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.

Walking the line


Yesterday was difficult.

I kept catching myself being closed, tight, petty.

I kept letting myself feel hassled by my kids instead of having constructive interactions with them.

Most of the friction was time-based. It was almost entirely around deadlines I had in my head (which were largely self-imposed and imaginary). And because my kids couldn’t see those deadlines, all they experienced was some madman hassling them to get their shoes on faster.

I’m trying to get better at these interactions. I’m trying to be more present and more aware.

But as I become more aware of my behaviour, of my outlook, of my emotions, I realise just how much I suck at it. And that surprises me (and not in a good way), because this is something I thought this was something I was pretty good at.

And what’s most frustrating? All this was foretold.

Ask anyone about what it’s like to develop greater awareness of yourself and they’ll say

“awareness won’t make you feel enlightened, it will make you realise just how far you have to go.”

Actually it’s worse than that. It’s hard not to feel like you’re going backwards.

It feels like there are two potential realities:

“Has the awareness made me worse?”

This is what it feels like.


“Have the scales been knocked from my eyes?”

This would be more helpful, but how do you know when it’s one and not the other?

Once you’re aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect (or you’ve watched an episode of Britain’s Got Talent), you know that people’s perceptions of their own abilities are often radically divorced from reality.

If my awareness was actually making things better, it’s just that for me it FEELS worse – then that’s ok.

What’s not ok, is me thinking that I’m getting better, but the awareness is actually MAKING me worse.

With only a single data point for reference (my own experience) and all the bias of a personal, subjective perspective, it’s tough to tell.

How do you get to the truth of the situation?

Is it about asking other people? Is it about trusting in what “they” said?

It’s difficult to let go of the notion that you may just be bullshitting yourself, but I suspect that just being aware of that possibility goes some way towards keeping you honest.

We all have to walk a fine line between self delusion and ignorance – and half the battle may just be in knowing there is a line somewhere under our feet.

0.5 in a world of 1s and 0s

binary code by Christiaan Colen

We’re hardwired for binary discrimination and judgment.

Yes / No

On / Off

Good / Bad

In group / Out group

It’s a fast way of operating, but it’s often not helpful in complex, social situations.

We live in a world of nuance but that’s not what’s baked in to our default operating system. So it’s time for an upgrade – or at least a patch.

If we were to think of all the points on a line, most of the available positions are not at the ends, but at somewhere on the continuum.


If we plot that same line against a second criteria and graph the distribution of values, we get another line, but in this case, the points are likely to bunch up in certain places. Think about the bell curve or the power-law curve.


The natural world gives us distributions and nuance, but we immediately try to put it into binary categories. Tall & short. Young & old.

It’s worth remembering the all the available points on the continuum when deciding how we want to think and act. The most advantageous positions are usually not at the extremes, but somewhere in the middle.

Assertiveness is on the continuum between submission and dominance. It’s somewhere in the middle and in most contexts, it’s overwhelmingly more valuable than either of the other two.

We have the urge to see the world as black and white, but in reality it’s a million shades of grey (here in London, it’s literally grey).

There will be cases where the answer lays at one of the extremes. There will be times when the only rational options are two, mutually exclusive points of view. But those times are rare – and often they will not be the yield the superior position.

In a world of 1s and 0s, don’t be afraid to be a 0.5.

Hero or villain? It’s all in the edit

The amazing Spider-man overpowered by the rampaging Rhino by Levi Espino

You could have really made a good 2-3 minute trailer of me looking like an absolute arsehole yesterday.

As I tried to get 3 kids ready, around a museum, home, fed, clean and to bed – I snapped, cajoled, threatened, bribed, carried and ignored.

If you just saw those moments, then I would have looked like one of the most unsuccessful and unlikeable fathers in Christendom.

On balance however, the day was really good. For each shitty moment of parental-desperation-versus-child-set-to-weapons-grade-misbehaviour, there were lots of good times and a couple of absolute gems.

You could have probably also made a trailer of these highlights – although I suspect the audience for them would be pretty damn small.

And yesterday wasn’t a stand-out day because of these highs and lows – it was par for the course. Every day is filled both with moments we’d rather nobody saw and others we’d wish that nobody missed.

And this is precisely what we see of other people’s lives. We see moments. We see an edit. That’s all we get.

Sometimes we get the highs, sometimes we get the lows and sometimes we see a more balanced mix – but it’s important to remember that we’re only ever seeing a trailer. No matter how good or bad someone looks in that trailer, the full story is undoubtedly more nuanced (and mundane).

Similarly, it’s worth keeping in mind that other people are only seeing a small edit of our days.

Yesterday was a good day – but there are about 25 people floating around London that probably saw an edit of me yesterday which was probably worthy of a scathing mumsnet post.

It’s worth us remembering that other people’s stories began before we were paying attention and will continue long after we’ve drifted away.

The only reason that some end with “happily ever after” is that someone yelled “CUT!” before everyone in the story got explosive diarrhoea*.

* Thanks to Justin Hamilton for this wonderful idea.

Remember to skin your cats!


We each have millions of cats in our lives and a similar number of ways to skin them.

When do you wake up? That’s a cat.

Do you eat meat? That’s a cat.

Do you have a fourth beer on a Thursday night? That’s a cat.

It’s easy for us to forget that each of these cats is a choice we get to make.

The reason it’s easy to overlook is that we’ve long since outsourced most routine choices to established patterns of behaviour.

In order to avoid choice overload every moment, we rely on habits, patterns and behaviours that we’ve formed in the past to ease the cognitive load as we go about our day.

Unfortunately for us, we form habits in the same way that evolution picks survivors – it doesn’t optimise for what is the best, it settles for what is the least shitty option that’s come so far.

We figure out what works just enough to survive and we run with that.

It’s a great system in one way: it allows us to function across a broad spectrum of activities without getting lost in the detail. But it also means that we can be stuck with mediocre or even bad choices for a long time if we don’t remember to review our automatic behaviours and check that they still work for us.

I’m not saying we don’t want or need habits – they’re vital to our productivity – I’m just saying that we should be aware of them, check them and update them if necessary.

There are cats we’re still flaying by hand, despite the fact that we’re now the proud owners of the Skin-o-matic 6000TM

The trick is recognising the choices we’ve long since forgotten to make. They can be well camouflaged, and many will be rusted into a single position, taking time and attention to unjam.

You might not want to change what you eat, why you respond to stress or how you skin a cat, but if you do – you’ll need to keep your eyes open.

Changing our choices and behaviours isn’t the work of a moment, but can be one of the most rewarding projects there is.

*No cats were harmed in the writing of this post (but I’m obviously a dog person)