Probably you’ve read articles about how Obama wears the same suit every day, or Mark Zuckerberg has seventeen identical grey t-shirts in his wardrobe. The idea is to deliberately eliminate inconsequential daily choices and free up mental bandwidth for more important decisions; like ordering extrajudicial killings or strip-mining billions of people’s private information to sell to advertisers.
I say this lifehack is is much more useful and wide-reaching than streamlining your wardrobe: you can automate the important things, too.
If you wear the same outfit over and over, nothing bad happens. Maybe you don’t get invited to Fashion Week. But what if you eat the same food every day?
I felt ‘seen’ by a recent story in The Atlantic on the large minority of Britons who eat the exact same lunch, day in and day out, for months or years on end. I’m one of these weirdos, and in this post, I want to explain why.
Over the last few months, I’ve eaten salmon and poutine in Vancouver, bagels and pizza in NYC, and Costco pasta and protein bars in San Francisco. It was a lot of fun, but I’m excited to be settled in a fixed location and getting back to my usual routines.1
The advantage of eating the same thing almost (but not all) the time is that every meal is cheap, tasty, nutritious, and low-effort.
For example: here’s the daily plan I’m following at the moment, which I’ve repeated 500+ times in the last few years:
Meal 1: Big-Ass Salad
Prep time: approx five minutes per serving (batched, twice a week)
Cost: less than $2 per serving2
Meal 2: Muesli Bowl
Prep time: approx 2 minutes per serving
Cost: approx $1 per serving
Meal 3: Everything Smoothie
Prep time: approx 2 minutes per serving (pre-cut and frozen ingredients, stick blender)
Cost: approx $1.50 per serving
Meal 4: ???
Prep time: varies
None of this is carved in stone. The recipes drift slightly over time, and I’ll happily abandon my packed lunch to go eat out with friends. But the net effect is that I end up eating the exact same things ~80 per cent of the time.
Before we get into the reasons why, a disclaimer. After I tested this idea out in my column,3 some people emailed to ask for dietary advice.
I don’t know what you should eat! I’m only including my meal plan as an example (and, honestly, to add some pretty pictures to break up the text). Even ‘eat the same meals’ is just a placeholder for thinking about what you might streamline in your own life, which is a totally individual decision.
Food is mostly just fuel to me. It’s enjoyable, but it doesn’t come with any emotional attachment. I’m well aware that some people are wired up differently, because I’ve driven them around on hungover mornings while they agonise over what to order, visit six different places, and still end up with food envy. If you’re a foodie, or eating is a big part of your identity, then this is probably not an area of life to be streamlining.
Anyway. That’s the disclaimer.
Here are the five main benefits I’ve noticed from taking this approach:
- Not having to think about what to eat (decision fatigue)
- Eating a healthy diet without reading labels or counting calories (nutrition)
- Saving time and mental effort on shopping and food prep (batching)
- Maximising enjoyment through minimal effort (pleasure)
- Guilt-free enjoyment of the remaining ~20 per cent (novelty)
1. Decision fatigue
A few years ago, I remember standing in a supermarket aisle, exhausted after a long day at work, puzzling over marinara sauce. There must have been 20 different jars and cans on the shelf. I checked to see which were on special, studied the nutrition labels, the recipe variations. I weighed them in my hands, put one back on the shelf, picked it back up again.
In a detached corner of my mind, I observed myself reduced to a shambling idiot. Even though I was fully aware of the absurdness of the situation, I couldn’t bring myself to just pick one already.
Having too many options comes with a hidden cost: you have to spend your precious time and mental energy searching through them. My preferred response is to savagely prune those branches off the possibility tree, and save my meagre reservoir of brain juice for the decisions that actually matter.
Where that’s not possible or desirable, at least I can make the decision once, and be done with it. Personally, I’ve decided that food is not interesting enough to hijack my attention three times every day.
I used to track everything I ate, every day. This was a gigantic time-suck, and seems like overkill for anyone other than professional athletes. The pizza diet finally liberated me: I was eating pretty much the same thing every day, so I only had to run the numbers once.
Counting calories and macronutrients might be a valuable exercise to do for a few weeks or months, to get a sense of what you’re actually eating—in the same way that tracking your spending turns up all sorts of patterns you might have otherwise missed.
After a while, you start to develop an intuitive sense of what types of food to be eating (or where your money is going) and can dispense with the tracking. For example, I plugged the ‘same salad every day’ meal plan into Cronometer just now, and it’s pretty much bang-on:
The nutritionists quoted in the aforementioned The Atlantic article say that eating the same thing every day is pretty much fine (it’s also how humans have eaten since forever). If the repetitive meals are nutritious, you never have to try to remember which one is the bad fat, or scrutinise menus and labels for nutritional information.
Of course, that’s a pretty big ‘if’! A varied diet is a natural hedge against imperfect planning; maybe there’s some mineral or vitamin that you haven’t accounted for (or that science doesn’t know about yet).
Thankfully, the 80-20 approach has this covered: every fourth or fifth meal is random, and even the repetitive meals are subject to plenty of low-level variation—the fresh produce changes with the seasons, and the other ingredients tend to drift over time.
