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Week 5: Ritual + Environment Design

1. 🏙️ THEORY // Environment Design Audit

Okay, so armed with newfound knowledge and practices for interoception, self-regulation and emotional fluidity, we’re going to turn our attention to the flow of everyday life ~ and specifically bringing greater intentionality to these two areas:

  1. Auditing and designing Our Environment
  2. Exploring morning and evening rituals

Okay so we’ve talked about three ways to begin each day and three ways to end each day to support our nervous system nourishment.

It’s worth noting that we’re turning our attention to our external world only after we’ve built up some interoceptive sensitivity.

I’ve found in my own life that the more I tune into my inner state, the more that I feel the impact of say intense bright lights late at night or a noisy office space or even the impact of people that I spend my time with.

Lao Tzu’s ‘Hollow Pot’

The process of shifting the state of our nervous system is like Lao Tsu’s ‘hollow pot’:

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Cut doors and windows to make a room. Where the room isn’t, there’s room for you. Hollowed out, clay makes a pot. Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.” — Lao Tzu

Just as a potter’s hands are in conversation with the clay — guiding, shaping, listening. We too can use our mind to listen to, guide and shape our nervous systems.

The problem that we run into in life is that we try to EFFORT our way to certain states ~ be it creativity or perhaps sleep.

However, the proper function for our mind is to create the conditions in our nervous system for the spontaneous emergence of sleep.

Another way of stating this is that:

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You design your environment, and your environment designs you in return.

From the perspective of our nervous system we are constantly ‘Co-regulating’ with our environment ~ we are taking cues from the sounds, the visual stimuli from literally everything and it is tuning our state.

So the ongoing invitation here is to cultivate the conditions for nervous system states that you desire.

As a Lab Scientists will know, if you want to change a cell in a petri dish you just need to change the culture that it's in. The same is true of our human cells.

A pivotal first step is accepting radical responsibility for these conditions ~ even if we may not choose to say commute on a train in a busy city to work ~ there are always some things that we have autonomy over.

CONCRETE EXAMPLE: there’s a landmark study which looked at what’s known as the CATHEDRAL EFFECT which is that higher ceilings led to more abstract and creative thinking vs. lower ceilings which were more suited to detail oriented tasks.

And we all know that certain environments tend to be more conducive to creativity, or detail-oriented work, or social connection or deep rest.

So that’s what we’ll be exploring ~ how can we consciously design our bedroom, our work space or our living room to be conducive to the modes of being that we would like to experience?

🏡 Audit Your Environment

Let’s begin with a couple of questions:

  1. What is one example that comes to mind of spaces that have been poorly matched with the desired state (e.g. an open office environment with poor lighting and constant interruptions)
  2. What are your primary creative constraints? Perhaps you are on a budget, or constantly travelling — whatever they are, the goal isn’t perfection, but being as intentional as you can about the way you design and use your spaces.

Based on the creative constraints of how much autonomy and flexibility you have over your home + work environments. Visualise your typical home + work weekly flow and consider the following prompts:

👀 VISUAL // How might what I'm looking at impact my nervous system?

Consider if you spend time looking at things close to you or have a view of a wide horizon. Are the colours relaxing or stimulating? Do you have access to nature? How is the quality of lighting at different times of day impacting you? (See examples of 'low arousal environment design in the ADHD study here)

🪴 SPACIAL // How might the spacial design of places I spend the most time in be impacting my nervous system?

For example, we can re-design our spaces using 'ontological design'—the design of the objects around us are impacting our state. Having access to wider horizons or less-cluttered spaces will have an impact on our nervous systems.

👂 AUDIBLE // How are the sounds that I most often hear impacting my state?

Perhaps obvious but still worth considering—if you live or work near loud sounds, consider investing in noise-cancelling headphones or explore the range of binaural beats offered by the Endel App.

👃 OLFACTORY // How might smells or scents in my environment impact my state of being?

For example, certain essential oils or incense can be either activating and stimulating (e.g. peppermint) or calming and relaxing (e.g. lavender incense)

👪 CO-REGULATION // How might the nervous systems of those around you be impacting your state?

Remember: you become the average of the five nervous systems you spend the most time with!

📱 AUTO-REGULATION // How might I make it harder to engage with any unconscious and undesired self-regulation strategies?
  • For example, removing sugary snacks or alcohol from easy access in the house, taking the T.V. out of the living room… etc.

2. 🏡  EXERCISE // Redesign One Space

So based on your audit and reflections about your environment, the next obvious question is what are some simple changes that could be implemented?

