Lilly Pulitzer Athens Dress | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

There is one crucial factor of achievement that I’ve overlooked: environment.

A plant will turn out drastically differently depending on the soil it’s growing in. Likewise, our levels of accomplishment (and whether or not we reach what we deem to be “success”) largely is the result of the environment we put ourselves in on a regular basis. Environment enables mindset, which drives quality of output.

Recently, I realized that I’ve been setting my achievement-plant in some pretty shitty soil.

Like many self-proclaimed overachievers, I subscribe to the work-hard, play-hard mentality. I’m an extrovert in the pop-psychology sense of the word — I enjoy being around people, and interacting with others gives me energy — but working is a solitary activity that demands long stretches of alone time. To make up for the fact that I couldn’t hang out much, my roommates and I would throw large themed parties about once a month and invite the entire school.

These parties gave me some of my best college memories (and non-memories), but the problem was that the post-party cleanup was a hassle, so nobody would do it until it was absolutely necessary. Tables were sticky for weeks. Trash piled up in the corner by the door. Dirty dishes kept piling up in the sink until it was impossible to even stick a Brita filter under the water spout to fill it up. The room itself was structured in such a way that it was dark all the time, and the aforementioned circumstances created a nasty smell when one first walked in. [1]

It was unpleasant to be in the room, so my solution was simply to not be in it at all if possible. Since I didn’t go to my room except to sleep, I let it fall into disarray, with dirty laundry all over the floor and old homework papers scattered across my desk. When I did go to my room to sleep, I’d often be woken up in the middle of the night by loud drunk people because my room was a gathering place for people to socialize.

Yikes.

I didn’t realize it, but I was absolutely fucking up my ability to get any productive work done whatsoever. I may not have been in that room for very long during the day, but it was discouraging to return “home” after long hours of hard work to an absolute mess. There was no place for me to de-stress, and as a result, I found myself short-tempered and burning out easily.

Lilly Pulitzer Athens Dress | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

I may not even have realized what a problem this was if I hadn’t gone to California for the winter. My Bay Area apartment was much smaller than my room at school, but it was filled with sunlight and had strict rules about washing dishes right after using them and taking out the trash every night that ensured the space was kept clean. Additionally, having an internship with professional business hours meant that I had to be responsible about when I went to sleep and when I woke up. I decided that I didn’t want to let my blog die when I was working, so I challenged myself to wake up earlier and write an article every morning before going to work.

The result? I subconsciously created an environment optimized for work. This environment enabled me to get more done in a day than I’d been able to do in a week in college. I became inspired to rebrand my blog and was able to come up with a new direction, write a strong collection of new articles, and handle the technical switching details myself — all in the time I had before and after work hours. I was able to do all of this while simultaneously growing to the level of a Silicon Valley junior engineer at my job. Every night I was exhausted by 9:30 PM and went to bed with a smile on my face. Every morning I was at my desk at 5:30 AM, with my day clothes on, makeup done, breakfast eaten, and motivation at an all-time high.

This was the level of productivity I’d barely dared to dream about in my college environment. There, I had to rely on my willpower to get myself to do things — a bad strategy if there ever was one. I was constantly stressed and burnt out, which led me to subconsciously see my work as a chore and cut me off from higher forms of inspiration.

Lilly Pulitzer Athens Dress | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

When I came back from the Bay Area, I was shocked to find out how hard it was to maintain the same routine I had over there, even though I had no class (the semester hadn’t started yet) and no longer had to work 8 hours a day. I had virtually no obligations, but was actually decreasing in productivity.

That’s when I realized the importance of environment, and immediately went about putting myself in a new one. A few days later, I moved into a new apartment-style dorm with two other people who also want to prioritize work this semester.

It was hard to move out — my roommates are some of my best friends, and it was weird knowing that I wouldn’t be living with them anymore — but it feels right, and I’m already starting to see results. As I write this, I’m sitting on a comfortable couch in front of a large table, watching the sun rise through the multiple windows in the room. It’s the early morning. I’ve eaten two delicious sandwiches for breakfast, and I know I’m going to go to bed feeling great about the things I’ve accomplished today.

Moving out of a place that weakened my work ethic allowed me to get back into my Bay Area mindset guilt-free, but I want to refine the system even further. I’ll be creating two enriched environments, one for maximum productivity and one for maximum relaxation. I’m convinced that doing this will allow me to operate at levels higher than I ever have in the past.

Lilly Pulitzer Athens Dress | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

The “high growth, high recovery” dichotomy

The deeper you push your muscles, the greater the potential for growth — but only if your recovery is equally long and deep.

– Benjamin Hardy

The above quote is true for both physical and mental fitness. “High growth, high recovery” is fancy productivity-speak for “work hard, play hard.” [2] Sure, I’m able to push out tons of content and gain advanced algorithmic knowledge and knock out a bunch of development tickets and produce high-quality photo sets every day, but if I keep operating at that level indefinitely, I’m going to burn the fuck out (I learned this lesson the hard way). Thus, it’s important for me to take regular time to be completely “off”, without any work-related stress whatsoever. Relaxation periods also open my mind to the best ideas.

I constantly read about entrepreneurs taking regularly scheduled weeks, months, or even years off to recharge, and coming back with all sorts of brilliant insights and a renewed dedication to their work. Although I can’t take off that much time, I can certainly adapt this mindset to my own life by strategically scheduling my individual days and weekends in ways that work for me.

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Weekly high growth/high recovery environments

Weekdays will be dedicated to “high growth”, where I wake up at 5 AM to write an article each morning, and take advantage of my Ultradian rhythms to get into the Zone. Weekends will be for “high recovery.” I got in contact with several out-of-town friends who I’ve been meaning to catch up with for a good time now, and made concrete plans to visit them. This means that I’ll be traveling every single weekend of February and March (funded by my jobs as a model and as a TA for Software Engineering this semester) and I’ll get to see friends and not think about work during those times.

This high growth/high recovery system runs extremely smoothly — I won’t feel as bad about pushing myself because I have the weekends to relax, and since I know I’ll be completely “off” during the weekend, I’ll be all the more motivated to push myself during the week.

Daily high growth/high recovery environments

I’m also designating environments and times for high growth and high recovery throughout the day. Even though weekdays are “work days”, I know that it’s necessary to take breaks. The key is to be completely in The Zone when working, and not thinking about work at all when on a break.

These two states will be triggered through physical locations. The places I choose to work in the library and the table outside of my room will serve as my “work” spaces — I won’t check my phone or social media when I’m there. The very act of being in those places should put me right in the Zone.

My new room will serve as my “rest” space, designed to rejuvenate my mind and completely remove me from the stresses of daily life. I’m loading it up with girly decorations and things that smell great. When I’m in my room, I’m not “working”, but the time I spend there enables me to continue to operate at a high level.

I owe myself an optimized lifestyle

I know it’s intense, but I’m hella strict and protective of both spaces and the time I spend in them, because I now know that every little thing affects the quality of work I put out. I’m exacting about it because I’m committed to a more productive and more interesting life.

Upgrading my environment and taking my goals seriously is, for me, the ultimate form of self-care. Yes, it involves saying no a lot. Yes, it involves exerting tons of self-discipline to actually make the change. But once it’s done? Well, damn, I can say I’ve never felt better. And in these new surroundings, the only way to go is up. ♚

Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

Notes

[1] I take partial responsibility for letting my old room become nasty — I could totally have taken the initiative to clean it up, but chose instead to avoid the mess. I’ve learned my lesson; this will not happen anymore.

[2] It would be best if said “play hard” activities didn’t completely ruin your body or fuck up your mind, though.