Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #9: the Fake Self-Actualization Loophole

Green plant leaves

For two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Better Than Before. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to change our habits.

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.

Yesterday was #8, the Concern for Others loophole.  Today…

Loophole Category #9: 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 should enjoy myself.

This is special, I have to act now or miss out forever. (Fast food joints exploit this loophole; customers buy more when a limited-time offer is tied to a season, an event, or a specific holiday, such as pumpkin spice lattes or heart-shaped donuts.)

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.

I should do something nice for myself.

I don’t want to be rigid and obsessive about denying myself this.

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?



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