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Understanding the Relationship Between Environment and Executive Functions

Updated: May 28

The people who get up early to chase their goals, get work done on time, and exercise daily DON'T rely on these things.


  • Discipline

  • Motivation

  • Caffeine (well, maybe a little bit)


Why?


Discipline and motivation are fleeting ways of being.


The people who are building careers, buying homes, and following their dreams rely on something else.


"What is that thing?" you might be wondering...


Environment. 


Think about this:


Do you control your environment? Or, is it controlling you?


Are you scrolling your phone instead of getting out of bed in the morning?


Struggling to stay focused on work?


Finding it hard to build healthy exercise habits?


Over the past four years, I’ve transformed my environment to:


  • Minimize distractions

  • Prioritize healthy habits

  • And stay focused on my goals.


I'm assuming your here because you would like some more of that in your life?

Lucky for you, I've also created a framework to help anyone shape an environment where their executive functions skills can thrive.


After reading this, you'll know how to create environments that make you feel motivated, empowered, and focused.


Whether you're a neurodivergent adult with ADHD or not, this article is for you. Ready to take control of your environment? Let’s dive in.



digital clutter adhd

Environment and Executive Function

An environment with distractions and temptations controls your behaviors.


Ever wonder why the most expensive food at the grocery store is at eye level while the inexpensive stuff is at the bottom?


Studies found that we are more likely to purchase what we see first. Our environment controls our behavior.


At work, the ping of a text message might pull your attention away from an important project.


At home, that pile of clutter reminds you of another to-do, creating stress. These poorly designed environments make it difficult to be the person we want to be.


A well-designed environment is one you control.


In this environment, difficult choices are easier while decisions that distract you are more difficult. This is essential for adults with ADHD to understand.


"Stop thinking about your environment as filled with objects. Starting thinking about it as filled with relationships." - James Clear

The key is to design your environment with intention while creating rules about how you behave. This is true for both work and home. 


For example, I don't charge my phone in my bedroom anymore.


Why?


Every morning I would wake up and immediately grab my phone.


Then, I would spend 20 minutes or more checking emails, scrolling social media, or checking the surf.


This is not the type of person I wanted to be. I tried to use willpower and discipline, but it didn't work.


So, I changed my environment.


Optimize Your Environment for Better Habits

How can you redesign your environment so the habits you want to build become the easiest choices?


The first step is to choose one habit or executive function skill you want to build.


Next, choose one distraction to eliminate.


Here is an example:

Last year, I struggled to remember to take my vitamins in the morning.


So, I placed them next to my coffee machine.


When I grab my morning cup of Joe, I always remember to take my vitamins.


When I moved out of my parent's house, I was constantly late because I couldn’t find my keys or wallet.



Now, I always know where my keys and wallet are, and I’m rarely late.


Small tweaks, people. Small tweaks.



Want to use the weights you purchased during COVID? Place them in your living room.


Spending too much time on your phone in bed each morning? Charge your phone in a different room.


Trying to eat healthier? Shop at a new grocery store.


The key to optimizing your environment is to align it to the habits and goals you are striving for. By doing this, you can take control of your environment. 


Design A Workspace that You Control

After designing my home environment, I moved onto my workspace. Three failed attempts later, I created a framework to design a workspace I control.


It begins by asking these four questions: 


  1. What location is best for me? 

  2. What supplies do I need? 

  3. What are my biggest distractions?

  4. Who can support me?


What location is best for me? 

Consider an environment that works with your executive functions.


Is your best work done in a quiet space with minimal foot traffic?


Or, do you thrive in a bustling environment with people around? 


I am easily distracted by visual stimuli. The location best for me is quiet and calm. Other people can be around, but only if they are working quietly. 


Pro tip:

Natural light can improve sleep and executive function. If natural light is not an option, consider purchasing a natural daylight lamp


What supplies do I need? 

What do you need to create the optimal working environment? Now, make a list.


Think big, like a desk and additional monitor. And, think small like writing utensils or a power strip. 

executive dysfunction
It may not be fancy, but it works for me.

Next, ask yourself, “How can I make this place special and unique?” Design a space where you actually want to be.


Consider speakers, headphones, plants, pictures, or a fancy keyboard. 


Because I am easily distracted, my desk is fairly minimal. Everything on it I need every day. Nothing else. 


Pro tip: invest or ask your manager for a comfortable chair. I upgraded my chair and noticed a huge difference in my motivation to work and levels of attention.



What are my biggest distractions? 

Research at the University of California Irvine found that it takes 23 minutes to refocus after a distraction. 23 minutes! 


Are you shopping online instead of finishing a report for work? 


Is the PING of a text message pulling your attention away? 


How much time do you lose each day to distractions?


Neurodivergent adults, like those with ADHD, are especially susceptible to distractions.


To be more productive at work, don't fight distractions, remove them from your workspace.


You can take control of your phone by using Do Not Disturb or turning it on to airplane mode.


Your phone is an integral part of your environment. Do you need all of those notifications? If not, turn off the ones that you don’t use. 


How to remove the distraction of email

Email is one of our biggest distractions at work. Instead of checking it periodically, schedule "email triage" time on your calendar. When it isn't time for "email triage", keep your email closed.  


Pro tip: Create clear boundaries using walls, plants, and bookshelves. Whether you work from home or at the office, limiting visual stimuli helps increase attention.  


Who can support me? 

Be honest with yourself, others living with you, and your coworkers. Ask yourself, “What do I need for success?” 


If you have roommates or a partner, discuss your new environment. Share with them how you expect yourself and them to treat this space. 


At work, speak with your team and manager. Explain what supplies you need, the type of environment you work best in, and how you would like to be communicated with.


This may be a difficult conversation to have, but remember, this isn’t just about you; it’s about the success of your team. 


Summary 

Designing your environment with intention can significantly improve focus, productivity, and executive function.


By optimizing your space for desired habits, reducing distractions, and involving supportive people, you create an environment where your executive functions can thrive.


Implementing these strategies and the framework above, you will control your environment rather than letting it control you.


Ready to transform your workspace and boost your productivity? Share your environment setup or any changes you've made in the comments below, and let's support each other in creating spaces where we thrive. 


Are you ready to improve your executive function skills?

We know adulting is HARD. It demands strong adult executive function skills. Luckily, we've made a LIVE course to cover the fundamentals so you can make the best of each day: Adult EF Skills 101. We are currently accepting applications!


In this course, you will:


  • Learn how to plan your priorities 🎯

  • Learn to get started (task initiate) 🔨

  • Learn how to keep things tidy 🧺

  • Learn how to find and keep a job 👩‍💻

  • Learn how to communicate effectively 🗣️

  • Learn how to budget 🤑



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About the Author

Eric Kaufmann, M.Ed is a Professional Educational Therapist and Certified Executive Function Coach. He is the Co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, an online adult executive function coaching company designed to guide adults in overcoming disorganization, procrastination, and productivity roadblocks so they can unlock their potential. Eric is also the founder of Elevate Learning Solutions, an Educational Therapy practice located in San Clemente, CA, that guides students with neurological differences toward becoming independent and confident students and self-leaders.

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Upskill Specialists was founded when two former special education teachers turned executive function coaches decided that adults need tools and coaching to improve their workplace skills and feel confident and empowered. Our mission is to ensure every adult with EF challenges has access to high-quality coaching services. 

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