Understanding the Dangers of "Ego-Depletion"

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(Image: Someecards)

This is a guest post by Dan Ariely, James B Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University.

I’ve always suspected that we start each day with a limited number of decision-making points that, once depleted, leave us cognitively impaired. This is part of the reason that automating minutiae, adopting rituals, and applying creativity only where it’s most valuable (e.g. not deciding what to eat for breakfast) is so important to me.

I just don’t have the bandwidth to get big things done by doing otherwise. Perhaps, just as Phelps was born with bigger lungs than 99.9% of the population, and just as some people only need four hours of sleep per night, some people are born with more decision-making “hit points” than others?

Food for thought. This leads to Dan’s discussion of “ego-depletion” and how to insure against making bad decisions…

Enter Dan

From your own experience, are you more likely to finish half a pizza by yourself on a) Friday night after a long work week or b) Sunday evening after a restful weekend? The answer that most people will give, of course, is “a”. And in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s on stressful days that many of us give in to temptation and choose unhealthy options. The connection between exhaustion and the consumption of junk food is not just a figment of your imagination.

And it is the reason why so many diets bite it in the midst of stressful situations, and why many resolutions derail in times of crisis.

How do we avoid breaking under stress? There are six simple rules.

1) Acknowledge the tension, don’t ignore it.

Usually in these situations, there’s an internal dialogue (albeit one of varying length) that goes something like this:

“I’m starving! I should go home and make a salad and finish off that leftover grilled chicken.”

“But it’s been such a long day. I don’t feel like cooking.” [Walks by popular spot for Chinese takeout] “Plus, beef lo mein sounds amazing right now.”

“Yes, yes it does, but you really need to finish those vegetables before they go bad, plus, they’ll be good with some dijon vinaigrette!”

“Not as good as those delicious noodles with all that tender beef.”

“Hello, remember the no carbs resolution? And the eat vegetables every day one, too? You’ve been doing so well!”

“Exactly, I’ve been so good! I can have this one treat…”

And so the battle is lost. This is the push-pull relationship between reason (eat well!) and impulse (eat that right now!). And here’s the reason we make bad decisions: we use our self-control every time we force ourselves to make the good, reasonable decision, and that self-control, like other human capacities, is limited.

2) Call it what it is: ego-depletion.

Eventually, when we’ve said “no” to enough yummy food, drinks, potential purchases, and forced ourselves to do enough unwanted chores, we find ourselves in a state called ego-depletion, where we don’t have any more energy to make good decisions. So–back to our earlier question–when you contemplate your Friday versus Sunday night selves, which one is more depleted? Obviously, the former.

You may call this condition by other names (stressed, exhausted, worn out, etc.) but depletion is the psychological sum of these feelings, of all the decisions you made that led to that moment. The decision to get up early instead of sleeping in, the decision to skip pastries every day on the way to work, the decision to stay at the office late to finish a project instead of leaving it for the next day (even though the boss was gone!), the decision not to skip the gym on the way home, and so on, and so forth. Because when you think about it, you’re not actually too tired to choose something healthy for dinner (after all, you can just as easily order soup and sautéed greens instead of beef lo mein and an order of fried gyoza), you’re simply out of will power to make that decision.

3) Understand ego-depletion.

Enter Baba Shiv (a professor at Stanford University) and Sasha Fedorikhin (a professor at Indiana University) who examined the idea that people yield to temptation more readily when the part of the brain responsible for deliberative thinking has its figurative hands full.

In this seminal experiment, a group of participants gathered in a room and were told that they would be given a number to remember, and which they were to repeat to another experimenter in a room down the hall. Easy enough, right? Well, the ease of the task actually depended on which of the two experimental groups you were in. You see, people in group 1 were given a two-digit number to remember. Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, that the number is 62. People in group two, however, were given a seven-digit number to remember, 3074581. Got that memorized? Okay!

Now here’s the twist: half way to the second room, a young lady was waiting by a table upon which sat a bowl of colorful fresh fruit and slices of fudgy chocolate cake. She asked each participant to choose which snack they would like after completing their task in the next room, and gave them a small ticket corresponding to their choice. As Baba and Sasha suspected, people laboring under the strain of remembering 3074581 chose chocolate cake far more often than those who had only 62 to recall. As it turned out, those managing greater cognitive strain were less able to overturn their instinctive desires.


