Boosting Your Discipline Daily

Sussing out Ego Depletion Scientifically

Unlimitix
Unlimitix
May 7 · 5 min read

Have you ever wondered why a living statue is exhausted when she comes home? She didn’t move nor did she have to use many of her muscles to maintain a standing position. Yet, it makes intuitive sense that she must be exhausted when she comes home. The reason: Ego depletion.

Now, what can we do to stop ego depletion, i.e. increase our willpower or let it last longer? A study conducted by two Australian psychologists Oaten and Cheng demonstrated that when students had to exercise more willpower, i.e. during exam period, they performed worse in laboratory willpower tests. Most interestingly though, the consequences reached far beyond ordinary laboratory experiments. Students started wearing dirtier clothes, stopped exercising, smoked more cigarettes. Even junk food was consumed up to 50% more times. These students weren’t doing all of this to save time. In fact, they reported they felt more eager to go out with friends. Some students even reported worse studying habits during exam period — exactly the opposite of what one would expect. Moreover, students overslept and spent money more impulsively. [1] [2] [3]

In short, depleted ego amplifies feelings — and consequently cravings will feel stronger than ever. How does this stop? Muraven found out that money does the trick: Subjects performed bad in his perseverance exercises that evolved strong elements of ego depletion. However, when people could win money, willpower suddenly seemed to spark again. More generally, incentives work wonders, even if they were set by ourselves. [3] [4]

Other studies show that you should focus on one project at a time. Focussing on multiple ones depletes your willpower quicker and additionally makes you less productive. Focussing on one goal at a time may help you to preserve willpower longer. And enjoying making decisions does so, too. However, only in the short term a study finds. People who enjoyed making decisions didn’t deplete their egos as fast in the short term — for approximately 4 minutes — but just as much in the long term — after approximately 12 minutes. [1][5][6]

The last trick stems from one of the most famous and thought provoking experiments around willpower. In a striking study, judges were investigated on their likeliness to make courageous decisions, such as acquitting former prisoners. In the morning, they made courageous decisions in approximately 65% of cases. The number dropped to 0 (!) until lunch and averaged 65% afterwards. Why the sudden change? As you might have guessed already after consuming so many experiments on ego depletion, their willpower exhausted after making several hard decisions. Interestingly, they restored their willpower by eating a sandwich. Indeed, glucose supply seems to help the brain to regenerate willpower. This also explains why you crave sugary food during difficult, stressful periods in your life. Moreover, taking time off does the same trick. After one to two hours of having a break, your willpower should be restored. [7]

Actionsteps

  1. Motivate yourself by setting yourself goals and giving yourself proper rewards in case you reach those goals. Those can reach from you allowing yourself to take the evening off with your partner to allowing yourself to eat some tasty ice cream. Reaching goals has another great advantage on the side: It triggers dopamine, which helps your brain form neurons ten times as fast and thus considerably amplifies your learning output. [8][9]
  2. Focus on one thing at a time. If you have read all our articles, you will have encountered this lesson in various facets. Focus doesn’t only help you to preserve willpower longer, it also makes you happier, healthier and more productive.
  3. Enjoy what you are doing. There is fun to be found in everything, as daunting or irrelevant as the task might seem. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes in his book how people found enjoyment in assembly line work, gardening and intellectually stimulating tasks. It’s about the story you tell yourself, the lens through which you look at things and the attitude with which you tackle your tasks. [10]
  4. Have a break. After a challenging task or a series of challenging tasks, take some time out. In the short term, this might look like being less disciplined, but it renders your system of productivity more sustainable. In the long term, you will benefit from being able to stay always disciplined, when you need to. If this should not be the case, do longer breaks.

Sources

[1] Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Books.

[2] Job, V., Walton, G. M., Bernecker, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Implicit theories about willpower predict self-regulation and grades in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(4), 637–647.

[3] Baumeister, R., & Vohs, K. (2007). Self-regulation, ego depletion, and motivation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1), 1–14.

[4] Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126(2), 247–259. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.126.2.247

[5] Bannister, F. & Remenyi, D. (2009). Multitasking: the Uncertain Impact of Technology on Knowledge Workers and Managers. Electronic Journal Information Systems Evaluation. 12.

[6] Gary, K. & Papasan, J. (2013). The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Austin: Bard Press.

[7] Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(17), 6889–6892. doi:10.1073/pnas.1018033108

[8] Wise, R. (2004). Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nature reviews. Neuroscience. 5. 483–94. 10.1038/nrn1406.

[9] Frank, M.J., Seeberger, L.C., O’Reilly, R.C. (2004). By carrot or by stick: cognitive reinforcement learning in parkinsonism. Science. 306, 1940–1943.

[10] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

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