Environment trumps Willpower

In college, I had a babysitting job that I dreaded. I liked the family: the kids were sweet and the parents were nice. It was their kitchen. Specifically, all of the snacks in their kitchen, that I dreaded. Huge tubs of goldfish crackers, peanut butter-filled pretzels, jelly beans, bags of chips, and the like, all lining the counter top. Despite summoning all my willpower, the temptation, and the easy access to food was too much. I just couldn’t resist snacking despite my best efforts. It was all day, every day that I babysat.  I would be embarrassed when the parents came home, wondering if they could tell that I had consumed literally hundreds of their goldfish crackers. Anytime I walked through the kitchen, or during naptime, or when I got bored or tired or restless, I would find myself reaching for another handful of snacks. The crazy thing about it was that I didn’t even particularly care for any of the snacks; they were just there, available, and calling my name. Thankfully, the job only lasted for a summer!

I’ve been reading a great book called  Slim by Design by Brian Wansink, PhD., and it’s made me think a lot about that summer babysitting experience. I’m not even halfway through the book yet, and already, I’ve been telling everyone I know to read it. It’s fascinating. The premise of the book is summed up in the following sentence:

“Becoming slim by design works better than trying to become slim by willpower.”

As evidenced by my epic failure of willpower every day while babysitting, and after more than five years of being a dietitian and listening to the stories of hundreds of people who have tried the latest diet but gave up because they “didn’t have the willpower”, I have come to believe this simple statement is true. Wansink adds years of intriguing research to the argument and provides helpful tips to design your home, office, school, or eating establishment to encourage healthier choices. (His previous book, Mindless Eating, provides more tips along the same lines, and is next on my reading list).


Here’s one of Wansink’s suggestions that could have made a difference when I was babysitting:

Make tempting foods invisible and inconvenient.

Crackers, sweets, and other snacks out on the counter was the complete opposite of invisible and inconvenient. Wansink recommends doing things like placing tempting foods in opaque containers or wrapping them in aluminum foil, storing leftover dessert in the bottom produce drawer, storing less healthy snacks in the back or lower sides of the pantry, even moving the pantry to a different room in the house. In one study, he found that wrapping up a desirable food in aluminum foil made it a third less likely to be eaten within the first week of being wrapped up. In another study, he found that moving a candy jar from on top of someone’s desk to inside their desk drawer resulted in that person eating 74 fewer calories per day. 74 calories may not seem like a lot, but it can certainly add up over time.

So, that package of Cheetos that you just bought? Dump them in an opaque container and stick them in the far back corner of your pantry. The Cheetos will be there when you really want them, but you won’t just mindlessly grab a handful. The leftover birthday cake? Wrap it up in aluminum foil and put it in the produce drawer or behind the other leftovers on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. The point is to design your food storage so that you must make a  conscious decision, and put in a little effort, to reach the foods that aren’t so great for your waistline.

Some may ask “why not just avoid buying tempting foods in the first place?” It’s a decent suggestion and may work in some cases, but you may have family members, especially kids/teens, that enjoy certain foods and would revolt if they were no longer in the house. And, perhaps more importantly, it’s OK to have a treat or a less-than-healthy snack once in awhile (remember my first Nutritional Tenet: The 80/20 rule of moderation!). Better to eat a couple of Oreos from your pantry than drive to Dairy Queen for a large Oreo blizzard.

Keep in mind that the opposite of Wansink’s suggestion is also true. Making healthy foods more visible and more convenient makes you more likely to eat them. It’s a tip that we’ve mentioned before here on the blog and in webinars. Put healthy choices in clear containers at eye level in easy-to-grab locations.  

healthy food

So here’s a little homework for you (and it may or may not be an incentive challenge coming up!): Take a look at your pantry, your fridge, your work space. What changes can you enact to make tempting food invisible and inconvenient, and healthy food visible and convenient? The environment you create is powerful, and will beat out your willpower nearly every time.

More posts related to Slim by Design to come. In the meantime, it’s back to reading!

Happy Eating!


Building Successful Architecture

…given a choice, humans follow the path of least resistance…we like easy.

Our March Challenge involves setting up your surrounding environment to help you achieve your goals.  This is sometimes referred to as behavioral or choice architecture.

According to Dr. B.J. Fogg, who is a world leader on this subject, human beings can be summed up by three descriptives. Dr. Fogg says human beings are:

  • Lazy
  • Social
  • Creatures of habit

Now hold on! Before you get defensive about being called lazy, let me make an example.  Have you ever, upon entering a building with several doors, changed your path to follow someone through a door that’s already open, rather than going through a closed door directly in front of you? I know I do this all the time. This is a form of laziness. More times than not, given a choice, humans follow the path of least resistance. Maybe that’s the more sensitive way to put it—we tend to follow the path of least resistance.  We like easy.

Simply being aware of this human tendency can help us make some “architectural changes” that will give us an advantage in creating those desirable behaviors and habits we know will lead to health, but are sometimes hard to follow.

Here are a few of the real architectural adjustments that our members have shared thus far as part of the COTM, and commentary on each:

  • Programming Outlook Tasks with Pop-up “Move” messages every 1/2 hour.
    • This is known as a “trigger”.  Triggers initiate behavior.  A phone ring is a perfect example of a trigger.
  • Keeping my cross-country skis on the front porch so that I can quickly go outside and ski around in my yard whenever I get a chance.
    • This is an example of taking a desired behavior (skiing/exercise) and making it easy and convenient to do.  Plus, seeing the skis on the front porch acts as a trigger.
  • I will bring veggies to work and put them in a nice mason jar at my desk so I can see them and munch instead of buying pop tarts from the vending machine.
    • This architecture involves replacing an undesirable nutrition choice with more desirable choice.  Again, the veggies in a clear jar act as a trigger, and they are easily accessible.
  • I will use the bathroom on Level 5 [2 levels up]
    • This choice creates a new habit (Humans are creatures of habit) and sneaks in a great exercise—stairs—several times a day (depending on your bladder!)
  • [I will] Pack my lunches the night before in order to avoid having to purchase something from the cafeteria.
    • A time investment the night before will yield a big payoff in the morning, which for many of us can feel more stressful because we are on a schedule and may have other demands from family or pets.  This choice makes the morning easier, saves time and money, and leads to better nutrition choices.
  • [I will] Pack all of my clothes/toiletries the night before I work out and have my work out clothes ready
    • Same thing: a small time investment the night before makes the next day easier.

If you haven’t made any changes yet this month, there’s still plenty of time to do so. If you’re really stumped, or want an extra challenge, check out Dr. Fogg’s Tiny Habits program. The program will walk you through some exercises to establish 3 new habits within a week!

Keep up the good work!