3 Steps you can take to live by design, not default — Lionesses of Africa

by Lori Milner

Think about a personal goal you would like to achieve – it could be getting fitter, eating healthier, reading, starting a course or a new hobby. The typical pattern is you begin on a Monday, you manage to keep it up for about two weeks and then fall back into old ways. You probably have attributed this pattern to a lack of willpower. The good news is that the solution to keep the promises you make to yourself has nothing to do with motivation.

Environment design is the secret to achieving your goals because it is the ultimate enabler. As Dr Marshall Goldsmith says: “If we don’t create and control our environment, our environment creates and control us”.

There are three kinds of environments you need to take charge of to make progress on your goals:

#1 Your physical environment.

Designing your physical environment involves setting up triggers to remind you of your goals. Let’s say you want to be healthier and exercise more. Firstly, what do you need to remove from the current environment?

If you want to stop eating so many biscuits during the day, then remove them entirely from your house. Replace the bowl of biscuits in your kitchen with a bowl of fruit. Make sure you have a big bottle of water and healthy snacks on your desk, so you are not grinding through your lunch break and reaching for the first greasy snack in the late afternoon.

If you want to stop drinking wine during the workweek, put it in another fridge or a place in your house that you don’t see until the weekend. Use the strategy of inconvenience to deter you from breaking out a bottle in those habitual moments.

If you want to manage the environment of distraction, close your Outlook, social media channels and remove anything that can fight for your attention when you’re working. If you don’t actively manage the environment of distraction, you become a self-interrupter allowing every ping, bing and alert to pull you away from the task in front of you.

Manage your WhatsApp by muting the chats that are not critical to your daily work. You need to decide when and how often you are prepared to be interrupted.

What do you need to add to your environment?

If you want to start walking, leave your exercise gear and shoes next to your bed. How about introducing ‘exercise snacks’ in your day and leaving a skipping rope next to your laptop? Or a yoga mat in the middle of the living room so you can fit in a few poses before your next meeting?

If you want to read more, can you leave a book on your bed or have a book with you next to your laptop? If a meeting cancels last minute, you have your book right there to remind you that you can fit in a good twenty minutes of reading time.

Without the physical trigger of the book, you will most likely check your inbox or your social media feeds. Consistency compounds, you will be amazed at how much progress you can make with fifteen minutes of focused attention.

Managing your environment is not just about the big goals but the simple ones like remembering to take your vitamins. If I don’t have them displayed out, I don’t remember to take them. I manage the environment by having them next to my toothbrush to ensure I don’t forget about them.

Think about something you want to start or stop – how can you manage your physical environment to make it easier for you?

#2 Your digital environment.

According to research, on average, Americans check their phones 344 times per day. (That’s once every 4 minutes!) How do you compare against this frightening statistic? To ensure you succeed in your goals, you need to manage your digital environment.

 Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable, provides five simple steps to take control of your smartphone:

Remove: If you are addicted to online shopping or social media, it’s time to manage the environment by deleting the app altogether. If you are trying to progress your health goals, perhaps delete UberEATS if you tend to order junk food out of habit?

In both examples, you remove any temptation that willpower is not strong enough to fight, and you reclaim your days!

Replace: Shift where and when you use potentially distracting apps, like social media and YouTube, to your desk instead of on your phone.

This hack is especially powerful if your default is to scroll the socials on your phone any chance you get. Imagine how much more fulfilled you will feel if you defaulted to reading a book or doing something for your self-care instead?

Rearrange: If you look down to check the time and you see new messages in your inbox or social feeds, it’s human nature to want to check them immediately. Manage your phone’s environment by moving any apps that may trigger mindless checking from your phone’s home screen.

Reclaim: Change the notification settings for each app. Be very selective regarding which apps can send you to sound and sight cues. Remember, you have to decide when and how often you are prepared to be interrupted.

 Reduce: the number of times you check your phone by replacing any frequent behaviours you currently perform on your phone with another medium (e.g. carry a small notebook and pen to jot down short notes rather than opening an app). Get a wristwatch, so you don’t have to look at your phone for the time.

#3 Your emotional environment.

Managing your emotional environment begins with taking charge of your thoughts, beliefs and the story you tell yourself. This process is easy to control because it’s all about you; no one else is required; it’s good old personal growth.

The hard part is managing your emotional environment when other people are involved. Let’s leave the work environment out of this and only focus on your personal life. Here are some things to consider:

In the series Harry Potter, there are creatures called Dementors that literally pull the happiness out of you if it comes into contact with you. We all have a dementor in our life (sometimes more than one).

It’s that person that when you finish a conversation, you feel drained because they are negative and always complaining, criticising and seeing the glass as half empty. You cannot necessarily cut this person out of your life, but you can manage the environment around how long and how often you engage with them.

Even if it’s your mom or mother in law, you can cut the conversation down from thirty minutes to ten minutes. When they begin the rant of negativity, you can change the topic. It’s important to remember that they will not change, nor can you change them, but you can protect your boundaries by limiting the time you engage with them and avoiding the topics that will trigger you.

If you start the week feeling depleted, is it because you spent the weekend running from one social engagement to the next? If you agreed to go out of guilt or fear, it should have probably been a polite no.

When you got to the arrangement, you spent the entire time feeling resentful that this was your downtime and listed at least ten other things you would prefer to be doing. The way to manage your emotional environment is don’t put yourself in that situation in the first place.

Of course, you need to attend to specific commitments and responsibilities, but I am talking about the optional ones. If you can practice putting your recovery time first, you will feel better, more energized and ultimately more content.

Putting it all together.

Don’t leave your goals up to motivation and willpower; start to live by design and not default.

How can you manage your physical, digital and emotional environment to set you up for success?

When you take control of your environment, you become the architect of your world rather than the victim of it.

Here’s to design thinking,

Warm wishes,


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