Want to Snack Less and Concentrate Better? Try This!

Okay, humor me here. This sounds silly, but it really works. Try the resolution to “Chew on a plastic stirrer.

I’ve found that I snack less, and concentrate better, when I chew on a plastic stirrer–the kind that you get to stir your to-go coffee.

I picked up this habit from my husband, who loves to chew on things. His favorite chew-toy is a plastic pen top, and gnawed pen tops and little bits of plastic litter our apartment.

But he also chews on plastic stirrers, and at some point, I decided to give this practice a try. I’ve been astonished at how helpful this small habit is.

I keep these stirrers in my office and backpack, and whenever I sit down at my computer, I pop one between my teeth.  An occupational hazard with writing is to write while eating, smoking, or drinking–usually things that aren’t very healthy–but having the stirrer in my mouth diminishes that urge. True, my urge to snack has plummeted since I’ve started eating along the lines suggested by Gary Taubes’s book Why We Get Fat, but this habit has cut down it down still further.

Also, chewing on a stirrer helps me to concentrate. I feel more focused when I chewing away. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it’s the placebo effect–but the placebo effect is quite effective, so I’ll take it.

I’m a devoted hair-twister, so I definitely have an aptitude for nervous habits. Chewing on a plastic stirrer probably the adult equivalent of popping in a pacifier, but it’s effective.

How about you? Do you ever chew on plastic stirrers, straws, pencils, ice or other things? Or do you have other habits that are similarly helpful?

  • ravenrose

    I like the chewing idea, but please find something non-toxic. Plastics are endocrine disruptors and finding their way into so much of our food supply already. They are looking like a prime trigger for diabetes and obesity.

    • Alissa Ripley

      As far as the chewing idea…the first step in digestion is chewing, it signals your stomach to start producing more acid and churn in preparation for receiving food. Unfortunately, I learned that after my high-school habit of chewing gum every day had me doubled over in pain. I had quite a few stomach ulcers, one had almost perforated my stomach lining. Beware!


  • shannon

    I like this idea. I used to buy bags of Gobstoppers during heavy deadline times at work and crunch on them, but of course that came with a pretty heavy calorie load. But does anyone have an idea other than coffee stirrers? I wouldn’t mind doing that at home but it would be a little odd in the office.
    And by the way, no, ice cubes doesn’t work for me. My teeth are sensitive to cold.

  • BKF

    There is some research on gum chewing and improved concentration.I think it has to do with right brain dominance…Also deep breathing can improve focus and concentration. I do snack a lot so I will have to try this! Thanks for being brave enough to share this tip. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve seen those studies on gum chewing, and other sources that say it’s not true, and others saying it IS true. So who knows. But anecdotally, I think it does help.

  • Cindy

    A question for those in the dental profession: is this bad for your teeth?

  • Lynn

    I’ve been following Gary Taubes guidelines for eating, and it’s made a big difference in my energy level and my appetite. I feel less “fluffy,” and more toned. As for the concentration issue, could you keep water or tea nearby and sip as you write? I find that sometimes when I think I’m hungry, I’m really thirsty. I also have a(just one) glass of wine when I draw in the evenings, but of course that won’t work during the course of the day…

    • gretchenrubin

      If I work at home, I drink beverages constantly, but often I work in a library near my apartment, and there we’re not allowed to eat or drink anything.

      • I always cringe when I read that you drink diet soda, especially given your other interests in improving diet. I don’t mean this to be judgmental—it’s a concern. The fake sweeteners in our foods can pose real health problems: they make losing weight more difficult rather than less, and they typically become seriously addictive. You are so influential, so these comments always read to me as an endorsement of a product that wrecks havoc with many peoples’ health. Maybe you will be able to find a way to to tell us about giving up this habit in favor of something better, such as carbonated water or herbal tea. I think you might be amazed at the impact on your health! I know that for many people this represents a huge challenge – the addiction factor. If you can lead the way, you would be able to have an enormous impact in this regard. Thanks for your books, I love them, especially because you are so forthright about your own habits, preferences, and challenges.

  • sk

    chew on plastic?

