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

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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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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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