Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #6: the “This Doesn’t Count” Loophole.

For two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Before and After. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to change our habits. (If you want to be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

In this series, I focusing on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation.

However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

There are many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #5, the Apparently Irrelevant Decision loophole, a/k/a the Planning to Fail loophole. Today…

Loophole Category #6: the “This Doesn’t Count” loophole.

We tell ourselves that for some reason, this circumstances doesn’t “count” — but in fact, while we can always mindfully choose to make an exception to our habits, there are no magical freebies, no going off the grid, no get-out-of-jail-free cards, nothing that stays in Vegas.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: Everything counts.

We often have funny rules to exclude certain behavior. After college, my roommate’s boyfriend said to me, in a patronizing tone, “Boy, I wish I had as much free time as you do, to read for pleasure.” He practically lived with us, so I knew a lot about how he spent his time, and I answered, “But you have a lot of free time, you watch a ton of sports on television.” He said, “Oh, that doesn’t count.” No?

I’m on vacation.

 

What are weekends for?

 

I’m sick.

 

I ate it off a child’s plate.

 

My wine glass wasn’t full.

 

This is a just one-time thing. (Samuel Johnson observed, “Those faults which we cannot conceal from our own notice, are considered, however frequent, not as habitual corruptions, or settled practices, but as casual failures, and single lapses.”)

 

I ordered it for both of us, which means you’re eating half, even if I eat the whole thing.

 

I’ve totally given up drinking. Except on special occasions, and on the weekends, and when I’m out with friends.

I don’t even want this.

 

I’m pregnant.

 

This period of my life is so stressful that I must focus solely on my deadline/case on trial/relative in the hospital.

This last loophole is an occupational hazard for my sister. For a TV writer, shooting a pilot is thrilling, but it’s also extraordinarily stressful. She’s been through it several times, and she told me, “The temptation in shooting a pilot is to say, ‘Nothing else matters. We’re shooting a pilot, this is completely separate from real life, it doesn’t count, because I need to do whatever it takes to get though it.’”

“Everything counts,” I said with a sigh.

Do you find yourself arguing that something doesn’t “count”?

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  • Di

    Excellent summary, thanks – this reminds me of a favorite quote from
    William James: We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never
    to be undone.
    Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never-so-little
    scar. The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson’s play, excuses himself
    for every fresh dereliction by saying, “I won’t count this time!” Well,
    he may not count it, and a kind Heaven may not count it; but it is being
    counted none the less. Down among his nerve-cells and fibres the
    molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used
    against him when the next temptation comes.

    • gretchenrubin

      William James is one of the big figures in habits study.

  • Eris

    I have the same trouble as your sister. My work also has big booms and busts, and it is SO easy to give myself a “get out of jail free” card when I’m in a boom! But of course, you’re right, everything counts!

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a real struggle.

  • peninith1

    Might be interesting to observe what DOES count (when you say to yourself that ‘it’ doesn’t count) your body counts the calories, your blood counts the alcohol, your overall health counts the missed exercise, your mind counts the lost hours of sleep, your bank account and credit cards and credit rating count the spending, your conscience (sleeping or waking) counts the times you cheat, your co-workers count the slighted project time, your kids count the sharp words or the ‘stress-induced’ slap or neglect, and Karma? Karma waits for all those who don’t count.

    I love the phrase ‘NOTHING stays in Vegas’ . . . nope, not even the calories that ‘leaked out’ of the broken cookie!

    Superb series of posts Gretchen. This may be some of your most memorable and helpful work ever!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so HAPPY to hear that you’re finding this series helpful.

  • BKF

    These concepts are terrific and I am guilty of using them all. I am very eager to read your new book.

    That said, I am having a hard time keeping these loopholes straight – they seem to overlap and run together in my mind- moral licensing with this one and apparently irrelevant decisions….

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, they do overlap. That’s part of their power, these loopholes seem to have MULTIPLE justifications!
      It’s not particularly important to identify them exactly; more to prompt awareness of when they’re floating through the brain.

      • BKF

        “Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They
        creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk
        unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”(Margaret Atwood in The Blind Assassin) I guess you could say that for these loopholes that trip us up. (They really do “spring” the trap of failure eventually…)

        • gretchenrubin

          Love this quotation!

  • Alexis T

    I totally connect with this one. I always find myself thinking things don’t count! I’ll be paying more attention to when my mind goes there in the future.

  • http://www.ahappyknack.com/ Katie

    I tend to do this, but I find that when I’m finally honest about whatever it is, I feel both relieved and empowered to follow through with the habit.

    For example, I meditate daily, but find that I make excuses for it being a vacation day or the weekend. I finally accepted this and revised the habit to “I meditate on work days.” That turns out to be a large amount of days, has a reminder trigger, and I end up meditating on non-work days too, without the guilt associated with using loopholes.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a great example of how to adapt a habit so that it works for you.
      By making that change, you give yourself the feeling of “I’m doing a good job keeping this habit,” and that’s very helpful.

  • ChrisD

    I’m not quite sure about all aspects of this one, as it seems a ‘rule’ with some exceptions that don’t ‘count’ may result in a reasonable moderation. Gretchen you yourself said you don’t eat ice cream, unless Jamie buys it, then it doesn’t ‘count’ :-).
    I guess it’s quite a narrow line between sensible moderation and sabotaging your own intentions. This is one to be mindful about and to reassess once you have started on your goal if your progress isn’t what you’d hoped for. Or if you make good progress and want to ramp up your effort! I gave up most carbs in June (after reading Gary Taubes on your recommendation) but I made a special effort in January, and despite four cases that don’t ‘count’ I am happy with my effort.
    Really each person has to determine for themselves how a rule will be tailored to fit into their life and values.

