Stop Trying to Find Motivation & Do this Instead

How the Cereal Aisle Can Make you Leaner, Healthier, and Happier

(5 min read or 30s read if you jump to the summary at the end)

Are you familiar with choice architecture

It’s the idea that location of a cue within an environment dramatically impacts decisions and can be the catalyst for an action or behavior. 

For example, it’s the method employed by cereal manufacturers who know that people buy more products that are located at eye level then the ones down by your ankle. So, grocery stores put the higher profit margin cereals at eye level. 

Sure, as the consumer within the store, you still have free choice. But the evidence is robust, we are all swayed by the location of different cues within our environment. 

Psychology and the grocery stores both know that:

Environment shapes behavior.

And that’s a powerful notion. At least powerful enough that companies have taken notice of it and seen it directly impact their profits.

So how can you apply this to your clients? 

As James Clear says in his book Atomic Habits

“Motivation is overrated.

Environment often matters more.”

If we properly apply this idea, we can make implementing behavior change much easier. 

In psychology, this process consists of the following sequence: 

antecedent – > stimulus – > response

The antecedent is the thing or event that existed before that sets the stage. The stimulus is any energy change that activates a sense organ. The response is any clearly defined, measurable physical reaction. 

If we use the real-world previous cereal example, it looks like this: 

antecedent = the high-profit margin cereal on the eye-level shelf 

stimulus = the shopper sees the cereal

response = the shopper grabs a box and puts it in their cart

This simplified model gives us insight into a path to success. If we shape the antecedent, we can shift the stimulus and the response to better support our goals. 

After all, it is often true that people know what they need to do to achieve their goals. If they want to lose weight, they need to establish a smart caloric deficit. If they want to be more fit, they need to engage in regular activity. If they want to be healthier, they need adequate recovery and sleep. But knowing these ideas is usually not enough to see those very behaviors get executed consistently. 

It’s not a question of what. People often know what to do. 

Maybe it’s more a question of where to start

If we use choice architecture to our advantage, we could shape the where (the antecedent) to make the likelihood of the what happen far more consistently. 

And we can do this through purposefully environmental design – making our surroundings an asset to us instead of falling victim to them.

Let’s walk through a few examples. 

Let’s say you’re working with a client to limit their wine intake. The goal is to limit their wine intake to one glass per night. One strategy would be to open the bottle, pour a glass, recork the bottle and place it on the countertop. Then use good ole’ willpower to avoid the temptation of pouring another glass.

This is not setting the situation up for success. 

A better option would be to pour the glass, recork the bottle, and then place the bottle in a cabinet out of sight. This removes it from the immediately observable environment and keeps it from being a stimulus to pour another glass. 

With that done, the game is already half won. 

But this technique isn’t limited to avoiding certain behaviors like overconsuming wine. It can be used to encourage healthier behaviors. 

For a second example let’s say you collaborate with a client and agree on a goal to exercise three times per week after work. If their athletic shoes and duffle containing their workout attire are buried in the back of the walk-in closet, it’s highly unlikely that those will be an effective antecedent to stimulate the behavior of going to exercise. 

If instead their workout gear was put in a conspicuous spot, say right in middle of their hallway by the front door, it becomes a far more impactful antecedent. If they have to step over it every day after they come home from work, then the environment is definitely set up to cue the appropriate behavior. 

Shaping the antecedents within your client’s world will dramatically impact the behaviors that get consistently executed. 

And remember that just like in the grocery store, your clients always have free choice. They don’t have to buy the cereal. They don’t have to deny themselves another pour. They don’t have to lace up the athletic shoes. 

But setting up the environment to cue the behaviors you want to see will dramatically impact consistency and results. 

So, what proverbial cereal do you want to encourage your clients to purchase? Make those options more conspicuous, make other options less obvious, and see more of the desired behavior. 

Although there is a multitude of ways to shape behavior, shaping the environment is a powerful tool you can use for your clients’ benefit. 

To sum it up…The Summary: 

  • Our immediate environments provide antecedents that stimulate behaviors (responses). Fortunately, we can alter and shape our environments to encourage healthier behaviors.
  • The more obviously available a choice is, the more likely it is to cue a behavior. This fact can support or derail a person’s goals based on how they’ve structured their environment. 

One sentence takeaway:

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes behavior.