The majority of actions we undertake each day, both good and bad, are done so habitually. To change your habits is to change your life. But altering habits is harder than it may at first seem.
By their very nature, habits are actions we do without thinking, so changing them requires serious introspection, then continued consolidatory mindfulness. But once set, good habits are the most powerful ally requiring no willpower at all.
The Freudian danger lurks, as it often does, in the unconscious. We have a remarkable capacity to dismantle our good habits using pernicious forms of self-deception.
The seemingly benign ‘loophole’ is the Trojan horse that carries the unwanted cargo of self-delusion, in some cases willful, often unknowing, but always damaging.
A loophole is a story we tell ourselves, a false- narrative that justifies breaking stride with a good habit. We aren’t mindfully planning the exception in advance, or acknowledging that we’re making an exception; we’re finding a loophole – usually on the spur of the moment – that lets us off the hook.
Consider False Licensing where we give ourselves permission to do something bad because we’ve been good. We reason that we’ve earned it or deserve it. Ex: I’ve worked out every day this week, so I’ve earned this chocolate cake. Or abdicating personal responsibility completely, leaving it all to your ‘future self’. In Future Self Responsibility “now” doesn’t matter because we’re going to follow good habits tomorrow. Ex: I’ll start my diet when I return from holidays.
In some cases, the self-deception is ingeniously constructed. Setting up a False Dichotomy by placing two activities in opposition, as though you have to make an either/or decision, when in fact, those two aren’t necessarily in conflict. Ex: If I get up early for that spin class, I’ll be too tired for my meeting this afternoon.
Equally innovative, and a touch comical is our ability to convince ourselves of our own lack of control, as though we are possessed by a force over which we are powerless. We argue that circumstances compel us to break a habit, but often, we have more control than we admit. Ex: When I get coffee at that cafe, I absolutely have to get a muffin; I can’t do that 6am class, I’m just not a morning person.
A conscious desire to keep up the appearance of sustaining a good habit is often undermined by a subconscious determination to indulge. The self-deception lies in the fact that we excuse ourselves the indulgence on the grounds that it couldn’t be helped. Take, for example, Planned Failure. Instead of fleeing temptation, we plan to succumb in what are seemingly irrelevant decisions that allow us covertly to engineer the very circumstances that we’ll find irresistible. Ex: I’ll buy some wine to have in the house in case someone stops by; I’ll quickly look at Amazon to relax before I start this report.
We make Questionable Assumptions that influence our habits – often, not for the better – and many of those assumptions become less convincing under close scrutiny. Ex: I need to get value from this all-you-can-eat buffet, so to not overeat is short-changing myself; It’s “natural” sugar, therefore it’s healthy. When all else fails why not just simply tell ourselves that This Doesn’t Count. Ex: It’s my daughter’s birthday, so the cake I’ll eat doesn’t count.
There’s also a level of artful fakery at play in many instances. For example, Fake Altruism Masking Weakness: We tell ourselves that we are acting out of consideration for others and making generous, unselfish decisions. Or we decide we must do something in order to fit into a social situation. But what’s really happening is that we are
inventing a “cover story” for ourselves in order to justify indulgence. Ex: It will hurt my girlfriend’s feelings if I leave to go for a run; It will be rude if I don’t eat the dessert my friend made; So many people need me, there’s no time to focus on my own health; I don’t buy this bread and ice-cream for myself, it’s for the kids.
Drifting into the realm of the sanctimonious is a form of indulgence seeking behaviour that hides its tracks under the cover of a faux “spiritual awareness”. This Fake Self-Actualisation is a loophole disguised as an embrace of life or an acceptance of self, so that the failure to pursue a good habit seems life-affirming – almost spiritual. Ex: YOLO (you only live once); I should celebrate this special occasion by getting drunk – to not do so would be to accept that I am a boring person; I love sweet things and I need to embrace myself just as I am.
Erasmus was a Dutch Humanist and the greatest scholar of the Northern Renaissance. His book In Praise of Folly contains the “One Coin” parable. It is a wonderful metaphor for the single act as a builder of good habit, and ultimately, profound change. The argument is, one coin isn’t sufficient to make a man rich, a man can only become rich by adding one coin after another. Any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet the sum of those actions is very meaningful. If we choose to focus on the single action (coin), the accumulation of action (coins) will shape our future behaviour. Ex: Anyone visit to the gym is inconsequential, but the habit of going to the gym is invaluable. The mere act of adding one coin to the heap strengthens a habit, just as each subtraction weakens it. So each coin is actually two coins: the healthy habit itself, and the protection and reinforcement of that habit.
Build your mountain of coins by consolidating your healthy habits, and by catching yourself in the act of subtle ‘loophole’ self-deception, you can stick to the habits that you want to foster.