For two weeks, I’ve done 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.
Loophole Category #10: the One-Coin Loophole
One of the most insidious of loopholes is the “one-coin loophole”—insidious because it’s absolutely true. This loophole gets its name from “the argument of the growing heap,” which I learned about in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. (I love teaching stories, koans, paradoxes, fables, etc.) According to a footnote, the argument of the growing heap is:
“If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”
This teaching story highlights a paradox that’s very significant to happiness: Often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time, a sum of those actions is very meaningful. Whether we focus on the single coin, or the growing heap, will shape our behavior. True, any one visit to the gym is inconsequential, but the habit of going to the gym is invaluable.
Pointing to the one coin is a way to deny a conflict between our values: we’re not choosing between our desire for French fries and for healthy eating habits, because eating one bag of fries is an insignificant act. But when we consider the accumulated cost of the French fries, the conflict looks different.
I haven’t worked on that project for such a long time, there’s no point in working on it this morning.
One beer won’t make a difference.
What difference does it make if I spend this afternoon at the library or at a video arcade?
Why work on my report today, when the deadline is so far away?
A year from now, what I did today won’t matter.
A friend told me, “I’ve really changed my eating habits, I’ve lost seventy pounds. A woman in my office uses that against me! She’s always saying, ‘Come on, you eat so well now, one cupcake won’t kill you.’ So I say, ‘You’re right, having one cupcake is no big deal—but I’m not going to have one today.’”
It’s so easy to point out the low value of the one coin. By reminding ourselves that the heap grows one coin at a time, we can help keep ourselves on track.
The Strategy of Monitoring is helpful with the one-coin problem, because monitoring reminds me that my heap is growing—or not. Without monitoring, it’s easy to lose track of what I’ve actually accomplished.
Do you invoke the one-coin loophole? As I said, the challenge of this loophole is that it's true.