A Revelation Didn’t Change Your Life, Your Environment Did

Environment shapes us in profound ways

Nearly half a decade ago, I became a minimalist.

Rather, I became an “essentialist,” which is probably a more accurate term for it. I don’t own as little as possible on principle, I’m just conscious of what’s in my space in a way I wasn’t before. I own what is useful or meaningful, nothing more.

I can trace a distinct shift in my behavior and productivity back to the year I decided to clean out. Gone were bags of old clothes, books I wasn’t going to read again, beauty products fated to sit in my drawer until they expired. I was inspired to wipe the slate clean by my friend, who did something similar a few years prior and found that it drastically improved her mental health.

“What I never realized was that I wasn’t a messy person. I am a clean person who just had too much stuff to keep clean,” she writes. “I’m starting every day with a heavy advantage in my corner. My apartment is always clean and well-ordered because I have such little stuff that it’s easy to keep it this way. I still reap the psychological benefits of feeling like a healthy, put-together person and then I go out into the world and act like a healthy, put-together person.”

When people isolate themselves, it’s usually because they don’t want to be held accountable for their actions.

My friend was right. It is easy to keep your space clean and calming when you don’t have so much excess clutter to try to keep up with. When staying tidy was effortless, and not something that required a ton of constant effort and upkeep, I reaped the benefits.

What I didn’t understand then was that my behavior didn’t change my environment, my environment changed my behavior.

Your environment is the most powerful force in your life.

A lot of your behavior, which you assume is the product of autonomous choice, is actually triggered or reinforced by what’s around you.

When you’re driving in traffic and have an adverse reaction to getting cut off, are you really a manic individual with no impulse control? Of course not; your environment prompted your reaction (and harsh environments can prompt unexpectedly harsh reactions in the best of us). You become most like the five people you spend the most time with; life events like divorce tend to happen in clusters, where people in the same social circles influence each other’s outcomes. When people isolate themselves, it’s usually because they don’t want to be held accountable for their actions; the same is true of social media echo chambers or tight-knit religious sects.

It’s your environment that changes first, and you who changes second.

If you’re not aware, you won’t become who you are — you’ll become most like who you’re around. If your beliefs, ideas, or behaviors are never challenged, they not only perpetuate, but are reinforced.

Almost any human behavior makes sense when you consider it within its context. And everyone’s main context is their environment: their physical surroundings, social connections, and everything else that forms the fabric of their life.

Most people think growth happens like this:

  • A mindset shift occurs through the acquisition of knowledge.
  • Behavior changes because of the mindset shift.
  • Environment shifts because of the behavioral change.

In reality, it happens like this:

  • Something in your environment changes.
  • This creates a change in behavior.
  • To rationalize the change, your mind seeks and then acquires knowledge to explain it.

It’s your environment that changes first, and you who changes second.

Human beings are perhaps the most adaptive species on the planet. The question becomes: What are we adapting to?

In his study of the longest-living people on the planet, National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner explored cultures and civilizations around the globe to try to identify which behaviors and circumstances lead to the healthiest, longest lifespans. His findings are what he calls “Blue Zones,” or areas of the world in which people live longest (and are healthiest).

In his research, Buettner found that the best environments make healthy decision-making easy — and in some cases, effortless. For example, one Blue Zone area is Ikaria, Greece. The land is mountainous, making importing and exporting difficult. The result? Ikaria’s residents eat minimal processed foods, if any. They don’t need willpower to eat well. It happens naturally because of their environment.

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear refers to environment as the “invisible hand” that shapes human behavior. “We tend to believe our habits are a product of our motivation, talent, and effort,” he writes. “Certainly, these qualities matter. But the surprising thing is, especially over a long time period, your personal characteristics tend to get overpowered by your environment.”

What’s interesting is that while environment is at times something we consciously choose — as was the case when I adopted a practice of so-called “essentialism”— it’s more often a matter of something we are born into, or something we find ourselves immersed in without recognizing what’s happening at all.

If you want to change your life, you have to change your environment.

If you want to become a better person, you must surround yourself with people who embody the traits you want to develop. If you want to be a healthier person, you must make healthy choices the easiest option. If you want to be more productive, you must place yourself in a situation where productivity is the path of least resistance.

You must consider your environment and actively shape it to meet your needs. Clear defines environment-setting in three parts:

  • Automate good decisions.
  • Get into the flow.
  • Remove negative influences.

First, he suggests that you should make good decision-making as easy as possible. “For example, buying smaller plates can help you lose weight by deciding portion size for you,” he writes. “Similarly, using software to block social media sites can help overcome procrastination by putting your willpower on autopilot.”

If you find yourself wanting to make a change in your life but your unable to, you may be misattributing the problem to a lack of will.

Second, enter a flow state — a state in which you are prompted and triggered by the right things, consistently. Clear recommends placing an instrument in your living room if you’re trying to practice more. Lay out your clothes or belongings the night before you have to be somewhere. Prep your meals, or leave your to-do list somewhere you cannot miss it.

Lastly — and this is often the most difficult part — remove the negative influences that are holding you back. If you are trying to become healthier, consistently hanging out with people who engage in highly unhealthy habits will not help you. Instead, it will normalize that type of consumption — and without even realizing it, you’ll find yourself more inclined to make the wrong decisions and justify them in one way or another. It works the opposite way, too: The more time you spend with high-achievers, the more you start to adapt to their mannerisms, thought processes, and lifestyles.

The point isn’t that you have to only surround yourself with perfect people.

In fact, the point isn’t that you yourself need to reach for absolute perfection, either.

The point is only that if you find yourself wanting to make a change in your life but you’re unable to, you may be misattributing the problem to a lack of will, when in reality, it’s the lack of a supporting environment that’s preventing you from moving forward.

For more of my writing, follow me on Instagram, or check out my books, 101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think, and The Mountain Is You: Transforming Self-Sabotage Into Self-Mastery

Author of 101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think and six other collections. Visit briannawiest.com to shop for books and more.

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