Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #10: the One-Coin Loophole.

For two weeks, I’ve done a special series related to Before and After. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to change our habits. (If you want to be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

In this series, I’m focusing on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation.

However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

There are many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #9, the Fake Self-Actualization Loophole.  Today is the final day with a loophole I’ve written about before

Loophole Category #10: the One-Coin Loophole

One of the most insidious of loopholes is the “one-coin loophole”—insidious because it’s absolutely true. This loophole gets its name from “the argument of the growing heap,” which I learned about in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly.  (I love teaching stories, koans, paradoxes, fables, etc.) According to a footnote, the argument of the growing heap is:

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

This teaching story highlights a paradox that’s very significant to happiness: Often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time, a sum of those actions is very meaningful. Whether we focus on the single coin, or the growing heap, will shape our behavior. True, any one visit to the gym is inconsequential, but the habit of going to the gym is invaluable.

Pointing to the one coin is a way to deny a conflict between our values: we’re not choosing between our desire for French fries and for healthy eating habits, because eating one bag of fries is an insignificant act. But when we consider the accumulated cost of the French fries, the conflict looks different.

I haven’t worked on that project for such a long time, there’s no point in working on it this morning.


One beer won’t make a difference.


What difference does it make if I spend this afternoon at the library or at a video arcade?


Why work on my report today, when the deadline is so far away?


A year from now, what I did today won’t matter.

A friend told me, “I’ve really changed my eating habits, I’ve lost seventy pounds. A woman in my office uses that against me! She’s always saying, ‘Come on, you eat so well now, one cupcake won’t kill you.’ So I say, ‘You’re right, having one cupcake is no big deal—but I’m not going to have one today.’”

It’s so easy to point out the low value of the one coin. By reminding ourselves that the heap grows one coin at a time, we can help keep ourselves on track.

The Strategy of Monitoring is helpful with the one-coin problem, because monitoring reminds me that my heap is growing—or not. Without monitoring, it’s easy to lose track of what I’ve actually accomplished.

Do you invoke the one-coin loophole? As I said, the challenge of this loophole is that it’s true.

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  • rubyratt

    I have to say that I am glad that the “loophole” series is over. It sounds like it’s hit the spot for a lot of people, which is great, but for me not so much. I certainly to have a few of my own “loopholes” but I would say in my own case having more of them might be beneficial. I am a Type A, do everything the right way, kind of gal. I drive myself crazy sometimes because I can’t seem to find the right “loophole” and would rather make the right excuse NOT to take the “loophole” (this will probably only make sense to those who are just like me). I love your blog and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next, and absolutely cannot wait for you new book about habits!

    • gretchenrubin

      Ah, you sound like an Upholder!

      I’m going to post about the “tightening” that I, at least, experience as an Upholder. Maybe this is what you’re feeling, too. Rules tighten on us; they don’t loosen.
      We must find rules (not loopholes, but RULES) that allow us to goof off, to indulge, to ease up.
      About Upholders, and the other three Rubin Tendencies:

      • rubyratt

        Yes ma’am I am definitely an upholder! I am just glad there are others out there that understand!

  • Ravena

    Sometimes you want to find the loophole, though. Especially *after* you’ve made the mistake or fallen off the wagon, or whatever. You can turn this around to be destructive and perfectionist, and say, “well, I ate a cupcake so my diet is totally shot anyway.” In that case, I think that saying, “well, I ate one cupcake but that doesn’t change my overall plan to eat healthier or my view of myself as someone who generally eats healthy” is more constructive and compassionate. Maybe it’s the difference between forming a habit and keeping a habit.

  • phoenix1920

    While I initially loved this series, for some reason, by the time I got to the ninth loophole, my spirit just felt deflated. It wasn’t an issue that I felt I used each of the loopholes (although one was definitely something I’d use). It just seems so focused on looking for the negative–like I needed to be constantly scanning through all ten sets “loopholes” to see if I’m cheating. The more I read, the more I felt like my habits were becoming a straight jacket and I have to constantly monitor myself.

    It reminds me too much of the elephant/rider/path analogy where the rider is that logical part of us that sets goals because we agree with the logic, the elephant is the emotional part that needs to have our heart in the goal, and the path is looking to the surroundings. The analogy basically says that the rider can constantly steer the elephant towards the logical goal, but if you don’t involve the heart so the elephant wants to get their too, the rider will eventually tire of fighting the elephant and steering him. Looking for all of these loopholes to uphold habits had such an emotional response–where my desire to want a good habit just plummeted–and I was left with a rider trying to steer an elephant that no longer had a desire toward that goal.

    Perhaps a more concrete example is a diet–studies show that the more restrictive a diet is, the more likely it is that people will not last on it–even where a person does not necessarily want the thing they are denied. Your mind starts adding up all the “no’s” and it kills the desire to stay with it. The more successful diets are programs like WW (where you can choose anything but limit the amount to stay within your points) or diets where you have to drink all your waters and eat 6 veggies/fruits per day (thus making one more full so they don’t eat as much, without using the word “no”)

    I wonder if there is a way to rephrase this so it doesn’t feel like it’s focused on catching negative behavior.

