“Just This Once” syndrome will ruin your productivity – here’s how to stop it
Put the cupcake down and back away from the plate.
We need to talk.
If you’re trying to start something new this year – a new habit, a new business, a healthier lifestyle – you need to deal with one ugly facet of human psychology.
I call it “Just This Once” Syndrome.
What JTOS is
Whether you’ve called it that or not, you’re undoubtedly familiar with it already.
- “I really want to stop putting off work and playing Agar.io all the time… but just this once it won’t hurt…”
- “I know I’m trying to stop getting distracted by constantly checking my e-mail… but just this once it’s OK…”
- “Yes, I am trying really hard to lose weight, and I’ve been really good all week … just this one cupcake won’t kill me…”
Here’s the thing, cupcake.
“Just this once” has a way of becoming “all the time.” And that, my friend, will hurt you. At the very least, it will damage your chances of successfully reaching your goal.
JTOS thinking is some sneaky stuff, people.
It slips up on you, quiet like a ninja, and before you know it, it’s sliced and diced your excellent efforts and pristine intentions into confetti.
You’re left sitting there with buttercream frosting all over your face, sincerely wondering “what just happened here?”
Not that I have any personal experience with this.
(I have a lot of personal experience with this.)
What JTOS isn’t
But let’s be clear. I’m not talking about built-in treats and cheats.
I’m not talking about how, when you’re on a restrictive diet, you sometimes build in little “cheats” to help you stick to your program. Say, the 80/20 diet.
Or how, when you’re trying to conquer distractions, you promise yourself if you work for two hours, you can have 20 minutes to play on Facebook.
That’s not JTOS thinking.
What JTOS is (Part Two)
JTOS is when you want desperately to change a particular behavior, but each time a temptation to fall into old behaviors presents itself, you say to yourself, “OK, I’ll give in. Just this once…”
Why JTOS will defeat you – if you let it
If you’re trying to beat a bad habit and replace it with a better one, you’re fighting some seriously powerful dark sorcery – the sorcery of programmed behavior.
Like it or not, we’re all not that much more evolved than Pavlov’s pups, at least when it comes to changing behavior.
We’re conditioned – sometimes by years and years of doing stuff this way.
So when we tell our brains “OK, brain, we’re not gonna go this way anymore – now we’re going that way,” our brains are all “F*** that noise. This way it is. Onward ho!”
To go that way, instead of our pre-conditioned habitual this way, we have to counter that stubborn blob of grey matter between our ears with even more powerful tools. And at first, it’s like pulling teeth with a doorknob and some string.
Not only do we have to consciously direct our efforts that way, but we have to do it consistently and over a long period of time if we want to retrain the brain to go that way by default.
Some studies suggest we have to force ourselves that way for at least three weeks before it can become habitual. In my experience, however, it can and does take longer – it just depends on the person, the behavior, how long you’ve been doing it and how addictive the original behavior is.
Here’s where JTO derails you: Each slip during that crucial period of conscious redirection causes cumulative damage and delay.
So every single time you allow “just this once” to control your choices, you’re undoing all the work that came before it, and you’re making it exponentially harder to go that way the next time!
Conquering Just This Once Syndrome once and for all
How do you defeat JTOS?
Well, first, the bad news: There is no known cure.
There are, however, a few strategies you can try to keep yourself on track to that way:
Strong “reasons why”: The best defense is a good offense. Make sure you have enunciated – and written down – clear, compelling reasons why you must change. The more compelling, the better. Review them daily, a few times a day if possible. Whenever you feel tempted by JTO thinking, pull out the list and go over it for a few minutes. Remind yourself why you’re doing this.
Get comfortable with uncomfortable: Change isn’t pleasant, guys. It’s going to feel weird at first, and you must get comfortable with this notion. Remind yourself the discomfort is temporary and you’re a grown-up – you can handle it for a few weeks.
Reframe the craving: If you’re sincerely tempted, and find it really hard to resist that temptation, try reframing what the craving means. Example: If you’re trying to quit smoking, and you crave a cigarette, instead of going down the mental rabbit hole of “Oh crap, the craving’s back… I’m never gonna be able to quit… DAMN IT,” try consciously redirecting your thoughts with a new script: “Oh yay, the craving’s back! I wouldn’t have the craving if I hadn’t quit. So this is working. AWESOME!” Sounds strange, I know, and you won’t believe it the first several times – but eventually, you’ll find yourself thinking the new thought and believing it sincerely.
Replace the given-up thing with something better: We humans are odd ducks. We hate the notion of being deprived of something – anything – even if it’s something bad. So instead of just “giving up my free time to work,” try reframing the whole experience in terms of what you’re gaining. Quitting smoking? You’re gaining the experience of smelling much better to everyone around you, not to mention healthy lungs. Quitting procrastination? You’re gaining the sweet, comforting assurance of knowing you’re doing your best and getting your crap done.
Which strategy will work for you? That depends on a lot of factors. My best advice is to try a few or try them all, then retain only what’s effective.
And if you do happen to fall victim to JTO thinking? Well, you’re human. (Sorry to break it to you.) Forgive yourself, formulate a better plan to try next time (and there will be a next time), and move on.
This article was first published on Annie’s blog
Photo: Flickr/ Quinn Dombrowski CC BY 2.0