Context is King

In Essays, Self Improvement

I have always enjoyed thinking about behavioural change, and I have successfully manage to change many of my behaviours over the years, both consciously and unconsciously.

Then, the other day, I read a really interesting paragraph in “Happiness by Design” by Paul Dolan:

Indeed, intentions explain, at most, only about a quarter of the variation in changes in health behaviours such as exercise, leaving three-quarters to be explained by factors associated with the specific contexts that trigger an action – such as whether you have a nice outdoor area to exercise in or a gym at your office.

At one point in my life, I was grotesquely overweight, coming in at around 110kg (242 pounds) for an 180cm (six foot) man. I then made a move from London to Sicily, and suddenly my context was cycling around the beautiful Sicilian countryside where 95% of the roads are mountainous, and a couple of years later I found myself at around 80kg.

Conversely, moving away from Sicily to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a city which is distinctly not cycling friendly, and also lacks parks, my weight went back up to 94kg (207 pounds).

So I decided to switch my context and I signed up for a long-term gym membership and hired a personal trainer to ensure that I would turn up. Lo and behold, I’m already at 88kg (194 pounds) and I am hoping to reach back to 80kg and perhaps lower in the next six months.

Except for my last example, where I made a conscious and informed decision to change my behaviour, my weight gain and loss over the last five years have been completely due to context.

Obviously, context without intention is no good, but intention without context is very difficult because you will find reasons at every step of the way for not doing something.

After all, thinking about something doesn’t actually accomplish anything, it’s action – or the lack of – that moves us forwards or backwards.

To give you another trivial example, I noticed that when I moved apartments a few months back I stopped writing as many essays, until I realised that I had changed chairs on my desk and it wasn’t as comfortable as before, and hence I spent less time writing on my computer each morning than I otherwise would.

In a way, this is quite depressing.

My entire philosophical development as a person, which has a focus on reading, writing, and discussion, lost part of one of its three main pillars purely because of an uncomfortable chair. This doesn’t lend credibility to the idea that we can be indestructible and achieve an iron will and focus, but rather that we – at least – can be quite fickle in how we lead our lives based purely on coincidental outside factors that are largely out of our control.

However, there is hope.

I have come to the realisation that the best strategy is to use the intention you have towards changing something about yourself (i.e. losing weight) to trigger long-lasting context changes (i.e. Signing up for the gym, hanging out with healthier friends, etc) that will give you the results you want.

As this focus on the context can be responsible for up to 75% of the results, it really is worth paying attention. So instead of thinking about wanting to be a well-read person, skip a night out on the town, and use the money to buy three or four books and leave them around the house, and that is already a huge step towards your goal, and you’ve not even read a single word yet!