Currently, I’m writing to you at my Fully Jarvis standing desk. As I sip on “bulletproof” coffee, energy-promoting blue light is shining on my face. I breathe in notes of peppermint and lemon as my Vitruvi Diffuser releases focus-boosting essential oils. Humming through my Sonos One speaker is a top-secret flow-inducing playlist. Alright, I’ll let you in on the secret. I’m listening to the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack on repeat. (I know you’re laughing, but try it. Seriously.)
I gaze at my laptop’s periphery through the window. The same window through which, last Tuesday, I lost a staring contest to a black bear. I live in Vermont at 1700 feet. I’m on the side of a mountain, with long-range views—isolated from distraction. Save for my neighbor, on the other side of the mountain, who installed a private ski lift.
This all might sound like a parody of productivity. In many ways, it is. But it’s also true. These scientifically proven tactics work.
There’s a quote I love by Isabelle Olson1:
A year ago, I rehearsed this very moment (that I’m writing to you) with principles of environment design.
During the pandemic, I bought the cabin I mentioned in Vermont. Moving here with my girlfriend was an excellent opportunity to clear the closet (literally) and design a more intentional environment. Admittedly, I sacrificed a lot leaving NYC: proximity to close friends, access to world-class cultural events, and banana bread pudding from Magnolia.
But the results of environment redesign have surpassed my expectations. For years, I wanted to pursue my passion for writing, to create and share original thinking. Since I’ve intentionally designed my environment, I’ve been writing every morning for two to three hours (before I start my consulting job).
For the first time in a while, I’m doing what I love and finding internal peace. So, what’s different? Previously, an invisible hand had been holding me back: my environment.2
In this Ultimate Guide to Environment Design, I’ll share with you insights from my recent environment audit. You’ll learn how to create smart spaces—with or without moving—that make achieving your goals inevitable.
Let’s get started.
Environment design is the intentional organization of physical and digital spaces that make doing what’s right easy.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear writes, “Environment is an invisible hand that shapes human behavior.”3
The good news is that you can make the invisible hand your hand by designing smarter spaces—nudging your future self to be your best self.
In this guide, we’ll start with principles (the “what” and the “why”) of environment design. Then, we’ll discuss tactics (the “how”) of building smart surroundings.
In this section, we’ll cover the three core principles of environment design:
The broken windows theory states that visual signs of disorder promote chaos and disorder.
In 1969, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo ran an experiment in which he abandoned two cars. He left one car in an affluent neighborhood and another in a high-crime area. Unsurprisingly, the vehicle in the high-crime area was vandalized, while the vehicle in the well-to-do area was untouched.
But get this: A week later, Zimbardo smashed the car window in the affluent area to see whether this might influence social behavior. Shortly afterward, people began to destruct and vandalize this previously untouched car!
Why did this happen? According to Charlotte Ruhl at Simply Psychology:
A broken window, or other signs of disorder, such as loitering, graffiti, litter, or drug use, can send the message that a neighborhood is uncared for, sending an open invitation for crime to continue to occur, even violent crimes.4
The broken windows theory is by no means limited to urban environments. For example, consider what happens when we (or one of our housemates) leaves an unwashed dish in the sink.
Such visual cues often invite more disorder, leaving cleanliness to spiral out of control. Even worse, this sloppiness can spill over into other areas of our lives (health, career, relationships, etc.).
In the words of Amber Valletta, “We are what we see. We are products of our surroundings.”5
Awareness of our environment’s influence is the first step. The next step? Designing to optimize the five senses.
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear says:
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.6
How do we interact with spaces? Simple: through vision, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Our senses pass information to the brain to perceive and understand our reality.
The best part? People can optimize each sensory interaction to unlock more energy, productivity, and happiness.
Here’s how it works:
This article’s introduction highlighted several sensory optimizations for productivity (blue light, essential oil diffuser, flow playlist, etc.). Each is powerful in isolation. In the aggregate, however, they create a multiplier effect.
We’ll dive deeper into sensory optimization in the tactics section.
Minimalism is the disciplined pursuit of less. Why is minimalism important to environment design?
A few reasons:
Perhaps you agree that minimalism is desirable. But, how do we achieve it?
First, understand this: minimalism is a dual discipline. To achieve a state of minimalist equilibrium, one must carefully manage both their incoming and outgoing possessions. We’ll explore this incoming/outgoing dynamic in the tactics section.
