Nobody wants to fail. Not consciously anyway. But sometimes not changing is easier than changing. We’ve all experienced this, right? It’s easier to stay in bed than get up and go for a run. It’s easier to leave our money in the old company 401k than figure out what to do with it. It’s easier to stay at the job we don’t love than figure out what we do want to do…
It’s actually Newton’s first law: An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force.
While Mr. Newton was referring to physical objects and the laws of physics, I think this applies equally to the laws of psychology, which is why it’s so much easier to stay where we are than change our habits. In her book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin explores this topic and identifies “loopholes” that help us avoid changing and staying comfortable.
When faced with the uncomfortable challenge of changing a financial habit (and, let’s be honest, they all end up being kind of uncomfortable at first!), our brain can subconsciously look for loopholes that will allow us to stay where we are and not make any progress.
Moral licensing loophole — “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this”
With this loophole, we give ourselves permission to do something “bad” (eat potato chips, bust the budget) because we’ve been “good.” We reason that we’ve somehow earned it or deserve it, or that some “good” behavior has offset something “bad.” I’ve found that in the area of health, I had to “retrain my brain” to associate negative consequences with my perceived treat (that sugar will keep me up all night, or I was so sick the last time I had nachos, etc.).
With money, it might be reminding yourself of how you felt the last time you had a financial issue to head off that “deserving” mentality…and reconnecting that comfort trigger to something non-financial. There’s no free “pass GO” card in real life. Even if you earn extra money this month, that doesn’t somehow negate a bad spending habit, eliminate that debt you have to pay off, or somehow magically add more money to your savings (unless you actually use the money for the right things!).When faced with the uncomfortable challenge of changing a financial habit, our brain can subconsciously look for loopholes that will allow us to stay where we are and not make any progress. Click To Tweet
Tomorrow loophole — “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow”
I know this is HUGE with starting restrictive diets: we have one “last meal” because we’re going to start dieting tomorrow.
I also see this a lot when people start to track their spending, because when you begin, it’s sort of painful to see how you spent money—I equate it to stepping on the scale for the first time in a long time. Some people even fool themselves into thinking that extreme indulgence now will give them more self-control when the magic future day arrives. This means that if you’re thinking of cutting back your spending, you might have a last hurrah and overspend.
This is why I never tell people to budget — or go on a financial “diet” if you will — because it can backfire in a big way. Instead, we need to look at the big picture to create a conscious spending plan that won’t be punitive, so you don’t feel the need to skip a day.
Planning to fail loophole – Apparently irrelevant decisions that have consequences
Do you ever make apparently irrelevant decisions that end up wrecking your good intentions? For example:
- I drove across town to Whole Foods to buy organic broccoli, and I ended up buying their special chocolate decadence torte. Oops.
- I’ll just check my email quickly before I go to the gym…oops, I don’t have time to go to the gym, after all.
- I’m not going to eat anything more tonight, but I’ll go into the kitchen and look in the freezer. Just curious (Oops).
When it comes to keeping our good habits, instead of fleeing temptation, we often arrange to succumb. In what Dr. Alan Marlatt dubbed “apparently irrelevant decisions,” we make a chain of seemingly insignificant decisions that allow us covertly to engineer the very circumstances that we’ll find irresistible. For people trying to get a better handle on money issues, this might look like going out to “just” window shop. Or insisting you need to hop on the Internet to buy one thing, and buying 10 things.
To eliminate this loophole, you usually have to stop the irrelevant behavior — but to do that, you have to pinpoint it. Think about the last time you broke your good habits and went back to a bad one: what decisions precipitated that poor choice or slip up? Again, they will seem unconnected. Maybe you accepted an invitation to lunch with girlfriends and ended up going shopping after. Maybe someone paid back a loan in cash and you didn’t go to the bank right away — so you ended up spending it instead.
Whatever the case, if you can figure out how you’re subconsciously setting yourself up to fail, you can take steps to prevent it. One person I know actually tied a string around his fridge and freezer doors to remind himself not to look in there after dinner. If you need to tie a string around your wallet, so be it! Once you notice yourself using these loopholes, you become more aware of them and can counteract them. That little thought disruption is all you need to start breaking those habits that aren’t helpful and replacing them with new, better ones.