Make the Right Thing the Easy Thing

Last week we talked about why it’s so hard to save money, to lose weight, to do any of the things which require postponing present enjoyment to create benefits later. It’s easy to get lost in theory, in analysis of our biochemistry, in what is. What’s not so easy is doing something about it.


One tool I’ve made use of is affordances, a term used by Donald Norman in his insightful book The Psychology of Everyday Things.

Norman suggested that, just as the position of handle and spout on a teapot affords, or provides naturally for, the act of pouring tea, some things are designed to afford proper use. Levered door handles, for instance, make opening a door much easier than round knobs. Push plates with no knob at all make it clear that the door should be pushed, because pulling it would be extremely difficult.

Some affordances are so obvious we don’t think about them. No one needs an instruction booklet when they buy a kitchen chair. Nobody needs to be told how to use a pencil. Spoons. Salt shakers. Books. Stairs. Socks. The list of things we don’t need instructions for is endless.

Processes can have affordances, too.

Please Break Down Cardboard Boxes

A large company recycled all the cardboard boxes they received stuff in. Problem was that folks simply tossed the boxes into the recycle bin, filling it with big boxes full of air. A large sign telling them to break the box down didn’t do much good.

The standard corporate response would be to create a study and focus groups to determine the best stick or carrot to force people to obey the rules. But what they did instead was create thin slots in the top of the bin, and lock them shut. The only way to put a box in was to break it down so it would fit through the slot.

These people already had a built-in habit against throwing what they perceived as trash on the floor. They were willing to put it in the bin, but before, they just did it the easy way: toss it as you walk past.

They didn’t start breaking down their cardboard because they suddenly became more responsible. They were still doing it the easy way. They didn’t change.

What was easy changed.

Organization = Affordance

There is an entire industry built around organization. There are amazing folks who will help you organize your kitchen, your office, your meetings, your garage, your trip itinerary, your life.

Organization is a form of affordance. Cooking utensils go near the preparation surface. Paper goes near the printer. You see Dallas and Fort Worth, then Denver, instead of tucking Denver in between. In new situations, we look for ways to uncomplicate the complex. What’s challenging is when we have to temporarily complicate what’s simple in order to unlearn bad habits — and create better habits.

Skip Willpower; Buy Handcuffs

Most of us try to develop new habits through sheer willpower. If we just want it badly enough, we’ll do it, right?

You know what nonsense that is, even if you’ve actually said those words before.

You will not wake up early or get in shape or lose weight or start saving or recycle or do any of those future-facing things just because you decided to. After all, you’ve probably already decided to, right?

Willpower is a limited resource and it shares an energy pool with all kinds of cognitive processes we really can’t shut off. Research shows that if you’re trying to remember a phone number while you get a snack, you are far more likely to eat cake than fruit. The energy to remember the series of 7 or 10 numbers actually reduces your ability to make good food choices.

Of course, if the only choices were fresh fruit or nothing, you could handle that with ease.

Dr. Phil Stops Using the Kitchen Door

Dr. Phil McGraw didn’t get as popular as he is by not knowing what he’s talking about. But he’s susceptible to the same unconscious tendencies we all are.

Dr. Phil is a big guy. He is, after all, from Texas. In his book The Ultimate Weight Solution he talks about a simple change he made when he was trying to lose weight. His habit was to park in the garage, go through the kitchen, grab a “quick snack” and munch it while he changed for dinner.

When he stopped to check, he was eating a shocking number of calories every single time he walked through the kitchen. He realized he had to stop snacking, so every day, he’d be determined not to touch anything.

And then he’d remember it as he was finishing off whatever he’d nicked from the fridge.

Memory didn’t work.

Locking the door did.

By locking the door from the garage to the kitchen, he forced himself out of his default mode. Obviously, he had a key to the door. But because it was locked, he was nudged from his mindless automatic routine. Suddenly conscious of why the door was locked, he’d go around to the front door and go through the living room instead of the kitchen.

And not only did he stop gaining weight — he lost it.

Break Routines to Break Habits

This column is far too short to teach you how to create new habits. I hope you’ll go to your local library and read one (or more) of the many excellent books on how we form habits, and how to change them. My goal in this short space is to convince you that it is possible.

Lock your kitchen door — if not literally, metaphorically.

Do you stop for fries on the way home from picking the kids up? Give the kids a non-food reward if they remind you to take a different route home. Trust me, if kids know there’s an extra 15 minutes of Wii on the line, they’ll remember.

Do you write a healthy shopping list, but then make impulse buys? Trade shopping lists with a friend. You’re much more likely to shop smart for someone you care about than for yourself (which is, you might note, an indication of a deeper issue: many of us fail to love ourselves enough because we’re afraid of becoming like those folks who love themselves too much).

Do you hit the snooze button? There’s a stupid affordance if ever there was one. “I hate waking up so much, I’d like to do it 5 times every morning.” Do you know they make alarm clocks with no snooze button? Buy one. Put it across the room. Better, put it on your significant other’s side of the bed. They’ll get you up, right quick. (Put a carafe of water next to the alarm clock. Dehydration makes you tired. Down a big glass of water the moment you get out of bed and your rehydrated brain is more likely to stay awake.)

Become a habit detective. Look for places where you’ve unconsciously built in affordances which reinforce your bad habits. Disrupt your patterns to temporarily break your default processes.

Create an environment where the right thing is the easy thing. Like learning to drive or dance or do algebra, it’s hard work—but with practice, it becomes habit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *