Ego depletion: the bad news and the good

Emmanuel Productivity 0 Comments

Ego depletion is the idea that our willpower is available in limited amounts, like a muscle that tires when used. The expression was coined by recent psychology researchers, after hundreds of studies piled up, all finding the same result: willpower was getting depleted in most situations where a psychological effort is required to accomplish an action. In real life, it means that you could not resist those delicious cookies, and motivate yourself to clean the dishes, and go for a jog all on the same day. You’d have to pick your battles.
The effect seemed so strong, in fact, that it came to be taken as a fundamental law of human behaviour. And we like laws. Laws are great, they allow us to generalise, predict, and build great systems of thought. Going from falling apples to making planes fly. Understanding such an important part of our mind should help us be happier and more efficient, right?

But then, one day, some apples were observed falling sideways. Several very careful studies could not reproduce ego depletion, finding no such significant effect, and directly contradicting dozens of published peer-reviewed studies. It seems that our willpower is more unpredictable than we would have liked.

What of the law, then? It is too soon to tell conclusively, as the whole field is in turmoil, trying to separate the good apples from the rotten. Do not believe the “ego depletion is wrong” headlines, no such definite conclusion has been drawn. The universality of the theory, though, did take a big hit, and ego depletion may turn out to be a minor effect, rarely seen in usual circumstances.

There is good news and bad news to be derived from the situation. Let’s start with the bad!

Bad news: in a productivity world that is already rarely rooted in actual science, one of the few theories that seemed solid suddenly looks weak. All the works built on it, even the best ones, will need to be reevaluated. As usual, most will not be. I can imagine productive gurus and mainstream magazines still peddling ego depletion in the future, along with the “tomatoes cause cancer” headlines.

Good news: your willpower is probably not that limited. There is no cause to hide behind a supposed fundamental limit: you can definitely resist those sweets AND go the gym without secondary effects or diminishing returns. So where’s the good news, some of you might ask? Well, apart from the fact that you are now free to accomplish exactly as much as you’d like in one day, there might be a very positive side-effect to the whole thing. Even though this result should be taken with a grain of salt, it still looks like believing in infinite willpower actually makes you happier. All you have to do is will it!


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