Environment Design: How to Create Habits the Easy Way

We often assume that we do what we do because of who we are. But the truth is a lot of what we do is the result of where we are.

To illustrate that point, we’ll turn to a fascinating graph from an organ donation statistics study by researchers Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein1.

To Donate or Not to Donate…

This graph shows the percentage of people across a number of European countries who are willing to donate their organs after they die.

As you can see, there’s a huge difference between the countries on the left and the ones on the right. Why do you think that is?

At first glance, you might assume some major underlying factor like culture or religion caused these results, but at a closer look, that doesn’t hold up.

Denmark and Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium, Austria and Germany—these are all countries with similar cultures and religious beliefs.

Still, their organ donation percentages are wildly different. So, what’s going on here?

The Default Effect

It’s actually quite simple. What explains the differences between the countries is the design of the form related to organ donations in each region.

In the countries where the form has an “opt-in” design (i.e., “Check this box if you want to donate your organs”), people tend not to check the box.

And in the countries where the form has an “opt-out” design (i.e., “Check this box if you don’t want to donate your organs”), people also tend not to check the box.

No matter which one of these forms people are presented with, an overwhelming majority of them will choose to stay with what they already have.

In psychology, this tendency is called the default effect2, and it influences us all the time as we go about our daily business. For instance:

  • If you have cookies on your kitchen counter, you’re likely to eat them.
  • If you have credits cards in your wallet, you’re likely to spend money.
  • If you have games on your phone, you’re like to play them.

In many ways, you shape your environment, and then your environment shapes your behavior. So, with that in mind, what does your default setup look like? What cues are you surrounded with? Do they support or sabotage your desired habits?

Environment Design

At any given moment, the default effect is either working for you or against you. So, you need to shape your environment to support the behaviors you want and discourage the behaviors you don’t want. For example:

  • If you want to sleep better, ban all screens from your bedroom and put a great fiction book next to your bed.
  • If you want to eat less, store away big plates and put salad plates in their place.
  • If you want to be more present, remove unnecessary apps and notifications from your phone.

Make your desired habits very easy to do and undesired habits very hard to do. That way, you’ll turn to the right habits by default.

Footnotes

  1. Medicine. Do Defaults Save Lives?
  2. Default Effect