The Google Weightloss Hack: How Google Tackled the “Tech-15” and How You Can Too
How Google nudged their employees to make better food choices and lose weight effortlessly
“I can’t believe this won’t zip.” I thought as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror trying to get my Jeans to zip. They fit fine just a month or two ago. I stare at my reflection and think “How did I get here?”
I know I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to what I eat lately and I’ve put on quite a few pounds since Quarantine began, I think we all did.
It made me think back to something a friend told me a long time ago back in college that computer engineers, programmers, and other “techies” generally gain around 15 pounds during their first year of employment- known as “the tech 15”. This is probably due to a combination of stress eating, sitting for long periods, plus or minus a wok environment offering free food around the clock!
I cracked my knuckles and googled if and how any tech company tackled the tech 15 and won! And that’s how I discovered the “Google Diet”.
First, a bit of history about why, like in most tech companies, it’s easy to pack on the pounds at Google. You see, one of the most famous perks of working at Google is the food. It’s said that Sergey Brin Google’s co-founder decreed that no one shall ever be more than 150 feet away from food while working there. Its offices in California and Manhattan have more than 35 cafes and restaurants offering free gourmet chef-prepared meals and if that’s not enough there are hundreds of micro-kitchens scattered around their offices filled with free-flowing candy, fruit, chips snacks, and desserts. And like in most offices, new Google employees gain around 15 pounds in the first 6 months of employment.
Here’s what Google did to remedy this and how we can apply these easy fixes to our lives at home or in the offices too. The best part is Google managed to fix the weight gain issues without removing any of the high-calorie foods or candy from the offices but rather by employing psychology tricks to nudge people to make better food choices.
They did this through very minor tweaks to the environment. Much like casinos on the Vegas strip use to make you part with much more money than you first intended. Casinos are designed to be a frictionless fun and glamorous experience designed exquisitely to separate you from your money.
The sound of success rings through the air triggering thoughts that maybe next round you’ll hit it big too and subconsciously encouraging you to keep playing. ATMs are everywhere so you never have to go too far to pull out more cash, leaving little time to rethink your decision. Bathrooms are hidden at the far back of the casino with curving paths and flashing lights to catch your attention and lure you into playing one last game…against your wallet’s best interests. Alcohol is free and delivered right to your chair so you never have to stop gambling for a drink while simultaneously lowering your inhibitions with liquor as many gamblers may attest you may have entered the casino believing you’d only spend the 200 bucks you brought in but leave with an empty wallet. The human brain is very susceptible to the seemingly innocuous cues in the environment encouraging you to spend more, stay in your seat longer and keep playing, and drive you to behave differently than you’d anticipated.
This is similar to what was happening to the employees at Google. Their work environment was subtly encouraging them to eat more, prompting them to overeat often without them even realizing what was happening.
As much as we’d like to believe we’re always in conscious control of our actions, our behavior in any given scenario is partially due to an interaction between our personalities, genes, and the environment we find ourselves in. The prompts and cues in our surroundings grab our attention and subtly prod and push us to behave in ways we hadn’t anticipated for. Given an attractive prompt to act, easy access, and convenience, countless studies have shown that most people will overeat.
Here’s what Google did about it:
The path of least resistance
Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler coined the term “nudge” to describe an indirect means of influencing behavior toward a desired action. In other words, redesigning the environment in such a way that it subtly takes you down a path or guides you to a specific choice.
One of the key elements of behavior nudging is convenience. For better or for worse, a quirk of human psychology is that people almost always take the path of least resistance. The more convenient an action is to take, the more likely we are to do that thing, while the more resistance there is between us and the behavior the less likely we are to do or repeat that behavior.
So, to influence our behavior toward healthy eating and weight loss we need only to restructure our environment so that the healthy choice equals the easy choice. Of course, Google knows this, they’re google they literally know everything!
Using principles from behavioral psychology, google managed to cut the calories consumed by their employees by 3.1 million in just seven weeks without getting rid of any of the high-calorie or unhealthy options! And how they did it reveals insights into small changes we can all make to make healthy choices much easier and sustainable for ourselves. Teeny-tiny differences in convenience and simplicity make all the difference when it comes to our decision.
I’ll try and illustrate how seriously small we’re talking here, for example, you are thirsty and you’re an equal distance from a fridge containing cold cans of pop and a tap where you can pour yourself a glass of water.
- Option one: Soda Pop
- a Pop
Steps required — walk to the fridge, open it, open pop.
