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From IT Pros to Retired World Travelers

Teresa (49), Michael (42), and their young son are currently living in Cuenca, Ecuador. They’re financially independent, retired early, learning Spanish, and generally enjoying the life of their choosing. They are ordinary people living a seemingly extraordinary life....

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It’s Easier To Control My Environment than to Control Myself

Like anyone, I’m always struggling with habits and wants that don’t always serve my needs and goals. With the beginning of a new year, it’s a good time to be thinking about how to tackle this ubiquitous challenge. I’ve found the best success when I control my environment rather than just relying on will power alone.

It might seem that controlling my environment would actually be harder. But let me unpack it just a bit by showing what that looks like for me in two areas I’m typically looking to improve on: nutrition and buying less stuff.

FOOD

When it comes to food, I have very little self control. I’ve never been able to understand how someone could have a pint of ice cream in the freezer or a bag of chips in the pantry and not eat them all day every day. If the junk food is there, I’ll eat it. When it is, I tell myself, “I’d better eat this up quickly so it’s not here anymore.” The result; a silly amount of chips, chocolate, or cookies throughout the day. Making it even more ridiculous is that I often sneak it behind the kids’ back. Partly because I don’t want them eating that stuff. Mostly because I don’t want to share.

Control What Food is Available at Home

Just don’t buy it! Don’t bring it into the house! This is pretty obvious but I still do it all the time. I’m at the grocery store and think about the cookies I’ll need to make next week for a birthday party. Better get some chocolate chips. I bring them home promising myself I’ll leave them alone until it’s time to bake. Does it work? Nope.

When I’m hungry and don’t have a quick healthy option available, I’ll go for anything to get some calories and quell the hunger pains. I often try so hard to keep the junk food out but forget to replace it with other options. I’m no stranger to boiling a quick pot of pasta and coating it in oil and salt when my only goal is to stop feeling hungry.

I more or less have mealtimes covered. There’s almost always something healthy planned for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The trick is getting us through from one meal to the next without snacking on things that are calorically dense but nutritionally deficient. Our current goal: eat more fruit.

Michael and I recently arrived in Cuenca, Ecuador where we’ll spend the next few months. Produce is amazingly affordable here. It’s a great time for us to get into the habit of keeping fresh fruit on hand at all times.

This is $8 of fruit at the nearby market. Those few cherries on the right were a little extra gift from one of the vendors so we’d be more likely to return to her stall.

This is $8 of fruit at the nearby market. Those few cherries on the right were a little extra gift from one of the vendors so we’d be more likely to return to her stall.

Obviously, it will be a lot more expensive when we return to the States. But it’s certainly still doable. Trader Joe’s charges $0.15 a banana, Costco carries large bags of frozen berries all year long, and pineapples are just about a dollar more than here.

We’ve been in Ecuador almost two weeks now, and the shift to having loads of fruit on hand and eating it whenever we want is going great. We’re eating out a lot less, and don’t even have the option of junk food to eat in the house.

Fortunately, the kids are all about the fruit too. They even like this bizarrely slimy/seedy thing called a Granadilla. As long as you don’t think about fish eggs while you’re eating it, it’s delicious!

I should also note that another attempt at controlling what we consume at home has been to refrain from keeping the house stocked with alcohol. We’ve never had the habit of keeping hard liquor at home (thank goodness, because if we did, I’d always be fixing myself a tasty cocktail). In Colorado, though, we almost always have a fridge full of beer and a box of wine in the cabinet. And. We. Drink. It. All.

Our move to Ecuador has been a good time to tackle this habit of ours. Although we still go out to drink plenty, we promised ourselves we wouldn’t keep beer or wine in the apartment. I thought it’d be tough because at home I’d almost always poor myself a glass of wine after the kids were in bed. I’ve actually been surprised by how little I’ve missed it.

Eating out is a whole other thing. According to this report, the average American eats out 4.5 times a week. Michael and I have always been below that average, but it’s still something we do. How do you control your environment when it comes to restaurants? They’re everywhere.

In this case, I think the best approach is to control the context.

  1. Don’t leave the house hungry. There have been way too many times that I’ve been out running errands and stopped for a Taco Bell bean burrito because I was just too darn hungry.
  2. Don’t allow eating out to be something you regularly do. Make it more of a treat.
  3. Be prepared with food. Do this especially if you messed up on #1. If I have a bag of almonds or a banana in the car I’m definitely not stopping for that bean burrito. This is important on road trips too. We take road trips to visit family a couple times a year, and it helps sooo much when I’ve prepared sandwiches for the drive.

SHOPPING

Of course, controlling your environment isn’t just about food.

