Beware of the “Decoy Habit.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about “decoy habits” (still pondering whether this is a good name). A decoy habit is a habit that a person claims to want to adopt—but really doesn’t intend to do. Often, decoy habits reflect other people’s values or priorities. “I want to cook dinner every night.” “I want to finish my Ph.D. thesis by the end of the year.” “I want to give up coffee.”

The decoy provides cover—we don’t have to acknowledge the habits that we actually follow, because there’s this other, better habit that we intend to adopt. As an Upholder, who takes all announced aims very seriously, I get very uneasy in the presence of a decoy habit.

I first noticed this type of decoy when I sat next to a man at a dinner party.

“I really should exercise,” he said in an unconvincing tone. He certainly looked like a person who should exercise. He was at least forty pounds overweight, and he looked puffy and uncomfortable. I said, “Why don’t you exercise?”

“I don’t have time, and I travel so much. It’s really not feasible for me. Also my knee bothers me.”

“It sounds like you actually don’t want to exercise,” I pointed out.

“Oh, I do,” he answered. “I need to do it. Periodically my wife and kids sit me down. I’m going to get started.” But he didn’t sound as though he meant it.

Decoy habits are harmful, I think, because they allow us to pretend to have certain aims or values that we don’t really have. Maybe we don’t want to admit what we really want to do, or maybe two values are in conflict. Ironically, I suspect that if my dinner partner had said, “I don’t intend to exercise,” and accepted the consequences of that habit, he might help convince himself that he should exercise. But by voicing the decoy, by saying, “I plan to start exercising,” he avoided acknowledging his true intentions.

As I said, I’m still pondering this idea. Does it strike a chord with you? Have you recognized this in yourself, or someone else?

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Wende Garrison

    I am not sure this is quite right. I certainly know what you mean. But I think if most people who don’t exercise were honest, they wouldn’t say “I don’t intend to exercise.” They would instead say, “I would like to exercise, but I haven’t been successful in the past and I don’t know how to be successful now. I feel ashamed about it. I don’t know what to do.” That is certainly how I feel. For me, I really want to exercise. I don’t know how to make myself do it. I would really like to know. I would really like to be successful exerciser.

    • Amie


    • Vijay

      As a person who has been in and out of gym – The only way to get you to push yourself is by having a goal in mind and finding a driver, which moves you to the gym everyday.

      For me, spending on an expensive pair o shoes, or a gym membership does the trick. I start using it, for I could not bear the thought of it going to waste.

    • Chris

      start small. walk for 10 min a day or a week or whatever and then add 5 min. or find something you enjoy!

    • Cynthia

      Willpower. And, even willpower is a muscle you have to exercise… The irony is that if you don’t have it, how do you exercise it?

      • I believe we all have willpower, just like we all have biceps muscles, but willpower can lie dormant until we choose to ‘exercise’ it. And it’s much easier when we have a strong desire and purpose – everything comes back to your reason why. I believe it’s much easier to focus your time and the benefits and outcomes and just do it whether you feel like it or not, until you create the habit.
        Sometimes it’s just the power of making a decision. I decided as a teenager I would exercise every day and it’s a non-negotiable for me. Most days since then, 18 years ago, I have. Much easier to make one big decision than lots of little ones every day.
        Now to apply it to other areas of my life, like going to bed earlier!

    • Eve Johnston

      For me, the trick is to not focus on exercising, but on doing things I like. The fact is that most sports and activities are adaptable to people of any age and ability, all you have to do is start., and you will be much more likely to stick with something if you are doing it because it’s fun. So if you haven’t been successful exercising, what are you INTERESTED in? Maybe you could be successful ballroom dancing, ice skating, doing martial arts, yoga, softball, tennis, or surfing, etc. Any activity/sport done regularly will help you become more fit, and most of the time, you won’t even think about the fact that you are exercising, or if you do, it will be done with the motivation of improving your game.

  • Rachael

    I need to eat healthier…and exercise! Oh – and read more. 🙂 I think a good start to getting over the decoy habit is to start! Just 1 day a week and tell someone close to you to keep you accountable. I picked a very easy-to-read book and read it once a week. And I’m asked every so often, by a good friend, “did you do your homework?” It’s refreshing to actually DO something that I’ve been talking about for years. Next up – exercise! Start with just ONE day.

  • That is great! I realized my decoy habit is I should plan better menus and cook better meals. However, I don’t enjoy cooking big meals, at all! So I am changing the habit to say, “I am going to find healthy meal recipes that can be table ready in 30 minutes.”

    • Sarah F

      I have the same ‘decoy habit’ – but I realized part of it for me is I hate grocery shopping, by the time I’ve done it, I don’t feel like cooking anymore. Ordering my groceries online, for the week ahead, really helped me to save the energy I needed to prepare meals at home. It also forced me to plan ahead, so I wasn’t at the store every day after work. There is a small charge for delivery, but when I factor in the time I’m saving, plus the gas to drive to and from the store, I think it balance out.

  • Jerry Marion

    GR…once again, you are right on. I spent too many long hours in discussions with employees about what they intend to do, all to detract from what they were not doing. I wish I had a duck decoy to emphasize the point.

  • KG

    I think this kind of thinking is a real drag on a person because it leads to a constant state of underlying guilt about what is essentially an unmet resolution. I wrestle with this on weight loss – constantly losing and gaining the same 5-10 pounds. At some point I need to decide whether I want to constantly be sort of in the “habit” of needing to lose 5 pounds or decide that my weight is what it is (perfectly healthy) and let it go.

    I read a great marathon training manual that said something along the lines of, when you say “I don’t have time to run” what you’re really saying is “running is not as important to me as something else I’m choosing to do with my time.” Life is choices and it’s probably healthier (and less guilt-inducing) to own your choices than to use a “decoy habit” to pretend to be choosing something you’re not.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, this is the “conflict of values” problem, which is probably often related to a decoy habit (or whatever the term should be!)

    • CES

      This rings true for me. I know that working out would offer positive results, but I am busy and getting back in shape is tough. It’s much easier to flip on a tv show, go online, or even find an alternate project around the house than to get my butt to the gym when I have a few minutes. If I add up all those spare minutes, the time to work out is definitely there; I’m just choosing to do something that seems easier and more comfortable to me. I constantly feel guilty about it and unsatisfied with my appearance, but I tell myself I’m too busy rather than too lazy or unmotivated. I haven’t prioritized working out yet, and untiI do that, I’ll go on deflecting the issue and beating myself up for it later.

      • goddess26

        I used to think I “should’ go the gym…but really for me, I prefer to exercise in ways that I dont’ have to travel to a seperate place. I like to dance around my room to great music; or walk my dog; also with weight lifting exercises or any physical therapy, same thing: I need to have all the equipment here in my house or I wont’ do it.

  • Olivia

    My unrealized habit is meditating. Part of me wants to do it every day because I truly believe it would be good for me (not necessarily because society tells me that I should). And I often say, “I really should meditate more” and/or make it a goal for myself. Yet the stronger (lazier?) side of me almost always wins out and I don’t do it. When it comes down to it, I get stubborn and would rather do something else.

    It’s a fascinating concept and there are a lot of possible overlapping principles in play. For example, I’m an Obliger and have trouble following my own rules. Another angle is Jonathan Haight’s elephant and rider metaphor – in this case, my elephant is totally winning out. This is concept is also described in detail in Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers (btw, Gretchen, if you haven’t read this yet, you would LOVE it).

    • gretchenrubin

      I LOVE Made to Stick and in fact just read the Heaths’ new book, DECISIVE which is also terrific.

      If you’re an Obliger, can you set up a system of external accountability for meditation? Ask a friend to check up on you periodically, join a class, try to serve as a role model for someone else, etc.

  • Marie

    Hm, I know what you are talking about but agree that “decoy habit” might not be the precise term. What about “roadblock resolution”? To me, these situations seem to indicate that the person is considering pursuing a goal or taking some action, but there is some roadblock in the way (psychological, time, energy, etc.) that makes them hesitate to actually start pursuing this action. They can see why the end result would be beneficial, but can’t get the car in motion to get there.