(Photo: PetitPlat)

This simple experiment doesn’t really show how ego-depletion works, but it does demonstrate that even a simple cognitive load can alter decisions that could potentially have an effect on our lives and health. So consider how much greater the impact of days and days of difficult decisions and greater cognitive loads would be.

4) Include and consider the moral implications.

Depletion doesn’t only affect our ability to make good decisions, it also makes it harder for us to make honest ones. In one experiment that tested the relationship between depletion and honesty, my colleagues and I split participants into two groups, and had them complete something called a Stroop task, which is a simple task requiring only that the participant name aloud the color of the ink a word (which is itself a color) is written in. The task, however, has two forms: in the first, the color of the ink matches the word, called the “congruent” condition, in the second, the color of the ink differs from the word, called the “incongruent” condition. Go ahead and try both tasks yourself…

The congruent condition: color matches word.

The incongruent condition: color conflicts with word.

As you no doubt observed, naming the color in the incongruent version is far more difficult than in the congruent. Each time you repressed the word that popped instantly into your mind (the word itself) and forced yourself to name the color of the ink instead, you became slightly more depleted as a result of that repression.

As for the participants in our experiment, this was only the beginning. After they finished whichever task they were assigned to, we first offered them the opportunity to cheat. Participants were asked to take a short quiz on the history of Florida State University (where the experiment took place), for which they would be paid for the number of correct answers. They were asked to circle their answers on a sheet of paper, then transfer those answers to a bubble sheet. However, when participants sat down with the experimenter, they discovered she had run into a problem. “I’m sorry,” the experimenter would say with exasperation, “I’m almost out of bubble sheets! I only have one unmarked one left, and one that has the answers already marked.” She explained to participants that she did her best to erase the marks but that they’re still slightly visible. Annoyed with herself, she admits that she had hoped to give one more test today after that one, then asks a question: “Since you are the first of the last two participants of the day, you can choose which form you would like to use: the clean one or the premarked one.”

So what do you think participants did? Did they reason with themselves that they’d help the experimenter out and take the premarked sheet, and be fastidious about recording their accidents accurately? Or did they realize that this would tempt them to cheat, and leave the premarked sheet alone? Well, the answer largely depended on which Stroop task they had done: those who had struggled through the incongruent version chose the premarked sheet far more often than the unmarked. What this means is that depletion can cause us to put ourselves into compromising positions in the first place.

And what about the people, in either condition, who chose the premarked sheet? Once again, those who were depleted by the first task, once in a position to cheat, did so far more often than those who breezed through the congruent version of the task.

What this means is that when we become depleted, we’re not only more apt to make bad and/or dishonest choices, we’re also more likely to allow ourselves to be tempted to make them in the first place. Talk about double jeopardy.

5) Evade ego-depletion.

There’s a saying that nothing good happens after midnight, and arguably, depletion is behind this bit of folk wisdom. Unless you work the third shift, if you’re up after midnight it’s probably been a pretty long day for you, and at that point, you’re more likely to make sub-optimal decisions, as we’ve learned.

So how can we escape depletion?

A friend of mine named Dan Silverman once suggested an interesting approach during our time together at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which is a delightful place for researchers to take a year off to think, plan, and eat very well. Every day, after a rich lunch, we were plied with nigh-irresistible desserts: cheesecake, chocolate tortes, profiteroles, beignets—you name it. It was difficult for all of us, but especially for poor Dan, who was forever at the mercy of his sweet tooth.

It was daily dilemma for my friend. Dan, who was an economist with high cholesterol, wanted dessert. But he also understood that eating dessert every day was not a good decision. He contemplated this problem (along with his other academic interests), and concluded that when faced with temptation, a wise person should occasionally succumb. After all, by doing so, said person can keep him- or herself from becoming overly depleted, which will provide strength for whatever unexpected temptations lie in wait. Dan decided that giving in to daily dessert would be his best defense against being caught unawares by temptation and weakness down the road.

