Habits in Lockdown blog series part 4: Changing your environment is key to changing your habits

"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?”
Clement Stone

In the last post, we talked about ways in which to support our productivity Which is a vital ingredient in contributing towards positive mental health. However, interestingly one of the best ways to boost overall productivity is actually taking time off! In our efforts to be productive for many hours in a row we can often actually undermine our productivity. Research has shown for each additional 10 hours of holiday/vacation time employees took, their year-end performance ratings improved 8%. Research also suggests that we maximise/condense learning in our downtime/recovery hours and sleep. Other research (which I am a big fan of!) has shown that a 6-hour workday is much more productive than the traditional 8 or 10 hour days. Whilst removing distractions and taking regular breaks are important tasks to improve our daily productivity. What is arguably as important is to have a clear separation between your work and your personal time that allows you to switch off and recover from your day.

Creating work/life boundaries

Normally, most of us need to leave the house in the morning to go to work, this journey creates a clear physical and mental boundary between work and home. However, now that we don’t have that boundary we can find that work can start to creep and seep into our personal lives. This is not only damaging to our productivity but also to our mental and physical health. The problem is we often prioritise work over our personal lives as its easier to quantify (i.e. we are much more likely to have work-based goals or targets than personal ones). However, that comes at a cost, the cost being our own mental health and happiness.

Having a routine can help us to cultivate positive daily habits and to prioritise self-care, family time or whatever it is that brings us joy in our day to day lives. Ultimately, creating a personal time routine allows us to build in time for the important things in life. This includes time to rest, relax, and have fun. It’s not about scheduling every minute of your life. It’s not about being perfect – there are always going to be days when something overruns, a job takes three times as long as we expect it to take, or someone pops a meeting in our diaries unexpectedly. But structuring our time to include and importantly prioritise some downtime increases the likelihood that we’ll manage to carve out some personal time most days. The key to carving out personal time and make it more appealing than getting things done is to have a plan for the ways in which you wish to spend that time. We all value different things – for some of us it might be reading with the kids, others might want some time each day to play with a pet, some of us might enjoy sitting and reading for a little while or doing an online cookery course. For many of us, it will be something else entirely, but that’s why our daily routines are individual to us. Take a second right now to think about all the things that bring you joy in your personal life, maybe think about past hobbies, or simple things that make you smile, or the last time you got completely lost in a task make a list, add to this list, make it visible, tell someone about it. If we want to make personal time as uplifting and significant as it can be we need to be aware of the activities that are going to help contribute the most to our own health and happiness, that is true wellbeing.  

After you have created a personal priorities list of the activities that bring you joy (and this could take a while, don't worry if you don't have the worlds longest list right away it takes time to discover and often rediscover the things that bring you joy). The next step is to create a clear work/personal time divide. I want you to take a few seconds right now, and list 3 ideas you may have around how you could add a division between your workday and your personal life (and arguably also your weekdays and your weekends). This could be anything at all, a closing ceremony - a switching down/switching off ritual, maybe it’s an end of day song, maybe it’s when you take your one a day walk/exercise, maybe it’s when you play with your kids, call your parents, or do a restorative yoga class. Whatever it is, over the next week I’d like for you to experiment with ways in which to create this separation for yourself. (Handy hint: The more fun you make it the more likely it is that you will do it!)

Here are some ideas to support:

■      Write your top three priorities for work tomorrow and your top three priorities for your life (e.g. bedtime stories, sleep, a walk outside, an online art class)

■      Set a cut off time for work tomorrow

■      Tell those that you live with that you are done with work for the day

■      Tidy up your work station (laptop out of sight)

■      Take three long breaths out

■      Get dressed into more casual clothes

■      Do a 3-minute switching off meditation

■      Write down 3 things you are grateful for

■      Schedule a yoga class

■      Schedule a call

■      Have an end of day song that you play or sing

■      Go for your "daily commute" walk at 6pm

So far in this series, we’ve talked about ways in which to create positive physical and mental health habits to help you feel better during this uncertain time. However, there is a piece missing, a piece that is now more than ever vital for our healthy habit formation. That piece is your context or environment. The place where you live, work and play, that is your home. Ultimately, your environment refers to anything in the world surrounding you - everything but you.

Why your environment is the key to supporting you to develop healthy habits

The thing is, it is very hard to change our habits in an environment that is unsupportive of change. Let’s think about this in the context of our food environment. We make around 250 food choices a day; More cereal? Two biscuits or one? A lump of extra sugar in your tea? More coffee? Every time you are exposed to a food you have to make the decision whether or not to eat it.

