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

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

staysinvegasFor 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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Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #5: Apparently Irrelevant Decisions.

traintrackssplittingjpgFor 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 #4, the Lack of Control loophole. Today…

Loophole Category #5: Apparently Irrelevant Decisions

It’s odd. When it comes to keeping our good habits, instead of fleeing temptation, we often arrange to succumb. In what Dr. Alan Marlatt  dubbed “apparently irrelevant decisions,” we make a chain of seemingly insignificant decisions that allow us covertly to engineer the very circumstances that we’ll find irresistible.

I’ve long been obsessed by the strange, brilliant skeleton of a book created by J. M. Barrie, The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, and I’m particularly haunted by the line, “We set out to be wrecked.” In the story, three boys set sail to seek the adventure of a wreck; to fail was the very purpose of the undertaking.

I drove across town to that gourmet grocery store to buy broccoli, and I ended up buying their special cheesecake. Who could resist?

 

I’ll just check my email quickly before I go to the gym…oops, I don’t have time to go to the gym, after all.

 

I’m not going to eat anything more tonight, but I’ll go into kitchen and look in the freezer. Just curious.

 

No reason why I shouldn’t sit in the smoking section.

 

I’ll buy some scotch to have in the house in case someone stops by.

 

It’s such a nice day, it would be nice to take walk—would you look at that! I’m in front of my favorite bakery. I’m just going to step inside to enjoy the lovely smell.

 

My husband and I love to go on “all inclusive” cruise vacations, and I can’t resist the all-you-can-eat food.

 

I’m going to lie on the sofa so I can brainstorm ideas in comfort.

A friend told me, “I know a guy in L.A. who has some trouble with gambling. The last time I saw him, he said, ‘I just lost a lot of money in Vegas.’ I said, ‘I thought you weren’t supposed to go there anymore.’ He said, ‘I’m not, but I didn’t go there to gamble.’ I said, ‘So why were you there?’ He said, ‘I bought a new car, and I wanted to take it for a test drive.’ He was absolutely serious.”

Another friend made an apparently irrelevant decision. “A guy I know was about to take a trip, and I told him, ‘Oh, you really should get some candy to take with you. Let me take you to Sockerbit, this amazing Swedish candy store. They have these gummy Ferraris that I love.’”

“Did you eat any candy?”

“No, but it was really hard.”

He  managed not to eat any candy, but he went pretty far out of his way to get himself into a candy store.

We set out to be wrecked.

Do you ever make apparently irrelevant decisions that end up wrecking your good intentions?

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Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #4: the Lack of Control Loophole.

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

Yesterday was #3, the Tomorrow Loophole. Today….

Loophole Categyory #4: Lack of Control Loophole

This is a very loophole. We argue that we don’t have control over the situation, and circumstances have forced us to break a habit. However, usually we have more control than we admit.

“My problem is that every time I work in my favorite coffee shop,” a friend told me, “I absolutely have to get a muffin. Their muffins are so good, I can’t resist, but I really don’t want to eat them.”

“Why don’t you work in a different coffee shop?” I asked.

“Oh, but that’s my favorite coffee shop,” she said earnestly.

“Right,” I said. “Because you always have one of those delicious muffins when you go there.”

“That’s not why I go.”

Really?

Weirdly, people often have an illusion of control over things they can’t control—“If I spend a lot of time worrying, the plane is less likely to crash” “If I play my lucky numbers, I’ll win the lottery eventually” — but deny control over things they can control — “If there are free donuts in the break room, I can’t resist eating them.”

The dog ate my homework.

Someone brought bagels to the meeting.

I’m too stressed to deal with this now.

I travel all the time.

It’s too hot/cold/rainy.

I have an injury.

My boss is so demanding that I don’t have time to do that.

I’d had a few beers.

I know I’m going to break this habit sooner or later, so I might as well do it now.

A considerate host wouldn’t serve a wicked dessert like this.

It’s impossible to give up sugar.

The subway always makes me late.

These chips have been specially engineered by the food industry to be irresistible.

With everything going on right now, I can’t be expected to stick to a good habit. (There’s a great running gag in the movie Airplane, in which the air-traffic control supervisor remarks, as he lights up a cigarette, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking,” later, as he takes a drink, he adds, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking,” then later, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines,” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”)

At this rate, I can never accomplish anything.

My favorite trainer quit.

My kids take up all my time.

The church’s annual Fathers’ Day Breakfast has always been all-you-can-eat.

We opened a bottle of wine, so we have to finish it.

Alcoholics can quit drinking, and smokers can quit smoking, but I can’t quit eating. (I can’t quit eating, but I can quit eating sugar, or grains, or processed food.)

Someone else chose this restaurant.

I’ve never been able to resist this.

I started without realizing what I was doing.

The Lack of Control Loophole is closely tied to another popular loophole…the Apparently Irrelevant Decision loophole. I’ll write about that tomorrow.

Do you ever find yourself invoking the Lack of Control loophole? It’s super-sneaky, in my experience. Very easy to invoke without even realizing it.

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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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