I got very interested recently in experiments being done in the field of "ego depletion". The theory proposes that humans have a limited quantity of "ego" or willpower. When you exercise self-control you use up this resource and will then be less able to persist with other tasks. In the classic experiment of this field hungry subjects were left with plates of radishes and chocolate-chip biscuits. Half of the subjects were allowed to eat the biscuist and the other half were asked to only eat radishes and ignore the biscuits. The subjects then had to try to complete a difficult puzzle that was, unbeknownst to them, impossible.
The "biscuit-resisters" gave up much earlier than the people who were allowed to eat biscuits and they were more tired at the end of the experiment. Later experiments with tasks that were not impossible showed that people who had not had to "burn willpower" resisting a normal impulse were much better at the task. They got better results. I looks as if "ego" is also needed for complicated thinking, like a sort of mental jet-fuel.
It is of course dangerous to glibly apply a limited experiment to the complexities of everyday life, but the image of will-power being drained away by resisting temptation is very appealing and aligns with many experiences we all share: the fatigue of resisting an impulse, a bad habit, the catastrophic results of trying to adopt several "good habits" at once.
If we do accept these results, what can be do to use them in ordinary life?
- Allow for reduced performance
If you are resisting a bad habit you are depleting your willpower and will be less able to keep going in other areas needing persistance or higher level performance. If you are having to keep yourself to a strict diet you will not be as sharp as you might otherwise be...
- Don't try to do everything at once
If willpower is being use for five different things there will be less of it available for each of them, so you risk failing to complete anything. This is very like the classic advice on goals: one or two give you focus, twelve is a recipe for failure.
- Limit the time you spend exerting willpower
If you stay in the room with the chocolate-chip cookies too long you are burning will-power all the time. Stay there too long and you may "snap" and grab a handful! The whole point of exerting willpower is to create a success, to visibly, tangibly and emotionally succeed in controlling your own behaviour. Mark that moment very conciously, reward yourself and then back off to give your will-power a chance to recharge!