Moral Licensing is Not Your Friend

Every day in our mind we put our actions into two categories: good and bad. Writing, going to the gym, being patient with others, resisting junk food and sweets are all in the good category. Procrastinating, surfing the internet, skipping the gym, eating that chocolate bar, losing your temper are all in the bad category. Logically, we want to strive for the good things which means that when we do the bad things, it’s just a slip up – a temporary deviation from course. Something we didn’t want to do, but we’re human, so it happened. We would never consciously choose to do the bad things. . . .or would we?

Yes we would. In fact, we do it all the time, using the bad thing as a reward for doing the good thing. I resisted the cookies in the break room all day, so now I am going to splurge on that cheesecake because I earned it. Wow, I have been writing all day, so I am going to surf the internet for a while as a reward. I just finished a manuscript. It took me forever. I am going to slack off and procrastinate for a couple of weeks  on my next project because I deserve it.

If you have done any of the above, and I know that I have, then you have been a victim of your brain’s tendency to engage in moral licensing. Moral licensing has a number of facets, but at its core, it translates into good behavior licensing bad behavior. If I do good, I can be a little bad.

Moral licensing also causes us to think very highly of our future self. Your future self always does the right thing. Your future self writes when they say they will, resists temptation and doesn’t engage in productivity-sapping behaviors. Because your future self is so awesome, you can rest assured that tomorrow, your future self will do the writing, go to the gym, and bring peace and harmony to the office. This takes tremendous pressure off your present self, so it’s okay if none of those things happen today.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, your brain is quite the con artist. It drives you towards goal sabotaging behavior without you even realizing it. To get around this, you will have to have a few tricks up your sleeve yourself.

1. Don’t assign values to your actions. When you define your actions in terms of good and bad, you are more likely to use moral licensing to justify goal-sabotaging behavior. Define your actions instead in terms of those that move you towards your goal and those that move you away from your goal. Writing moves you towards your goal. Not writing moves you away from your goal. Not writing is no longer a reward when you look at it like that.

2. Remember that tomorrow your future self will be your present self. The universe is not going to fundamentally change overnight. If you intended to write today but didn’t, there is no reason to believe that if you intend to write tomorrow, you will. Note that this is different from just not planning to write on a particular day. Follow the Nike mantra – Just do it (today).

3. Choose your rewards strategically. If I am trying to avoid sweets, I shouldn’t reward myself for my good behavior with eating sweets. Actually as I write that, it sounds like lunacy, but I do it all the time. There are other rewards out there. Taking a few minutes to indulge in a good book (instead of a good chocolate truffle), listening to some music, savoring a nice cup of tea or coffee (skip the 1,000 calorie latte mocha surprise), taking a walk, chatting with a friend, doing some much-needed stretches, writing in a journal, or getting some exercise are all fantastic rewards that don’t sabotage your long-term goals.

4. Automate your writing. Eliminate the choice altogether about writing or not writing by turning it into an automatic behavior that you do every day regardless. For example, I brush my teeth twice a day. That’s a good thing. I don’t tell myself that since I brushed my teeth today, I can skip it tomorrow because I was so good about it all week. It’s an automatic behavior that I don’t think about. When we create automatic behaviors, we take away all this rationalizing in our head about what we deserve and what we have earned.

5. Change your perspective on your writing. Think of your writing as a daily habit that will help you reach your goal and get your amazing ideas out in the universe. When you keep this perspective, taking a day off or many days off doesn’t sound as attractive as it does when the writing is just some slog task that you need to check off your list so you can get to your real goals of perpetual relaxation and internet surfing.

6. Write out your goals and display them prominently somewhere where you will see them every day. Oh, that’s okay, I have my goals in my head, I know what they are, I don’t need to write them out. Really? If I asked you today, what would you say? Oh, that’s easy, my goal is to get published. Then what? To write another book or article.  Then what? Our goals are much richer than getting through a specific project. Take time to consider what they are and then write them out somewhere you can see them to remind yourself when the temptation to be a little bad strikes.

Giving yourself permission to be bad every time you’re a little good, is like taking one step forward and two steps backward.  The next time you feel that temptation, pause and reconsider what you really want to achieve.

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