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Moral Licensing, Observing Your Mind, Slow Thinking & Slow Breathing

🤸‍♀️ Stretch 52

"Neuroanatomy" by Jonathan Calsolaro

Ever found yourself ordering a pizza after coming home from the gym?

Yeh, me too.

We’re not weak, we’re human—and there’s a science to it.

I’ve been reading The Willpower Instinct and what’s become so clear to me is that our struggle with self-control and discipline is not some innate weakness of character. It’s a lack of understanding of how our brains and bodies work.

There are many willpower traps we can avoid simply by being aware of certain mental glitches or by learning about how neurochemicals work.

One such glitch is moral licensing—a phenomenon I had already spotted in myself many times, but never knew it had a name.

(I’m already excited about next week’s willpower topic: dopamine! It’s not the molecule of pleasure, as is often thought. Instead, it’s the molecule of pursuit and craving. Understanding the difference is helpful when it comes to training our willpower. Eeeeek, it’s just all so fascinating!)

🤸‍♀️ IN THIS WEEK'S STRETCH:

  • Moral licensing. The “I’ve been so good, so now I can be bad” mental glitch and how to avoid it.

  • Observe your mind. The best tool you have to catch your thoughts in the act, helping you make choices that align with your long-term goals.

  • Slow breathing, slow thinking. A practical breathwork technique to calm your mind.

✅ MORAL LICENSING

We’re pretty hilarious creatures, really.

I’ve written before how one of my micro “willpower challenges” is to keep my phone out of the bedroom and not touch it for at least an hour after waking up.

Most mornings, I’ve barely opened my eyes yet I feel this immediate pull to go check my phone. I hear myself thinking: “Go ahead, take your phone. It’s fine. You’ve proven to yourself before that you can do it. So it’s not that you can’t… it’s just that right now, you don’t want to. Cut yourself some slack.”

It takes real effort not to give in.

In The Willpower Instinct, psychologist Kelly McGonigal describes this mental tug-of-war as moral licensing.

Here’s how it works:

When you do something “good”, your brain gives you permission to then do something “bad” because you feel like you’ve earned a reward.

You use your prior good behaviour to “license” your later bad behaviour.

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • “I worked hard this morning so I can slack off this afternoon.”

  • “I’ve been really good with my diet, so I can have an XL pizza tonight.”

  • “I’ve been frugal all week so I can splurge on these $300 linen bed sheets.”

Wtf?

When you do something “good” (or even just think about doing something good), you feel good about yourself. This means you’re more likely to trust your impulses—which are typically to do something “bad.”

I realised that’s exactly what happens to me.

I’m proud of myself for leaving my phone out of the room. I could’ve taken it with me and scrolled social media before going to bed, but I didn’t. Instead, I read a book. Good Charlotte! So now, I deserve to check my emails on the toilet and get that sweet sweet dopamine hit.

It’s pretty funny when you think about it. How can we be so smart yet so dumb at the same time?!

The better question is: how do we avoid this?

Stop labeling as good vs. bad

The problem starts when we frame our willpower challenges as moral dilemmas.

Have another desert = bad person. Don’t go for that run tonight = bad bad lazy person.

Instead, you need to see your willpower challenge as something that will help you meet your long-term goals. 

It’s not about good or bad. (That just opens you up to a world of self-criticism!)

Instead, think about if your impulses align with your long-term goals.

In my case, I know I want to use my mornings for deep work, like writing and reading. Resisting my phone is not about being “good.” It’s about enabling that deep, focused work I say I want.

Remember WHY you want this

So understanding why you want to develop willpower around something is important. You need to be clear on the long-term goal. Be clear on your WANT.

You can try the method of the “five-fold why.”

  • Why do I want to keep my phone out of the bedroom? So I don’t reach for it first thing in the morning.

  • Why don’t I want to reach for it first thing in the morning? So I don’t get stuck scrolling, and I can focus on reading and writing.

  • Why do I want to focus on reading and writing? So I can write the best newsletter I can possibly write.

  • Why do I want to write the best newsletter? So I can grow this into something bigger and create a (work)life centered around learning and writing.

  • Why do I wa…

You get the point!

So what are your goals? Get deep. Dig to the very bottom of why a goal is meaningful to you. Write it down. Engrave it in your mind.

It’ll help you get through the moments where your sneaky brain is trying to convince you to cut yourself some slack.

Interested in improving your willpower? I’ve been reading The Willpower Instinct and writing about my thoughts:
Chapter 1: The power of I will, I won’t, I want
Chapter 2: The link between HRV and willpower
Chapter 3: Setting yourself micro-challenges to train overall willpower

🕵️‍♀️ LEARN TO OBSERVE YOUR THOUGHTS

There are so many ways your mind can play tricks on you. Moral licensing is just one of many.

Your best defense here is training your ability to observe your thoughts.

You’re on autopilot for much of the day, making decisions out of habit rather than intent. That’s when you’re most vulnerable to moral licensing—you don’t even realize you’re doing it.

So having awareness of your thoughts—and creating space between thought and action—is so key.

That requires two realizations:

#1 You can observe your thoughts. You can think about your thinking. You can notice a thought, examine it, and then decide to act or let it go.

And if that’s the case, then it means that…

#2 You are not your thoughts. The simple fact that you can observe your thoughts means that you are separate from them. I found this so freeing! You don’t need to feel different or undisciplined because you have ‘bad’ thoughts. They’re just thoughts—combinations of electrical signals and chemical interactions in your brain.

Now, developing that kind of awareness and distance from your thoughts isn’t a quick fix. It takes effort and time to start meditating, journaling, going for long walks—basically any activity where you’re not drowning out your thoughts with external distractions.

I have found breathwork, particularly slow breathing to be an incredible starting point.

🐌 SLOW BREATHING, SLOW THINKING

It’s a technique I learned from Erwan Le Corre. (I’m currently taking his breathwork/meditation course BreathHoldWork—can’t wait to write about what I’ve been learning, more and more I’m convinced of the life-changing benefits of breathwork.)

The idea is to think as slowly as possible while breathing as slowly as possible.

You don’t have to change what you’re thinking. You can think anything you want. All you’re doing is slowing down that never-ending ‘train of thought.’

Deep, slow breath in. Deep, slow breath out.

Stretch and lengthen each word, as long as you can, to the rhythm of your slow inhale and slow exhale.

It sounds ridiculous, I know! But try it. Whatever you’re thinking right now, slow it down. And pay attention to your breathing, and slow it down.

As I wrote about last week, slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode.

Plus, by slowing down the words, you’re paying close attention to what you’re saying, giving yourself the time and space to observe.

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