My productivity and mental well-being plummeted over the past two weeks, and although I saw this coming for reasons I’ll explain in a second, it has given me pause for reflection anyway.

Earlier this month I moved into a new place. While this in itself filled me with gratitude and excitement, for reasons I’ll go into some other time, it also threw me off because of the disarray that inherently accompanies moving house.

Nothing was in its right place.

It was an acute reminder of how our routines are shaped by how we set up our environment. And how quickly they can derail when our environment changes.

Consistency matters

For years, I’d honored a strict rule of keeping my bedroom phone-free. But since I couldn’t find the charger of my alarm clock when I moved into my new place, I used my phone as an alarm instead. Which, you guessed it, meant I ended up checking messages before I went to bed. Inevitably, my sleep suffered, cascading into further distractions the next morning.

That’s not where the trouble ended. With the delivery of a new dining table being delayed, I temporarily used my desk as a dining table. When an object that is meant to offer relaxation becomes mentally associated with work, it becomes impossible to relax. It’s the “workification” of the home that so many have struggled with during the pandemic.

All of a sudden, I also spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out the most basic things. Where to get certain foods. Where I had left my fitness shoes. Where to meditate. Automated routines required conscious thought again. I was shocked how much time all these tiny decisions consumed.

It reaffirmed the tenets of what I like to think of as personal behavioral design:

  • Set yourself up for a healthy lifestyle by creating an environment that makes it easy to perform healthy habits. Keep the right triggers (such as your fitness shoes) in a fixed and highly visible place. Don’t rely on discipline. Automate the right behaviors so that you don’t need to think about them.
  • Compartmentalize your home to separate different activities and to prevent them from turning into a big blur where work comes to permeate everything. Designate a fixed function to every space and every piece of furniture.
  • Put physical boundaries around digital spaces, too (which is why I decided long ago never to take my phone into my bedroom again – until I let my habit temporarily slip). Or as David Cain puts it in this brilliant article, “put the internet back into a box”. Literally!

The problem with switching between environments

All of this should also give pause for reflection as many companies transition to hybrid work schedules, requiring people to switch between in-office and remote work.

Hybrid work may actually turn out to be more exhausting than predominantly remote or in-office work, because people constantly have to switch between environments during the week, stressing them out even further because they never get to settle into fixed routines.

In a recent global study, more than 80% of people leaders reported that such a set-up was exhausting for employees. Workers, too, indicated that hybrid was more emotionally draining than fully remote or office-based work.

To perform the same habits every day, designing your environment for consistency may be the best thing you can do.