Get our FREE Workout App!

How Progress can make you Slack off and Procrastinate

I have a great insight to share.

Last week I’ve been listening to the audiobook The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal and I’ve learned one of the best ideas ever. She explains a few of the reasons why we tend to slack off from time to time when we pursue our big goals. She explains why we do things like screw up our diet from time to time, take time off the gym, procrastinate, buy expensive stuff we don’t need, and more.

This has been a big eye opener for me and I though it will help you a lot too!

In this article and video I’m going to share the ideas discussed in chapter 4 called Licence to Sin – Why being Good gives us Permission to be Bad. If you’re struggling with willpower while dieting, working, studying, or any other activity that seems difficult to stick to, make sure to watch this video until the end.

How feeling good about yourself can become a license to neglect

In chapter four Kelly talks about moral licensing. Moral licensing can be described like this:

When we do something good, we feel good about ourselves so then we allow ourselves to do something bad afterwards. This is especially true when we have conflicting desires. Being good gives us permission to be a little bad. 

Conflicting desires could be anything: building your business and going out with friends, getting to 8% body fat and drinking beer, hitting your macros and eating cookies, working on a project and watching a movie, studying and surfing the web and so on.

I think you’ll agree that we want to do all of these activities but one category are long term goals and the other category are instant gratifications. They usually contradict each other and moral licensing shows that when people make some progress on their long term goal they are more likely to give themselves permission to indulge in instant gratification.

How moral licensing works

Let me give you a few examples.

Let’s say you want to get to 8% body fat. If you tell yourself that you’ve been good for hitting your macros perfectly the last five days, you may feel entitled to have a cheat day when the opportunity comes. Like a reward.

Or if you tell yourself you’ve been good for working on a project and bad for procrastinating you are more likely to slack off in the afternoon if you’ve made progress in the morning.

Basically in our mind every good deed can be rewarded with a little indulgence.

Oh man I’m so glad I stumbled upon this idea. Over the last few months I noticed that whenever I worked a little in the morning I felt like the day was already a success. I felt pretty accomplished. Because of that feeling of accomplishment I gave myself permission to take it easy the rest of the day: play a video game, watch random YouTube videos, watch TV shows, or waste time in general.

But I could have accomplished so much more that day.

There is a problem with progress and that is how it makes us feel. When we feel good, we trust our impulses. And we usually only look at how we feel about a thing to determine whether it’s a good or bad choice. In that moment of accomplishment playing some computer games, breaking your diet, or spending a lot of money doesn’t feel wrong. It feels like a reward.

I felt in control of my decision to stop working, not out of control. I consciously chose to do things that got me further away from my goals and I didn’t feel guilty for it. In fact I looked at it as a reward and I felt proud about it.

*Other people experience this with dieting. They stick to their diet perfectly for a few days and then think “Well I’ve been so good I deserve a little treat.”

*Others do this with shopping. They save money for a few months and then think “Wow I’ve been so good I deserve a new computer or expensive clothes.”

*Others do this with studying. They want a promotion and they need to study for it but when they get home after a productive day, they feel it’s ok to watch TV for the rest of the night.

Moral licensing makes us feel good even when we’re slacking off. Wow what an important thing to be aware of.

Did you have a similar experience? Can you think of some situations when you allowed yourself to do the “bad” things because you were “good” before? If you have an example of moral licensing please leave a comments below and let me know, I’m really curious about this stuff.

When we borrow credit from tomorrow

But apparently moral licensing also works the other way. We can just as easily look into the future and credit ourselves with our planned disciplined behavior.

When we do this we give ourselves the right to sin today because we will surely make up for it in the future. The problem is we wrongly assume we’ll make different choices tomorrow than we do today.

Kelly cites several studies showing this phenomenon in her book.

One study asked people to choose what they wanted for lunch: a chicken salad or fast food. The people that were told they will have the same option next week chose the fast food over the salad because they thought they will make up for it in the future. However, only about 50% of them actually made a different choice next week.

