Gretchen Rubin

A Little Happier: Ever Thought, “It Doesn’t Matter If I Go to the Gym Today?”

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As I often mention, I love all teaching stories, koans, parables, aphorisms, maxims, epigrams, proverbs, and the like. And this story is one of my very favorites.

I wrote about it in Better Than Before, my book about habit change. In that book, I identify the 21 strategies we can use to make or break our habits, and one important strategy is 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 -- all popular, all powerful! Loophole Category #10 is the One-Coin Loophole.

This loophole gets its name from this teaching story, which is called “the argument of the growing heap,” which I learned about in Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly.  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 and habits: 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.

The insidious thing about the one-coin loophole is that it’s always true, and it always applies. Have you ever found yourself thinking…

  • 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 a few hours this afternoon at the library or watching TV?
  • Why work on my report today, when the deadline is so far away?
  • A year from now, what I did today won’t matter.

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.

Have you ever caught yourself invoking the one-coin loophole? If so, what was the context? I'm always so curious to hear how people use the loopholes. It was definitely my favorite chapter to write.

If you want to read more about the one-coin loophole, and the other nine, extremely popular and powerful loopholes, check out my book Better Than Before.

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