October 28

How Our Environment Shapes Behavior, Health, and Happiness

Of all the areas in our lives, none shape our behavior, health, and happiness as much as our environment. We are byproducts of our environment. We can’t always control the circumstances or outcomes of our lives, but we can shape our environment.

If your environment makes you feel stable, balanced, and grounded, you’re more likely to feel confident taking measured risks and exploring new opportunities. Other people may notice your calm, unhurried demeanor and be drawn to you. – Ingrid Fetel Lee, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness

And when we shape our environment, we access the power to shape our lives.

My mother keeps her home as clean as Buckingham Palace. There are no caps left off the toothpaste, dishes in the sink or clothes on the floor (unless I’m visiting). Even though she thinks I’m messy and I accuse her of being neurotic, I’ve learned a lot from her about the power of our environment.

To her credit, it’s precisely the kind of environment she creates that has enabled me to do some of my best work.

  • Clutter makes me crazy.
  • Mild distractions derail me.
  • I can’t leave dishes in the sink for too long without it making me nuts.

And to my mother’s dismay, I’m not like this when I visit my parents.

Shaping the spaces you live, work, and spend your time isn’t about becoming a minimalist or moving into a McMansion. It’s about being deliberate and intentional about EVERYTHING you allow into your life.

1. The 9 Environments That Make Up Your Life

There are 9 environments that make up our lives. And as Jim Bunch, notes in the video below, every environment is connected. You can’t change one of them without changing the other. When we upgrade our environments, it creates a ripple effect that alters behavior, health, and happiness.

Shaping your environment means doing life by design instead of by default.

2. Identify The Defaults That Shape Your Behavior, Health, And Happiness

environment shapes behavior, health, and happiness
Photographer: Sara Kurfeß | Source: Unsplash

How much of what you’ve allowed into your environment has been a deliberate choice? All of us have more defaults in our lives than we’re aware of. We don’t change our ringtones, desktop wallpapers, or even the color of the paint on our walls.

Changing The Shower Head In An Apartment

When I moved into my apartment in San Diego a few years back, the shower in my bathroom was like a leaky faucet. There’s nothing more annoying about a shower than low water pressure. After doing some research online, I realized I could replace the showerhead.

When I read an Amazon review that said, “This thing is like a firehose”, I ordered it right away. Given that a shower is something that you hopefully use every day, it’s an important part of your environment.

Think about small things like this that are in your physical space by default. Which ones could you change? And how many of them have you never thought to change?

Building a Bookshelf Instead of Buying One

When you have a library of over 1000 books, you either have to spend a fortune on a bookshelf or buy 10 of them from Ikea. Since that wasn’t an option, I had to find an alternative.

After looking for ways to build a floor to ceiling bookshelf, I discovered pipe shelves. The result was the shelf you see in the picture below

Buying a bookshelf online was the default option. Building our own was a deliberate choice.

Change the Default settings Of Technology, Apps, and Tools

When we’re not deliberate and mindful about how we use technology, it becomes a distraction that invades our life rather than enhances it. When you’re drowning in notifications, emails, and text messages, it’s much harder to focus on the task at hand and you’re more likely to multitask.

When you turn off notifications on an app or modify settings, technology enhances your life. Standard interventions for dealing with distractions include using distraction blockers, turning off notifications, etc. While these can be effective, Cal Newport offers a better solution in his book Digital Minimalism.

Wipe the slate clean. Delete every app on your phone. Then reinstall only those that are essential. You’ll be surprised by the number of apps on your phone you almost never use.

Until you identify the defaults, it’s hard to make deliberate choices about what you allow into your environment.

When you do life by default, you choose from the options in front of you. Doing life by design means becoming aware of the possibilities that surround you.

3. Subtract before you Add

minimalist black coffee
Photographer: Isaac Benhesed | Source: Unsplash

“When you have few possessions, there are fewer things that need to be done each day. You can take care of each task as it arises, so you don’t end up with a long list of things to do”. – Fumio Sasaki

Throughout our lives, we accumulate books we’re never going to read, email newsletters we never open, and clothes we never wear. Until you get rid of what doesn’t matter, it’s hard to make space for what does.

So how do you know what to get rid of and what to keep? “Keep only things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest,” says Marie Kondo.

Aim for Quality over Quantity

As modern-day knowledge workers, we spend thousands of hours in our workspaces every year, without giving too much thought to how they affect us. So we look for the cheapest deals on Amazon for our desks, chairs, lighting, etc.

Instead of buying something of the highest quality once, we buy multiple low-quality things often. But all these things are inextricably linked to our behavior, emotions, productivity, and creativity. Paradoxically, you save a little bit of money in the short run but spend more in the long run.

If you’re going to use something every day, you’re better off spending a little more money upfront and purchasing something that’s going to last.

