We make resolutions. We set ourselves targets. At the beginning of each year. And at the beginning of each following month, because we haven’t reached nor have we gotten as close to our target as we would have liked. Why is it that as time progresses, we fail to stick to our initial plans, and seem to fail reaching our simplest of targets?
It is Monday. It is the first of the month. We get up early, just like we said we would. We go for a morning run, to meet the exercise goal we set ourselves for that week. We go to work, eat a healthy lunch and are productive. After work we have a lovely healthy meal with our significant other or friends. And if you can manage it timewise, you clean your already spotless house, go volunteer or foster one of your many skills/hobbies/talents.
Now imagine you repeat this imaginary schedule, each day, over and over again. All these activities are things that take so much energy out of us. To get up early takes willpower to leave a warm bed that has never felt as good as it does now that you have to leave it. To eat healthy is a struggle for many people, so is continuous exercise. And then after a day at work, which easily takes away half of our day, we’d still find the time, energy and willpower to be an even more productive member of society? I can barely picture myself doing this once a week, let alone every day.
Imagine actually doing all of this, for a week straight. On Monday you’d feel great. Ecstatic on Tuesday. Craving on Wednesday. Cranky on Thursday (if you’ve even made it this far…). And by Friday? There’d be nothing left of you. You’re finished.
As outlined in my article about (productive) procrastination, all resources we possess are limited. Willpower is one of them. If we constantly maximise the use and direction of our willpower it will weaken. It cannot replenish. It depletes. This is known as Ego Depletion.
Willpower, also known as the ability to exert self-control, is an interaction between the ego and different types of motivation to adhere to the goals we set ourselves, or are set for us. The 2007 paper by Baumeister and Vohs outlines how a reduction in ego resources can be temporarily overcome by strong motivation. I should make clear however, that there is a vast difference between ego and motivation.
The term motivation is often thrown around meaning very different things. In essence, motivation refers to any sort of general drive or inclination to do something. On the other hand, the ego is a state of the self. During ego depletion, the self is in state during which it does not have all the resources it has normally. As a result, the self’s executive functioning (self-regulation, effortful choice, active initiative), depends on a limited resource that is consumed during such activities. Ego depletion renders the self temporarily less able and less willing to function normally or optimally.
As such, ego depletion is not solely a loss of motivation. Baumeister and Vohs (2007) reviewed a set of experiments regarding the interaction between ego and motivation. The findings of these experiments indicated that regulatory resources are rooted in physical energy stores. As such, ego depletion is a dependent on the physical state of the self as well. If we are tired, we have less resources (energy) available to make decisions, or perform basic cognitive functions. As such, we might be motivated to go for a run, but the ego is too depleted to function.
Another interesting conflict of ego depletion are motivational conflicts. Conflicts in which there is a clash between selfish motives (ego) and behaviours that promote social acceptance (motivation). In these scenarios there is a specific need for impulse control and self-regulation. Actions that require a lot of the ego, and in which ego depletion is most likely to occur (Baumeister and Vohs, 2007).
So when the ego is depleted, self-regulation is hardly possible. Issue is, inhibition is a major form of self-regulation. And the inability to inhibit impulses is an issue. It would not allow for social functioning. We know that, even when we are on the verge of collapse, it is not (socially) acceptable to kill someone because we are annoyed by them. Even if we feel the impulse and urge to strangle them, we should not.
Broadly stated, inhibition is necessary for human social life and nearly all societies encourage and enforce it.
So with a fully charged ego, we regulate and alter our own behaviours as we see fit. We set out goals, we are able to meet our goals. But all of this can cost us a lot of resources as we go along. As a result, we should find ways to recharge, because ego depletion is nothing more than reduced willpower because we have already used a lot (too much) of it. Because when the ego is depleted, we fall into a pit of selfish motivations and giving into our urges. We give in because restraints are weaker and because urges are felt more intensely than usual (Baumeister, 2014). Self-regulation sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But it is also necessary. Intentional inhibition not only restrains antisocial impulses but can also facilitate optimal performance, such as during test taking. Self-regulation and ego depletion are two very important aspects of daily life. So we should take good care of ourselves to make sure we replenish the latter and execute the former.
Now that I have explained ego depletion and have warned you about its possible disastrous consequences, I should finish on a more optimistic note. A study by Job et al, (2010) found that you can manipulate your own ego depletion. They found that ego depletion did not take place, or took place to a significantly lesser extent if the person did not believe that willpower was a limited resource. Higher levels of depletion were found within people who did believe willpower was a limited resource. So apparently, you can will yourself into having more willpower.
So as to conclude this article: there is no such thing as a limited resource. Your willpower is unlimited. Ego depletion does not exist. May you be prosperous in all your resolutions and endeavours!
References Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Self-regulation, ego depletion, and inhibition. Neuropsychologia, 65, 313-319.
Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self‐Regulation, ego depletion, and motivation. Social and personality psychology compass, 1(1), 115-128.
Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion—Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological science, 21(11), 1686-1693.