What is Ego Depletion?

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Brain-Doctor-Ego Depletion

“Can you change more than one habit at a time?”

That is a question that many self-helpers have.

My answer is no.

The reason relates to something called ego depletion.

In this post, we’ll examine ego depletion and show how you can use it to successfully develop strong habits in your life.

Let’s get to it.

A Definition of Ego Depletion

I first learned about ego depletion in Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.

In this book, the authors describe it as:

A person’s diminished capacity to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Simply put, our willpower is like a muscle.  It weakens throughout the day because of constant use.  Everyone has a limit on their willpower.  Once it’s gone, it becomes very difficult to focus and resist succumbing to temptations.

Baumeister and his colleagues have tested ego depletion in a variety of scenarios.  One was called The Radish Experiment.  Basically they brought three groups of people into a room where there was a selection of food: pieces of chocolate, warm cookies and radishes.

  1. One group was allowed to eat anything they wanted.
  2. Another group was told they could only eat the radishes.
  3. The final group wasn’t given any food options.

After that, each group was moved into a separate room where they had to work on a challenging puzzle.  The groups that didn’t have to exert willpower (eat whatever they want and no food option) worked on the puzzle for an average of twenty minutes.  The group that had to exert willpower and resist the tasty treats gave up after eight minutes.

What does this show?

Most people can resist temptations.  However, this effort leaves us in “weakened” condition where it becomes harder to tap into that pool of willpower.

How Does Ego Depletion Relate to Habits?

Ego depletion has been tested in a number of other experiments, with similar findings to the experiments by Baumeister and his colleagues.

They have proven two important lessons:

  1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
  2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

This has an important implication when it comes to our habit development journey.

It’s almost impossible to develop multiple habits at the same time.  All you’ll do is set yourself up for failure.  Sure, you might succeed for a bit, but this extra effort will deplete the reserves of willpower that you use for other areas of your life.

EXAMPLE:

Let’s say you’d like to drop five pounds and develop a daily habit of writing for 60 minutes.  Sure, these two actions aren’t directly related, but they both require a certain amount of willpower to successfully complete.

You need to exercise and monitor your diet to lose weight.  This will leave you moody and on edge.  The end result is you won’t be 100% focused on your writing, which makes it harder to develop this habit.

That’s what happens with ego depletion!

So what’s the solution?

It goes back to my philosophy:

Only develop one habit at a time.  (Tweet This!)

Nobody has the willpower to form multiple habits in a single period of time.  The easier solution is to focus on a single action every couple of weeks.

To get started, check out my 30 Day Habit Challenge series and learn how you can develop one great habit every month.

4 Responses to What is Ego Depletion?

  1. Michal June 14, 2013 at 11:01 am #

    Similar statement from Leo Babauta made me to interest about habits. You, Leo, authors of “Willpower” are all more experienced in this subject than me, but I did the “impossible”. I developed about 40 habits within 9 months.
    I guess my ego is really big :D
    But seriously, I’m trying to figure out how did I do it.
    The only answer I got so far is that I’m massively serious about my habits. They are no whims.

  2. S Barbara November 30, 2013 at 12:31 am #

    I’m gonna have to disagree with this based on the work of Dr. BJ Fogg (see tinyhabits.com). The trick is the MED test – Minimum Enjoyable Dose. If the tiny change/new habit requires little (to no) willpower, one’s energy resources (Tony Schwartz, Power of Full Engagement) aren’t depleted.

    The trick is to give people a “test” of whether or not the extra habit will deplete their willpower. Actually Nir Eyal (nirandfar.com) talks about this. If a person finds themselves having to use will power, they should scale back and trry a small step (great book on this is the Kaizen Way by Dr. Maurer). I developed 3 habits at the same time with massive, massive results. The trick is I made sure each new habit really required no (virtually) willpower. An example would be someone who decides they are going to walk 100 extra steps a day, write 1 autoresponder email a day, and drink 1 glass of water.

    What most people will try to do is commit to 10,000 steps, 8 glasses of water and 7-14 messages a day – YES THAT, WILL TAKE WILLPOWER, lol.

    So the trick it to give folks a tool to determine if they are capable of developing more than 1 habit at a time. That’s the MED effect. Charles Duhigg (Habit book) discusses keystone habits. And truth is that sometimes starting more than 1 habit will kick in a keystone habit (which we sometimes don’t know which one of our new habits will be).

    Good blog and keep up the work!

    • S.J. Scott November 30, 2013 at 11:53 am #

      Interesting view. Sure, if something take no willpower (or very very little) it should be easy to incorporate. I would say though, that a lot of these take some form of willpower. even if only infinitesimal amount. After all, even if your only choice is to walk 100 extra steps a day (something ridiculously easy) at some point in the day you are going to have to say to yourself. “Time to get up and do it”. This take some willpower, even if only the tiniest fraction of what something more difficult would.

      But sure, I get your point. The more difficult the tasks, the more willpower they take, the more of a drain they put on you.

      All the more reason to try to do only 1 type of any significant change at one time in my book.

      Thanks for dropping by and leaving a thoughtful comment.

  3. Jim September 11, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

    Does anxiety deplete willpower? How about stress? What do you think?

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