The Exact Browser and Desktop Setup I Use to Maximize Productivity [Video Walk-through]
What’s the fastest and least painful way to change your behavior?
Changing your environment.
If you’re familiar with Philip Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment or with Ellen Langer’s Counterclockwise Experiment, you’re aware of the insane changes different environments can lead to, and quickly.
In Zimbardo’s case, good people became evil in a matter of days. In Langer’s experiment, they literally turned back the clock on aging, as measured in joint flexibility, arthritis, memory, and even intelligence, also within mere days and weeks.
Changes in your environment can lead to big changes in your behavior and can do so quickly.
In today’s article, we’re going to use this to our advantage. By focusing on one aspect of your environment – your computer – we’re going to dramatically improve your focus and productivity while reducing procrastination.
Three Factors to Optimize for
In setting up our productivity-boosting environment, we must keep three factors in mind: clutter, priming, and proximity.
First, our environment should be as clutter-free as possible. Here’s why…
Clutter creates stress. Not the good kind of stress but the one that needlessly lowers performance. A study which explored the relationship between clutter, families, and stress, found a “link between high cortisol (stress hormone) levels in female home owners and a high density of household objects. The more stuff, the more stress women feel.” Let me repeat: The amount of stress in the household was directly proportional to the amount of stuff the family had accumulated. More stuff = more stress.
Other research found that women who described their homes as disorderly were more likely to suffer from depressed mood, fatigue in the evening, poor coping skills and difficulty transitioning from work to home. Peter Walsh, a clutter expert, says that “when people see clutter, they use language like “suffocating” and “I can’t breathe.” In other news, they get overwhelmed and stressed out.
Clutter also reduces your happiness because it impedes your identification with your home, which should be a retreat from the outside world and a place to feel pride. Having too many objects in too small a place will lead you to feel that your home environment is your enemy, not your friend.
Because clutter is taxing for your mind – it has to somehow process everything – it has even been shown to significantly impact your memory.
Worst of all, clutter reduces self-control. In one study, participants ate almost twice as many cookies when eating in a chaotic kitchen rather than a normal kitchen. Another study showed that people who struggle with clutter are 77 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.
Roy Baumeister, a leading researcher in this field, explains in his book Willpower, “In one experiment, a group of participants answered questions sitting in a nice neat laboratory room, while others sat in the kind of place that inspires parents to shout, ‘Clean up your room!’ The people in the messy room scored lower in self-control on many measures, such as being unwilling to wait a week for a larger sum of money as opposed to taking a smaller sum right away. When offered snacks and drinks, people in the neat lab room chose apples and milk instead of the candy and sugary cokes preferred by their peers in the pigsty.”
Combine the stress, overwhelm, reduced happiness, and impaired self-control and you have a grand recipe for procrastination. So the first goal in setting up our environment to maximize productivity is to reduce clutter to a minimum.
In case you’re unfamiliar with priming, Wikipedia defines it as “a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.”
John Bargh, an expert in this field, defines it as follows: “Priming refers to the incidental activation of knowledge structures, such as trait concepts and stereotypes, by the current situational context.”
In simpler terms, priming means that things in your environment trigger a certain goal or behavior within you – and this happens unconsciously, meaning you don’t realize it’s happening. That’s why we can also refer to priming as unconscious goal activation or unconscious behavior activation.
Here are some examples: Walking past the gym can trigger the goal of wanting to work out. A plate of veggies and fruits can trigger the goal of eating healthy. A sexy image can trigger the urge to have sex. The smell of cake and chocolate can make you hungry. Dimming the lights immediately increases fearfulness. Holding a hot cup of coffee or tea infuses warm feelings in us, making us more charitable. Putting sweets on a secretary’s desk in a clear rather than opaque bowl (thereby making them more visible bot not more available) increases snacking by 46 percent.
Even other people can trigger behavior or goals in us. Reading about a successful businessman can motivate us to start our own business. Watching a James Bond movie can make men more dominant and self-assured. Watching someone offering gifts and helping others can make us more kind and altruistic.
The point is, anything and everything in our environment has an influence on us. The objects we see, the tastes we smell, the words we read, the people we interact with – these environmental cues can all trigger unconscious behavior.
That’s another reason why clutter can lead to procrastination. It’s not only the stress, the overwhelm, or the loss of self-control, pieces of clutter also unconsciously activate behaviors we may not want to activate. A newspaper on your desk can prime you to start reading the news. A Facebook icon can prime an entertainment goal or trigger feelings of stress.