- Option two: Water
Steps required — walk to the cupboard, open it, get a glass, walk to the sink, turn the tap on, wait for the glass to fill.
Without intervention, pop would be the path of least resistance here when looking for a drink and those few extra seconds though seemingly inconsequential are often enough to make pop the unconscious choice.
To combat this convenience bias, Google installed chill spa water canisters everywhere you look, and move sodas and even bottled water to more distant locations. They flavored the water with fruit and herb infusions to make it more appealing, placed it conveniently all around the office, and made the containers effortless to use resulting in water being much quicker and more accessible than sugary drinks or even bottled water.
Also, in the coolers, water bottles were moved to eye level and the sodas sent down to the bottom shelf.
“We put all the water bottles up and we found that Googlers consumed 47% more water when the bottles were right there and they could just grab it,” Kurkoski said.
Unpair snacking from daily routines
The average person drinks at least two cups of coffee per day and many drinks considerably more than that.
At Google, some coffee stations were located directly beside a snack bar about six feet away so that every time you engaged in your daily caffeine habit you’d be prompted with the option to grab a snack. While other coffee stations in the office were located across the room from the snacks, about 17 feet away. When google started monitoring snack consumption, they found that 20% of employees getting coffee from coffee bar A grabbed a snack while only 12% did from coffee bar B.
According to Google’s own stats, that distance of just four or five extra steps was enough to reduce the likelihood of snacking by as much as 23% for men and 17% for women.
To put these results into perspective for a man who drinks three beverages a day using the near coffee machine rather than the far one say because the near station happens to be closer to his desk can lead him to consume an additional 81 snacks a year!
Out of sight out of mind
The abundant candy and chocolate at Google used to be available in clear candy store esque, free-flowing containers showcasing all different types of fun and colorful candy options. As you can imagine Google employees were known to eat a lot of candy, which is particularly problematic when you consider how particularly calorie-dense candy is.
To combat this Google made a few changes to put some friction points between their employees and the candy sugary snacks like m&ms were banished to the back of the kitchens hidden away from view in opaque containers.
We’ve already seen how even slightly increasing the distance between you and your favorite treat can reduce how much of it that you eat. But removing unhealthy snacks from your line of sight can also be very helpful in removing that visual cue to eat it.
With the candy in full view at Google, people who are not even thinking about candy were reminded daily of its presence. But that simple act of removing it from sight removes that reminder to eat it.
This is why we sometimes forget to eat produce that’s hidden away in a drawer in our fridge, but rarely forget to finish that bag of chips rolled up by the tv.
Simply moving unhealthy snacks out of places you’re most likely to see them can go a long way in terms of reducing that impulsive urge to consume them.
Highlight the Healthy
Google cafes and kitchens have been restructured using the principles of convenience and resistance to highlight the healthiest choices.
The salad bar is the first thing you see when you walk into their cafes, followed by big bowls of fruit. All front and center, easily accessible and front of mind.
At their buffets, vegetables are the first items on the line and there are plenty of different enticing options. This way once you reach the meat, carbs, and desserts your plate is already full of the healthiest options.
In just one month, the amount of produce consumed by Google employees climbed by two-thirds and today the company serves over 2300 breakfast salads up from zero two years ago.
Google also made it easier for their employees to be mindful of the quality of the food presented.
They did that by placing different color-coded signs to let you know what’s healthy. Green tags for low-calorie food, yellow tags for moderate-sized portions, and red tags for pasta and desserts.
This makes the task of choosing food from the buffet more conscious and deliberate. And resulted in employees filling their plates with the more health-conscious options available.
Smaller portions across the board
Plates and take-out containers were swapped out for smaller sizes to “nudge” smaller portions. This was further encouraged by a posted sign that read, “People who take big plates tend to eat more.”
Nobody wants to be seen with too much food on their plate or, heaven forbid, two containers full of food.
Desserts weren’t taken away but moved to the far corner of the cafeteria. Here, servings can be consumed in three bites — enough to satisfy a craving but not be a diet buster. So you can enjoy a delicious dessert with your meal without worrying about the calories.
In sum, whether you’re working at Google, on the strip in Las Vegas, or sitting on your couch at home your environment can either support or undermine your goals. If you want to eat more of something or do more of something, make it more convenient to do so. Make it easier to eat, more attractive, highly visible, or bring it closer to you. And if you want to eat less of something, make it more difficult to do so, store it further away, don’t leave it in your line of sight, and make it more difficult to get to.