Life’s urgent and alluring distractions will always be nudging you off the high road and onto the easy path, diverting you from the straight and narrow onto a winding, more scenic route.
That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Knowing that your feet will often stumble onto it, here are two strategies you can use to set up the winding path so that it still ends up going in the right direction.
The first is noticing what triggers you or diverts you into behaviours you weren’t planning on doing when you started your day, and reducing those unhelpful triggers in your environment.
The second is to develop ways to put the human tendency to be easily distracted to good use, by setting up deliberate prompts that help keep you pointed in the right direction.
What is a trigger in your environment, and how does it affect you?
Picture this scenario: I go to the office to put something away, and a series of triggers occurs that lead me in totally unplanned directions:
• While I’m in the office, I see my open laptop on the desk which triggers a memory of an idea for an article I had earlier.
• I sit down to tap the idea out quickly, and doing so triggers a memory of something I want to look up in relation to the article idea.
• I open a search engine and as I do that, in comes a small child, whining because she’s hungry or needs help.
• I’m triggered to get up to help or feed the child.
Life leads on from there, and later in the day I can’t find the item I went to the office to put away, which results in lost time and frustration while I search for it.
A path that leads to no-where
A lot of the time life is living us, not the other way around.
This is especially true in our home environments – possibly the place where we most want to be able to focus on what’s important to us.
While work environments are usually set up in order that people can focus on the work, home environments have to fulfill many purposes, for people of different ages and with different priorities – which creates a conflicting mishmash of triggers and distractions.
Add in a few powerful digital distraction devices, the diverse necessities of running a home, and perhaps a dose of parental exhaustion, worry, or overwhelm, and what you end up with is a winding path that leads no-where.
The question is not, “Will you be distracted?” but, “What will distract you?”
How can you be more proactive about the triggers that you’ll inevitably stumble on throughout the day?
With some careful thought and some trial and error, you can set up deliberate triggers that will remind you of the habits and behaviours you know are important. You can also reduce the triggers in your environment that lead you into doing unplanned and unimportant things.
Props, triggers, and how they go together to lead you in the right direction
A “prop” is an item or tool that makes it easier to carry out a behaviour or habit you want to do regularly. A “trigger” is just a “reminder,” a thing that prompts you.
Place your props and triggers in places where they’ll prompt and enable you to do a particular thing at a particular place or time.
As much as you can, remove the unwanted props and triggers that tend to send you off in the wrong direction.
Want your family to drink more water and consume less sugar during the day? Place a water jug in the middle of the kitchen table, or a water bottle in the car. Stop buying fruit juices, cordial, or soft drinks, or at least hide them in the back of the pantry where people will have to work a bit harder to access them.
Want to reduce screen time? Put the screen inside something, where it’s harder to access. Put the tv in a closet (or better yet, give it away). Put the smart phone in a dark cupboard, way at the back. Before you do, remove Facebook and other social media aps .
Here are some examples from my life, of how I’ve used props and triggers (sometimes they are one and the same) to nudge things along in the right direction.
• Several years ago, we planted a food forest in what we thought was a good location. Turns out it wasn’t, because although we see it every day when we drive in and out, we rarely walk there, and never with tools in hand.
Recently, I planted a second, very small food forest right across from our porch where we enter and leave the house, and where our hand tools are kept.
Its location makes this little food forest a visual trigger, reminding me to care for it regularly when I step outside and pick up my tools for whatever I’m doing outside that day.
In contrast, the first food forest we planted, in the out of the way spot, is having to survive according to the STUN method (Sheer, Total, Utter Neglect). We see it, we intend to maintain it, but our good intentions never translate into action.
Yes, if you’re a keen student of Permaculture, this is Permaculture Zoning in action.
• When I wanted to stop using disposable, single use wipes, I struggled. I kept reaching for the wipes because they were so easy and convenient.
Finally, I tried approaching the problem from another angle: I stopped buying the wipes before I knew what I was going to replace them with.
The presence of the wipes within easy reach was acting as a trigger and a prop for a habit I wanted to stop doing. To change the habit, I removed the trigger/prop.
Once I no longer had easy access to them, I came up with alternatives that work. (Necessity is the mother of invention.) Now I can’t remember why I felt so dependent on them.
• A few months ago, I wanted to establish a habit of going barefooted more often for healthier, more mobile feet and overall well-being.
The time I’m most tempted to put boots on is as I’m leaving the house when it’s wet and muddy outside. Sitting on the porch between me and the mud, my boots were acting as a powerful prop/trigger for a habit I wanted to drop.
So, I took my boots from the porch and placed them waaayy over at the chicken shed, on the other side of the veggie gardens. Now, I have to walk all the way over there to get my boots, by which time my feet are wet and I’m over my initial resistance to going barefoot.
My barefoot time has increased hugely, my feet feel stronger and I’m delighted with my new habit – and all I did was put my boots in a different place.
• Stretching my back and legs throughout the day was something I needed to start doing, but it kept getting put off. A minor health issue developed into a crisis when I developed sciatica that caused a lot of pain and severely limited my movement.
My search for solutions was a long one, but the outcome of it was that next to my oven, there is now a low stool. It serves as both a trigger and a prop. The act of bending down to the oven reminds me that my back and legs are stiff. The stool invites me, after I’m done with the oven, to put my hands on it and relax into a stretch.
This simple ritual (repeated with strategically placed stools, yoga bricks, or steps in a few other locations around my house as well) has completely resolved my sciatica issue.
The trajectory of your life
A small habit like pausing for a stretch after placing something in the oven doesn’t seem like much. But added up over weeks, months, or a lifetime, it becomes a lot.
With each small choice, each small habit, you are choosing and refining the trajectory of your life.
The hard way to manage your life trajectory is by reacting to whatever life puts in front of you.
The easy way is by ensuring that more of what is in front of you was put there beforehand, deliberately, by you – so that the right thing to do is more often the easiest thing to do.
Coming up next
In the next article, we’re going to invest some attention into making sure that as well as being easy to stumble into, the habits you need are also easy to carry out.
Kate writes at ARealGreenLife.com and is working on producing a free downloadable PDF of this Series and a Cheat Sheet to help you remember the main points and apply them in your day to day life.
Endnotes I wrote in depth about why we humans are so prone to distractions, in “From Procrastination to Results.”
 You’ll find these examples and dozens of others in the excellent work of James Clear.
 There are other examples in Parts 3 and 4 of “From Procrastination to Results.”