My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #3: the Tomorrow Loophole.

whitequeenFor 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.

Here, I’m talking about 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 the two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #2, the Moral Licening Loophole. Today….

Loophole Category #3: the Tomorrow Loophole

This loophole depends on “tomorrow logic.” Now doesn’t matter much, because we’re going to follow good habits tomorrow.

It doesn’t matter what I eat now, because I’m starting a diet tomorrow. (Research shows that people who plan to start dieting tomorrow tend to over-eat today.)

 

I’m definitely on track to finish my paper on time, because starting tomorrow, I’m really going to buckle down.

 

I’ll be really frugal in January so it doesn’t matter if I spend too much in December.

 

Today I’m eating whatever I want, but tomorrow I’ll be “good.” (People tend to self-regulate day-by-day, but everything counts.)

Tomorrow logic undermines good habits by making it easy to deny that our actions clash with our intentions.

It’s quite pleasant to think about how virtuous we’ll be, tomorrow. In one study, when subjects made a shopping list for what they’d eat in a week, 70 percent chose fruit instead of chocolate; when asked what they’d choose now, 74 percent picked chocolate instead of fruit.

In an argument worthy of the White Queen — who told Alice “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday — but never jam today” — we tell ourselves, absolutely, I’m committed to exercise, and I will exercise tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Just not today.

Postponing a start may also lead to the unhelpful phenomenon of the “last hurrah.” “I’m starting my diet on Monday, so I deserve to eat anything I want until then.” “After the holidays, I’m going to cut way back on spending, so I should take advantage of the sales now.”

Some people even fool themselves into thinking that extreme indulgence now will give them more self-control when the magic future day arrives. But eating a giant bowl of ice cream today doesn’t make it any easier to resist tomorrow, and spending an entire day watching TV doesn’t make a person feel more like working the next morning.

I have a fantasy of myself in the future: Future-Gretchen will have more time and more energy for tasks that don’t interest Now-Gretchen. Chores that I keep putting off — like turning notes into actual writing or getting regular doctors’ check-ups — will be easy for Future-Gretchen.

Alas, there is no Future-Gretchen, only Now-Gretchen.

Do you find yourself promising that you’ll follow that habit — tomorrow?

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Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #2: Moral Licensing.

approvedstampFor two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Before and After. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-two strategies that we can use to change our habits.

Here, I’m talking about 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 the two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #1, the False Choice Loophole. Today….

Loophole Category #2: Moral Licensing

In moral licensing, we give ourselves permission to do something “bad” (eat potato chips, bust the budget) because we’ve been “good.” We reason that we’ve earned it or deserve it, or that some “good” behavior has offset something “bad.”

After the day I had, I’ve earned a nice glass of wine.

I’ve been losing weight steadily on this diet, so it will be okay for me to cut a few corners.

I’ve been so diligent about meditating, I deserve a day off.

I haven’t had Girl Scout cookies in years, so I should be able to have some now.

After all I do for others, I’m entitled to a little treat for myself.

I didn’t have a first course so I can have dessert. (Skipping a small green salad justifies a giant piece of cheesecake.)

I’ve done so much Christmas shopping, I deserve to buy something for myself.

I’m not getting any toppings.

I’m much better about this than I used to be.

I saved so much by not buying ___ that I deserve to buy this ____.

I’ve ordered a big salad of organic fruit with my pancakes, so my meal is healthy. (This is an example of the “health halo.”)

In a particularly popular yet counter-productive variation of moral licensing, people who want to lose weight use exercise to justify eating or drinking. “I went running today, so I’ve earned a few beers.” The fact is, research shows that while exercise is very important for good health, exercise doesn’t help with weight loss; weight loss is driven by changes in diet.

Sometimes, in fact, we don’t even wait to earn or deserve something “bad”; we argue that we’re entitled to be “bad” now because we plan to be “good” in the future. I’ll post about that strategy tomorrow.

Do you find yourself using this loophole? In what circumstances?

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Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #1: the False Choice Loophole.

falsechoiceI have a split life right now. Part of the time I’m focused on my new paperback Happier at Home (about how to be happier at home), and part of the time I’m focused on writing the forthcoming Before and After (about habit-formation).