    • gretchenrubin

      GREAT suggestion. Love it.

  • Job applications. I’ve been in the same company for 6 years (different jobs) and know it’s time to move on. I’m a friend to change. I talk about doing them, but don’t… because I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Help!

    • Kristen

      All I can say is you are not alone. I’ve been in the same job for about 3 years, and all I can do is dream about doing anything else, starting with an overdue vacation. Beyond that, I have no idea what I want to do with the rest of my life. Or even the next piece of my life. Yay indecision!

  • Marissa

    I can really relate to this. I always make a list of resolutions for the new year, and this year I think I was a bit overzealous and thought I could work on every single area of my life at once. Several of my resolutions are things that a “perfect” adult would do, but me… never. I’m trying to focus on what comes naturally, rather than forcing myself to work on 8 other things that’ll just bring more stress than contentment.

  • KatieB

    I like the name “decoy habit.”

    The hardest part with a decoy habit is figuring out if it is just a mimic of someone else’s values to ignore your real values OR if it is just a way to stall out on actually living what you really want to do.

    I remember in my early twenties on a job application putting that I liked to hike, cook, and write as my hobbies…even though I didn’t do those things at all. Saying I wanted to though helped to see myself how I wanted to be and motivated me. I am now an AVID cook and hiker. Not writer…yet.

    Nagging inside me is my desire/value to create through writing. The perfect is the enemy of the good in this case. Maybe this is more like a “stalled habit.”

    I want to garden and have a beautifully landscaped yard that I tend to, but I haven’t done it. My parents are avid gardeners and maybe this is a “decoy habit.”

    My husband always reminds me to just do the things I am longing to do and not talk about them. I find this is so true regarding eating right and exercise. When I am doing it, I don’t talk about it. When I am not, I talk about it all the time.

    • gretchenrubin

      Such good points. This is much more complex than I realized, lots going on with this kind of situation.

    • Brie

      Exactly! I never realized it until recently. But in high school I always identified myself as being with the artsy kids crowd even though I never really drew or painted in my free time. It was just a vision I had of myself that I wanted to be true.

  • Sarah T

    Motivational Interviewing is a great way to decipher what a person is REALLY willing to do.
    This book is great for explaining the process.

    • gretchenrubin

      Fascinating book! I want to go back to it, great suggestion.

  • KCDebi

    This reminds me of a line I love from the Kenneth Branagh movie Dead Again. In a small role, Robin Williams plays a disgraced former psychiatrist who, in dicussing someone who’s trying to quit smoking, says “Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There’s no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that. If you’re a nonsmoker, you’ll know.”

  • This reminded me of Derek Sivers TED talk “Keep your goals to yourself.”

    Very deep implications.

  • peninith1

    I find the term enticing, but I’m not really sure whether it captures the situation.

    The DECOYs are the words “I want” and “I wish”. Those are real feelings, but they are not ACTIONS. My grandmother had a chilly saying that covered the situation: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Only actions can get us out of the rut–those ‘I wish’ and ‘I want’ statements are the decoys, whatever habit they’re attached to. And I myself am guilty of a lot of decoy talk. It’s meant to get ME off the hook with myself, not to deceive anyone else.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, maybe these are “wistful habits.” Wanting to do it seems like a step in the right direction.

    • And “I should”.

  • I have been saying for several years that I’m going to learn Spanish, and have even made a few short-lived attempts at doing so, but thinking about it in these terms makes it sound suspsiciously like a decoy habit….

  • AR

    It resonates with me, about clearing clutter, learning a language or taking a class. It does seem to be about internal conflict, almost as though there’s a feeling if we do it and fail then it’s better than not doing it at all? Our reason for doing is not going to be compelling enough – we don’t make it urgent or a life-dependent so we have no real incentive to follow through with it.

  • Linda

    Love quilts and have friends who really enjoy quilting so for 2-3 years “planned ” to learn. Don’t sew and don’t like too. Read an article re cleaning out home, mind etc. may have been you Gretchen. In any case, it said, give up the project. It’s gone from my mind now – just need to give away a few beginner patterns I bought. Feel free and clear of that one.

  • Tina Bushman

    I would love thoughts on “procrastination habits”. Habits or projects we start to put off starting ones that really should be more important.

  • LMR

    A “decoy” is used to lure someone into something. Maybe the person at your dinner party is trying to lure himself into the new habit because he feels “forty pounds overweight, … puffy and uncomfortable.” Given your observations of his physique, encouragement would have been appropriate.

  • Michael M

    I’ve been looking for a term to describe “plans” that aren’t followed. Sometimes we can avoid conflict or criticism by having a plan that doesn’t have much effort behind it. I call it a “window dressing” plan, but “decoy” plan is a good term. A plan without a “program” is worthless or even worse than useless. The opposite of the “decoy” plan is the “default” plan, what we’re really doing while we’re talking about how great the decoy is. This isn’t just true for individuals; it’s true of organizations, too.
    In order to have a real plan to, say, “Learn German,” would entail a program that answers hard questions like, where can I take a class, how much will it cost, when will I start, with whom will I practice, and when will I visit Austria?” I’ve been doing this stuff for two years, and let me tell you, there’s a good reason people have decoy plans. Real plans are a lot more work with much more imperfect results compared to the fantasy of speaking German!

    • gretchenrubin

      So true.

  • CPJC

    I call mine “DELUDED RESOLUTIONS.” I’ve been wanting to train to build up to 10-miles because there’s this race that I want to participate in as part of my bucket list And I just don’t have the time…I do go to the gym and run a bit and am generally quite fit – but building up my mileage just didn’t fit with the spare time in my life. I had this resolution on my list for 3-years. Finally around February of this year – I realized that running this race was going to fall off my list for now until something changed in my life that I would have time to build up the mileage. It feels so much better to have dispensed with this delusion!

    • gretchenrubin

      As another commenter pointed out, this is related to “Abandon a project.” Such a relief!

  • CPJC

    Also, maybe DECOY is about distracting yourself and saying the problem is A when the problem really is B. For the overweight man in the post – maybe the problem really is a structuring his time well so that he is devoting his energies to the priorities in his life and work. The fact that he can’t find time for exercise is only a decoy suggesting that maybe he also can’t find time for other priorities that are more important to him than exercise. BTW – to lose weight – I would say the effort is 90% dietary and 10% exercise.

    • gretchenrubin

      Very interesting points.

  • Audra Houston

    I think this is a great observation. I like the term “decoy habit” as well. When I recall past experiences talking to a person when they express what sounds like a DH, it ofthen creates an awkward moment for me. I find myself carefully calculating whether I should consider this a call for help and dive in further with a probing question or two or whether this person would react to questions with defensiveness. I consider myself pretty open-minded so I appreciate it when people have the courage to be real with me and take a chance to go deeper, but I find that most people don’t seem to appreciate queries that go beyond small talk. Now that Gretchen has brought this up to the popular consciousness, perhaps we may evolve a bit and be able to have more real, intimate, and present exchanges with one another.

  • Excellent article, Gretchen. Equally excellent comments, Readers.

  • Kate

    I have read that sharing goals (I didn’t watch the TED talk someone else posted below, but I’m betting, based on the title, it is about this same thing) can actually lead to a false feeling of having already achieved the goal. I know I’m certainly guilty of that in regards to the old office candy bowl which I have loudly and publicly sworn off of many time, once even on social media, just to be eating from it four hours later.
    I think proclaiming a goal gives one a sense of identity around it. I.e., if I say I’m a runner, and I read some articles about running, and buy a pair of running shoes, then hey! I’m a runner. Even if the person hasn’t run a quarter-mile yet.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is so so interesting. I’ve seen research going both ways on this question.

