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.

The grind and the chorus


We complain about the grind – the inevitable and relentless repetition of tasks and scenarios.

It’s understandable.

There are things that need to be done, and they can come around pretty regularly.

Washing, yawn.

Tax, zzzzzzzz.

But here’s the thing: we love a chorus, and it’s essentially the same as the grind.

The difference between the grind and the chorus is largely the attitude we bring to it.

With the chorus there is anticipation of the repetition and then a rejoicing of the patterns we know so well.

But this joy is fragile, and we can kill our enjoyment of the chorus. All it takes is that we apply to it the close minded attitude of the grind.

But the reverse is also true. We can kill the drudgery of the grind by applying the anticipation and celebration of the chorus.

You either choose to turn the chorus into the grind or the grind into the chorus.

The point is, it’s an active choice. So choose wisely.

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)