Just This Once

Button that says "push once"

Have you ever succumbed to temptation with the rationale of “just this once?” Did you end up doing it again and again? These words can be dangerous, because once we’ve let ourselves off the hook, we are more inclined to do so again. A phrase like this can swallow our good intentions whole.

In my experience, most people are smart and well intentioned. They have a clear understanding of what they can and should do to be efficient and effective. The trouble typically surfaces in the follow through. The truth is that consistent action is simply more difficult than planning. Many people start strong, but few finish strong… and finishing is what makes us feel accomplished and confident.

On the one hand, the idea that it is possible to periodically let down and slide off track seems harmless. We tell ourselves…

It won’t matter if I splurge on a pint of Ben & Jerry’s “just this once.”

No permanent damage will be done if I go to bed “just this once” without setting up everything I need for tomorrow.

“Just this once” I’ll leave my iPad in the car while I run in to the grocery store. I’m sure no one will steal it.

I’ll clean up the playroom by myself, “just this once,” and get the children involved tomorrow.

One could argue that this is not really so bad. After all, we can’t be perfect every moment. Furthermore, there are many times when we can relax “just this once” and everything turns out fine. Unfortunately, this is the danger! As long as there is a chance that we can ignore the voice of self discipline and ‘get away with it,’ we are likely to take the path of least resistance. In contrast, if we know something will have a negative result, we are not tempted to try it. For example, I’ve never heard anyone say, “I hate the traffic on this bridge so ‘just this once’ I’m going to drive off the edge and take a shortcut to the other side through the water.”

I once watched an eye-opening documentary about the addictive risks associated with playing the lottery. The movie made the point that one of the worst things that can happen to a person is winning the first or second time that he/she plays. The quick and easy payoff makes the odds of winning seem much larger than they actually are.

In contrast, if we repeatedly play the lottery and never win, we will have a healthier understanding of how low the odds of winning actually are, and are therefore more likely to lose interest. When my children were little, we used to all call out three number sequences when the lottery came on the TV in the evening. Not one time, in all our years of doing this, did any of us get the right number. Clearly, the odds of matching three numbers in the right order are fairly low.

Either way, the possible results of letting things slide with the rationalization that we will do it “just this once” are risky. Either…

Outcome #1: There is no negative consequence.

While this doesn’t seem like a bad result, it actually is. Each time we rationalize an unhealthy pattern and experience no detrimental penalty, we increase our odds of repeating the behavior and sabotaging our success.


Outcome #2: There is a negative outcome.

Falling short or experiencing painful consequences makes us feel inadequate, draining our confidence and willingness to try again.


Obviously, there will be times in our lives when we must abandon our normal routine in order to deal with extenuating circumstances. Life during the “stay at home” mandate has meant that almost everyone has had to be flexible. Our spaces may not look the way we would ideally like, and we may not have the time or environment we need to perform optimally. There will undoubtedly be seasons (e.g. illness, family emergencies, after an accident, when a new baby arrives, during a relocation, etc.) during which we have to lighten our grip and adapt.  

The key, however, is to resist the urge to slack off when there is no serious reason to do so. Rationalizations such as, “I’m tired,” “I just don’t feel like it,” and “I really don’t want to” are more excuses than compelling circumstances. When you feel yourself slipping into the phrase, “just this once,” try to recognize it for what it truly is – a lie with the power to derail your success.

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When was the last time you let yourself off the hook with the phrase, “just this once?” Have you ever had this phrase turn into an ongoing pattern?

28 thoughts on “Just This Once”

  1. I have totally done this with food in the past. I can usually be pretty good diet-wise. But every so often I will veer off and tell myself, “Just this once.” So, I guess there is that. As for the consequences, well the scale tells the tale usually after it. But again, I usually am good after indulging my craving to make me not need to eat the same food at least for a bit.
    Janine Huldie recently posted…Family Media Device Agreement Printables to Help Limit Screen TimeMy Profile

    1. Same here, food is a temptation – especially when home all day, right? I think it is good to allow ourselves to have some treats, and just have an idea of where those boundaries are. Then we don’t need to feel guilty, but see these indulgences as part of our overall food plan. That said, I’m looking forward to a few summer treats – I can feel the summer weather in the air. Come on, sun!!

