Changing behaviors: Shape Your Environment to Guarantee Success

Plants grow because the environment is right. Often a seed will sit waiting inert in the ground until the conditions are perfect to give it the best chance of success before it starts to grow.

The only difference between you and that seed is that you can change your environment to create the best possible conditions to grow.

Success is built on behaviors, and as much as we may frame what we’re doing in terms of goals, behaviors are what get us to the finish line. For example:

Goal: To deadlift 450lbs

Behavior: Go to the gym 4x week (and probably train deadlifts as part of your routine!)

The problem is that making behavioral changes is pretty hard if you don’t set them up for success from the start.

Let’s play this out as two scenarios:

Our client has been advised by their doctor to reduce their carbohydrate intake. A nutritionist has identified that the most important immediate behavior to change is to cut down on sugary sodas, which the client consumes several times a day.

In scenario A, the client goes home, tells their spouse what the doctor has said. The spouse immediately throws out all the soda in the house and pledges to support their partner in following the doctor’s advice.  

In scenario B, the client’s spouse acknowledges their need to cut out sugary drinks, but becomes defensive and says that they are unwilling to do so themselves. This means that there will be soda in the house, and other people will continue to consume it around the client.

In which scenario do you think the client has more chance of succeeding?

In scenario B, the client is going to have to constantly rely on willpower, and if they can tough it out and succeed then that is great and impressive. However, with no support from their partner and a constant temptation that is always just within reach, success is unlikely.

In scenario A, the client has a much better chance. The client has someone to encourage and support them, as well as keeping them accountable. They also cannot break their commitment without having to go through a lot of extra steps like going to the store to buy soda.

Because of the supportive and temptation-free environment, the client has in scenario A has a greater chance of success. And although we cannot control how other people will react to your desire to change, these scenarios show how willpower is not the only factor at play when introducing a new behavior.


You probably have a task that you should do more often. Create an environment where success is the most probable outcome and, from the start, you are more likely to stick to that behavior. In turn, you will reap the rewards, which makes you even more likely to stick with it once there are tangible benefits. 

Here is a simple example:

Say, you are constantly forgetting to bring fruit with you to work and then you end up eating candy or snacks from the vending machine. This makes you feel lousy and sluggish, which makes it harder to stick to your eating goals. Basically, it is something you don’t want to do, but somehow you always end up doing.

There are two simple things you can do to address this:

1. Leave your keys in the fruit bowl every night when you get home so you have a reminder to grab a piece of fruit on your way out in the morning.

2. Make sure you never have change for the vending machine, when you get change, immediately get rid of it. Stick it in a tip jar, give it to a homeless person, or just keep a piggy bank on your desk (one you need to break to open) so that it is almost impossible to use the vending machine.  

Here’s how you can apply this to your own behaviors: pick something you want to do every day, then tie it to something you must do every day. Then, every time you hit the “must-do” activity, you are reminded to do the “want to do” activity.
Another working example of this can be seen in Pavel Tsatsouline's Greasing the Groove training methodology. He proposes that if you want to do more chin ups, put a chin-up bar in your house. Every time you walk under the bar, you do half of your maximum number of reps. Over time this adds up to a lot of reps with very little fatigue and very little time spent.

Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
Read more from Devon Boorman.