Motivation isn't Enough. Environment Literally Shapes Your Life.


“Just do it”… thanks Nike, it’s not that easy.

Getting motivated everyday can be very tricky and elusive.

Today, I may be able to motivate myself to achieve my goals—to exercise more and eat right, wake up early, study more, be more social, work and train harder and so on.

Tomorrow, I could be the complete opposite—a lazy couch potato, with no motivation to do anything at all.

If you can relate to this struggle, then you’ve probably wondered if it’s even possible to motivate yourself to work harder and change your life.

We often blame our lack of motivation and willpower for the lack of progress in our lives. But, consider this— could there be something missing from this discussion?

One of the most overlooked, yet crucial contributing factors that drive our habits and behaviour is our physical environment. This includes but is not limited to the people, items, colours, sounds, buildings and so on, that surround us on a daily basis.

Your environment is one of the most powerful invisible forces that shape your life. 

Here’s why and how to change it…

How Environment Affects Our Health, Happiness and Life Expectancy.

Dan Buettner is a longevity expert, National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author.

For more than a decade, Dan led an expedition around the globe with the National Geographic society and expert scientists, to discover the places in the world with the highest concentration of individuals who live for more than 100 years without health issues i.e. obesity, cancer, heart disease and so on. [1]

These are the people who figuratively “forget to die.”

This expedition took them to five regions called “Blue Zones”—(Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa,Japan; Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya, Costa Rica).

After the expedition was complete, Dan and his team of researchers put together their findings to uncover the common habits and secrets of the healthier, happiest and longest living people on earth.

What they discovered was astonishing…

Their physical environment is perfectly designed to make healthy decision-making easier—in some cases completely mindless.

Here are a few examples of how their environment helps them make better decisions without thinking.

1. Terrain

Environment shapes behavior

Ikaria, Greece. Due to the mountainous terrain, natives have to rely on walking as their main mode of transport. (Image Credit: C Messier).

These people live in natural terrains (i.e. mountainous, isolated etc.) that make it difficult to import and consume processed foods.

As a result, the only way for the natives to eat is to consume naturally home grown organic food, mostly plant based.

They don’t need to rely on motivation or willpower to eat healthy, because it’s the only choice available.

Surprisingly, none of these people even exercise! (in terms of conventional western ‘work out’ treadmill and gym)—because they have to walk to most places they need to get to.

Consider for example, Ikaria in Greece, where the terrain is generally hilly and mountainous, which means a short walk is already a workout in itself.

As these people have to grow their food, they often spend a good deal of time outdoors gardening and involved in some form of manual labour.

Regular exercise is a by-product of the design of their environment.

2. Architecture

Building structures are well designed for optimal healthy living.

Consider for example, Okinawans who live 7 years more than the average American with a one fifth the rate of cancer and cardiovascular disease. [2]

Most of their rooms don’t have easy access to chairs, so they would naturally have to sit down on the floor and due to discomfort, get up to walk around up to 30 times a day.

No need to set a timer to leave your desk and stretch every 30 minutes.

Likewise, the Sardinians live in vertical houses, so they have to continuously climb up and down the staircases to move around.

Finally, due to the close proximity of each building and infrastructure, these people typically interact with each other daily in a tight-knit well-connected community.

This “closeness” contributes to the general happiness of the population because they are rarely isolated and everybody has a purpose in the larger community—including older people who are respected and celebrated for their wisdom.

3. Physical Items

Physical items i.e. plates for food, are designed to prevent overeating without even thinking.

For example, the Okinawans eat from a much smaller plate than the bigger western designs. This strategy prevents them from overindulging and racking up calories.

They also have very little, if at all any access to laptops, mobile phones and technology that would distract them from being productive or disrupt their quality of sleep.

4. Peer Influence

Once a week for 24 hours most of these societies completely shut down their work, spend time with family and visit their local faith-based institutions.

This helps them de-stress and unwind from a long week of hard work.

They also collectively share similar habits and healthy lifestyle choices. Evidently, it’s much easier to make productive and healthy decisions if the people around you also do so too.

The converse is also true.