  • Jean

    WOW! That lady at the office who tried to offer a cupcake because the lady had lost weight needs a little plain talk. A friend is one who encourages you to stick to your positive resolutions. That cupcake pusher is NO friend. Maybe a little gentle conversation would help her see the error of her ways. 🙂

    • Sadye

      My sister and I often vent about this to each other — first of all, it’s rude to comment on someone else’s weight, period, but more relevant, fit people generally have to work to be fit … and that means not indulging in every treat offered. I’ll have to send her this woman’s reply!

  • BKF

    This happens to me after i clear out the kitchen island counter. It looks so nice and inviting! Then i, or someone else, sets down something, just one thing or piece of paper. Before you know it, it’s cluttered again with insidiously creeping objects/papers. it’s our tricky area!

  • Jill Douthett

    Repeat after me: “A year from now, you’ll wish you had started today.”

    • Syl

      Great comment! Going to write that over my desk!

      • Jill Douthett

        Syl, I keep it on my refrigerator. So now we know you’re writing a novel and I’m . . . not.

  • Terraca

    I’m just starting the loophole series today! Sounds pretty interesting.

  • Lynn

    Yes, I think you are right Gretchen, it’s how you look at it. I manage people in my job, and the people who only see one coin are hard to motivate some times for long term projects. I found with things like knowledge base articles (I lead tech support teams) that the people who normally see ‘the pile of coins’ are actually proactive about doing their articles over time because they know that increasing the number of articles will help more customers over time. Those folks who see each coin alone tend to not believe that writing the articles will do any good. I work hard to build those feedback loops so that folks can see the good their efforts are providing. I’ve found that the ability to see that impact is helpful for both groups of people, in the end.

    You may have guessed that I use this all of the time, for the positive. I place one more coin on the pile because the cumulative effect is very easy to see for me. It makes it hard to make exceptions, even if I have a very good reason, because I’m so goal orientated. I really WANT that pile!

    Lastly, yes, I think that in the context of a book, the loopholes will be helpful. Reading a loophole a day here on your blog was harder and it did make me feel a little self critical. It’s been interesting to see you work through your theories with us, because we are a part of your creative process. That part is special in a way. Thank you for that.

    • Halcyon57

      Providing this work-based example has been really helpful. I am often guilty as a manager of not seeing that individual “coins” are just as valuable as the total “heap of coins”, which means either we don’t start projects at all as my wanting the heap of coins from day 1 is too off putting and the resource just isn’t there for that, or that I get very frustrated with the slow progress of a project which needs many coins built up over time. Time definitely for me to value the single “coin” more, from all points of view.

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  • peninith1

    I am happy you ended with this loophole, Gretchen.

    Why? Because it is potential negative that is a mirror image of its own positive nature. You can build or deplete that pile of coins. I would think of it the way my body seems to experience it–every day that I go for my walk adds a ‘coin’ of strength and well-being. Every day that I don’t spends one of the coins that have built up. My success is either growing or being depleted. It’s like that kitchen counter someone described–you can’t just do it once and have it stay nice, you have to ‘maintan your pile of coins’ by adding to it. Sadly, when you don’t, it seems to deplete even faster than it built up.

    BUT what a great feeling to know that you are building up riches for yourself–completed projects, stronger habits, better surroundings, financial security, you name it. That pile of coins may only be added to a tiny mite at a time, but it IS treasure and should be treated as such.

    Thanks so much for this series of posts. It has been most helpful to me and I am sure to many others.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy you found it helpful.

      I didn’t intentionally end on an up note, but now that you’ve pointed that out, it definitely will not move position!

  • I love this callout. My best improvements and worst continuing offenses come from the “one more” mentality. Well done!

  • Sherry Borzo

    This loophole resonated with me. In my head I say . . . I’ve gone on this long, damage is done, what’s the point NOW? It’s like that bit in the Woody Allen film Radio Days where the mother tells her son to not spend so much time listening to the radio. The kid points out that his parents listen to the radio all the time and she says, “It’s different. Our lives are ruined already. Get out there and make something of yourselves.” Yep. I have that sort of conversation in my head all the time.

  • Kendra

    I just had an important realization about this loophole! I often say, “what difference will it make if I eat this cookie?”, etc, etc. BUT I also truly believe that small bits of time, money, and effort really do make a difference in helping a good cause. Hmmm…. I need to realize that just like a $5 donation matters, a cookie matters too!! Thanks Gretchen!

  • HEHink

    I like the whole concept behind this loophole, because the ever-growing heap can be turned around to be the ever-shrinking heap if you need it to. In working to be ‘stronger,’ my word for this year, I’m finding that before I can acquire various kinds of strength, I need to get rid of some things that are weighing me down – actual physical weight, yes, but also clutter and old emotions. By working a little every day to let go of these things, the heaps I’ve been carrying shrink, leaving me with more strength to focus on other things that are more important now

  • Clara

    I think not only this one, but many of the loopholes can be ‘true’. For me, it makes perfect sense, for example, to focus on a very important project for a while. Especially if this focus requires self-control, it wouldn’t make sense to me to exhaust my willpower supply (you probably know this is finite) by making myself do all the less important things that I would ideally do. I know, Gretchen, that you might not agree with me there, and that brings me to my other point: how do you make sure your writings are also well-suited to people who are very different from you? For example, someone like me who’s a moderator, and part obliger, part rebel? I do notice that you mention advice for different types of people, but I guess the things that resonate most with you personally, are easier to write about.

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