Want To Break that Good Habit, Just This Once? How To Avoid Backsliding.

I’m working on Better Than Before, a book about how we can change our habits. The most fascinating subject ever.

In it, one thorny question that I tackle is: How can we make an exception to a good habit, without disrupting that good habit altogether? After all, sometimes we do want to break a habit—to take advantage of a rare opportunity, say, or to celebrate.

A very effective safeguard for that situation is the planned exception, which protects us against impulsive decisions. We’re adults, we make the rules for ourselves, and we can mindfully choose to make an exception to a usual habit by planning that exception in advance.

When we plan an exception we feel in control of ourselves — we’re not breaking a habit willy-nilly, or invoking one of the 10 categories of loopholes at the last minute, to give ourselves excuses. And we feel happier when we feel in control of ourselves and our actions.

Exceptions work best when they’re limited, or when they have a built-in cutoff point. This morning, a friend told me how he’d used a planned exception mindfully to depart from his usual habit of eating only low-carb foods.

Many people tell themselves, “I’m on vacation, I should treat myself, I deserve it, I can’t resist these pies, you only live once!” And they completely abandon their good eating habits. My friend wanted to indulge, but in a limited way.

“When I was staying in a cabin in Montana, I ate almost all my meals at a restaurant that was famous for its pies,” he told me. “People came for miles to get these pies. Before I left New York City, I decided what my pie policy would be.”

His pie policy? One slice of pie at every meal. He told me his thinking, and I was struck by how many good ideas he combined.

1. “If I’m in Montana, then I will eat this way.” “If-then” planning is very effective; by deciding in advance how to behave, we make it easy when the time comes. Also, an exception that exists only in Montana is self-limiting. My friend loves pie, but he’s not going to make a special trip to Montana just for a piece of pie.

2. “I get one slice with every meal, but only one slice.” Yes, he had pie with breakfast, too (pumpkin-tofu or peach pie), and at every meal, but only one slice. Bright-line rules — that is, clearly defined rules or standards that eliminate any need for interpretation or decision-making — are very helpful.

3. “I didn’t take a pie back to the cabin; I could only eat it at the restaurant.” In previous years, he’d sometimes skip the pie at a meal, and take a pie (or two) home to the cabin, and eat it throughout the day. This kind of eating prevents monitoring — which is part of why it’s appealing — but we do much better when we monitor ourselves. 1 slice/meal = very easy math. The Strategy of Monitoring is one of the most important habit strategies; we do better with just about everything when we monitor.

4. “I broke my low-carb rule to eat pie–but only pie.” After the first few days, my friend said, he started to think, “Boy, a little ice cream would be great, and there’s a great ice cream place near here.” But he knows himself, and he knew that if he went from pie to ice cream, then soon he’d be eating bread and pasta, too. So he had pie and only pie.

5. “I knew I’d enjoy my vacation more if I had the pie.” For good habits, it’s very important not to allow ourselves to feel deprived. When we feel deprived, we start saying things like “I deserve this,” “I need this,” and “I’ve earned this,” and then we treat ourselves — often very unhealthfully. By figuring out how to keep himself from feeling deprived, he didn’t get in that “life isn’t fair” mode, he gave himself a treat, and he really enjoyed something special about his vacation.

Note: my friend is an Abstainer, and this approach worked for him. I’ve found that many Abstainers are mostly Abstainers; yes, they do better when they abstain than when they try to indulge in moderation, but every once in a while, they indulge.

By contrast, I’m a total Abstainer. You wouldn’t believe what I’m abstaining from these days. (For a hint, read here and here.) But to my surprise, I’ve come to realize that I’m a very unusual type, a real extreme personality. Which, by the way, was a surprise to no one but me.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: If we want ourselves to keep going, sometimes we need to allow ourselves to stop. Have you found ways to keep your good habits, mostly, and yet take breaks occasionally?

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • This is a really important idea. Are you familiar with the concept of the “akrasia horizon”? It’s related. I think it was invented by the beeminder guys, Quote from their blog “Akrasia Horizon: The time horizon beyond which you can make rational decisions, undistorted by akrasia”

  • Here’s the link to the article: “Flexible Self-Control” by Daniel Reeves http://blog.beeminder.com/flexbind/

  • These are great tips. I love the “pie policy.” Feeling deprived often leads to a binge so having conscious awareness and personal “pie policy” is a marvelous way to indulge in a sensible manner.

  • phoenix1920

    I’ve gone on a similar low-carb method of eating, but for myself, that in order to ensure this is a life-style change and not a diet, I keep this method in balance. Dessert is the hardest food to shift to low-carb, but I have permitted myself to have one bite of a dessert after dinner IF I feel the need. (Generally, I enjoy fruit as a dessert.) I noticed that limiting myself to one bite helps me to enjoy the dessert even more. The first bite of a dessert is shockingly sweet and yummy and . . . But with each repeat bite, I already know how it will taste–the impact of the “Ohhh, my!” is lessened with each bite. Keeping this in mind doesn’t make me feel deprived by limiting myself to one bite. I get all the yumminess of that first bite, and then I turn to fruit or yogurt if I need something more.

    • gretchenrubin

      Spoken like a true Moderator!

  • Lisa H

    As an extreme abstainer this whole thing makes me nervous. I don’t do alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or significant carbs of any kind. To me this is a slippery slope where I end up in the mental game of “Well I was able to eat just one slice of pie this time, maybe it’s ok to have pie in the house” sort of thinking that is always my undoing. I’m happy for those who are able to do this but I don’t consider myself to be one of them. Abstaining is infinitely easier than playing around with it, even with parameters.

    • gretchenrubin

      I know what you mean – I’m a 100% Abstainer myself.

