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

I have a split life right now. Part of the time I’m focused on my new paperback Happier at Home (about how to be happier at home), and part of the time I’m focused on writing the forthcoming Before and After (about habit-formation).

Now I’m on book tour for Happier at Home, and I’m also starting a special series here on my site related to Before and After.

In the book, I identify the twenty-two strategies that we can use to change our habits, such as the Strategy of Accountability, the Strategy of Convenience, the Strategy of Treats, etc.

Of all of them, perhaps my favorite strategy to study is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting — because the loopholes are so funny.

When we’re trying to form and keep habits, we often search — even unconsciously — for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we recognize this behavior, if we can catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

This is tough, because there are so many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for the next two weeks, I’ll post about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Loophole Category #1: the False Choice Loophole

I must confess, this is the loophole-seeking strategy that’s most alluring to me. I pose two activities in opposition, as though I have to make an either/or decision, when in fact, the two aren’t necessarily in conflict. Here are some of the false choices I often argue to myself:

If I join that group, I won’t have any time with my daughters.

I haven’t been exercising. Too busy writing.

I don’t have time to work on my draft, I’ve got too many emails to answer.

If I go to sleep earlier, I won’t have any time to myself.

I’m so busy, I’ll make those appointments once things calm down.

Someone once said to me, “I can either enjoy life to the fullest, or eat lettuce and carrots for the rest of my life.” Are these really the only two alternatives?

Even outside the context of a habits, false choices often appear as a challenge to a happiness project.

I remind myself that whenever I’m inclined to think “Can I have this or that?” I should stop and ask, “Can I have this and that?” It’s surprising how often that’s possible. Is the habit that I want to foster really in conflict with my other values? Usually, if I’m honest with myself, it’s not.

How about you? Do you find yourself invoking the false choice loophole?

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  • acorgan

    I do this all the time! Eek! Going to try to insert the “and” in there.

  • Emily

    Adding the “and” is such a game-changer! Very excited for Before and After and to read more about how habits are formed.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that you’re intrigued.

  • Felicity

    Loopholes… so true! I am such an inveterate loophole seeker that I have recently been forced to make myself a list of little rules (re: food) that address all my usual loopholes! Dear me… sad, the way I try to cheat myself!

  • Molly

    Do I find myself invoking the false choice loophole? It’s what’s wrong with most of my life in terms of progress!! I think women are particularly prone to it, especially when it comes to parenting: I can either have a satisfying career or be a good mom. False dichotomies are pervasive in our lives and, yes, threatening to our happiness.

  • peninith1

    Yes! I have often used that excuse–as in ‘my time to walk is in the morning, so if I have an early appointment or something I have to do, I can’t walk and do that too.’ Well, I can actually walk later (maybe not so far, because my back tends to hurt later in the day). I can schedule things later in the day to make time for my walk. I can walk some in the morning and some later to fit my walk into a busy day. I have learned from you, Gretchen, that it is best if I walk EVERY day. Even if I can only fit in 20 minutes of my usual hour to walk, I can always go outside and walk for a few minutes. Awesome.

    Food: I can’t be a good host and not eat the food my guest brought to dinner. It’s a holiday, I can’t celebrate and not eat. It’s a social occasion, I can’t offend my hosts . . . the list goes on and on. It is riddled with loopholes like Swiss Cheese!

  • Shari

    I love the idea of false choices. Now that I am aware of it I consider it each time a choice needs to be made. I also notice how political matters are all about false choices. Thanks for this insight.

  • Mimi Gregor

    OMG! I do this all the time, but I never stopped to consider it! Inserting the “and” in there will — hopefully — make me see the ridiculousness of these false choices I’ve been giving myself. I CAN do both… just maybe at different times. I’m such a stickler for “my routine” that when life throws a monkey wrench into the works, I often find myself using this loophole. Thanks for bringing the boogey-man into the light!

  • rubyratt

    I think I will start making a list of all the loopholes that are holding me back ( I love lists). I often use my good habits as a loophole to continue with my bad habits! Can’t wait for your new book! Might have to reread both happiness and happier just to keep myself engaged and on track. I can’t tell you how happy I am that I discovered your books and most of all your blog! I missed you last week!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I’m so happy to hear that my work strikes a chord with you.

  • Gautam Kumar Chaudhury

    Adding the “and” is such a game-changer! Very excited for Before and After and to read more about how habits are formed.

  • Abigail

    This is so enlightening! I was just writing about this in my journal yesterday, and called it resistance or avoidance, but the “loophole” term is much more appropriate because I always invoke a so-called reason for not performing a habit, even though I know it’s good for me and does not take that much time. Adding the key work “and” makes all the difference, thank you!

  • phoenix1920

    I am intrigued by this post, but could use more help understanding it. I look to your list, which is concerning a lack of time to do both options, and the suggestion to use the word “and”, but I wonder if this is better for some people. I LOVE the word “and”–perhaps too much! I am terrible at cramming too much into a day, or even cramming too much vacation in a vacation. For New Years, my goal is often 7 goals–but it’s the same 7 goals I’ve had each year. I want to get rid of clutter, and get more fit, and keep better track of our finances, and have more quality time with my husband and . . . Even when I cut my list to two things and try to accomplish both, I find myself drained because I end up in bed after 1:00, feel tired the next day, and then feel unmotivated. I love the thought of “and” but then I try to throw myself so fully into each option that there feels little is left for me . . .

