October 8

If You Want to Design Your Life, Start by Designing your Environment

A few nights ago I was teaching the first session of our Fearless Writer’s workshop. One of the common challenges people had was maintaining some semblance of consistency. It was the same problem I had before 2013. But once I understood the impact that environment has on behavior, and started to design my environments for my desired behavior deliberately, my daily writing habit became automatic.

Designing your life begins with the designing your days, and designing your days starts with designing your environment.  By designing the right environment, all of our desired behaviors become automatic.

Design the Environment for the Habit

Our behavior is not defined by the object in an environment but by our relationship to them. In fact, this is a useful way to think about the influence of environment on your behavior. Stop thinking about your environment as filled with objects. Start thinking about it as filled with relationships. Think in terms of how you interact with the spaces around you. For one person, her couch is the place where she reads for an hour each night. For someone else, the couches where he watches television and eats a bowl of ice cream after work – James Clear, Atomic Habits 

Many people try to use willpower and motivation to adopt a new habit. But the supply of both is limited. When I first learned about The 9 environments that make up your life from my friend Jim Bunch, he said: “if you get fanatical about designing environments, the environment will do the work for you.”

  • As somebody who wants to write every day the essential elements for my environment are a pen, a notebook, some noise cancellation headphones, and a place to do my writing.
  • If you’re someone who wants to exercise every day, the essential elements for your environment would be authentic shoes and gym clothes.

When you design the right environment for your desired habit, the environment, and the habit will get linked. When I start the music on my headphones, sit down at my desk, sip my bulletproof coffee, and crack open a notebook I know it’s time to write.

Decide on the Habit

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. They are the building blocks of every goal that you want to accomplish:

  • If you’re going to lose weight, you need to develop an exercise habit
  • If you’re going to write books, you need to build a writing habit
  • If you want to learn an instrument, you have to develop the habit of practicing that instrument

Figure out what your goal is. Then ask yourself what the habits of a person who has accomplished that goal are?

Early in my writing career, I set a goal of selling 1000 copies of a self-published book. But I had no idea how I was going to accomplish that goal.

Julien Smith had one of the most popular blogs on the internet, had written a best-selling book, and worked with Seth Godin on the Domino project. In a conversation on the Unmistakable Creative, he told me that he wrote 1000 words a day.  That’s when I realized the habit of a person who sells 1000 copies of a book is writing 1000 words a day.  In the 6 months that followed, I self-published 2 books, one of which sold 1000 copies, the other which became a best-seller, and eventually led to book deals for An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own sake and Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best.  

Reduce the Activation Energy

I was first exposed to the concept of activation energy when I read Shawn Achor’s book the Happiness advantage, and it’s had a profound impact on my ability to change my behavior. Activation energy is the number of steps between you and the desired action for behavior.

In the case of my desired behavior, writing, the activation energy includes the following steps:

– Finding a pen to write with

– Getting out a notebook

– Finding a book to read

– Turning on my headphones

Instead of doing it when I wake up in the morning, I put my notebook, pen, and headphones on my desk the night before.  This reduces the activation energy and increases the likelihood that I’ll follow through on the habit. Additionally, because I’m not making any decisions, I preserve my willpower for what matters most, the writing itself.

By reducing the activation energy for any desired habit or action, you increase the likelihood of following through on that habit or action.

Leverage the Power of Visible Progress

One of the main reasons we lose motivation to maintain any habit is because we don’t track our progress. Visible progress is one of our greatest motivators, and the simple act of measuring our progress increases our motivation and the likelihood that we’ll continue with any habit.  This is why businesses track their metrics, meditation apps measure streaks,  and athletes track their stats. Measurement doesn’t just improve performance; it increases your motivation.

In an Audience of One, I recommended a few ways to measure your progress. The simplest one was made famous by Jerry Seinfeld when he encouraged a young comedian to put up a calendar on his wall and mark an x for every day he wrote jokes.  Eventually, there would be a chain, and the goal was not to break that chain.

When you design the right environment, you create the conditions for making the desired habit automatic.  Your habits are a byproduct of your environment, and your life is a byproduct of your habits. If you want to design your life, start by designing your environment.

Account for Energy and Design for the Aesthetics of Joy

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

As I’ve said before, everything in your environment has emotions and memories associated with. Those emotions and memories are positive or negative. They’re living you up or bringing you down. Designing an environment that inspires you can add a great deal of joy to your life. That’s one of the reasons I have framed prints of former Unmistakable Creative guests, a four agreements poster, and a Tibetan prayer flag in my room. As Dani Shapiro jokingly wrote in her book Still Writing “if the writing thing doesn’t work out, I could open up a new age gift shop.”

Move from Default Choices to Deliberate Ones

When I first moved into my apartment a few years back, the low water pressure from the shower was driving me crazy. After about 3 months it finally occurred to me that if I changed the shower head, the water pressure would get better. I ordered a new shower head on Amazon, replaced the old one, and much to my delight a the new one was like a firehose in comparison.

For the most part, everything in our lives is set on default. Most people never change the ring on their phones or the default settings of the apps they use.  In our conversation at CreativeLive, Chase Jarvis asked me about common threads between the 700 people I had interviewed. One of them was that everything their lives is a deliberate choice.

Designing environments means making deliberate choices about everything including the clothes you wear, the food you eat, people your surround yourself with, and the information you consume. What you consume will determine what you create.  So make it a deliberate a choice.  When you become deliberate about designing your environments you become the architect of your reality


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