Think back to the last busy day you had. Maybe you felt like meetings and projects were piling up at work. Perhaps your coworkers or kids were testing your patience. Or it could have been that you had to force yourself to spend all day studying for upcoming finals and papers.
Now that you have this day in mind, think back to what you did when you got home at the end of the day. Did you make time to exercise, cook a nutritious meal, or work on a personal project? Or did you find the easiest meal in your fridge and collapse on the couch in front of the TV? If you’re like most of us, you probably did the latter—and now psychologists have found that there’s a reason why. When we spend too much time working on difficult tasks that require self-control, our resources become exhausted and we experience a state known as ego depletion. In today’s post, I’ll talk about what ego depletion is and how we can work to counter its negative effects, based on the latest research on this topic.
What is ego depletion? Ego depletion occurs when people use up their willpower on one task and, consequently, are less able to exert self-control on a subsequent, unrelated task. The crucial thing about ego depletion is that being depleted in one area is essentially able to “spill over” into other areas. So, for example, trying to pay attention in a boring meeting might make you less able to choose a healthy lunch, or trying to keep calm when dealing with a rude customer at work might make you less likely to stick to your new exercise plan. In particular, here are some examples of effects ego depletion can have:
- You might be more likely to give up on your diet. In one study, researchers asked participants (some of whom were dieting) to sit next to a bowl of snacks (a situation requiring a lot of self-control) or far from a bowl of snacks (a situation requiring less self-control). After this task, participants were given the opportunity to eat a bowl of ice cream. The researchers found that the dieters who had been seated near the bowl of snacks actually ate more ice cream than anyone else. What happened? Sitting next to tempting snacks and not eating them (especially if you’re on a diet) requires a lot of willpower–so, after doing that for a while, the dieters essentially “gave up” and decided to eat as much ice cream as they wanted. This has an important take-home message if you’re dieting: eating healthy is great, but if you hold yourself to too strict of a diet you’ll feel deprived and be more likely to give up on it.
- You might be more likely to snap at your partner or spouse. Studies have found that people experiencing ego depletion are more likely to respond to provocations in hostile ways, and are less accommodating in their relationships.
- You might have more trouble sticking to your budget. People who are ego depleted are more likely to engage in impulsive spending.
- You might be more likely to cheat. In one research study, participants were given the opportunity to earn extra money by cheating on a test. Those who were in a state of ego depletion were more likely to cheat on the test.
What do we do about this? Fortunately, a few things have been found to help counteract the negative effects of ego depletion. If you’ve had a long day and are feeling like your willpower is exhausted, try one of the following strategies to help recharge your mind:
1.) Focus on an important value. In one study, researchers asked participants who experienced ego depletion to pick a value that is important to them (such as creativity or relationships with friends and family) and spend a few minutes writing about it. Compared to people who didn’t write about an important value, these participants did better on a later task requiring self-control. So if you’re feeling stressed and exhausted, take a moment to reflect on something important to you. You may also find it helpful to make a list of values at a time when you’re not stressed, so that when you’re feeling depleted you can just refer back to the list that you’ve already made.
2.) Think about the big picture. Behaviors can be interpreted in a variety of ways, from lower-level (“I want to avoid eating those French fries”) to higher-level (“I want to take care of my health.”) Psychologists have found that if we think about things in this bigger-picture way, we’re more likely to be able to exercise self-control even in a state of ego depletion. So if you’re feeling unmotivated in a situation, take a step back and think about why you’re working for this goal—doing so may make it easier to exert self-control. Again, you may find it helpful to work on this preemptively: when you form a new goal, write down all of the big-picture reasons that this goal is important to you, so that you can refer back to this list when your self-control is being tested.
3.) Change your mindset. I’ve written previously about the benefits of having a growth mindset: that is, believing that your abilities aren’t fixed and that you can constantly work to improve them. It turns out that having a growth mindset can also help when you are experiencing ego depletion. Some people tend to believe that we have a fixed amount of willpower that we can use in a situation, while others believe that we can increase the amount of willpower we have in a situation. People who believe that we can increase our willpower actually don’t seem to experience the effects of ego depletion in lab studies. It also turns out that telling people that self-control is unlimited can help to counteract the effects of ego depletion. So the next time you’re experiencing ego depletion, think about whether you can change your mindset. Instead of viewing a task that requires self-control as something exhausting, can you see it as an energizing challenge?
4.) Do something that makes you happy. In one set of studies, participants were made to feel a positive mood when they were in a state of ego depletion (for example, by being shown comedy films or receiving a gift). These participants actually did just as well on a task requiring self-control as did participants who weren’t depleted. If you want to try this out for yourself, try keeping a happy photo or a funny video saved on your computer, and take a look at it next time you’re feeling exhausted—it just might re-energize you and help you to exercise self-control.
The research on ego depletion also has an important implication: while we may be able to enhance the amount of self-control we exert in a situation, it’s actually completely normal to have limits to how much we can do. Because our culture tends to value work and productivity, it’s easy to feel like you’ve failed if you haven’t met all your goals or crossed off everything on your to-do list. However, the research on ego depletion suggests that, if you can’t get everything done, it may simply be that you’re taking on too many things that require self-control. It’s also important not to compare yourself to someone else who seems to be getting everything done.
Sometimes it’s useful to take a step back and reprioritize: which tasks are truly worth investing effort and resources into? Which ones are a little less important to you? For the tasks that are important to you, there are a variety of strategies you can use to increase your willpower, such as focusing on values, thinking about the big picture, changing your mindset, and experiencing positive emotions. By taking a step back and evaluating your priorities, you may be better equipped to exercise control on the tasks that truly matter to you.
About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health. Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.