The surprisingly simple thing all productive people do


5am: Sally’s alarm goes off

Like any normal person, she groans and wishes she could turn the stupid thing off and go back to sleep. Only problem is, her alarm clock is on the other side of the room. To turn it off she has to get out of bed. And once she’s out of bed, well, she’s up.

So she gets up, flicks off the alarm, and heads to kitchen.

Why is she up so early?

One, she enjoys having time to herself before everyone else in the house gets up. Two, it’s the only time of day she can exercise. If it doesn’t get done in the morning, it doesn’t get done.

Still, it’s winter, it’s cold and Sally really doesn’t feel like heading out in the dark. Except she knows her friend Michelle will be waiting on the corner for her in 15 minutes. And look, there’s all her warm exercise gear, neatly laid out on the kitchen table. She doesn’t have to look for a pair of socks or wonder where she’s left her shoes. They’re all right there.

She gets dressed and heads off to meet Michelle.

9am: School drop-off is done and it’s time to work

Today is one of the days Sally works from home. It’s a privilege she’s extracted from her boss because she’s proven she can do as much in five hours at home as she can in 7.5 hours in the office.

As a serial neat freak Sally knows how easy it is for her to be distracted by household chores when she’s supposed to be working so before school drop-off she made sure the kitchen was tidy and put a load of washing on.

Today she needs to get a report finished and she knows it’s going to take her two hours. So, she leaves her phone in the kitchen, shuts down email and activates the Freedom app on her laptop.

Two hours later she’s done and decides to reward herself with a snack.

The only choices her kitchen offers, however, are fruit or nuts. There is not a TimTam in sight and for the second time that day, Sally lets out an audible groan. Begrudgingly she grabs a handful of nuts and heads back to her desk.

7.30pm: Sally is catching up with her ‘brains trust’

Which is just her fancy name for ‘a bunch of folk she met at a conference once and really hit it off with’. Sally loves her brains trust. They’re so damn smart and every time she heads home after seeing them she feels energised and full of ideas for what she’s going to do to take her career to the next level.

What’s going on here?

Sally sounds like a highly-motivated productivity robot, doesn’t she? Someone with seemingly unlimited reserves of willpower.

But she’s not.

All Sally’s done is one simple thing: she’s set up her world to facilitate success.

Both refer to that thing where you:

  • Remove barriers that typically stop you from doing the things you want to, and
  • Insert barriers to prevent you from doing the things you don’t want to.

Sally knows the biggest barrier to getting up in the morning is the act of getting out of bed. That’s why she puts her alarm clock on the other side of the room.

She hates exercising in the cold and dark of winter, so arranges to meet a friend because she hates letting a friend down more than she hates the cold and dark.

She knows how distracting household chores can be when working from home, so she ensures anything she might be tempted to do is done before she sits down to work.

To eat more healthily she has removed all crap from her pantry. She’s instigated a policy of ‘If it’s not in the house, I can’t eat it.’

Sally has big career ambitions so she chooses to hang out with smart people who are doing cool things as this pushes her to open her mind up to new ideas and possibilities.

The beauty of environment design

It reduces the opportunity for us to overthink or negotiate with ourselves.

No more:

  • ‘I’ll just have this one TimTam and then I’ll eat well for the rest of the day’, or
  • ‘I’ll just put this one load of washing on … oh and that linen cupboard has been driving me nuts for ages, I’ll just quickly sort it out …’

And it can be applied to everything.

Tired of the kids dropping their school bags on the floor of the living room? Put hooks for them right by the front door.

Sick of that big smudge on the bathroom mirror upstairs? Put a cleaning caddy in every bathroom.

Hate the fact that everyone washes their dishes in the office kitchen but never puts them away? Remove the drying rack.

Wish you could muster the energy to get out of the house and go to the park with the kids in the afternoon? Get a dog*.

Don’t seem to be able to save for that holiday? Get your employer to send a portion of your pay each week to a savings account you can’t access.

Struggling to get to sleep at night? Ban all screens from the bedroom.

In short: make it easy to go right and hard to go wrong

I borrowed that sentence from Gretchen Rubin as it neatly sums up why environment design is so darn effective. It makes it easy for you to do the ‘right thing’ and hard to do the ‘wrong thing’.

So, the next time you find yourself frustrated because you just don’t seem to be able to muster the willpower to make something happen, forget willpower and forget motivation.

Instead, ask yourself ‘What can I change in my environment right now to make it easy to do the right thing?’

You’ll be stunned at how effective making tiny changes to how you set up your world can be when it comes to getting things done and achieving the stuff you want to. (And, just quietly, it’s equally as effective for getting other people to do the stuff you need them to do too.)


* Please don’t get a dog JUST so you have something to force you out of the house in the afternoon. Get a dog because they’re awesome, and with the understanding that they’re a family member, not just a ‘pet’.