Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #7: the Questionable Assumption Loophole.

For two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Better Than Before. In that forthcoming 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 #6, the This Doesn’t Count” loophole. Today…

Loophole Category #7: the Questionable Assumption Loophole.

A very popular loophole! Consciously or unconsciously, we make assumptions that influence our habits—and often, not for the better. They often become less convincing under close scrutiny. A reader posted a good example: “I set up weird mental blocks around my time. For instance, if it’s 9 a.m. and I have an appointment at 11 a.m. I’ll think ‘Oh, I have to go somewhere in two hours, so I can’t really start anything serious’ and then end up wasting my whole morning waiting for one thing to happen.”

It’s not a proper dinner without wine.


This is taking too long, I should be done already.


I can’t start working until my office is clean.


I need to eat a lot to get good value from this buffet.


People should get exercise by having fun—by playing tennis or going skiing—not by exercising for the sake of exercising.


I’m too busy to take the stairs. It’s faster to wait in this long elevator line.

The label says it’s healthy. (In one study, when a cookie was described as an “oatmeal snack,” instead of a “gourmet cookie,” people ate thirty-five percent more.)


If I do this, my craving will be satisfied, and I’ll stop.


I’ll outgrow this habit. (For years, I assumed I would outgrow my hair-twisting.)


I can’t work out if I’ve already showered.


I’m so far behind, there’s no point in doing anything.


If a little of this is good for me, a lot will be even better.


Everyone’s got to have some vices.


My instructor will be angry with me because I’ve missed so many times.


Dramatically changing my eating habits has allowed me to hit my goal weight, so now I can return to eating normally.


If I wait until I’m more in the mood to do it, I’ll do a better job.


It’s too late in the week to start.


It’s ridiculous to pay for a gym/a trainer/a home treadmill/a personal organizer/a financial advisor to help me with this behavior, when I could do it perfectly well for free on my own. (Especially if you’re an Obliger, forming those external systems of accountability are key.)


If I indulge now, I’ll get it out of my system.


People notice what I do. (In a phenomenon called the “spotlight effect,” we assume think that we’re being observed much more closely than we are. In an experiment in which students walked into a classroom wearing a Barry Manilow shirt, they greatly exaggerated how many people noticed the t-shirt design.)


People who follow strict rules will inevitably fall off the wagon.


It would be a good idea to test my willpower.


This will help me sleep.


This will help me concentrate.


If I don’t do this now, I’ll just do something worse later.


It’s not fair that other people should be able to do this, but not me—so it’s okay for me to do it too.


If I indulge massively now, I’ll feel so disgusted with myself that it will be easy to be good.


Unless I can sweat for an hour, it’s not worth exercising.


If I worry about something, I’ll ward off danger.


Insisting that people accept food or drink is a great way to show my love.


I’ll just have a few bites. (A reasonable assumption for Moderators but not Abstainers.)


I should feel stuffed when I leave the table. (The Japanese saying hara hachi bu means “eat until you’re eighty percent full.”)


Doing a lot of research about a healthy habit means that I’m about to start practicing that habit. (A trainer told me that some people ask questions as a way to tell themselves they’re about to start, when in fact, it’s a delaying tactic.)


Watching TV is the only thing to do at home in the evening.

One very sneaky questionable-assumption loophole is the assumption that a habit is so ingrained that we can ease off.  “I love my morning writing sessions so much, I’d never give them up.” Unfortunately, we have a tendency to regress, and even long-standing healthy habits can be more fragile than they appear, so it pays not to get complacent. Research shows that people tend to overestimate the amount of temptation they can face.

I experienced this with driving. I’m a fearful driver, and for many years in New York City, I didn’t drive at all. Finally, as part of my Happier at Home project, I tackled this fear and started driving again. I still very much dislike driving, but I do drive, and I aim to drive at least once a week, to stay in the habit of driving. However, I’ve found myself thinking, “Wow, I’m so much less afraid to drive than I used to be. In fact, I don’t think I have to drive once a week anymore.” Hah!

Do you find yourself making questionable assumptions in order to justify breaking a good habit?

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

  • BKF

    “I don’t have enough time to clean up properly.” Or “I am not a strong swimmer so if I go to the pool, others will laugh at me,” (when the only way to improve is by swimming more. And who knows, they may admire me for trying.) I have taken up swimming in my 40’s. I actually read an inspiring story about a 92 year old British woman who swims regularly; she learnt at the age of 75 after being afraid of water all her life. I still feel embarassed to go to the pool since I huff and puff after a couple of laps, with all the triathletes in the other lanes etc. The buddy system really helps here, BTW!

  • youonlylawonce

    Oh my goodness. I totally relate to this post. Mostly because I am a PERFECTIONIST! I always think I need the perfect conditions to do work. I’ve found the best solution is to try to do something. One of the best things advisors at my school tell me is that sometimes action engenders motivation, not the other way around. Watching other people work in little nooks and crannies of time really has helped me try to do that too.