      I suspect that people respond in two opposite ways: either announcing the resolution makes them MORE likely to keep it, or LESS likely to keep it–so it’s important to know what camp you’re in!

      For instance, a friend who is trying to drink less says it’s very helpful to her to tell people that she’s doing that, so that she feels external accountability. But as you point out, for some people, they feel, ‘Well, I’m on the record about this, so one extra glass of wine tonight is fine.”

      I also once had a roommate who felt that buying the yoga mat made her a “person who does yoga.” Ditto roller-blades.

      I think I will post about this, to see if that’s the case! That people have opposite responses.

      • Jennifer2

        I think it depends on whether the person has a sincerely held goal or a decoy goal. Let’s say the person wants to start running because the actually really want to participate in a charity race or they really want to get in shape and they always liked running when they were younger or whatever. But ultimately, they actually want to run. Saying it out loud helps them be accountable. Others will ask how their training is going. They will remember they told everyone the were training for that race on the morning they don’t feel like running, and it will push them to get out and run. On the other hand, if they have an insincere or “decoy” goal, maybe what the really want is to be perceived as being a runner. Or they kind of wish they were more athletic or skinnier or whatever quality they think runners have, but they don’t actually want to run. Then making it public may simply be a way to try to fit that image. Tell people about your plans to run, buy some running shoes and shorts and an iPod holding armband, and you are set. You look the part. You have actually achieved your goal – look like a runner. Then there’s the person who perhaps is overweight and knows they should exercise more but really doesn’t have any desire to do so. Maybe their health is fine. Maybe they actually do get some exercise and don’t want to do more. But they feel pressure from outside sources to exercise to lose weight. They will state that they plan to start running, buy all the clothes just like the “decoy goal” person above. But if they don’t actually lose any weight, they know others will question their commitment to the goal. So they come up with excuses (“I’m too busy.” “The weather has been bad.” “As soon as this injury heals.”) to conceal the fact that they don’t really intend to run.

  • TJ

    Hmm, by calling it a “decoy” habit, Gretchen, you seem to imply that the intention (to exercise, finish writing phd, etc.) is not real. I believe the intention is there, but so is the great onus of being perfect too. It’s really more a matter of expectations. If one were honest with oneself, perhaps, our expectations would be lower (“it’s ok that I don’t weight 110 pounds”) and we would feel better about ourselves. The desire to be a better person or pick up habits that would improve ourselves is not what is to blame here. I think it’s the shame, guilt, high expectations (from ourselves and others too), perfectionism, self-loathing, etc. that get in the way to implementing our goals.

    • gretchenrubin

      You’ve put your finger on the essential question to ask ourselves: do I REALLY want to do this? or am I saying this to appease other people, or to meet a societal expectation, or because we’re uncomfortable with some aspects of ourselves…

      • Don’t lose the bit here about expectations. Either what I think “everyone” expects but also the question that incites a bit more ‘a-ha’: that my expectations are too high. A reach that’s too great frustrates. After a decade of telling myself I need to exercise, I finally was able to make progress by both lowering my expectations and making much smaller goals.

  • Radar

    Yes! A doctor told me I need to go to the hot pools for my chronic pain (we have hot springs here). I said I agreed with everything he said, that it would be helpful and the water feels great, etc; but I knew that I wouldn’t do it because of the hassle of the whole after the hot springs routine…shower, shampoo, the pools icky changing rooms, etc. When I was actually honest with him about the fact that I wasn’t going to do it even though I knew he was right it was like he didn’t know what to do. So, I think others decoy us too.

    • gretchenrubin

      Interesting! By going along with a decoy habit proposed by others who are tasked with helping us, in a way, we let them off the hook. We don’t say, “That’s not realistic, not going to happen, so what’s Option B?”

  • lyzki

    good fun, you can use in everyday life 🙂

  • linny24

    As I read the comments, it strikes me that there is a difference between 1) what we really want/intend to do and struggle to do, and 2) what we don’t really want/intend to do, but feel we should. The man Gretchen met at the dinner party didn’t say that he wanted to exercise or that he intended to develop a workout schedule–he said “I SHOULD exercise.”

    I often say, “I’m should become a vegetarian.” Many people around me are vegetarian, I understand the health benefits associated with vegetarianism, I eat more vegetarian meals than I used to–but I don’t think that I really intend to ever be a vegetarian. I think I say it because I think that I should want to become a vegetarian, because it seems like something that good, healthy people do. But not me. I should just quit saying it.

    Because the term refers to something we think we should do, but don’t ever do, I wonder if it’s more of a “decoy goal” than a “decoy habit.”

    Love the concept!

    • gretchenrubin

      Very important distinction.

      You’re right, these are two very different kinds of situations.

      One is to mollify ourselves or others; one is because somehow we haven’t been able to take action toward something we really want.
      May look the same from the outside, but VERY different within.

  • Kathryn

    I agree with KG and Katie B, this is more of a wished resolution and can create such a drag. It’s not a real habit, it’s a desire to be different. Perhaps what he really means is “I want to be a person who wants to exercise.” Every day he thinks, another day I didn’t exercise, another day I failed at being the kind of person I wanted to be. I used to say “I’m going to do more sewing,” but what I meant was “I wish I wanted to sew more.” Now I tell myself “I don’t really enjoy sewing the way my mom does; oh well” and someday I’ll stop telling myself anything about it at all.

    It reminds me, Gretchen, of a post you wrote once about walking through an airport on your way to a conference and feeling just like “the kind of person who goes to conferences” or something like that. So often we want to be “the kind of people who…” without realizing that doing X is all it takes to make us the kind of person who does X.

    or does this also relate to “you can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do”? Hmmm.

    • gretchenrubin

      YES. All these things are tied together, you are so right. I hadn’t made those connections.

      • Anj

        This has reminded me of something from the Happiness Project – you can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want.

  • Nichole P

    It’s a desire to be different without being honest about what you ACTUALLY want or do which is to not exercise, keep drinking coffee, etc. I think that people usually hold decoy habits very near & dear to their hearts because while they think they really want or need them, there is some element of fear or comfort preventing them from doing what they need to do to make the change. For instance, I sometimes think that I would love to give up coffee, but I love coffee. I need coffee. I crave the ritual, the smell, the occasional caffeine rush, the warm mug, and I am also scared of losing all of those things if I stop drinking it. No matter how satisfying a replacement habit is, I worry that the comfort I get from my replacement habit will never match that of my deep seated ritual coffee drinking.

  • It’s a real thing without a doubt. I don’t think of them as decoy habits personally as much as I feel they are “imposed values”. While conventional wisdom or society may have us feeling something is a part of us or should be a part of us, as soon as it’s “I should” you’re creating an obligation that at least in some people including myself can cause resentment or obligation with negative feelings. If a trait is something you believe is desirable for you to include or evolve towards, I believe you need to convince yourself at a deeper level until the “I should” becomes “I want” or “I need” but with your own reasons and justfications attached. Start by understanding the desired trait and trying it. Work with it. Seek guidance on it. But if you can’t convert someone else’s desire for you into your own desire, you are unlikely to every create the drive to change a habit or create a habit.

  • Nichole P

    how about “liar, liar, pants on fire” habits?

    PS. TOTALLY KIDDING, people! don’t freak out 🙂

    • Doctor Who said this very phrase to Clara in a recent episode. Hadn’t heard it since grade school and it makes me laugh. Thanks. 🙂

  • Shannon

    It seems to me that some of these “decoy habits” might actually be a protection mechanism. I love what a few other posters brought up about shame and self loathing. The guy you talked to KNOWS he’s forty pounds overweight, doesn’t look healthy and those closest to him tell him that frequently. More than likely he has a lot of shame surrounding it. Perhaps by telling you that he should exercise is a way for him to cut you off from judging him for it too (not YOU specifically, Gretchen, but you as a societal entity.) Brene Brown has several excellent books on shame and shame resilience.