In all seriousness though, we’ve all heard time and time again that if you restrict your diet too much, you’ll likely to go overboard and binge at some point. Well, it’s true. A crucial aspect of managing depletion and making good decisions is having ways to release stress and reset, and to plan for certain indulgences. In fact, I think one reason the Slow-Carb Diet seems to be so effective is because it advises dieters to take a day off (also called a “cheat” day–see item 4 above), which allows them to avoid becoming so deprived that they give up entirely. The key here is planning the indulgence rather than waiting until you have absolutely nothing left in the tank. It’s in the latter moments of desperation that you throw yourself on the couch with the whole pint of ice cream, not even making a pretense of portion control, and go to town while watching your favorite tv show.

Regardless of the indulgence, whether it’s a new pair of shoes, some “me time” where you turn off your phone, an ice cream sundae, or a night out—plan it ahead. While I don’t recommend daily dessert, this kind of release might help you face down challenges to your will power later.

6) Know Thyself.


(Image: AnEpicDay)

The reality of modern life is that we can’t always avoid depletion. But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless against it. Many people probably remember the G.I. Joe cartoon catch phrase: “Knowing is half the battle.” While this served in the context of PSAs of various stripes, it can help us here as well. Simply knowing you can become depleted, and moreover, knowing the kinds of decisions you might make as a result, makes you far better equipped to handle difficult situations when and as they arise.

About the author: Dan Ariely is also the author of several excellent books, including Predictably Irrational and, most recently, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

Posted on: August 12, 2012.

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114 comments on “Understanding the Dangers of "Ego-Depletion"

  1. Agree 100% about your point about a big reason the slow carb diet has been so successful, is because it allows people to cheat. Everyone I’ve talked to who is on the diet, says that’s one of the main reasons they chose that diet over others. These same people failed over and over on other diets because they would break at some point, and when they did, just give up completely.

    Like

    • Exactly. I’ve sorta been on Slow Carb for the past month, but now I’m being really strict during the week. And you know what? It doesn’t even feel like a diet at all thanks to that cheat day.

      Sure, my performance in CrossFit workouts may not be that great on Monday, depending upon my cheat on Saturday, but it’s not like I’m training to be in the Games anyway.

      In the end, this mindset simplifies everything. It allows me to focus on other things in my day.

      Like

    • Suggestions for increasing decision-making hitpoints:

      1. Make Fewer Decisions
      The fewer decisions you make, the slower you’ll hit decision fatigue. Avoid making unnecessary decisions, especially right before a major decision.

      2. Limit Your Choices
      The more elements you need to evaluate during a decision, the more taxing it becomes. Keep your options simple and reduce them whenever possible.

      3. Use Decision Rules
      Avoid detailed analysis for every decision. Use rules of thumb or rules you’ve defined in advance to make your decision.

      4. Create Habits
      Habits allow you to automate a decision so you avoid spending energy on it. Make your decision once, then create a habit to avoid making it repeatedly.

      5. Make Important Decisions First
      Order your decisions from most important to least important. Spend your limited reserves on the decisions that matter most. That way if you do hit decision fatigue, it’ll have less impact.

      6. Eat
      Decision reserves get replenished when glucose levels rise. Make sure to eat before major decisions to avoid low glucose levels. For a last minute decision, consider eating a sugary snack right before your decision.

      Also, recent research has pointed to increasing your serotonin levels as a way to make more rational decisions. It may also be helpful in alleviating ego depletion / decision fatigue. Check out the “The cheesy secret behind successful decision making” at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-cheesy-secret-behind-successful-decision-making-841419.html

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      • Trevor – thanks for a fantastic and very practical follow-up comment!

        Knowing about depletion is helpful, but pairing it with practical, implementable instructions/suggestions is even better.

        For those who seek more information on how to turn general suggestions into specific actions, i’d recommend Chip & Dan Heath’s book “Switch” which talks about the importance of being precise when we ask ourselves to change. An example from the book illustrates the difference between the directives “eat healthier” and “always choose 1% instead or whole milk.”

        http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0385528752

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      • Brilliant – thanks Tim and thank you Trevor – this has come at the right time for me to make some amazing decisions and then stick to then. You will read about it in the trade press (entertainment) in the New Year

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    • Hey. I think we’re talking about increasing willpower here. I did some research a few months ago on this topic and I verified some things that I had experienced. Dual N-Back training (supposed to increase working memory) seemed to double my willpower. There is sparse evidence to support this but seems pretty valid. Check out http://lifehacker.com/5828159/how-you-can-boost-your-brains-willpower-with-a-simple-working-memory-exercise .