    1. I was thinking the same thing!

      I can’t think of a recent example, but going back to my younger days, I discovered that if I missed something – whether it was a class, Sunday school, or some other activity – it was so much easier to miss it again, and possibly end up never going back.
      Janet Barclay recently posted…How to Create a Captivating Blog PageMy Profile

      1. Great example, Janet. We shouldn’t expect ourselves to be perfect like robots, and building in a bit of slack into our routines is actually very healthy! Still, when we make excuses for behavior that we honestly know is detrimental, we run the risk of sabotaging our goals.

    2. Totally agree, Hazel. The mental process behind the two is the same. At their core, these are rationalizations for behavior we know will be less than ideal at best and potentially damaging at worst, but we still do it. The more frequently we succumb, the more set into bad patterns we become. (wow – that even rhymes!)

  2. One of the things at play here is that it’s incredibly challenging to be disciplined in all areas of our lives ALL the time. I say this from the perspective of being a disciplined person. But I recognize that I’m human, and it’s just not sustainable to prioritize all areas. For me, I need some places that I can be looser in so that I don’t make myself crazy. I see this with meal planning and exercise. I am not a meal planner in the traditional sense with charts, graphs, and menus. I’m much more casual about it. I have the basics available and then work more spur of the moment or day. With exercise, I don’t do running or weight training. Instead, I love to walk and do yoga. I find them enjoyable and beneficial. There are also times when as disciplined as I am, I need to give myself a free pass. Perhaps it’s similar to the “just this once,” but I see it a bit differently. I use it when I know I need this for my wellbeing. It’s not necessarily the easier choice, but it’s the choice that is important at that moment. And the other part is that when I do deviate, I try to be gentle with myself instead of being harsh. I reset for the next day.

    1. I think a certain amount of “slack” should be built into our disciplined lives. We cannot expect to be operate like machines, right? We should allow ourselves a treat on Sundays or a morning when the children don’t have to make their bed. Embedding these moments into our routine is a way to live as humans AND live a disciplined life. The temptation we want to avoid is not doing what we have mentally chosen to do. If we decide to hang our keys on the hook near the door, then it is important to follow through, especially while establishing the new pattern. Letting ourselves off the hook for things we want to do can start us down a path we don’t wish to follow.

    1. Thank you, Diane. It is sort of like the old Lays potato chip tag line, “Nobody can eat just one.” I know I can’t eat one potato chip, so when I pull out the bag, I need to know that I’m choosing to indulge. A bit of slack and indulgence is healthy, and should be part of our routine. Still, when we use these words to justify a behavior we honestly are trying to avoid or change, we will likely disappoint ourselves and sabotage our success.

  3. Just this once, I won’t prep my meals for tomorrow…
    Just this once, I won’t fill out my food journal…
    And those few justs turn into days of catching up. If I don’t have my meals ready to go for the day, they’re going to be catch as catch can. Which make it more likely that the task will seem insurmountable tomorrow. And by the end of the week, the concept of meals on time will be just a memory 🙂
    Lucy Kelly recently posted…Catalog Your ClothesMy Profile

    1. That’s pretty much the pattern, Lucy. Once we start down the road, it is so hard to turn around and climb back up onto the better path!

  4. I do find that I do “just this once” with my diet. You see, I have food intolerances. So, I would need to stay away from certain foods all the time. But, sometimes, “just this once” happens. Most definitely, I would have a reaction to the food I ate. I have to remember not to judge myself for doing this because it will just hurt me emotionally.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…5 Areas to Organize when It Is Hot OutsideMy Profile

    1. That is so hard, Sabrina. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. I have friends in similar situations, and it is so hard to resist the urge to give in, even when you know a bad reaction might be coming. It all comes down to priorities… is the brief indulgence worth feeling badly the next day? There may be times when it is… but most of the time, it probably isn’t!

