Are You Good at Making Excuses?

I was laughing as I read this piece from the satire magazine, The Onion: “Personal Trainer Impressed by Man’s Improved Excuses.

It purports to be an interview with a personal trainer who’s impressed by one of his clients — a guy who has made amazing improvements in the sophistication of the excuses he’s giving for not working out.

“Acknowledging that the progress made in such a short time was remarkable…[the personal trainer said] he is very impressed by the improvement in both the strength and consistency of his client’s excuses…’A few months ago he had really weak pretenses for not sticking to a workout plan, but he’s put in a lot of effort and now he’s sporting much more robust and powerful justifications…After seeing how he struggled early on with a simple excuse about traffic, it’s gratifying to see him push himself and dig deep for rationalizations that more believably exonerate him…[like] tackling a long, grueling story about how construction in his neighborhood aggravated his dust mite allergies.'”

I love this piece, because I love loopholes. Loopholes are so funny.  So imaginative, and so ingenious. We’re like cell phones searching for a signal — as we cast about for an appropriate loophole to let us off the hook.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote 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. ” When we want to find a loophole, we can always find a reason.

Note: with a loophole, we’re not mindfully making an exception, but looking for a justification that excuses us from sticking to a particular habit.

If we can spot loopholes, we can perhaps resist invoking them, and do a better job of keeping a good habit.

The ten — yes, ten — categories of loopholes are:

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 — “the label says it’s healthy”

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?”

I love that the Onion article highlights the point that even if a person’s workouts aren’t improving, he might be improving his loophole-seeking.

What loophole do you invoke most often? I listed my own favorite as #1, the false choice loophole. But I think that others, such as #4 and #6, are more popular.

 

Which Kind of Collector Are You: Aim to Complete, or Yearn to Possess?

“Collectors are basically of two kinds; those who aim at completing a series, and those who long to possess things that have bewitched them. The former, of whom stamp and coin collectors are the obvious examples, enjoy the pleasures of a limited aim, and its comforting certainties. The latter may suffer ups and downs, changes of heart and deceptions, but they have several great advantages. They never know when some new love will inflame them; they learn a great deal more about themselves from their possessions; and in the end they are surrounded by old friends, with long love stories which they must try hard not to tell their friends.”

–Kenneth Clarke, Another Part of the Wood

In both The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, I write about collections — the happiness that they give some people, and why, and my own desire to enjoy that kind of satisfaction.

Do you collect anything — if so, what do you collect? Are you the first kind, or the second kind?

Do You Ever Yield to a Temptation Out of Concern for Someone Else?

I love all fables, paradoxes, koans, teaching stories,  and aphorisms. That’s one reason I love to keep my Secrets of Adulthood — my own contribution.

For this reason, when I was last wandering through the library, I couldn’t resist pulling out William March’s book, 99 Fables.

And I was particularly struck by Fable #4, “The Persimmon Tree,” about a loophole-invoking possum.

In the fable, a possum looks longingly at the delicious persimmons hanging from the fox’s tree, and thinks about how badly he wants one. “’No,’ he said. ‘The fox is my friend and benefactor, and he trusts me. Oh, no!’”

Several days later, he stares again at the persimmon tree, where the fruits had reached their finest flavor. His mouth waters, but he turns away and goes home.

There, he sees his wife, who says, “’What a morning this would be for eating persimmons! When I think how sweet they are…I could break down and cry my eyes out.’”

The possum says, “’That settles it. I’ll take those persimmons if it’s the last thing I ever do…Why, what sort of a creature would I be if I deprived my sweet, faithful wife of persimmons—endangering her health and making her cry her dear eyes out.’”

The fable concludes: “We often do for the sake of others what we would like to do for ourselves.”

In Better Than Before, my book about habits, my favorite chapter (I admit it, I have a favorite) is the chapter on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

I identify the ten — yes, ten — categories of loopholes. (Here’s a list of all ten.) Now, what’s a loophole?    A loophole is  a justification that we invoke to excuse us from keeping this particular action or habit in this particular situation. We’re not mindfully making exceptions, we’re invoking a loophole as an excuse.

