Video: “I Can’t Stick to My Good Habit, Because I’ll Inconvenience Someone Else.”

In my latest (bestselling) book, Better Than Before, I identify the twenty-one strategies of habit-formation, and one is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the ten categories of loopholes. I love studying loopholes, because they’re so funny. And ingenious! We’re such great advocates for ourselves — in any situation, we can always think of some loophole to invoke.

Well, what is a “loophole?” 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.

In Better Than Before, I describe all ten categories of loopholes; in this video series. I’ll describe them, one by one.

Sixth of ten loopholes: The Concern for Others Loophole. We tell ourselves that we need to break a good habit out of concern for someone else.


Other examples?

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.)

For some people, 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.

Is this a loophole that you invoke? In what situations? I love studying loopholes! They’re so ingenious.

  • Mary Beth

    I’d be interested to hear what others think about the birthday cake example. I actually do think that not partaking in cake in certain situations can come across as rude or holier than thou. Similar: this came up yesterday. My husband and I are planning a long awaited getaway without kids next week. I told him I’m planning on sticking to a strict calorie restriction because I want to lose weight. He found it kind of annoying/disappointing since we want to have fun and reconnect. Eating out and enjoying some meals or dessert or wine is part of the entertainment. Would love to hear others’ take on this.

    • Kate

      Yes – even when you try your hardest, I think some people interpret it as “holier than thou”. Not just with the birthday cake example, but whenever you are offered food or drink.

    • Maxi

      Sure you can eat out with your husband! Not sure why you even mentioned the calorie business to him. It’s your thing, not his. Had you not mentioned it he would never have noticed you were choosing from the lighter side of the menu – all he would have seen was a loving lady eating fish, salad and berries.

      Now you’re afraid he will view it as as your being a spoil-sport but it didn’t need to be raised as an issue at all and should absolutely not be again especially on the getaway. Just make you choices (without any martyrdom which I sense here) and have as much fun with them as you would with sharing heavier fare. Swoon sexily over your shrimp.

      AND : why not use Gretchen’s tactic of …when I am doing X then I can do Y to limit the consequences (it was in the blog entry entry about a guy eating pie on vacation). Like: when I am on a romantic getaway with my husband then I can have a glass of wine with dinner and one dessert a day. Note – it’s only on the getaway and is not a free pass. Choose you exception in advance so you don’t have to make a big deal about what they should be and it becomes a barrier to your enjoyment. And then REALLY enjoy it without guilt. You are making the grown-up choice.

      • Donna Alcorn

        Very well said, what clear insight you have. I agree 100 %. I would love to be able to see situations like this as clearly as you do. GREAT ADVICE

    • Donna Alcorn

      Why would anyone feel they have the right to judge or condem anothers choice ? No matter what occasion it happens to be. I think that is unacceptable behavior and would not associate with anyone like that.

  • Kate

    I have to disagree with Gretchen. As I get older, this obliger is beginning to put herself first and tell people, “No, thank you” when I really don’t want to eat food or drink alcohol. Though I am very careful to be polite, I get a LOT of peer pressure, and, worse, I occasionally get a comment from people that they find me rude not to join in and partake. I think this is ridiculous (I am always clear to say that this is because I am watching my weight, and/or because I truly do not enjoy alcohol). All I can think, is that my overweight friends are pressuring me to eat because my not eating makes them (subconsciously?) feel guilty about not eating, and my alcohol-consuming friends feel (subconsciously?) slightly guilty about their resulting slightly juvenile behavior (which, by the way, I have no problem with).

  • Mimi Gregor

    I think that people try to push you to eat and drink when you don’t want to because it gives them “permission” to eat and drink to excess if everyone is doing it. By being a holdout, they may interpret it as you being “holier than thou”, but that’s just them taking things much too personally. When pushed, I am polite but steadfast in my refusal to partake of more than I want to eat or drink. If they continue to press the issue, it is they who are rude. (Not that I would tell them so. It would be rude to point out their rudeness in this situation.)

  • Jeanne

    This is a tough one, cause it can be a loophole or a genuine concern for the feelings of others. Having junk food around and claiming it is for friends who may drop in (when you’re really always eating it yourself) is definitely a loophole. But the cake and the seconds can interfere with relationships. I like your ideas of how to deal with these, and often these things come up again and again, so we can plan ahead for them. A smile and a warm but firm tone go a long way. My hub is a very limited eater, and though I love everything, because I have made lunch my big meal of the day for so long, I can’t tolerate a large meal after about 5:00. I will literally throw it up if I try to sleep on it. This makes us a pretty disappointing dinner guests. So we do things like drop over after dinner for coffee and such. Sometimes I bite the bullet and deal with the consequences if the dinner party is important enough to me. We’re all such a bunch of weirdos when it comes to what keeps us happy and healthy, so we must learn to tolerate each other with kindness and understanding and get over our own ego stuff about people having to partake of whatever we present to them. But people REALLY have to back off on the alcohol thing. Staying sober is a matter of life and death for some people, and absolutely no pressure should EVER be applied.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    It’s hard to do or not do something good for me when it might cause others to be That has to be my biggest loophole, and probably shared by many other people, mostly women. We are raised from young girlhood to be nice, to be polite, and to have concern for others feelings or well being over our own. This doesn’t have any easy fix.

  • Msconduct

    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.
    Very much so, and it’s culturally influenced as well. My British business partner, a non-drinker, found the only acceptable excuse for not drinking when she was out with UK colleagues was saying she was on antibiotics – so she had the longest infection in history! Here in New Zealand, it’s nowhere near as bad as that, but it says something that in the 1970s a product came out called Clayton’s which was designed to look like an alcoholic drink when it didn’t actually contain any alcohol. It’s long gone from the market, but you still hear people describing something that’s a poor substitute for something else as “a Clayton’s [whatever it is]”.

    • Rachael McGhee

      You made me laugh, Msconduct at the Clayton’s mention. Years ago in a share house we had a cat that used to visit and we called him Clayton – the cat you have when you’re not having a cat!

      • Msconduct


  • I know a lady who says she won’t see a doctor because she thinks it will upset her mother…………won’t the mother be upset also if the woman ends up dying from her ailment?

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s a new one to me!