Sidenote: I realize the irony of promoting minimalism when publishing the System Sunday newsletter that often showcases products. Here’s the thing: I only focus on personal development products that are “built for humans” (emphasis on for). We’re all guilty of owning something that doesn’t serve our goals/values or bring us joy. All to say, I intend to bring awareness to 1) the items that don’t serve us and 2) the items that do.
Next up, tactics. Here, I’ll get specific about the “how-to” of environment design.
As mentioned, optimizing for your sensory interactions is key to designing environments that enable your goals.
What if you had to prioritize a single sensory input? James Clear says to focus on vision:
The most powerful of all human sensory abilities, however, is vision. The human body has about eleven million sensory receptors. Approximately ten million of those are dedicated to sight. Some experts estimate that half of the brain’s resources are used on vision.8
So, how can you optimize your visual field to nudge your desired behavior? The answer is simple: Make the cue a big part of your environment.
One example of an empowering visual cue is the “chain method”—a visual trigger that displays and tracks habit completion. Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian, wanted to write every day. So, he started marking the completion of each session with a big “X” on a prominent wall calendar. As he tells it:
After a few days, you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.9
If you’re looking for an attractive wall calendar, this one by Stendig has a cult following.
Eliminating visual cues for negative behavior is equally crucial. Here, the expression “out of sight, out of mind” holds true.
As I alluded to earlier, the best strategy for eliminating the consumption of junk food is to simply not stock your pantry or fridge with it. You’ll immediately avoid unwanted triggers for energy-draining grub.
Or, maybe you’ll decide to charge your phone outside of your bedroom—avoiding the temptation to scroll mindlessly when you wake up the next day.
My advice is to systematically (i.e., one by one) consider each item in your living space and ask, “Is this prompting a good habit or bad habit?”
After that, it’s time to hide, donate, or sell the items that prompt bad habits. Be ruthless.
While vision is the most potent sensory cue, augment your other senses to experience a more enriched life.
In my 2022 Superhuman Trends Report, I write about intentionally enhancing the five senses. I’d copy and paste that here, but Google would penalize my SEO score for duplicate content. So, go check that out! (Here’s a link that will take you to the exact section in a new window.)
In any case, I have something else neat (and new) to discuss here: our sixth sense. I know what you’re thinking, and it might as well be supernatural because, in recent writing sessions, I’ve felt possessed.
Proprioception is sometimes referred to as the body’s “sixth sense.” Related to posture, proprioception is “an awareness of where our limbs are and how our bodies are positioned in space.”10
So, how do I take advantage of this sixth sense for greater productivity and wellness? I recently purchased a standing desk by Fully using my company’s annual wellness stipend.
Evolutionarily, we aren’t built to sit at a desk all day. “Sitting is the new smoking” is a phrase coined by Dr. James Levine, director of Mayo Clinic at Arizona State University.11 I wouldn’t go that far, but there are many benefits to spending more time upright with the aid of a standing desk.
Not only is standing better for your muscular alignment and posture; it also burns 170 more calories than sitting.12 Also, according to Healthline, “87 percent of those using standing desks reported increased vigor and energy throughout the day.”
I’m obsessed with the Fully standing desk in my home office. I went with the walnut hardwood because semblances of nature in offices—like plants and wood grain—are restorative. (As creatures of evolution, we thrive in nature.) I can quickly alternate between standing and sitting with Fully’s remote-touch height adjustment. I’ve found alternating is a great reset when I’m stuck on a problem and need to (literally) approach it from a new angle.
If you couldn’t tell by now, James Clear’s research into environmental influences on behavior has influenced my own. Another piece of advice I like involves creating a designated purpose for each space in your home:
Create a separate space for work, study, exercise, entertainment, and cooking. The mantra I find useful is “One space, one use.” Every habit should have a home.13
For instance, I have a chair that I use exclusively for meditation. So, when I sit down in THAT chair, my body knows it’s time to meditate.
Realize that one space, one use also applies to products out of sight. Why’s that? Establishing a designated home for every item will help you avoid prolonged bouts of unnecessary searching.
For example, are you constantly losing your car keys? How about the drill for that home improvement project? These misplacements steal one of our most precious resources: time.
Imagine what would happen if every home improvement tool you owned had an established place on this board? You’d be less likely ever to misplace a tape measure again.
