The powerful influence of environment


I’m really, only productive when there are too many things to do.

It forces me to schedule, prioritise and then hustle to get it all done in the allotted time.

I list out all the candidate activities and then choose from that list the things I will do. Some get done, some move to tomorrow, some end up on the scrap heap – sacrificed to the productivity gods.

But I need the pressure of too much to get anywhere near that optimal level of activity.

If I have only a few things to do, they expand like gas to fill the available space. Less urgency = less productivity (for me anyway).

To be clear – this isn’t just about work. This is also about making time for the things I really want to do, like hanging out with my kids.

While I still want to be productive when there’s less pressure, the difference isn’t the intention, it’s the environment.

This is important because our environment plays a huge role in our behaviour. Our behaviour is not just a product of what we want to do, it’s also a function of the world around us.

In fact, the psychologist Kurt Lewin even proposed an equation for explaining this:

B = f(P, E)

– where behaviour (B) is a function of the person (P) and their environment (E).

To understand how influential the environment is, consider the following:

When US servicemen were returning from Vietnam in the early 70s, it turned out that about 40% of them had tried heroin while on deployment. More startling, was that 15% of servicemen were actually addicted to heroin on their return.

That sounds insane and ridiculous, right? If you’re interested you can read about it on CNN or the excellent NPR report.

Of those who were addicted, all but 5% were able to overcome their addiction without relapse within the year. To understand just how staggering that is, consider that the typical relapse rate for heroin addicts in the US at the time was about 90%.

It was later discovered that the primary difference between the two was the environmental change. The soldiers were now completely removed from the environment in which they had used heroin. Few, or none of previous cues, prompts or triggers associated with using were present.

Unfortunately for the US addicts, the same level of environmental change wasn’t there when they wanted to quit. They still lived in same place, kept the same friends, the same job, the same pressures, triggers and prompts. With all those environmental factors remaining the same, 90% of them relapsed into use.

This illustrates just how powerful environmental factors can be in determining what we actually do – irrespective of what we want to do.

So coming back to the original challenge – how do I maintain productivity even when the to do list isn’t overwhelming?

Well in this case the behaviour (being productive) is more difficult to maintain because the environment has shifted (there isn’t as much super-urgent stuff to do).

Rather than fight Lewin’s equation, I seek to reset the balance by restoring the strongest influence – the environment. I put more things into the to-do list – frivolous things, even – that force me to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Sometimes, it’s only when I see “piss about on twitter” as an option for my time and attention that I see what a ridiculous waste of time it is – cutting quickly to the chase.

Whether you’re seeking to maintain a behaviour or unseat one entirely – don’t forget the powerful influence of the environment.

B=f(P,E) can either be the albatross around your neck or a lifeline – the difference is whether or not you’re paying attention to it.

Innovation is about value, not change

darwins-homology-theory-by-catherine-lafferty

Anyone can create value once.

Spot a need. Fill the need. BOOM, we’ve created value.

The problem is: it never lasts.

The value of a product or service – always erodes over time, because the act of creating value changes the environment.

It might be that we’re creating value cheaper and more effectively than someone else, so they start doing it our way. Now we have competition – and they’ve undercut us too – just to say thanks.

It might be that people’s expectations rise with the value we create. What once was valuable is now the new norm, so the perceived value has dropped.

This is why we innovate.

Innovation is about nurturing and growing the value we deliver.

And because this process often involves some degree of newness and change – people get confused.

They believe that all change is innovation.

That we “do innovation” by changing things.

But change is just a byproduct of the pursuit of value.

It’s a means, not an end.

To grow the value of something, we often have to change it. But not all change adds value, so not all change is innovation.

If we want to innovate – then we need to focus on what drives the value.

It will probably also involve change, but by following the value, it will only change as much as is strictly necessary.

Change which drives value, is innovation.

Change for its own sake, is a waste of time and money.

If you want full power to the engines: drop your shields

space-ship-shields

When we’re being sincere and authentic, we’ve got access to all our most powerful functions.

Authenticity allows our truest feelings and intentions to come to the front and have the benefit of our full focus and attention.

But this focus and power comes at the expense of our defences.

When we’re authentic and sincere, our shields are down. We’ve put all our energy into the engines and we’re not draining our batteries by powering defensive systems concerned with worrying about what others will think.

We can certainly feel exposed when we do this, but it comes with 2 massive upsides:

  1. We get the primary benefit of the authentic action. Authenticity springs from purpose, so when we’re being authentic and sincere, we’re fulfilling a purpose. And there is huge value in this.
  2. The more we operate in this mode, the more we realise just how unnecessary the shields are in the first place. The more authentic we are, the more we see that nothing that our shields appear to stop, can actually harm us anyway.

“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”
– Marcus Aurelius

“We do not recognize any injury that does not harm virtue. If I deserve these names there is no insult, it is justice; if I don’t deserve them, it is he who does the injustice that deserves to blush. Where is the insult? That I am bald or have weak eyes or thin legs? Can it be an insult to be told what is evident?”

– Seneca

Both Marcus Aurelius and Seneca illustrate how much of the injury we experience comes from our “sense” of being hurt. That we can only be harmed by others when we chose to feel harmed – when we acknowledge that they have done us harm.

So turn your your shields off and power your engines up.

Don’t worry about what the others think, they won’t be able to catch you anyway.

Ants and expectations

ant-pad-by-evan-kane

One of the most resounding and enduring features of life, is that it refuses to conform to our expectations.

We generate these feelings about how the world “should” be, and the world just looks at us and says, “that’s nice dear, but here’s how it actually is.”

The weird thing is, that we tend to look at this state of affairs and think there’s something wrong with the world. That we’re right to have the expectations and the world is wrong to conform.

But this thinking only survives on our scale, in our own head.

Imagine an ant which wants to get from A to B.

On its journey, it discovers that some pesky humans have built a house in the way, so the ant thinks “this house shouldn’t be here”.

Chances are, you’re thinking “deal with it ant, the house ain’t moving just because you don’t like it”.

The house wasn’t built as a personal affront to the ant.

It wasn’t built to block the ant’s way, or ruin the ant’s life – even if it’s done both. The house – and those who built it, are completely indifferent to the ant.

When we are upset that the world doesn’t conform to our expectations, we are ants complaining about houses.

This doesn’t mean we can’t change the world, just that there’s no value in fighting it with our expectations.