Right around Christmas about a month ago, the kids and I made a quick trip to the mall to grab a gift that was on someone’s list. I realize the mall is an American staple, but it’s not somewhere I go very often. Contrarily, I was there almost every weekend when I was about thirteen. You know, getting dropped off with my girlfriends in the minivan by my mom so we could eat ice cream and cruise the coolest shops.

The kids and I made our way to the destination store, Anthropologie. Best described as a clothing/“lifestyle” brand, maybe? Anyway, once in there I kept thinking, “oooh, pretty!” “Oh, wouldn’t that be nice!” As I stood waiting in line, I was looking over the shelving of personal improvement products. In my head: “Activated charcoal body scrub. What?!? I need this!” A small bag was available for the low low price of $16.00.

Of course, I was in there with two small kids and basically needed to escape quickly as I repeatedly reminded my son to “use your eyes, not your hands”. That, and I didn’t really need any activated charcoal body scrub. Or anything else in the store.

So we made our way down the center of the mall towards the play area (admittedly more for me than for them), and I started to notice similar thoughts running through my head as we passed by each store: “oooh, that looks awesome.” “Man, wish I could just buy whatever I want.” “That’s super cute!” Mall display windows know what they’re doing.

Probably because we’re really working on this whole mindful/minimalism thing, I managed to shift my thinking. I started to notice what was going on in my head. I was connecting with a lot of wants that had absolutely nothing to do with my needs.

“Man,” I thought, “It’s a good thing I don’t ever come to the mall!” And that, right there, is the key. What if I did go there all the time? You know, just to cruise the coolest shops? What if it was part of my norm to just stop by to pick up a little something? Wouldn’t I be lured in by all the other things there? Yes. Absolutely.

So the key is, I don’t go to the mall. That way, I minimize how often I have to resist the natural urge to have all the really cool things displayed in the windows. Fancy body scrubs are my equivalent of chocolate chips in the pantry.

I think catalogues that show up in the mail are a lot like going to the mall. When we first moved into our house in Texas, we inherited stacks of catalogues. I’d recycle most of them, but often set aside one or two that sort of peaked my interest. Usually things like Athleta or Sundance. I’d find myself flipping through the pages and wishing I had a super cute pair of yoga pants or a gorgeous beaded necklace.

In our new home in Colorado, catalogues rarely show up. We were very deliberate about forwarding our mail individually (vs. family), which prevents things that don’t specifically have your name from being sent on to your new home.

Obviously, I’m still presented with plenty of shopping temptation when I visit other stores for regular needs. Target is a tough one, because they have basically everything. It’s easy to walk by the pharmacy and think, “oh, ya, I need some bandaids”. I don’t know how to control environments like this and I’m stuck just trying to control myself.

OTHER WAYS TO CONTROL MYSELF BY CONTROLLING MY ENVIRONMENT

Mode of Transportation

One of the reasons we chose our new hometown was because it is so easy to bike just about everywhere. It was one step towards controlling that environment. Where we lived outside of Dallas was definitely not designed with biking in mind. If biking more is a goal of ours, we were never going to get ourselves biking more living in a place where there are no bike lanes and a network of highways dominates the landscape.

Living in Texas, we were able to control our mode of transportation by purchasing a home about a 5 minute walk from Michael’s office. He walked or biked there every single day for 8 years.

Preparing for the trek up the stairs we use on our way home from the kids’ Ecuador school. Marcella insists on doing them all on her own.

Preparing for the trek up the stairs we use on our way home from the kids’ Ecuador school. Marcella insists on doing them all on her own.

Our current home in Cuenca has a profound impact on how we get around. We don’t have a car so we don’t have to consider the option of just driving to get where we want to be more quickly.

While we know we can always hail a taxi and get anywhere in town for $1-$2, we like to keep the kids out of cabs as much as possible. Everything is within a twenty minute walk so we almost never take taxis here. We walk everywhere.

Feedback from Michael’s activity watch 2 week’s after arriving in Cuenca last winter

Feedback from Michael’s activity watch 2 week’s after arriving in Cuenca last winter

Water Consumption

The only way I drink enough water is if I carry a bottle around with me and it’s just right there.

Screen Time

From about 24 to 30, I didn’t have a t.v. It was a conscious decision to force myself to spend more time reading or working on other projects. It worked beautifully before smartphones and tablets came along.

Now, I really struggle to control the urge to always be on my phone. I’m on it waaaay too much. The only way I’ll be able to improve upon this will be to remove my access. Otherwise, I know myself. If it’s there, I’ll use it. To accomplish this, I’ll need to allot certain times of the day when I just don’t keep it in my pocket. Yikes.

Michael’s been able to considerably whittle down his screen time using an app called Moment, but so far this approach hasn’t worked for me.

Michael says this still looks bad, but the actual average across 3M+ phones using Moment is 3h 42m!

