Our brain is a powerful thing. It is responsible for many tasks and is always finding ways to make our life easier. One way it does this is by neural chunking. Around 98% of our day is lived out of habit. We go on “auto pilot” a lot and our brain works as quick as it can to create habits, because the faster we can make something autonomous, the less our brain has to dedicate to that specific task. This allows us to free up space to do more “executive” functions. Here’s a simple exercise to explain how neural chunking works.
How’d you do? Well if you live in the US and are familiar with our government agencies, the first row was probably a lot easier to remember. Why? Because your brain probably did this:
IRS | CIA | FBI | NSA
You “chunked” the information to make it simpler to remember. You created a short cut to make life easier. Now, in this case, your brain made a chunk to help you, but your brain can just as easily create a chunk that can do you harm as well. A lot of times, food can get chunked into other activities. This is where you can start sabotaging your goals.
Let’s say that you have a goal of losing weight. One of your biggest problems is nutrition, and more specifically eating fast food on the way home from work. This has become a habit over the years and by the time 4:30-5:00 rolls around everyday, you can already start tasting the Big Mac hitting your lips. Who could of thought so much joy and happiness would result from a cheeseburger right?
Well, hold your horses. Let’s back it up a minute. Around 19% of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. That leaves about 80% who are unhappy with their current employment. So, ask yourself, is it the feeling the Big Mac gives you that you’re after, or the feeling of getting out of the job that you dislike that gives you a sense of happiness?
That feeling of enjoyment can’t be distinguished between one and the other because the habit of getting out of work and eating fast food are so connected (the behavior has been reinforced so many times). The only way to find out what is really causing you this “happiness” is to un-chunk your behavior.
So, after work one day, instead of going to the regular fast food joint to get dinner, pick up something healthy instead. Or, even better, prepare a healthy meal at home. Once you’re done eating, gauge your level of enjoyment, happiness, euphoria, whatever you want to call it, and compare it to how you felt after the fast food meal the day before. Are you less satisfied? More? About the same? If you are more satisfied, or even the same amount, you’ve learned that fast food does not cause you happiness and just the idea of getting out of work is what actually makes you happy. If you feel worse after eating the healthy meal, maybe food really is triggering your emotions. If so, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss how to attack that.
Either way, we have targeted your “happy trigger” because you’ve un-chunked your behavior and isolated the true cause. Here are some other common examples of food related chunking:
- Popcorn and Movies- Do you really love popcorn that much or is the movie and relaxation with your friends or family what you’re after?
- Chips and Dip while watching a game- If you ate a fruit salad instead of the chips would your team’s win be less gratifying?
-Alcohol and friends- If you got together with some old friends on a Saturday night, would the stories you shared be less entertaining without the booze?
These are just a few examples that are pretty common. As a real world example, I have a client who is trying to lose weight, but has a habit of enjoying a beer every evening. We’re trying to rid the habit, so I asked her, why do you drink the beer? Well, she says, it helps me relax and unwind. I usually have it when I have about 15 minutes in the evening to catch up with my husband, chat with my kids, or watch TV. So, I asked, is it the beer that you enjoy, or it is the time you have to relax with your family? If there was no beer in the fridge and all you could have was water, would the experience still be as enjoyable?
Well, it turns out that the beer and the relaxing were “chunked” together and she thought she couldn’t have one without the other. All we needed to do was identify what was really causing the enjoyment (her family), and break the negative habit with a less destructive one (swapping water-or in her case green tea, for beer). All the enjoyment remains, and the waistline sabotaging is eliminated.
Take a minute to reflect on your typical week and see what you’re chunking. From there, start by asking “why”? Why do I eat that? Is it out of habit or do I really enjoy it that much? I think you’ll be surprised at the amount of habits you’ve created without even realizing it. Now you have the ability to identify the habits and create new “chunks” that are conducive to your goals. Good luck!