“Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
-George Washington Carver
I recall that I’ve said that the best place to start is by knowing yourself. Well, if I’m completely honest, I’ll admit that I’m one of the worst when it comes to finding a loophole to justify whatever it is I’m trying to get out of.
What I’ve realized along the way is that awareness is key. Being conscious of what I’m doing can help me to stop finding and using loopholes to sabotage my own efforts.
Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before”, does a nice job of outlining a bunch of common loopholes. As I read it, I was glad that I wasn’t alone….and neither are you! Some examples of loopholes to be aware of:
The “Moral Licensing” Loophole. This is when you justify doing something bad or counterproductive because you’ve earned it by being good. I’m quite good at this one, often justifying a sugary dessert after a few good days of clean eating or exercising. Just as we know that a small, positive act can lead and snowball into a lasting habit or habits, the reverse is also true. We also know that it takes at least 21 days to create a new habit, so a few days of smart eating and exercising do not make a habit. Which is why the moral licensing loophole is a no-no.
The “Tomorrow Loophole”: It is as it sounds. You’ll start tomorrow, so you can do whatever you want today. We all know this is a bad one, yet we all easily fall under it's spell.
Rubin describes the “False Choice” Loophole as where you treat two activities as the only two choices you have even when they don’t necessarily conflict or even have anything to do with one another. She outlined an example of a reader on her blog who declared that her belief was that life was too short and should be enjoyed to the fullest by exploring new countries, new places, and new tastes. The reader’s boyfriend often suggested going to the bar to have a few drinks. She described her two choices as either “eating lettuce” or going to the pub and enjoying life. Herein is the false choice loophole: were those alternatives, eating lettuce or living life to its fullest, the only two choices she had?
Some other common loopholes include invoking “YOLO” (You only live once), for example, “what’s one drink going to matter?”. Like the earlier example, will this one act of indulging because you only live once derail your efforts at creating or maintaining a good habit?
I’m all over this next one. Rubin calls it the “questionable assumption” loophole. It means you assume something to be true and foundational to start or maintain a behavior. Rubin states we need to examine these assumptions as they aren’t always true or even necessary. When we say, “I can’t start working until my office is clean”, ask yourself if it’s really necessary to completely clean your office. Can you clear just your desk and work? Can you tidy up for 10-15 minutes and begin working?
I’m really good at justifying avoiding exercise by saying to myself, “Unless I exercise for at least an hour, it’s not worth it. It takes me 15 minutes to stretch and warm up, and 15 minutes to cool down, and I just don’t have a 1 1/2 hour block of time free.” I need to stop myself when I say this to myself. After all, my doctor was clear in his instructions to me. He said “30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. And you can break up the 30 minutes however you want.” So, this inner dialogue in my head is simply an excuse because I don't feel like exercising.
So, what are some strategies we can use to help us stick to our habits and not self-destruct? A good one is to distract yourself. This means intentionally distracting yourself from the bad behavior that is tempting you. Rubin says,
“Although people often assume that cravings intensify over time, research shows that with active distraction, urges-even strong urges- usually subside within about fifteen minutes.”
Can you find a way to distract yourself from the temptation for 15 minutes? Some suggestions mentioned in the book were simply telling yourself to wait 15 minutes before indulging (and the craving usually went away), taking a whiff of peppermint or grapefruit oil to suppress snack cravings, and doing jumping jacks or something active (i.e. squats, lunges, marching in place) as a distraction. Set a timer for 15 minutes and tell yourself you can have whatever it is once the timer goes off.
And what about rewards? Doesn’t it make sense to reward yourself if you reach your goal(s)? Rubin cautions that you should be careful about using rewards, as “rewards can actually be dangerous to habit formation.”
First, setting a reward for achieving a goal subconsciously tells us that there’s no other reason to do the activity but for the reward. Sometimes rewards can derail our efforts because it causes us to become extrinsically motivated, or motivated only for external rewards. A habit can stick if you find intrinsic rewards in the behavior, meaning you find satisfaction in the outcome without having some type of external reward tied to it. For example, once I started making my bed everyday, the intrinsic reward is the feeling of calm tied to seeing a clean and tidy bedroom when I’m ready for bed. There’s no external reward that I’m seeking. And this is precisely why the habit has stuck.
Another reason why rewards can be destructive to habits is that they require a decision to be made. As you know, a habit is something we do without thinking. Once a reward is tied to the action, you spend time thinking about whether or not you’ve earned the reward. Did you claim to exercise one day when you really only walked for 20 minutes, instead of 30? What if one one of those days you were really lazy, and barely broke a sweat? Did you truly earn the reward? Having to make a decision about a behavior is the exact opposite of a habit.
Finally, Rubin states that having a “finish line” created by the reward helps people reach a one-time goal, but doesn’t help in creating lasting habits. Once you reach the finish line, you’re done. Then what motivation is there to continue on? And why create a habit if it doesn’t stick?
Still, rewards can be used effectively, as long as they’re carefully thought out and intentional. Rubin states a great way to use rewards is to create a reward within the habit, which will encourage you to stick with the habit. Think about it this way: if you are trying to create a new habit of running several times a week, an effective reward might be to buy yourself new running shoes or a cute new outfit. A well thought out reward encourages you to continue with your habit.
The takeaway here: once you’re aware of your tendency to latch onto one of these loopholes to excuse yourself from starting or maintaining a good habit, then you can identify it and stop it in it’s tracks.
Rubin, Gretchen. Better Than Before. Hodder, 2016.