  • s_ifat

    I used to do it when I was a child. I would chew just about anything with a long soft plastic at it’s end. It was the only way i could study for exams. It drove my borther crazy cause I would chew on his little toy plastic soldiers’s guns, so when he wanted to play with them he found out most of hus soldiers had no weapons :-). But,without noticing I stoped doing it at some point…

  • Cybele

    Try a sturdy wooden toothpick. My favorite is pointed at one end and has a rounded cube on the other. As satisfying and less toxic perhaps?

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ll give them a try!

      • There’s another brand called Auromere Neem Toothpicks—they are made from birchwood dipped in Neem bark extract (whatever that is!) and essential oils (cassia/cinnamon, peppermint, spearmint, fennel)—what’s great is that they give you the chewing fix, but also stimulate the gums, taste good, and freshen your mouth and breath. These are thicker than toothpicks used to skewer appetizers.

    • Malori Saline

      I have always wished I could chew on toothpicks, but for some reason chewing on wood has the same effect on my mouth as chewing on aluminum foil! Ouch!

    • Great idea! There are thicker toothpicks infused with Tea Tree oil made by Tea Tree Therapy—these don’t splinter, and they provide benefits to your mouth/dental health. Chewing on plastic is probably a bad habit to cultivate, and unfortunately, we tend to start babies in early with pacifiers. We know more now about estrogen disrupters in plastic.

  • Aruna

    Ice crunching, excessive gum chewing, and now plastic stirrer, all probably represent a form of pica and are ultimately counterproductive – leading to dental problems including TMJ dysfunction, not to mention the potential toxicity of chewing on plastic! May be it is better to take a walk when the stress of the task is getting the better of you?

    • Andrea

      I like the idea of a walk. When people are problem solving, creating etc…they often will move their body. In school, it is not really allowed. But sometimes noticing other ways I can incorporate the body into the process, like walking or tilting my head side to side, or getting up and touching my toes, or walk…did I say walk? It seems kinda primal (my mom would garden).

      I wonder what it is with the mouth particularly?

  • hello

    I chew on plastic wrist bands sometimes but only occasionaly I don’t want to make it a habit or addiction.

  • Upbeat Mom

    Very interesting. I’ve experienced something that may or may not be related. Years ago when I quit smoking (cold turkey), I would sometimes have cravings to have a cigarette, even though I knew I shouldn’t. So instead of giving in to the craving, I asked myself what was the part of smoking that I missed most. I realized that I really liked lighting matches. So whenever I had a craving to smoke, I would “play with matches” instead. This would usually be accompanied by an explanation to the people I was with, about how I’d find this great way to beat my smoking cravings (further strengthening my resolve not to smoke). Many years have passed and I no longer have any cravings to smoke, (or to play with matches,, for that matter).

    • gretchenrubin

      Love this!

  • LizCat

    A friend is an occupational therapist, and she “prescribes” gum for all her clients with ADHD. She says it definitely helps them focus.

  • Sarah

    I wonder if this would help me stop biting my nails? I love this idea, but I think I will try wooden stirrers or toothpicks instead of plastic.

  • peninith

    I remember my brother reduced pencils to chewed up messes quite regularly. I like the toothpick idea. I am kind of on the side of people who want to ‘overcome’ this oral thing entirely, yet I understand that is going against one of the deeper impulses of nature. I think the tooth damage problem could be a real one. . . . sugarless gum is probably the answer. I dislike gum. Toothpicks, I think I go for toothpicks.

  • Gillie

    I don’t like the idea of chewing on plastic (in fact I’m trying to reduce the plastic that comes through my door) but I can see the rationale. And frankly since I am a picker of spots/scabs anything I am hardly in a position to comment. My picking is the equivalent of chewing on a stirrer. I am pretty much unaware of what I am doing. Chewing a stirrer would be better 🙂 Perhaps I should get some wooden toothpicks.

  • Sadye

    During my orthodontia days, I found that once everything was cleaned and brushed, I felt less like nibbling on something and starting the whole process over again. Nowadays, I’m big on coffee, which of course has its own issues, but I figure that since I just take mine with a little half-and-half, it’s better than processed foods … right?

  • Kate

    For me, chewing on anything just makes me hungrier!

  • Gigi

    You know, I read somewhere about a study that said students who were allowed to chew gum during exams did much better than those who weren’t allowed to do so. You may be on to something here.