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What I would love to see here are proactive crowdsourced suggestions from you guys (many shared here already on Twitter).

The invitation here is to take one space that you have control over and almost as if you were a nervous system interior-design consultant ~ map out ways that you could improve this space.

Perhaps it’s your home-office space, your living room that you wish to unwind in each evening or your kitchen that you’d like to be more conducive to healthy eating and cooking.

🛌 Create Your Sleep Sanctuary

My wife and I recently moved into a new home here in Boulder and we did this with our bedroom that was previously an empty shell. So I’ll use myself as a case study with the bedroom, since this is an area that typically has the lowest hanging fruit…

We haven’t really talked about sleep yet. But it is absolutely critical to Nervous System Health.

As anyone who isn’t sleeping well will tell you, it impacts everything ~ from your physical performance, mental clarity, digestion and mental health.

Sleep is a deep rabbit hole ~ here is my attempt to distill the 20% of the recommendations + changes that in my experience will give you 80% of the impact.

For the recommendations where products are included I’ve done my best to list several options to suit a variety of budgets.

So here are six changes that we implemented to create the conditions for the SPONTANEOUS EMERGENCE of SLEEP.

#1: Tech Free Sleeping Environment

Our Approach

You don’t need anything else, however some people use the excuse of having their phone as an alarm clock.

You can fix this with a cheap analogue alarm, use the eight sleep mattress, or better yet over time train your circadian rhythm to wake up naturally.

Buying a kitchen timer to automatically turn off the wifi-power at night each evening can be helpful. Some speakers like Sonos also allow you to wake up to a music playlist without the need for a phone to be in the bedroom.

#2: Nasal Breathing

See this Medium post from Patrick McKeown for a full breakdown of the numerous benefits.

Our Approach

SomniFix Mouth Tape (link) & Breathright Nasal Strips (link) // for an even cheaper option you can also use any thin, super sticky medical tape from your local pharmacy and attach this vertically over your mouth (I actually prefer this)

#3 // Optimise Your Sleeping Temperature

Our Approach

Eightsleep Mattress (link) ~ not cheap by any means but there’s good research to support that optimising temperature (especially if you share a bed) can support sleep quality. The game-changing feature for my wife and I was being able to manually control the temperature on our respective sides of the bed which has been an ongoing source of conflict for us whilst travelling as I sleep very hot and she runs cooler.

If an EightSleep is outside of your budget ~ which it might be for many then explore perhaps having a window open, using more breathable sheets or having a hot/cold shower before bed to lower your body temperature.

#4 // Sleep in a Dark Environment

Our Approach

Manta Sleep Eye-Mask (link) // this is my favourite eye-mask (followed by the Alaska Bear blindfold as a cheaper alternative) ideal for travelling or taking day-time NSDR reset breaks.

#5 // Track Your Depth of Sleep

Our Approach

The Ōura Ring (link) ~ they describe this as a ‘sleep lab wrapped around your finger’ ~ its the most sophisticated and minimalist health tracker that I use daily. This will come in handy for tracking sleep, Resting Heart Rate, HRV, breathing rate and more.

#6: Design Your Lighting

Flourescent light vs. candles.

Reduce Blue Light Exposure post-sunset

Our Approach

Ra Optics Blue Blocking Glasses (link) – Not all blue blockers were created equal and I love the research Matt Maruca the founder of RaOptics is putting out on the impact of ‘Junk Light’ on our health. That said, assuming you’re at home post-sunset most of the time, changing to downward facing and dimmable lightbulbs ~ or even better candles, will have the same effect of allowing your adenosine (which creates the feeling of sleepiness) to naturally arise.

Goal #6: Create a Consistent Wind-down Routine

As mentioned earlier, sleep and wake-up time is key for our bodies ultradian rhythms.

One of the most laughably effective ‘sleep hacks’ is simply ensuring consistency in sleep + wake-up times to within an hour or so each day + night.

Our Approach

Create Spotify playlists for evening wind-down (here’s one of mine) set up a space for stretching,

and for maximising the benefits of co-regulation ~ find yourself a human to cuddle with, or if that’s not on the table then get yourself a dog, and if that’s not possible then listen to the voice of someone whose voice you find calming ~ either a fiction audiobook or yoga nidra teacher (I like Ally Boothroyd)

3. 🌅  EXERCISE // Design Your Rituals

Despite the hoards of productivity gurus, no-one can tell you what the ideal morning or evening routine looks like.

What I would like to encourage however, is first reflection on how your habitual routines are supporting you ~ and then to bring greater intentionality to experimenting other ways of designing our days (and therefore our lives) that is ideally in alignment with our physiology.