      For a long time, I couldn’t figure out the “mostly” Abstainers. How could they abstain, mostly? I could only imagine abstaining totally. THAT’s what easiest! I thought that surely they’d eventually backslide all the way.
      But from what I’ve observed, many successful Abstainers — my father and my strength-training trainer, for instance – do use this approach.
      But I’m with you. 100% is easiest.

  • Donna

    Gretchen, will you be doing a post about all the things you are “abstaining from these days”? You’ve mentioned that a couple of times and now I’m curious. 🙂 (If that is something you feel like sharing, of course.)

    • gretchenrubin

      I write about it in Better Than Before, and I need to write a post about it. Thanks for the reminder —
      But in a nutshell, I eat very low-carb. VERY.

  • MJ

    Great post! I’ve been grappling with this. Since abstaining for me is easier, I find it incredibly challenging to have our social lives revolve around restaurants and decadent home-cooked meals. I value the company, the atmosphere, the food– all the good parts — though how to keep it to an evening here and a celebration there has been a major challenge.

  • I’m going to forward this to my darling daughter, the Abstainer of the family.

    Here’s what I do: “Tomorrow’s another day!” and then I “try, try again.”

    Does this fit the profile of a Questionner?

    Debbie (the Questionner)

  • Diana

    This is brilliant. I am a low carb eater too, and I have been struggling with how to build in some flexibility so I can maintain this habit (I am a moderator at heart). I really like the idea of the “planned exception”

  • Judy

    Your friend solved the “famous pie” problem with a well-planned policy that let him expand the enjoyment of his Montana vacation to include all of his senses. I’ll bet he had a great time and did not add a quarter-inch to his waistline.

    • gretchenrubin

      He spoke very lovingly of the 18 pieces of pie he had!

  • Maryalene

    I’m intrigued! What are these famous Montana pies??

  • Barbie

    I have been an abstainer from many things for several years and I regularly add to the list. There are foods that are not allowed in my house. There are a few others that are allowed only on planned occasions and very rarely. I eat no ice cream or desserts of any kind except once a year at the Lavender Festival near where I live when I have one scoop of lavender ice cream in a cone. I learned from a friend who replies to offers of food she abstains from “That’s not my food”.

  • HEHink

    Thank you for sharing this distinction about abstainers. One, I like the sense of openness it shows about you when you are willing to share how your ideas change as you explore this topic. And two, It’s helpful to know that differences exist even among abstainers. I think the planned exception makes the strategy of abstaining accessible to, and probably more successful for, more people than 100% abstaining. This is basically what I’ve done about Oreos for a long time. I only buy them when they are on sale, only one package, and then only if I am at a point when I feel a treat is necessary or I need to not feel deprived. There have been several times they have been on sale and I haven’t bought them, because I found I didn’t really want them all that much. And I don’t really worry about how many I eat when I get them – there are enough other Oreo eaters in the house that I know I wouldn’t be able to eat the whole pack even if I wanted to!

  • PNW Gal

    Gretchen I so LOVE reading your blog. I brings a smile to my face. It is thoughtful and enlightening. I

    • gretchenrubin

      Thank you!

  • ChrisD

    An issue for me in sticking to my diet, is when I go to stay with friends. Being a low maintenance guest and eating whatever I am given are ALSO strong values of mine. Therefore I feel I am strict at home so I can afford to not worry when I am away (it’s not as if it is every weekend). So when I was in Switzerland I enjoyed my aunts potato salad and the excellent homemade bread (my favourite bread), and look forward to returning to my own cooking when I get home.

  • Jules

    I have a similar rule with ice cream. There is a wonderful ice cream place we pass on the way to one of the two cities we visit from our rural home. I can only have ice cream there and only on the way home (it’s on the correct side of the road for stopping) I always have the smallest cone they offer. It is a real treat and as an abstainer who otherwise eats low carb I find this lets me enjoy a treat fully, very occasionally, without ever debating it at any time. The first time I instituted this kind if rule was when I visited Disneyworld, in Florida. I ate ice cream every day. No other treats just ice cream and it replaced a meal (no, that’s not healthy but it was for seven days and I am an adult!). As I live in New Zealand I felt very comfortable implementing that as the odds are I will never visit there again!

    • gretchenrubin

      Great examples. Ways to enjoy the occasional treats/experience without it disrupting the ordinary habit for yourself.

  • Ti

    AS a moderator and rebel, the idea of saying I can never have or do something triggers my “you’re not the boss of me” instinct, even if I’m the one setting the rule. I’ve been a vegetarian for 21 years, but I don’t tell myself that I “can’t” have meat. Being vegetarian makes me happy, so I don’t eat meat. (Sounds like classic rebel to me.) I don’t eat much added sugar, because it affects me so strongly, but I don’t have a rule about it. I wonder what the moderator/abstainer breakdown is for rebels?

  • Monica V Loncola

    Hi Gretchen,
    I love your articles! I especially like the “Montana Pie Line”. The moral of your story can be applied to all areas…
    Very effective… I also love the picture of all the pies! Reminds me of a Wayne Thiebaud painting. I am a culinary illustrator and love to draw all kinds of patterns with food & the like. Thanks for this share. I’ll keep your advise close.

  • Great method: ‘Planned Exception’. I learned also (from Mark Samuel) ‘Pro Active Recovery’ which means: Plan also what you do when things go wrong. So you are prepared when it happens and you don’t go down al the way.

  • Kara Russell

    I read “The Happiness Project” because it was suggested on Oyster! First time I’d heard of you, actually. :/ But it was such a good read! Can’t wait until your new book comes out!

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s out! Better Than Before, came out in March.

  • Everything in moderation including moderation