  • layla

    Gave up sugar and white bread and stuff. It helped immensely with my focus, even the first day I gave it up. Today I was feeling kinda blah and tired and had too much coffee so i was feeling kinda shaky, then just had lentils, kale, and rye bread for dinner and feel a lot better.
    Still i had too much coffee. Unfortunately, that is what I do if I’m working on something and need to focus (decaf works too – placebo effect). Perhaps I’ll try chewing on something, too!

  • After reading Gary Taubes book, I’m starting to think that coffee is making me fat. I use stevia but I know that diet cola can cause insulin spikes so why not stevia. ugh

    • Jenya

      One big difference between drinking diet cola and putting stevia in your coffee is the amount of sweetener. A can of diet cola has upwards of TEN packets of Nutrasweet, and a lot of people drink it all day. In contrast, you probably only put one teaspoon of Stevia in your coffee and only have a few cups.

  • Ms. Loaf

    I am so glad that being fat does not at all stand in the way of my happiness. It’s a shame that people who dislike the way I look attempt, in the name of so-called health, to shame me for how I look. It’s a shame that someone who is supposedly seeking to spread happiness persists in repeating fat phobic and harmful rhetoric because she is obsessed with obesity and how gross fat people are to her. Continually disappointed in this side of Gretchen. If only “Be Gretchen” could encompass “minding one’s own business about other people’s bodies.”

    • BKF

      I think you are being very unfair to Gretchen. She has never said anything mean or hateful that I have ever seen. Obesity IS a disease which has already become an epidemic in developed countries, and being a physician, I see the negative side of it – the very serious consequences of it – everyday. If someone is advocating good health and eating healthily, there is nothing wrong with it.

    • Andrea

      I’m glad that being fat does not stand in the way of your happiness. I battle it a little.

      But, I came away with a different perception of Gretchen’s post. Mainly, I believe her concern is with health and increased performance, and though she may not have known about the possible health and environmental impacts of the stir sticks, it seems she is making the connection between health and well-being – happiness.

      She now has more information and I bet she is looking for new ideas for chew toys!

    • Ms. Loaf, thanks for the comment! Coming from Europe (which seems to be a less weight-obsessed milieu) I am also puzzled by the insistent presence of weight (not health!) as an issue in US blogs, newspapers and the like. I agree with BKF’s point about health, but this has little to do with weight whereas food-substitutes people eat in order to loose weight are often very unhealthy (not to mention pills and the like).

      To me, eating is much more connected with other (more interesting) issues, such as variety, environmental ethics (don’t eat strawberries in December and oranges in August!), conviviality. Making eating tantamount to a temptation one should resist just misconstrues the issue. Let us, instead, focus on the positive values of eating —eating less will probably become a consequence of taking more time for cooking/enjoying your meals/avoiding foods full of chemicals/enjoying conviviality…

      What do you think?

  • Theresa

    The post left me with an ill feeling in my stomach. Seeing pen caps, pencils and other things that have been chewed on by others is really gross…to me at least. Can you explain why people who chew on things leave them scattered about rather than throwing them away? If you had suggested gum, my thoughts about this whole post would be different. Perhaps you’d be willing to try gum as a healthier, cleaner and environmentally friendly option.

  • I drink tea while I work – it feels like snacking but isn’t fattening. Constantly chewing an object could be harmful to the teeth eventually, and I agree with the toxic and possible choking risks.

    Also, if I feel antsy while working, I do a little EFT or “tapping” on my face in a couple of spots, and it calms me right down. Very effective ! 🙂

    • I like the EFT idea, too. Another friend I know, who is a writer/editor and a weight loss coach, likes to keep something on hand to play with at times during the day…to exercise her hands in a different way while her brain is thinking. (Exercise squeeze balls or puzzles). These strategies for comfort while focusing at a computer are very interesting and useful!

  • Malori Saline

    I love to chew on things too! I think you are right – it must go back to our pacifier days! I have always liked to chew on straws (which used to make my mom crazy!) and I love to chew on ice. Sometimes I go to Circle K and just fill a 44oz cup up with ice because they have that great crushed kind – then I pop handfuls as though it were popcorn! Keeps me hydrated and keeps me from snacking on…well…popcorn instead!