Back when I worked full-time, I used to cook up a week’s worth of meals on Sunday night, then divide them up into containers. Sometimes I’d make enough for two weeks, and freeze half for later. I was fiercely protective of my Tupperware, to the point where I woke up one morning to find my flatmate had helpfully lined the entire street with these flyers:
These days, I do the same thing with the big-ass salads: it only takes 20 minutes to throw together several lunches’ worth. My freezer is full of bags of pre-cut greens and fruit ready to be tossed into smoothies, which take all of two minutes to whizz up with a stick blender. Muesli is as simple as pouring stuff into a bowl.
Everything is batched together as much as possible, including grocery shopping: my feet carry me through the supermarket aisles on autopilot while I listen to podcasts or contemplate the great mysteries of the universe. The fewer decisions I have to make, the less likely I’ll buy a bunch of crap I didn’t actually want. The other advantage is that I get a good feel for the prices of recurring ingredients, which means I can bulk-buy them when they’re on special.
A lot of folks in the San Francisco Bay area take these kind of ideas to the next level. Fridges here are well-stocked with Soylent, and I ended up subletting a room from the CEO of Mealsquares, which is a similar meal replacement concept. The squares weren’t nearly as bad as I was expecting—kind of like a dense scone—but I don’t think there’s any possible universe in which I’d describe them as ‘delicious’.
I like the idea of keeping some of these on hand, but I wouldn’t replace all or most of my meals with them, partly for reasons which boil down to ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’,4 but mostly because I’d rather just spend the extra 20 minutes a day required to eat tastier food.
So now we have a spectrum of preferences: the hardcore Soylent-swilling entrepreneurs and programmers who don’t want to look away from their monitors for more than a millisecond, right through to the gourmands who luxuriate in choosing every last ingredient. My preference is to get close to the Soylent end, without sacrificing any of the gustatory pleasure.
‘Cheap’, ‘tasty’, and ‘nutritious’ are not mutually exclusive. For example, you might imagine that putting spinach or chard in a smoothie makes it taste vile. It’s true that mine often come out an unappealing muddy brown or maroon, rather than the vibrant green you see in #influencer posts. But the flavour is completely masked by the frozen fruit and other ingredients, and the texture comes out almost like ice cream.5 Everything I eat is legit delicious to me, or I wouldn’t keep eating it.
When I was a kid, we ate takeaways exactly seven times a year—on each family member’s birthday. I made up for lost time as an adult, and it soon lost its thrill. Now I prefer to eat out a few times a week, rather than every meal. I don’t want to deny myself, but I also don’t want the experience of going out to dinner or the arrival of the UberEats driver to become a humdrum part of daily existence.
And so, even though the 80/20 approach sounds boring, I think it might increase my net experience of novelty. It might not bring the hedonic treadmill to a dead stop, but it sure slows it down.
There are other psychological benefits: when it comes to the novel 20 per cent, there’s no counting calories, no checking ingredient lists, and no guilt. I order whatever I want, secure in the knowledge that I’m eating well ~80 per cent of the time. I’m no longer interested in perfection, which seems to be a recipe for eternal dissatisfaction and self-flagellation. Instead, I want to get to the point of ‘good enough’ in each area of life, and leave it at that.
To repeat the ongoing theme of this sequence: you can deliberately constrain your choices along one dimension to open them up in another, more important, dimension (or in this case, several others).
The other recurring theme is that there’s a big difference in having constraints imposed upon you, and applying them to yourself. If you’re forced to eat the same things over and over, or to wear a uniform every day, that’s called ‘being in prison’. See also: school, childhood, the military, which are not always a font of pleasant memories.
Even if the outcome is exactly the same, how you get there makes all the difference in the world.
Coming up next: Constraints that Liberate IV: Better to Reign in Hell Than Serve in Heaven
Previously in this sequence: Constraints that Liberate II: Office Hours
Introduction and overview: Constraints that Liberate
- If anyone’s in Medellín, Colombia, look me up.
- Based on the low cost-of-living countries in which I’ve been spending most of my time e.g. Colombia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam. Your mileage may vary.
- Thanks to a reader named Braden who prompted the original piece. If anyone has suggestions for areas they’d like me to write about, feel free to get in touch or leave a comment (no guarantee I’ll write about your topic, but I’ll definitely consider it).
- Ctrl+F ‘Soylent’ in this post. The takeaway is that you’d have to be really, really confident nothing is missing from the formula (again, variation is a hedge against deficiencies). Given the state of nutritional science, this seems like a pretty big leap of faith, although Mealsquares offers counterarguments in its FAQs, e.g: “Even if there are nutrients unknown to science, they will likely appear in at least one of the nutrient-dense MealSquare ingredients—this represents an advantage of whole foods over supplements.”
- To venture into actually maybe giving one tiny piece of nutritional advice: green smoothies are a stupidly easy way to cram in a truckload of nutrients every day. I learned this trick from Rhonda Patrick, who has a super-recipe here, but you can just throw in any old thing: it’s also a good way to reduce food waste by using up anything on the verge of going manky.