Let’s think of this in terms of unhelpful habits/temptations say you leave an unfinished birthday cake out on the kitchen counter. Say you’re bored on a task so you decide to take a wander to the kitchen. Each time you walk past the counter or see others eating the cake you have to make the decision whether or not you are going to have it. The more decisions you have to make about eating it or not, the more likely you are to fatigue your willpower and eventually give in and eat the cake. The same goes for your phone if you are trying to resist being distracted by texts or news alerts and yet your phone is sitting there in your eye line, within easy reach, each time you see it you are making the decision conscious or non-conscious whether or not to engage with it

As I’ve mentioned frequently in my blog, we cannot rely on our unstable willpower. Willpower is like a muscle, if I exercised my right bicep using heavy weights every day for a week, by the end of the week I wouldn’t be able to pick up a glass of water (i.e. overusing my willpower muscle). But if I use it an adequate amount, with proper rest and recovery, it will get stronger over time. Interestingly, in the research, they found that those who had the strongest willpower were those that structured their lives in a way that they didn’t even come into contact with temptation in the first place, so therefore their self-control wasn’t compromised. In fact, it was those who had the least exposure to temptation that were more successful at sticking with their goals. Yet we consistently underestimate the impact our environment has on our behaviours.

·      It is nearly impossible to eat healthy all of the time if you are living and working in an environment that is full of unhealthy foods.

·      It is nearly impossible to stay on task or not get sucked into the news if your phone is constantly notifying you.


How do you create an environment that is supportive of your healthy habits

When it comes to behaviour change we want to increase the friction (i.e. put up barriers) for unhelpful behaviours and decrease friction (strip down barriers) to helpful behaviours e.g. Netflix reduces friction by starting new show automatically once you’ve finished a previous one, encouraging you to binge-watch. In terms of your environment proximity has a huge impact on the degree of friction occurring. Proximity determines the external sources to which we are exposed, we engage with what is near us and ignore what is far away. Research has shown that those that keep sweets within arms reach on their desk weighed at least two stone more than those that didn’t. When they then removed sweets from the top of the desk to the drawer people ate 74 fewer calories per day (the equivalent of not gaining 5/6 lbs a year).

If you reduce the barriers or friction to helpful habits, forming habits becomes easier. If you want a habit to stick in your life you need to integrate it into your environment.

Let’s think about this practically.

How your home desk/working space is set up has an impact on your productivity. What can you see around you right now? Is your phone in your eye line? Are there any other distractions? Are you surrounded by unhealthy snacks? Your phone itself is a microenvironment, as to is the desktop screen of your computer. What you see first you will be cued into actioning e.g. a message or a news feed update. Pick up your phone and look at the home screen, take a look at how your phone is laid out – is it supportive of your habits? What are the apps you see first? Is there some spring cleaning to be done on your phone home screen? What are the first things you see when you open your phone? What are the notifications you see? Now ask yourself are they supportive of your goals right now?

For example, if you want to create a meditation habit and the notifications you get are all around meditation rather than messages or news it makes it much for likely you will engage (less friction). If you want to create a reading habit and the first app you see on your phone is a reading app then it cues you into engaging (reducing friction).

One of the first steps to creating healthy habits is to use your environment to cue or trigger your healthy habits. I want you to take a look around you right now, maybe it’s your phone home page? Maybe you want to go into your settings and remove or change some of the notifications so they are more supportive of your goals and less supportive of your distractions? Maybe it’s the desktop on your laptop? Do you want to tidy it up? Do you want to finally learn how to take the sound notifications off? Maybe it's your desk/working environment do you want to clean it off of distractions, get a plant, put a picture of your kids there, have some nice hand cream or a candle nearby? Or maybe it’s your kitchen? Maybe you want to rearrange your fridge so the first thing you see is the cherry tomatoes or some oranges rather than some cake?

Whatever feels most pressing for you right now, set a timer take 10 minutes to get started on this right now. It could be the most useful thing you do to support your habits and your life this week.


Take care,




Published on 4th May 2020 at 11:46 by Heather McKee

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Dr. Heather McKee is registered in Ireland Reg. No. 687397 with the registered address at 314 Mother Teresa House, Loreto Abby, Rathfarnham, D14 NR20, Co. Dublin, Ireland

This work is in no way meant to replace any medical advice. Dr. McKee is Non-HCPC-registered. Photography by Dylan Madden.

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