4. Upgrading Your Environment to Improve Behavior Health and Happiness

Paper & Pixels Design Studio
Photographer: Georgie Cobbs | Source: Unsplash

Given that the pandemic has forced so many of us to work from home, the environments that make up our lives are shaping our behavior, health and happiness more than ever.

My friend Charmaine Haworth, who is masterful at creating beautiful and inspiring spaces, has one simple rule when it comes to your physical space: “If you don’t absolutely love it, why buy it?” By following this principle, you avoid buying things you don’t need and everything in your environment inspires you.

1. Eliminate Tolerations

Throughout our lives, we tolerate minor inconveniences like a cracked screen on a phone, a tear in a pair of jeans, or a scuffed up pair of shoes. But the moment you eliminate these tolerations from your life, you’ll notice an immediate difference. Make a list of all the minor inconveniences that you know you’re tolerating and work to eliminate them. You’ll be amazed by how much this improves your behavior, health, and happiness.

2. Create The Ambiance

The lighting, temperature, sound, decor, and layout of a room all create the ambiance of the spaces where we live and work. Being deliberate about ambiance allows you to design an environment that’s conducive to the person you want to become.

Use the right Lighting

In our interview with Donald Rattner on the psychology of designing spaces for creativity, he said the following about lighting:

So where you have more natural light, you tend to be not only happy and healthy but more creative as well. Now the reality is, again, because we spend 90% of our time indoors, a lot of times the light is dimmer. It’s more diffuse and less intense. And of course, it’s hard to do certain things without electric lighting.

But you can kind of make things work for you with electric lighting if you want. I use what I call smart lighting, which are bulbs that can either change the temperature or you’re able to pick your bulbs or select your bulbs based on their color

While natural light isn’t always an option, we can buy lamps and bulbs that simulate natural light to enhance our behavior, health, and happiness.

Drown out the Noise or Play Some Music

Background noise can impair memory, sap motivation and cause fatigue. – Emily Anthes , The Great Indoors

To drown out the noise, you can use a pair of noise-canceling headphones, turn off the sounds of all notifications and put your phone in ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode. When you drown out the noise of external distractions, your creative voice becomes loud and clear.

Think of a scene from one of your favorite movies. Now imagine that same scene without any music. The scene loses its emotional impact without the music. Consider the scene below from the movie Meet Joe Black. The music amplifies the power of the words.

Depending on the context, music can enhance our mood or distract us from the task at hand. When I started playing music while doing the dishes, it made the chore more enjoyable. But if I’m trying to read or write, I use Brain.FM which has been scientifically proven to help increase focus.

Set the Right Temperature

When a room is too hot or too cold, it has a negative impact on health, happiness, and behavior. In a room that’s freezing cold, it’s hard to type because your fingers become numb. But if that room is too hot, it’s so uncomfortable, it’s all you think about. Given that all of us have different bodies, the ideal temperature will be different for all of us.

Reconsider the Layout and Decor

When I moved into my apartment, my desk was facing my wall and there was a huge open space behind me. Just by turning the desk around, I felt like I had much more space. The layout can alter your perception of where you live and work.

The wall behind my desk has framed prints of the podcast guests who have inspired me the most. The sidewall has three vintage travel posters and another wall has a decal with a quote from Dr. Seuss. You can see them in the pictures below.

Tables in Meeting Rooms

In most meeting rooms, the tables are rectangular. But it turns out a rectangular table does more harm than good for effective communication.

“The moment you switch to a circular table, even a square table, first your power seat is gone. There are no hierarchically privileged positions around that kind of a table. Everybody’s equidistant from a single point (the center) and you can see and hear each other”. – Donald Rattner

Layout and decor shape behavior, health, and happiness more than we realize. The right layout and decor can fuel creativity, collaboration, and more effective communication, while the wrong layout can kill them.

Chairs, Standing Desks, and Office Furniture

As modern-day knowledge workers, we spend thousands of hours every year sitting in our chairs and working at our desks. While they might seem like trivial choices, when you upgrade, you’ll discover that they’re not.

Finding the Perfect Chair

A few months ago, my roommate and the girl he was dating went on a camping trip for the weekend. So I decided to sit and read at his desk instead of mine. His Herman Miller chair was so comfortable, I was able to read and write for 3 hours.

When I came back and sat at my desk I couldn’t help but notice how uncomfortable my chair was in comparison to his. If you’ve ever sat in a lousy chair, you’ve no doubt experienced all sorts of discomfort from back pain to carpal tunnel. And when you skimp on something like this, you pay a long term cost for the short term gain of saving a little bit of money.

In the last 3-4 years, I’ve purchased an office chair from Ikea and two from Amazon. The total cost of all these chairs was close to $500.00 and the latest one was already falling apart. I wrote two books, hundreds of articles and recorded hundreds of podcast episodes in those chairs.

And I realized the chair at my desk was not a luxury but an essential part of my creative work.

