Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #8: the Concern for Others 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’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 #7, the Questionable Assumption loophole. Today…

Loophole Category #8: the Concern for Others Loophole.

We often use the loophole of telling ourselves that we’re acting out of consideration for others and making generous, unselfish decisions. Or, more strategically, we decide we must do something in order to fit in to a social situation. Maybe we do — and maybe we don’t.

It will hurt my girlfriend’s feelings if I get up early to write.


I’m not buying this junk food for me, I have to keep it around for others.


So many people need me, there’s no time to focus on my own health.


It would be so rude to go to a friend’s birthday party and not eat a piece of birthday cake.


I don’t want to seem holier-than-thou.


Changing my schedule would inconvenience other people.


Other people’s feelings will be hurt if I don’t partake.


I can’t ask my partner to stay with the kids while I go to class.


At a business dinner, if everyone is drinking, it would seem weird if I didn’t drink. (Somewhat to my surprise, this loophole comes up a lot with drinking. Teenagers aren’t the only ones to feel peer pressure to drink, it seems.)

This particular loophole doesn’t appeal to me, because I — for better and sometimes certainly for worse — am not much bothered by what other people think of my (some very peculiar) habits. As I discovered when I took the Newcastle Personality Assessor that measures personality according to the Big Five model (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, or OCEAN), for a woman I score “low” on agreeableness, which measures a person’s tendency to be compassionate and cooperative and to value getting along harmoniously with others.

I suspect that my low agreeableness accounts for my willingness to appear fussy or to be out of step in social situations. Also, in all modesty, my lack of concern stems from modesty: I just can’t imagine that others are paying much attention to me.

For instance, I more or less gave up drinking, and that decision never makes me feel uncomfortable.

But for some people, I’ve discovered, this loophole is a major challenge. Relationships are a key to happiness, and if a particular habit makes you feel very awkward about being out of sync in a social situation, or you worry that you’re hurting other people’s feelings or making them feel uncomfortable, this is a real factor in the formation of a habit.

By identifying the loophole, you can identify possible solutions. “Everyone else is drinking, so I’ll order a sparkling water, and no one will know what’s in my glass.” “Everyone else is ordering a drink, so I’ll order a glass of wine, but I won’t drink it, I’ll just leave it on the table.” “My grandmother gets upset if I don’t take seconds, so I’ll take a very small portion the first time, so she sees me go back for more.” “I’ll talk to my partner about whether this new habit is actually inconvenient, and if so, how we can work out a schedule that works for both of us.”

Sidenote: when you’re forming a new habit that feels awkward to others, give them time to adjust. Any change feels awkward at first. But if you keep starting and stopping, no gets used to a new pattern. For instance, a friend wanted to go for a run on weekend mornings, but her family complained that she wasn’t around to get the day started — so she immediately stopped. She started again, and stuck to it, and after the first few weekends went by, everyone got used to starting the day on their own.

Do you find yourself invoking a heed for others — to the detriment of your own habits? In what situations?

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  • peninith1

    Gosh, I’m starting to get the feeling I am going to be sorry when you run out of loopholes! (well, not really . . . but what a great and insightful series!)

    My recent adoption of a new food and exercise routine WHILE caring for my elderly mother has taught me a BIG lesson. The saying KEEP THE FOCUS ON YOURSELF that I have heard often in the 12-step world is incredibly wise, even though it may sound narcissistic. Stop focusing on what (you think or use to deceive yourself) others ‘need’ or ‘want’ from you and start doing what is right for YOU. Amazing. I found my new regime not only helped me toward my goal of feeling stronger and looking better, it took my mind away from obsessing about concerns and irritations with my Mom. Who’d have thought THAT?

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, I often remind myself to do something FOR MYSELF. I remind myself, “This is what I want, this is what I choose.” You’re right—it seems as though it would be selfish or narcissistic to have that mindset, but it actually decreases my resentment of other people, and increases my feelings of self-efficacy.

  • becky

    This is a big one for me. I often go to shared dinners where everyone brings a dish of food. There’s often three or four desserts. I really feel I have to try them to be polite. Also I am super interested in food and cooking. It’s a real conversation starter when you don’t know people so well.

    My solution sometimes is to try a bit off my husband’s plate so I can compliment the chef without eating too much sweet stuff.

  • Kristina

    Thank you so much for these – this one and the Questionable Assumption loophole are ringing so true to me, and upon reflection, I find that I use them in tandem. And I’m seeing a link to a post I read this morning on Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” on – I’m curious if you are observing any patterns between the kinds of loopholes people are drawn to and the type of mindset they are predisposed to?