      I was using brain workshop.

      The problem with Dual N-Back training is that you’re memorizing random (read: unmeaningful) letters and locations. I think everyone craves meaningful stimulation. So I was delighted when I read the “Train Your Brain the Easy Way: Get Lost in a Good Story” section of this article: http://lifehacker.com/5895509/train-your-brain-for-monk+like-focus?tag=mindhacks

      So I switched over to reading for a while and then chess every night. My current “program” consists simply of counting to a thousand breaths every morning (my chosen form of meditation) during my morning walk. This is the easiest method I’ve found that produces favorable results.

      But the most favorable results I’ve had were when I was doing all of the above activities plus reviewing 100ish Italian cards in Anki every day. It was kind of unsustainable, but I felt like I was on Felix Felicis (that luck potion from Harry Potter.)

      I’d be curious to see what happens if you took a couple of days off from the internet. It could be that the constant barrage of near-random information on the internet has already built up your willpower, you just don’t know it because you’re using it all up dealing with all the information.

      Cheers! -Evan

      Like

    • I would suggest increasing your endorphins. Each decision you make and annoyance you have during the day releases some endorphins. This is why if it’s been a really stressful day it can be hard to decide if you want Indian or Thai food. You can supplement with DL Phenylanine or even better just D Phenylanine which inhibits the destruction of endorphins in the brain.

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  2. Wow, am I the first???

    Great post, I’ve been trying to explain this concept to my girlfriend recently. Think I’ll just point her your way.

    I need to also remind myself of it. Before I send myself upstairs for a gruelling all-nighter I should just chill out and get up early and fresh tomorrow.

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  3. I have long wondered this. Especially over the past few years I’ve realized that if I’m just doing mindless work that doesn’t require critical thinking that I can handle interuptions and jump from task to task. However, I find that when employees require a variety of different decisions from me, and those decisions require critical thinking, my brain starts to die out around 3:00 p.m.

    I’m going to find even more ways to avoid decisions during the day. Thanks!

    Eric

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  4. The word “depletion” reminds me of my high school night-long sessions with some online shooters, friends and headphones on. Quick parallel.

    When you already know the map (say, your habits or inclinations) you can plan how to use or save your ammo (ego or self-control “points”) to be BOTH a) ridiculously efficient in the regular battlefield (making important decisions) and b) ridiculously efficient in the endgame, when every bullet counts (having something left for unplanned situations). Hint: wasting 5 bullets when 3 is enough isn’t wise.

    It has also much in common with Tim’s theory of minimum effective dose. Stating which things in your daily plan are the most important ones for your life design and which are “oh well, also nice” can ease the decision when to be tough and when to eat the cookie :)

    Like

  5. Cool post, and definitely fits into my life experience, especially with diet.

    Reading through the Stroop test brought up a couple questions in my mind:

    1 is there any known effect on a persons ability to do either test if they’ve done the pother test recently?

    2 I saw a documentary a fee years

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    • I would like to blame swype for that post. The documentary was about research using logic games to treat schizophrenia patients, stroop tests were part of the games and the effects had apparently been dramatic. They were able show changes in schizophrenic brain function on fmri. I have since seen very little info about thata, just wondering if Dr. Ariely had any info our experience on that research.

      Thanks

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  6. Interesting stuff. I think that as a corollary, all this helps in articulating exactly why the long working hours institutionally required in the corporate world simply make people sick and unhappy with themselves: as ego-depletion kicks in, they feel less capable to take the plunge and leave the 9 to 5 life, not only in terms of making the short-term, yet hard sacrifices that such a big move might entail, but also because their capacity for being honest with themselves about the miserable situation they are into diminishes, making them more vulnerable to to rationalizing their current lifestyle via cognitive dissonance.

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  7. Hi Dan Ariely, this question is for you…

    Are youuu really Dan Silverman? Hm??

    Sincerely,
    Peter B Smith

    PS- I read predictably irrational and I really think you stand out from many academic authors, and other authors in general. Tim Ferriss has a lot of authors with guest posts on this site and they tend to follow the pattern “I did X in a way that most people would never think of…and heres how I did it!” I think a post like yours, backed by research, is refreshing and enjoyable.

