Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #5: Apparently Irrelevant Decisions.

For two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Better Than Before. In that book, I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to change our habits.

In this series, I 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 #4, the Lack of Control loophole. Today…

Loophole Category #5: Apparently Irrelevant Decisions

It’s odd. When it comes to keeping our good habits, instead of fleeing temptation, we often arrange to succumb. In what Dr. Alan Marlatt  dubbed “apparently irrelevant decisions,” we make a chain of seemingly insignificant decisions that allow us covertly to engineer the very circumstances that we’ll find irresistible.

I’ve long been obsessed by the strange, brilliant skeleton of a book created by J. M. Barrie, The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, and I’m particularly haunted by the line, “We set out to be wrecked.” In the story, three boys set sail to seek the adventure of a wreck; to fail was the very purpose of the undertaking.

I drove across town to that gourmet grocery store to buy broccoli, and I ended up buying their special cheesecake. Who could resist?


I’ll just check my email quickly before I go to the gym…oops, I don’t have time to go to the gym, after all.


I’m not going to eat anything more tonight, but I’ll go into kitchen and look in the freezer. Just curious.


No reason why I shouldn’t sit in the smoking section.


I’ll buy some scotch to have in the house in case someone stops by.


It’s such a nice day, it would be nice to take walk—would you look at that! I’m in front of my favorite bakery. I’m just going to step inside to enjoy the lovely smell.


My husband and I love to go on “all inclusive” cruise vacations, and I can’t resist the all-you-can-eat food.


I’m going to lie on the sofa so I can brainstorm ideas in comfort.

A friend told me, “I know a guy in L.A. who has some trouble with gambling. The last time I saw him, he said, ‘I just lost a lot of money in Vegas.’ I said, ‘I thought you weren’t supposed to go there anymore.’ He said, ‘I’m not, but I didn’t go there to gamble.’ I said, ‘So why were you there?’ He said, ‘I bought a new car, and I wanted to take it for a test drive.’ He was absolutely serious.”

Another friend made an apparently irrelevant decision. “A guy I know was about to take a trip, and I told him, ‘Oh, you really should get some candy to take with you. Let me take you to Sockerbit, this amazing Swedish candy store. They have these gummy Ferraris that I love.’”

“Did you eat any candy?”

“No, but it was really hard.”

He  managed not to eat any candy, but he went pretty far out of his way to get himself into a candy store.

We set out to be wrecked.

Do you ever make apparently irrelevant decisions that end up wrecking your good intentions?

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  • peninith1

    As I have heard it said in 12-step meetings, if you keep going by the barbershop, you’re going to wind up getting a haircut.

    ‘We set out to be wrecked’ is so much more expressive, however.

    I’m really familiar with this one. I used to buy things ‘for my kids’ that I would eat myself. It is true that I do buy things at the grocery store for my Mom, but now she has a special stash area that I never go into, so that is ok. I buy things for her that she ASKS me to get, too, not things I covertly want.

    Now, I only go to Trader Joe’s if I PLAN to buy a bottle of wine. But for sure, I HAVE gone there ‘for the frozen lasagna’ or ‘for a bunch of their wonderful roses’ and then come out with three bottles of wine as well.

    Shopping lists really help. Also, I have a choice of grocery stores, and knowing whereI can get the best deal on the things I’m trying to minimize, I only go to the stores where they have the BEST and the BEST DEALS if I actually plan to buy those things–bread and pastries at Whole Foods, for example. Fortunately for me, I live where I have many choices.

    Shopping is not my big problem (food is) but I can see that one would not ‘go to the mall for an exercise walk’ if one wanted to avoid ‘being wrecked’ by just stepping into the store to check on sales–except before opening time.

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  • Jennifer Steck

    I can definitely relate to that. I think my biggest one is your example about checking email. I write on my blog first thing in the morning and most days, don’t have time for my treadmill before going to work. So, I need to work out some kind of strategy. Is it to get up earlier or maybe hit the treadmill first?

    • gretchenrubin

      Do the treadmill first!

  • BKF

    Sometimes, I go to discount stores like TJMAxx to buy a gift, but then I find many ” irrestistible deals.” In the end, i don’t really save money and end up with more clutter in the house ( which exasperates my husband as well!)

  • Rachel

    I think some of this decision-making behavior has to do with not really wanting to change our habits, only telling ourselves and others that we do.

  • peninith1

    For a tragic, gripping illustration of this ‘loophole’ see Denzel Washington’s performance in FLIGHT.

    I think that #5 seems to me to deserve a better name . . . hidden sabotage? planning to fail?

    • Meg Clare

      Yes, I agree. I see Planning to Fail as a good title. Its exactly what I do, love the flop on the couch to brainstorm, goes really well with me reaching for the remote so I can fall asleep to the program I’m not watching, lol.

