The Power of Convenience
Sometimes when people are trying to make improvements to their lives, they don’t put into practice deceptively obvious life tips. They’re the kind of tips you say to people and they reply that it’s so obvious why even bring it up but then they consistently fail to put them into actual practice.
One such tip is to use the power of convenience to your advantage. What do I mean by this? Well there are actions you think you ought to do and actions you think you ought not do. I’ll refer to them as good actions and bad actions. Most people simply try to do the good actions and not do the bad actions. But that rarely works.
Instead of seeing yourself as a decision-making agent that either succeeds to do good actions and fails not to do bad ones on the basis of willpower, you can change your environment so you’re more likely to take good actions. So to make that concrete, let’s say you’re overweight. You need to diet and stop eating so much junk food. Well, if your pantry is loaded with Doritos and cookies and donuts and other processed junk, you have to confront that and resist the temptation every time you open the pantry. Unless you’re lucky enough to have extreme self-discipline, which most people don’t, you’re not going to succeed. So how can you make it easier for yourself to succeed?
Assuming you’re living independently, just don’t buy the junk food. If you don’t have it, you can’t eat it. “I’d just go and get more though.” So be it. You’ll go and get more. But that will be less convenient than going to your pantry to get it. You’ll have more time to realize what you’re doing, consider if it’s really what you want, and stop yourself. “The isles I go down have junk food. I can’t help but buy it.” Okay. Then don’t go down those isles. “I can’t help but go down the isles!” Find a healthier place to shop.
If you still live with your parents and they buy the junk food, ask them not to buy it. “They won’t stop buying it.” Request your own separate cupboard or fridge space. “I still can’t resist the junk food.” Okay. Get a mini fridge, put it in your room, and fill it with fresh fruits and vegetables. Don’t even open up the kitchen fridge. “I can’t afford one.” Look for ways to earn money for one. “I still get junk food out of the fridge when I’m in the kitchen.” Avoid the kitchen area. “I still go to the kitchen to eat junk food.” Get your own place.
I know some of these steps are difficult and that the proliferation of processed junk food isn’t your fault. But you’re not in the position to immediately stop Walmart from selling it. I believe that’s what ultimately must happen, but until then, we can only work on individual solutions. Yes, it is society’s fault. But we should still do everything we can as individuals to make the problem less bad. The companies selling junk food want us to fail, but failing is better than never trying.
Keep erecting barriers between yourself and temptation to the point that it becomes so inconvenient to satisfy your temptations that you stop doing it. You might fail once in a while, but that’s okay. You can also do the reverse: make convenient the things that you ought to do.
Let’s say you want to start working out. You buy some workout equipment, put it in your basement, and commit to exercising for an hour every day. The next day rolls around and you only make it twenty minutes. You set your goals too high. Start small. Smaller goals are more convenient than larger ones. So you commit to just fifteen minutes per day. You do that for about a week, then you start slacking. Now what?
You only use your basement for workouts, so you never see the equipment. Out of sight, out of mind. You never use it. So move your equipment upstairs. Move it to a place where you’ll walk past it every day. Then you’ll think about it again when you walk past. It’s only a few steps away. You can do three five minutes intervals at a time throughout the day. Now it’s convenient again. After a month, exercise becomes a habit. You actually want to do it every day. Now try increasing your workout duration. So on and so forth.
The problem is it’s usually really convenient to take bad actions and inconvenient to take the good actions, at least in the near term. And a lot of this convenience boils down to factors outside of our immediate control. We try to be genuine, but people mock our quirks. We’re told not to eat processed junk food, but then it lines the isles of every supermarket. We’re told not to overuse our phones and social media, but thousands of intelligent engineers are working tirelessly on the other side of that screen to make sure we can’t resist. That’s not your fault.
Life is not as simple as “there are good people and there are bad people”. If we make it more convenient to do the right thing and less inconvenient to do the wrong thing, on an individual level and collectively, then there will be more good people and less bad people. The same exact person may do bad or good depending on their environment.
There is empirical evidence to support this claim. Look at prisons. Progressive rehabilitative prison environments yield well behaved prisoners. Regressive revenge-based prison environments yield poorly behaved prisoners because they make it impossible to be well behaved. The same prisoner put in a better environment will behave better. People put way too much stock into the idea of “willpower”. Make it convenient for people to do good and they will. Make it inconvenient to do bad and people won’t.
The environment is everything.