On the other hand the people that thought the meal was a one time deal were more likely to choose the salad. They thought they can’t make up for it.

The same pattern was seen when people were asked about exercise. The people that thought they could exercise in the future were far more likely to skip the gym today compared to the group that weren’t given that option.

Studies like this show that people always tend to believe they’ll have more time and willpower in the future.

I admit I often do this too. I sometimes allow myself to skip work because I believe I’ll make up for it the following days. Sometimes I do make up for it but sometimes I don’t. And overall this negatively affects my progress.

What about you? Do you tell yourself you will make up for today’s behavior tomorrow? And if so do you actually do what you said you would, or does the cycle of “indulge today, change tomorrow” begin again?

That’s not the way to reach our goals.

How do you fix it?

Kelly give us two ways to overcome moral licensing:

1. Reduce behavior variability

Instead of kidding yourself that you will change tomorrow, you set a new rule: Everything you do today will have to be replicated for the rest of the week as well. So if you screw up today, according to the plan you’ll have to screw up for the rest of the week as well.

If you do good today, you’ll have to replicate that day for the rest of the week.

Behavioral economist Howard Rachlin found that smokers gradually decrease their overall smoking when asked to do this. “Every cigarette becomes not just one more smoked today, but one more smoked tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. This adds new weight to every cigarette, and makes it much harder to deny the health consequences of a single smoke.”

Most people don’t want that. They feel it’s ok to miss one day but they aren’t comfortable abandoning their goal for a whole week. So they are more likely to stick to their disciplines everyday.

I think this works great for binge eaters as well. If you want to eliminate binge eating do this: If you binge today, you will have to binge every day for a whole week. This will deprive you of the usual cognitive crutch of pretending that tomorrow will be different. It will force you to change.

2. Changing our self image

At it’s core moral licensing is an identity crisis. We only reward ourselves for good behavior if we believe that who we really are is the self that wants to be bad.

Our self image works like a thermostat. It adjusts our behavior to fit the way we see ourselves. So if we consider our normal behavior to be the bad thing then every discipline that contradicts that behavior will feel like a punishment.

For example the people that refer to dieting as punishment obviously have a fat self image. Why? Because what they are doing while dieting is what lean people do every day. If they saw themselves as lean in their mind they would understand that being mindful of what and how much they eat must become their normal behavior.

To stay lean you have to keep the same habits that got you there. If you don’t start seeing your new behavior as normal, you’ll want to get back to your old habits and those habits were the ones that got you fat and unhappy with your physique in the first place. You can’t go back and keep your results.

“Moving beyond the traps of moral licensing requires knowing that who we are is the self that wants the best for us—and the self that wants to live in line with our core values. When this happens, we will no longer view the impulsive, lazy, or easily tempted self as the “real” us. We will no longer act like someone who must be bribed, tricked, or forced to pursue our goals, and then rewarded for making any effort at all.” – Kelly McGonigal

How do you change your self image?

This is a looong topic. I’ll probably make a video about this soon covering all the details but until then I’ll give you a link to an amazing video Bob Proctor did on self image:

Watch that video and if you have any question come back here and leave a comment.

As always thank you for reading/watching until the end and I hope this idea has helped you better understand your behavior. If you want to get in touch with me, leave a comment below. I read and answer all comments.


All credit for these ideas go to Kelly McGonigal. I’m grateful she wrote this haha!

If you want to read the book in full, you can order it from amazon.


  1. Jason on July 28, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    I read the book as well a while ago, really fascinating! I’m curious, how do you retain so much knowledge just from listening to an Audio Book, do you take notes or use another technique?

    • Radu Antoniu on July 28, 2015 at 8:50 pm

      Yep fascinating is the right word Jason!

      Since I was little I was able to remember songs, movie dialogues, and other audio materials with ease. I guess I’m an “audio learner” haha

      But yes I do take notes if a line hits me as very important to remember.

