What is ‘ego depletion?’
‘Ego depletion’ is a concept that was introduced to me and my online community by habits guru Dr. Gina Cleo late last year. Gina explained this simple but incredibly powerful idea in our Creating Healthy Habits Webinar Series1, and our members found it unbelievably transformational! As our online community members loved working with Gina so much, we are re-embarking on the journey of creating another game changing series together, and as my brain is in habits mode, I thought I’d share one of the most powerful ideas from our original series with YOU!
Let’s start from the start.
Self-control is defined as:
‘The capacity of the individual to alter, modify, change, or override his or her impulses, desires, and habitual responses’
Basically, it is our ability to exert control over ourselves, and the term can be used interchangeably with ‘discipline’, ‘self-regulation’, or – the word I most commonly use – ‘willpower’.
When we use our willpower (or discipline, or self-control), it’s often great! You know the feeling. You’ve gotten out of bed instead of hitting the snooze button, you’ve gone to the gym after work instead of heading straight home, you’ve made dinner instead of ordering Uber eats. You are now ‘in the zone’ and ready to conquer your old habits, right?
A big problem with willpower is that it is finite. It requires effort, attention, and mental energy, and this pool of mental energy is not an endless wellspring … at some stage it runs out!
So if we use it to get out of bed when we planned to, and then go to the gym after work, then it may be dried up when we are making the decision to cook food or order take away (‘Oh well, I had a hankering for pizza anyway!’).
Another problem with willpower is that it is universal. It’s not just used for applying to the habits that we want to change; it’s used for everything that takes up mental energy in all areas of our lives.
So if we use it to get out of bed when we planned to, and then to cajole a toddler into eating their breakfast, and then to stop ourselves from yelling at the numbskull who cut us off in traffic, then when we are making the decision about our afternoon activities we no longer have the mental energy to overcome the voice that says ‘Go home. Go directly home. Do not go to the gym. Do not collect $200’ (hopefully your habit related self-talk doesn’t actually talk in the voice of the Monopoly man, but you get the picture!).
This phenomenon is what psychologists call ego depletion: when we use up our available willpower on preceding tasks and – as a result – we are unable to exert the same level of self-control on subsequent, often unrelated tasks2.
Psychologists like to use big (and sometimes abstract!) words, but to put it practically, you can think of willpower as like a muscle. Like any muscle, it can be used for a period of time. But also like any muscle, it will fatigue. And if it works too much during the day, it will wear out and not be able to be used properly for a while.
So how do we use this information in a way that helps us?
I think the key benefit our online community members gained from learning about ego depletion was taking it a bit easier on themselves. Ego depletion tells us that – if you’re not always doing the things you intend to do (or you’re sometimes doing the things you don’t intend to do) – it’s not necessarily that you’re just ‘undisciplined’, ‘weak-willed’, or ‘lazy’. When we don’t succeed at going to the gym, or avoiding take away, or improving any other habit we’d like to change, there can be a lot of shame involved in this struggle. But understanding that ego depletion is a real thing allows us to acknowledge and validate that these choices can be challenging (and sometimes impossible!) to make for a reason. Psychologists know that understanding is the antidote to judgment, so understanding the way willpower works can help us to transcend any self-judgments we may have had about our willpower in the past.
2) Building our willpower
Just as our willpower is used like a muscle, and depletes like a muscle, thank goodness – it also replenishes like a muscle! And in order to make the best use of our willpower, it is important to understand what depletes and what replenishes it. Here is a table of what lowers and raises our reservoir of willpower.
So, as well as having compassion for ourselves when we exhaust our mental muscle, we can also look to reduce things that deplete our willpower or increase things that replenish it, so we’ll have more of it to use in the future!
An important note here for people who have struggled with yo-yo dieting: notice how ‘calorie restriction’ depletes our willpower and ‘nutritious foods’ replenish it? This is a reminder that – whatever our eating goals – we don’t want to overly restrict ourselves; not having enough nutrition (which happens on many rigid and extreme diets!) actually weakens our mental muscle, which makes it harder to stick to our planned way of eating.
Let me share with you an example of how I just used this information in real life.
Just after I typed the table above, I felt I ‘didn’t have it in me’ to keep typing much longer (i.e., my reserves of willpower were low). Instead of calling myself ‘lazy’ and trying to ‘push on’ (and probably doing a bad job or stopping completely as my mental muscle was weakening!), I could understand that I was nearing a state of ego depletion, and instead look to replenish my willpower. I chose my good ol’ personal favourite combo of eating a nutritious meal and then taking a ten-minute stroll break. This meal-stroll break has itself become a habit now, which I do 2-3 times a day (whenever I feel the ego depletion coming on!), and – predictably – it now sees me back at the computer, energized and hopefully able to write a good conclusion to the blog for you ☺
Enough about me, let’s talk about you!
Many of my online community members have benefitted unspeakably from understanding how ego depletion works. I have also found the concept to be highly valuable, both personally and professionally! And Gina herself describes it as nothing less than ‘life changing’.
But the life I would most like for it to change next is yours. So the next time you press snooze on the alarm, lose it at the guy in traffic, miss the gym, or order the take away, I invite you to reflect on how your newfound understanding of ego depletion can help you. Ask yourself if this is an opportunity for self-understanding and compassion (because everyone’s mental muscles get tired from time to time)? Or maybe it is an opportunity to reflect on what is depleting and replenishing your willpower, and make a plan to build it up a bit more for the future? Or is it potentially an opportunity for a bit of both?
I’m not sure what the right answer will be for you, but I’m sure that understanding the phenomenon of ego depletion, and what you can do about it, can help you in a way that is right for you!
As always, I’d love to hear your experiences with learning about and applying the principles of ego depletion in your life, and I look forward to continuing the journey of helping you create healthier habits, by sharing a wonderful chat Gina and I had on my podcast with you really soon ☺ ☺ ☺
Yours in creating healthier habits,
1. Note, if you’d like to see the webinar where Gina explains the concept (I’d highly recommend it!), you can watch the first webinar of the Creating Healthy Habits series, entitled ‘Why You Do The Things You Do’. The part on ego depletion (and what we can do about it!) goes from 22:32–42:59 and Gina does a much better job of explaining it than I do, and the whole webinar is really fantastic as well! You can watch the webinar by joining our online community, and because there’s a 7-day free trial period, you can watch it for FREE if you’d like ☺
2. The term ‘ego’ here is used in the psychoanalytic sense (rather than the colloquial sense). Freud explained the ego as the part of the psyche that mediates between conflicting motivations to make decisions, and acknowledged that this is a process that requires some mental energy. For more on ego depletion, you may like to:
Read this easy to read article by the American Psychological Association
Read this interesting study by the person who coined the ego depletion term
Watch this fantastic short video on ego depletion