“Just This Once” Syndrome Will Ruin Your Productivity – Here’s How to Stop It

by Annie

in defeating procrastination, vision + goals

Woman preparing to eat delicious cupcake "just this once"Put the cupcake down and back away from the plate.

Or log out of Facebook and close the laptop.

We need to talk.

If you’re trying to start something new this year — a new habit, a new business, a healthier lifestyle — you gotta deal now with one ugly facet of human psychology.

I call it the “Just This Once” syndrome.

What JTO 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 Zuma Blitz on Facebook all the damn time … but just this once it won’t hurt…”
  • “I know I’m trying to stop getting distracted by constantly checking my email … 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 WILL hurt you. At least, it will damage your chances of successfully reaching your goal.

JTO thinking is some sneaky shit, 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 freaking confetti.

And you’re left sitting there with buttercream frosting all over your face, sincerely wondering “what the hell just happened here?”

(Not that I have any personal experience with this.) (I have a lot of personal experience with this.)

What JTO Isn’t

But let’s be clear. I’m not talking about built-in treats.

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 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 JTO thinking.

What JTO Is, Redux

JTO is when you want so much 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 JTO 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 “Fuck that noise. This way it is.”

To go that way, we have to counter that stubborn blob of grey matter between our ears with even more powerful tools. And at first, it’s gonna be like pulling teeth with a doorknob and string.

Not only do we have to consciously direct our efforts that way, time and time again, 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. Studies suggest we have to force ourselves that way for at least 3 weeks before it can become habitual. (In my experience, 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.

And each slip during that period of time causes cumulative damage and delay to the process. 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 Once and For All

How do you defeat JTO?

There are a few strategies you can try to keep yourself on track to that way. Which ones will work for you, again, depend on a lot of factors. So try ’em and retain only what’s effective.

  • 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, 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. 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 directing 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, but it works.
  • Replace the given-up thing with something better: We humans are odd ducks. (You know what I mean.) 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 shit done.

Over to you. How do you deal with “Just This Once” thinking? What works for you?

Photo Credit: .Andi. via photopin cc

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Irving February 9, 2014 at 3:30 pm

OMG!! I love it! JTO is a great principle! I have fallen into this many times myself. You rationalize with yourself, even argue with yourself (how’s that working for ya honey?) But your article is so right-on! Thank you for such an entertaining and helpful post, I loved reading it. I’ll look forward to your next post!
Irving recently posted..RUSHFIT Work Out!


Yvonne McQuarrie July 22, 2016 at 7:25 pm

Oh, Gosh. I really liked this article, it’s written in 2014, but the problem is timeless.

A fear of living a comfortable zone and dealing with something new make us do JTO. Plus, we think we’re saving time by JTO, but for what exactly? Checking Instagram, Facebook and so on and so forth?

Admitting the problem is the first step to “recovering”.

Thank you, Annie!


Denica August 25, 2016 at 10:07 am

So this is what I am an often victim to. JTO, I shall fight you! I would suppose it comes from the fact whenever we start something new, we are somewhat afraid of the results. Anyway, thanks for the nice article. 🙂


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