Photo by Rebecca Campbell on Unsplash

When it comes to losing weight and changing ingrained behaviours, our environment is more of a factor than many people realise.

You see a lot of people think that creating better habits or changing your actions is mostly about willpower and motivation. What most people don’t understand is that better habits and behaviour change depend a lot on something called “the choice architecture of your environment”. 

You may be thinking that’s a little bit “deep” so I’d like to share with you a top line explanation of what choice architecture is because I think it is really useful in understanding how it can influence your habits and behaviour.

“Choice architecture” refers to the practice of influencing choice by changing the manner in which options are presented to people. Marketeers do it every day of the week in shops, in adverts, in restaurants. When something is brought to your attention because it stands out from the crowd you’ll obviously notice it more.

It has a huge impact on decision-making.

And where food is concerned, subconsciously we make about 200 decisions every day about things that go into our mouths. Now, choice architecture is used everywhere, especially in supermarkets, where things are brought to your attention the whole time. A good example of this is the buy one get one free promotions because they influence people greatly. If you’re going to get something free then you’re very likely going to choose that product over another one. It’s human nature.

Offers and promotions are always brought to our attention by retailers and this influences our choices.

It’s been going on for years and years and when an American doctor found out this was happening she thought she’d try a little experiment at her hospital in Boston, USA (‘A 2-Phase Labeling and Choice Architecture Intervention to Improve Healthy Food and Beverage Choices’, March 2012). The doctor, Anne Thorndike, had a really interesting idea – she believed she could improve the eating habits of thousands of hospital staff and visitors without challenging their willpower or motivation in the slightest. In fact, she kept it quiet and told no one.

The doctor and her colleagues decided to alter the choice architecture of the hospital restaurant. They started by changing the way all the drinks were arranged. Originally the fridges were located next to the cash registers and they were filled with sugary fizzy drinks and nothing else. So bottles of water were added to the fridges and also to several other points in the restaurant. After three months the fizzy drink sales dropped by 11 per cent while sales of bottled water increased by 26 per cent.

They made similar adjustments, and had similar results with the food that was being served every day. By putting healthier food at the front of the counters, they influenced what people chose. They were able to do this because people choose products not just because of WHAT they are but because of WHERE they are.  

I know that if I walk into the service station a few miles away from where I live to pay for my petrol, I’m very likely to buy a popular brand of doughnut. Just because they’re there in that place, they’re nice and I don’t have them very often. I go there probably once a month. I don’t eat them because I’m hungry but because I see them. If I don’t go to that service station then I don’t eat doughnuts. Simple.  

I don’t crave doughnuts. But if they were situated somewhere that I pass every day, that would be a real struggle and I’m sure it could turn into a very bad habit.

I know some offices where there’s always cakes and biscuits. And I know from my experience working with hospitals that the wards and offices are full of cakes, chocolates and sweets. If you’re going to change your eating habits it’s going to be really hard if you live or work in an environment which has so many temptations and triggers in front of you. So think about this for a moment. Could your daily environment be one of the main reasons you’re self-sabotaging?

Our environment has a huge influence on our behaviour. We also adjust our behaviours to suit the environment we’re in too. But again we’re not actually conscious that we’re doing it a lot of the time. If you go into a library or a church you generally talk in whispers. If you go the cinema you probably eat popcorn. So there are certain behaviours that instinctively happen in certain environments.  

And you can design your environment so that it helps you. For example if you keep fruit in the fridge you can easily forget it’s there because it’s out of sight – whereas if it was out in the fruit bowl you’d be far more likely to eat it because you’ll see it. If you take vitamin tablets and store them in a cupboard you’re less likely to take them than if they’re in front of you on a desk or somewhere you see regularly. If you want to drink more water, have a bottle on your desk so you’re constantly being reminded it’s there and you don’t have to go anywhere to get it.  

Here are a few ways you can change your environment so it’s on your side:

  1. Make sure anything which is going to work against you while you’re losing weight is hidden away – or not even in the house.
  2. If your work colleagues bring in biscuits or chocolates, ask them to put them in a drawer where you can’t see them. Or you could try to persuade them to stop bringing those things in altogether!
  3. Have the fruit on display right in front of you and not hidden in the fridge.
  4. Have a bottle of water on your desk so you don’t have to move to get a drink.
  5. When you’re in a supermarket, remember everything is designed very carefully to entice you to buy! Stop and think if you really need it.
  6. Design your environment to set you up for success, not failure!

These are just a few suggestions but you get the idea – change a few things and it could change your entire life!