Your house is holding you back -- seriously


In 2010, I woke up one Saturday morning and decided to stop eating sugar. I would only eat beans, veggies, and meat from then on.

A year later, I was still reliably eating the same way.

I didn’t need to “baby step” anything, change my environment, or build any fancy cues into my context.


I just did it.

A couple of years later, I decided that I was going to start weightlifting. I was going to get “jacked” (as the young whippersnappers say).

So I did what any thoroughly nerdy behavioral scientist would do: I came up with a behavior-change plan. I tweaked my apartment to support my goals.

I made sure to put my gym shorts and shoes in front of my door before going to bed so I would bump into them first thing in the morning.

I got a membership to the closest gym to my house, and even purchased these snazzy things called “Perfect Pushup” handles—so that I could some a bodyweight workout at home if I was too lazy to go to the gym. I got special headphones meant for the noisy gym environment so I could listen to an audiobook or one of my favorite podcasts while grunting away on the bench press.

Oh, and I also talked my roommate, an affable and muscular gym-goer named Jake, into inviting me to his daily workouts—so I had the whole social pressure thing added in.

I had created the perfect soup of behavior-design tweaks. There was no way I would fail.

Except somehow I did.

After a month or two of hitting the iron, I just stopped going.

Jake’s invitations were ignored. My gym shoes and shorts were cast aside.

My perfect pushup handles were buried under a pile of clothes.

All was right in the world. I was, and would remain, my slightly puffy self.

Then, something big happened.

I moved.

I packed up my computer, my bed, and my shorts and went across town—to a cozy part of the city called Duboce Triangle.

That’s when my turnaround began.

Before I knew it, I was going to the gym 6 days a week. My shirts got small, my abs started to protrude, and my protein powder budget went through the roof.

Another successful habit!

At the time, I was kind of confused. I wondered why I was able to so easily become a gym rat in my new place when all my previous efforts had resulted in failure.

Then it hit me: It’s because I was in a new context.

Habits are like reflexes. They’re automatic responses we initiate when we have a certain problem and are in a familiar context with a known solution.

As I’ve written in the past: “Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.”

This is why I think the best thing people can do for their own self-development is to move houses (or cities) every couple of years. Nothing will jolt you out of your current set of habits faster than a move.

It’s a chance to wipe the slate clean and start over again.

When I moved to my new place in Duboce Triangle, I was able to start fresh. I was able to re-write my behavioral repertoire—and I made gym-goin’ one of my primary focuses.

So that explains the success of my gym habit… but does it explain the earlier success I had with my diet?

Actually, it does.

My first four years in San Francisco, I ended up living in 5 different places (don’t ask).

It was a chaotic (and hilarious) time. I have some epic stories from that period of my life I’ll write about sometime. But the important thing is that every ~10 months I was able to build a new set of habits that better matched my ever-evolving priorities.

I made the sugar-free lifestyle one of my behavioral focuses soon after I moved into a new place in 2010, and was able to quickly make it an effortless part of my routine.

But I fell into a set of bad habits when I was living with Jake, which had solidified by the time I tried to turn the ship around with my (failed) behavior-design offensive.

It wasn't until I wiped the slate clean again with my move to Duboce that I was able to realize my fitness goals.

You may feel like you're stuck in a rut right now--and you might be. if you're young and you don't have a family, you should seriously consider shaking things up a bit. If you're tied to your apartment, your house, your city... well, that's a harder problem. In that case, all you can do is use an accurate understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, and personality to figure out the *right* new behaviors/habits to do. Habit hacks and tweaks won't help you.

But personality-based habit formation is another topic for another time...

Until tomorrow,


PS: Happy 2019!

PPS: If you want to book time with me to talk about habit formation, personality science, new year’s resolutions, etc. you can do it here: