What’s Easier to Change: Mind or Environment?

Think about the last time you overate to the point of regret. Breakfast? That delicious dinner last week?

We should be pretty well calibrated not to overeat. We eat over 1000 meals per year. But somehow, we still manage to occasionally eat to the point of discomfort.

So why do we do it?

Roughly 12% of us say it’s because of our mood, 50% of us say it’s because the food is so delicious, and 38% of us say we eat this much because we’re just so hungry.

But something more powerful is at work than any of these things: our structural influences.

Whether it’s the size of our plates, the background on our desktop, or the background noise in the office, our environments influence us. They can influence us negatively, or they can make us more disciplined, focused, and effective.

Why We Keep Eating Old Popcorn

How do we know we’re influenced by the structures around us? Well, let’s go back to the food example.

If most people eat because they’re hungry or the food tastes good, what happens if we give bad food to people who aren’t hungry?

We tried it. We invited people who just ate dinner to a movie and gave them giant buckets of popcorn — five-day-old popcorn! It was nasty! Then, we gave them two different sized buckets. The people with the big bucket ate 33% more popcorn!

We asked them if they were hungry… nope! Did they like it? Nope!

But when we asked if they ate more because of the size of the bucket, they didn’t think it made a difference.

Surely something as basic as the size of a container wouldn’t influence how much an informed intelligent person eats, right? Surely, we’re smarter than a bowl!

Maybe not.

Are You Smarter Than A Bowl?

We’ve done a ton of studies (You can check them out in Mindless Eating) that show the impact the size of your bowl, plate, or glass can make.

In one case, I taught MBA students for 90 minutes about the effects of serving containers. Through videos, lecture, demonstration, and group work, I helped them understand that if I give you a big bowl of snack mix you’ll eat more than if I give you a smaller bowl. They knew their material!

But when we invited them to a party six weeks later, the ones with the bigger bowls took and ate 53% more food — 200 calories more. Not a big deal if they only do this once a year — but if they do it every day they’d weigh about eight kilos more at the end of the year. Their education didn’t make much difference — a bigger bowl still influenced them to eat more food.

In another case, we found that the size of a glass influences how much we pour. When people are given a tall skinny glass, they pour less liquid than they would in a short, wide glass. We asked professional bartenders to try it. We gave them two glasses and asked them to pour the same amount in each. But after more than a dozen bartenders tried, no one could pour an equal amount. They averaged 1/3 more liquid into the short wide glasses. So we told them their results and had them try again. They still poured more liquid in the wide glasses.

If even the professionals are influenced by the glasses, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Wrong question.

What’s easier to change — your mind or your environment?

Change Your Environment

If a simple structural glass is going to cause you to overpour, why try to mentally fight it? Instead, get rid of the things that mess you up! Change the short, wide glasses for tall, skinny ones. There’s no need to spend the time and energy overcoming it.

The secret to stopping mindless eating isn’t to start mindful eating. That just doesn’t work for most of us.

The solution is to change our environment so it works for us. Our surroundings can push us in the right direction.

If our immediate environment causes us to overeat, the best thing we can do is change our immediate environment. Since big plates cause us to take more, use small plates. Since wide glasses cause us to pour more, use narrow glasses. Since we’re three times more likely to take foods at eye-level, put the healthy foods at eye-level.

But this is about more than food. What’s tripping you up in your work environment?

Are your email inbox notifications mentally derailing you? Turn them off. Do you lack focus because you can’t help overhearing a coworker talk all day? Get some noise canceling headphones.

We don’t always have to fight the battle of reprogramming our brains. The solution is often simple. If you can change the environment, do it! It’s much easier than changing your mind.

Latest Blog Posts

Stop Apologising

Have you found yourself in a relationship where you find yourself constantly apologising and feeling like you’re being taken advantage of? Genuinely expressing sorrow and


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Improve communication, habits, productivity and more with weekly insights and tips from our authors and experts.

Join our 10,000+ community.