Video: “You Only Live Once,” “Life’s Too Short to Skip the Brownie,” and the Fake Self-Actualization Loophole.

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.

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.

Eighth of ten loopholes: 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 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.


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?

  • therapydoc

    You go girl, just get better and better. I was cleaning out my blogroll, a disgusting job, and had no idea where to put you, but I think this has to go under “becoming a professional anything”, because professional at being happy has to be good. (And there’s not a lot in there).

  • I agree with your assessment about planning, after all if the results are still the same (e.g., spending too much money or eating too many calories) do the reasons really matter?

  • Natalie

    Life is too short to live unhealthy and die young of diabetes.

    • MaggieRose59

      Ditto that! And how many days are you willing to sacrifice to the MISERY of self indulgence? As Mimi addresses above; when are you going to get it through your thick head that those cookies don’t ACTUALLY make you happy!!!

  • Mimi Gregor

    This is how I can find it easy to pass on alcohol or dessert. I ask myself how I’m going to feel the next day. Do I really want to wake up with a hangover or feel bloated from a meal plus dessert? No, of course not. So by asking FutureMimi how she would feel, I can keep PresentMimi from indulging.

  • Anne

    I like the question about “HOW special is this occasion, really?!” At a family members wedding, for instance, it truly is once in a lifetime, and I’m not gonna spend the entire time counting my calories. But I feel like I do see people at work be like, “it’s Friday! It’s the last day before a vacation! Relax!” etc. It’s Friday once a week!

    I made a “bright line” rule a while ago that I am allowed to eat “store-packaged candy” on Halloween, Easter, and Valentine’s Day. The funny thing is, while I do like homemade treats and make exceptions for those more often, I don’t like that kind of candy very much at all. But it seems like it’s always in your face on those days, and it’s like I need to eat it or I feel like I’m missing out on something. So on those three days, I have as many skittles, m&ms, milky ways, Hershey’s kisses, etc that I want (which is usually way more than a reasonable person would eat, since I’m definitely an abstainer). Those three days are enough to remind me to avoid candy and store-bought chocolate the other 362 days of the year. It works well for me.

  • Joy Palmer

    Just wrote about self-actualisation loopholes, Gretchen (these are my favourite – I’m a pro at them) The ‘I want to accept myself as I am’ is one loophole I invoke a lot, and also one I have contradictory feelings about. As a woman, I know there’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way (increasingly for men too). I want to reject those pressures, but know I sometimes use that as a loophole to indulge in habits I know are not really doing me any good. This is why I think it’s really important to ensure habits aren’t about becoming more ‘worthy’ or ‘good enough’ in others’ eyes (to quote Brene Brown). Recognising if certain habits are actually ‘numbing’ behaviours can help you see if you’re invoking ‘I want to accept myself as a I am’ as a loophole or from a place of worthiness.

  • 5.0Mustang

    I can skip the brownie, but my own personal corollary is … “Life is too short to drive a boring car.”