Behaviour change = Environment change

May 12, 2020


I got sick of productivity gurus saying that ‘you need to change your environment to change your behaviour’. They might make things slightly easier, but surely someone can change without changing their environment?

But lately, I’ve started thinking the opposite- the only way to meaningfully change your behaviour is to change your environment.

A (not) personal example

We follow a general pattern in your day-to-day life. We see the same people, follow the same schedule, and do the same things. If we need to change, these things come in the way.

Say you’re a high-school senior who desperately needs to get off of his laptop and out of the house to get fresh air and exercise (purely fictional example). You set a time, even get your clothes ready, but something always gets in the way. Maybe there’s some extra work to complete. Maybe you’re way too tired after school to run. Maybe you just can’t muster the right energy at the right time.

But then, all of a sudden, school gets called off. Now, somehow you always have the energy to run at the time you’d set yourself. Now, you run more than you ran in your last term of school in 2 months. (Again, this example is purely fictional but for some reason I relate to it on a very personal level)

And it’s easy to blame willpower or time management, which definitely do play a part, but I realised you can’t rely on those things. In your daily routine, the ‘forces’ acting on you are balanced. You’ve fit into a groove that you repeat daily. When you try and change, it’s like trying to move to a different location. It doesn’t happen.

Physics and personal change

In fact, as a basic physical principle, it can’t happen. Let’s get Newton to help out here:

Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it

I.e. movement without unbalanced forces is a no no

And that makes sense. With a bad environment, you're like a ball in a valley. Even if you do make an effort to change, your willpower has way less magnitude than the crushing force of inconvenience, routine and expectation. Trying to change is a losing battle.

stuck But when you change your environment, the forces are suddenly unbalanced. This could be as small as getting rid of your phone every time you sit down to work or as big as getting rid of toxic people in your life. Now, the playing field is neutral. You don’t have inconvenience, routine and expectation weighing you down.

stuck But you can go further than that. After getting rid of the wrong people, you could start surrounding yourself with the right ones. You could actively change your environment to help you pursue your goals. If you want to get fit, surround yourself with active people or stay close to somewhere you can exercise. Now, people’s expectations are for you to improve. People’s routines involve exercise. And the inconvenience of breaking a sweat is now seen as valuable.

stuck But you might be thinking- I’ve definitely changed without changing my environment before. I’d argue that you actually changed your environment before you changed your behaviour, even if you didn’t realise it.

When I first started to learn how to code, progress was pretty slow. I’d hack away at projects on the Arduino and make stuff from instructables but that was it. But this interest led me to hackathons and then to the wider Singapore startup community. It’s only then that I really learnt how to make things. While I took the first step, it’s the environment that finally pushed me to learn.


How does your environment influence you?

And at this point this all might seem very obvious. If you need to change your behaviour for the better, you obviously need to change your environment. But if it is so obvious, I wonder how people still stay blind to how bad their environments are to them.

It’s odd. Touch a hot stove by mistake and you’ll reflexively never touch it again. But you could live through each day with a terrible routine or hang out with toxic people and not notice a thing.

But the pain from a hot stove is extremely brief and sharp. The way you spend your time and who you spend it with defines your life. So it’s very important you ask yourself- to what extent am I influenced by my environment? It’s very dangerous if you can’t come up with an answer to that question.

If you think back to when you were younger, you can probably see how your opinions were influenced by your environment at the time (I wanted to be a youtuber because I watched lots of NigaHiga). If you were so influenced by your environment then, you must be now. If you can’t think of anything, you’re just blind to it. And if you’re blind to it, you won’t be able to change.

Newton's law of behaviour

So, we can reformulate Newton's first law of motion to a law of behaviour.


Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it


Everyone persists in their behaviour or trajectory of life unless they are compelled to change by forces impressed on them by their environment

If you want to improve in any way, you need to notice your environment and change it. Are you always too tired or stressed? Do you feel like you aren’t always as happy as you’d like to be? Do you take part in activities that don’t seem meaningful anymore? It’s only by changing your environment that you’ll unbalance these forces. It’s only by unbalancing them that you’ll get anywhere.

I’ll end on this rather poetic quote I heard in the Hamming Lecture:

Change does not mean progress, but progress requires change