Behavior Design at Home

Does your living environment support — or sabotage — your self-improvement efforts?

Kyra Bobinet

You’ve just arrived home after a long day at work. The evening’s activities are clear in your mind: a good workout; a relaxing, healthy meal; then catching up on some bill paying. You walk in the door, kick off your shoes — and plop down on that super-comfy, overstuffed sofa in front of the big screen in the living room.

An hour later, your growling stomach (or your family) reminds you there’s dinner to prepare, so you head to the kitchen — snatching a handful of cereal from one of the boxes that line the back of the countertop. You open the fridge and quickly spot the leftovers from yesterday’s takeout. A few moments later, tonight’s meal (albeit not the one you had in mind) is warming in the microwave.

After dinner, you succumb to the lure of the couch once again, ignoring the pile of bills and junk mail on the kitchen island and diverting your gaze from the treadmill in the adjacent den. Heading off to bed later, you realize another day has passed without taking any of the actions you were so determined to take before you walked through the front door.

Your home may be comfortable and inviting. It may even be beautifully decorated. But from a behavior-design standpoint, it could probably use a makeover.

Your Brain at Home

Brain researchers and psychologists know that our unconscious (or implicit) memory systems detect and respond to patterns and cues from our surroundings that we may not consciously notice. This means that our environment — whether work, school, or home — plays a huge part in how we feel and what we do.

The vast majority of our behaviors (as much as 95 percent, according to some studies) are driven by our unconscious mind. In other words, we run on autopilot most of the time. This is the working of what I refer to as our “fast” brain — the myelinated neural networks of our habitual behavior. (For more on this, see “Relapse Recovery“.)

We also have a conscious “slow” brain. It’s what we use to solve problems, make decisions, or exert willpower.

Our fast brain is actually quite helpful; it’s efficient and functions amid overwhelming choices in our hectic world. It shifts most of our actions into a kind of “autopilot” mode so we don’t burn precious cognitive fuel puzzling over problems we already know how to solve (like how to get to and from work each day). But when our environment encourages undesired automatic behavior, our fast brain doesn’t do us any favors. In fact, it’s often primed to act against our stated intentions.

Priming is the phenomenon in which something in our environment triggers fast-brain shortcuts, or heuristics, stored within our implicit memory. When we are exposed to certain cues, we behave in certain predictable ways.

Most of us are familiar with priming via conscious triggers, such as a text that prompts us to call a friend, a notification on a computer screen that tells us to go to a meeting or check our email, or the alarm that wakes us in the morning. But at home, we often become blind or unconscious to triggers that prime our behavior in ways that undermine our good intentions.

Designing Your Trigger Field

Unconscious triggers in your home can sabotage you. That comfortable sofa and big screen invite you to “come on, sit down” — even if you were on your way to the treadmill in the den. The greasy takeout containers front and center in the fridge promise easy preparation, while the veggies you purchased yesterday (using your thoughtful slow brain) sit forgotten in the crisper. The stack of mail warns, “It will take forever to sort me out. Run away!”

And those cereal boxes? Cornell University researchers found that people who stored cereal boxes on their kitchen counters weighed 20 pounds more, on average, than those who kept them in cabinets.

But what if you designed your living space in ways that triggered your brain to unconsciously choose healthier behaviors? How could you create home systems that prompt your fast brain to choose actions your slow brain wants you to do?

Even small changes can make a big difference. You might place a $20 bill next to that stack of bills to prime yourself to feel abundant and in control. Or buy a clock that chimes pleasantly, reminding you to breathe deeply. And if replacing your comfy living-room couch with a treadmill seems a bit drastic, you might simply keep a set of dumbbells on the couch where you normally sit so you have to move them — and maybe do a few reps.

You could also design more dramatic changes, like investing in a new fridge with compartments that showcase healthy foods and make it harder to access unhealthy fare. Or plant a garden so you have a reason to spend more time in nature.

We are not slaves to our fast brains. Take a look at your living space with the fresh eyes and creativity of a designer and go beyond décor! Design the organization and placement of objects in your home to promote the behaviors you want to practice.

, specializes in health engagement and behavior design, and is the founder and CEO of engagedIN, a behavior-design firm. She teaches health-engagement design at Stanford University School of Medicine and is the author of Well Designed Life: 10 Lessons in Brain Science & Design Thinking for a Mindful, Healthy & Purposeful Life. This is the third in a series of articles exploring how behavior design can help you make positive change and create the life you desire.

Illustration by David Cutler

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