The good news is that you don’t have to spend a fortune to upgrade your environment. Believe it or not, the high-quality used stuff is often a better investment than the low-quality new stuff. My roommate Matt is a master at finding really expensive things for dirt cheap on sites like the Facebook marketplace.

Reduce Visual Stimuli, Declutter Your Desk and Consider a Standing Desk

Between an audio interface, a jumble of cables, books, notebooks, and a microphone, my desk was starting to become a mess. “Distractions are pieces of goal-irrelevant information that we either encounter in our external surroundings or generate internally within our own minds,” says Adam Gazalley in his book The Distracted Mind. And the clutter on my desk had become more of a distraction than I realized.

Reducing Visual Stimulus

Look around the room where you’re currently reading this. How much of what you can see is “goal-irrelevant information?” For most people, myself included, there’s a lot of goal irrelevant information right competing for our attention.

  1. Leave your phone out of the room: One of the biggest reasons our phones become such a distraction is that we have them right at our fingertips. If you do nothing apart from leaving them out of the room, you’ll be amazed by how much less of a distraction it becomes in your life.
  2. Remove everything irrelevant to the task at hand from your desk: If you’re reading a book, have nothing but the book and maybe a pen and notebook to take notes.
  3. Put things behind closed doors: Even the visual stimuli from a stack of books on a shelf can become a distraction. Marie Kondo goes so far as to suggest taking labels off bottles and covers off books. See the image below for a before and after.
  4. Work in Full-Screen Model: If you’re using an app or tool while working in full-screen mode, you’re less like to become distracted by all the other digital input from other apps and tools.

To increase your attention span you need to eliminate the competition for it. One of the best ways to do that is to reduce visual stimulus.

The Best Affordable Standing Desk

When I started searching for an affordable standing desk I discovered Autonomous AI and their Smart Desk 2. Below I’ve included a table of the pros and cons, pictures of my setup, and a video.


  • Easy to assemble even for a person like me who has parts left over when I assemble.
  • A motorized keypad that enables you to program 4 custom height presets.
  • Holds up to 300 lbs so you can put a lot of things on it. There are even videos of people on YouTube sitting on the desk and adjusting the height.
  • Options for a standard size top (52 inches) or an extra-large top (75 inches).


  • Because the power supply and the support beams take up quite a bit of space under the desk, it’s hard to attach bigger storage drawers underneath.
  • Unfortunately, the height of my Herman Miller Chair makes it difficult to adjust the height without getting a drafting chair.

That being said, given how many cables and how much equipment is under my desk, I’ve been impressed with how easy it’s been to declutter the Smart Desk.

Creatives from podcasters to filmmakers to visual artists all have a lot of tools and equipment that clutter their workspaces. The main reason this desk is worth buying is that it makes it easy to declutter. Additionally, we spend so much time sitting at our desks that some have called sitting “the new smoking.” Having a standing desk forces you not to spend so much of your time being sedentary.

Autonomous was nice enough to send me a desk and offer a discount to our listeners. Just use the code Unmistakable2020 for 6% off.

How to Declutter

For most people, the biggest source of clutter on and around their desks is cables. One of the easiest ways to declutter the desk is to hide cables under your desk.

  • First, I mounted the power supply for my computer and audio interface for my microphone under my desk by using command strips from 3M.
  • Second, I ordered a Vivo Microphone Arm which allows you to hide cables.
  • Finally, I purchased an external monitor and a tray to mount to the bottom of the desk so I could hide my laptop, but still, use it.

As you’ll see in the image below, I’ve drastically reduced the amount of clutter that is on my desk and my workspace is nowhere near as distracting as it was before.

Technology and Tools

“It’s no secret that design is a critical element of productivity. Design helps maintain a sense of order amidst creative chaos. It is a valuable tool for managing (and controlling) our own attention spans. Design can also help us advertise actions-to-be-taken to ourselves,” says Scott Belsky in his book Making Ideas Happen.

This applies to everything from your web browser and to-do list app to your email client. There’s a reason designers spend so much time thinking about user interfaces. If you like the user interface of a product or tool, you’re more likely to use it.

The systems and tools you use to maximize your creative output determine your ability to focus and make your ideas happen.

How to Get Started with Upgrading Your Environment

When you first learn how environment shapes behavior health, and happiness, you might be tempted to make lots of changes all at once. But don’t underestimate the power of starting small.

  1. Use sites like Pinterest or Google images to get ideas for upgrading your workspace.
  2. Start with something small like wiping down your desk, throwing out the trash or vacuuming a room.
  3. Pick one small thing to upgrade each week and one big thing each month. For example, I started by upgrading my chair and then my desk.

The spaces in which we live and work impact every area of our lives. When you make it a point to shape those spaces, you do life by design instead of by default. As Greg McKeown says of essentialism, designing your environment for behavior, health and happiness is not something you do once. It’s a practice.


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