It’s important to note that our nervous system operates through what’s known as ‘circadian’ and ‘ultradian’ rhythms. And in my opinion it pays to work with our bodies natural cycles rather than against them.

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"We are not the same person across the different hours of the day, at least not neurochemically." – Andrew Huberman

🚀 Begin Every Day With These Three Things:

I share these knowing that everyone has their own unique set of creative constraints ~ be it young children, challenging work hours or constant travel.

That said, I recommend trying your utmost to stick to these recommendations 85% of the time ~ it will make a disproportionate difference to not only how you feel during the day but also the long-term health of your nervous system and body.

There are three things that no matter your circumstances you should be able to weave into your schedule. Those three things are

  1. 🌅 Morning Sunlight // this has been long studied and now popularised thanks to Andrew Huberman’s passionate pleas, getting actual sunlight into your retinas—ideally for a minimum of 10 minutes, or 30+ if it’s cloudy—sets of a cascade of biochemical triggers ~ specifically cortisol for your alertness & begins the timer for the onset of melatonin and adenosine.

  1. 🏋️‍♂️ Movement // this could be a gentle walk with the dog, an intense workout, using a jump rope or a stretch session… whatever feels most supportive to you. But it is important that you move your body in some way. Personally I like to do my resistance training outside in the mornings usually followed by a cold plunge + hydrating with water, lime and Himalayan salt.

  1. 🧘 Interoception // whether you use the morning A.P.E. practice, a breathing protocol, a meditation practice of your choice, or an internal movement practice like Qi Gong, investing at minimum a few minutes to tune in internally and tune into your inner landscape before diving into your day will truly pay dividends in the long run.

🚫 📱 Bonus: Don’t touch your phone or drink coffee for the first 90 minutes of the day ~ and take a few minutes journaling with ‘morning pages’ or planning out your day.

🌆 End Every Day with These Three Things:

  1. 😎 Avoid Blue Light Post-Sunset // this might be the biggest behaviour shift for most people. The science is absolutely clear here that even low levels of blue light (one study of many) ~ listen to this episode with Huberman if you still need convincing. There are two straightforward steps here
    1. carry a pair of blu-blocking glasses with you if you are out of the house post-sunset.
    2. install dimmer switches to all lights in the house ~ ideally place them lower down or alternatively if you can use candles.

  1. 🧘‍♂️ Intentional Down-Regulation // for the majority of us we will be feeling stimulated from our day ~ so it’s important to do something that you find drops you into a relaxed state of ventral vagal.
    • 👨‍🔬 Experiment experiment experiment // Refer to the protocols listed in the self-regulation section of NSM for ideas, or experiment for yourself ~ things like taking a hot bath or attending a yin yoga session are also great to try. Remember notice for the *sigh* response as an indication that whatever you are doing is working.
    • 🎵 Use Your Senses // You can also use certain relaxing playlists (I like this one on Spotify) as well as certain scents or incense to train your body to take these as cues for down-shifting.
    • 🥘 Eat dinner as early as you can // eating late has been shown to negatively impact HRV during sleep, implying that we’re not getting the deep rest our body needs.
  2. 🛌 A Consistent Sleep Time // Coming back to the importance of our circadian rhythms, having a consistent time that we wind-down and fall asleep is also critical for your circadian rhythms. Again understanding that life happens, but doing your best to stick to a 30 minute window 85% of the time is recommended.
  3. 🚫 🍻 Bonus: sorry to be a the bearer of bad news that you’ve probably already heard before ~ but alcohol, even in very small amounts is quite terrible for your sleep + restfulness. Again I’ll refer to Huberman for curating + outlining the detrimental impact this has on our sleep + overall health.

Notes from Kelly

  • Passive vs. Active to separate… these should all be PASSIVE

The more you understand how you are being unconsciously shaped by the objects in here

  • PASSIVE:
    • Create your sleep kit
    • Mag + mouth tape + blue-blockers etc. (share photo)
    • Do you feel an EXHALE?
    • Soft Lighting, cheap + makes a big difference
    • DO you look forward to getting into your bed?
    • Give some examples of what a sleep sanctuary means to you ~ possibly through Pinterest etc.
    • White Noise machines (find a study here)
    • Use breathable + natural fabrics which will allow your body to regulate temperature

  • ACTIVE
    • Bedroom is only for sleep + sex (if impossible how can you shelter yourself from the other modes)
    • Potentially lose clutter…

What is your UMVELT!!