  • I totally invoke this one… mostly with eating healthy and “but she’d be insulted if I don’t eat the brownies” and “the kids made these cookies just for me.”

    I probably have five pounds of this loophole hanging around right now! 🙂

  • BKF

    Sometimes the “loophole” may be a true excuse, no? For example, I can’t play the piano most days because I work long hours and if I play very early in the morning or late at night, I’d wake the kids up. So I don’t. I don’t think it’s a real loophole, though, is it? I really would wake them up and I don’t want to do that.

    • Felicity

      A solution to that could be to buy one of those electronic pianos – they have ‘piano touch’ keys and you can stick headphones in them. We have one. But they do cost some money so it depends on your budget.

      • BKF

        Thanks for the great ideas and comments, llouisell, Mimi, Gretchen and Felicity. This really made me think. While it is a partly legitimate excuse (it really is a loud piano, even with the cover down), I guess I use it as a reason to give up too quickly. I could use a digital piano (actually have one that I have lent to a friend who isn’t using it I believe), stick noise-cancelling headphones on my kids, maybe with soft music or audiobooks -or nothing- playing, or even try playing softly with their bedroom doors shut- they are at a level higher than the room with the piano. I haven’t even tried it for a few years and they probably would sleep through it now since they are tired after all the activities they have (compared to when they were younger). Or they may have fond memories of it later like llouisell. You really made me question my assumptions (or was that a different loophole?!)

        • gretchenrubin


          This is a good example of why being in an accountability group can be helpful – sometimes people can spot solutions that it’s easy to overlook in everyday life.

          • Agnes

            But I think it is also fair to recognize, with all these “loopholes”, that sometimes they are true. I presume Gretchen’s book starts out with some discussion of what is a reasonable habit to aim to develop. “Exercising 45 min a day” may well be reasonable, “Exercising 5 hours a day” is not, for most of us. Pretending that wouldn’t interfere with relationships, or that there wouldn’t be days when it wasn’t possible, does no one any favors.

          • BKF

            True. As the now-hackneyed quote by Reinhold Niebuhr,
            “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” says…..

    • gretchenrubin

      Only you can know if it’s a loophole or a real challenge to a habit!

      But of course, you’re exactly right, sometimes there are real issues.

    • Mimi Gregor

      A lot depends on how soundly they sleep. We live in a ranch house and my husband plays the piano at around two in the morning (he’s a bartender, so he keeps odd hours). Even though I am on the same floor, it doesn’t wake me. If you take measures to absorb the sound (damper for the piano, carpet under it to absorb sound, a closed door or a heavy curtain separating it from the rest of the house. Putting it at the opposite end of the house to the bedrooms helps a lot, too. Also, a lot seems to depend on the nature of the sound. I can sleep through rhythmic, repetitive sounds. It’s the jangling, chaotic sounds that wake me.

    • llouisell

      My mom used to practice the violin after we went to bed, and it is one of my happy childhood memories- listening to her play. I credit that as part of my love for music. And although it would sometimes wake me up, it also soothed me back to sleep.

  • gilcarvr

    The eating and drinking in order to not be caught in the glare of other peoples’ spotlight is my current dilemma . I’m in the midst of a life altering change in diet. I sometimes worry that my social circle thinks I’m gloating. So I now find myself eating & drinking verboten things when I’m out w/them.

    The other half of the equation, I was raised by depression era parents who often went hungry, so throwing away food that’s been prepared for me is personally anathema. So I now find myself limiting my social outings to the days when I’m allowed to splurge, in order to not be caught throwing food away.

    I used to skirt this by bringing home all leftovers and mixing them into the next few day’s meals. I was a great way to add filler to chili and meatloafs. But now I’m not supposed to eat these things at all.

    Ah well, I just need to remind myself when ordering. to decline the non-allowed foods from now on.

  • Love this and largely agree! But if you’re a vegan, your ancient grandma makes biscuits because you’re coming over, and those biscuits have butter in them – eat a damn biscuit. Just know when you’re using others as an excuse to abandon self-discipline versus being obliging out of love.

