One of the primary issues I've worked through in my own life involves the idea of not making things unnecessarily difficult for myself. Trying to live a conscious life is hard enough; I shouldn't be making it any harder than it already is. Looking at the idea of ego depletion, or willpower, has been one way I've helped myself get out of my own way in terms of personal development.
What's ego depletion?
Ego depletion is essentially the idea that our willpower is a finite resource that can be used up by activities that require self-control. Once you've used up that reservoir of willpower you'll no longer be able to use it on other activities that require self-control. This is one of the reasons why after a long day you may feel a lack of motivation to go to the gym or why after sticking to your diet perfectly for a couple days you ultimately end up eating a large pizza in one sitting.
Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have done a lot of the research that explores this idea of a finite well of willpower that we all seem to have. For example, they did a study where two groups of people watched a comedian and one group was instructed not to laugh and the other one was free to laugh as much as they wanted. After watching the comedian, the two groups completed a task that required self-control. The group that was not allowed to laugh did significantly worse at the task than the group that was allowed to laugh. Evidently, forcing themselves not to laugh while watching the comedian sapped them of much of their self-control, leaving less for the task that followed.
In another study, two groups of hungry participants were led to a room with a plate full of freshly baked cookies and a plate of radishes. One group was instructed to only eat the radishes. One group was allowed to eat the cookies. Much like the study described above, the two groups were then instructed to complete another task. This time, the researchers were measuring how long the two groups would stick with an unsolvable puzzle. The group that was allowed to eat cookies lasted about 20 minutes, on average. The group that was not allowed to eat the cookies and could only eat radishes lasted about 9.
How can you prevent ego depletion?
When I learned about this concept I saw an opportunity to eliminate needlessly using willpower throughout my day. I realized there were several things I was doing that required me to use willpower when it really wasn't necessary. I'd much prefer to save my willpower for the activities and tasks that truly need it. Let's take a look at a couple of small changes I made to my day to fix this problem.
- Resisting the urge to check sites like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and my email when I'm supposed to be working: Knowing that blissful distraction is only a click away when I'm working at my computer (which is where 99% of my work happens) can be a massive drain on my willpower. Constantly resisting that urge to see if someone responded to my latest hilarious tweet was profoundly draining. To counteract this siphoning of my willpower, I use a program called SelfControl (appropriate name, eh?). When I use it, it completely and utterly blocks me from all of the websites I've put onto a blacklist. I no longer have to use my willpower to not check these sites because it has become impossible.
- Resisting the urge to eat pre-packaged, processed, junk food at my apartment when I should be snacking on something healthier: Sometimes I have delicious junk food in my apartment. Convincing myself that I shouldn't eat the Swiss Cake Roll in my cupboard is a drain on my willpower. The simple (and utterly obvious) solution is to not bring any food in my apartment that requires willpower not to eat. If my only options are relatively healthy then I don't need to waste willpower resisting the urge to eat the junk.
- Resisting the urge to buy drinks or food when I'm on campus: I started a terrible, terrible, muffin habit last semester. Every Tuesday and Thursday before my morning class I would walk over to the campus cafe and buy a massive blueberry muffin. It was one of those muffins that makes you thank our ancestors of the agricultural revolution for the knowledge of how to craft such a delicious bakery item. But it certainly wasn't healthy and I usually had an epic battle with myself every morning where I told myself I wouldn't cave into my muffin craving. I usually failed. Until I just stopped bringing money with me to campus. Suddenly, it was no longer an issue of willpower because it wasn't even possible for me to buy a muffin. Problem solved.
- Resisting the urge to use my phone to distract myself when I should be working: Everything I'm blocking in item #1 above can also be checked on my phone. When I'm serious about eliminating the drains on my willpower I'll turn my phone completely off and put it somewhere where I can't see it. This seems to help fight the urge to use it as a distraction.
- Resisting the urge to be distracted by other applications on my computer: SelfControl (the program, not the psychological concept) will keep me from distracting myself on the Internet, but it doesn't block other applications on my computer from distracting me. If I'm constantly resisting the urge to fire up a video game or check out some other enticing app then I'm surely sapping my willpower. To combat this, I work in full screen mode as much as possible. When I can't see the other applications floating around behind my active window it seems to require less willpower to not give in to their distracting allure.
While it has been pretty well established in the psychology literature that willpower seems to be a finite resource, there are some nuances that are coming to light that are helping us better understand it. There are some studies that seem to suggest how much ego depletion we experience doing an activity that requires self-control depends on our age. The parts of our brains that seem to regulate self-control are not fully developed until our mid-twenties. Similar studies done with older people have shown less of an effect of ego depletion. Additionally, Carol Dweck has done work that seems to show that our beliefs about willpower also have an effect on how long and well we'll work on a difficult exercise.
Taking a "get happy" break
One helpful study seems to show that positive affect (basically, positive emotions) help restore willpower after a ego depleting activity. Test subjects who were shown a funny video after completing an activity that taxed their self-control but before a similar second task did better than those who were not shown a funny video in between the two tasks. In everyday terms, perhaps taking a break to do something that makes you feel good is a great way to break up various tasks throughout your day that require major use of your willpower. For example, in between classes I like to listen to podcasts or music as a way to help improve my mood before launching into another activity that requires self-control.
The science is still being developed at this point but I'm comfortable suggesting that you look at your daily life and see if there are activities or situations where you're using self-control when you may not have to. Let's save our self-control for those things that really need it and not waste it on activities that can be better regulated by a simple piece of software or a minor tweak in our behavior.
I'm always curious to hear about ego depletion leaks people have identified in their own lives and how they've eliminated them. Where have you stopped your limited supply of willpower being sapped? What did you do?
Sam Spurlin is a graduate student studying positive developmental psychology in Southern California. He's primarily interested in how good science can lead to better coaching. He writes about personal development, positive psychology, and his own experiences in trying to live a more conscious life at SamSpurlin.com.