Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #9: the Fake Self-Actualization 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. (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 #8, the Concern for Others loophole.  Today…

Loophole Category #9: the Fake Self-Actualization Loophole.

This loophole  comes in the disguise as an embrace of life or an acceptance of self, so that the failure to pursue a habit seems life-affirming—almost spiritual. But for most of us, the real aim isn’t to enjoy a few pleasures right now, but to build habits that will make us happy over the long term. Sometimes, that means giving up something in the present, or demanding more from ourselves.

You only live once.


I love life too much to deprive myself of this.


It’s too nice a day to spend doing this.


I’ll be sorry if I don’t at least try it.


I should celebrate this special occasion. (How special is it? National Cheesecake Day? A colleague’s birthday?)


I should enjoy myself.


This is special, I have to act now or miss out forever. (Fast food joints exploit this loophole; customers buy more when a limited-time offer is tied to a season, an event, or a specific holiday, such as pumpkin spice lattes or heart-shaped donuts.)


I live in the moment.


I want to embrace myself, just as I am. (I try to remember to Accept myself, and expect more from myself.)


I have to die of something.


I should do something nice for myself.


I don’t want to be rigid and obsessive about denying myself this.


If I don’t make any demands on myself, I’ll feel better.

When I was explaining my Abstainer approach to an acquaintance, she scolded me, “You only live once! Eat a brownie, enjoy life!”

“We only live once, but we live a long time—we hope,” I answered, with some irritation. “I’m happier when I skip the brownie.”

It’s true, however, that sometimes we do want to live in the moment, we do want to take advantage of an opportunity. As with many loopholes, a great way to handle this conundrum is with planning. You’re an adult, you make the rules for yourself, you can mindfully choose to give yourself an exception to a usual habit.

So you might think, “My habit is that I don’t drink at home on weeknights, but next week is our anniversary, so we’re going to have champagne.” Or “I’ve promised myself to work on my thesis every single day, but on the first sunny day about 70 degrees, I’m playing hooky to go for a day-long bike ride.”

By planning for an exception, you stay in control, you ensure that your habits are working for you. Usually, loopholes are invoked in the heat of the moment, in the eagerness to find an excuse to junk a habit.

Here’s a test that can sometimes be useful: how do you feel about your exceptions later? Do you think, “I’m so happy I embraced the moment” or do you think, “Hmm…looking back on it, I wish I’d made a different decision”?

How about you? Do you sometimes invoke self-actualization to justify an action — and then regret it later?

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  • Ana

    Ugh, HATE the “you only live once” nonsense. YES I only live once, so I will live in the way that makes ME happy…not give in to peer pressure to do irresponsible things that I will later regret under the guise of “living fully”. I only live once, so I will save money so I feel secure, and eat well so I keep my body healthy, and go to bed early so I’m not exhausted and crabby all day!

  • Bailey Olfert

    I am really appreciating your loophole series, Gretchen. Lots for me to think about. Thanks!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m very happy to hear that they’re striking a chord with you.

      I must say, of everything I’ve written about for the habits book, I may enjoy Loophole-Spotting the most. I love playing spot the loophole!

  • Jill Douthett

    Planning ahead to live in the moment? I think only you could come up with that one.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m the one who has to put “goofing off” on my schedule.


  • Lynn

    Last week I was growing concerned, because the first four loopholes had me pegged. This week has been easier, since these are loopholes I don’t fall into. 🙂

    I agree with Ana, this one is a real trigger for me when other people use it, because they just seem to need to share it with everyone. I’ve actually had to develop a set of ‘funny-yet-serious’replies for certain occasions, such as being at a work dinner and not drinking. I keep my responses nice, but what I want to say is ‘stop implying anyone not partaking isn’t fun or living fully, it’s actually that you are being rude’.

    I have a friend who is trying to lose weight. She keeps a photo of herself when she was thin on her key chain. If anyone tries to push her to eat or drink something she chooses not to, she shows them the picture and tells them “Achieving my goals is living fully.” That seems to help her in the moment and also stop everyone else from giving her a hard time.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! It’s very helpful to figure out ahead of time how you will reply when someone tries to coax you into breaking a habit. Having an answer prepared makes it a lot easier.
      “If my friend says, ‘You can’t study on a beautiful day! We have to go to the beach,’ I will say, ‘I’ll go after exams are over.’” Or whatever.
      In my vocabulary, this is the Strategy of Safeguards – figuring out what to do to avoid, or to recover from, breaking a habit.

  • This one is a pet peeve of mine! YOLO droves me nuts. Such an immature excuse to accept failure.

    Good loophole meter is counting how many times people use it to accomplish a greater good.

    You never see a frat party screaming “YOLO!!!! We better hurry up and volunteer at the nursing home!!!” or a group of men going “YOLO!!! We better stop drinking every night when I get home from work because I don’t want to set a bad example for my kids!!!!”

    So… since you truly only live once, I’m going to call my wife and tell her I love her! 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Such a funny point! I never thought about it this way. “YOLO! No TV for me.”

  • Allison

    This one is in the air – I just copied down this quote from over at The Art of Simple: “Discipline is choosing between what you want NOW and what you want MORE!” It fits right in with this loophole.
    I agree, but I also think sometimes an unplanned ‘fun’ opportunity is there for you for a reason.

