Let me tell you about a little game called The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. It’s a randomly generated dungeon crawler videogame in which our hero, Isaac, must fight to survive the hellish onslaught of things hiding within his basement. The game itself can take as little as fifteen minutes to complete, or as long as an hour. Sometimes, you won’t see the end. You’ll die trying. The fun is in the fact that it’s completely unpredictable, and you have to play with whatever items and power-ups RNJesus gives you. You can make choices along the way, but only within the confines of what the game gives you.
So your choice of character, your choice of which items to take and how to use them, and even which path you tread is entirely up to you, and each choice has consequences.
Each successful win (ie, beating the final boss) adds a +1 to your streak counter.
Each time you die, or you quit a game because it’s either too hard, or the odds are stacked against you, and you just can’t be fucked fighting through the bullshit, your streak counter is reduced by 1.
In The Binding of Isaac, quitting is just as bad as defeat. It is far easier to rack up a negative streak than a positive one, and one ‘ah fuck it’ moment can be enough to destroy days of past hard work.
The place where I eat the most junk food is as work. I eat junk at home, too, but the amount I eat at work far exceeds it. I work in the city, in Brisbane, and the opportunities for bad eating outweigh the good choices by a substantial margin. I’m prone to the old 3pm slump, when my body craves something more than a coffee. It usually wants something chocolatey, or crunchy. Like potato chips. Red Rock Deli’s Honey Soy Chicken chips are a favourite. As are Twix and those gosh-darned Cadbury Oreo chocolate bars. And of course, my old nemesis, Iced Coffee.
I know this. I fucking know this. And still, bad behaviour wins out. While playing The Binding of Isaac on the train one day, I noticed that I was on a streak of three wins, which made me feel pretty good. It made all of the choices I made in the next run more careful, more considered. Then I had the idea to keep track of my workplace snack consumption by the exact same method. Perhaps that would change my perception of my choices for the better.
On the fifth of October, I started a Streak Counter at work using Microsoft’s Sticky Notes app. It read as follows:
NO JUNK AT WORK
No chips. No chocolate. No soft drinks. Ni iced coffee.
The day I started the streak counter, it was at -1 by the end of the day. I caved and had a packet of Salt & Vinegar chips in the afternoon slump.
Seeing that -1 staring at me all Friday was enough to resist the urge to grab some junk food. I resisted the entire day. At the end of Friday afternoon, just before I shut my computer down, I changed the Streak Counter to 1.
Fuck yeah! I’d gone a whole day without eating junk food at my desk! It might be dumb to celebrate that, but for me it was a big deal.
The weekend comes and goes and suddenly it’s Monday again. Boom. It’s around 10:00am and suddenly there’s a Crunchie bar at my desk, unwrapped. Half of it’s gone already. I finish the rest. I set the Streak Counter to -1 and feel really shitty about myself. I feel so shitty, like I’m a complete and total failure of a human being that when afternoon tea rolls around, I buy myself a packet of Salt & Vinegar chips. I look at the Streak Counter on my desktop. It’s only one day I’ve fucked up, right? If I’m counting whole days on my positive counter, then surely I should only count whole days on the negative.
I realise that my mind is trying to enable my bad behaviour. It’s trying to make it so that the magnitude of my fuck-up is lessened because I only put a single negative on the streak count.
“Fuck you, bad brain!” I shriek into the void of my own consciousness.
I then mark my Streak Counter down to -2.
On the Friday before, I’d made progress. Real progress! I didn’t eat junk food at my desk the entire day! Go me!
Then Tuesday rolls around. I was out late seeing a movie the night before, and slept like shit. Feeling like shit = treat yo self! So I had a packet of chips at morning tea. Salt & Vinegar.
I don’t even fucking like Salt & Vinegar that much, but it’s what they had stocked at the work shop, and the work shop is really convenient. It’s only a short walk from my desk! Hurrah! Sometimes I buy shit from there and only realise I’ve done it when the gosh-darned thing in my mouth.
Streak Counter set to -3.
The afternoon rolls around.
“It’s pay day! Woohoo, you got money to burn, son! Treat yo self!” my bad brain says.
I went down to the Nite Owl near the bottom of my building to sate my craving for some Red Rock Deli Honey Soy Chicken chips. Gimme summa dat umami baby! Nite Owl had none of the 60g packets in stock. They’ve got the big 100g packets there, but that’s the smallest they had.
“Fuck that! I’m gonna be bad, but not THAT bad,” my bad brain says. We go to another convenience store around the corner, and they also have no 60g packets in stock. The horror! Oh, the humanity! Why does nowhere carry the snack food my heart desires?! So I buy one of the small 40g packets, and because it’s not as big the one I wanted, I also got myself a Dare Mocha Iced Coffee.
I promptly returned to my desk and destroyed them both. With my mouth.
Then I remembered the Streak Counter.
I changed it to -5.
I’d been tracking my streak for 4 work days so far, and one of those days I had successfully made it through with no junk. In two days I had managed to destroy my streak of one, and sink five pieces of junk deep into the shit.
That was a pretty demoralising day.
But on the Wednesday, I turned it around.
On the Wednesday, I was disgusted at myself. Before work, I stopped at Coles and bought myself some apples and some smoked almonds. Substitutes for the shit that I knew pre-emptively that I would want to eat.
At the end of Wednesday, the streak counter was set to 1. It felt good. It felt so good, and I had enough good snacks to get me through Thursday, that my streak counter went up to 2.
Then I went to Melbourne and had an amazing weekend. I felt like all I did was eat, but I didn’t have time to snack. I walked, and smiled, and spent time with excellent people, and when I got back to Brisbane, I was shocked to see that I’d actually dropped a couple of kilos.
Throughout this whole week, I’ve used the upticking Streak count to keep myself in line at work. I changed from Windows Sticky Notes to an actual old-school post-it note, because I couldn’t keep the electronic one visible at all times.
As at the end of Friday, it ticked up to 7 days in a row. I’m going to ride this streak for as long as I can.