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The Licensing Effect

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The Licensing Effect

Scott Miker

One of the benefits of using the systems and habits approach to improvement is that it avoids the licensing effect.

The Licensing effect (or self-licensing) is when you do something good and then use that to justify doing something bad afterwards. So if you get a great workout in and then immediately head to the donut shop to reward yourself you are self-licensing.

Most people that go after goals experience this firsthand. Goal-setting sounds like a great plan to improve. In many cases it helps. But because these goals require changes to what we do on a daily basis, it often sets us up for failure.

In the initial planning phases we tend to oversimplify the process and overlook the work required to reach the goal. So we set a major goal and assume a small amount of effort will get us there.

Then we use our motivation and willpower to help power us through the work to reach the prize. Soon after we start doing the hard work, though, we come to realize it will be much harder than we originally thought.

This is referred to as the hot-cold empathy gap. When we are in a cold state (planning our goals) we underestimate what it will take. When we are in a hot state (when we actually have to do the work) we tend to find it much more difficult. This is why so many people set goals around New Years but fail to follow through on them for more than a week or two. Everything seems easy after a few glasses of champagne but much harder when you start doing the work.

Usually we start out just fine. We have the motivation to drive us towards the hard work. But in order to keep going, we decide to reward ourselves when we do the hard work. We assume this will help us to keep going. It will keep our motivation up and allow us to keep putting forth the effort required.

But what it actually does is sabotage our efforts. We take one step forward but two steps back. And we start to realize the one step forward is extremely uncomfortable. So we re-examine our goals and talk ourselves out of them.

If we want to overcome the licensing effect, we can use the systems and habits approach to improvement. Because this approach relies on very small changes done consistently, we don’t have to keep stopping and rewarding our self for doing the work.

We keep focusing on the process and doing the work. We don’t use meager motivation or effort. We start so small that these are not required. Then as the new routines become ingrained and automatic we start adding more and more to them, slowly.

Over time we start to rebuild our daily thoughts and behaviors. These become the new normal way to go through the day. We don’t have to stop and try to get motivated each day.

We basically reduce the hot part of the hot-cold empathy gap. We do so by reducing the over exaggeration that comes from the cold part of the hot-cold empathy gap. We make such small steps that they don’t require the same level of effort to just get started.

The systems and habits approach to improvement is a great way to better your self. It takes where you are and slowly adjusts repeated elements of your life until those elements start to change. As they do they become new, ingrained parts of your life. You can then keep building on them, leveraging what you have done and further building out the right thoughts and behaviors.