Do You Make Excuses For Yourself Based on the “One-Coin Argument”? I Do.

I love paradoxes, parables, koans, aphorisms, fables, Secrets of Adulthood, and teaching stories of all kinds.

Several months ago, I posted about the “one-coin problem.” This is my phrase to describe what’s also known as “the argument of the growing heap”:

If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”

Once I started looking for it, I began to notice the one-coin problem popping up in all sorts of places–in my own head, and in what other people say to me.

“It doesn’t matter if I skip the gym today. What difference will it make to miss one work-out?”

“Who cares if my daughter doesn’t go to bed right on time. A little less sleep isn’t going to make a huge difference.”

“I’m going to have dessert. One piece of cake isn’t going to kill me.”

“Tonight, I’m going to watch TV instead of read a book. I would only be able to read a chapter or two anyway, before I go to sleep.”

The one-coin problem captures a paradox that’s familiar to all of us: when we consider our actions, often it’s true that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time,  a sum of those actions is very meaningful. Whether we focus on the single coin, or the growing heap, will shape our behavior.

As the examples show, the one-coin argument can convincingly be deployed to allow yourself to do something (have a beer) or not do something (go to class). It’s very enticing argument!

Now that I’ve put a name to the one-coin problem, I’m doing a much better job of catching myself using it. Of course, sometimes it’s absolutely true and quite appropriate to indulge (or not) in some action, because it just doesn’t matter very much. To throw around a legal term–one of the few I remember from my days as a lawyer–some actions are of de minimis significance (so minor that they aren’t worth fussing with). But those de minimis actions do add up.

Here’s my question for you, readers: Do you find yourself falling prey to the one-coin argument? In what circumstances?



  • Candice

    I sometimes do find myself in the one coin situation. I have fallen prey to the argument on enough occasions to slowly increase body fat and laziness. Yes, skipping this workout WILL make a difference. Eating this chocolate bar WILL make a difference! Consistency is key to success. Giving in on one occasion can alter the due date, cause extra work or sabotage your great intentions!

  • MyChangeBox

    In working to help others achieve their change goals, I have come to believe that the most dangerous instances of the one coin problem occur once we have slipped up, relapsed, or faltered in our efforts. It is at those times when we say, “Oh, what the heck! One more (fill in the blank) surely doesn’t matter now.” These surrenders of willingness, will, and willpower can begin long slides away from our intentions. In those moments, the next coin is the one that truly does count most.

    • Felicity

      Great comment! It really is that second coin that matters.

      • jasminegirl

        Yes, I get that completely. It’s along the same lines of the broken windows theory Gretchen posted recently….we slip up a little, next thing we know we might be more likely to slip up a lot. On a household level, it’s not unlike Gretchen’s other post “messy spaces get messier, clear spaces (tend to) stay clear.” A definite theme going on here….that I relate to, a lot!

        • gretchenrubin

          I hadn’t made the connection, but it’s so true…these little slip-ups nudge us along the way to bigger slip ups.

      • gretchenrubin

        ABSOLUTELY. Even –or maybe especially – when the break has come for a reason outside our control. An injury, or being out of town – can be very hard to take up good habits again.

        • peninith1

          Yes. I have just been through several months of health crises or threats for close members of my family, and have moved my Mom in to live with me. This has involved many sleepless nights and road trips, and believe me, I have donated jars full of ‘calorie coins’ to the ‘just wait until this is over’ fund, slacked from my exercise program and generally built up a big debt to good, healthy habits. Now the big crisis is safely past, I have a lovely grandson and a healthier daughter in law, and my Mom is moved. I am just now in need of this ‘no more coins in the fat jar’ message. Hope I can hear and heed it soon, somewhere between hand and mouth!!!

  • Ari

    This is a very thought-provoking post. I immediately came up with a handful of instances in which I knew that I made this argument to myself. Next time this happens, I’ll certainly be more aware! It’s really amazing how bringing attention to these seemingly little things about thought processes can make a positive difference in everyday life.

  • Meaux

    I have been struggling with the “one-coin issue” for a very long time, and the dilemma gets in the way of my efforts to establish successful sustained habits. One of my recent discoveries is a one-word mantra that I use whenever I find myself waffling and en route to derailing myself from my goals. The one-word interjection isn’t a “rated PG” per se, but I’ve used this whenever I find myself in a pattern of making excuses.

  • Holly

    I did this last night. Now, I’m glad to have a name for it. Of all things I was craving white rice. White rice!!! Yes, that tiny white little grain with no health value whatsoever. I have both wild rice and brown rice in the house, but the voice in my head said to me, “It’s not going to kill you to eat white rice for one meal.” But how many meals after last night’s meal will the white rice monkey show up and I give in to the thought. Thanks for sharing. I’ll definitely remember this!