    Keep up the good writing!

    Like

  8. Time and time again I’ve run into situations that show me my willpower is limited (mostly having to do with diet). Eventually I stopped fighting temptation, oddly enough I simultaneously stopped gaining weight. So thanks Tim! I shall feel no guilt at the occasional binge!

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  9. I like the term used for it. Thanks for sharing Dan!

    Tim, what is your list of things you’ve automated to not deplete yourself on a daily basis? Do you have cheat meals during the week? Is yes, under what condition do you decide to?

    I’ve been having problems with that last question – some weeks are a lot more stressful than others.

    Best,

    David

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  10. Another way to consider ego depletion is to think of a muscle. By exercising the ego, exerting more self control or by making progressive changes, we can build more discipline. We get used to doing what we know we should and it becomes easier. There are limits to this, but it’s another strategy to consider. Baumeister has some good stuff on ego depletion.

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    • Building discipline is possible, but difficult, and perhaps shouldn’t be the basis of so many people’s path to being their best self. Everyone wants to have more will-power, but I learned from Eben Pagan that this might actually be something we can never achieve. This is why it’s important to ‘win before you fight’, and establish the habits and opportunities to be healthy and proactive. I also think that thinking in terms of identity economics can help short-circuit the rationalization process: if you care about being someone who doesn’t eat cake, it is easier to live up to your goal. “I am” trumps “I shouldn’t”.

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  11. Dan,

    Enjoyed the post. Especially the Someecards card exemplifying ego-depletion. I’ve watched this for years in the military where people eventually can’t take anymore and shut down. Your insight definitely illuminates things a bit more. Anyways, fantastic article. Looking forward to checking out The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

    -Chad

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  12. Thank you for the article – it was an interesting read and I agree with the author on the effects of decision making on our minds. However, I wonder whether there is not another factor at play when the stroop test takers decide whether to cheat or not. Since the incongruent condition test is more difficult than the congruent condition test, participants may be more inclined to cheat after taking the former due to lack of confidence in their abilities rather than because they are tired of the mental strain. Participants who have made no mistakes and are confident in their answers are more likely to feel that they do not need to see someone else’s answers in order to do well on the test.

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  13. Fascinating article, and I love how Tim opened the guest post. I think it’s important to take out the small, tedious takes and make them part of our routine. It’s easy for us to get in the trap of “oh I wonder what I can think of cooking up for dinner”- which in my case, goes on for an hour then ends up with cereal.

    To clarify, this article uses ego in a term that isn’t well defined. While I completely agree with the main point of the article, the use of the word ego was distracting. I’m not sure what the better word was, but this one took away from my focus of his main point and instead was looking at how he was defining ego. I recently came across a def. here (http://krishnapendyala.com/raising-awareness/meet-the-ego/) , but I doubt the two agree entirely.
    Anyways, we’re off to semantic warfare! I hope this doesn’t distract too much from the point of the article, but I wanted to caution the author on the use of the word “ego” – which often confuses more than it helps!

    Anyways, great guest post :)

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    • Semantic are important, extremely important. Language shapes our understanding of the world around us and of our experiances, so we better make sure we have the right word with the right meaning.

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  14. Wow, this article came at the right time for me.

    I’m currently discovering that not only is automating routine tasks important, but so too is not taking on lots of big things (dreamlines, etc) at once!

    I’m off to reread that brilliant post about letting opportunities pass and focusing on what’s most important.

    Thanks for sharing this stuff with us, Tim. It’s made my life way more awesome!

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  15. Thats really deep and philosophical Tim. I was wondering if ego depletion can affect entire social systems as well. Like a country with high poverty and crime.. Is a result of a populace and leadership with depleted egos?

    Very intresting article.. I will meditate on it.

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    • There are some suggestions that people who are poor have to make many many more difficult decisions every day — and that is causing them to be in a depleted state for much of their days.

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  16. As soon as I saw the word “ego-depleted,” I immediately thought of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

    Kahneman describes the brain as divided into two separate systems, 1 & 2. System 1 is in charge of routine tasks and very simple operations while System 2 is reserved for higher-level tasks, stressful decisions, and maintaining your ego. Definitely a good read for people who like this subject.

