Stroll through any social media site and you’ll be bombarded with well-meaning suggestions for improving your motivation, will power, and drive to succeed. But behavioral psychology writer James Clear suggests in his recent article “Motivation is Overvalued. Environment Often matters More” that success may come less from your soul than your surroundings.
What I learned from this article
Clear draws his basic example from Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he notes that early agricultural innovations could spread more easily in east-west directions, than in north-south trajectories. Along one latitude, growing conditions change comparatively little, so if you know how to grow a crop near Paris, you can grow the same crop in Vienna. But it doesn’t work if your expansion route runs north-south. A crop that grows well in Montreal won’t necessarily do well in Florida.
Diamond’s point is that Europe and Asia developed stronger societies faster than the Americas or Africa because of this environmental advantage. Clear relates this idea back to the concepts of self-improvement and motivation.
- Success may come from outside as much as from inside.
- Environment can be a secret weapon in encouraging positive habits.
- Removing little obstacles can be more effective than overcoming them.
Success may come from outside as much as from inside.
Although we like to tell success stories of people who overcame great obstacles, and we like to attribute success to motivation, talent, and grit, Clear suggests that “if you want to maximize your odds of success, then you need to operate in an environment that accelerates your results rather than hinders them.” Even great athletes and musicians with all their talent and fortitude invariably develop amongst families, friends, and institutions that bolster rather than thwart their efforts.
Environment can be a secret weapon in encouraging positive habits.
At any given moment, we’re largely unaware of our surroundings, but they unconsciously guide our actions. Clear cites research showing that if you use a smaller dinner plate you eat less. And he notes that if you embed triggers for good behaviors into your existing routines, like signing up for a gym that’s right on your way home from work, you’ll be more likely to adopt those habits.
Removing little obstacles can be more effective than overcoming them.
Just as your environment can impact your good behaviors, it can encourage poor ones. That bowl of candy innocently sitting on your desk will beat your diet will power eventually. Clear notes that removing little obstacles makes it much easier to adopt good habits. You can even help entire companies perform better just by weeding out inefficiencies in work processes.
Learning and development experts have long known that environment plays an important role in how well people absorb and retain information. We’re starting to acknowledge environment as a tool in improving training transfer and performance. I think we should consider its role in developing a learning culture as well.
As Clear points out, if we want people to change their behaviors, we can put triggers for desirable actions in the work flow and subtly influence our actions. Setting up an environment for success may not be as sexy or fun as gamification and 3-D videos, but it could be a much more powerful secret weapon for learning.
Thanks to James Clear for an insightful and thought-provoking article.
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