Tips

Environmental Science

Choose surroundings that support your goals

January 15, 2023

Today, I’ve asked Daniel Willingham to share his Tip of the Week. 

When I was a graduate student, I felt too busy to exercise. I’d start once I finished school, I promised myself. 

I did vaguely realize I wouldn’t have any more free time as an assistant professor, but I told myself I was too determined not to follow through. I believed in the power of my willpower. 

I expect you’re smiling at my naivete, and you’re right to. Willpower waxes and wanes. When it’s low and you skip a few gym trips, it’s easy to conclude there’s no point in trying anymore.

Still, when I started my first job at Williams College, I actually did exercise regularly. It turns out, I had blundered into an environment that offered excellent support for what I hoped to do. 

Research shows that our choices are influenced by whether our environment makes something easy or difficult—far more than we think. Even the smallest differences can have an outsized effect. In one study, researchers moved items from the front to the back of a salad bar—a change of just 10 inches—and the slight inconvenience prompted people to eat less of these items.

My plan to exercise benefited from Williamstown’s looooong winter. Many people there figured the best way through it was to get outdoors and embrace it. Some skied or skated, but an enormous number were joggers. 

That made it really easy for me to jog. I kept meeting people who were enthusiastic joggers, and they were quick to offer social support when I started. With so many runners in town, it was easy to find trails, including those appropriate for beginners. It was easy to find buddies to jog with. 

I’ve been thinking about this principle and my daughter, who is applying to colleges. Parents often think it’s best to find a college that matches their child. If your child is studious, for example, pick a college where most kids are similarly studious, so she’ll be comfortable.

But if your child is studious, she’ll probably be that way wherever she is. Maybe she needs to attend a school where it’s easy to be social. Or maybe, like me, she’d benefit from a school where most students make exercise a priority. 

Don’t rely solely on willpower to ensure you follow through when the going gets tough.

Do change your environment to make challenging tasks easier—and encourage young people to do the same. If they want to socialize more than they do now, it might mean befriending people who are outgoing. Or it might mean silencing their cell phone and putting it in another room when studying for a test. The right surroundings are more powerful than willpower alone.

With gratitude, 

Dan

About the author

Daniel Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of the forthcoming Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.