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  17. Good stuff. Just recently finished a book on the subject called “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” Highly recommend, definitely gives a more in-depth look into how ego/willpower depletion affects our everyday lives.

    Like

    • I highly recommend the Willpower book. It’s a great read to learn more about the science behind ego depletion and the components of willpower. Also, how to “build” it.

      I read it autumn 2011 and it was motivating for me. I enacted some if the items recommended in the book and saw immediate positive changes. However, I went on vacation and fell out of habits. I think it’s time for a re-read.

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  18. This is my first comment, but I’ve been an avid reader and fan of your stuff for four years now. It’s been lifechanging for the way I think, and for many of the ways I act.

    Ego-depletion, or decision-fatigue as the NYT called it, has been my worst enemy in trying to stick to various diets (slow-carb, paleo, etc); despite their simplicity, there’s always a rationalization. The mind has an extraordinary ability to shrink and expand its relevant time horizon, such that if it’s fatigued (depleted) it will go into auto-shrink and make everything justifiable in the short-term. Most frustrating thing in the world.

    This post cleared some things up for me and provided a bit of comfort about the constant slip-up situation. Thanks, Tim and Dan.

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  19. Dan, Your articles are great! Thanks.
    Don’t you think we can train to push away the time when we deplete ourselves?
    Some people do better than others at decision-making, why?
    Making a decision gives a thrill, it makes you feel alive a lot more than taking orders (or is it just me?). Feeling the burden of responsibility reminds you that we are free to make the choice, it is extremely invigorating.

    There seems indeed to be a limit in how much we can decide, but this limit should not be taken for granted.

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    • @ryan and @neil simpson… there are a few other books and authors out there publishing about the advances in behavioral economics and cognitive psychology and bringing them down to a layman’s level. Dan is another one of them. Jonah Lehrer has a book on decision-making as well. And whether or not people put it in the same category, Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” seems to fit the genre.

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  20. seriously good article! Never thought about the fact that my love of eating the same meals day in and day out might be because of my limited decision making capabilities. But it makes sense, I thought I liked routine because I was lazy…or a control freak. But actually I just prefer to use my creativity else where. That sounds so much better anyway. Thank you for this great post. In good health Megyn Blanchard

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  21. I love it when “world’s collide!” I’ve followed Tim’s work (since 4HWW) and recently came across Dan’s work about a year ago. It’s so great to see the 4-hour community introduced to Ariely’s work. He’s most certainly made some important contributions when it comes to morals and decision-making.

    He and Michael Norton (Professor at Harvard Business School) published a journal article from which a chart was taken and set the internet ablaze (with regard to the inequality of wealth distribution and Americans perceptions of said inequality). Ariely recently reposted it (but not in the way that Lehrer did) in an article in The Atlantic. If you get a chance, I hope you take the time to read it.

    With Gratitude,

    Jeremiah

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  22. I have often heard of the idea of a ‘word bank’. That each day I have a certain number of words that I am ready to use. If I use less than that, I’ll feel unfulfilled. If I use more I feel ‘depleted’. If I use about that amount, I thrive

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  23. Great post, thanks Tim/Dan.

    Over the last week, I’ve been doing a “Swarm” (thanks Ryan Holiday) on behavioral change, habit formation, and staying focused.

    I’m reading The Power of Full Engagement and The Power of Habit. Great books so far. It’s interesting how our habits can control us. (if we let them)

    Ego depletion is so true, Dan hit the nail on the head.

    I’m glad I have half the battle won.

    Thanks guys, looking forward to the final battle with Cobra.

    I’m a nerd. :-)

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  24. Hi Dan, Tim, everyone I use meditation to get those decisions. Teachers talk about drawing out information, for me it’s about drawing out decisions. Thanks Dara

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  25. You want to know what “ego depletion” means?

    You read the work of Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D.

    Losing Control>/i> is a book he edited, and is a masterpiece of clinical psychology.

    The man knows more about self regulation than anyone.

