Thinking like a designer can help you transform your relationship with food and build healthy eating habits.
Millions of people have turned to Japanese organization consultant Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method for creating order in their closets, systematizing their storage space, and otherwise tidying up their lives. The KonMari Method rests on the principle that each of our belongings must spark joy to earn its place in our homes. When an item no longer sparks joy, we thank it and respectfully pass it along into its next destination.
Why is Kondo’s approach so popular and successful? Because it taps into our innate desire for order, minimalism, and, most notably, mindfulness. It encourages us to be thoughtful, as well as to create structure and systems in our homes that support the lives we want for ourselves.
A similar approach can be used to change our relationship with food and eating in the service of our health. I call it thinking like a designer.
Design thinking is an adaptable method for looking at your environment and mindfully exploring ways to modify it so it becomes easier for you to build the behaviors you want to build. When it comes to creating healthier eating habits, a good place to start designing is in the kitchen.
Design for Your Brain
Before we get into the processes of designing your kitchen, there are a few things you need to know about your brain and its inner workings.
First, understand that the majority of our actions are driven by our unconscious mind, which we will refer to here as the fast brain. The fast brain is estimated to drive about 95 percent of our behaviors. If you’ve ever driven to work and realized when you got there that you have no memory of the commute, you’ve experienced your fast brain in action.
The fast brain is helpful because it reserves the energy needed for your slow brain, the conscious part that makes important decisions and solves problems. Notably, the slow brain is also responsible for willpower.
Second, recognize that your environment at home plays a huge part in influencing what you do, including what you eat. If you come home tired and hungry after a long day at work and find chips and sugary cereal on the countertop and leftover pizza in the fridge, how likely are you to stick with your plan of preparing a well-balanced meal? The unhealthy foods sitting around serve as triggers for your fast brain (because your slow brain is exhausted) and sabotage your intentions to eat well.
Third, realize that willpower and motivation alone will not get you results. This is because motivation and willpower are fleeting and exhaustible activities of your slow brain. They cannot stand up to the ingrained eating habits of your auto-pilot fast brain.
The trick to designing for the behaviors you want is to focus on making small modifications to your environment. Even the smallest change can make a big difference.
Kitchen Design for Healthy Habits
Just as the KonMari Method involves organizing belongings so they are easily accessible and visible, designing your kitchen for healthier eating entails making healthy foods easier to reach for.
Start by moving healthy options to eye-level on counters and in your cabinets and fridge. Move not-so-healthy foods out of sight or to places that are not as easily accessible. For instance, if you put the cookies on the highest cabinet shelf, it now requires time and energy to reach for them—giving your slow brain (the one planning to eat healthy) a chance to catch up.
Another design idea is weekend food prep. Let’s say you’d like to eat more vegetables throughout the week. You can take time on the weekend to wash and prepare some carrots, peppers, and leafy greens so they’re ready to eat or cook when you come home.
Iteration: The Designer’s Tool
Once you’ve made a few modifications to your environment, you can test your design. Let’s say you’ve replaced the crackers in your cabinet with almonds. Next, try one small behavior for a week—maybe eat a handful of almonds when you get home from work instead of your go-to cheese and crackers.
After a time, if you find that your design is no longer working for you, make small tweaks until you find something that does. Maybe apple slices or hard-boiled eggs are a better after-work snack. This iterative test-and-learn process is simply known as practice—and practice makes progress!
But what happens if you get going on your new habit, and then suddenly you relapse? You ate those cookies and now you feel like a failure.
Here’s the good news. Relapses are nothing more than moments when we get off track—and they’re completely normal parts of the behavior-change process. Instead of thinking of these moments as failures and feeling guilty or ashamed, consider these experiences information about what will help you design the next step on your journey.
When you think like a designer and iterate as you go, there’s no such thing as failure. Each time you try your new behavior, your brain is forming stronger and stronger healthy habits. As long as you are trying, you are succeeding.
So celebrate your victories, both big and small. Think of your progress and effort as indicators of your success. Over time, your own behavior change becomes a creative and—dare I say it—joy-sparking experience that boosts your self-confidence and pride, even as it improves your health.
Keep reading: What if you apply the KonMari approach to religion?