The possum is invoking the “concern for others” loophole. We tell 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.

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.

 

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. (This loophole comes up a lot with drinking. Teenagers aren’t the only ones to feel peer pressure to drink, it seems.)

We all have the few loopholes that we invoke most readily. My own personal favorite is the false choice loophole.

Do you agree with the moral of the fable, that “We often do for the sake of others what we would like to do for ourselves”?

Have you ever done something that you thought you shouldn’t, for the benefit of someone else? This loophole is tricky, because sometimes to do that is a form of virtue, and other times, a form of self-deception.

 

Secret of Adulthood: I Wish I Could Not Wish

From Further Secrets of Adulthood.

Do you ever feel this way?

I love any kind of koan, paradox, fables, or teaching story.

Quiz Yourself: What Kind of Play Do You Enjoy?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day — or Quiz Day.
This Wednesday: Quiz: What’s your personality — for play?

As I’ve worked on the subjects of habits and happiness, the importance of play has becoming increasingly apparent to me. For a happy life, it’s not enough to have an absence of bad feelings — we also need sources of good feelings. And to master good habits, we need to feel re-charged and cared for — and nothing is more energizing than having fun. We must have treats! Play is a wonderful kind of treat.

For many adults, however, it’s surprisingly hard to know how to have more fun. If you don’t know what to do for fun, a good question to consider is: What did you do for fun when you were ten years old? Because that’s probably something you’d enjoy now, whether walking in the woods, playing with your dog, making things with your hands, taking pictures, playing basketball, or dancing around the living room. When I was ten years old, I spent hours copying my favorite quotations into “blank books” and illustrating the passages with pictures I cut from magazines. Exactly what I do on my blog!

Because of my interest in play, I read Stuart Brown’s Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.

I was particularly struck by Brown’s analysis of the question, “What is your play personality?” He makes clear that these categories aren’t scientifically based, but a product of his years of observation.

Where do you fit in these eight personalities?

1. The Joker — makes people laugh, plays practical jokes.

2. The Kinesthete — loves to move, dance, swim, play sports.

3. The Explorer — goes to new places, meets new people, seeks out new experiences (physically or mentally).

4. The Competitor — loves all forms of competition, has fun keeping score.

5. The Director — enjoys planning and executing events and experiences, like throwing parties, organizing outings, and leading.

6. The Collector — loves the thrill of collecting, whether objects or experiences.

7. The Artist/Creator — finds joy in making things, fixing things, decorating, working with his or her hands.

8. The Storyteller — loves to use imagination to create and absorb stories, in novels, movies, plays, performances.

I wonder if there’s a #9 — what’s the right word for the person who loves to code? Or maybe that category is bigger, “The Builder,” for people who love to build, but not with their hands, as in #7, but virtually or on paper. Or maybe it’s more about solving puzzles, like the person who loves crosswords, Scrabble, puzzles. Hmmm…I don’t have this quite right…what is it?

What do you think? Does this accurately capture the different worlds of play?

I found it extremely helpful to see these categories, because it made clear some questions that have long mystified me. How is it possible that some people seem positively to enjoy planning big events? Why don’t I enjoy having a collection the way so many people do (though people have pointed out to me that I do have a collection: I’m an avid collector of quotations)? Why don’t I much like playing cards or board games?

I am #8 through and through, with only a bit of #7. How about you? I wonder if some people have strong appreciation for more than a few categories, or if I’m typical, with a strong inclination for a single category.

It’s interesting that his list seems to be more weighted to physical play, and contact with the external world, while my own forms of play are mostly inside my head. Is play more “play” when it takes you into contact with the outer world and other people? Maybe…which makes me wonder: where does a love of playing video games fit in?

Do you see yourself in this scheme? What do you do for play, and where does it fit in here? What would you add?