    • Lynne

      Funny – I thought the same thing when I read it – most likely because it’s the sort of thing I do. I don’t do it to get people off my back, or to draw attention to what is probably already on their mind, but in a weird kind of way the intent is to simply acknowledge the white elephant in the room so they can mentally move on and see ME.

    • I think there’s something in what you say Shannon, though I also think it can FEEL like we’re protecting ourselves in the way you describe when what we’re really doing is projecting our own judgements onto the person we’re talking to. Because I think I should do something and that I’m bad for not doing it, I fear that’s what you think. So I speak in this way to protect myself from your (hypthetical) judgement. The danger is that, by doing so, I avoid dealing with my own judgements (which might lead to me taking action).

  • Focus Services

    Nice article. Its like saying it but all words no action.

  • Debbie M

    When I first read “decoy habit,” it made me think of default habits I have that I do when I have some spare time but that aren’t as important to me as some other things. So I might surf the web, when really it’s more important to catch up on the dishes. So I don’t like that term. But I think there are several situations that could fit the description you’ve given, so I think you might need several terms.

    One I’d call the peer-pressure promise. This is where you or the people around you think you should be different in some way, but you don’t really want to. Maybe this is two issues–one where you realize you don’t want it and you’re just saying that to keep from arguing with others (the peer-pressure promise). And one is where you don’t realize it (the delusion habit).

    One is where you’d like to be different, but only if you could change magically or easily. For example, my brother would like to be able to play the piano, but he doesn’t want to LEARN to play the piano. I would like to be fluent in several languages, but my real (long-term) goal is probably just to become as good as an eight year old in Spanish and ASL. I also learn a few basic things (pronunciation, numbers, please and thank you, etc.) when traveling to a foreign country.

    One is where you’d like to be different, but you like other things more. So you’d like to keep the house mopped, but you’d rather keep the fridge full. You’d like to exercise, but you’d rather get in quality smootching time.

    One is where you’d like to be different and you’re willing to do the work and make it a priority, but first you have to figure out what to stop doing to make time or you have to figure out where to start. So you keep just going about your days like normal instead of carving out a space to make a change. In this case, you might need to sign up for a class, wake up early, or make an appointment (with a friend, or a professional, or just add it to your calendar). Or you might need to decide, I need to just write something for 30 minutes a day. Or I need to just start by walking around the block after dinner. Once you think of a way to add it to your life and start, you could be golden.

    But my biggest problem is the spoiled brat goals. Or maybe a better way to look at it is goals that don’t feel closely tied to the actions needed to achieve those goals. For example, I sometimes put off brushing my teeth until I’m so tired that I convince myself that going to bed right now is more important. But if someone asked me how important it was for me to keep all of my teeth (as my new dentist asked me on one of her forms), the answer is that it is very important. If I could actually feel my teeth falling out, but brushing them immediately cemented them back in, brushing would be much easier to keep up with! Other examples: to keep from panting while running up the stairs, you have to pant on purpose on a regular basis. To stay slim, you have to moderate calories. To stay child-free, you need birth control or to abstain. How easy is it to think nonsequitur thoughts like “these brownies are so delicious that I might not be able to zip my pants one day soon”? And it really stank finding out where meat comes from. Not to mention twinkies. And sweat-shop made goods. It’s hard to really imagine that cheeseburgers might be less humane than hummus–both are so delicious.

    In sum, I think you could use several names: peer pressure promises, delusional/liar, liar pants-on-fire goals, wishes, low-priority goals, need-a-new-habit goals, and disjointed/spoiled brat goals. Plus any other ones I’m forgetting about.

    • gretchenrubin

      Very thought-provoking. You’re right, there are many different versions of this, important to figure them out.

    • That’s an important distinction. Some of us have magical thinking — we want to be rich, but not work to attain wealth; play the piano, but not learn to play; and so on.

  • Randee Bulla

    I think decoy habits are essentially someone saying that somebody or some organization wants them to do something, but they themselves don’t actually want to. If you really want to do it, you will, regardless of the obstacles because you will always find time and resources for what your top priorities are. But in the example you gave of this person, they are not owning it. They are broadcasting what the expectations of others are, but that they just don’t want to. The habit is something that they are not, at least at the current time. For example, you don’t want to do yoga. Because you are comfortable being Grechen, you aren’t going to probably ever say that you should probably do yoga. You won’t be guilty not doing it, nor will you think about it or come up with reasons why you can’t. It’s not you and you’re not doing it. If this person was honest and just owned who they were, they would just say they weren’t going to do it, not come up with excuses.

  • Annoyed

    I find the way you write about the overweight man to be condescending and a bit distasteful. Who are you to decide who “should” exercise? It sounds like his comment was a preemptive strike against the judgment he felt from you regarding his weight.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m sorry to hear that I came across that way. My focus here is not on the issue of the EXERCISE per se, at all, but the attitude of mind toward the exercise. It could be any habit that a person wants to adopt…waking up early, making steadier progress on a Ph.D., going to sleep earlier, etc. The problem arises, it seems to me, when what people say they intend to do doesn’t match up with how they seem like they really want to act. I’m trying to figure THAT out.

      • Wende Garrison

        I agree. I have been reading your blogs and books for years and always find your posts insightful. I usually respond very well to your advice, which is why I read everything you write.
        But I have to agree with “Annoyed”. I was surprised that I found this post to be very shaming and condescending.
        Quite frankly, you have no idea what is going on for this man.
        It really made me NOT want to read what you write.
        This makes me really sad as I have loved all your writing up until this one. :-(((
        Is there any way you could write a follow up post to clarify?
        I hate feeling this icky about what you wrote.
        Also, “decoy habit” seems to be a misnomer. Wouldn’t a decoy habit be something you are doing that looks like something else?
        Saying you should exercise to a stranger at a party isn’t a habit. ???
        I am missing something in your naming choice.

        • gretchenrubin

          I didn’t tell him to exercise, or even encourage him to exercise. I pointed out that it sounded like he didn’t want to exercise. He said he thought he should exercise. I’m interested in why people do or don’t do the things they “want” to do, or say they want to do—or not.
          I agree, “decoy” isn’t quite the right term. I was trying to get at the idea that sometimes the idea that we should want to do something blinds us, or distracts us, or fools us, into not understanding what’s real.

          • I believe the term is rationalization for what’s going on. He rationalizes why he can’t exercise. But I get why you used decoy as it acts as a target for people’s nosiness about your business so they don’t get to attack you.

          • This is a fascinating post and discussion. But I don’t think saying “I should exercise” is the same thing as “I want to exercise” or, even, “I don’t want to exercise.” Lots of studies, society, etc. tell us what we SHOULD do. It seems like he’s reflecting that, and, I agree, deep down he doesn’t want to. I get that. 😀

          • Kathryn

            I wonder if people’s negative reactions to Gretchen’s example really are more about how we as a society feel about weight. The example used about weight/exercise should carry no more emotional burden than if she’d used an example about someone saying they should go for a higher paying job rather than stay in a comfortable spot…or to quit watching reality tv. Those are more socially palatable topics. But the lesson is the same.

          • Ellen Monheit

            I know someone who uses the “should” word way too frequently, and I tend to agree with you that it is a decoy or a tool to fool himself into believing that his reasoning makes sense. Deep down he recognizes the truth, and is ashamed, and he continues to reinforce his negative behaviour, whereby he never accomplishes much. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy as to his failure and negativity.

        • quite happy

          Oh, come on! If you read what she wrote, that wasn’t the point. And, she was simply being honest in saying that he needed to lose some weight – everyone can tell that, it isn’t a judgment on the person’s value, simply acknowledging reality.

  • Such an interesting habit to note! I definitely feel as if I’ve seen this habit in other people, and unfortunately sometimes in myself, but interpreted it in a different manner. To me, the habit of professing to change one ways in an unintended manner is being fake and inauthentic. When people don’t know what they want, or why they want it, that’s when the decoy habit seems to pop up. Definitely interested to hear more observations on the subject!

