Ego Depletion: Definition and a Simple Overview

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“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:

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 habit 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 a “weakened” condition where it becomes harder to tap into that pool of willpower.

This was one of the first experiments in ego depletion. Since this famous experiment, there have been hundreds of subsequent experiments showing the same effects of ego depletion.

A related phenomenon is called decision fatigue. Simply put: The more decisions you make, the harder it gets to find the right or best options. The video below talks about nine strategies you can use to counteract the impact of decision fatigue and ego depletion.

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.

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!

Final Thoughts on Ego Depletion

So what’s the solution?

It goes back to my philosophy: Only develop one habit at a time.

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.

If you want to learn more about ego depletion and similar concepts, then be sure to read these articles:

ego depletion | ego depletion definition | ego depletion overview

8 thoughts on “Ego Depletion: Definition and a Simple Overview”

  1. 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 😀
    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.

    • I have a theory about that. You might have developed a KEYSTONE HABIT that led to your other habits development simultaneously. Test it and let me know if I am right.

  2. I’m gonna have to disagree with this based on the work of Dr. BJ Fogg (see 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 ( 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!

    • 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. Yes, I am gonna agree with you, the more powerful a habit is, the more resistance had built within us. That’s why alcoholics are so stressed out or ex-smokers.
    Sometimes I also notice this odd tendency: while eradicating one habit, people accumulate at the same time another not healthy habit.
    My personal view about bad habits is that in order to be eradicated, the material or karma responsible for that habit must be exhausted, i.e – the habit must be transformed.
    The term ego depletion was unknown to me.Is it also from the same book you read?

    • Antara,

      Ego Depletion has been mentioned in quite a few books, and has had dozens of studies done over the years.

      I totally agree about people replacing one bad habit with another. This is common. Many bad habits need “placeholders”. Like chewing gum when you are trying to quit smoking. In the best of worlds when you plan for a habit change you will incorporate a GOOD habit in place of the bad. Something like carrying a water bottle around with you and taking a sip of water everytime you get the urge to smoke. This conscious decision could get you into the habit of doing something positive in the place of the bad habit, rather than just switching bad habits.

  4. I’m pretty sure that ego depletion will only kick in when the pleasure we think we’ll get from the new habit is lower than what the old habit gives us and/or the amount of pain is greater. An entirely and immensely pleasurable new habit (think trying out and becoming addicted to heroin, as an extreme example, or becoming addicted to getting massage therapy (that’s affordable for us) in our homes every day before going to sleep, that gets rid of our high blood pressure and panic attacks) requires ego depletion only if we try to RESIST forming the new habit! Think about that.
    Additionally, the other major reason why ego depletion kicks in is because we choose new habits unwisely, because we want to conform to other people’s expectations, or want to feel more important, valued or loved by adopting the new habit, instead of practicing self-love and self-respect. We listen to our conditioning (our head) instead of our heart (the gentle, quiet voice of our intuition). I’d love to see these insights coming from research, not that research doesn’t help as a validation of pre-existing insights and a deep sense of knowing based on our personal experiences. Research might push someone to consider a wise teacher’s recommendations and adopt their worldview, their understanding of the bigger picture.

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