Use Your Environment to Achieve Your Goals

Something that’s not often talked about in goal achievement is the importance of our environment in achieving our goals. 

Often we blame a lack of results on a lack of motivation or discipline. We think that if we have an extraordinary amount of motivation or self-discipline, we’ll be able to power through any obstacles and achieve any goal.

Now, while motivation and discipline are indeed important, they only make up a small part of the success equation.

Firstly, no one is motivated all the time. While we may start a goal with peak motivation, the reality is it doesn’t stay high all the time — there will always be times when things are good, and times when things are bad. Our motivation will also naturally change when we are facing naysayers and setbacks.

Secondly, how disciplined we are depends on our willpower. The problem with discipline is that it depends on our willpower, and we only have a finite amount of that a day. Every time we make a decision and power through a task, we are left with a little less willpower. It doesn’t mean we’re mentally weak; it’s just the way it is. By the time we’ve worked through a series of obstacles for the day, it’d be much harder to push ourselves to stick to some plan or regime.

On the other hand, there’s our environment which influences our actions and behavior in so many unspoken ways. Imagine trying to lose weight. An unconducive environment is one where you’re constantly surrounded by fatty food, unhealthy fast food restaurants, people who like to eat junk food, and food programs and junk food “mukbangs” where you watch people eating junk food day in and out. That’s just too much negative stimuli that you’re flooded with every day. While you might get through the first day unscathed, it’s an uphill battle to stay on course beyond that. 

A better way is to change your environment into one that supports you, such as joining weight loss groups, stocking up your home with healthy food, subscribing to cooking channels with simple healthy recipes, and joining a meal subscription service that delivers healthy meals daily.

In essence, motivation gets us going, but the right environment dramatically increases our odds of success.

The same applies whether you are quitting a bad habit like drinking or smoking, building a good habit like waking up early or meditation, starting a business, or switching career paths. Environment matters and is often the key to one’s success.

How I Created a Positive Environment To Achieve My Goals

When I went on a 30-day vegetarian trial in January 2008, I spent a few days setting up an environment conducive to my goal.

I bought a blender to easily make fruit smoothies at home. I visited the supermarket and stocked up on vegetarian food so I would have a constant food supply at home.

I created a goal sheet for my vegetarian goal, writing out my motivations for trying a vegetarian diet and plastering the sheet with pictures of nice, appetizing vegetarian food. I set my desktop wallpaper to a picture with a whole variety of juicy, fresh fruits. I also saved bookmarks of vegetarian sites in my browser, as resources for further reading.

To the people around me, I told them I was adopting a vegetarian diet for the next one month, so they would be walking reminders of my goal. I joined vegetarian communities, both online and offline, to connect with like-minded folks.

I also identified possible obstacles I would face in adopting this diet, and came up with action steps to counter them. For example, I anticipated it would be tricky getting vegetarian food, so I planned in advance by either packing my meals (to work) or going to restaurants that sell vegetarian food.

Because I created the right, conducive environment for my goal, I was able to reach my goal surprisingly easy. Throughout the month, I did not have any interest nor craving to eat other types of food — I simply went along with my plan and stayed on course quite effortlessly, much to the surprise of naysayers around me. And I’ve stayed a vegetarian since (in fact, I’ve since become vegan).

Here are other examples where I tweaked and optimized my environment for my goals:

  • To improve my fitness, there was a period when I joined weekly kickboxing classes, frisbee sessions, and badminton sessions with friends. By joining these groups with recurring weekly activities, I’d be reminded to join the sessions by virtue of my membership.
  • To cultivate the habit of meditation, I joined a 10-day meditation retreat back in 2009. Being immersed in such an intensive environment, with proper facilities and people to guide me along, allowed me to experience meditation at the highest level and learn what it has to offer.
  • Running a business alone means it’s possible to fall into a state of stagnancy. So when I started my business in 2008, I would visit my then-partners’ office and work there once a week. I regularly met people in my field for inspiration and ideas. I locked in my coaching clients for a rolling two months so I would need to commit myself to these clients for that period. I also announced my plans on my blog for increased accountability. These and many other actions meant I was always on the go, never in a state of lull.
  • During my 21-day fast in 2011, I created a personal safe space for my fasting success. I knew my parents were going to be heavy deterrents, so I did not tell them about it at all. I bookmarked other people’s fasting logs/vlogs (specifically of long fasts) and saved them in my bookmarks bar where I would see them daily, and then read/watched them daily, so it was as if they were with me in my journey. I emailed people who had completed long fasts before, and got replies from some of them. I read a huge amount of fasting literature to educate myself on the topic. I also blogged about my fast daily for accountability. I eventually completed my fast and wrote about it here.

Many times in my life, I would often start out with a nonoptimal, sometimes downright terrible environment for my goal. I was often the only person I knew with an interest in what I was doing, while people around me were naysayers or negative influences. But by changing my environment to support me, I was able to limit the negative forces and achieve my goals successfully.

Likewise, whatever your goal is, there is always something you can do to create an enabling environment. I share how below.

Create Your Best Environment

While the word “environment” is commonly used to refer to the physical environment, it’s much more than that. I see it as all the elements around us that determine what we see, hear, think, and feel. What we interact with and allow into our consciousness each day.