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  26. As Dan’s points mostly addressed “ego-depletion” and making poor decisions once the body/mind has become exhausted, do the same principles typically apply for creative output? (i.e. Tim, I remember you mentioning about how you a certain reservoir of writing per day-any further insights…?) Much thanks -George

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  27. Good article. I just finished “Eat That Frog” by Brian Tracy and he references how there is a diminished return as people work longer days. The longer one works, the lower the quality of the work. For me personally, “knowing thyself” is the most critical part. Allowing for a cheat meal has helped me to have a reward, but not de-rail completely (it was one of the princples that helped me drop 90lbs). A cheat day has typically led to cheating the next day and so on. In the end, the principle is the same, people need to be able to give in periodically.

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  28. Really cool stuff. I have lost 73 pounds in the last 7 months following the Slow Carb format (with more of a Primal twist), but this helped me understand and see patterns of when I succumb to temptation more! I appreciate it!

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  29. This is so true!! Very insightful. I go through this sort of thing on a weekly basis. I always thought these types of decisions had to do with exhaustion but this makes complete sense. Thank you!

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  30. Hi Dan, Hi Tim,

    I have a question: If we are at our lowest level of decision-making points on a Friday arvo, then why not have that as the cheat day for the low-carb diet instead of the weekend? I always feel well-rested on a Saturday. If I’m going to eat crap and enjoy it on a particular day, I might as well do it on Friday, when I need it most and when I’m going to make bad decisions anyway..

    Cheers,

    Jerome Luepkes

    Like

    • Ha! Great point. I often wake up Saturday not wanting to cheat…. after having spent Friday salivating and eagerly anticipating yummy cheat day. The craving just disappears with rest. It’s so anti-climactic. :)

      Like

      • I think the issue comes with the definition of “Cheat Day” and not “Cheat Meal”. If I am going to have a cheat day, I want it to be a whole cheat day. Not just a cheat night. This might be typical fat man justification but If I only have those 4-5 hours of cheating, I will feel like got cheated myself. Then I the next time will add in 4-5 the next day. Then the following week all of saturday. . . then all weekend. . . then I am lost.

        Like

    • Go for it Jerome. Tim suggests Saturday for cheat day only because it usually is the most social day for people. Let’s make cheat day on ego depletion day!

      Like

  31. Thanks for that, wow it took some reading though, applying it to my work is now something I need to consider buts its given me inspiration, thank you

    Like

  32. 5. Ego-depletion is indeed not new to every employee or even students. The article is a helpful tool for those individual who are usually suffering from this one like me. It is really hard to fight between your standards versus pleasures. And the state of mind is not always the same. Sometime we lose the will to maintain these standards and can easily fall to those pleasurable temptations. But by the use of these tips I can surely overcome what must be overcame. Who can disagree with this article? It gives profound examples and cited reliable sources which the article itself believable. I can say that this one is not made up by crazy individual since it is made of facts. Thanks to the article Dan and also for the tips.

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  33. This is fantastic article. Acknowledge your tension makes decision right. if we were pressure with what we have, we will end to a bad decision and we will regret it. We need to understand ego-depletion because this will lead us to self-deprivation and with moral implication we can control ourselves to make right and wrong decision.But the most crucial part was “knowing thyself”, if you dont know yourself, you wont be able to know what are good and bad for yourself.

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  34. It’s fairy obvious that when people are more stressed/tired they are more likely to make decisions in the moment rather than thinking about long term effects of their choice. That’s why so many people find themselves “late night binging” on all sorts of junk food.

    However, what’s not so obvious that I found interesting was that people were more likely to be dishonest. I wonder if this holds true when asked opinion questions? For example if when you get home from a hard days work, are you more likely to tell you wife that yes that dress does make her look fat because you’re cranky and tired? Or are you more likely to be dishonest and tell her she looks great? ;) Interesting stuff….

    Thomas

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  35. One way to free up decision power is by habitualizing decisions that currently take will power.

    Have trouble picking between Snickers and an apple at the end of the day? Invest the time and effort needed to make the apple a habit.

    Thus you free up a Decision Energy point… that you can use to zap the next decision that comes into view. ;)

    Like

  36. This was so dead on about how good vs bad decisions are made in terms of how the ego interprets the information that it encounters. If you’re not friends with your ego then it will be a challenge to develop life skills to create the lifestyle you desire since deeply rooted emotional signals will always prevail over logic.

    The trick is to feed your ego a balanced consumption of healthy bits of
    self-esteem, mini-rewards, social sharing, and shots of self-awareness.