  • hermitcookies

    It’s a matter of equilibrium. Newton’s third law, equal and opposite reaction, if we are moving toward something, say a new habit, an equal force is attempting to pull us back. We want to be balanced. To succeed, move the fulcrum.

  • Harriet

    Why are *so* many of these examples about food?

    • gretchenrubin

      Alas, as comments reflect, food is an area where many loopholes come up. Also exercise.

      Please suggest other examples! Great to see other areas, such as work, and examples of how loopholes are used.

      People who don’t have an issue with eating are often annoyed by how much other people talk about it. When we don’t struggle with something, it’s easy to think, “If everyone would just be sensible, like me, they’d find this easy.”

      My work on Before and After has given me much more insight into how and why certain things (like writing every day) come easily to me, and why they don’t come easily to some people; and vice versa. And how to counteract that.

      • Agnes

        I think part of the annoyance is that people say, “I want to change my eating habits to improve my health.” and they mean, “I want to lose weight to look better.” And therefore, “I want to get into the habit of being constantly hungry and tired, and resisting some of my favorite things.” Playing into these self-delusions is really not helping anyone make healthy, reasonable choices.

        • peninith1

          That may be true in some cases, but I think it is rather unfair to characterize all who attempt to lose weight this way.
          Of COURSE I want to look better.
          But you can’t beat the joy of being able to walk outside for an hour, bend over to put on your shoes and socks without agony, see your cholesterol drop to healthy levels, and find out that you can STILL eat a wide variety of healthy foods that are also delicious, attend social gatherings, and entertain friends at home.
          Trust me, I am not ‘constantly hungry and tired’ and I do not ‘resist my favorite things’ so much as I have spaced treats out more sensibly, found NEW favorites, and learned that having more energy and freedom of movement, AND better health, are rewards as great as wearing a pair of jeans one size smaller.
          Losing weight and regaining one’s health and fitness does not entail ‘self delusion’. In fact it requires more clarity of thought and conscious attention to my choices. It requires better habits among which is cultivation of more positive thought patterns. I would encourage anyone — you included! — to do the same.

          • Agnes

            Would you make the same choices if they made you less attractive, rather than more?

      • I am also very much annoyed by the focus on food, which makes me think about shallow problems, like looking nice, etc. (I know that food is also a health issue, but here we do not talk that much about all other health issues, like high blood pressure). For similar reasons, exercise is only a slightly better example.
        As for examples I would prefer: loosing one’s temper (why am I late in the morning, although I know that being late “helps” me loosing my temper?), achieving a certain career aim (opening a new shop, writing a book…: why does one start doing something else in the morning and then ends up not focusing on what ought to have been one’s priority?). Your 21 days projects are also much more interesting, at least to me.

        • peninith1

          ‘Why am I late in the morning?’ That, like food (sorry, but true) is one of those FOUNDATION issues that can make your life happier or more miserable. It starts with going to bed early enough to get a complete night’s sleep, keeping your sleep / wake schedule consistent and following all those usual suggestions for sleeping soundly. It took me a long time to learn that I could get my body clock to really work for me. Now, though retired, I am on a consistent schedule and wake up between 5 and 6 every day–no alarm ever needed. It is so restful to have that early hour to myself to get ready for the day. Also, getting everything ready in the evening that you will need in the morning is another great habit that helps to keep your temper from fraying.
          Big goals? Spend some specific amount of time EVERY DAY working on your primary goal. It can be 15 minutes or a half hour. But do it. No excuses. Good Luck!

        • gretchenrubin

          For habits, I’m focusing on very concrete external habits, not on habits like “losing your temper” “being sarcastic” “being optimistic,” etc. Though “writing a book” is very much the kind of habit I do talk about.

          Habits of mind present different challenges from habits of behavior, and I figured I’d tackle the outward-behavior habits first.

          The point of my 21 Strategies, however, is to point out that strategies that anyone can use for any habit they want to change.

          • Gretchen,
            thanks for your answer. If mine sounded like a sour critique, I apologise. I just wanted to be constructive and express what disturbs me in so many discussions about what seems to me a less relevant topic (again, like high blood pressure or warts). As for the kind of things one should focus on, I really agree with you about the fact that one needs to be specific (perhaps “stop yielling at my children in the morning” works better than “stop loosing my temper”), but I also keep on thinking that I want to dedicate my energies to big projects (say “reading X-pages in Z-language per month” or “stop complaining about Y in public”). A focus on “stopping to eat french fries” seems to me like using a bazooka against ants.

          • peninith1

            if you have a pea shooter and you’re fighting Godzilla, the whole thing looks different. I think food and weight ARE monster problems for many people, and their lack of self control (I speak for myself here too) is a major obstacle to being at a NORMAL weight for our age and height. I don’t have a problem with gambling, alcohol, violence, spending, prescription drugs, my sex life, street drugs, or not getting on with other major work in my life. But I sure have had a struggle with keeping my eating in bounds and my body mass index under 30. So I think it’s ok if I focus on food.

