Optimizing your environment for self-discipline really comes down to understanding how automatic most of your decision-making is.
To illustrate that point, consider the findings of a study conducted in eleven European countries on organ donors. The data showed that countries that automatically have citizens opted in to be organ donors—requiring action to opt out—had rates at or above 95 percent participation. When the default choice was not to be an organ donor, however, the highest rate found in any of the eleven countries was a mere 27 percent participation. Ultimately, people just went with the option that required the least effort. Their decision said nothing about their actual intention or desire to be an organ donor.
This same concept of defaulting to the more desirable choice can be applied to your own self-discipline. We’re predisposed toward the choice that requires less effort and will happily accept whatever is in front of our faces. Being aware of human nature, you can make it easy for yourself to choose whichever options most benefit you while also making it as difficult as possible to make harmful decisions.
A default option is one that the decision-maker chooses if he or she does nothing, or makes the minimal amount of effort. In other contexts, default options also include those that are normative or suggested. Countless experiments and observational studies have shown that making an option the default will increase the likelihood of it being chosen, which is known as the default effect. Making decisions requires energy, so we often choose the default option to conserve energy, especially when we aren’t familiar with what it is we are making a decision about.
Optimizing these default decisions is where the bulk of your efforts to create a more discipline-conducive environment can take place. You might believe that you control the majority of your choices, but in reality, that isn’t the case. Instead, a significant amount of your actions are just responses to your environment.
If you’re distracted by social media, for example, you might move the app icons to the back page of your phone so that you aren’t constantly seeing them whenever you open your phone to do something else. Better yet, you can log out of the apps after each use or delete them from your phone altogether so that you’ll only use them when you really want to, instead of letting them become distractions.
And if you’re in the habit of mindlessly picking up your phone while working, you can simply start placing it facedown and far enough away that you have to get up to reach it. If you want to practice violin more, put the instrument on your desk with your music notes open. If you want to floss your teeth more often, keep floss in your backpack, in your bathroom, on your nightstand, and on your sofa.
There are seemingly endless examples of how you can utilize the default effect to become more disciplined with very little use of willpower itself. Another one is that leaving potato chips and cookies out on the kitchen counter will make it your default choice to eat those items whenever you walk through the kitchen feeling even the slightest bit hungry. Hiding those treats (or not buying them at all) and setting fruit out instead will instantly increase the probability that you eat fruit and that you avoid the unhealthy snacks. Want to exercise more? Put a pull-up bar in your bathroom doorway.
If you keep sugary sodas and juices in your refrigerator, you’re making it your default choice to drink them whenever you are thirsty and open the fridge. But if you don’t have those options, you increase the likelihood that you’ll drink water, or make tea. Want to take more vitamins? Put them right next to your toothbrush for easier access.
If you sit in an office all day and have back problems, then you might benefit from standing up and walking frequently throughout the day. You can make this your default option by drinking water constantly so that you are forced to get up to go to the bathroom. Or perhaps you could schedule alarms on your phone and place it somewhere out of reach so that you have to stand up to turn off the alarm whenever it goes off.
The whole point of these examples is that you can save your willpower and your energy by making positive changes to your environment. The two biggest facets of environmental change are reducing clutter and distractions and optimizing choices based on the default effect.
If you reduce distractions from your environment, you’ll clear your mind, which in turn increases focus, efficiency, and productivity. Furthermore, you can use your dopamine reward system to your advantage by reinforcing your own good habits with positive rewards, while also cutting back on mindless pursuits of small pleasures. Finally, you can make it so the path with the least effort leads to the choices you desire and benefit from.
These tactics all help you avoid actually using—and depleting—discipline so you can save it for your bigger daily challenges. After all, why exercise willpower when you don’t need to if you can plan around it?