last week? And how much of this value would you gain anyway if you had checked it twice from your computer? note: If you want to lessen the time you spend on social sites as well on your computer, start to log out. Yeah, it sucks. But keep on mind that that’s your goal!

2. Delete email app from your phone. I know. Your emails are important. You are important. But how many emails in your life were so urgent that something terrible would have happened if you had responded to them a couple of hours later from your PC? Above that, in time of need, you can open email through your mobile web browser anyway.

3. Check closely what kind of shortcuts do you have on your toolbar. I have deleted all email, and social sites related – helped me to use my phone much less often.

4. Set a browser home page to plain/Google instead of some news related site as you will be prone to get stuck there.

5. Carry book/kindle/audiobook/podcasts whenever you go. You want to have some way to fight with the boredom, which will rise from applying the suggestions above.

6. Get rid of your television. I am serious. There is so much great, advertisement free content on the internet that watching a crappy TV shows just because yeah, whatever heuristic isn’t probably the thing you want to do… 

7. If you are preparing healthy food like a salad, buy a huge bowl and always make a lot of it. The salad is almost cost-less, and even if you don’t finish it, you can easily eat about 30% more of it (as we have seen before on the study with popcorn), just by this!

8. If you have problems with waking up, put your phone in a place where you aren’t able to snooze it from your bed, but you have to stand up. Then you can also create some other incentives which should help you not to get back into bad such as making a coffee or going into the shower.

9. Shop just once a week/online – it will save you time. We also tend to underestimate our future self in terms of tastes and will. You may tell yourself that one chocolate, four salads, tomatoes, and almonds are precisely the things you need. Even if you have then craving for beer, ice-cream, or fries you will make it somehow through… it will be still painful than getting up and going to the shop…  

10. If you spend a lot of time working on your computer and struggle with drinking routine – buy a bottle or carafe and keep it on your table. You can use this trick also with nuts. Let me remind you the law mentioned before: “Whatever you put on your table will be eaten before the evening.”

We are busy. I believe we are even busy enough to forget things we want to avoid doing. But we have to make some adjustments. To be honest, I have no idea what’s your goals or what’s good for you. I share those ten tips based on my own goals and things I struggle with. The point of this article isn’t that you have to be super efficient, eat healthy food, drink water, or don’t watch the TV. The point is that our environment matters. And usually, matters much more than we realise.

Best of luck and let me know in comments or through mail what’s
your opinion on shaping once environment.   

Great books about shaping the environment:


Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. How to change things when change is hard. USA: Random House, Inc.

Johnson, E. J., & Goldstein, D. (2003). Do Defaults Save Lives? Science, 302(5649), 1338–1339.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. Penguin Books.

B., & Kim, J. (2005). Bad popcorn in big buckets: portion size can
influence intake as much as taste. Journal of Nutrition Education and
, 37(5), 242–245. Retrieved from

B., Painter, J. E., & North, J. (2005). Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues
of Portion Size May Influence Intake **. Obesity Research, 13(1),


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