Have you ever noticed how creative your brain can get when it wants to procrastinate on your most important goals?
- ‘I’ve been so good at keeping my diet this week, I deserve to order this pizza.’
- ‘I’ve been meditating for 10 days straight, I deserve to skip a day.’
- ‘I’ve been rising early every day this week, I deserve to sleep in today.’
- ‘I went running earlier today, so I deserve to have a few beers.’
- ‘This day has been so stressful, I deserve a glass of wine’.
This tendency to avoid discomfort, seek pleasure and constantly gravitate toward the path of least resistance seems to be part of human nature.
The problem, of course, is that if we let these thoughts guide our behavior too much, it will be impossible to reach our long-term goals.
In social psychology and marketing, this way of using past good behavior to mitigate bad behavior in the moment is well documented and referred to as ‘moral licensing’. Researcher Anna Merritt and her colleagues explain that:
“Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.” (1)
Journalist Michael Rosenwald described this tendency in terms of everyday life in an article in the Washington Post like this:
“We drink Diet Coke – with Quarter Pounders and fries at McDonald’s. We go to the gym – and ride the elevator to the second floor. We install tankless water heaters – then take longer showers. We drive SUVs to see Al Gore’s speeches on global warming.” (2)
It’s like one step forward ‘makes it okay’ to take one (or even two) steps back. Not a very helpful way of thinking if we want to make consistent progress towards our goals.
So, what can we do about it?
Well, the first step is to become aware of this tendency in yourself. Just knowing that there is a well-documented mental glitch known as ‘moral licensing’ is a great place to start because it helps you question your own way of thinking. From now on I encourage you to be on the lookout for and stay very skeptical of your own rationalizations.
Remember that you are not your thoughts and that your thoughts not necessarily are right or even looking out for your best interests in the long-term. Get into the habit of asking yourself: ‘Is this thought really true, or is it just my brain seeking the path of least resistance’?
You might also want to create specific ‘implementation intentions‘ for your particular habits and recurring moral licensing thoughts. For example:
- IF my brain tries talk to me into staying in bed when the alarm goes off, THEN I will get up and stay up for 10 minutes before deciding whether or not to sleep in.
- IF my brain tries to convince me to skip my daily run, THEN I will put on my shoes and go outside before deciding.
- IF my brain tells me I deserve a glass of wine after a stressful day, THEN I will meditate for 10 minutes first.
Usually, pre-committing to a small action to take every time you catch your brain with a thought that seems like moral licensing can be very helpful because:
- It directs you to a healthier and more productive behavior by default.
- It gives the urge some extra time to blow over before you start acting on it.
- It helps you get started on the habit, which is usually the hardest part.
Finally, as I’ve written about before in ‘The 2016 Goal Setting Workbook‘, I strongly encourage you to set aside an hour or two every week to review the past seven days and plan the week ahead. The only way to effectively deal with moral licensing is to reflect on your rationalizations and continuously tweak your approach in dealing with them.