Control your environment before it controls you

The surprising impact that our physical, virtual and social spaces have on us

Hello to the 463 Intentional Wisdomer’s receiving today’s email! This week, I fell down a rabbit hole learning about environment design. You know how we think we’re just walking around exercising free will in complete control of our thoughts, emotions, and motivations? Well, about that… it’s not so true. In reality, our environments are shaping us more than we think. But there are some smart things that we can do to influence them before they influence us. I’m a novice in this area, so fill me in on what I’m missing.

💡The big idea

One of the hottest debates at the moment is around what life should look like in the wake of the pandemic, especially as it relates to where we should physically work.

There are passionate views on all sides—with some adamant that being in the office is essential, and others arguing that "work from home" or "work from anywhere" are viable alternatives that result in increased happiness without an accompanying loss of productivity.

In my book, Say Good Morning, Like a Human, I wrote a chapter about how no single topic can stir up as much controversy, back-channeling, and angst as a reshuffling of the office seating arrangement.

Why do people have such deep, visceral emotions about where they physically work?

Well, to put it simply, because it matters. And it matters a lot.

It turns out that our environments shape our experiences and even our own behaviors much more than many of us probably give them credit for.

Winston Churchill recognized the importance of our environments. In a speech calling for the House of Commons to be rebuilt in the wake of WWII, he said:

"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."

James Clear, in his book, Atomic Habits, said:

"Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior."

When we think about our environments, we tend to think of the physical spaces that we occupy, but there's actually more to consider. The environments that "shape us" certainly include our physical spaces, but they also increasingly include the virtual environments where we spend time, along with the social environments that we cultivate.

In thinking about how to optimize our environments for the outcomes we aim to achieve—whether that's being happier, healthier, or more productive—it's worth considering Who, What, and Where.

🤷‍♂️Who (We Let In)

Jim Rohn famously said, "you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with." While it's up for debate just how precise a statement this actually is, there's no denying that who we associate with has a massive impact on virtually every part of our lives, from our career success to our fitness, to or our overall happiness.

There's a concept in psychology known as the Pygmalion Effect, which basically asserts that we rise (or fall) to the level of expectations that have been set for us. It can be seen in many settings, including in our social circles. In short, we're likely to take on the characteristics, cultures, and indeed expectations, of the groups where we spend the bulk of our time—good or bad.

✔Are your friends focused on physical fitness? You're more likely to get in shape.

✔Are your friends focused on career advancement? You're more likely to get promoted.

✔Are your friends focused on philanthropy? You're more likely to give.

But it works both ways.

❌Do your friends tend to drink excessively? You're likely to do the same.

❌Is smoking acceptable to your friends? You're more likely to smoke.

As you dig into this, the evidence supporting these influences is compelling and even a little scary because more often than not we're assimilating into these cultures not by conscious choice, but rather by a subconscious desire to fit in.

So basically your mom was right. Your friends ARE a bad influence.

But surely we can exercise some willpower, you might think.

Well, don't be so sure about that. In his aptly titled book, Willpower Doesn't Work, Dr. Benjamin Hardy argues that relying on willpower is a losing strategy. If our environment is constantly pushing against us, attempting to push back with willpower is futile and unsustainable over the long run. Rather, we need to get to the root of the problem and change our environment—in this case, that means taking a hard look at who we are letting in.

🍰What (We Let In)

Just as important as who we let in, is what we let in.

If our goal is to eat healthier, for instance, and let's say we define that in part by avoiding highly refined carbohydrates and sweets, how can we adapt our environments to help us with this goal?

The obvious choice is to keep these foods out of our environments completely. Personally, this is my preferred strategy. I don't want cookies, brownies, or any high-sugar, low-quality carbs in the house at all. I know that if they're available, it will take willpower to avoid them, especially during periods of high stress. And our reservoirs of willpower are limited. In fact, there is evidence that willpower wains over the course of the day as we’re worn down from the stresses of everyday life. If these foods are not an option, I don’t have to exercise willpower. The might leave me with a little more emotional energy left in the tank for when I have to ask my kids to pick up their wet towels off the floor for the fiftieth time in ten minutes.

