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Permission to Sin: How Moral Licensing Sabotages Your Long-Term Goals

Permission to Sin: How Moral Licensing Sabotages Your Long-Term Goals
Published July 14, 2014 by Elizabeth Grace Saunders
Have you ever had an awesomely productive day where you ripped through projects, knocked items off your to-do list, and overall felt like a productivity rock star — only to lose the rest of your week when you decided to reward yourself with anything other than work?

Not only did you indulge in actions that weren’t aligned with your goals, but you also felt you deserved them, so you didn’t feel bad at the time. But when you looked back at your productivity break, the aftertaste was awful. What was I thinking? How did I end up wasting the rest of this week when it started out so well?

What happened was moral licensing. You being “so good” yesterday that it made you feel justified in being a “little bit bad” today.

If you are prone to moral licensing (which most of us are to some extent) when you do, say, or even think about doing something good, you’re more likely to give yourself permission to do whatever you want, even if it is in direct contradiction to your goals. You don't question your impulses, but simply go with them because you've "earned it."

Here’s the truth: if the only reason that you are motivated to exert self-control is the desire to be a “good enough” person, you’re going to give into temptation whenever you’re feeling good about yourself. In other words, you’ve set the success bar low.

For example, some people gain weight when they start exercising more. This is not because they’ve experienced a huge increase in their muscle mass. Instead, the weight gain is due to the fact that they “treat” themselves to more food because they were so “good” for exercising. 

The same thing can happen in regard to your productivity. Maybe you work really hard and stay super late at the office one night so as a “reward” for all your “good” work, you then spend the next two days at work surfing the Internet. 

You’re going to give into temptation whenever you’re feeling good about yourself. 

So how do you get out of this crazy cycle?

Here are a few concrete steps supported by research cited in the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal and used effectively by my time coaching clients:

1. Remember that choosing certain actions is about commitment to your underlying goals, not about being “good” or “bad.” In the case of the healthier eating and more exercise, you need to see both actions as independent steps that are necessary to achieve your weight loss goal. They are not different sides of a scale but steps on a journey. Your goal isn’t to achieve equilibrium but to keep moving forward. You need to see both as essential parts of meeting your fitness goals. 

2. Don’t ask yourself “How good have I been?” or “How much progress have I made?” when you’re deciding whether or not to give in to doing something not aligned with your goals. Instead, ask yourself “How committed do I feel to my goal?” and “Why am I choosing to resist temptation?” According to The Willpower Instinct, people asked the first set of questions are more likely to act in conflict with their goals, while those asked the second set aren’t tempted to do so. 

3. Act as if. Decide you are the type of person who wants to do the actions aligned with your goals. If you go around thinking you’re a bad, lazy, and self-indulgent person who just occasionally can muster up the gumption to fake good actions, consistent change will be an angry struggle and you’ll constantly look for ways to be subversive or to “get away with” something. Make your goal part of your identity, even if it feels uncomfortable.

But when you realize that you ARE the type of person who wants what’s best for yourself and to live in line with your values and goals, taking actions that undermine your goals will no longer seem like a treat, it will be a betrayal of who you are. Working on your portfolio, staying ahead of a project, or updating your website won’t be something that you have to do, but something you want to do because you’re a creative professional who is committed to developing your career.

Over to You:

When do you give yourself permission to be bad because you’ve been so good? How have you overcome this challenge? 

More about Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at

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