  • YTM

    Chewing plastic and pencils? Really? Isn’t it very toxic..

  • peninith

    hmmmm just found a really, REALLY neat snack–paper thin seaweed squares with wasabi / soy seasoning. Salty, I guess, but just a bit chewy-crunchy and what a zing! half a package is 30 calories and believe me one or two are enough to satisfy that urge for a munch.

  • PS

    I had an awful job assignment last year that had me travelling back and forth to a remote site, which was 2 hours away. The drive was long and tedious, and I found the best way to avoid driver’s fatigue was chewing those stupid little straws! I don’t know about the eating thing, but I do know they certainly helped me through some very long days on the road. And I don’t think I suffer from plastic poisoning….

  • Onlyblue

    I prefer coffee or cady. I know it is not good, but with plastic you harm your teeth.
    Another suggestion?

  • Zach

    Yea…this is a trick anorexics use…just an FYI.

  • Edmond

    I used to do that too, but my dentist warned me that it damages my teeth and the plastic chewing is actually damaging the enamel. Just to be positive though, some people have good teeth, so it may work for them. Great idea!

  • Nicole

    I have heard about studies showing gum chewing leading to better test scores too, in fact a school I taught at would actually give it out to students during standardized tests…

    For the ladies at least, there are necklaces marketed as “chew beads”, the idea is if your teething baby is going to chew on your necklace anyway it may as well be safe. They are made of food grade silicon I believe. They could be a cute alternative.

  • Holly

    Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink provides great insight into our eating habits. He also offers solutions to change it. My number one detractor is drinking water or hot tea. If you feel like you need to chew–try ice cubes. Toss mint leaves, lemon, lime or any fruit into your water to make it more satisfying.

  • Sandy

    I always have a paperclip in my mouth when I’m sitting at my desk! Or a cup of tea if it’s cold.

  • Robin

    Just an FYI–chewing on things like plastic is not good for the teeth!

  • jane

    have a friend who quit smoking,he bought licorice root think it cost 35 cents lasted weeks maybe months it had real good chew.got it at health food bulk store

  • Gabby

    as a teacher of children with autism, i spend a lot of time encouraging people not to chew on inedible objects, so it’s hard for me to be on board with this concept. a few of my students have “chewies” which is the only inedible object they are allowed to put in their mouths

    classic example of a “chewie”: http://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=A0oG7iWzUNJRZnYASwdXNyoA?p=chewies+for+autistic+kids&fr=yfp-t-900-s&fr2=piv-web

  • Pooja

    seems to be a strong connection between writing and the urge to snack. I tend
    to snack the most while writing, particularly when I’m trying to concentrate.
    I’m definitely trying out your idea first thing tomorrow.

  • Veronika

    I’m chewing pen or pencil ends too… I was always told it is a bad habit, but it really helps to concentrate. So I do it when I’m alone. 🙂

  • I’m a gum chewer. If I want to munch and sugar free gum and water doesn’t fill the need, I might be hungry.

  • Ryan

    Though the idea of chewing plastic stirrer is not really safe, it might lead to dental issues. But the idea of chewing something that is safe can help you curb your hunger pangs is wonderful. Chewing gum, toothpick and other safe things can work. But don’t just go on for hours, as it might not be as safe. And the best thing about this habit is you don’t gain weight! 100daychallenge.com is a wonderful program that gives you effective tips to improve your concentration tremendously!

  • Rebecca Adams

    I have found gum or breath mints help keep my nervous energy soothed as I work at my computer. If that still doesn’t work I get up and do something that doesn’t require concentration so I can think while I work. I may be up and down at my desk but I feel as though I come out with a better product in the end. As far as chewing ice, I have cracked molars that my dentist always frowns about, so I personally avoid that.

  • E Johnson

    I am a huge fan of “Why we get fat” theory, and I’m practicing the delicious diet most of the time. That said, nuts and veggies only taste good for a portion of the day, and you really want a fudge round instead. So I will try chewing on something. I’ve got some tasty teethers for my toddler, but perhaps a straw will be less distracting!

  • Pingback: How to find focus in the modern workplace | RescueTime Blog()