    • gretchenrubin

      Hmmmm….I find it’s more helpful to say to myself, “I’m mindfully making an exception to a general rule” than to say “this doesn’t count.” Because it does count.

      It’s not that the exceptions don’t count, but rather that we can always decide for ourselves how we want to behave. It’s up to us. When we decide in advance, we feel that we’re in control of ourselves. When we tell ourselves in the heat of the moment, “Ah, this doesn’t count,” when we look back on a behavior, we often regret it, and wish we’d stuck to the habit we’re trying to form.

      • ChrisD

        Ok. It’s true, this comes down to framing a bit. As you say, a mindful exception is better than a dismissive ‘it doesn’t count’. And if you set up your own new rule and decide, from the beginning what does and doesn’t count, this is done consciously. I guess also, something like ‘diet’ has infinite varieties while ‘write every day’ or ‘meditate every work day’ is simpler to assess.

  • HeatherY

    I’m feeling so impatient! I can’t help seeing these awesome posts and think “Arrrghghghgh! I want to read this book now!!!”

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! I’m so happy to hear that.

  • Mimi Gregor

    I actually find myself having sort of the opposite of this problem: when I DO have a setback — and when changing a habit, it is only natural for them to happen — I tend to beat myself up about it and blow it out of proportion instead of shrugging it off and saying “Meh… I’ll do better tomorrow.” No matter how diligent I am about keeping my new habit, any small lapse makes me berate myself in a way that I wouldn’t take if it were coming from someone else.

    I know that it irritates me no end when friends say to me “I wish I had the time that YOU have to exercise… cook from scratch… read… whatever.” Then they will recount the doings on the latest reality shows and ask me if I’d seen it. Uh… no. This is how I have so much time: I don’t have a cable or satellite connection. Most of what is on TV is drivel. Anything I REALLY want to watch, I can stream from my computer or watch from Netflix. It becomes a TREAT, not something I do because I’m on auto-pilot.

    • phoenix1920

      I have the same problem in overly berating myself–which makes setting goals less fun.

      As for the “more time”, I never realized what an issue this was until blogs became popular. So many people make similar comments that it drives them crazy when people say they wish they had more time. Part of me wonders if this irritation is all based on mishearing each other. If a friend of mine was talking about exercising, something that usually falls off my list, I can’t really reply by talking about exercising, but I want to agree that I share the interest so I am sure I have said “That’s great–I wish I had more time to exercise.” It is true in that if we all had more than 24 hours a day, exercise would make my short list like it used to–but I also recognize that it is a chose I am making based on what is a higher priorities for me at this stage in my life. When I was younger, I was constantly active and swam so many laps, I was like a fish. Now, my job, my children, my husband, my home are higher on my priority list at this moment in my time. I always end the weekend with the expression, “I wish I had just ONE more day” and often the feel the same about a summary I’ve written (just one more hour to proof).

      Is it possible that friends are not being judgment as to your values and how you spend your time but are trying to connect even though they don’t exercise (or cook from scratch, etc)?

  • youonlylawonce

    Congrats on the NYT magazine appearance! That would make me super happy too.

    One way to check yourself when you say “this doesn’t count” is to immediately run to someone who know will give you honest advice as to whether this is a mindful exception or a short-sighted decision. Maybe my goal really is to work on a big paper every day but if I’m exhausted I can’t process things correctly and maybe the best thing is to go to bed, not to push through. But if my goal is to run three times a week, it’s nice outside and what’s stopping me is the desire to watch videos online instead of putting up my shoes and going outside, then probably that honest person is going to give me a kick in the pants that I need–and is justified.

    This one is a tricky one to write about, as I’ve learned using the word “everything” opens your argument up to attack…So maybe we’re not being fair in this respect.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks!

      Teaser…I write about just this issue in Before and After, with the model of the “manager.” Or an accountability partner.

  • Brigitte

    So timely. We are in the final days of moving our household, with stuff from four children and fourteen years here. After finally losing a tiny bit of weight I found myself thinking, well this week doesn’t count because we are moving. Well, my body doesn’t know that ! Thanks for the honesty check.

  • Lee Davy

    Hi Gretchin,

    Super cool post and lots to take out of it as always.

    As I ponder I can’t help think about Steven Pressfield and his work in The War of Art and Turning Pro which echoes a lot of what you are talking about.

    Everything really does count and I think when we make these excuses to ourselves we have to understand that we are not creating integrity in our lives. If the loophole exists in our lives then more often than not we are breaking our word.

    The one that haunted me for a long time, but I am slowly getting to grips with it is to have a desert when I take my son for a meal (I don’t want to eat sugar). I used to make the excuse that this one didn’t matter because it made my son happy. I guess I tend to forget that eating a chocolate cake also makes me happy!

    Keep up the good work

    Lee Davy
    http://www.needyhelper.com

  • Sarah

    Everything counts. That’s my new mantra!

  • Moneyman

    Nothing stays in Vegas. Not quite. Your money stays on Vegas.