  2. ioana on July 28, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    citeste Puterea prezentului,iar daca o sa o intelegi cu adevarat ,vei vedea ca toate ‘jocurile mintii’ si piedicile de care este capabila vor disparea,oricate carti vei citi,vei ajunge la concluzia ca in cartea de care ti am spus mai sus este solutia,cel putin pentru mine a fost …

    • Radu Antoniu on July 28, 2015 at 9:56 pm

      Salut Ioana,

      Am citit cartea Puterea Prezentului. Mi-a dat lumea peste cap.

      Stiu ca ideile sunt adevarate. Am luat decizia totusi sa experimentez mai multe laturi ale vietii inainte sa accept ca tot ce trebuie sa fac e sa fiu prezent.

      Sunt sigur ca nu am inteles-o in totalitate.

  3. Nils on July 29, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Hey Radu, i have a Question. Im notsure if i should do the Aggressive Fat Loss or the Warrior Shredding Program.
    I dont have a lot of Fat to lose. Im around 73kg at 180cm.
    Pretty good Muscles but i just cant loose my bottom belly and my bottom Back Fat, typically stubborn fat Zones^^
    I want to lean down before i want to start Greek God. So now im not sure with which Program to start.
    Im patient, so Time is not important. Thats why i switched thinking from AFL to Warrior Shredding.
    An Advice is appreciated.
    Cheers, Nils

    • Radu Antoniu on July 29, 2015 at 7:54 pm

      Hey Nils

      I just saw your photo on instagram. I think you can use either program. I would use the Warrior Shredding Program. I think it’s better for you if you lose fat a bit slower and continue to build muscle and strength while you get leaner. Then you can switch on the GGP program can make some more gains.

  4. Moonlight on July 29, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Faci o treaba foarte buna cu aceste articole ! Off-topic: Cand raspunzi la mesajele de pe Yahoo?

    • Radu Antoniu on July 29, 2015 at 7:55 pm

      Mersi Adi!

      Nu intru pe Yahoo niciodata. Daca ai intrebari poti sa le scri aici in sectiunea de comentarii 🙂

      • Moonlight on July 29, 2015 at 8:23 pm

        Astazi am vazut ca mi-ai raspuns la aceea intrebare despre macro-nutrienti. Ti-am trimis inca ceva,calculele facute de mine. Cand ai timp,sa te uiti sa-mi spui daca sunt bune. O seara buna !

  5. Carter on July 31, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    This book really changed my life. I read it about a year ago and it was the first time I had realized how much “moral licensing” ran my life. the second bit of advice she provided (self-image) is what really made the change for me. Shifting my mindset of being fit from “I should be rewarded” to “this just something that I do” really helped. It became less of a means of getting rewarded and more of a life habit… if that makes sense.

    • Radu Antoniu on August 1, 2015 at 4:54 pm


      If you want to be skinny do what skinny people do haha!

      Thanks so much for sharing this Carter.

  6. Silvia on June 5, 2016 at 9:13 am

    Hey Radu,

    one example from my personal life would be (and it freaks me out everytime I notice that I felt again in this vicious spiral) that after I perform a concert I feel entitled not to practice anymore for an uncontrolled period of time. I am playing piano and finished my bachelor degree in music and this bad habit lead me to experience major problems. I didn t only have to endure the results of procrastination (not being on time, depression, disappointing people and myself…) but also had to deal with health issues, like tendonitis because I had to practice so much more in a very short period of time in order to be able to prepare well for an upcoming concert. I am always stressed and tensed because of that and not able to see the whole picture cause I loose myself in details when I sense that the time is running and I still have so much unfinished work. There s no body-mind-conncetion anymore when you try to work in this state of mind. So, I just wanted to share my experience and also wanted to thank you for writing about this extremely important topic!
    Greetings from Germany! Originally I am from romania too but I grew up in Germany and didn t have the chance to learn the romanian grammer at school. That s why I prefer to text you in english 🙂


  7. cpr professionals on May 11, 2018 at 4:41 am

    You are also going to be sure of being certified for the job after you have been taught everything you need to know.

Leave a Comment