Why believing you’ve been “good” gives you less willpower (Blog and Podcast)

This podcast episode is Part 6 of 6 in the “Goals and Habits” Series

In this episode, we look at willpower in general and also explore the effect of labelling your habits (or yourself) as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

In Short:


  • is finite
  • is depleted by:
    • stress
    • lack of sleep
  • can be trained and strengthened
  • is less important when you have a clear reason for doing what you’re doing

Moral Licensing

This is the term given to the practice of rewarding ourselves for ‘being good’. In her book, “The Willpower Instinct”, Kelly McGonigal Ph.D.explains that any ‘good act’ can give us licence to do a ‘bad act’ – I was so good for working out, I can be bad and have a slice of Chocolate cake.

In detail:

The entire “Goals and Habits” series has been about providing information to help improve the odds of success with any habit change and this episode does that in spades. Most of us think our inability to stick with our new habits means we lack willpower and that is simply not true. A much more accurate – and probably useful – explanation is that we don’t know how to use our willpower effectively. That’s what I’ll cover here.

  1. Willpower is finite

Here, we’re back to the rider and the elephant (conscious mind and subconscious mind. Willpower is what you use when the rider is forcing the elephant to do something against its will.

In terms of brain resources, there is nothing to differentiate willpower from any other conscious decision. They all use the same brain resources – for more on this, read or listen to the episode on Decision Fatigue.

Every time you make a decision you use a little bit of mental energy – the more taxing the decision, the more energy it uses and willpower relies on the same energy source as all those other decisions. What should I wear today? Should I tell my boss what I really think of the new budget proposal? How do I help my son with his maths homework without just giving him the answers? All of these require the same stores as “should I switch my phone off now or keep using it until bedtime?” and “should I get up and do a workout or press snooze and lie in my bed?”

To conserve this mental energy for when you need it most:

  • Pre-select: Make choices before you have to – when your mental energy is at its highest or you have a chance to replenish it before you need it again.
    • For example, choose your clothes the night before, then you’ll get to sleep and rest your brain so the following day, that energy isn’t used up before you need it.
    • Or, prepare your meals on Sundays so all you have to do when you get home from work is reheat them. Pack snacks and lunches for work so you don’t have to face daily decisions about what to eat.
  • Shape your environment: Reduce your exposure to the “cues” that trigger your habitual behaviour. Dr Daniel Amen says “Make the decision once so you don’t have to make it a hundred times.” Examples include:
    • Don’t buy the treats
    • Make items that will tempt you less accessible – so if you’re prone to checking your phone in the middle of the night, leave it in another room (buy a clock if that’s your excuse for continuing to keep it by your bed.)

To enhance mental energy:

  1. Sleep 7 – 8 hours (see below)
  2. Eat a brain healthy diet (healthy fats, green leafy veg, blueberries and dark chocolate) – more on this in a later episode
  3. Exercise – this is a keystone habit and is also great for stimulating stress busting chemicals in the brain.

2. Willpower is depleted by Stress and lack of Sleep

Stress and willpower are mortal enemies. When you’re stressed, the elephant looks for a way to make you feel better and this almost always leads you to quick fixes – which usually means you’re moving away from the long term goals you’ve set. For example, if you’ve had a terrible day at work, you might decide you can’t be bothered with going to the gym after work. Instead you get a takeaway on the way home and spend the evening on the sofa. You wake up feeling bad about your choice and start the day feeling even more stressed and the cycle continues.

In terms of brain health and mental energy, nothing is more important than sleep. Skip this and your willpower is dead in the water. Lack of sleep has detrimental effects in multiple areas. It:

  • increases stress – we already know this is bad
  • increases cravings
  • reduces our ability to control our emotions
  • makes it more difficult for us to focus – so decisions become more difficult to make
  • increases ‘plaque’ in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease (not strictly related to willpower but worth nonetheless)

Sleep for 6 – 8 hours every night to increase your mental health, mental capacity and willpower.  Although I’ll devote a full episode to improving the quality of your sleep, here are a few pointers to start with:

  1. Avoid caffeine after 2pm
  2. Exercise – ideally before lunch time
  3. Avoid alcohol

3. Willpower can be trained and strengthened

In last week’s episode, I talked about ‘mini habits’, a concept explored by Stephen Guise in his book of the same name. By starting small, you can train your brain to get used to the presence of new habits so it doesn’t fight against them.

The point of mini habits is that they’re laughably easy – a single push up or walking to the end of your driveway. The idea is that once you’re ‘in motion’, it’s easier to keep going if you decide to do so – but you don’t have to. You only commit to doing the mini habit. Arguably, this is more about circumventing willpower than training it but ultimately you end up in the same place.

Other ways to train and strengthen willpower:

  1. Push past the first wave of fatigue – the elephant almost always fires a warning shot to tell you it’s had enough. Keep going a tiny bit longer – but don’t ignore pain. If you’re in pain, stop.
  2. Commit to small acts of self-control you wouldn’t normally think about, for example, chew your food slower. These acts can form the start of mindfulness – a very helpful practice when it comes to understanding your triggers and cravings.
  3. Take breaks – do some deep breathing, go for a short walk or do a task that requires a different type of thinking so your brain gets a rest and a chance to replenish its stores.

4. You need less willpower when you have a clear reason for doing what you’re doing

We covered this in the episode on Values, earlier in the Goals and Habits series. When your reason for doing something is compelling enough to the elephant, you don’t have to fight as hard to stay on track.

Moral Licensing

When you see yourself as “good” for doing something, your run the risk of ‘giving yourself license to be bad’. You might choose to treat yourself to a ‘bad’ meal because you were good for exercising. You might decide you deserve the night off rather than working on your new business because you were so ‘good’ for showing patience when your toddler melted down at bath time (this is one from my own life!)

Once you become aware of moral licensing, it’s easier to catch yourself before you undo all the great progress you’ve made towards achieving your goals and creating the life you want.

So what?

The quality of our habits determines the quality of our lives. We end up happier, healthier, more connected and more successful when our habits are shaped for these outcomes. That said, most of the really productive habits in life – the ones that almost always lead to positive outcomes – require us to experience a level of ‘pain’ before we get to the ‘gain’. For this, we need to harness our willpower or create ways to get around the need for it.

Once we experience the rewards of these positive habits, it’s easier to hold them in place and enjoy all the great things they bring.

Knowing how willpower works makes it easier to harness its power and enjoy each day as you work towards the life you desire.

Previous Podcast Episodes in the Goals and Habits Series

  1. Goals: How to set good ones
  2. Values: Why they matter
  3. Habits: What they are and why they form
  4. Keystone Habits: How your habits can change how you see yourself
  5. Rewards and Judgement: How they affect your ability to stay the course

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