If somebody puts Mint Creme Oreos on our kitchen counter, I will eat them. Why? Because they’re there. I will also put on weight and my blood sugar will get jacked out of proportion. Rarely will I win the battle to say “no.” After all, they’re small, taste so good, and they’re there.
Jonathan Cawte calls this the Law of Food Proximity. Briefly, “If you can see it, smell it, or reach it, you will eat it.”
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear—chapter 6 “Motivation Is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More”—tells the story of Anne Thorndike, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who wanted to change the eating habits of staff and visitors to the hospital. She and her colleagues did this by designing a six-month experiment in “choice architecture” in the hospital cafeteria. By simply adding bottled water to the refrigerators next to the cashiers, which had previously contained only soft drinks, and positioning additional bottles of water in spots all over the cafeteria, they saw a soda sales decline of 11.4 percent and an increase in bottled water sales of 25.8 percent. This is the power of proximity. More water + less soda = healthier staff and guests.
We tend to make choices based on physics—location—rather than ideals. It’s easier. Advertisers know this and design grocery store layouts strategically to leverage this basic human tendency. Why do you think the Kit-Kat bars are staring at you while you wait in the checkout line?
What and who you have close at hand will largely determine the life you live. Jim Rohn has said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The choices in food, friends, function, and fun at your arm’s length are worth knowing and designing intentionally.
Here are some practical suggestions to design your environment for the outcomes you want:
- Keep healthy foods in reach and in sight. Put junk food, if you have it, in a place where you must stand on tiptoes or a chair to reach it. Your brain will often translate that little bit of effort into, “Too much work. Just eat a piece of fruit.”
- Keep exercise equipment out and close at hand. I telecommute and keep dumbbells in my home office two feet from my desk. They’re there, so I lift every day.
- Put an app on your smartphone to limit time on social media. Constant nibbles on Facebook and Instagram are about as healthy as constant nibbles on the Oreos.
- If you’re a musician, keep your instrument out of the case where you can grab it quickly. Even a little practice, done daily, adds up. I always keep a guitar out and on a stand.
- Choose your social environments, and therefore your friends, wisely. A lot of our friends have become so simply because of proximity. Same workplace, same watering holes, same church and civic groups.
Outliers: The Story of Success (Malcolm Gladwell)
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (David Allen)
The Magic of Thinking Big (David J. Schwartz)