Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #4: the Lack of Control Loophole.

For two weeks, I’m doing 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.

Here, I’m talking about 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 #3, the Tomorrow Loophole. Today….

Loophole Categyory #4: Lack of Control Loophole

This is a very loophole. We argue that we don’t have control over the situation, and circumstances have forced us to break a habit. However, usually we have more control than we admit.

“My problem is that every time I work in my favorite coffee shop,” a friend told me, “I absolutely have to get a muffin. Their muffins are so good, I can’t resist, but I really don’t want to eat them.”

“Why don’t you work in a different coffee shop?” I asked.

“Oh, but that’s my favorite coffee shop,” she said earnestly.

“Right,” I said. “Because you always have one of those delicious muffins when you go there.”

“That’s not why I go.”


Weirdly, people often have an illusion of control over things they can’t control—“If I spend a lot of time worrying, the plane is less likely to crash” “If I play my lucky numbers, I’ll win the lottery eventually” — but deny control over things they can control — “If there are free donuts in the break room, I can’t resist eating them.”

The dog ate my homework.

Someone brought bagels to the meeting.

I’m too stressed to deal with this now.

I travel all the time.

It’s too hot/cold/rainy.

I have an injury.

My boss is so demanding that I don’t have time to do that.

I’d had a few beers.

I know I’m going to break this habit sooner or later, so I might as well do it now.

A considerate host wouldn’t serve a wicked dessert like this.

It’s impossible to give up sugar.

The subway always makes me late.

These chips have been specially engineered by the food industry to be irresistible.

With everything going on right now, I can’t be expected to stick to a good habit. (There’s a great running gag in the movie Airplane, in which the air-traffic control supervisor remarks, as he lights up a cigarette, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking,” later, as he takes a drink, he adds, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking,” then later, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines,” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”)

At this rate, I can never accomplish anything.

My favorite trainer quit.

My kids take up all my time.

The church’s annual Fathers’ Day Breakfast has always been all-you-can-eat.

We opened a bottle of wine, so we have to finish it.

Alcoholics can quit drinking, and smokers can quit smoking, but I can’t quit eating. (I can’t quit eating, but I can quit eating sugar, or grains, or processed food.)

Someone else chose this restaurant.

I’ve never been able to resist this.

I started without realizing what I was doing.

The Lack of Control Loophole is closely tied to another popular loophole…the Apparently Irrelevant Decision loophole. I’ll write about that tomorrow.

Do you ever find yourself invoking the Lack of Control loophole? It’s super-sneaky, in my experience. Very easy to invoke without even realizing it.

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  • Carolyn

    Here’s one: “I come from an alcoholic family.” I use this as an explanation for some of my behaviors I don’t like (or that annoy others): I’d like to change, but it’s so hard, because I developed them to survive in my alcoholic family. I’ve only recently become aware of all this, so need to pay it more attention…

    • HEHink

      I think you’re getting to the heart of your own self-awareness, the “WHY am I the way I am?” part. It overlaps into psychoanalysis, which isn’t really within the scope of The Happiness Project, but can be very important to some of us who are struggling to change. (Questioners, maybe?)

      I don’t share your background, but I do think many of us have developed certain survival skills, for very real reasons, related to our family circumstances. Regarding some of my own behaviors, it sometimes helps me to think “I have been doing this because…, but I don’t need to do that anymore. It’s not helpful anymore (if it ever truly was).” Then the question becomes, “So what do I do instead?” 🙂

      Best wishes as you continue to think about this issue!

  • peninith1

    Um, I would say that I have uttered 10 or more of these excuses for overindulgence, mostly in food.
    I am doing better at living a ‘no excuses’ life about food and exercise these days. The effort to remain conscious of what I am doing is pretty demanding, but about four months into the effort, I’ve lost more than 25 pounds and feel a LOT better. Giving up this loophole has been very worthwhile–I intend to keep it gone!

    • Judy

      Congratulations! What an accomplishment.

  • This one gets my motor running. It’s amazing how much we do have control over when the goal is high enough up on the priority list. QBQ by John Miller does a good job of highlighting this too!

  • HEHink

    Interesting…it was during my recovery period from a major injury (broken femur) that I really learned to look for things I could control, and for ways I could take action. While watching my husband’s stress level increase as he tried to take care of our kids and all the household tasks, I started asking myself, what CAN I do? I could fold laundry. When I got up to use the bathroom, I could take 5 extra minutes and clean the sink and counter before heading back to the couch. I could make grocery lists, and pay bills. Happily, I’ve managed to carry some of that attitude with me since. I still don’t always choose to take action when it’s in my control, but at least I make myself aware that it’s a choice I am making, good or bad, and I am responsible for it, not some other entity. And for me, the feeling that there is nearly always some part of a situation within my control is energizing, and makes me happier overall.

  • Samantha Smith Kitchenman

    I don’t know if I have ever commented on your blog but I have read both of your books and read your blog frequently. I am a huge fan of yours! So many things you say are so me. This one is so spot on for today. I woke up late and everything went downhill. I blamed everything on my daughter (who is almost 3). “I can’t be on time because I have a 3 year old.”

    Once I dropped her off at school and got myself to work 15 minutes late, it hit me, I use her and so many other things for excuses, when it is me. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t because i would have been even later for work. So, I will not use my daughter as an excuse and after laying all of our stuff out tonight and giving myself a pep talk, hopefully, we won’t be that late again.