  5. Jon Acuff, in his wonderfully insightful and funny book, Finish, refers to “just this once” as “The Day After Perfect.” The point he makes is that it is our *perfectionism* that turns one slip-up into total disaster. For example, the one day that we miss our workout makes us abandon the whole endeavor. He posits that if we enter into the overall goal of working out regularly with the idea that it’s not going to be perfect that we can better handle our “just this once” slips. Perfectionism tells lies, and Acuff says that the first lie it tells us is to “quit if it isn’t perfect.”

    1. I think that makes perfect sense. We should build in a bit of margin, say allow ourselves to skip one day or indulge once a week. Then we will not see this as an utter failure in our attempt to achieve perfection, and will be able to continue moving forward. Thanks for the comment!

  6. This is a great subject to blog about! I call it the “slippery slope.” We may think it is a just once, and find it is an always. I avoid the slipper slope by being very clear about the negative consequence with myself. If I do it once, it’s likely forever.

    1. Once we slip up we are more likely to do it again. Unless we have planned a bit of “slipping up” into our schedule, such as a splurge day when we are dieting, or a day off of making the bed each week if we hate that chore. Without parameters, we can end up rationalizing our way right out of our goals!

    1. If I eat the whole bag of popcorn instead of a bowl… I have the problem too. I do try to plan in a few splurges and “breaks” from my routine, as I know I am not a robot who can be perfect. But it is the times I rationalize an excuse that get me into trouble.

  7. “Just this once” is so much a part of human nature. Depending on our influences, the circumstances our interests other factors beyond and within our control certainly contribute to this.
    Sure, I’ve fallen asleep with my make up on, bailed out on an exercise class, ate something that was sinful yet sinfully delicious, didn’t put something away right then and there as I usually do. Sometimes the impact was no big deal and at other times it was unforgiving.
    I really do try to avoid “ Just for now” when I don’t like the consequences.

    1. Ugh, going to bed with the makeup on. I always pay for that one because my skin isn’t so great. A few indulgences and breaks are healthy, but a pattern of excusing behavior inconsistent with our goals is never good.

  8. Gretchen Rubin talks about this topic a lot using the terms moderator vs abstainer. I have learned that I can’t have moderate amounts of chocolate, I have to completely abstain. That way if I say I don’t eat chocolate it just makes it that much easier to resist it rather than rationalizing that for parties or special occasions it would be okay. And if I do splurge, say on my own birthday, I make a conscious effort to make it a planned cheat so that I’m purposely planning for the break in habit and have a plan to get back on track.

    1. I love that phrase, “planned cheat.” I think that is a very healthy idea. I exercise each morning, but on Sundays, I let myself do a “mini” workout. This makes Sunday special, gives my body a bit of break, and feels like a treat. I think rationalizing compounds.. once we start, we keep doing it again and again.

  9. I love this post! I have heard it so many times from various clients. It’s not easy to change that habit for them and that is why they need professional organizers like us.

    1. Once a habit sets in, it feels like it is set in cement. If allowing ourselves off the hook leads us to developing a destructive habit, it just isn’t worth it. Most people have a sense for when they are simply taking a break or a day off, and when they are rationalizing behavior that will lead them down the slipper slope. It is worth listening to that inner voice!

  10. Definitely with sugar consumption and reckless spending. It comes and goes with me. I really will think “just this once” and then it can become a habit. And yes, I can tell when it really is “just this once” or not. It is a slippery slope, isn’t it?

    I have this really weird thing lately. Or always, depending on how you look at it. I’ve been blogging for ten years, as you know, and in the last ten years, I literally have never gone more than three days without posting. Even when I was giving birth and then Des was in the NICU. Writing helped. So now it’s this strange time of being pregnant and there being a global crisis FOR REAL and I keep thinking, “Is this the week I take Finish the Sentence Friday off?” And literally every time, I think not. I’m scared of falling down the path and not coming up again. That happened to me in college with writing and it really damaged me for awhile.

    1. I hear that anxiety that if you miss once, you’ll give up. When we know we have a proclivity, but we STILL need a break, we need to plan for it in advance. For example, this is a holiday weekend approaching, so you could take off this week as vacation. I think when we set the parameters ahead of time, intentionally, it is different than when we simply “bag it” one week.

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