Which of These 10 Categories of Loopholes Do You Invoke?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Quiz Day, or Tip Day.

This Wednesday: the 10 categories of popular loopholes.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been posting about loopholes. I’ve made a study of loopholes as part of my research for my next book, Before and After, about habit-formation. (If you want to be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

I identify twenty-one strategies of habit-formation, and one is the Strategy of Loophole-Rejecting (I just changed the name from “Loophole-Spotting,” because I realized that the point of using this strategy is to identify and reject loopholes. Or do you like the original name better?)

When we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, 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 reject them.

I’ve posted about each of the ten categories, but I thought it would be useful to have a wrap-up post, which include all ten and provides links to each. If you want easily to scroll through them all, start at #10, because each post includes a link to the previous day.
1. False choice loophole “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that” — this is one I often use, myself

2. Moral licensing loophole  — “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this”

3. Tomorrow loophole — “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow”

4. Lack of control loophole — “I can’t help myself”

5. Planning to fail loophole, formerly known as the “Apparently irrelevant decision loophole”

6. “This doesn’t count” loophole — “I’m on vacation” “I’m sick” “It’s the weekend”

7. Questionable assumption loophole

8. Concern for others loophole — “I can’t do this because it might make other people uncomfortable”

9. Fake self-actualization loophole — “You only live once! Embrace the moment!”

10. One-coin loophole“What difference does it make if I break my habit this one time?”

Loophole #5 has sparked the most comments. Which one is most popular, do you think? 1, 2, and 3 are very popular. Also 4. 5 is more common that I first thought. Also 6, 7 of course, 8 comes up a lot, 9, and also 10. Look at that. They’re all popular!

As Benjamin Franklin wryly commented in his Autobiography, “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” We can almost always find a reason, a loophole, that excuses us from following a habit. But when we spot the loophole, we can perhaps reject the desire to let ourselves off the hook.

What loophole do you invoke most often, to get yourself out of a habit that you’re trying to keep?

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  • Mary Whichard Crow

    Thank you! 2, 5, and 8 made me laugh out loud–probably some self-recognition there. I love the focus on habit formation and loophole-rejection. What do you think is behind the loopholes–laziness, fear of failure?

    • gretchenrubin

      Glad you enjoyed the post –

      I think that often we’d like to get ourselves off the hook, and if we can do it in a way that seems reasonable, we’ll do it. Often so quickly that we don’t even really notice ourselves invoking the loophole.

      That’s why Loophole-Rejecting is such an important strategy. By recognizing the loophole, and facing the rationale, we can perhaps reject it.

      • BKF

        Sometimes, it may even be fear of success, don’t you think? I loved this series too. I have had fun trying to side-step my loopholes (Loophole Side-Stepping??) I think number 10 is my biggest weakness (with food and clutter anyway.) For writing projects, it’s #3 (tomorrow.) I like the quote Golda Meir used: “If not now, when?” (“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”-Prophet Hillel)
        Perhaps people have different “favorite” loopholes for various habits?

      • DB

        I prefer Loophole-Spotting to Loophole-Rejecting, because I cannot even consider rejecting it until I have recognized, or spotted, the behavior / rationale / loophole.

  • Laurie Despres

    I like loophole spotting. If we can just SEE them we may have an option to reject. I pictured the 10 loopholes as different kinds chairs in a circle. Some I recognize as favorite chairs of my mother, friends, husband,…but all available for me to sit in. My favorite comfy chairs- 3, 5,8,+9. Number 2 was my mother’s chair. I renamed it Intitiled, As in ” I worked hard today. Iam intitled to do what I want now, chocolate, a vodka. Just now seeing how I’ve always seen this easy sit and with my kids at least have worked hard Not to sit in it. Thank you Laurie Despres

    • peninith1

      SUPER image!

  • Rachel

    This has been a great series. I’m looking forward to your new book.

    • gretchenrubin


  • Shannon

    I do 1-4, and probably do 1 and 2 the most. The false choice loophole comes into play particularly with eating right – on a busy day, I tell myself that it’s ok to get fast food take out because I just don’t have time to cook. Although honestly, I know there are plenty of things I could cook in the time it takes me to go get take out and come back. Moral licensing is a REALLY big thing with eating right – I do Weight Watchers and after a really good weigh in where I’ve lost a couple of pounds, I immediately feel tempted to “celebrate” with dessert or something. But it also comes into play at work, where I will sometimes even tell myself that I’m going to reward myself for, say, an hour of un-distracted work with some goofing off (as if getting a paycheck is not my actual reward for doing my job).
    I’ve really enjoyed this exercise, because it gives me a particular language for calling myself on the desire to cheat. My New Year’s Resolution for this year has been to focus on the good behaviors and habits that make me feel better in the long run (for example, eating fast food and sitting around watching TV makes me feel good for 30 minutes, but eating a well-rounded healthy meal and getting daily exercise makes me feel good every day when I wake up; goofing off at work makes me feel good for a few minutes, meeting a deadline early makes me feel good for days). Spotting my loopholes magnifies the situations in which I cheat, and will hopefully help me to confront myself when I want to cheat.

