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

I 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.

I’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.”

When 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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Before and After: Use Self-Observation to See What the Triggers Are.

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Kelly Pietrangeli.

I used to have a very bad habit of shouting at my kids. (The irony of shouting at my kids to “stop shouting” was not lost on me.) I knew I needed to stop, but counting to 10 and taking deep breaths never worked for me. I needed to find some kind of strategy that would actually work.


I decided the first step was to talk to my kids and tell them I wanted to change this habit. I promised them that if I ever shouted I’d have to apologise. I don’t like to apologise so this was a real biggie for me.


Next I went into self-observation mode for a few days to see what my typical triggers were. I noticed I’m short fused when I’m tired first thing in the morning and at end of the day and that being on time for school or activities made me edgy and more prone to outbursts. Knowing that I have more patience at some times than others made me see that often it wasn’t their behaviour that ’caused’ me to lose my rag, but it was my own problem.


I don’t tolerate winging, complaining or being uncooperative, but I created a mantra: “My child is not BEING a problem, my child is HAVING a problem.” This helped me to reframe the situation and come at it from a better angle.


I then read Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham.


Dr. Markham tells us that if we really want to stop yelling, it’s completely possible – no matter how ingrained it is. It’s not rocket science and takes about 3 months once you’ve made the commitment.


This is the best book I’ve ever read for helping me understand myself and my children better.


Becoming a former Shout-a-holic was not an easy process for me and I slipped up a lot in the beginning, but I chose to persevere. I still have my occasional shouty moments, but they happen rarely now instead of daily. (Hourly!)


It really came down to self-awareness and a deep determination to change. I am incredibly proud of the new me!

In Before and After, I call this the Strategy of Foundation. We do a lot better job sticking to our good habits, I believe, when our foundation is strong. That means making sure we get enough sleep, that we’re not too hungry, that we’re not rushed or overwhelmed by dealing with clutter or lost items.

I also write a lot about this kind of issue in Happier at Home: when I’m happier, my family is happier, so I need to take the steps that help me to stay calm, attentive, and tender-hearted.

How about you? Have you worked on your foundation, and found that it helped your habits?

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Are You an “Energizer” or a “De-Energizer” at Work?

I’m re-posting this quiz, because I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue lately.

I read Cross and Perker’s The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations, and I was riveted by their discussion of energy. This caught my eye, because my father is always emphasizing the importance of energy, whether at work or at play — especially at work. (For other excellent advice my father and mother gave me, look here.)

Cross and Parker argue that energy is a key factor in understanding who is effective at work, and why. When they analyzed networks of co-workers, knowing whether someone was considered an “energizer” and a “de-energizer” shed a great deal of light on how networks worked, and how productive various people managed to be. Their discussion is complex, but here are some highlights.

About energizers:
– those who energized others are much higher performers
– energizers are more likely to be heard and to see their ideas acted upon
– people are more willing to engage with energizers: to give them undivided attention, to devote discretionary time to them, to respond to them, and to want to work with them
– energizers are quick to point out potential problems, but always in service of reaching a goal
– energizers listen to others and value others’ ideas, concerns, and contributions
– energizers don’t posture or conspire in alliances or cliques
– energizers articulate a compelling vision, but not one so grand that it feels frustratingly out of reach
– energizers show integrity: they follow through on their promises, deliver bad news or point out problems when appropriate, and deal fairly with others
– Key point: “Note that energizers are not entertainers, or even necessarily very charismatic or intense. Rather, they bring themselves fully into an interaction.” In a nutshell, energizers help move the ball forward.

About de-energizers:
– people go to great lengths to avoid dealing with de-energizers
– when bypassed, de-energerizers tend to persist in unhelpful responses; they feel ignored, so they behave in ways that make people avoid them all the more, instead of finding ways to engage constructively [note: this is an important clue about how to deal productively with de-energizers: make sure they know that you hear their point of view]
– de-energizers tend to see nothing but roadblocks
– de-energizers, especially those with great expertise, tend to shut out others’ views

So, are you an energizer or a de-energizer? Here are eight questions, adapted from Cross and Parker:

1. Do you take a sincere interest in other people?

2. Do you follow through on your commitments?

3. Do you engage in self-serving machinations, or do you work in service of a goal larger than yourself?

4. Do you see possibilities, or only problems?

5. Are you able to disagree with someone without attacking that person personally? (Note: excessive agreement is also de-energizing.)

6. Do you give people your full attention? It turns out people are far more aware of a lack of attentiveness than you might think. Um, I can see you looking at your phone!

7. Are you flexible enough in your methods so that others can contribute, or do you demand that others adapt to you?

8. Do you exercise your expertise without bulldozing over other people?

What do you think? Does this category of “energy” make sense in terms of your own work experience? For me, it rings absolutely true. And I completely agree that a person can be very soft-spoken and even languid in behavior, and yet terrifically energizing, because of the contribution that person is making toward reaching a goal.

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