How the Environment Shapes Your Behavior and Productivity

6 months ago   •   4 min read

By Zero Machina

Our environment is a key component of success.

According to various studies, our surroundings have a significant impact on our productivity, oftentimes more than any external or internal factor. For instance, you can have incredibly strong willpower, but it'll be difficult to maintain healthy eating habits if you’re in a house filled with junk food.

As humans, we are quick to blame our environments when something goes wrong:

  • "It's the economy."
  • "The traffic."
  • "My horrible co-workers."

But when something goes right, we believe it was all thanks to us and our top-notch execution. But the logic doesn’t add up.

If our environment paves the way for failure, then it also paves the way for success. Don’t buy it? Let's explore a few real-world studies and anecdotes.

How the Environment Influenced the Spread of Agriculture

In his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, anthropologist Jared Diamond makes a simple observation: Continents have different shapes.  But this simple fact has had a huge impact on human behavior and the spread of agriculture.

The European, Asian, and Middle Eastern continental landmass primarily expands east-west. On the other hand, the Americas (North and South America) and Africa expand north-south.

Locations along the same latitude line typically share similar climates. And a similar climate means the cultivation practices of the same crops can be spread far and wide throughout the continent. For this reason, agriculture developed much more rapidly where the continental landmass expanded east-west (Europe, Asia, and the Middle East).

Since the Americas and Africa expand north-south, the climates varied. The cultivation methods could not be shared or re-created, and the spread of agriculture wasn’t as strong. These societies weren’t able to develop as rapidly or expand as far.

There is no evidence that Europe-Asia-Middle East had better farmers than the Americas and Africa. The main difference was the environment. One environment encouraged a quicker spread of agriculture while others did not.

Who Wants To Be an Organ Donor?

A study conducted by researchers Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein found that your environment impacts your behavior without you realizing it.

They collected data from 11 European countries that revealed how many people wanted to be an organ donor.  Four of the countries had extremely low organ donor participation, while the remaining seven were extremely high.

This data was perplexing at first. These two groups didn’t have significant cultural, economic, or social differences that explained the variance in donor participation.

Then it began to make sense.

The reason these two groups differed was due to the type of donor form each country sent out.  In countries with a low percentage of organ donors, people were asked to "opt-in" if they wanted to be organ donors. The countries with a high percentage were asked to "opt-out" if they did not want to be organ donors.

In other words, people were more likely to choose the default option they were designated on the form.  So if the country's form, by default, assigned you as an organ donor, then you'd be more likely to choose the default option (and remain an organ donor).

Despite organ donations being a personal decision, people are highly influenced by environmental design.

Optimizing Your Environment

Whether it’s issues as large as the spread of agriculture, or as small as checking a box on a form, our environment has a big influence on our decisions.

This begs the question:

  • How is your life being affected by your environment?
  • Is it positive or negative?

Here are a few ways to optimize your environment to make sure that it’s lifting you up, instead of pulling you down.

Maximize Your Energy at the Right Time

Many people experience peak energy during the first half of the day.

But many of us begin our days with shallow work–emails, social media, and other distractions. These are better reserved for later in the day when our energy is waning.

If we really wanted to be productive, we'd do our most difficult tasks in the first half of the day when energy is highest.  And if you're the type of person who has tons of energy at night, maximize your time accordingly.

Bottom line: Focus on important work when you experience peak energy.

Read 🚀 What Is Deep Work? Unlock Your Mind's Fullest Potential

Make Decisions Easier to Execute

We’re creatures of habit.

And to be more productive, we can make decisions easier to execute. For instance, packing your gym bag the night before will give you fewer excuses to avoid the gym in the morning. As a result, taking action becomes easier.

How can you make your decisions easier to execute?

Remove Negative Habits by Making Them Harder

It's best to remove habits that hinder our productivity.

We can do this by making them harder to execute. Put the TV remote away in a drawer where it isn't easily accessible. Put social media blockers on your phone and computer so that you can't check them during working hours. Keep the unhealthy snacks out of reach so you're forced to search for them.

Putting a little more distance between you and your bad habits will help you eliminate them.

Environmental Inspiration

If you don't know how to change your environment, here's inspiration from the creator of the polio vaccine: Jonas Salk.

Salk worked tirelessly for years to find the cure for polio, often spending 16 hours a day in the lab. He did this for years and kept getting stuck. Salk decided to take a much-need break and stayed in a Franciscan monastery in the Italian countryside.

His tiny vacation had an unlikely outcome.

Salk was inspired by Romanesque and Gothic architecture, completely enthralled by its history and culture. It unlocked his creativity, expanding his mind in ways it never had before. He claimed:  "[I was] able to do intuitive thinking far beyond any I had done in the past."

The monastery is where he had a breakthrough that led to the polio vaccine.


Next Steps: Switch Up Your Environment

If you haven't given your environment any real thought, now is the time. You may not discover a vaccine, but you'll undoubtedly create more success and opportunity in your life.

Want to learn more about creating opportunities in your life? Check out our article: 3 Facets of Opportunity: Utilize Your Time to Create Potential Value.

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