  • Kristen

    This one struck a major chord with me (and judging by the number of comments, a lot of others too). However, I don’t think the decoy in this story is the exercise habit, I think it is TALKING ABOUT the exercise habit. I say that mostly because I’m a lot like that guy–overweight, constantly talking and thinking about how I need and “want” to exercise and lose weight, and never actually taking the steps to do it. Not long term steps, anyhow. And I really do want to do something about my weight. I know that exercise is one piece of that puzzle, and if I can find something I enjoy doing/commit to/whatever, then this will become a real habit. But I’ve been talking about it for so long that inaction and indecision are the norm. I’ve even sat down and figured out what the obstacles are for me personally, and it hasn’t helped. Since I’m still struggling, I don’t know what the answer is, but if I ever figure it out, I’ll let you know.

    And what the others are saying about this sort of habit carrying a lot of shame with it is very, very true.

    I do a similar thing with “cleaning” type habits. “I’ll clean up the kitchen every day. Starting tomorrow.” And it gets so bad that I don’t want anyone to see my kitchen.

    • gretchenrubin

      These kind of issues are EXACTLY what I’m going to tackle in my next book.

      • peninith1

        somebody in another post brought up the ‘elephant and rider’ metaphor–our rider (conscious will) not really being in control of our elephant (unconscious or emotional energy). I wonder if this division is part of the two conflicting goals issue, and of the not being able to stay in charge issue? Our ‘rider’ is talk talk talking about that decoy, meanwhile our elephant keeps crashing along through the jungle doing just what it wants to do!

      • Rachel May

        There is a school of thought that says everything we do has a payoff.

        I’m not going to talk about whether the man should exercise, is overweight, or whether you were judgmental about his weight. His weight or willingness to exercise does not matter in the global perspective. Although, if the man is overweight, it may be causing him health problems, possibly self-image challenges (in our current culture that says you can never be too thin or too rich) and may possibly shorten his life (the negative. His potential cost for not exercising). On the other hand, he now has more time to sleep or do some other activity that he finds pleasure in, especially if the idea of doing exercise is unpleasant for him (the positive. I’ll say his payoff for not exercising). I also wanted to add that various studies show conflicting results. Some studies show that extra padding is protectively healthy as long as it does not border on obesity. You didn’t say how old the man was. But, according to Anthony Fauci’s research (2008), “Metabolic syndrome affects 44% of the U.S. population older than age 50. With respect to that demographic, the percentage of women having the syndrome is higher than that of men. The age dependency of the syndrome’s prevalence is seen in most populations around the world” He may think that all the hours of his perceived drudgery to outmaneuver the inevitable may just be too high a price to pay.”

        His benefit of being able to do something else during the hours he would spend exercising may compute to more of an advantage for him. I would venture to guess that this is the case, whether he consciously says or knows this or feels comfortable admitting it to others.

    • Anne

      Thank you Kristen. I am also overweight and like others in this blog a yo-yo dieter. My resolve this year was to change some diet habits and find one exercise that I really enjoy – aqua aerobics. Due to work, at the moment it is once a week but this week I also attended a Zumba class and have made a commitment to that as well. Baby steps. People say just get out and walk, mine is to walk faster whereever I am – the mall, going to an appointment, though it is lovely to stroll when in a park and smell the roses.

  • Kareem

    I definitely have this. I announce my intention to stop smoking shisha (the Arabic water pipe) but I don’t really intend to. I completely recognize its harm and awful consequences, and I tell people I should quit it, but I find myself going to the cafe regularly to smoke, to be around other people, to relax after work or exercise.

  • s_ifat

    oh what a fascinationg subject habits… it’s endless. i just bought “the power of habit by charles duhigg, would love to hear more from you on that topic

  • Emkub

    Absolutely! It’s a way of placating that little voice inside of you that’s nagging you to do something you know you should but don’t really want to do.

  • peninith1

    A further thought–this whole discussion is summed up in St. Paul’s words: “what I would, I do not; what I would not, that I do.”

    In other words it is part of our broken human condition that we are full of intentions we don’t fulfill, and equally full of (opposite) behaviors that we wish we could control, but can’t seem to. This is a powerful and ancient dilemma, and reaches very deep into our feelings of shame and wrong about our wasted potentials and bad behavior.

    • gretchenrubin


      I love that quotation.

  • Melanie Crouse

    Yes! I just discovered this tendency in me last week, and discovering it has already made such a difference in my life. I have been trying to lose weight for years without success. I just couldn’t seem to stop myself from eating. I finally realized it was because my subconscious believed me whenever I said, “I’ll eat chocolate again sometime, but not for a long, long time.” It would panic, and soon I would be eating a candybar…etc. etc. Everytime I started a diet, I would gain about 5 pounds.

    So I’m UNdieting right now. I let myself eat whatever I want to, and while it wouldn’t work for everybody, it is working for me. Now that I know I have permission to have that bowl of ice cream whenever I want to–I don’t really want to. I’m eating less. I don’t know if it’s enough less to LOSE weight, although I suspect it is. But that’s not the point. I’m breaking a cycle that has had a devastating impact on my health and on my self-esteem.

    So I think the other commenters who point out that the man may be lost in an abyss of not knowing how to get started probably have it right. I don’t know what I would do in his case, except tell myself that even five minutes of exercise a week is better than nothing. Because you need a foundation to build on, even if it’s small. The act of starting is the hardest.

  • Nice article. Same here, many plans but no action. The video on 10 ways to be happier at home is so sweet 🙂

  • Maxi

    This reminds me of previous entry on the Happiness Project blog not so long ago and I can’t recall what it was called (and would like to reread it) – can anyone help me out here?

    It was about actions one does that are a signal that you’re in trouble but don’t recognize it yet. – a habitual “red flag” behavior (but that wasn’t what Gretchen called it) that is symptomatic that you need to take a closer look at what you are doing right then.

    This decoy habit strike me as closely allied – when you find yourself making statements about your desire to do things you are NOT doing – watch out! Red alert! Why aren’t you – what’s the conflict? But what was the original descriptive term she used?

    • Jenya08
    • gretchenrubin

      I think you’re remembering a post about “broken windows”:

      Or as a reader pointed out, the “tells”

      • Maxi

        YES! Broken Windows! That’s it. thanks Gretchen. Since reading that entry I have frequently caught myself doing something that I knew was a sign I was on a slippery slope into to trouble. A decoy habit – repeated saying I going to do stuff that I DON’T is another warning sign something’s going on below the surface.

        Like I find I repeatedly tell myself I am going to be nicer to X and then still being mean. Why? On one level, intending it probably makes me feel I am actually BEING nicer to them. but now if I look deeper I am seeing I am in fact mad at them, and if I am completely honest a little afraid of them too. OK, that is something I can work on – and another good “shorthand” term to give me insight into my behavior.

  • peninith1

    This is sure thought provoking . . . another aspect of this is that we should NOTICE our ‘decoy habits’ or ‘unfulfilled resolutions’ because they are fire siren level signals to us about ‘what is not right in our lives.’ I do not make resolutions not to gamble for example, I will never, never need to resolve to eat enough to stay healthy. Those might well be ‘decoy resolutions’ for a compulsive gamer or a person who suffers from anorexia. The person more or most in trouble, I guess, is the person who has some terrible habit and has NO signals to himself or others that there is a change waiting to be implemented. That’s part of why I think ‘decoy’ is not exactly the right word here–these are more like the cries of a weak and drowning conscience than like false signals.

  • Should we always be happy? Should we sacrifice others or our health for our own happiness?

  • And, maybe if he did this unhappy thing and lost weight, he would be happier.

