How Your Environment Works Against You (And How To Fight Back!)

I have a question for you.

If you clicked on this post, then you probably want to be healthier or more productive.

If that’s the case, what’s holding you back? Why aren’t you as healthy or productive as you want to be?

(OK, that was two questions. And no, I didn’t bring you here to shame you. Just the opposite, in fact. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.)

I’ve asked this question to a lot of readers, and the most common answers are pretty telling:

  • “I need to work on my self-control”
  • “I just need to stop spending so much time on Facebook”
  • “I have to force myself to eat healthier”
  • “I don’t manage my time very well”

Notice anything?

All of those answers focus on willpower and decision-making.

Here’s the problem: you make thousands of tiny decisions each day. Studies have shown that each decision taxes your brain. The harder the decision, the more taxing it is. Making multiple difficult decisions throughout the day (avoiding that cookie, closing your Facebook tab, etc…) uses up your cognitive “reserves” and leaves you tired, stressed and much more likely to FAIL to make smart decisions.

That’s why many people who start a new diet do really well all day, and then binge in the evening when they’re mentally exhausted (sound familiar?).

But what if we could take willpower OUT of the equation?

What if there were something even more powerful than willpower, that could help us be healthier, more productive and more successful in work and life, and that was much easier to change?

There is.

And it’s all around us.

The Psychology of Your Environment

Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating and founder of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, ran an experiment on a group of office workers.

Wansink and his research partner, Dr. Jim Painter, gave each of their subjects a bowl of candy.

  • The first week of the study, the bowl of candy was placed on the corner of the subject’s desk.
  • The second week, it was placed in the top left-hand desk drawer.
  • The third week, it was placed on a file cabinet six feet away.

Here’s what the researchers observed:

When the candy was on the desk, the average subject ate nine pieces per day. When the candy was put inside the desk, that average dropped to six. And when the candy was placed six feet away — and the subject had to stand up to get it — the average plummeted to four, a drop of more than 55% just from taking the candy off of the desk and putting it out of reach.

What does this teach us?

The more work you have to do — however marginal it may seem — to do something, the less likely you are to do it.

It seems obvious, but we never think about this kind of thing. And it applies everywhere: your environment controls your decisions more than you do.

It’s a simple yet unconventional truth that, once you accept it, can completely change your life.

How to Create a Healthier Home Office

Many offices, schools and institutions hire “Choice Architects” already know and use these principles to change the location, positioning and pricing of different food items to nudge people into healthier choices..

In the home office, you don’t have a fancy six-figure consultant to tell you where to put the cupcakes.

“We’ll put these way in the back here. That’ll be $120,000, please.”

“We’ll put these way in the back here. That’ll be $120,000, please.”

But I’m going to help you redesign your environment today for free. It’ll take less than an hour, and you’ll reap the benefits for life.

Using the insights from Dr. Wansink’s research, making these two simple changes will lead to a healthier working environment:

If you don’t want to eat candy every day, don’t have it in your office.In fact, keep any foods you don’t want to eat out of sight. If you want it, and you see it, you’ll probably eat it. Take junk food off of the counters. If you have it in the house, put it deep into the cupboards. Make yourself work for it. You’d be surprised at how much more powerful sticking your ice cream way in the back of the freezer (behind that frosted-over steak you haven’t touched in three years) is than trying to exercise self control every time you walk past your fridge.

Make healthier foods easier to choose than unhealthier ones. It’s a lot easier to grab a handful of chips than to make yourself a salad or another fresh, healthy meal. Here’s a simple way to solve that problem: pretend you’re actually commuting to an office. Pack a lunch that’s ready to eat, so that when it comes time to actually eat, your decision is already made and your food is already prepared.

Designing for Productivity and Focus

These same powerful principles of environment design can (and should) be applied to our workspaces: your office space might be actively getting in the way of your productivity without you even realizing it.

1) Minimize Your Workspace

Look around you.

If you have papers, business cards, junk mail, anything distracting at all on your desk, than your environment is already working against you.

Those papers and junk mail? That’s candy for your eyes. It’s easier to look at and think about than the more difficult work on the screen or page in front of you, and as long as it sits within arm’s reach, your gaze will always wander over there when you hit a roadblock.

Not good.

Not productive.

Remove everything from your desk that isn’t directly related to the task at hand.

If you’re used to a cluttered desk, this will seem weird at first. It’ll take some getting used to.

But when you need to get work done and your mind wants you to get distracted, it’ll have nowhere else to turn.

2) Turn off Digital Distractions

The reason we keep going back to Facebook, Twitter and Gmail instead of getting our work done?

Because it’s so, SO much easier.


Make it harder to visit distracting websites than to actually do your work.

I recommend using a site blocker: a free program that literally blocks your browser from visiting the sites you tell it to block. Alternatively, you can have it block all sites, or all sites except those you need to do your work.

I like StayFocusd for Chrome and LeechBlock for Firefox (I have no affiliation with either). If you don’t need the internet to do your work, then I recommend going whole hog and installing something like Freedom, which completely blocks your computer’s internet connection when you need to work.

3) Optimize Your To-Do List

Your to-do list, whether it’s on paper or on your computer, is one of the most critical parts of your environment when it comes to productivity. It’s purpose is to dictate exactly what you should be doing with your time, without making you think or struggle.

Yet for some reason, many of us stick to old to-do list habits that hold us back.

To avoid your to-do list becoming an environmental distraction that you spend more time staring at than acting on, follow these three simple guidelines:

  • Every item on your list should be a simple action, not a project or an outcome. You shouldn’t have to think about what the very next step is, because the very next step is on your list. For example, instead of “write blog post about productivity,” the next to-do list task might be “find Dr. Wansink study on candy bowl,” followed by “outline productivity blog post sections,” and so on… (More on breaking down your to-do list here).
  • The list is sacred. You can not half-ass this, putting some of your tasks on your list, others on Post-It notes around the office, and others in a note on your phone. The whole point of the list is to encourage mindless productivity so that you don’t need to think about what to do next. Your to-do list is the be-all and end-all of what you need to be doing with your time.
  • You may not have any task on your list for longer than two weeks. We all want to read more books and clean the garage, but if you haven’t made time to do something in two weeks, then accept that it’s simply not that important to you. Worse, you look at that task every time you see your list, which makes you feel guilty for not doing it. Guilt is not a productive emotion. Some people keep a separate list for things you might do “someday,” but whether you choose to do that or not, be brutally honest with yourself and take your ignored tasks off of your to-do list. (If you’re struggling to build a habit, read this).

Do This Now

Choose one simple thing that you’ll do to re-engineer your environment for better health, focus or productivity.

And then, make it happen. Once you see the impressive results that one simple change to your environment can make, you’ll be hooked.

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