    • gretchenrubin

      An interesting point – yes, needing “perfect” conditions is a popular form of procrastination. Getting started is a great way to beat procrastination.

  • peninith1

    I have made a lot of effort to overcome the “if I worry that will ward off danger / prove the intensity of my love” one. It’s absurd, and worry is a painful and horrible emotional habit, very well worth conquering. I have learned to cut my worry sessions short, and not to actively feed them, but this one still comes up and has to be answered with ‘picking up my mind and turning it in another direction’ — usually with an action.

    The other one that I have now proven to be untrue was “I can’t walk outside because walking on pavement is too high-impact for my bad back.” In fact, by starting much slower, at a much smaller distance than I thought reasonable, I found I WAS able to walk outside. Now I can walk daily for a whole hour on all kinds of surfaces without hurting my back, and my distance is up over 2.5 miles. So, challenging your ‘my body won’t take it’ assumption is a good thing to do VERY slowly and gently, with your doctor’s approval (in my case, encouragement).

    I especially like the statement that ‘even long-standing habits can be more fragile than they appear.’ That’s a good reminder to me to keep drinking my water, journaling my food, checking my pedometer, walking every day, and keeping the carbs really low. I have found that it is easy to start a habit and start thinking of it as a habit after even a few days . . . but drop through one loophole and I become vulnerable to habit loss, too. That’s especially true where my worst faults–cultivating anxiety, overeating, and too much idleness, are concerned.

  • Veronique

    I am becoming more convinced the older I get that we are born with a set personality that determines how we react to our life experiences. Our parents can help us navigate our way through the first part of our life, working within the framework of our personality but ultimately we are the drivers. I have met people raised in terribly difficult situations who are happy, positive people with a can do attitude and people raise in similar situations who were destroyed by their childhood. I really believe that for some people the assumption loophole is just part of their personality and they can’t change it without real effort.
    I have a friend I have known for years who makes me crazy because unless everything is just perfect she can’t work-out, enjoy time off, go to a movie, enjoy a meal. She is in a chronic state of ‘if only’…and looks at my life and points out why it is so much easier for me to do things that she finds so challenging.
    Examples: You can work out daily because you have a full gym in your basement. me: Yes, but I also have chronic migraines that I have to push through and get past to get down to the gym. I also worked out daily for three years before I had the gym put in, in a grungy gym, in town. It’s all we had.
    her: Still it’s easier than getting in my car and going to the gym.
    me; But you have a gorgeous treadmill
    her: Yes but no TV in the room it’s in.
    me: oh:)

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, this is a very popular Questionable Assumption that I forgot to add to the list:

      Everyone else has it easier than I do.

    • peninith1

      I do agree that it can take real effort to change, and that we can have a hard time figuring out HOW to change. But I do not agree that it is ‘impossible’ for anyone to overcome their destructive mental attitudes.

      I started getting a clue about the process of change by being part of a group focused entirely on changing one’s own attitudes and beliefs as a way to changing life for the better. For quite a while, I thought some of the ‘slogans’ and sayings that went around in that group were a lot of hooey. Then I decided, little by little, to entertain the idea that there might possibly be some merit in the suggestion that I could ‘be as happy as I made up my mind to be,’ and a few other things like that.

      The very first, most basic, assumption that I had to question was “THAT’S JUST THE WAY I AM.” I learned that ‘the way I was’ could be altered to some extent. I could learn to manage my finances better, I could learn not to fuel the jets on my own emotional roller coaster, I learned to temper my own reactions to other people in my own family so that I didn’t create a disaster out of an annoyance. I learned a lot of things I would never have believed possible, and this gave me confidence that I could learn other things too.

      One of my most powerful learnings about other people and their self-destructive attitudes was to let it be, with the mysterious but true maxim: “He / she is where he / she needs to be right now.”

      For some reason, your friend needs to be in that place of saying no to a myriad possibilities. Well, let her be where she needs to be, and enjoy being in the place that is just right for you!

      • cruella

        peninith, I have to say I enjoy your comments every bit as much as Gretchen’s posts. Thanks for many useful bits:-)

        • BKF

          Yes, I think I’d like having you as a friend, peninith!

      • DB

        Well said: “so that I didn’t create a disaster out of an annoyance”.

  • HeatherY

    Oh, wow. You are deconstructing my entire cognitive process. I think I have a lot of work to do. I’ve already debunked one of my fallacies: that I need a long unbroken chunk of time to do some of the things I’d like to do (organize, write, etc.). After working for 13 years at the same ad agency, I’ve been laid off for a year. Not organized yet. Not writing yet. Fear and shame are good immobilizers. I get plenty of sleep, though. 🙂

    • isabellagarden

      I’ve always felt the same way until I tried a different tactic. I had a lot of sewing projects that I wanted to do, but couldn’t find long blocks of time to get to them. So I made a list of every step required to do the project, no matter how small the step (i.e. get out the sewing machine). When I had a bit of time, I’d just start from the top of the list and work sequentially. I found that I was able to do many more steps than I had anticipated because I wasn’t burdened with the thought that I had to get it all done. It became a game almost, to see how many steps I could get done in small snatches of time. This strategy has changed my ability to get things done. The hardest part of any journey is the first step. Breaking down any task into steps makes it easier to do the first one.