  • Sarah F

    I recently went to a workshop on motivational interviewing/change-talk. I think this really applies here. Often there are things we want to/know we should do, but, possibly due to unsuccessful previous attempts, we talk ourselves out of it. For example this fellow said, “I don’t have time, and I travel so much. It’s really not feasible for me. Also my knee bothers me.” His self-talk/what he is hearing, is reinforcing that he can’t do it. The key with change-talk is getting the person to shift the way they talk about it so that they can see/hear how it can be done. For example, if this fellow had been asked questions that led to to reach a change talk state he might have said something like, “I really enjoy swimming, it doesn’t bother my knees and I’ve been successful at doing it regularly in the past” or “I know I could exercise more, I’ve done it before”.
    I think it also ties closely to your line “identify the problem” – what is truly holding you back from doing what you think you should do. In our hearts, we know the truth, that is obvious from previous commenters. But rather than continually saying to ourselves “I can’t…” Or “I don’t want to change because …”. We need to change our self talk into how we “can “, IF it is something that we truly know in our hearts that we want to change.
    Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I also currently have a decoy habit that I need to determine the truth about (do I really want to do it?), identify the problem that is holding me back, and then change the way I am talking to myself about it.

  • Joe Snowdon

    I have learned from a group of people to call the urge to beat my self up with all the things I “should” do & not do “shoulding” all over myself. It looks like a decoy or a white lie because I’m not doing what I declare I want. But it’s not really. It’s a whip for lacking the discipline to align myself with the health I deserve. It takes courage, openness & honesty to stop shoulding on myself and tell the truth about the blocks created by north what is up and my current sense of generosity to give myself and honor what I genuinely need to manifest as the spectacular human I could be. When I should on myself I am small & diminishing myself more. When I am brave I tell the truth, but that can be very raw, vulnerable, exposed. Easier to have that coffee I “should” stop drinking.

  • Diane

    Wow, this sure hit a lot of us right where it hurt.

    I’m not sure decoy is the right word for me and my habits but I do have two fairly simple and enjoyable things I would like to be able to do and end up feeling guilty about when I do not do them. Yet sometimes I Just Will Not Do it. It is almost like the “obligation” to do them prevents me from doing them.

    Or maybe it is that I feel deep down I will never really be good at it so why bother.

  • pjd

    Oh yes…I see and hear this often. I have never really understood why one would say something and NOT follow through. (Can you tell I’m also an upholder???) Recently, I had a friend say to me, “I really want to be married.” I saw no evidence of this in his life and responded, “Why don’t you do something proactive about it?” He just looked at me with a blank stare…

    Don’t know that I would call it a decoy habit…perhaps ‘insincere intentions’…although it may simply be a step in the right direction of making a change.

  • Ruth

    Gretchen, you might also be interested in the transtheoretical model of change: This suggests that the first two stages of change are precontemplation (before one even thinks about making a change) and contemplation (the stage where one thinks about making a change). When people say things like this, maybe what they’re really doing is expressing the fact that they’re in one of those stages of change.

    • Catic15

      I just posted a comment about something similar – the difference between saying “I should” and “I’m going to” or “I will”. But I also think there’s a value judgement here, and a perception of external vs. internal control.

  • serwis klimatyzacji

    interesting article, I will use it in your paper…

  • Leah Day

    I like the name “lazy desire” a bit better than decoy habit. It’s not a habit because the person clearly doesn’t do the thing, it’s not a decoy because it’s not usually in hiding. It’s a desire a person has – that guy clearly does desire to lose the weight and he clearly knows there’s a problem – but he’s just too darn lazy to do it!

    Of course it makes you uncomfortable – you see things you want to change and you immediately act to change. This guy sees something he wants to change and is too lazy to make any move to fix it. I get not only uncomfortable around people like this, I get downright angry. I absolutely can’t watch any of the “hoarders” shows because they make me crazy at all the laziness I see. Get up and DO something people! Yep, I start yelling and I’m just thinking about that show. lol!

  • Jenya08

    I agree with others who’ve said this goes back to your post about “two values in conflict.” The man you met wants to be healthier, but he also wants to be comfortable in the moment. Exercising when you’re overweight can be quite uncomfortable, and not just for the first outing. Underneath, he could be worrying about spraining an ankle or even having a heart attack or stroke if he overdoes it.

    So many people are “all talk, no action” and for good reason. Change is hard and the results are unknown and never guaranteed. The fantasy of becoming thin, publishing a novel, whatever, is usually much better than the actual reality of working hard but remaining chunky, never getting a pub deal, etc.

  • Brian

    “Pondering” (duck “pond”) great writer… enJOY your post

  • ScarlettK

    No wonder there are so many comments… it’s such a relevant topic, so easy to relate to. You’ve inspired me to start my own blog. 🙂

  • Daniele Nicola

    As Shannon say, it might be a protection mechanism, I believe that insecurity is playing a major role in this case probably for the fact that we are used to care so much about what other people (and the society in general) think about us and the choices we make…

    But generally the “I don’t have the time” excuse, fits just perfectly when we don’t feel to be honest with ourselves 🙂 , at the end, finding the time to do something is simply a matter of prioritisation.

  • serwis klimatyzacji

    interesting question, I have to analyze…

  • elektryk

    interesting question, a lot of entries…

  • peninith1

    Here is something this post provoked me to remember as it plucked at my conscience all day yesterday and today.
    I feel like I have an ‘inner automaton’ or as if I have a ruthlessly heedless self that simply ignores everything my mind is saying to it (“exercise! lose weight!” in my case).

    Just one example: JUST AS I watched operatic soprano Natalie Dessay, a tiny, lean, muscular woman of 40+ who not only sings, but can dance and move with complete ease, found myself admiring and envying her physical fitness as well as her singing, listened to her talk about her 23-year habit of 1.5 hours of yoga a day…my mindless automaton self munched right through a high-calorie snack that I absolutely did not need.
    Now to me, it is not the ‘decoy habit’ that is my real enemy or the thing that needs to be addressed and conquered. It is that inner automaton that robotically keeps on with the bad habits that I really and truly know that I NEED and WANT and WISH to overcome, even though I can’t seem to consistently summon up the behavior. It is as if the robot will is in control instead of my rational will. This is not an excuse–it’s just a description. I bet others experience this too.

  • Mayalessov

    As entrepreneur Derek Sivers points out in one of his TED talks, “decoy habits” are decoys because they make the speaker’s mind feel as if he or she has halfway completed the task. When you announce your positive intentions to others, you are usually celebrated as a laudable enthusiast. This satisfies brain circuits associated with your desire and makes you less likely to accomplish it. As Derek and the research he sites say, if you want to get something done, keep your mouth shut about it.
    Thanks for spurring this reflection.

  • Bob Agard
  • Karen

    I like this coming after the post about one needful thing. He doesn’t need to be judged or shamed or sat down by his wife or kids. I feel so sorry for him and know he is really many of us. Maybe he can’t quite imagine how to go about the gargantuan task of losing 40 lbs. Maybe he needs help or a friend in the same boat to go about this big task with. Maybe exercising for him is a “wishful habit” right now. He wishes he were already comfortable with the exercise habit so that he would appear normal or successful to others.

  • Shari

    I wonder if this relates to “Be Gretchen” and ” I can choose what I do, but not what I like to do.” Often times I find myself thinking that I “should” do something. I almost convince myself that I would really enjoy doing it or would be better off if I did it. The problem is that I really don’t want to do it, because it’s really not me. I sometimes find a sense of restlessness or disappointment in myself when I don’t measure up to these ideals.

  • Liz M

    I wonder how the conversation would go if you had shifted it to what the guy’s vision of a future would be.

    The “I should” statements are about avoidance – avoiding heart disease,
    avoiding obesity.

    Visions are about “I want” – I want to play with my grandchildren. I
    want to be able to hike up a hill with my kids without losing my breathe.

    There is something so different about those statements. And I think much
    more powerful about the vision.

  • Brie

    It strikes a huge chord. I am excellent at talking about all the things I want to do but terrible at actually doing them. And then in turn I feel guilt because I know I’m not doing all the things I’ve talked about wanting to do.

  • HEHink

    Gretchen, you have really been speaking to me “where I live” lately, particularly with this post and the Mary and Martha story.

