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What is Ego Depletion? How can it derail successful habit change?

“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.

What is Ego Depletion

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

In this book, the authors describe ego depletion as:

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 keeping our habit development journey on track .

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:

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.

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