Here are some things to evaluate about your environment:

  • Your physical space. Where do you spend your time each day? Examples would be your bedroom, home office, work office. Physical space also includes spaces relevant to your goal, such as your kitchen, fridge, and eateries around you for a healthy living goal. Do your physical spaces support you in your goal?
  • Your devices. Given that we spend so much time on digital devices today, they have become a second “space” we hang out at. How can you use your devices in a way that supports you?
  • People you’re with. Environment also includes your social environment. Who do you live with? Who do you talk to each day? Do these people support you in your goal? Or do they discourage and naysay you?
  • Communities you’re a part of. This includes online and offline communities. What communities are you a part of, and do they support you in your goal?
  • Your routine. Last but not least, what do you do each day? What places do you go to? What websites do you visit? What videos do you watch? What articles do you read? Do these support you in your goal?

All of the above make up your environment, though some may be more or less relevant depending on your goal.

Ultimately, your environment should be positive and automatically move you forward in your goal each day. It should uplift you and not pull you down. 

I have outlined the three stages of environment change — and these really depend on how much control you have over your environment. You can work any one or all three stages at the same time.

1) Make the best of existing environment

The first stage is to make the best of your existing environment.

Here, you don’t change your environment but learn to interact with it in a way that fits your goals. This means learning more about your environment to see how it can support your goals, and learning new ways to leverage it. The goal is to limit negative influence and maximize positive gain.

Say you decide to lose weight this month. You have a blender which you normally use to make dairy smoothies. Rather than use the blender to make your usual smoothies, you use it to make healthier fruit and vegetable smoothies. You also have a park near you which you never visit. Now, you can leverage on it by brisk walking there every morning. After some research, you found a shop nearby which sells salads and soups — now you can order your meals from them.

In terms of social environment, if you’re surrounded by people who often discourage and naysay you in your goals, this means purposely withholding your goals from them. You cannot change their views, but you can certainly limit negative input by not sharing your goals with them.

2) Change/Tweak your environment

The second step to change your environment.

Here, you want to change your environment to be one that is positive, that constantly reminds you of your goal, and that has no negative influences. It should also be easy to act on your goal each day — simply showing up in this environment will result in you moving forward in it. This means removing barriers to action, having automated reminders, and automating as much of your goal plan as possible.

Using the same weight loss example, changing your environment includes: Getting rid of junk food. Stocking up your fridge with healthy food. Buying kitchen tools to help you in preparing quick and healthy meals. Organizing your kitchen such that it’s easier to meal prep and clean up. Putting up pictures of healthy food in your room to remind you of your goal. Setting your desktop and mobile wallpapers to such a picture. Creating a goal plan and putting it in front of your work desk. Saving bookmarks of healthy recipe sites on your browser. Installing weight loss apps that can help you in your goal. Subscribing to content (videos, articles, podcasts) by people who eat healthily, and immersing yourself in this content. Meeting up with people who share such a goal, and spending more time with them.

Socially, even if you don’t know anyone who shares similar goals, you can still create a positive social environment. As I shared regarding my 21-day fast, I didn’t know anyone who fasted in real life, so I watched the vlogs of those who had completed long fasts before. I watched them every day or whenever I needed an inspirational boost. Doing so let me feel that I was in the company of these people, and that I wasn’t alone. So even though I didn’t know anyone who had achieved my goal, and there was no fasting group I could join then, I could still create a supportive space by surrounding myself with the material of those who had succeeded in it before.

No matter where you live, be it by yourself or with your parents, there are always elements of your environment you can change. It can be as simple as changing your laptop wallpaper, writing out your goal plan and putting it before you, putting post-it notes on your desk, or saving shortcuts of relevant content on your mobile (so you can easily access it). Focus on the parts of your environment you can change, and limit the negative effects of the parts you can’t change.

3) Move to a new environment

The third step is to move to an environment that supports your goal.

Continuing with the example above, this includes: Joining weight loss groups. Joining a gym where you’ll be surrounded by people committed to fitness. Joining exercise classes. Joining meetup groups that involve exercise and activity, such as hiking and jogging groups (though this may be tricky given the current pandemic, so maybe doing a hike solo or with a friend). Simply being in nature, which is a different environment, can be a booster to your overall spirits and motivation.

In more extreme cases, such as someone who wishes to start a tech startup, this could mean moving to a different country or place where there is an established ecosystem for such goals. For example, like how Silicon Valley is a hub for tech startups, or how Los Angeles is a hub for filmmaking and acting. However, such moves require large amounts of physical and financial resources, and until this is possible, following steps 1-3 will help move us forward. Sometimes, you may not even need to shift to such places to succeed.

At the end of the day, we want to be in the best environment for our goals, but the reality is that many of us are currently living in some imperfect space. Maybe we have unsupportive friends and family, or maybe our surroundings lack the ecosystem to support us in our goals. And that’s okay. The key is how we try to bridge the gap to create a more conducive space for our pursuits.

To You

Think of one of your top goals currently and ask yourself these three questions:

  1. How can your current environment support you in your goal?
  2. How can you change your environment such that it best helps you in your goal?
  3. What new environments can you move to to generate the best momentum for your goal?

By strategically creating a positive environment for your goals, you’ll find that pursuing your goals becomes more seamless, effortless, and natural. Invest a bit of time to change your environment to your favor today — and you’ll see the rewards soon enough.

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