In the words of organization expert Marie Kondo, “Ensuring that each one of your belongings has its own spot is the only way to maintain a tidy and clutter-free home.”14
While I don’t think inventorying every single thing you own and establishing a designated spot is the best use of your time, it’s an insightful exercise to consider. My advice is to start with your most misplaced items (20 percent of objects that lead to 80 percent of lost time) and standardize a home for these things today.
Remember I mentioned that minimalism is a dual discipline (managing inbound and outbound possessions)? Let’s start with how to manage the inbound.
There’s a quote from the documentary Minimalism that I try to live by:
We are too materialistic in the everyday sense of the word, and we are not at all materialistic enough in the true sense of the word. We need to be true materialists, like really care about the materiality of goods.15
The golden rule of the enlightened materialist: Quality > Quantity. Purchase less; love every single item more.
As highlighted in The Magic of Thinking Big, when we spend twice as much on something because we prioritize quality, that item often lasts more than twice as long as a half-priced item of inferior quality. In other words, not only will we enjoy the article more, but the cost per wear ends up being less.16
JACKET COST PER WEAR: HIGH VS. LESSER QUALITY
|High Quality||Lesser Quality|
|# of Wears per Year||125||125|
|Cost per Wear||$0.83||$1|
*We take lifespan to mean not just how long the clothes will last but how long you’ll want to wear them.
The lesson: By purchasing fewer things and going for higher quality, you’ll declutter your environment, limit decision fatigue, and derive more utility from your possessions. What we own becomes an extension of who we are. So, if we’re going to possess something, shouldn’t we at least enjoy it?
Your environment is either creating clarity or complexity. Minimalism is the path to clarity, and you can stay minimalist by throwing out or donating one item for every new thing you acquire.
Algorithms to Live By offers guidance on what to throw out via the least recently used (LRU) principle, which entails “evicting the item that’s gone the longest untouched.”17
When it comes to the usefulness of our possessions—sentimental items aside—the algorithm teaches: “Sometimes the best guide to the future is a mirror image of the past.”18
Here are a few other tactical questions to help you let go:
Think of your possessions like curating a museum. What you choose to exclude from the experience is just as influential (if not more) than what you choose to include.
So, ask yourself, “Would I want this in my museum?” Act “as if” you’re a curator, and it becomes surprisingly easy to start curating.
Most minimalist experts discuss the value of organizing your physical life. (Tactic #2). What about your digital life?
Twenty-five years ago, if you asked someone what material possession they’d grab first if their house was burning down, the answer might have been a photo album. Today? I’d bet a phone or laptop.
More and more aspects of our lives (and prized possessions) are digital. I find this fascinating. Why, then, do most people treat their digital environments with such disregard?
Is it because digital environments are not visible to others? Is it because we store more and more in the cloud (something our future selves could hypothetically organize)?
Consider just how time-wasting (and enraging) unsuccessful searches can be for digital files. Conversely, you might know how badass it feels to locate something in a couple of keystrokes.
Know this about physical vs. digital environments:
The overlap of the most productive and happiest people of the future will share something in common: organized digital lives.
Here are vital digital areas to declutter: email, calendar, task management, and personal knowledge management (photos, files, notes, etc.).
None of this has to be painful. We simply need to establish regular processes that keep our digital life organized and minimalistic.
Let’s get more specific about one of those: email management. To stay at inbox zero, you might batch email processing using the 3-21-0 system, a popular method for batching email processing in time blocks.22 All it takes is three sessions per day, 21 minutes per session, to reach inbox zero. By batching your email into three processing blocks, you’ll limit distracted attention and protect non-batching times for valuable “deep work” activities.
Laptop periphery is everything just outside your laptop’s field of view. The idea here is to be intentional about your surrounding workspace to nudge your mindset. (The same principles apply whether you’re using a desktop or manual notebook.)
Think about it: Even people in deep flow don’t just look at their screens for three hours straight. It might feel that way, but you’re also occasionally looking up, down, and to the side—perhaps taking a moment to think, as I just did.
What you see subliminally influences what you think, feel, and do. I began to think more about laptop periphery when my girlfriend took her family and me on vacation to Antigua. As it turned out, I needed to work for a few days while down there (I was helping launch a client’s product). The difference? I worked by the pool, overlooking an expansive ocean horizon.
And here’s what I discovered: I was more creative and inspired during my workdays there. Incidentally, science validates this experience.