      • peninith1

        LOVE this! YES! when I worked I could sometimes come home for lunch, sewing room for 15 minutes and back to the office. It was amazing what I could get done in 15 minutes. Learned a lot from that!

      • Allison

        Thank you! What a great way to use my time better!
        The example of one reader -“…if it’s 9
        a.m. and I have an appointment at 11 a.m. I’ll think ‘Oh, I have to go
        somewhere in two hours, so I can’t really start anything serious’ and
        then end up wasting my whole morning waiting for one thing to happen…” is SO me!!
        I am excited now to try your strategy!

  • HeatherY

    Oh, and this: “Insisting that people accept food or drink is a great way to show my love.” is my mother. We call her the “food pusher”. We have a saying for whenever we are excited about something, want someone else to try it / experience it and they aren’t interested – that came from one of her responses to a food refusal: “But, it’s got peanut butter on it”.

    • Felicity

      lol! I love those in-jokes 🙂

  • Mimi Gregor

    Worry is a really big habit with me, and I know that at least part of it is because deep inside I feel that if I worry about it, it will PREVENT it from happening, LOL. I KNOW this assumption is crap, but I also know that I have this assumption. It undoubtedly became ingrained because of all the times I worried about something and it never happened; part of me thinks that the worrying itself held it at bay. When something “bad” DOES happen, it usually is something that never occurred to me to worry about, and it happens out of the blue.

    I’m also one of those people who, if I have an appointment, feel that I can’t get anything important done before it because I won’t have enough time. Then, of course, after the appointment, I don’t have enough time. In reality, I know that I DO have enough time to do SOMETHING, but instead I find myself just doing busy work because I feel that if I get engrossed in something I may miss the appointment. I know that it’s a false assumption, but there you are. It’s become a habit.

    • peninith1

      Appointments / time: I had this problem. Solved the ‘before’ part this way–got everything ready for the appointment so I could walk out the door ready, then set a kitchen timer for the remaining time and work on something (for me it is a sewing project usually) until the bell goes off, get up and leave for the appointment. No more idle clock-watching.

      • HEHink

        Wow, this actually solves the opposite problem, too (which I guess isn’t related to this loophole, but maybe some other one) – that of trying to fit too much into the time before you have to go somewhere, and being chronically late. This happens to me, especially if it’s an appointment with my kids. I’ll be trying to finish up a task, then realize too late that my kids are not clean/dressed/fed/etc. and wind up hustling them along to get ready when we should already be in the car. Love the idea of getting everything/everyONE ready ahead of time, AND then setting a timer. No more over-estimating the available time! The timer dings, then we go – who cares if only half the laundry’s folded? Can’t wait to try it!

    • Lilly siblesz

      Definitely with you on the worry will prevent something from happening habit! It became a struggle when I got married, and when i had my first child, and now that I am expecting my second, I am trying to unravel this!

  • Maxi

    Some people won’t be good to
    themselves because they are waiting for something to happen that would
    allow it. Like their entire life “doesn’t count” until…….Two examples from my own life:

    1. I know several unmarried friends who feel there are things they
    simply cannot do until they are married. Like: I can’t buy good
    furniture (sheets, dishes, home decor) until I am married since I’ll
    want new ones then. I can’t take a major vacation since you do that with
    your husband. I can’t have beautiful “real” jewelry until a man buys it
    for me. These are friends in their 30, 40 and even 50s who have never
    been marred and live with castoffs waiting for their “real life” ie,
    after marriage, to begin! Until then is “doesn’t count”. Finally one of these friends bought herself a
    nice diamond cocktail ring and it was huge for her!

    2. I am an American who lived in Europe for 10 years. There is this
    odd syndrome all the expats had which was called: I can’t buy (or do) X
    because I’ll be going back to the states soon and I….won’t use it up
    before then, don’t need a good one since I’ll leave it here, can’t get
    the exact thing I could at home so I’ll do without (something essential
    that would make their lives much easier).

    It was really funny like
    none of us would ever buy the large box of laundry detergent because we
    wouldn’t use it up? Or even the large jar of mayonnaise! Or buy a good
    vacuum cleaner? There are tons of examples I could give and all of us
    were there for a year to …in my case 10 years living like a transient!

  • Pingback: Have You Heard These Excuses From Your Clients? A Menu. |

  • Pingback: Have You Heard These Excuses From Your Clients? A Menu. - Coaches Together!()