What Is Ego Depletion and How Can You Overcome It?

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Quick, do you grab the fresh donuts in the breakroom or snack on a healthy granola bar? For most, it can be a challenging call. We face countless decisions like these each day that require no small act of willpower to say “no.” At times it can almost feel like a physical struggle to keep yourself from indulging in a sweet treat or splurging on another fancy coffee.

There’s a theory about why this happens. Some psychologists believe that your willpower is a muscle in its own way, and like muscles, it can get tired. This is known as ego depletion. Just like working out your body, there are proper ways to exercise your willpower — and make it stronger.

Whether you’re saving up for a house, working towards launching a freelance career, or counting calories, understanding the theory of ego depletion means that you can strategically use your self-restraint on the bad habits that are the highest priority for you, while not overly stressing minor lapses here and there.

Just like with physical fitness, true financial health is a long-term goal. There’s no one good day that will solve your money worries, but over time and with consistency, you can use your willpower to make smarter financial decisions. You can jump to our infographic for a quick summary or read on for a full breakdown.

What Is Ego Depletion?

In this sense, your ego doesn’t refer to your self-esteem. It’s a concept created by Sigmund Freud to describe the part of yourself that mediates between the world and your base desires and impulses. It’s the part of you that engages executive functions like self-control and decision-making.

The idea that your ego can deplete was first tested by Roy Baumeister in 1998 when he asked participants to refrain from chocolate and eat radishes instead, then perform mental tasks. He found that those who had exerted energy to not eat the chocolate performed worse. He concluded that exerting your willpower drains your overall reserve of self-control

There are many ways that your ego can be depleted other than avoiding chocolate. These include making choices and decisions, such as:

  • Exerting initiative
  • Prolonged focused attention
  • Emotional stress
  • Low blood glucose
  • Excessive choices

Essentially, situations that require effort without providing reward will drain your ego, resulting in ego depletion. Depending on the cause, there are several types of fatigue that are subsets of ego depletion you may be familiar with, including decision fatigue and burnout.

The Effect of Ego Depletion on Your Finances

There are many ways that ego depletion can affect you, not the least of which is your finances.

Sometimes decisions require careful consideration and evaluation of all your choices — like if you’re looking at loan options. Other times, making a judgement call requires you to refrain from purchasing something tempting. In both cases, you have to exert mental energy that can be draining. After some time looking at your options or abstaining from spending, you may end up entering into a financial contract last minute or breaking your budget with a big splurge.

When it comes to long-term goals, ego depletion can also set you back. A study measured participants’ inherent states of ego depletion, then asked them to select goals ranging from weight loss to spending less time online. They found that those with higher chronic ego depletion required greater effort to achieve their goals. If you find yourself struggling to set aside enough money to pay off your credit card debt by the end of the year, it may be because your ego is chronically depleted from other areas.

How to Overcome Ego Depletion

Knowing how ego depletion affects you is by no means an excuse to give up on your goals. Instead, you should utilize tactics that make it easier for you to keep your financial goals on track. Consider these techniques:

1. Use If-Then Statements to Take the Mental Work Out of Tasks

Also known as implementation intentions, these are statements of what you will do if you encounter a roadblock or temptation. For example, “If I see something I want to buy online, I’ll save the page for later to avoid any impulse purchases.” Having a plan already in place for situations where you know you’re bound to break takes some of the strain out of thinking it over.

2. Indulge in a Small Sugary Treat

Some studies suggest that there may be a link between blood glucose and willpower. Psychologists theorize that since glucose is essentially energy for your brain, consuming sugar re-energizes it. Others think sugar helps simply by making you happy, and that even tasting sugar without eating it can help combat the effects of ego depletion. Either way, if you struggle with motivation to engage in a good habit or avoid bad ones, try a small sugary treat like lemonade to get you going.

3. Take a Break With Positive Experiences

Positive mood has been shown to mitigate the effects of ego depletion. So try taking a break to watch a funny video, or spend time with a beloved pet to reinvigorate your mind. To make sure you aren’t distracted for too long, set a timer for five or ten minutes to return to the task at hand.

4. Catch Up On Sleep 

Being well-rested is linked to both improved mood and better mental performance. Having an agreeable attitude and full cognitive ability both help to decrease the effects of ego depletion. Keep in mind not to go overboard with a totally new sleep habit — that shift could end up taking more effort than it restores.

5. Eat the Frog

This classic project management technique takes on a new depth in the context of ego depletion. The idea behind “eat the frog” is that you simply do the hardest thing in your day first  — even if that means eating an amphibian. Prioritize doing the most important, and most formidable task before your willpower is depleted for the day.

6. Limit Exposure

In one Australian study, those who aimed to eat fewer unhealthy snacks were most successful when they reported witnessing fewer friends eating. This indicates that limiting the exposure to a bad habit makes it easier to avoid it. This makes intuitive sense, of course, since we know it’s harder to resist something right before you.

So whether you’re trying to cut restaurant take out or limit online shopping, make it as hard as you can to be in a situation that requires you to use willpower. Take a different route home, or set blockers on your computer for frequent shopping sites.

Tools to Help You Reach Your Goals 

One of the best ways to combat mental fatigue is to offload some of those tasks to tools. Here are some great apps for every goal:

Spend less time online: If you find yourself losing track of time online, accidentally spending hours you can’t really account for, use RescueTime to see exactly how you spent your time online.

Be more productive: For those who work on computers, Self Control is a program that allows you to blacklist distracting websites to keep you focused on your real work. For now, it’s only available on Macs.

Eat healthier: Take the guesswork out of what makes something healthy with MyFitnessPal. You can track calories, get recipe advice, and meet your nutrition goals in the app or online.

Run more: Make running a little more rewarding by using an app like Charity Miles, which donates money to a charity of your choice based on how much you move.

Reduce stress: If you’re a worry junkie, try a meditation app like Headspace to help make time to find calm every day.

Keep your budget in check: Mint brings together all your bills and balances for a complete picture of your financial life.

Understand your financial health: Turbo brings together your credit score, income, debt, and credit accounts to give you a better picture of where your finances stand. Tips and advice help you reach your financial goals.

General habits: No matter what your goal is, Strides can help you keep track of various habits to make sure you’re on track.

Sources: VeryWellMind | BetterHelp | Public Library of Science | ScienceDirect | DevelopGoodHabits | Forbes 1, 2 | SleepFoundation | Debt | CNBC 1, 2  | 

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