Here are some insights from Donald Rattner’s phenomenal book, My Creative Space:
My big takeaway: The more open your workspace (greater sense of spatial depth and expansiveness), the more open your mind will be to divergent/creative thinking.
What’s most interesting here is that perception of expansiveness matters more than reality, and we can manipulate the constraints of any space to perceive greater spatial depth. Don’t have ceilings above ten feet? Try tall floor mirrors (tilted upward) to amplify the perception of height.25 Or, use standing lamps and hang artwork (in portrait style) to accentuate the room’s verticality.
Artwork stimulates us to learn new things and take risks.26 Hanging near my desk is a portrait of the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus mostly reminds me, on the days that I don’t feel like writing, to stop being a little b*tch. (I think he just gave me a wink.)By the way, there are other methods to enhance your laptop periphery. For example, I’ve found that working in a social environment—like a coffee shop—boosts my motivation, especially when overtime is required in the evening or during the weekend.
Working in social spaces is like completing a group workout class vs. trying to work out solo. If you’re anything like me, group classes positively impact your performance. So, experiment with your nearest public library, coffee shop, or hotel lobby (all free).
Customer journey mapping is a technique businesses use to map customer interactions with their brand. By viewing each touchpoint through the eyes of the customer, businesses see improvement opportunities. Then, they can hack the journey to deliver remarkable experiences.
Journey mapping is at the core of the most customer-centric businesses (at scale) ever known to man. Now, here’s my idea: What if you “journey mapped” your daily routines to create remarkable experiences…for yourself?
You can start by mapping your morning. When I did this exercise, here’s what I found: I was mindlessly scrolling (through social media) on my phone daily upon waking up.
The journey map revealed that my phone’s location (on my nightstand) created a strong visual cue that prompted scrolling in bed. So, what did I do about it? I moved my phone’s charger outside the bedroom, eliminating the undesired trigger—and with it, the unwanted behavior.
The results were so immediate that I created the Phone Charger Challenge. You’ll discover that once you’re standing (as a result of turning off your alarm), it’s much easier to stay vertical. And the day is on!
Spellbound is how we’d later describe it—after my girlfriend and I took a weekend trip to Woodstock, Vermont. We’d toured a house (for fun) that grabbed us on Zillow. It was on 40 wooded acres with long-range mountain views and a pond.
We couldn’t believe that the mortgage payment was equal to my cramped two-bedroom apartment in NYC. A few weeks passed, and as much as we daydreamed about living there, I didn’t think moving to Vermont was possible.
But then, I realized something: I was scared of the unknown.
Tim Ferriss’s fear-setting exercise helped. What I discovered: If things didn’t work out, I could always move back to NYC. Nothing was irreversible. Sure, I might have lost some money (due to closing fees), but the upside of taking control of my environment was simply too high.
Thankfully, I’d proven myself as a high performer at my company, which made things more manageable when I asked to transfer to the nearby office. (This was also aided by the flexibility of remote work normalized during the pandemic.)
If you follow everything else in this guide except moving to a new environment, you’ll make massive gains in personal development. That said, the gift of starting fresh is a clean slate to avoid patterns of behavior that might be holding you back.
Know this: If I were still living in NYC, I wouldn’t have written this article. Heck, I wouldn’t have started System Sunday! Instead, I’d be nursing a hangover—a lifestyle I’d long perpetuated to “fit in” rather than one that brought me any real joy.
What might a new environment do for you?
“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior”
“How can we design a world where it’s easy to do what’s right?”
“We are too materialistic in the everyday sense of the word, and we are not at all materialistic enough in the true sense of the word. We need to be true materialists, like really care about the materiality of goods.”
—Minimalism (documentary), Juliet Schor
“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default.”
“You are a product of your environment. So choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective. Analyze your life in terms of its environment. Are the things around you helping you toward success – or are they holding you back?” —W. Clement Stone
“A strong, successful man is not the victim of his environment. He creates favorable conditions. His own inherent force and energy compel things to turn out as he desires.” —Orison Swett Marden
“The role of the designer is to rehearse the future.” —Isabelle Olsson
“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
“We are what we see. We are products of our surroundings.”
“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” —Jack Nicholson
These books might as well have been about anti-gravity! I had a tough time putting them down…
Thanks for joining me on this journey to a well-designed world!
A favor to ask: If you enjoyed this free guide, please share it with others.
I appreciate you. Until next time…design well, be well!