  • I haven’t tried this yet, but I think you may have just solved my one coin problem… I often use that excuse, and I’m normally okay with staying on track, but when I do it again (or hit the second coin) I’m almost always screwed…

    It’s put a bit of perspective on a lot of things actually: every coin counts, and you should never take one for granted or say it doesn’t matter, you’d just be lining yourself up for taking the plunge! It’s all part of the devil vs angel temptations 😀

  • BKF

    Such a great post. Thanks, Gretchen and (wonderful blog discussants!) Since yesterday, I have been trying to “count ways” this plays in my own life- eating poorly, keeping things tidy, not being very kind/patient to close family, spending time on the internet unrelated to work in my office, not exercising, even what Gretchen would call “over-buying” (discount stores like TJ Maxx are a terrible trap for me! I say to myself I will just look around and then before I know it my cart is overflowing with bargains that are too good to pass up)… I’m sure I’ll come up with more ways I sabotage myself. Thanks for inspiring us to lead a more “examined life.”

    • BKF

      Oops, I meant “count the ways”…. I also just realised you could apply this concept to procrastination. Putting something off for a minute, two minutes, and soon it’s days and months overdue, even years…… 🙁

  • Greg Mercer

    Thanks, Gretchen, it’s a powerful idea. We can use such directed reasoning to better motivate ourselves towards what we want, and away from the rest. I’m goimng to start looking for examples today! Rationalization can seem harmless, but it can be a potent killer of progress. We could use this idea, I’d think, both postively and negatively. Avoid examples that fuel bad habits, encourage examples that migjht help keep us going, e.g. what’s one more task today, just one more, I can do that no problem, it’s nothing really…

  • senseyourenergy

    Wow this is very true! Now that I think about it I do this quite a lot. However it can be hard to resist. However as bad as it sometimes can be to let yourself do this, it also has the potential to be a good thing. I can see how it could be used to convince yourself or someone else to do something beneficial.

    Also another thing I have done to my self is justify doing something by convincing myself this is the last time I’ll do this. This can be quite a similar idea.


  • Nancy hard at work

    On the opposite side of the coin, I used the one coin method to get what I wanted, both at work and at home. When you do not have a lot of money, one coin really works. Then it becomes well I have the money but in order to get the biggest bang for the buck, I one coined it. My first house had no landscaping, no improvements in 25 years it was a rental. By the time I sold it, every room in the house had been upgraded, it was fully landscaped with a koi pond and full arbor over it covered in passion vines. My son, a friend and I did all of the work ourselves so it was material only. I would have to say 90% of the materials used were clearanced, yard sale, or discontinued materials. I made a really big profit one coin at a time.

  • TomF

    Just FYI, this is related to the “slippery slope” argument ( It’s usually considered a fallacy in logic— but of course, there’s a difference between logic and human behavior.

    • TracyW

      Considering the slipperly slope argument as an informal fallacy has always struck me as a rather odd use of the word “fallacy”. In the case of a literal slippery slope, such one covered by iced up snow, the argument is quite true.

      I think the habit logic has of regarding it as an informal fallacy is because it’s so easy to evoke the slippery slope argument even to situations where it doesn’t apply. Calling it an informal fallacy is a shifting of the burden of proof.

  • I probably used to more than I do now, but I’ve become rather disciplined over time, because I’m an unusually sensitive person, and my body and mind do not give me much of a grace period before paying me back in spades.

    In fact, it’s funny you should mention coins, because I tend to view my health and well-being as something of a bank account. Things like staying up too late, not exercising, getting stressed, eating the wrong foods, etc. are like using a credit card, because you know you’re borrowing against the next day, or maybe even the rest of your life. You’ll not only pay what you owe, but a lot of compounded interest as well.

    So I stick to my healthy habits for the most part (although I am still a moderator). I save up my coins during the week and splurge a little on the weekend, when I’ve built up a reserve and I can afford it. 🙂

  • Gloria

    Very well stated having discipline in life is not always easy, especially when life matters can get switched up and they do to the disorder and undisciplined lifestyles that you gave excellent examples of. It isn’t easy when life gets in the way or there are those late nights that latter on we feel all to well as always your reading is quite engaging.

  • Sadye

    I most definitely do with something that doesn’t come naturally. I know that I’m an abstainer and not a moderator, so this will lead to no good, but I still do it.

  • anne sweeney

    I don’t know, ask Dr. Scotti, he speaks to living outside of, “me”, being at the center of ones productivity or slothfulness, however or to whoever one addresses the question concerning the One Coin argument. Ask him , He doesn’t even use his title, I think he’s on linked in.