    • gretchenrubin

      Your point about moral licensing and wanting to “reward” yourself is so relevant to my book Before and After…I have two chapters, one on the Strategy of Rewards and one on the Strategy of Treats.

      Of all the twenty-one Strategies, the Strategy of Treats is the most fun!!!! no reward (which has to be earned or deserved) – just TREATS!

  • It would be really interesting to get advice on how to NOT loophole like this.
    Sure, awareness is the first step but human nature is difficult to beat.

    • gretchenrubin

      My whole book, Before and After, is basically about that! How to KEEP those habits that we want to keep.

  • youonlylawonce

    Definitely #10. Usually I ask myself, “What difference does it make?” If the answer is “nothing” or “very little” I end up not engaging in the habit I want to uphold. Right now it’s working on my physical flexibility. I care a lot about it because of my passion which is martial arts. I’ve never been really good at it in recent memory because I will stretch some days, then end up foregoing it entirely for days or weeks at a time.

    To keep myself accountable I keep a chart to track my progress, tell myself that progress takes time (it’s like taking care of a plant that needs water every day), and pasting quotes about the importance of consistency on my wall (the “spasmodic Hercules” one is my favorite).

  • Suzanne Bergin

    Gretchen – Great series on loophole. Wets my appetite for your new book on habits. I invoke some loopholes more than others but am now more mindful. Thank you.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so pleased to hear that you found this useful.

  • Randee Bulla

    The one-coin loophole really resonates for me. Ever since you told the story about the one coin being the difference between rich or not rich, I’ve tried to keep this in mind, whether it’s finances, projects, eating healthfully, being a good friend, etc. It’s not the one single thing, but an accumulation of enough of those choices that makes one “rich” or not.

  • Jamie

    I also like loophole spotting. the series has been very helpful and timely for me as I began a “walk everyday” habit in January. It’s February and I’m still walking!

    • Jamie

      and it’s “walk everyday” because of your advice that it is often easier to do something everyday than to pick and choose which days to walk. This small habit has had many profound affects in so many other aspects of my life. I am hoping I can continue my very good habit.

  • One coin loophole. What difference does it make if I go back to my old habit this one time. I guess the answer would be – not much – if you go back to your new habit right away, but a lot if you spend your days in a stream of one-coin loopholes.

    Absolutely fascinating and thought provoking, thank you.

  • marissamuffin

    Number 9 is a huge issue for me in social situations. One of my good friends in particular used to bring out my worst spending and eating habits, all under the umbrella that “We’re young!” I still find that I make my best shopping decisions when I go alone because something about being with girlfriends makes me considerably less responsible. Maybe this is secretly #8… if she’s buying a coffee then I MUST get a coffee with her. This is why I don’t hang out with friends very often at all these days. My inability to get past these two loopholes has honestly had a negative effect on my social life. Must mean it’s time to start calling myself out on these loopholes!

    • fred

      get some Mormon friends

  • Molly

    Interesting comment from Franklin. And yes, our capacity to form reasons allows us to find a reason for almost anything, even a sham reason, like those in the loopholes! I am guilty mostly of 3, 4, and 5. After reading the days of loopholes, I finally came to the conclusion that Nike was right after all: Just do it!! The problem is that simple simple advice that would work so well is sooo hard to follow!!

    • gretchenrubin

      This is what the entire Before and After book is about. WHY and HOW can we “just do it.”

      • Molly

        Well, then even more so than before, I absolutely cannot wait to read!!

  • Maurine Jeude

    I rely on all the loopholes, but the False Choice and Tomorrow ones crop
    up the most. How about Closing the Loopholes (which leads to a straight

  • Agnes

    More examples for your “planning to fail”:

    1. I’m trying to eat out less, but I’m going to meet up at 4 pm on Saturday with my friends who always go to restaurants.

    2. I’m trying to eat less of x, but I’m going to show up really hungry to a place where lots of x is served.

    • BKF

      Shopping for groceries when hungry is another one. It’s hard to resist less healthy choices when you are starving!