    I could use a more concrete example of how “and” works. I think I may be doing it wrong. (i.e., how does one answer all the e-mails and work on a draft?)

    • peninith1

      I am thinking that you would benefit from a few practices related more to quality time than to productivity time.
      1. Prioritize. Even if you just keep repeating to yourself the mantra “Do the NEXT RIGHT THING” that will help you not to be overwhelmed. You will KNOW what the next right thing really is, trust me.
      2. Do only one thing at a time, and think about only that until you have done all that you can do with it right now.
      In my working career, I observed that people who worked a lot of overtime and seemed to be always busy and cramming a lot of activity in were actually LESS productive than others who appeared to move at a slower pace. Spinning your wheels is not a virtue that I would waste any precious time cultivating.

      • phoenix1920

        Thank you for your wise words. I saw them yesterday and pondered them the rest of the day, as well as Gretchen’s. I think you are right to focus on quality and do only one thing at a time–for me.

        Growing up, I admired these trailblazing women who showed we can have it “all”–but when I heard their stories of how they juggled a demanding career by dictating briefs mere hours after giving birth, I realized I also wanted to be more there for my kids. So I worked those hours and was the classroom mom and Girl Scout leader and church small group leader. I have probably abused the “and” concept. But I think that decision was based in fear. I wanted to do this AND that AND this, etc, because I was afraid by not seizing the opportunity, I would be missing out. I want to be the perfect mother, involved parent, wife, clerk (employee), but have never learned balance.

        You are right–my heart is telling me I have to simplify and rein myself in–which is probably why this loophole philosophy was not ringing true with where I am. I love the challenge of working on various different projects–there is a mental challenge in juggling lots of balls, but I think it is time for a change and it is OK to also say that I don’t have time to do it all–and I don’t want to.

  • I have been using that false choice loophole with exercise. I have been finding all kinds of reasons not to exercise. I have been able to build a good exercise habit in the past so I am curious to see what other loopholes might be holding me back from exercise right now.

  • Jeanne

    Taking a class right now studying the book “Do You QuantumThink” by Dianne Collins. She would call the loophole of either/or the old paradigm. The new paradigm is both/and.

  • elizabeth

    I love the ideas of loopholes, and am very excited to see your other loopholes! However, I’m struggling to get on board with the false choices loophole because it seems to me that although the examples you give are either/or types of thinking that can be solved by “and”, they have different underlying assumptions like catastrophizing (If I do X, I won’t have any Y) or over(mis?)-prioritizing (I have too much work to do on X to do Y). For me saying “and” in these different situations would require different reasoning strategies. Looking forward to loophole #2!

  • Lauren

    I am just becoming aware of my strong tendency to use THIS loophole – I do it all the time. I was starting to become aware of it as I read (on your recommendation in your books, Gretchen) 168 Hours. Once I realized that even if I slept 56 hours per week and worked 40-50 hours per week, I had 60-70 hours left in my week, my eyes really started to open up to all kinds of possibilities. I have three kids under 5-years-old and a full-time job so, yes, I keep busy, but oftentimes it’s about prioritizing something or not — not about how “busy” I am.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that you found 168 Hours useful. I really love everything Laura Vanderkam writes.

  • Breesyinnewy

    Don’t you just love when the universe gives you an answer…. Just reading your loophole email prior to thinking about juggling a new business opportunity and renovating our house this year. I had the whole false choices conversation going on in my mind. Now that I’ve asked myself if I can do both, I’ve realised I can probably work out ways to manage both.

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  • Terraca

    Wow, this really hit home for me. I’ve been telling myself If I want to further my education/career, THEN I won’t be able to spend any time pursuing my passion which is creative writing. I’m going to begin inserting AND from this point forward. Thanks Gretchen!

  • Courtenay Strickland

    Hmmm… this is definitely the loophole I use most often. In my case, I’ve always framed it in terms of opportunity costs, e.g., if hours in the day are limited and I choose to do X, what will I have to forgo as a result? (The Benjamin Franklin quote you mentioned in another post, about how convenient it is to be a reasonable person, hit home. I’ve become too good at “reasoning” — more like “rationalizing” — when it comes to why I get this done and not that.) My question is how do I know when I really should consider the opportunity costs and when I am just trying to convince myself of the “rightness” of my choices? How do you know when it’s really “and” instead of “or”?

  • Laurens Vehmeijer

    i like the idea of false loopholes very much. Everyone is using them and being good friends with them too. At the other hand one can question the very nature of those false loop holes. That’s what’s making things clear to me and very helpful in avoiding them and recognizing them right on time when possible and allowed! The very nature of the loophole it self and especially of the false loop hole is that you make either the choise or not. Postponing most often comes with a “Yes, but …” and this very habit of reacting with “Yes, but at the other hand…” is the content of the false loop hole AND the activity of not-making the desired choise itself at the same time. The main result of making a choise is that things clear up. They don’t with “Yes, but”. The habit or pitfall of the false loop hole is the habit of not making choices. It comes with responsibility. It also comes with authenticity. It comes also with the art of creating happiness in life. Which truth are you manifesting as being yours, is the ultimate question here. There is only one who can live your life, so what’s going on there in terms of real living instead of surviving the days passing by. Creativity in the end is living – your way of living. You better be clear about that!

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