Of course, the reality is that we may not have the luxury to have low-quality foods completely out of our homes, depending on our circumstances—or even on our own commitment. There absolutely are situations where we need to exercise willpower, but even in these situations, there are ways to help ourselves along. If we make unhealthy foods slightly more inconvenient to access, we're much less likely to reach for them.

For instance, just the act of putting ice cream in an outdoor freezer or putting cookies on a shelf that requires a stool to reach them lowers the chances that we'll make the effort. Humans are inherently lazy. We take the path of least resistance. And rather than feeling guilty about it, we should use that knowledge to our advantage—by making undesirable behaviors and habits more of a hassle.

This works in positive ways, too. In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about moving his apples from a drawer in the refrigerator (where they went bad before they were eaten) to a bowl on the counter, where they were quickly consumed. By making the behaviors we want (like eating healthy foods) more convenient, more obvious, and more accessible, we increase our chances of success dramatically.

And it’s not just for food that this works. We can do the same with alcohol, our phones, and even our virtual environments.

I started sleeping with my phone in another room about a year ago. Even though it’s probably only twenty feet further away from me, it dramatically cuts down the temptation to ‘doom scroll’ to all hours of the night.

I also moved all of my social media apps off the home screen of my phone into a folder that I have to swipe a few times to get to. (Now I only look at Twitter 7,500 times per day. It’s really helped).

🏠Where (We Spend Our Time)

Finally, where we spend our time—physically and virtually—has a massive impact on everything from our moods to our creativity.

It's important to have a physical space that our brain identifies with work. For me, I now mostly work in a home office in my basement. While it doubles as the gym, I know that when I am in that room, behind my desk, I am in full-on work mode. The cue of being in this place helps me get in the right frame of mind to be productive.

One of the surprising and unintended consequences of the pandemic was that people had a hard time 'shutting off' from work, and to the surprise of many, actually logged more hours while working from home. Some of this is surely a result of not having a physical distinction between the space where we work and the space where we live our personal lives. It's become clear that having such a distinction—even if it just means segmenting off a portion of a room—is critical as it signals to our brains what mode they need to be in.

So much of the impact from our environments happens at the subconscious level. We don't realize, for instance, that tables with rounded edges tend to encourage more collaboration while angular designs tend to make us more competitive. We don't necessarily think consciously about the need to be surrounded by natural materials like wood, living organisms like plants, or exposure to natural sunlight, but our bodies react to all of these, with studies showing that workers in such settings exhibit lower stress and more focus.

Recognizing that we don't control it all

A lot of this comes down to having some humility and realizing that we are not always fully in control of our thoughts, moods, and behaviors. And indeed, that our environments play a large role in determining these things—both positively and negatively.

Ideally, we want to build our spaces—physical, virtual, and social—in such a way that they are providing a tailwind. We want them to be nudging us in the right direction, no matter what we're trying to achieve—from more productive work to healthier eating.

If they are not, and we’re relying on willpower to help us combat a less than ideal environment, we may be fighting a losing battle.


Image credit: @XPS at

Extra credit: Podcasts, Books, and Houseplants 🎙📚🌿

There is so much to learn on this topic of shaping our environments and I am admittedly only beginning to understand it myself. Along these lines, here are some of the great resources I stole ideas from this week:

Katy Milkman and Ted Seides “How to Change” conversation on Capital Allocators
Sarah Williams Goldhagen on Building Better, Healthier Environments

And I found lots of great stuff from Benjamin Hardy, including:

Willpower Doesn’t Work (I went audiobook)
& two great podcasts he was on: How to be Awesome at Your Job and Daily Stoic.

🌵🌿🌱Finally……… who knows about house plants? What should I get for my home office? Historically, I’ve been better at keeping children alive than plants, but if you’ve got recommendations for something I should get, lemme know!

Thanks as always for reading. See you next Thursday. — Greg