    • Krithika Rangarajan

      Thank you – I do believe that it okay to make concessions for your loved ones, so long as your ‘love bound action’ transforms into an unhealthy habit 🙂

  • Rubyratt

    This loophole is one I am probably too guilty of NOT using. My guess is that I would also rate low on the “agreeable” scale, which for most just makes me seem “selfish”. In fact Gretchen, I would say you and I are a whole lot alike, which I discovered when reading your books. The whole time I thought “This woman is talking about me! Oh my God! She is describing me!” I am an abstainer and when you illustrated your reason for not eating something, I made my boyfriend read the chapter to try to help him understand. Avoiding alcohol is the same (I hate the taste and I hate the way it makes me feel) Exercise, check! I will go to the gym everyday, even if it is inconvenient for somebody else’s schedule. I am comfortable not being bothered by the concerns of others when it comes to my unconventional habits. I do it for me, my health, and my sanity.

  • KKL

    I would also call this the martyr loophole! I find I personally don’t struggle with this one, but when trying to help motivate others to change habits, this one annoys me the most!

  • Iva @ This Side of Perfect

    Gretchen, I am really enjoying this Loophole series. I appreciate that you link to previous articles you have written in the past about personality types and the like. I am finding that, the more I learn about these personality types (both mine and others), the more patient, understanding and sincere I am with people. I tend to wear my feelings on my sleeve (I’m an Obliger and Agreeable), so I tend to take things people do/say, personally. (I realize that this also is a very self-centered view in that, ultimately, it puts all the focus on me and is, quite literally, all about me. And that, of course, is just silliness.) Now, with this bit of insight into how people work (myself included), I find myself approaching people on a completely different level than what I have in the past.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so glad to hear that you’re finding this useful.

  • Clara

    I definitely use this loophole, especially to justify to myself why I’m not eating vegan even though I believe that would be a very good idea. My parents often eat low-carb meals with a lot of cheese (my mum and me are vegetarians), and when I’m with them I really can’t bring myself to ask for something else. Partly it’s really because it would be quite inconvenient, but a big part is also that I find cheese so very tasty.

  • lannabanana

    This is great, and actually more applicable to me than I’d have thought. I was planning to come here and give my twisted Rebel version–“If I succeed at this, someone else might take credit for it”–which is definitely a well-trafficked loophole in my habit-resistant brain. (I also suspect I’m not alone here, though Upholders and Obligers might tend to care a bit less about getting proper credit for their successes. Or am I reversing this?)

    But the “concern for others” loophole is more variegated than I expected, and I now realize that I use it *all the time.* I never knew I was so covertly accommodating. I wonder how much of my “efforts” not to inconvenience or annoy people actually make the situation *more* awkward? And/or make me resent everyone for “holding me back”? Because that seems to have more historical weight than whatever I’d hoped it would accomplish. Yeesh.

    • gretchenrubin

      You make a very good point – one downside to the “concern for other” loophole is that we use it as a loophole to justify breaking a good habit—but then often resent other people for what we’ve done. Because we’ve done it “for them.”

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    This is my go-to loophole, and, right now, my pup is the ‘excuse’.

    I haven’t been to the gym in three months because of my fear that Oreo – my pup – will feel bad 😉

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    Hey Gretchen

    I have a Ph. D in this loophole 😛

    . For instance, I used my pup as an excuse to not go the gym for three months – “he is alone, he is scared, he will forget me, he will get mad at me” – lol (I can get quite inventive with my excuses)

    However, I do believe there is a difference between being selfish and being self-centered. Being selfish is okay – in fact, it is mandatory, because unless you show up for yourself, you will never show up wholeheartedly for other. When you don’t take care of yourself, caring for others will transform into drudgery, a boring duty/

    That said, being self-centered is a No-No.

    It is one thing to manage your habits productively – for instance, you mentioned having a smaller portion the first time so even the second one will not break your goals. But it is another thing to be toxic

    For years, I was an Anorexic and refused to eat anything in public. If I did, it was limited to salads and diet colas. In fact, I stopped eating at restaurants for two years and carried one paltry slice of bread so no one will force me to eat.

    That is not being selfish – that is being harmful to myself, and being unfair to my partner 🙂 Of course, this is an extreme case, but just thought I’d mention it. (I still struggle every day with my body image issues, but am slowly realizing that when I eat ‘normally’ – without freaking out about carbs or calories or sugar – I eat just enough to fuel me between meals. I don’t binge or starve when I let go of my control just a tad)

    Similarly, I know people with ‘food issues’ – having an Eating Disorder has made me very sensitive towards other people’s eating habits – who refuse to even drink milk UNLESS they pour it out themselves.

    So, yeah, there is a very fine line between being insensitive and being mindful…let’s all be sure to stay on the right side! 😀


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