Now I’m on book tour for Happier at Home, and I’m also starting a special series here on my site related to Before and After.

In the book, I identify the twenty-two strategies that we can use to change our habits, such as the Strategy of Accountability, the Strategy of Convenience, the Strategy of Treats, etc.

Of all of them, perhaps my favorite strategy to study is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting — because the loopholes are so funny.

When we’re trying to form and keep habits, we often search — even unconsciously — for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we recognize this behavior, if we can catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

This is tough, because there are so many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for the next two weeks, I’ll post about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Loophole Category #1: the False Choice Loophole

I must confess, this is the loophole-seeking strategy that’s most alluring to me. I pose two activities in opposition, as though I have to make an either/or decision, when in fact, the two aren’t necessarily in conflict. Here are some of the false choices I often argue to myself:

If I join that group, I won’t have any time with my daughters.

I haven’t been exercising. Too busy writing.

I don’t have time to work on my draft, I’ve got too many emails to answer.

If I go to sleep earlier, I won’t have any time to myself.

I’m so busy, I’ll make those appointments once things calm down.

Someone once said to me, “I can either enjoy life to the fullest, or eat lettuce and carrots for the rest of my life.” Are these really the only two alternatives?

Even outside the context of a habits, false choices often appear as a challenge to a happiness project.

I remind myself that whenever I’m inclined to think “Can I have this or that?” I should stop and ask, “Can I have this and that?” It’s surprising how often that’s possible. Is the habit that I want to foster really in conflict with my other values? Usually, if I’m honest with myself, it’s not.

How about you? Do you find yourself invoking the false choice loophole?

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Why I Didn’t Post Last Week, or, Lost-Wallet Syndrome.

laptopbackI’m on the book tour for the paperback of Happier at Home right now, but that’ s only indirectly why I didn’t post last week.

On Monday, I left my beloved laptop behind as I went through security in JFK Airport. I didn’t realize the laptop was missing until I got to Austin.

Panic! Despair! But the next morning, I heard that the laptop had been turned in to JetBlue, and was on its way back to my apartment. Ah, the relief.

A friend of mine described the “lost wallet syndrome.” He said, “If you lose your wallet, you think, ‘How happy I would be, how perfect life would be, if only I could get my wallet back.’ But then you find your wallet, and everything goes back to normal.”

But my bliss at getting my laptop back is staying with me, I must say. I felt so lost without it…my laptop is my work and my play; my encyclopedia and my phone; my teddy bear and my to-do list.

When I thought it was lost forever, the analogy that kept popping into my mind came from Harry Potter. I felt as though I’d accidentally created a horcrux, and a piece of my soul had lodged into a physical object and was lost in the world.

Of course I realized that as a challenge to happiness, losing a laptop is actually trivial. There are countless things that matter more. I kept reminding myself to keep this perspective — and it did help to calm me down. I reminded myself to under-react to a problem, to reach out to other people, to get enough sleep, and all the other measures I’ve learned. Which helped.

To the person who turned in the white laptop in the JFK JetBlue terminal last week, THANK YOU! Thank you thank you thank you. You made me so happy.

Today I’m off from New York City for the last leg of my book tour. If you live near Portland or San Francisco, I hope to see you at an event this week. I’m really excited to be going to Powell’s Books; Books, Inc.; Scribd; and Kepler’s. Please come, tell your friends!

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“Now Is Now. It Can Never Be a Long Time Ago.”

LittleHousecoverWhen the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

–Laura Ingalls Wilder, the final page of Little House in the Big Woods

What a masterpiece this book is! And how I love the illustrations of Garth Williams.

This quotation has special meaning for me. That phrase, “Now is now,” has haunted me my whole life. As a writer, my specialty is endings (I’m really good at writing endings, if I do say so myself), and the last few pages of Happier at Home is probably the best thing I’ve written in my whole life. And it’s all about this passage from Little House in the Big Woods, and the meaning of “now is now.”

From the final page:

As I walked up the steps to my building on that spring afternoon, and looked up at the windows of my little apartment in the big city, I reminded myself, “Now is now.” And I know what the child Laura did not yet know. Now is now, and now is already a long time ago.

I remind myself, every day: Now is now.

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