  • I hadn’t heard this called the “one-coin problem” before but this is why we call Beeminder “safety rope for slippery slopes”. It’s a way to have a meaningful line in the sand so that you can eat some junk food or skip the gym sometimes without sliding down a slippery slope of sloth. Set your “yellow brick road” to whatever you consider a minimal acceptable rate. Then you can seize opportunities to be lazy “just this once” but at some point you’ll be on the edge of that yellow brick road and Beeminder simply won’t let you slide any further.

    I think it’s a really fundamental solution to the problem. Because it’s literally true that any single dessert or skipped gym session doesn’t matter. So how the heck do you decide where to draw the line? (You beemind it!)

    Danny of, wait for it,

  • Al Grimsley

    You make a good point here and it reminds me of people’s arguments that go the opposite direction. I went out to eat with some friends the other day and got a healthy choice. One of my friends promptly called me out on it and said “I will not keep track of every little thing that I eat”. This was their way of talking themselves out of the same
    healthy choice by exaggerating to the extreme. Maybe you can “coin” a term for this argument as well.

  • We know that every little bit counts and that gets you to where you want to be, but we also allow ourselves some flexibility.

  • What a great reminder to question those justifications! I absolutely fall prey to the one coin argument, and have even voiced it in support of a friend making a judgement call recently (BAD GIRL)!

    Simply being mindful that I tend to make this kind of argument is incredibly helpful in avoiding the negative behavior, so thank you for this timely and appropriate nudge in a positive direction!

  • therufs

    People who fancy themselves moderators may find a Schelling fence useful in such situations:

    However, as someone who used to think she was a moderator and is now coming around to another point of view, I think Schelling fences actually just turn a moderator into an abstainer-lite. But they help me have my cake and eat it but only a little bit, so this is not a criticism. 🙂

  • mj

    oh, just one more blog to check before I…..

    dear god, it is the end of the day and I’m still checking:

    horrible, wish it wasn’t the case, need to change, this post might be the incentive I need.

  • Guest

    Such a profound concept…I thought the same thing as I was reading this!

  • Jenna

    I learned long ago that going to the gym every day was more effective than going every other day. Every other day involved bargaining (today or tomorrow), whereas every day was just that, every day.

  • Excuses based on the one-coin argument? Yes, I do too! Can we avoid it? Would it be so wrong if you do this just once?

  • uncadiane

    I totally agree that one time can lead to two times and three times, and they make a difference. However, I believe it’s very important not to become obsessed over never varying from our norm. It can cause us to be “black and white” and never able to see any “gray” at all. It IS okay to skip one workout if you are feeling especially overwrought, without having to heap up a big pile of guilt over it. I truly believe that without balance and flexibility we become difficult, hard to be around, people.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is the challenge of the one-coin issue. It’s absolutely true that one coin isn’t significant, and it’s absolutely true that you get a big pile of coins only one coin at a time. we have to balance those two truths.

  • Gillian

    Really interesting concept! I can relate to it in many aspects of my life. On a broader scale, it applies to how we live in relationship to the Earth. Every little bit of consumption or waste or carbon emission in itself is not a problem. It’s the cumulative effect of all the individual transgressions that are destroying our world. One paper towel or disposable plate or plastic water bottle is not a big deal; millions are.

  • Lisa

    This perfectly describes the way I approach almost anything that is “bad” for me. Actually felt a little guilty reading it and found myself looking for ways to excuse the behaviour. I guess there lies some truth in the argument that just one won’t hurt, but these do accumulate until the “just one” has become a habit that is difficult to break.
    So the question is, how do we endulge in life, taking pleasure without rigidly holding ourselves to perfection and at the same cultivate habits that are healthy and create wellbeing? Perhaps it lies in incorporating a small amount of endulgence into the plan of our lives, instead of seeing it as a “treat” that replaces our healthy habit or commitment.

  • Jim

    Cheers, Gretchen! Hadn’t considered this, but it does place a name on one of my major problems with development. Thanks!

  • Zeb

    As humans, we must give ourselves the latitude of living – sometimes at the cost of collecting coins. In fact keeping a balanced life and experiencing being ‘human’ includes staying up late occasionally, skipping exercise and not having to read the last page if it can wait. The media is nudging the world in a very wrong direction by constantly focusing on ‘perfection’ and absolute results. So I urge readers to give yourself room to live as a ‘human’ and not a ‘machine’. After all if God wanted us to be perfect, he would have made machines instead. In my view, we only have a century left as humans – as in the next 100 years we (or our next generation) will say goodbye to being human and morph ourselves into ‘Technobeings’. Just look at all the research and development in ‘ehancement’ drugs and gadgets going on!

  • Sophia

    Yes! Just about everything! If I can put it off until tomorrow. I will… But after reading this article I’m going to try to be more mindful of this type of excuse-making.