Watch out! 3 ways to control your environment

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


Watch out! 3 ways to control your environment

Pay attention to your surroundings!

If you want to change your behavior or influence others in your organization to change the way they work, you’ve got to view the environment as an active player.

Our surroundings shape our behavior and our attitudes more than we’re able to acknowledge or care to admit.

That’s the focal point of the new book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts—Becoming the Person You Want to Be, by best-selling author and premier executive coach Dr. Marshall Goldsmith and his co-author, Mark Reiter.

His messages are consistent with the work I’ve done with Dr. BJ Fogg, the father of behavior design and the inventor of Tiny Habits®, and my own experiences, personally and professionally.

As I tell my clients, you may have the will and skill to do something, but if you’ve got to climb over a hill instead of strolling down a clear path, you may stop your change journey before you even start.  

And we may face not just rolling hills, but massive mountains in our environment that can simultaneously stand in our way as well as trigger how we act.

If you think you can easily control your environment, consider the triggers that entice you to do the opposite of what you intended to do. Some common ones include:

…The chocolate chip cookie on the conference room platter that you grab even though you’re trying to cut back on sugar…

…The snarky comments you respond to, even though you know the co-worker who’s spouting them delights in engaging you and others in no-win, time-suck discussions…

…The ping of the meeting invite that you immediately accept without stopping to evaluate whether this particular meeting is the best use of your time…

Triggers can be positive too, such as the alarm that reminds you to dial into a conference call, the agenda that keeps your meeting on track and the colleague who sets a good example at lunch by ordering a healthy entree.

The point is that behavioral triggers that stimulate us to take action are everywhere. They can be internal or external, conscious or unconscious, or as just described positive or negative.

Besides not being fully aware of how our environment triggers us, we also underestimate the power of our environment to deplete us during the workday.

So much of what we do at work is draining…Making decisions…choosing which project to work on….suppressing reactions when the boss’s boss is critical….regulating responses to a challenging customer….trying to comply with a new time-consuming, complicated company policy that seems illogical….

All of these actions and similar ones tire our brain—specifically the pre-frontal cortex, also known as the executive function—which diminishes our ability to think clearly and quickly.

However, we’re generally not aware that we’re being depleted. Like stress, depletion is not as noticeable as being short of breath or feeling achy after exercising.

Yet, if we don’t deal with depletion, we make it much more difficult to practice self-control and avoid undesirable behavior.

We also run the risk that our environment will trigger even worse behaviors, which will hold us back from making the changes we desire.

So what to do?

We need to become more self-aware and in turn more conscious of our environment.

Becoming more mindful is easier said than done. Yet, we can take a number of actions that get easier and more successful with practice.

Marshall in his very practical book suggests three actions. All involve taking a more active role to trigger how we interact with our environment. They include:

  • Introduce more structure in your life, including adopting supportive habits.
  • Ask yourself daily questions to check on what you did, and even more powerfully how you performed. For example, “Did I do my best to…?” Marshall advises. (He even suggests asking yourself some questions every hour depending on how tough it may be for you to stay on plan!)
  • Work with a coach to bridge the gap between the “visionary planner” and “short-sighted doer” who both live in us. This will help you be more accountable and achieve the behavior change you want.

All three actions are very brain-friendly, especially if you take control. This means deciding what aspect of your day and life you want to manage better, and then choosing how to execute these actions.

For example, if you decide that wearing a uniform will make your life easier—such as Marshall’s ubiquitous green polo shirts with khaki pants—you’ll be fine with your choice.

However, if you feel forced to give up your choices about clothes and anything else important to you, you could be miserable about losing your sense of autonomy.

One size doesn’t fit all in clothes or behavior change. It’s up to each of us to pay attention and identify which environmental factors trigger us positively and negatively.

We then need to try different things on to figure out what works best for our brain to work well without excess depletion.

And recognize that calling for help, such as getting a coach, is a sign of strength, not weakness.

What are you doing to make sure you control your environment more than it controls you?