There was a time in my life when I would leave work only to immediately collapse in euphoric exhaustion. I’d vegg-out on the couch, eat leftover Chinese food, and lament on how I’d “earned” this break. I knew there were better ways to spend my time, but what could I do? There is only so much mental energy to burn in a day and I’d spent it in the office. Right?
My lazy self-indulgence was what researchers in behavioral psychology call ego depletion. This is the theory that willpower is a limited resource; the more you use in one situation, the less you have to deploy in another. Ego depletion became a popular idea in the 1990s after Roy Baumeister conducted an experiment in which participants where offered the choice between cookies and radishes. They then attempted to solve a difficult puzzle.
The researchers were interested in whether the cookie or radish group would work on the task longer. They theorized that those in the radish group—who spent reserves of energy trying not to eat the cookies—would give up on the puzzle sooner. The study proved the researchers correct; participants who denied themselves the cookies lasted an average of eight minutes, whereas cookie eaters lasted nineteen minutes. They concluded that the self-control exerted by the radish eaters had depleted their limited reserve resulting in less willpower available for other tasks.
After Baumeister’s research, many agreed with the concept of “finite mental energy.” However, recent studies suggest that our idea of willpower is faulty AND that the theory of ego depletion may not be true. Research published in Perspectives on Psychological Science attempted to reproduce Baumeister’s results but found no evidence of ego depletion. In addition, two other studies could not replicate the original study’s results. And a meta-analysis of 200 experiments supporting ego depletion discovered that the researchers did not include their contradictory evidence, thus lessening the validity of their results.
While the flaws in ego depletion theory are troubling, the bigger problem is that we may be harming ourselves simply by believing willpower is finite. a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that indicators of ego depletion were observed only in test subjects who believed willpower to be a limited resource; those who did not adhere to a finite amount of willpower showed no symptoms of ego depletion.
Like many other mental barriers, ego depletion is an example of the way a belief drives behavior. By thinking we’ve “used up” our energy, we are creating and supporting self-defeating thoughts that are holding us back. It encourages us to act against our better judgment and gives us an excuse to prematurely quit, while simultaneously making us feel good for recognizing that we’ve hit our (imaginary) limits.
Don’t succumb to the notion that your mental energy is rationed. Your willpower is not a battery that runs out; it is an emotion that fluctuates based on your feelings and thoughts. You can manage it, control it, and tap into it when you experience a lack of motivation.
Remember how I mentioned my post-work, vegg-out session? That ended once I began my doctorate degree. The supplemental energy seemed to arrive out of nowhere. Then, when I thought that I was now utilizing my maximum drive, my daughter was born, and I discovered an entirely new level of motivation. My point is that we don’t know our limits until we push ourselves.
Finally, before you write to me complaining that I’m anti-time off and pro-burn out, I am not suggesting you shouldn’t take breaks. But do you need as many as you are taking? Do they need to be so long? Can you recharge without completely unplugging? While willpower may not be finite, time is…so use yours wisely.