  • BKF

    I am really enjoying the loopholes series and am earning a lot about my mind’s devious ways, but as I said before, I can’t keep them straight (sorry). I feel like the following should belong in one of the categories:”We have always done it this way.” Sometimes (medical) residents will say that he or she has always done a procedure this way and on further questioning it turns out their denominator is pretty low- they may have done the procedure 3 times before! Or a patient had something done before and they did “just fine,” to justify not taking greater care to prevent complications. (Someone could have had the same thing done a week before uneventfully, but they may develop a complication this time if one is sloppy, their condition has changed etc.)

    Also, someone will say,” My grandpa smoked 6 packs per day and he is 100 years old and “completely healthy.” This should fall into some kind of fallacious reasoning category of loopholes….

  • HEHink

    My word for 2014 is helping me to resist using many of these loopholes, including today’s. It’s “Stronger,” and I’m trying to apply it mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually (although I seem to need the most work in the physical and emotional realms). When temptation happens, and a loophole presents itself, I ask “Will this make me stronger?” or “Which option will make me stronger?” The answer is usually pretty clear. Will eating another cupcake make me stronger? No. Which will make me stronger…more time on facebook, or walking the dogs? Hmm, walking the dogs. It makes decision-making a lot easier.

    • gretchenrubin

      What a great word for the year.

      It reminds me of my mantra, to “Choose the bigger life” – but is more applicable to those everyday choices.

      • HEHink


        • lolabelle

          On a similar note, I have chosen the phrase “new joy” as my mantra this year. I am giving up a lot of my old comforts-carbs, tv binge watching, etc, but believing they are making room for new joys I have not yet experienced. I know the joy of a slice of pizza-what else is out there?

  • peninith1

    Wow, the people commenting today seem full of fabulous insights! Love the ‘NOW vs. MORE’ idea and the irony highlighted by applying to YOLO to volunteer work or drudgery.

    My take on YOLO (a common way I find that OTHERS try to get me to deviate from my path) is that’s a justification that should be saved for more or less once-in-a-lifetime opportunities

    In 2008 (5+years ago!) I did agree with my son that it would be a YOLO to go on a cruise with him and his wife and some of her family at Christmas. It was expensive, and not what I had planned, but it truly was unforgettable, wonderful, and a treasure house of memories all of us will share forever. Since they were only two years married then, it was a bonding experience for our families. THAT was worth deviating from my path to do . . . but it was maybe a once-in-a-decade deal. And I made it affordable by volunteering for some emergency response overtime–a second unforgettable experience helping in the Hurricane Ike response and recovery in Texas. Two years ago I helped my other son some with his YOLO–bicycling from coastal NC to New Orleans in six weeks with a friend. He arranged for time off from work. To me, that is a real YOLO experience! A peppermint mocha latte does not qualify.

    Good test–was your last YOLO in this decade? no, maybe you need another one! Last month or last week or ten minutes ago? Are you having too many?

    • BKF

      Sadly, sometimes YOLO leads to “YODO” (You Only Die Once) – unhelmeted +/- drunk motorcylists, diving head-first into a shallow pool, and other risky/unhealthy behavior…. 🙁

      Your cruise sounds like fun and a really good idea, peninth1.

  • I concur. “By planning for an exception, you stay in control, you ensure that your habits are working for you.”

  • Bliss

    More than once this past holiday season I caught myself impulsively reaching for yet another nosh, pouring yet another glass of wine. This all added up to at least a six pound weight gain. I was at my goal weight, now I’m almost back where I was.

  • Chris

    Sometimes by sticking to our habits, it actually allows us to live in the moment once in a while. For example, if you do a little work every day, you’ll have extra time on that nice day to go enjoy it. Whereas if you save it all for Sunday, you’ll be stuck inside. Or if you eat healthy all week, then you can enjoy a little “planned” treat on the weekend!

    • HEHink

      Yes! I live in a place where the weather can be unpleasant for weeks at a time in the summer, so when those rare warm sunny days present themselves, we really want to be able to abandon everything else and enjoy them. I want to make an extra effort this year to use those indoor days (including the current winter ones) to really focus on both keeping up with daily tasks and persevering with longer-term projects, so I don’t feel guilty about doing something fun when we have the conditions for it.

  • Tom

    I identify with all the loopholes except this one. I realized I actually do the exact opposite! For example: “I shouldn’t go out tonight. I could work more” or “I can get more work done if I cut out half of my free time.” In the end I have no time for anything fun, which leads to less productivity! I think this stems from the idea that life is only worth living if you are productive. I think it runs in my family. I made an ice cream once composed of only frozen bananas, so it was healthy, but no one wanted to have more than one serving because they thought it just seemed wrong to indulge that much. I kept insisting everyone have seconds, but they refused, so I finished it all on my own! I call this my “Work to be worthy” loophole. It’s the idea that having too much fun is dangerous!

  • Leonie

    Really interesting article. It’s a tendency of this time to “YOLO”. I see it all around me. I’m 21 years old and people of around my age seem very out of balance. Maybe that’s also because of the age, but society really stimulates us to go over our own boundaries, and now always in a good way. Sometimes one should simply accept that there are certain things that need to be done. You cannot always do what you like. Not everything has to be “fun”.

  • speedingbullet

    Many of your examples relate to food, exercise, and finances but your loopholes are equally valid for relationship issues (flirting, having an affair, etc).

    • gretchenrubin

      Great point.