The Best Way to Break a Toxic Habit? Know Your Loopholes

how to break a toxic habit

No doubt about it, we are living in the era of Big Wellness. Every day we are deluged with content about mindfulness and micro-steps, fitness hacks and Face Gyms. The result? We’ve never been more educated about healthy practices—and never have we felt guiltier about our pleasures. And yet, given all we now know, the science makes clear that some of our bad habits truly are terrible for us. And repeating them indefinitely is getting harder to rationalize. Damn you, Goop. (But also, you know, thank you.)

Are you scrolling yourself to sleep at a way-too-late bedtime? Do you feel you need a glass (or two) of wine every night to relax? Are you avoiding the gym despite your costly membership? Hooking up with your cringe-y ex? Shopping your way into debt? Relying on screen time or sweets as an essential parenting tool? We’ve all got stuff we need to work on—even if most of us don’t openly share our shame.

But even though our toxic habits are somewhat individual, we all justify them according to a universal blueprint.

As defined by happiness and habit expert Gretchen Rubin, a concept called “loopholes” is at the center of almost every poor decision we make. Loopholes are the stories we tell ourselves in order to stay stuck in a toxic habit loop; they’re the excuses we use to let ourselves off the hook, to enable ourselves to avoid doing the things we should do and continue to do the things we know we shouldn’t.  

Once you know your loopholes, Rubin explains, you can use them to dismantle the bad habit—and commit to the good one.  

Rubin offers multiple guides to spotting, understanding and rejecting your loopholes. But first, she defines them. Here are some of our favorites: 

The “false choice” loophole. “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that.” For example: “I can’t find the time to schedule a physical exam with my doctor because I’m too busy at work.” Or, “I can’t make time to exercise because the kids’ needs come first.” Acknowledging this loophole requires understanding that days can be scheduled in time blocks, that time sucks can be avoided (we’re looking at you, Insta), that saying no is just as powerful as saying yes, and that a to-do list is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

The “moral licensing” loophole. Rubin defines this as “I’ve been so good, it’s OK for me to do this.” Where did that entire box of Mallomars go? Right down this loophole, apparently.

The “fake self-actualization” loophole. Or as we call it, the YOLO loophole. “You only live once! Embrace the moment!” writes Rubin of this one. Every unnecessary splurge in our closet started here.

The “planning to fail” loophole. Or what Rubin calls the “apparently irrelevant decision” loophole. This is when we subtly self-sabotage. For instance: “I’m just going to buy some [booze] in case somebody stops by.” Or, “I’m just going to lie on the sofa so I can brainstorm in comfort.”

The “this doesn’t count” loophole. “I’m on vacation” or “I’m sick” or “It’s the weekend.” Rubin writes: “We tell ourselves that for some reason these circumstances don’t ‘count,’ but in fact, while we can always mindfully choose to make an exception to our [good] habits, there are no magical freebies, no going off the grid, no get-out-of-jail-free cards, nothing that stays in Vegas. It’s a Secret of Adulthood. Everything counts.” 

So what do you do once you’ve identified a loophole? Awareness is everything. Once you notice that you are invoking a loophole, focus your attention on it so you’re (hopefully) better able to reject it. “When we try to form and keep [positive] habits, we often search for loopholes, for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation,” writes Rubin. The key is catching yourself in the act of making excuses in real time. “When we spot the loophole, we can perhaps reject the desire to let ourselves off the hook.” Change, she explains, is the result of lots of tiny good decisions piling up. Every time we invoke a loophole to get out of practicing a healthy habit, we chip away at our pile and move ourselves further from our goal.

Damn you, Gretchen! (But also, you know, thank you.)

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