Bringing it back to our goal of maximizing productivity, realize that certain things in your environment prime you to be more productive, while other things prime you to be less productive, e.g., by triggering procrastination. Therefore, we want to rid our environment of cues that lower productivity and fill it with cues that increase productivity.
Did you know that procrastination has risen 5-fold over the last few decades? In the 1970s, only about 4-5 percent of people surveyed indicated that they considered procrastination a key personal characteristic. Today it’s 20-25 percent.
The reason, according to procrastination researcher Dr. Piers Steel, is found in distractions, which are becoming increasingly more attractive and more available. To illustrate the relationship between procrastination and distractions, Steel uses the following graph in his book, The Procrastination Equation:
The horizontal lines represent distractions; the lower a less enticing one and the higher a more enticing one. The solid line represents the work curve, which illustrates that our motivation rises continuously as the due date approaches.
While our motivation for distractions remains stable, our motivation for working is flexible. We procrastinate for as long as our work motivation is lower than our distraction motivation. In this example, we procrastinate until the deadline is so close that the motivation for work finally exceeds the motivation for the more enticing distraction.
As the graph illustrates, the more attractive a temptation becomes, the higher the dashed bar moves and the longer it takes for the competing work line to become the preferable choice. In other words, the more attractive the temptation, the longer we procrastinate. Dr. Piers Steel sums it up perfectly, “So, we can see that when the allure of temptation rises, so does procrastination.”
Let me repeat: The more attractive the distractions are, the more we procrastinate. And this perfectly explains our rise in procrastination. While work hasn’t changed much over the last decades, distractions have become increasingly more attractive – think video games, Netflix, YouTube, smartphones, thousands of television channels, movies and series at our fingertips, and so on.
When designing our environment, we need to find ways to make distractions less attractive. And the way we’ll do that is by reducing proximity, by increasing the time and effort involved in accessing them. Consider the following example: If you had to go up to your roof to access Facebook, would you check it as often as you do now? You almost certainly wouldn’t. We’ll do the equivalent of that, mainly through the use of website blocking tools.
Putting Theory into Practice: Exactly How to Set Up Your Browser and Desktop to Maximize Productivity
To recap, here’s what we want to keep in mind as we’re setting up our browser and desktop environments. We want to have as little clutter as possible. We want to get rid of any cues that prime us into procrastination. We want to add cues that make us more productive. And we want to reduce proximity to distractions.
With this in mind, here’s a video showing exactly how I’ve set things up on my laptop:
Steps for setting up your browser:
- Hide bookmarks bar with Ctrl + Shift + B. (Toggle between hidden and shown)
- Move add-ons and extensions all the way to the right so they’re not visible all the time.
- Install extension that displays blank page instead of thumbnails when you open a new tab (I use Empty New Tab Page).
- Block distracting websites (I use Cold Turkey).
Steps for setting up your desktop:
- Delete all or most quick launch icons from taskbar
- Move all or most quick launch icons on desktop to one folder
Here are the before-and-after images. First of my browser:
(Click to enlarge)
The typical browser is plastered with bookmarks, add-ons, extensions, and website recommendations. Not only is this clutter stressing out your brain, but each visible icon or link is a potential cue for your unconscious mind and will activate goals and behaviors that get in the way of your productivity.
All of these visible cues are fighting for your attention. It’s like they’re all screaming at you 24/7, “Click me! Click me already! C’mon, please click me!” And how often do you end up clicking those saved websites? It takes one weak second and you’re on Facebook, or Instagram, or whatever your distraction of choice is. This setup leads to a ton of needless procrastination and time-wasting.
Compare it to our new setup. Even just looking at it allows you to breathe more deeply and not feel as suffocated. Nothing is pulling at your attention. You feel much more relaxed. And most importantly, you’re forced to behave much more deliberately. You may still end up on Facebook and other distracting websites, but you had to go through a more conscious decision-making process.
And now the before-and-after images of my desktop:
(Click to enlarge)
Same story. On the typical setup, the clutter can be suffocating, overwhelming, and stress-inducing. Each icon and shortcut can unconsciously trigger goals and behaviors that are neither urgent nor important.
Compare it to the new setup, which is relaxing and allows for more deliberate and conscious and productive behavior. Nothing is pulling at your attention. No unwanted goals or behaviors are activated.
So there you have it, that’s a quick and easy, set-it-and-forget-it way to boost productivity and reduce procrastination. If you found this useful, you may be interested in our brand new course Procrastinator to Producer (51% off for a limited time).
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