We often procrastinate because outside distractions interfere with our long-term goals. We make plans to exercise or to diet but find our attention irresistibly drawn toward attractions like the television or the candy bowl. When temptation strikes, our willpower works overtime to try and drive the unhealthy / distracting cravings out of our head, or at least to stop us from acting on them. It doesn't have to be this hard, though. In fact, it doesn't have to be hard at all.
Outside distractions—what science calls environmental cues—activate our emotional limbic system, or System One. Since the time I started to write The Procrastination Equation, about a dozen other books have come out highlighting exactly this process, like Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney or Thinking Fast or Slow by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. As all these books confirm, environmental cues initiate mindless habits or distracting thoughts. The smell of popcorn as you enter a movie theatre, for example, is an olfactory cue that gets you to think about eating or initiates a well-rehearsed script that ends with you munching on a super-sized and superbly high-calorie bag of "buttery" kernels. Hopefully, however, your brain's System Two, the seat of willpower, comes into play before you cede to temptation. Like a brake competing with an accelerator, we try to override our urges and stop obsessing, stop buying, or, failing that, stop consuming what we bought. Wouldn't it be easier to stop the cues that started this all in the first place? You may not be able to control the cues in the movie theatre, but at home it is a different story.
I am a big fan of Dr. Brian Wansink, who runs the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. He tracks the connection between environmental cues and the amount we eat. He has conducted a wide range of studies on this theme, and shown that what we put into our mouths is often completely mindless, ruled by external cues rather than internal desires. It is a great lesson in the power of stimulus control; if we can influence what we smell, touch, or hear (stimuli), we can control our deepest urges.
In my book, I described Dr. Wansink's research on how plate size cues portion size. Whatever size of plate we choose, we tend to fill it. Consequently, if we shrink the diameters of our plates from 12 inches to 10 inches, we reduce the amount of food we eat by 22 percent. For most of us, this is all the reduction in eating we need to maintain or obtain a slender figure. And it can all be done effortlessly.
Recently, Dr. Wansink allied with Koert Van Ittersum to add another twist to his dishware detectivery. The two researchers explored the contrast effect. Dividing a group of eaters into two, they gave one section a white plate and the other a red plate. People from each section got to serve themselves a meal with red sauce or a white sauce, specifically pasta with either tomato or Alfredo sauce on top. When the plate contrasted with the food, a white plate with tomato sauce or a red plate with Alfredo sauce, the pasta was more visible—an environmental cue that made the hungry people aware of just how much they were piling on. As with smaller plates, the eaters served themselves and consumed 22 percent less food.
The optical illusion Wansink and Van Ittersum are exploiting is called the Delboeuf Illusion, after the Belgian scientist who discovered it 150 years ago, and their paper, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, is entitled "Plate Size and Color Suggestibility: The Delboeuf Illusion's Bias on Serving and Eating Behavior." It's an appropriate name; Delboeuf is French for "Of the beef," precisely the food we are looking to avoid if we want to reduce our meat intake to the recommended serving size of 3.3 ounces, about the size of a pack of cards.
And how can you make use of the Delboeuf illusion? Start by getting a few sets of dishes in the same color as the vegetables you tend to buy. Use the smaller plate for yourself and the smallest one for your kids. Taking a quick look online, you can get a four-piece dishware set in an array of vegetable colors for as little as $17 a set. For a family of four, you are looking at an investment of $68—get four sets in lettuce green and another four in carrot orange for a total of $136. You will naturally and effortlessly serve yourself more vegetables and eat less of food in other colors.
Amazingly simple and effective. Even better, the basic principles go far beyond just food. In my book, I've talked about how similar stimulus control techniques can do more than just help you lose weight but affect everything else, from getting to you to save money to buckle down to work. Given how powerful cues are, why aren't they used more? Well they are actually, an incredible amount—just not by you. Every time you find yourself eating when you are already full, spending when you are already deeply in debt, and indulging in every vice the Internet can offer while your own life goals lay languishing, there is probably a manufactured cue involved. You are acting to an agenda, one designed by others. However, if you read this far, you know the secret. Just believe it yourself and tell others about it.
Now if I just had a cue to get you started.