  • Debra

    I like loophole spotting too. I think the thing about the loopholes is that spotting them is the hardest part. Once you’ve figured out that you are invoking one then it requires different skills/willpower/mindset to stop, but realising what you are doing is the key.

  • Lisa Ham

    Gretchen, I have loved this series! Very insightful. What you said about #6 “This Doesn’t Count” being a particular hazard for your sister really resonated with me. As a freelance editor, I often lose sight of my healthy habits and goals when a deadline is looming. Numbers 3, 6, and 10 all come together for me sometimes: This doesn’t count [because I’m so stressed out over this deadline; nothing else matters so long as I meet it]; I will be perfect starting tomorrow, so what difference does it make if I let go of all efforts at good nutrition, exercise, and sleep for the next two days? Of course, as you say, every day matters. (And I am so looking forward to your next book!)

  • Lynn

    I found 1-4 are totally me! #1, particularly. I’ve asked my family to help me recognize when I’m ‘pulling a loophole’ now. It seems in the moment I’m not always good at seeing that I’m doing it.

    I know it’s a bit off topic, but….Gretchen, I have been wondering – do you think that the loopholes we use are at all associated with our Rubin tendencies?

    • mellen

      Possibly loophole spotting might not be very useful for rebels, as we just go ahead anyway despite ourselves. I know I love going to the grocery store when I’m hungry! “and now despise me if you dare!” (from Pride & Prejudice, ChX)

      • gretchenrubin

        I don’t think Rebels even invoke loopholes; they don’t need an excuse to do what they want.

        • mellen

          I find very often that I plan to do something particular, but then can’t or don’t make it happen. But I’d say that I have reasons for doing what I’m doing, rather than loopholes.

  • nielmalan

    I just made a connection! Part of the answer to the “One Coin” loophole is the shift in focus from achievement to progress (which I learned from James Clear.) If you focus on achievement, on having a big pile of money, one coin is not going to seem like much, compared to the (imagined) pile. But if the focus is on progress, how can I make my little pile bigger, it is obvious that this one coin is important.

    • Charlotte

      When reading the “one coin” post quite a long time ago, I just didn’t get the concept. When Gretchen posted a video on the same subject last year, I suddenly grasped it, and I think about it a lot. The achievement/progress distinction will help me even further. Thanks!

  • Stephsco

    Maybe #1; mine have to do with exercise vs. writing time. I chose writing over my favorite dance fitness class Monday and I hardly got any writing done and felt lousy. Booo.

  • Isabel

    Very helpful–I reviewed each loophole in context of my own habit-changing and came up with a strategy for busting each of them. So I came up with the name “Loophole-Busting” strategies.

  • Holly Sarratt Frye

    All of these loopholes are the effect of letting your brain run YOU instead of using your brain as a tool. Turn off the mindless chatter and listen to the REAL you and it becomes infinitely easier to stay on task.

    • KimC

      Holly, what you are saying is so true, in my experience. The separation of your thoughts from your brain.
      For so long now I have been training my brain to do the things I want it to do. So far, I’ve “cured” tinnitis, snoring (it has greatly lessened, according to my wife. I’m still working on that one), and sleep apnea by thinking positive commands to my brain, even addressing my brain to do so. For instance, “Brain, I ALWAYS keep breathing.” and repeat it often.
      The most amazing thing is that it works!

  • This is great! I love your categories! I did a similar thing with categorizing nutrition/eating excuses loopholes, if you’re interested http://askgeorgie.com/sabotaging-thoughts-part-ii-understand-and-rehabilitate-them/ (but I call then sabotaging thoughts). I’m definitely most guilt of the false choice one myself, as I bet lots of busy people can. It’s easy to fall back on, “oh, I’m just SO busy!”

  • fred

    loophole-closers, exception-eliminators

  • Kathy Pine

    I’m not sure which category this falls under, but currently the big one is “I have to be inspired to do this right, and I am not in the right mood….” Must be #6. Ugh!

    • gretchenrubin

      Ah, that’s a good one!

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  • Billjw

    Thanks for this! I now have to stop what I’m doing and complete the day’s 5km run! (I’d much rather finish this bottle of red!) 🙂

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  • Allyssa

    I use the one-coin loophole, but not in a way you’d think. Since becoming a parent, I hate missing any time with my daughter, especially bedtime, but my job sometimes requires me to travel overnight or get home late. I hate missing the time, but I have to tell myself, missing one bedtime won’t make me a bad parent. Without the one-coin loophole, mommy-guilt would overtake me.

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s a constructive use. You might also try the Strategy of Monitoriing – it helps alleviate guilt when it reminds you of all you DO do.

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