The Psychology of Your Environment

Everyone who knows me well knows that I like to keep a clean and semi-orderly workspace. In fact, before I sit down to write I grab a cup of coffee, light a candle, put on some instrumental music, and straighten up my space. I always thought it was because I was a neat-freak... but that doesn't make any sense. My car, while uncluttered, has dirt and leaves on the floor mats that I haven't bothered to clean out from my last camping trip. What's the difference between my obsessive need for cleanliness and order in my work space but not in my car? Why don't those traits carry over to every aspect of my life?

podcast that I've been recently enthralled with is hosted by Tim Ferriss who is an unknowing mentor in my life as he is constantly seeking to better himself and explore new ideas and ways of thinking. In the last episode I listened to, he was chatting with Kevin Rose who is also a incredible entrepreneur and lifehacker (he's the co-founder of Digg and Milk). One of the topics of discussion was the effect of environment on your mental state. In particular, they honed in on the idea of clutter and disorganization. As their apartments or work spaces became cluttered, so would their minds. They found it more difficult to focus, think clearly and be creative. However, as they cleaned their environment, putting their space in order helped them to feel comfortable and put-together.

For me, my external environment represents my internal environment. So if things are relatively neat - which I would say my house is right now - my mind tends to be well-organized. If my external environment is a mess, then my head is usually a mess. [...] When in doubt, tidy your [stuff] up.
— Tim Ferriss

The same is true for many people - the environment in which you live often has an emotional and mental counter part. According to research done by the University of Minnisota,

What you are seeing, hearing, experiencing at any moment is changing not only your mood, but how your nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are working.

The problem is that many people aren't in a position to just keep stuff clean. Either they have a lot of things, they live with other people, they organize in a messy way or a host of other excuses. I get that. So here's the deal - you do you. Give attention to your work space whether that be your office, your cubical or your desk. Give attention to your living space whether that's your house, your bedroom or just your half of the bed. You can't change others, but you can change you. And I betcha that, given some time, your flat mates will envy the cleanliness and join the club.

1. Start small

I've written on the topic of small wins before, stating that each small win provides you with the emotional stamina to continue working. This self-perpetuating cycle builds momentum allowing you to tackle large projects with a very rigorous focus because you're essentially focusing on small tasks along the way. One win at a time. For those who may be natural clutter-bugs, getting into the habit of keeping your space organized is not an easy one. So here's your baby step number one: make your bed.

This is a great place to start for two reasons:

a. When you wake up in the morning and the first thing that you do is make your bed, you are setting a mental precedent for the day. It is probable that you won't continue in this habit for the entire day, but it starts your mind and body off on the right track.

b. When you come in at night, you know that one part of your life is in order. This fact helps to put you at ease when it's time to go to bed and you find your pillow in place, your sheets not wadded up in a ball at the foot of the bed and the corner turned back just begging for you to crawl in and get some rest.

2. Declutter in Blocks

Neuroscientists at Princeton University found that the clutter in your environment restricts your ability to focus by constantly competing for neural representation. Removing these distractions allows your neural receptors to concentrate on a specific subject matter without the neural equivalent of push notifications pinging you every couple of seconds. It would not only be daunting but probably impossible for you to declutter your entire space in one fell swoop. So here's what you do: for the next month, choose one small group of items or space to declutter each evening after supper.

a. The DVD's
b. The linens closet
c. The silverware
d. The coffee table

This is a great project to go through with your spouse or kids. You can enjoy the process of finding old knick-knacks that you thought you had lost, reminiscing through old photo albums, getting rid of hideous clothes etc.

If your house is relatively clean and you think you can knock it out in a day, give everyone a room to declutter and clean. Whoever does the most thorough job gets a a prize of your choice. Get creative with it!

I love this project that The Minimalists did.

Find a friend or family member. Someone who’s willing to get rid of some of their excess stuff. This month, each of you must get rid of one thing on the first day of the month. On the second, two things. Three items on the third. So forth, and so on. Anything can go! Clothes, furniture, electronics, tools, decorations, etc. Donate, sell, or trash. Whatever you do, each material possession must be out of your house—and out of your life—by midnight each day.

To help myself and others simplify their lives physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, I wrote the Story Arc eBook which walks you through decluttering, reprioritizing and taking action in your life. You can download it for free here!


3. Build a habit

It is said that 21 days of doing something daily creates a habit. Whether or not this is true, you can build a routine for yourself by living by these simple guidelines:

a. If you're through with it, put it back.
b. If you dirty it, clean it.
c. If you take it off, hang it up.
d. If you turn it on, turn it off.

A place for everything and everything in it's place.


4. Constrain

I love stuff. I'm intrigued by beautiful product design even if I wouldn't use that product. I enjoy handling items with excellent ergonomics. I enjoy collecting things. You, like me, may find yourself eager to purchase a new object every time you turn around. To constrict this inflow of material possessions, limit the space in which you can store it. For example, only keep 20 hangers in your closet, or a chest of drawers with only 3 drawers. Or have only two cabinets for dishes or only two shelves for your books. Limiting your space literally forces you to limit your intake just so you don't drown in stuff. Here are "5 Ways to Live Simpler". 

Granted, each family must tailor its space to its size, giving yourself and your family enough room to do the desired activities but not so much that you don't think twice the next time you want to purchase a new TV or pair of shoes.

Our thoughts shape the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor.
— Steven Johnson

Your mind is your command and control center - give it the proper care and attention it needs. Rest is a big one, but so is freedom. Give yourself a beautiful environment in which to live and you'll see your mind flourish with focus, creativity, reasoning and less stress.