    P.S. After reading how your daughter said she loved how you woke her up with singing (even though you said it had only been once or so at the time), I have been waking my daughter up with singing. But on the days i wake up late, i leave little time to do that and i see how it affects her. But for the majority of the time, I do. And when she plays baby dolls, she wakes them up by singing our song. Thank you for that!

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, you’ve pointed out a very popular one! I’m adding that to the list.

      Thanks so much for your kind words. What a sweet story about your daughter.

  • Esme

    My mom has this mantra : “well, this is (insert here the name of every special and non special occasion you can think of) so it doesn’t matter if I indulge.”

    About the chip argument, though, the industry is REALLY working so you can’t put down the bag until it’s finished. Same goes for the tobacco industry. The New York times posted an article about that a few months ago, I’ll try to find the link.

    • gretchenrubin

      The products are engineered to be as delightful as possible, but nevertheless we are the ones opening the bag or the carton.

      I haven’t had a potato chip in years. Of course, I’m an Abstainer. That’s why from an Abstainer perspective, giving things up seems so much EASIER. But I’ve learned to recognize that not everyone is an Abstainer.
      About Abstainers:

      I’ve heard Rebels use this food-industry argument to help them eat better (which can be a challenge for people of the Rebel Tendency). They make argument of freedom and choice (so important to Rebels) and tell themselves things like, “I’m not going to be manipulated and exploited by the snack companies. I’m going to be make my own choices.”
      Not sure what a Rebel is?

      • Esme

        We have will power, of course. We make choices. But it’s not just about making the right decision for oneself. It’s about external influences. When the major players use the systemic analysis (and science) to influence us into making the right decision for them, while believing we’re doing this for us, we must consider external factors as well as internal ones.

        I agree that when looking at things from the perspective of the tendencies you’re working on, everything starts and ends with the individuals making choices according to their profile (abstainers and so on… I read and bought your books). Right self-knowledge is a truly powerful tool.

        What I’m saying is that we must not discard the fact that we are being deliberately played.

        Keep your friends close. Keep your enemies closer. — Sun-tzu.

        Here’s the link I was referring to :

        The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, by
        MICHAEL MOSS, Published: February 20, 2013.

        • Kat

          I think we’re only being played if we join the game. It’s incredibly hard to stop eating the chips once you’ve opened the bag. But if you never buy the chips in the first place, it doesn’t matter how dangerously hyper-delicious they are. I’m not temped to eat junk food unless it’s in my hands. And I’m in charge of what ends up in my hands.

  • Tracy

    This loophole series is really coming at a good time for me. I’ve been getting better at spotting them over the last year or so but it’s been a great reminder to be vigilant. Our minds are terribly good at finding ways to avoid change, and I find I must be very conscious and mindful of the choices I make, or don’t make. These columns are very good motivators. Thanks very much for them!

  • ChrisD

    I used to think I couldn’t resist donuts when they were on sale in the evening, but it turned out I could resist them fine after supper. I just couldn’t resist them when I was hungry. Strategy: don’t go shopping on an empty stomach (though at the time I was ‘allowed’ to eat donuts so I didn’t worry to much about it).

  • Luise

    My friend and I went to see you at Kepler’s last night and really enjoyed your talk. Smart and funny! Thank you very much. Luise

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much!

  • peninith1

    Just putting the ‘LOOPHOLE” name on this kind of thinking is so helpful, Gretchen! This morning I was out walking in 26 degree weather. I thought about going in after one time around “it is so COLD I deserve to stop” . . . and then I thought, huh, that’s a loophole. AND I remembered that next week I will be visiting my grandchild and his parents in the Washington, D.C. area, where it was 7 degrees this morning. I thought, “Oh, this is not too cold, it is PRACTICE for colder–and I truly did walk to school in sub-zero weather.” It was a treat to see the loophole and have a name for it–and with that I made it for my full hour! (-:

    • Esther

      I have a similar experience – when I’m starting training for a half marathon, I find myself thinking ‘I need to stop now’, but when I do a little self-assessment, I find that my breathing is ok, and my legs feel ok, so it is just my mind being lazy – and I continue. I love catching myself out like that!

  • Heather Wesley Engel

    This reminds me of a favorite quote: “if you really want something, you’ll find a way. If not you’ll find an excuse.” Powerful, and I use it to keep myself in check when I find myself making excuses. Some people might take that saying as an opportunity to heap guilt on themselves, I actually find it to be freeing in a way. I am more easily able to let things go, surmising that I must not really want that particular thing right now. It doesn’t mean I never will, just that it isn’t a priority yet.

    • Molly

      I love this quote, and I agree with everything you say. I am going to remember it! It seems like a good way to stave off regret, too. Surely we don’t want everything we think we want, as many of our desires are socially induced. And for those on the borderline — the line where we aren’t sure if our motivation is due to lack of true desire or the loopholes (or other forms of procrastination), it is important simply to decide. If we decide it is worth doing, do it. If not, leave it behind. Thanks!!

  • Felicity

    Well, your throwaway sentence ‘I can’t quit eating but I can quit eating sugar’ was a reality check for me. I’ve quit sugar. I’m an abstainer, so I feel so much calmer now. No more tricky convoluted self-negotiations about sugar. Phew.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that this approach works for you. It’s not for everyone, but for us Abstainers, it’s EASIER.

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