While reading how not to diet (there is a review coming but it’s going to be a biggy!), I came across a psychological effect known as the self licensing effect, and it was described how it can come into play regarding weightloss.
The description of it made me realise that I am susceptible to this, and the knowledge of it’s effects has made me more aware of it. It goes like this –
You have been good for a few days, eating well, exercising. The weekend rolls around, or a night out, or there is junk in your house, any scenario that takes you away from following your typically healthy new diet. You think to yourself, oh I’ve stuck to this for days now, surely I’m due a little something to reward myself? Instinctively, you reach for the unhealthy food choice. You are now rewarding yourself for healthy choices, by doing the complete opposite, making the unhealthy choice. This sabotages your effort, and at the same time minimises quite how bad this food is, and the effect it will have on your long term goals.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with an occasional treat, the issue around this is that it only ever works one way. This effect only strongly encourages you to eat badly when you’ve been good, not healthily when you’ve been bad.
If this is an occasional thing, then it’s not really an issue. If it happens once every two weeks, an occasional treat isn’t going to derail you. The issue I find is that as changes in eating extend in time, this tends to happen more and more, to the point where you are undermining all of the good work with these choices.
It is as if the brain is keeping a counter of “good” and “bad” choices. When you think you have made enough “good” choices, then it isn’t so awful when you make one of the “bad”, even though this is completely counter to your overall goal of losing weight.
How to overcome the self licensing effect?
For me, it comes down to really trying to not see these food choices as good or bad, as not seeing decisions I make as good or bad. You have to recognise that something either moves you towards your goal, or away from your goal, on an individual meal basis rather than looking at the whole picture.
This healthy meal moves me towards my goal, it is irrelevant how many healthy choices I have made previously, or even how many I may make in the future, but right now, this meal will move me either towards or away. Now, do I really feel like I want a bit of pizza? Yes, but I will need to accept that this moves me away from my goal.
This can be easier said that done, as much of the time we aren’t actually thinking about our goals, we are living on autopilot.
The key to battling the self licensing effect
There is one simple key to realising that you are self licensing, and that is mindfulness. Being present right now to see what the outcomes of your choices are. For mindfulness I would really recommend some kind of meditation plan, it may feel that you are struggling with meditation but it’s long term effects are huge.
If, with every meal, you are mindful of your long term goal and not your immediate good/bad percentage, then you are more likely to make decisions that are in line with that goal. When making choices, try to remember your long term goal, and not your previous choices.