    There is so much to explore in this area of what we think we should do, what others think we should do (as well as what we think others think we should do – relates to Martha, I think), what we actually want to do, what we need to do just to get through each day, what we can realistically fit into our lives, and how we go about choosing and prioritizing what we actually do.

    Until about a year ago, I was spinning around on what I have come to call my “merry-go-round of shoulds.” About half the time, I was in a stressed-out panic about all the things I believed I should do but wasn’t getting done. In the other half of my time, I was too paralyzed and overwhelmed to even decide what to do. It took a snowmobile accident resulting in a broken femur to literally bump me off that merry-go-round, so I could slow down enough to be honest with myself and to focus.

    I could write a lot more about what I learned during that time – and maybe at some point I will. But in a nutshell, having a physical limitation forced me to focus only on what I COULD do within that limitation, and set aside the other things I wanted to do for after my recovery. There were, and still are, many things I want to change about my home and my life. But I now realize that it doesn’t have to happen all at once, and I am the one who chooses what happens when. If I feel dissatisfied with my weight and level of fitness, for example, I remind myself that I am choosing to focus on other things right now. That empowers me to continue making progress in one area, and to stay confident that I will know when I’m ready to tackle the next issue.

  • Having become newly single after 20 years of being married I became hyper aware of how I have been deflecting what Supposedly should be done onto my partner. I have become acutely aware that I get everything done that I set my mind to do, and that if it is not getting done it is because it is apparently not important enough to me. I wrote my own post on DIY Happiness that boils down to committing to do for yourself anything that would expect someone else to do for you,

  • BKF

    It reminds me of the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Apparently it originates from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote, “L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs” (hell is full of good wishes and desires.) Boswell quoted Samuel Johnson as (later) saying,”Hell is paved with good intentions.”

  • kittyhawk

    I can’t (well, I won’t) read through all the comments.
    I definitely understand what you are talking about. Last year I wanted to learn to longboard. I still don’t know. It definitely had a lot to do with an aesthetic I wanted to achieve, and why? Probably based on emulating someone else.

    The trick with the exercising guy, could be in what he thinks of as ‘exercise.’
    Exercise is a persnickety one, because the fact is that we all *should* be, for our health. Maybe what the trick for him is, changing what that exercise looks like. I just figured out that really I would rather just space out on a treadmill than go hiking, even though hiking is far more “lusturious” – for some people it might be the other way around (the luster is what makes it good).

  • Joe

    I think of these as things I want to want to do, rather than things I actually want to do. Some things, such as exercise, you should do anyway even if you don’t want to (and once in the habit, of course, I find I want to do it now). And some things, you should recognize that you will really enjoy doing them once you get past the inertia of not doing them. Others, maybe you should recognize that you don’t really want to do this thing, and find something else to do. See also:

  • jodi

    Interesting. I always wonder if the decoy could also be hiding a marital power struggle.

  • Kay

    love this!! When I see this in myself – exercise comes to mind 🙂 – I stop and work on WANTing to exercise 🙂 I find that if I can create the desire, the rest comes much easier!


    I like your analysis. At various times in my life I’ve announced that I’m about to adopt this or that good habit–really, I think, just to win praise from others (“finally starting to exercise–good for you!”), and maybe in the hope that by announcing it publically I will be more likely to follow through. In practice, however, the public announcement just leads to public failure, and to me feeling like an unreliable flake.

  • I’ve been doing a lot of learning about how our thinking impacts us and I believe this goes right along with it. I don’t know if decoy is quite the right concept but it certainly is an intriguing word to bring up here – makes us think. I would say that the man at the dinner party should change his thinking to “I will make time for a little exercise each day” rather than “I don’t have time.” He could think: “I know exercise is important to my health so I am going to do more walking when I am in the airport waiting for my flight” or whatever. Exercise doesn’t have to be pushups, you know. LOL. But this was good. Thanks for the fodder for thought. Blessings, Amy

  • Laura

    I think you are thinking too narrowly about the issue. There are a variety of reasons why someone may make a comment about a “decoy habit”. Others have pointed out the shame factor and protection mechanism to avert perceived and/or expected judgment.

    But there is also the fact that some people may just be in the process of adopting new habits and haven’t reached the actual implementation stage yet. First a person must recognize a need to change something, then they have to work to adopt their attitude towards actually wanting it. Then they must figure out how to adapt it into their life. Only then do most people start beginning to adopt a change.
    Another possibility is that perhaps the person is using these decoy habits as a way to complain or ask for help! For me, a decoy habit is that I should be getting up earlier in the morning. The truth is that I am a true night owl and while I can make my body adjust to a typical 8-5 schedule, my brain just does not fit that schedule. So when I make a remark about this ‘decoy habit’ what I really mean is that I wish my carcadian rhythm matched the worlds schedule. I am actually fine with being a natural night owl, I simply dislike not being in tune with the world on this issue. Or perhaps someone who has a decoy habit of saying ‘I wish I was more physically active’ is actually trying to test the waters to see if you will be his workout buddy.
    Then of course there are those who use a decoy habit to prompt others to say there is no need to change. Women do this all the time, maybe a mother says ‘oh I wish I read to my child every night like you do- I really should start doing that’ and then the other mother responds by saying ‘ oh I do it mostly because I love reading and this is the only time I get to do it! And don’t beat yourself up – you play sports with your kids and I don’t do that”

    You may be an Upholder but not everyone else is- so why are you expecting them to behave as one? That isn’t fair.

  • Dale

    So are you saying that by saying I dont intend to exercise may actually get you to exercise? Im thinking that once I say that to myself or outloud it closes the subject and I would be thinking of something else I could do instead, lol!

    • gretchenrubin

      I think that by saying “I don’t intend to exercise,” you acknowledge that in fact, you have no intention to exercise. That frank truth might make you think, “But actually, I do want to exercise.” But if you think, “I should exercise…maybe next month I’ll start,” then you get the comfort of thinking that it’s under consideration—when actually it’s not.

  • LM

    Hi Gretchen! This made me think of something that I have been trying to work on. A few years ago a friend of mine went to a workshop and the presenter suggested people start saying “I choose to…” instead of “I have to…” as in changing “I have to go to this dumb party” to “I am choosing to go to this dumb party”. As a busy mom, I try to remember to not allow myself to blame others for my overwhelmedness. I know it is not exactly what you are talking about here, but it relates to a lot of what you write about. In this context, the person is really saying “I choose not to exercise” but doesn’t want to take the responsibility for it. I guess that is the part that is in question: why does one not want to take personal responsibility for one’s own circumstances, but rather make excuses?

    • gretchenrubin

      This is really a terrific exercise. It’s a reminder of our control and our choice – and you’re right, it’s so easy for people to feel helpless or not in control.
      I have a friend who said, “I choose not to exercise at this point in my life. I work full-time, I have two kids, my life is crazy. I don’t want to add anything else. At a different stage, I’ll worry about it.” and I thought that was SO GREAT. She made a mindful choice, she had her reasons, she felt comfortable with it—her life reflected her values.

      • LM

        When I was 5 years old, my dad sat me down and said “You are responsible for your own happiness”, and I really took that to heart. 32 years later I am still conscious that I have a choice in how things go and that no one can “make” me feel or do something. This has served me so well with my own students and children. I must remember that I cannot “make” them do something just because I am the authority, but rather must motivate them in such a way that they choose to do it themselves. I had an “aha” moment one day trying to “make” my 3 year old go pee on the potty. I could offer her anything she wanted to try to make her go, but ultimately she is in control of her own bladder and had to decide for herself. This has served me well in so many contexts of my life, as have lots of your ideas. Our society is not very accepting of personal responsibility. There surely are many rewards for NOT doing the right thing. But, that brings me back to the idea that I cannot worry about others getting punished or rewarded, but should only worry about what I am doing. (I love the poem “Anyway”- attributed to Mother Teresa)

  • Erysim

    It’s the difference between what we know we ‘should’ be doing and what we actually choose to do. He doesn’t want to exercise as you said, but ‘wants to’ want to exercise because he knows that’s what is expected. A lot of us are “should’ers” with our internal voices constantly telling us what we should be doing based on societal or familial expectations versus what we actually want to do. We want to please everybody else.

