Ah, fast food. The great American equalizer. Studies over the years show pretty much everyone eats it. Old people eat it. Young people eat it. Rich people eat it. Poor people eat it. Urban people eat it. Rural people eat it. Black, White, Hispanic, Asian people eat it. Everyone eats it!
And here’s one more thing we all have in common: We wish we didn’t.
How did it become so prevalent despite our wanting the opposite? The same way any bad (or good) habit is developed—slowly but surely. Over a long time, these businesses designed themselves to serve a specific need—delivering quick, tasty food when life feels too hectic to devote time to eating.
The fast food industry is one that relies on habits. They know if they can slowly but surely get you to eat their food more often, you’ll be hooked—a lifelong customer despite your inner protests.
What’s the science behind it all? Sample rate: The number of times in a given period you visit for your quick fix. As it increases, your habit gets stronger, more ingrained, and harder to break.
But guess what? You can use this same concept against them, breaking your fast food habit and eating healthier. In fact, you can use it to break any bad habit or reinforce any good one. Here’s how.
How Sample Rate Works
In a previous life, I operated an amateur recording studio. I liked to mess around with musical ideas, and I had a few friends who’d record their songs on my system. One rule in digital recording is this: always record at the highest possible sample rate.
In simple terms, the sample rate determines how good your recording is going to sound based on how much “information” is captured each second. With a high sample rate, lots of information is being recorded, and the sound is better. With a low sample rate, the opposite.
Here’s an example to make it easy to understand.
Start counting and snap your finger each time you say a new number. 1 (snap)…. 2 (snap)… 3 (snap)…
Okay, now double the speed of your snapping so you snap when you count a number and once more before you count the next. 1 (snap)… (snap)… 2 (snap)… (snap)… 3 (snap)… (snap)…
In the first example, you counted to three, and snapped three times. In the second, you counted the same, but snapped six times. Now, think of those snaps as bits of information. This is how sample rate works.
But what the hell does this have to do with fast food and breaking bad habits? Everything.
Low Sample Rate: Why Old Habits Are Hard To Break, And New Ones Get Abandoned
How do most people attempt to break a bad habit? The 30-day challenge is popular. You declare, “I’m going to prove to myself I can quit eating fast food by completely abstaining for 30 days!” Everything goes great for about six days. Then, you get off work late, realize the fridge is empty, and you break down and head for the drive-thru.
All of a sudden, you’re a failure—you didn’t meet your goal. Not only that, now you’ve reinforced the belief that you’re not actually able to go 30 days without eating fast food. Why try again? You already failed.
What happened? 30 days was too long. You set your sample rate too low.
High Sample Rate: The Habit Success You Didn’t Even Realize You Had
So now you’re sitting around, feeling like a failure. You’ve given up on quitting fast food, and now you’re thinking of the next 30-day challenge you can fail at!
But wait, you’ve forgotten something very important!
You didn’t take into account that you normally eat fast food 10 times a month. That’s once every three days. And because you didn’t think about that, you never realized those six days you made it without heading for those Golden Arches you actually represents a 100% improvement from where you started.
You didn’t see this because instead of measuring your progress from where you are today, you measured it based on some infallible 30-day goal—a picture of you in the future. But the future was too far away.
What if, instead, you raised your sample rate? What if you measured your progress every three days instead of every 30?
If you had, you’d have seen you were actually quite successful. And even if you broke down and bought fast food every 6th day, you’d have seen over the same 30 days you failed just four times instead of your normal 10.
Pretty soon, fast food every six days is the norm, and it’s time to make the next improvement—once every other week. Then once a month. Eventually, you get to the point where you hit the drive thru once a year and your body quickly reminds you why you gave that crap up long ago!
Bottom Line: The Only Way To Make Lasting Changes
If you want to build strong, lasting habits in your life (or get rid of deeply ingrained bad ones), the only way to go is slowly and deliberately.
The 30-day challenge is a great exercise—I like to take them on often. But 30 days is an extremely low sample rate when you’re trying to make a big change. If you mess up even once, you’re toast. Your confidence is shot, and you start to believe you’re a failure.
But by knowing your baseline and measuring often, you’ll start to see you’ve actually made incredible progress. Soon enough, the 30-day challenge will be child’s play.
Trying to break a bad habit? Trying to instill a new one? Raise your sample rate. This is science that changes lives.