3 Ways to Use Partitioning to Make Healthier Decisions

Partitioning is one of those ideas that could be applied to many areas of our lives. After reading about this concept in the book Decisive, I wanted to see how partitioning could be applied to the way we interact with food. 

What is partitioning? Partitioning is the idea that when given a small barrier, we will be less likely to jump over that barrier to get what we want, allowing our brain that extra second to think twice about continuing that behavior.

Here are a few examples and studies regarding partitioning:

A partitioning study was once disguised as a cookie tasting study in order to confirm if packaging made a difference on how quickly the participants ate through the boxes of cookies. 

"Every participant received 24 cookies in a box that was easily resealable to keep the cookies fresh. But inside half the boxes, was a minor difference: Each cookie was individually wrapped in foil" (Heath, C., & Heath, D., 2013).
"That minor difference had a major effect. The people who got the unwrapped cookies finished them, on average, in 6 days. Meanwhile, those who got the individually wrapped cookies took 24 days! The foil wrapper was acting as a partition, forcing people to contemplate whether they wanted to keep going" (Heath, C., & Heath, D., 2013).

Four times longer! You would think that the wrapper wouldn't make that much of a difference, but it did. I know what you're thinking: "I would have eaten them in 6 days regardless!" And I may have too, if they were carne asada burritos. But this study shows us that when there's a small barrier between our hand and the next cookie, we tend to control our impulses better. Now that we know our brain works in this way, we can use this to our advantage!

Imagine you're at a restaurant and they bring you a basket of chips right when you sit down. They'll keep the chips flowing all night so you can eat as much as you'd like. It is likely that you will eat through that entire basket, then get pretty darn close to finishing the second one without even thinking twice. This is a pretty common scenario that most of us probably encounter at least once a month. Now, instead of a basket of chips, imagine if the restaurant brought you an individualized bag of chips. You still have the option to get unlimited bags, but that partition (the bag) would most likely keep you from ordering multiple bags. In the first scenario, you would most likely have eaten 2-3 small bags; however, in the second scenario, you would probably refrain from ordering a second or third bag since you would have to take an extra second to ask yourself if you really need more chips.

Another study was conducted with day laborers where two groups of day laborers were paid the same amount of money, but they received it in two slightly different ways. One group was paid the entire sum in a single envelope while the other group was paid the entire sum spread out into multiple envelopes. The group that received their entire sum in multiple envelopes saw a dramatic increase in savings! Each time they opened an envelope, they must have thought to themselves, "Should I really be spending this money right now?" or "Do I really need this?" That extra conscious thought must have kept them from spending their money as quickly as the other group. Such a small idea, but such a big impact that a little partition can make!



After cooking all of the dishes for your breakfast, lunch, or dinner, place the appropriate amount on your plate and pack up the rest of the food in storage containers and let it cool or put it directly into the fridge. By storing your food first, you will have created a partition that will make it harder for you to go back for seconds, thirds, fourths, etc. Or maybe you aren't the culprit, but your SO always goes back for extra helpings of your amazing ceviche. This may help keep them from going back and eating what could be your lunch for the next day. :)


When packing your lunch for the next day, make sure to just pack what you need to make that a balanced meal. I use what I call the Fist and Fingers Rule mentioned below. Once I hit these proportions in my storage containers, I put everything back in the fridge. For a long time, I used to bring all of my larger storage containers to work and then put my plate together there. While most of the time I was good about eating a balanced meal, there were definitely some days where I would eat a little too much potato salad and then my co-workers would roll me back to my desk. Once I started balancing my meals at home and only packing what I needed, I stopped overeating during lunch because there wasn't more food to eat.

The Fist and Fingers Rule

A fistful of each of the following:
•    Starch
•    Protein
•    Veggie

Two fingers of each of the following:
•    Fruit
•    Ferment


I've been trying out this tactic a lot lately at work and it seems to have some merit. I've noticed that when I have a bottle on my desk with the cap on, I tend to drink less from it. But without a cap I tend to drink more. This can be any form of bottle/jug and lid/cap. This is a very simple partitioning idea, but it does seem to be helping me drink less of certain beverages that are easy for me to overdrink. However, you can switch this tactic to allow yourself to drink more of certain beverages that you want to drink more of (i.e., water). Imagine how little you would drink at a bar if, each time you took a drink, you had to remove the cap from the top of your bottle or glass! 

While these tactics may not work for everyone, they are definitely worth a shot. As we all continue to learn about ourselves and how our brains work, it's simple ideas like this that can make a huge difference in your daily life. The goal with all of these tactics is to try and keep yourself from overindulging or overeating specific foods or drinks that can quickly lead to an excess of calories in your diet. Now, if you need to eat more broccoli, maybe set your table with a never-ending bowl of broccoli and see how it goes!

Let me know in the comments below if you already practice partitioning in your daily life! Otherwise...


Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2013). Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work (pp. 228-229). New York: Crown Business.