I’m staring at the giant salad box in front of me on the airplane, munching down on another pile of cheese and ham, trying to figure out if I’m even hungry. There’s still piles of salad left, and I’m cramped in between the person next to me and the window, navigating my book and my salad in my small allotment of plane space.

I stopped for a second, looking at the box. It was another example of the problem I kept seeing over and over again: 

Invisible systems that control your behavior.

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to eat what’s on the plate. You don’t have to eat any or all of it. But once it’s in front of you, your mind switches to auto-pilot and, for most of us, we consume everything in front of us until it’s gone. The salads I buy from the store come in a box with a fixed amount of ingredients. The size is set: “box” size. It’s the average size and portion determined by someone else to be suitable for every individual, everywhere. The best optimal price point for the business to create a product and move that product off the shelves.

Guess what? You don’t have to eat all the salad in the box.

It’s something small, inconsequential, but it’s huge. Your behavior is being guided by what Ramit Sethi calls an invisible script; the parameters are set forth, and then you operate within them.

Although my mother would kill me for telling you this, you don’t have to finish what’s on your plate, you don’t have to eat the whole hamburger, and you can eat three, ten, or seventy French fries if that’s what you want and how hungry you are. I’ve done all of the above. Sometimes I order an entire order of fries just to eat three of them and throw the rest of them away. I only wanted three–then the salt was too much.

But this post isn’t really about food. So much of what we do is dictated by the invisible systems all around us:

Finish what’s on your plate.
Eat everything in the bag.
Work only during certain hours.
Sleep only during certain hours, only for 8 hours. Less if you want to fit in. Brag about how little sleep you get.
Running involves hard work, sweating, and discomfort.
Work takes a set amount of time.
“They” won’t let me.
Corporate is evil.
I need to quit my job to be happy.
Once I’m an adult, I won’t skip, laugh, jump or play anymore.

Wait, what? 

What systems and thoughts guide your behavior? Are they true? What are the invisible systems that guide your actions? Mindless Eating is a brilliant book that looks at eating with relation to our habits and external cues. While the topic is about food, the subject unravels far more than what we put in our mouths: it’s about the psychology of why we consistently overeat, and what cues (from the size of a plate, to an experiment with a never-ending bowl of soup that caused subjects to eat FOUR TIMES as much as they would have if the bowl emptied normally) confuse and guide us so that we don’t actually have to think about what we’re doing.

When you become aware of these cues, these systems at play, you realize: you don’t have to do what they suggest.

And it’s not about willpower or fighting against yourself. It’s setting up the system in advance–and understand what actually affects your behavior–so that you can encourage the behaviors that you want. Don’t want to eat as much food? The best change you can make is to buy smaller plates. 

It takes a lot of listening, fine-tuning, and habit disruption, but you can condition yourself to see the invisible systems. To challenge what they are asking you to do.

What are the invisible systems that guide your behavior? Do you have to do what they suggest?

Better yet: can you change them?


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