          • Peninith, I do not know. Perhaps you are right and there is something specific just about food. Whatever the case, I would recommend to the BLOG (not to you personally) to have also other focuses. In the post we are commenting on, out of 8 examples, *FOUR* were about food.

    • peninith1

      Because so many of us struggle with our weight and with food! And I daresay many of Gretchen’s blog followers are people actively engaged in working NOT to be wrecked through some of the more major addictions, or just don’t want to discuss their alcoholism, drug use, gambling, pill addictions, or bipolar shopping behavior here. My impression is that ‘setting out to be wrecked’ is a particularly tough loophole. For me, that might take the form of buying a bag of chips and a jar of dip ‘for the kids’ or having a dinner party and thinking I had to use my most fat- and sugar-filled recipes.

  • cluiz

    I cannot believe how helpful this is. I absolutely LOVE “we set out to be wrecked.” So reassuring. The compulsion to play spider solitaire is how I do it. I thought I was doing it to avoid the anxiety of getting to work. But I think it’s to wreck myself. This is a revelation – thank you. The pull to negative states — of anxiety, self-abnegation, worthlessness and self-attack is intense sometimes.

  • Dana Laquidara

    I think the excuse “I’m buying it for my children” is the worst one of all! We aren’t doing our children any favors by buying them junk food. Also, I believe that simplifying our lives helps us to stick to healthy habits- we feel lighter, happier, and freer! Hence my blog (can I offer this?) to unclutter your space, mind and heart:

    • Jamie

      I was going to say this myself. If we are trying to avoid buying food that isn’t good for ourselves, it’s not good for our kids, and it’s probably even more important that they don’t eat it.
      My daughter loves potato chips and french onion dip. So do I. But neither of us should really be eating it. It’s not good for me, and it’s not good for her.

  • BKF

    In a way, all the other loopholes also set one up to be wrecked (procrastination, false choice, moral licensing…) Sometimes, when I’m conquering a habit and have made a great deal of progress, it seems as though a tiny infraction shouldn’t matter but then it (or a series of them) often snowball(s) into overall failure (wreck).

    • Candace

      This is my biggest obstacle to long term habit formation. Initial success, maybe even starts to become an actual habit, until a small insignificant setback comes along. Then it is a snowball of self sabatoge to keep myself from having to pick it back up again. I do this in many areas; food sure, but also in my writing, routines, character development, this list goes on. I think it is the knowing that picking it back up is hard, not theoretically hard, but been there done that hard. Sometimes that is all I see as I ready myself to continue on. Why don’t I see the joy, improvement, happiness it brought me? The hard work seems to speak louder in the moment of re commitment.

      • DB

        Maybe you can leave yourself some notes (someone else said they use HiFutureSelf) to remind you of all the positive outcomes you achieved and why the hard parts are worthwhile in the end.

    • gretchenrubin

      This issue is a big theme in Before and After.

  • Dana Laquidara

    I think we are much more likely to self sabotage when we are feeling unhappy or overwhelmed in some area of our life. When we are satisfied and living authentically, we are less likely to ‘reward’ our deprived or overwhelmed self’ w/ vices. That’s what’s so great about the Happiness Project. Gretchen tackles all areas, getting them all in good order!

  • Felicity

    I guess when you have a bad habit, your mind just runs along those lines and thus it is easy to head in the same ol’ direction. For example, I just quit sugar – finally realised that my sugar addiction isn’t just going to fade away – and I’ve had a little bit of a struggle to come up with ideas for Valentine celebrations that don’t revolve around sugar, because sugar has been a big part of my world for forty years. So I could easily get myself into an apparently-irrelevant-decision-about-sugar situation, simply because my mind is used to running along sugar tracks. I need to consciously re-route. Thanks for pointing this loophole out, Gretchen… it is strangely helpful to have a name to put to something.

  • Anna

    Probably you already know this, but in Catholic practice we call this “the near occasion of sin.” The prayer normally said after Confession ends “I firmly resolve to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” The idea is that the one resolution without the other would be more or less meaningless.

    • Anna

      Oh, and I should have said, I love this series on loophole-spotting. It’s a great idea.

    • gretchenrubin

      I talk about this in my book! So important and helpful.

  • Karin

    Would like to add “I REALLY need to get this done, so I am just going to check Facebook/Twitter before I get started so it’s done and sorted. Then I can focus” Yeah, right. 30 min later I am commenting on Gretchens blog…

    • Jennifer King

      HA! Hilarious! I am here replying to your comment by way of the exact same thought processes. 🙂 Okay, REALLY gonna get to my work now…

  • Reading these loopholes so far has been fascinating. I’ve recognized quite a few that I am guilty of and they seem so common-sense after I read them.

  • Bliss

    One of my most wicked: “I am going to be distracted by temptation every day until we use up these cookies (cheesecake, fudge, whatever) so I’d best just devour it now and be done with it.

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