Michael says this still looks bad, but the actual average across 3M+ phones using Moment is 3h 42m!

Social Life

This might be more of a stretch, but I really feel like I had to create the environment that would allow me to make friends when we first moved to Colorado. I made some very deliberate moves to be out and about where other moms were out and about.

Because I was pregnant when we arrived, I signed us up for a birthing class mostly so we could connect with other parents. We’ve been getting together regularly ever since the babies were all born.

I also joined a local chapter of the MOMS Club and quickly got involved with the board. That alone is enough to keep the kids and I busy with other moms and their children a couple times during the week.

And, when Marcella was first born, I took the kids to a few gatherings of an informal group of women that would meet at local breweries with their babies. It was in that environment that I met some of my very closest mama friends.

Michael started a Meetup group for folks interested in Financial Independence and Retiring Early (FI/RE) and we’ve met some great people through there.

Before kids, I found it difficult to create the type of environment that would force me (us) to make new friends. In Texas we were lucky to know people from Michael’s high school days. In Washington, though, where we had lived previously, we really never successfully established a community.

What we needed to do, in retrospect, was place ourselves in contexts that would have been conducive to doing just that. Joining Meetup groups, attending hiking clubs, or participating in more volunteer work would have made a difference.

By controlling my environment more than I attempt to control myself, I’m much more successful at moving the needle on some of my goals. The move to Ecuador has really been helpful in providing a fresh context to make some of these changes.

I think somehow marking something as new or different would be helpful even if we hadn’t packed up and switched continents. I suppose that’s why New Years is so popular as a time for resolutions. It marks a transition and can provide the context needed for making changes.

I’d love to hear other ways that people out there are controlling their environment as a strategy for making improvements in their life. Do you have any ideas you’re willing to share?

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10 Comments

  1. Indexia

    Thanks for sharing this article,it was very helpful going through and finally learnt to control environment.Thanks a lot

    Reply
    • Ellen

      Thank you… I’m pretty sure we all have room for improvement!

      Reply
  2. Carl

    I struggle with the stupid phone too. Putting it on airplane mode helps me. That little extra barrier to checking my email/ Twitter/ Facebook is enough to stave off most of my impulses.

    Reply
    • Ellen

      Carl, airplane mode is a great idea… if only I could convince myself to do it! I KNOW I spend way too much time on my phone but I haven’t gotten to the point that I’m willing to do anything about it. Thank goodness I’m not on Twitter because I’m sure it’d be another deep, dark hole for me. I have seriously narrowed down FB groups I follow and brought down Instagram accounts to just 10 – 12. That has helped a lot. The news app on my phone is probably my biggest addiction.

      Reply
  3. Diana

    One way I’ve tried to control the impact my email inbox has on my life is by using a Chrome app called Boomerang (they have a mobile app also). I’m really into “inbox zero” but I also use emails as reminders to do things: get a dress hemmed, email a customer, read an article, etc. When they pile up, they stress me out. With Boomerang you can tell an email to go away until you will actually do the thing the email is serving as a reminder to do. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but it helps! (You can also make a note on an email for when it comes back to you and you can also have emails come back to you by a certain time if you haven’t heard back from someone you sent an email to!) I saved on the cost of the service by buying an annual subscription during a Cyber Monday deal.

    Reply
    • Michael

      Thanks for sharing that, Di! I haven’t played with Boomerang, but I tried out a similar service—SaneBox—and really liked it. If I ever find myself managing a large volume of emails again, I’ll definitely use a service like that.

      Reply
  4. Mrs Doodlepop

    What great timing of this post! I was just reading an article on Nerd Fitness on setting up your environment for success (“How to build a batcave for habit change” is the hysterical title of the article). Loved reading how you and your family do that! We have been focusing on eating healthier and I totally agree that the key for us is to not keep junk food in the house. That fruit looks delicious! We just returned from Costa Rica and are missing all the fresh fruit and yummy natural juices. Enjoy Cuenca!

    Reply
    • Ellen

      Ha… who doesn’t need a bat cave?!? We’ve been in Cuenca for three weeks now, and I’m feeling so much better. Costa Rica is on our short list of places to explore. It’s hard to beat the abundance of fresh, whole foods!

      Reply
  5. FUllTimeFinance

    Your setting up some nudges to keep yourself in line, great idea. To some extent I do this with spending by setting up barriers like separate accounts to money outside our budget. Save first into a 401k, savings account, Roth discourages me from spending.

    Reply
    • Ellen

      Yes, it makes so much sense to create some boundaries around money as well. I grew up with super frugal parents, so I’ve always leaned that way as well. Not that I don’t have plenty of room for improvement, but it’s not an area that I have struggled to control. I consider myself really lucky that Michael has done tons of research on how best to sort our money into different investment funds.

      Reply

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