For example, Framingham studies have shown that if your 3 best friends are obese, there’s up to a 57% chance you’ll also become obese too. [3]

These are a just a few insights on how our environment shapes our behaviours and ultimately our lives. 

Preferably, we shouldn’t have to travel to and live in these places to live a better life. But, what we can do is reverse engineer their environmental design strategies to apply in our everyday lives.

Here’s how…


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How to Design Your Environment for Success

If you want to improve your odds of success, you need to design an environment that makes it more possible to do so. Relying on motivation and willpower is not enough and fickle at best.

Here are two simple steps that make it easier to stick to your goals…

Step 1: Increase the number of steps required to make a bad decision.

For example, if you easily get distracted away from your work to browse through social media feeds on your mobile phone, keep your mobile phone away from sight in a distant drawer until you’ve completed your work.

If this doesn’t work, try logging off all of your social media accounts before you start working. This way if you do fall into the temptation to check your phone, you’ll have to log on to use the social media accounts again.

This way you increase the difficulty and number of steps to make a bad decision, which also buys you more time to make a better one.

You can also use a similar strategy, if say, you want to stop overeating and avoid unhealthy food.

To make this bad habit more difficult to action, you could move the least healthy food in your house into top shelf cupboards above eye level and out of hand’s reach. (Note: Food Stores use the same trick to get you to buy food items by placing them at eye level).[4]

The next time you have a food craving, the distance of about 8 feet or more will give you enough time to remind yourself of the healthier alternatives.

Step 2 : Design for laziness and mindless actions.

Once you’ve designed the environment to increase the difficulty of making bad decisions, it’s time to design your environment to make it easier to make better decisions without thinking too much.

Here are some examples….

If you want to eat healthy…Keep a bowl of apples bang in the middle of your kitchen. This way you’ll be more inclined to pick up an apple if you have food cravings.

You could also use smaller plates to eat your food, just like the Okinawans. A study conducted by Brian Wansink discovered that reducing the size of a plate from 12.5 inches to 10 inches, could lead to the average person serving themselves nearly 30% less food on the same plate. [5]

If you want to exercise more….Pack your gym clothes the night before bed and leave them as an obstruction to your bedroom door. On your way to work in the morning, you’ll be more inclined to pick up the gym bag and workout later in the evening.

If you want to start reading more…. Move any televisions or electronics outside your bedroom and keep a selection of interesting books on your bed in plain sight. You’ll be more inclined to read that book till you sleep.

If you want to be more productive…. At the end of each work day, spend 15 to 30 minutes planning out exactly what you’ll be working on the next day. Later on the next day, If things get chaotic, you’ll automatically have a plan of action to follow through on.

If you want to encourage a group to interact more… Rearrange spaces and seating in a semicircle. This way they could be more inclined to interact more with each other due to closer proximity.

Change Your Environment to Change Your Life.

“Effective leaders have the ability to consistently move themselves and others to action because they understand the “invisible forces” that shape us.”
— Tony Robbins

Whilst motivation plays a role in helping us achieve our goals, it’s the invisible forces including our environment, that truly shape our behaviour and life.

When you are surrounded by better choices, it is much easier to make better decisions that will eventually change your life for the better.

Ultimately, you don’t have control over how motivated you will be to work tomorrow, but you do have control over your immediate environment.

Focus on what you can control and let go of what you can’t.


1.Dan led an expedition to discover “Blue Zones.” These are the parts of the world with the healthiest and longest living populations of humans. The examples in this post draw from his research and ideas in his book, The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People (Audiobook).

2.National Geographic research led by Buettner.

3.Research conducted by Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist at Harvard, and James Fowler, a political scientist at UC San Diego on the likelihood of obesity suggests you’re more likely to become obese if you have close friends who are obese.

4.This idea is driven by “Suggestion Impulse Buying” which states that customers buy things not necessarily because they want them, but because of how they are presented to them. Read more.

5.Studies by Koert Van Ittersum and Brian Wansink suggests that larger plates make individuals serve and consume more food because portions appear smaller.

6. Tony Robbins quote courtesy of Tony Robbins site and Robbins personal growth resources.