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Engineer Your Environment for More Productive Habits

The gist: We know friends and family influence our habits. So does the space you work in. For more productive habits, engineer your environment to encourage them.


1970s America faced a big problem. The Vietnam war was winding down and the troops were coming home… addicted to heroin.

There was widespread panic, and a plan was concocted. Addicted troops would be held until they’d sobered up then sent home with methadone prescriptions and carefully monitored for relapses.

But the plan was never really implemented. Turns out, it wasn’t necessary. The troops came home and, for the most part, kicked their addictions and reintegrated into society. Less than 5% of them ever relapsed.

A simple change of scenerey cured their addiction.1

Decades of followup research has uncovered why: The environment you exist in—what you’re surrounded by, has a profound impact on the way you behave. Different environments encourage different habits.

Image courtesy of Anne Worner
Image courtesy of Anne Worner

Your Habits Are A Product Of Your Environment

What do you think about when you sit down at your computer to read your email? Probably nothing.

Once you’ve done something enough times in the same place, your brain can offload all the work it takes to remember how to do it.

Checking your email seems like the simplest task, but it really isn’t. To understand why, imagine you time traveled here from 100 years ago. You’ve never even seen a computer.

What are all the steps, movements, and information you’d have to learn before you could read your email? How long would it take just to figure out how to turn your computer on?

Yet, here you are. When you sit down at your desk, your habit takes over and you’re inside your inbox before you know it. That’s the way habits work.

At the same time, if you’re not in front of your computer and your phone is put away, you’re probably not thinking about email. You can go all day, in fact, without it crossing your mind.

But as soon as you sit down at your computer again, boom! There you are reading your email.

There’s a special connection between the things you do and the places you do them. This is critical to know if you have a bad habit you want to break… or a productive one you’d like to start.

To Change A Habit, Change Your Environment

I keep a pretty strict work schedule.

I’m able to make progress on my most important projects every day despite not having a boss to dictate my priorities or set deadlines.

Of course, some days are easier than others. And on the hard ones, there’s one place I can always go to work without struggle—a coffee shop.

Over time, I’ve created some psychological link between being in a coffee shop and being productive. When I show up, priorities magically become more clear and hard work becomes easier.

I usually find myself feeling this way at Starbucks—it’s convenient—but it could be any similar cafe. Time and again, I’ve turned to a coffee shop in my most desperate moments of procrastination. Eventually, my body and mind got used to being productive in those spaces.

If I’d turned to a bathtub or a nightclub instead, those places probably would have produced the same result.

Habits, both good and bad, can also be tied to the feelings and circumstances that come with an environment.

Wendy Wood, one of the lead researchers of the heroin addicted soldiers of the 70s makes the case that once a certain feeling is associated with an environment, it can drive your behavior whether you want it to or not. “We don’t feel sort of pushed by the environment,” Wood says. “But, in fact, we’re very integrated with it.”

This explains why a soldier suffering the hell of war can be addicted to heroin halfway across the world but, when they return to stability at home, the problem disappears.

And it gives a clue to why giving homeless people houses leads to a similar outcome.2 3 It’s harder and less effective to break a drug addiction in the same environment that produced it in the first place.

All that to say: If you want to stop wasting time in the morning, the first step is to find a different place to go when you wake up.

Do This Now: Identify Your Trigger Environments

To break a bad habit, figure out where you tend to be when you do that bad habit. Your environment is taking over for your brain and, until you figure out where these things happen, you’ll be relatively helpless to change them.

  1. Tempted to waste time between tasks when you’re on your computer? Try working offline for your most important tasks.
  2. Can’t focus when you’re in a cubicle? Find an empty conference room. Or head to a coffee shop.
  3. Always make mistakes when you work from home? Put your clothes on and go to the office for mission critical work.

When you identify where you’re most likely to do the things you wish you wouldn’t, you’ll improve your odds of actually stopping.

And the same holds true for creating new, productive habits. If you want the best shot at starting and sticking to a habit, pick a spot where you’ll always do it.

Footnotes

  1. Source: What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits
  2. Source: Pathways to housing: supported housing for street-dwelling homeless individuals with psychiatric disabilities.
  3. Source: Substance Abuse and Homelessness. See “Relationship to Homelessness.”