In this series, I 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.
Yesterday was #6, the "This Doesn't Count" loophole. Today…
Loophole Category #7: the Questionable Assumption Loophole.
A very popular loophole! Consciously or unconsciously, we make assumptions that influence our habits—and often, not for the better. They often become less convincing under close scrutiny. A reader posted a good example: “I set up weird mental blocks around my time. For instance, if it’s 9 a.m. and I have an appointment at 11 a.m. I’ll think ‘Oh, I have to go somewhere in two hours, so I can’t really start anything serious’ and then end up wasting my whole morning waiting for one thing to happen.”
It’s not a proper dinner without wine.
This is taking too long, I should be done already.
I can’t start working until my office is clean.
I need to eat a lot to get good value from this buffet.
People should get exercise by having fun—by playing tennis or going skiing—not by exercising for the sake of exercising.
I’m too busy to take the stairs. It’s faster to wait in this long elevator line.
The label says it’s healthy. (In one study, when a cookie was described as an “oatmeal snack,” instead of a “gourmet cookie,” people ate thirty-five percent more.)
If I do this, my craving will be satisfied, and I’ll stop.
I’ll outgrow this habit. (For years, I assumed I would outgrow my hair-twisting.)
I can’t work out if I’ve already showered.
I’m so far behind, there’s no point in doing anything.
If a little of this is good for me, a lot will be even better.
Everyone’s got to have some vices.
My instructor will be angry with me because I’ve missed so many times.
Dramatically changing my eating habits has allowed me to hit my goal weight, so now I can return to eating normally.
If I wait until I’m more in the mood to do it, I’ll do a better job.
It’s too late in the week to start.
It’s ridiculous to pay for a gym/a trainer/a home treadmill/a personal organizer/a financial advisor to help me with this behavior, when I could do it perfectly well for free on my own. (Especially if you're an Obliger, forming those external systems of accountability are key.)
If I indulge now, I’ll get it out of my system.
People notice what I do. (In a phenomenon called the “spotlight effect,” we assume think that we’re being observed much more closely than we are. In an experiment in which students walked into a classroom wearing a Barry Manilow shirt, they greatly exaggerated how many people noticed the t-shirt design.)
People who follow strict rules will inevitably fall off the wagon.
It would be a good idea to test my willpower.
This will help me sleep.
This will help me concentrate.
If I don’t do this now, I’ll just do something worse later.
It’s not fair that other people should be able to do this, but not me—so it’s okay for me to do it too.
If I indulge massively now, I’ll feel so disgusted with myself that it will be easy to be good.
Unless I can sweat for an hour, it’s not worth exercising.
If I worry about something, I’ll ward off danger.
Insisting that people accept food or drink is a great way to show my love.
I’ll just have a few bites. (A reasonable assumption for Moderators but not Abstainers.)
I should feel stuffed when I leave the table. (The Japanese saying hara hachi bu means “eat until you’re eighty percent full.”)
Doing a lot of research about a healthy habit means that I’m about to start practicing that habit. (A trainer told me that some people ask questions as a way to tell themselves they’re about to start, when in fact, it’s a delaying tactic.)
Watching TV is the only thing to do at home in the evening.
One very sneaky questionable-assumption loophole is the assumption that a habit is so ingrained that we can ease off. “I love my morning writing sessions so much, I’d never give them up.” Unfortunately, we have a tendency to regress, and even long-standing healthy habits can be more fragile than they appear, so it pays not to get complacent. Research shows that people tend to overestimate the amount of temptation they can face.
I experienced this with driving. I’m a fearful driver, and for many years in New York City, I didn’t drive at all. Finally, as part of my Happier at Home project, I tackled this fear and started driving again. I still very much dislike driving, but I do drive, and I aim to drive at least once a week, to stay in the habit of driving. However, I’ve found myself thinking, “Wow, I’m so much less afraid to drive than I used to be. In fact, I don’t think I have to drive once a week anymore.” Hah!
Do you find yourself making questionable assumptions in order to justify breaking a good habit?
One Last Thing
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