You’re tired. It’s been a long day of work, you walk in the door, with intentions to exercise, but that nice comfy couch is calling your name. You can’t resist the pull of sitting down, turning on the TV or grabbing your iPad and relaxing. “Just for a few minutes,” you think before you’ll head out for your walk or run. You never do.
There are two phenomena going on here. One is a battle between a goal (e.g., exercising) and your bodies natural pull towards the path of least resistance. Sitting, especially after a long and mentally draining day, is a lot easier than stepping out the door and expending calories. Our bodies are honed to conserve energy, especially when we feel as if we are drained.
The second phenomenon, to me, is the more intriguing one. The couch is literally inviting you to sit in it. Upon glancing at that piece of furniture which your brain has intimately tied to relaxation, areas in your brain related to taking that action begin to light up. The occurs well before you’ve made the actual decision to go sit down. Your brain is primed by the sight of the sofa to prepare to sit in it.
This experience isn’t reserved for a couch. It occurs with just about anything in your environment that has been given meaning. The human brain works in a predictive fashion. It anticipates what we might want to do, predicting the course of action before we actually take it. It has to. If it were purely reactive, we’d be too slow. Think of a batter in baseball. The brain ‘predicts’ whether he should swing or not before the ball has even left the pitchers hand! Now, we can override or correct that prediction, which might show up as flinch of the bat or a checked swing, but the cascade towards movement is set in place long before we make the conscious decision to act…So much for the old adage of keeping your eye on the ball.
So what? We’re partially in control of the bond between environment and action. Put your running shoes and clothes in the passenger seat of your car, and you are more likely to stop and go for a run after work. Have a designated space or computer for writing, and you’re more likely to be drawn to writing in that area. Have your phone next to you in bed, and you’re more likely to pick the rectangular box up first thing in the morning.
Our environment invites action. But we can rig our environment towards the action we want to take. We can form stronger bonds between productive or healthy actions, and weaken the bonds between the environment and actions we don’t want to take.
For more information on how to rig your environment, check out this week’s Growth Equation Podcast on routines.