  • Jennifer Wenzel

    After reading the comments, I think I came up with a better term than “decoy habit”. From what you said about your feelings about “decoy” and how they don’t quite hit the mark, I think a better term is “smoke and mirrors habit”. Maybe “smoke habit” for short, although that actually seems like it’s related to smoking, which is certainly not the intention, so never mind. 🙂 But the term “smoke and mirrors” strongly relates to the way that the “wished for” habit serves as a distraction and a cover-up for the person.

  • Huh. My first thought was that sometimes I really mean what I’m saying and thinking in one moment, but don’t really mean it later on when it comes to following through. For myself, I “try” to walk 2 miles daily. Even though the benefits far outweigh any arguments I could come up with, the truth is, I’m a lazy turkey and I don’t like doing much, particularly if it involves the outdoors. For the longest time, and even now, I would think to myself, “I really need to exercise. I’m overweight and Vitamin D deficient. I want to walk and build up to running. YES! I’m going to do this!” … and even though I truly meant it and was sincere in my acknowledgement of a problem and my proposed solution… the next day I still have to talk myself into going. If I don’t start out straight from putting my daughter on the bus, it isn’t going to happen, end of story. So for me, walking isn’t so much a “decoy habit” as it is an ongoing internal battle between a mature, logical adult versus a childish, immature brat. Cuz trust me, I’d ALWAYS rather be lying curled up on the couch under an afghan with a good book and a Coke.

  • Cynthia

    In the words of Yoda “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try’.” This is a universal truth. You are either DOING, or you are NOT DOING. Any other verbiage is an exercise in reality avoidance.

    • Cynthia

      ALSO – the words you use have power… Stop saying (to others and to yourself) “I would like to” or “I will try to” and start saying “I will.” Also, think through the hurdles that you know you will face and plan for them also. Example: “Tomorrow morning I will get up at 7am and go to the gym. If my alarm goes off and I just feel too tired, I will get up and do 5 quick jumping jacks to get my energy up and force myself to get dressed. I’ll remind myself how great it will feel to have done it.”

  • Catic15

    I think “decoy habit” is a good name for this sort of thing; but there’s an aspect that I’ve only seen alluded to in the comments I’ve read so far – the difference between saying “I should” and saying “I am going to” or “I will”.

    “I should” implies that external enties like society, friends, family, etc. believe something has value, and while you recognize their authority in some way, you are resisting because it’s not what you yourself really want. On the other hand, saying “I am going to” or “I will” puts the responsibility back on your own shoulders. Even if you end up not accomplishing the full goal, you’re likely to get further along the path than you will saying “I should”.

    Right now, I’m PLANNING to go back to school for a graduate degree in another field. It’s going to be a huge undertaking, but I’m taking baby steps towards it by finding out what undergrad courses I need to complete before applying, by meeting with the head of the program at my local university, by ordering transcripts . . . and with each baby step, my goal becomes more real to me and I become more likely to take the next step.

    “I should” is what people say when they’re hesitating to take the first step.

  • I like the term “decoy” but I also think “red herring” when I read this. We talk about these decoy habits as if they really do effect some change in our lives, but in reality that talk is simply a red herring to steer us away from our real habits that we don’t want to own up to.

  • Debbie

    I must admit I am kind of confused about why this is a bad thing to do. In order to bring something to fruition it has to be something that enters your awareness. it you are never aware of a need or desire to do something, exercise, floss daily or something else how can you ever get to the point where you put the desire into practice? Some people may be able to say, “I need to exercise” run right over to join a gym go 2-5 times a week and never look back. Some of us need to live with the idea for a while and perhaps even attempt and fail a few times before we put it into practice successfully or give up on it completely.. It seems like you are saying. If I have a desire and I don’t immediately take action to do it then I must not really want to do it. So what l tell myself then is “I don’t really want to exercise,, floss, etc”. so I need to learn to live with poor health and bad gums and the shame and disappointment of knowing I am someone who deep down doesn’t want to or can’t change.

  • SD

    Fascinating, both the initial concept and some of the things commenters brought up!

    Something I didn’t see in an admittedly quick read – one commenter touched on the “elephant in the room,” that by making a nod to something that was visible (carrying on the weight example), that got rid of this issue so that they could move on to something else. Something that occurred to me was just that it’s also a social shortcut…it saves you from a lot of long and potentially frustrating explanations. (Although I think folks were honing in a bit too much on the weight/exercise example, it’s a great one to get you thinking! My internal response reading that was “Oh, God, it would take forever to say ‘I’m working 50 hours a week and am actually having trouble maintaining the min. weight for my height and have an infant child and am writing a novel and I barely sleep and I really do miss running and exercising I swear, I know I look like a limp noodle…” So instead I say “yes, I know I need to get back to exercising,” when family/friends make noises in that direction.)

    Obviously, there are a lot of other situations where people ascribe an intention to form a habit to create the appearance of (or maybe it’s more about internally assuring yourself??) actually *doing* the habit, where it’s not visible, where people aren’t feeling they have to excuse themselves socially, and I think you’re wonderfully insightful on that. You just happened to have picked an example that has a lot of layers. 🙂

    (Btw, I love “decoy habit” as a term but not sure it’s quite right for this, either…I would use that to describe, instead, something you fall back on doing to avoid something else, I think. Maybe “intention excuse”? Probably someone else has already made a better suggestion.)

  • Do you really want something, you can really get something, though not perfect, or like you are satisfied with the answer, but try to accomplish, it is important to understand their abilities and what they really want.

  • I don’t know who to attribute these quotes to, but 2 of my favorites are similar:
    “Discipline is remembering what you want” and “Discipline is choosing what you want most instead of what you want now.” Other posters have said it — we can lie to ourselves about what matters to us, but our choices reveal what our real priorities are.

  • Craig Kirkwood

    Very insightful but I’m wondering if the term “decoy habit’ would be better applied to another form of avoidance which most of us suffer from at some point: the creation of an alternative habit which assists us to avoid the thing habit or choice we really need to make.

    So, rather than take exercise, our protagonist creates the habit of always being busy or late or travelling…

  • Jayne

    I call it a Should. It’s a judgement. You don’t really do it because you are judging yourself as lacking in some way. It’s self-loathing, a position that doesn’t really make you want to jump out of bed in the morning.

  • Jane

    This reminds of what Brene Brown referred to as ‘aspired values’ versus ‘lived values’ or some similar such terms. Sometime they are in conflict and that require resolution in some form or another.

  • AnnieLu

    If I say IT before you have the opportunity to, then you can’t hurt me. This can be when it comes to our weight, intelligence, singing, whatever. I have found though, that if I really want to so something, I mean REALLY want to do it, I will!

  • monica

    I also see it in terms of ‘mixed feelings’ – I want some parts of it and not others. I want to look great, but not workout lol! That sort of things. Another enjoyable post Gretchen! Thanks!

  • I think your decoy habit is interesting for framing is pathology and I believe you values conflict is getting closer to the issue. This seems like what Kegan and Layhe address in Immunity to change. The individual has an assumption or hidden belief that they believe is in conflict with the proposed change. This belief often is not true just believed. I think directionally if one would suggest it is not valid it may prevent the real issue from surf facing from the tension that is caused by the inner conflict.

  • Robert

    This sounds like a conversation with someone who is really not fully conscious of what they want. On the other side of the coin he might be trying to talk himself into believing he wants it as much as he needs it. As in everything actions speak louder than words. I think in order to really create a healthy habit there needs to be a basic level of self-awareness.

  • cluiz

    I COMPLETELY agree that this man was unwilling to surrender to his true desire not to exercise. When we are at war with ourselves we can’t decide to do what’s right.

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