This is a 3-part series on sustainable change. In my experience January is a great month for understanding what doesn't work for personal change, at least change that lasts. It at least helps to identify intention, which can be re-booted now for change that is sustainable and successful. In this first part, we look at environmental design.

What should you do if you want to quit smoking, and all your friends smoke? The clear and controversial answer is to get new friends of course!

Whether you believe Jim Rohn who said “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with”, is a moot point. What is clear is that our social circle will greatly affect our behaviour, and that is but one half of the environment that will dictate whether or not we hold those New Year resolutions. The other half of the equation is your physical environment. 

Let us consider a simple example. At work, you want to commit to taking the stairs at every opportunity instead of the elevator. Your immediate environment will ensure you succeed, or fail, irrespective of your steely willpower in those first dark mornings in January.

Consider your social circle first. Walking along in deep conversation with your colleagues, and you will more than likely be swept along in the usual flow towards the elevator.

If you do happen to find yourself alone, the built environment takes over. In the vast majority of office spaces the elevator is the first thing you see, the space being designed to make that the natural choice. The staircase entrance, on the other hand, is usually hidden along a dark corridor. With your mind being full of emails, conversations, and deadlines, being mindful of that staircase entrance -- just like taking a step out from your group of colleagues to be the sole stair climber -- takes extra effort which is hard to sustain after the first few days of January motivation ebb away.

Simplicity is the key for environmental design. At home, I look to test and implement simple changes that are pivotal in building a healthy and productive daily routine. For several years I've kickstarted my day with a 10 minute mat Pilates session. The key to building this in was having the mat in plain view. That way, rather than blearily fetching coffee as part of my daily stumble out of bed, unfurling that mat was part of the new natural flow. It's a similar, even simpler principle to that of laying out your workout clothes the night before that early morning training session.

So how may you positively design your environment at work to help you towards a healthier 2016? Here’s 5 easy things you can do right now:

1. Get a standing desk. Now moving towards the mainstream in office furniture the days of having to splash the cash with Steelcase are gone. Mechanical versions are now available for a couple of hundred euros, or even just use a few stacks of printing paper to bring your existing desk to the required height. Standing desks may have received the inevitable backlash after being de rigeur a couple of years ago, but if University of Lancashire research shows that standing 3-4 hours a day at work is the equivalent calorie burn to running 10 marathons a year, then surely it’s worth a go. Hey, 5 marathons is a good start. Try running an experiment by locking the office chairs away one afternoon a week and note the energy difference in your team.

2. Change up the vending machine. Aware of those dodgy decisions taken by your team after the brief pauses in marathon meetings? Blood sugar is likely to blame. Have you ever watched your kids run around crazy after having a sugar fix? The same is happening in companies and boardrooms around the world.

3. Nudge posters. Visibility worked for the quality movement, communicating key messages to the workforce. Take a design-driven approach to nudging with some light-touch images, such as footprints towards the staircase.

4. Create an inviting staircase. The amazing irony is that many companies have a health and safety policy which bans employees from taking the stairs, caught up in a liability frenzy regarding potential falls. Even if employees have the green light to take the stairs, they are often cold, shadowy places that do nothing to encourage stair-climbing. Architects talk of the concept of the irresistible staircase yet even simple things like good lighting can make it a more mainstream choice.

5. Permission. Last, but most important of all, you need permission from your boss. Or at least a culture that is supportive of your new behaviours. I'm a big believer in asking for forgiveness rather than permission in many circumstances, but given the fragility of new behaviours, I don't think it applies here. So permission to get away from the desk, to not equate work and productivity with sitting time, and to be judged on results rather than visibility.

Environmental design is the first piece of the puzzle for sustainable change. Without employing a new Architect to build a brand-new office space or the even more drastic choice of finding new friends, simple design choices will help drive a healthier you, and a higher performing organization. So what's worked for you?

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