    Like

  37. Great article Tim. Stress is simply how I sum up the overall reduction in “willpower” that is experienced from all of our decisions (and other things).

    To me, some of the simplest solutions that I recommend to people are:

    1. Make an effort to reduce overall stress in your life. Meditation, emotional awareness/management, etc.

    2. Focus on making the desired behavior a habit so it becomes “automatic” and doesn’t generate as much decision making stress.

    3. Focus on only changing one or a couple habits in your life at a time so it doesn’t become overwhelming.

    4. Use positive language like “I choose” instead of “I have to” when making decisions so it doesn’t real “restrictive” to your sense of freedom.

    There are of course a lot of ways to overcome this obstacle of ego-depletion/stress, but the most important thing is to be aware of how it is affecting you.

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  38. A rational explanation as to why I play video games until 4:00 am after a day of meetings with “C” level executives. The worst part is I’m not even winning the games after midnight but I keep playing. Tim, Please have this author do a long post on defeating ego- depletion.

    Like

  39. This is similar to a lecture a neuroscientist was giving at my local Hacker Space.
    They did a study where you were split into two large group and activitly participated in the discussion. Then they broke up into groups of two individuals. They were all taken aside individually and told one of two things.
    1. You did great, everyone wants to be with you but we just had to pair you with someone at random.
    2. You did not so great, everyone want to be with someone else but we just had to pair you with someone at random

    They then places a plate of Chocolate Chips Cookies next to the pairs.
    The people who were told the 2. “no one likes you” statement ate a MUCH greater proportion of the cookies then the people who were told the 1. “everyone likes you”

    Side note. Chocolate Chip Cookies are are almost the perfect ego depletion food. Why?

    1. Chocolate
    2. Sweet smelling
    3. Happy childhood memories
    4. Carbs
    5. You KNOW you should not have them.

    Therefore the longer you are around Chocolate Chip Cookies the lower your will power gets. . . RUNNNN AWAYYYYYY

    Food for thought

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  40. Tim,
    I realize that that I’m a mere peasant compared to you but I would really appreciate the opportunity to run an idea by you. I don’t want to post it on here for sake of intellectual theft. I don’t need to speak to you personally. All I need is a simple “that’s the worst idea on the face of the earth” or “I think that idea has promise.” I respect your position and privacy so it can be an extemely brief email discussion. I also respect your thoughts and advice and have been reading your material for a while now. Your book completely changes my view on work and life in general. Respectfully submitted, Joseph—Georgia

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  41. What about the effect of not having enough sleep on decision-making? I thought that would be worth mentioning. I believe you limit your decision-making hit points when you’re under slept. Also the effect of stress hormones on decision-making has been written about a lot. If you’re flooded with that cortisol garbage, you’re decision-making hit points deplete quicker. Just a few thoughts i guess, also theres a good book on it called “Think Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman :)

    Like

  42. Wow. This is SO TRUE! Talk about yo-yo dieting and all the other effects of cold turkey dieting. It seems that in my case, I LOVE to over eat – just feels good to me. So what I do is I over eat veggies and egg whites in the morning, holding me off the rest of the day.

    I wonder how this effects the sex life too? Im sure that would be an interesting study.

    Like

  43. I recommended a book to you on a Facebook reply Tim – it’s called Willpower: The Greatest Human Strength. It discusses this in great detail – the concept that self-control is finite and that building good habits allows you to not use up so much of that willpower reserve, and save it for other areas of your life. It’s the most compelling book I’ve read all year and goes hand in hand with the principles you teach. You must check it out, I’ll check out this author as well, such an interesting topic.

    Like

  44. Yeah but I thought you want to stop feeding your EGO and start to feed your true inner self who actually hates the EGO version of you?

    When we are most focus we don’t have an oversized EGO right? Or am I missing something?

    Like

  45. Amazing change of perspective every time! We WILL meet you. We’re in San Antonio. Let us know when to make the meal reservations. à bientôt!

    Like

  46. The one thing I want to see from a diet is something that I can prepare quickly and that I can sustain. I don’t want to do it for 6 weeks then revert back. I want to pick a size I want to be and stay and stick to it.

    Like

    • What I did all through college and to this day is use a slow-cooker, take 5-10 minutes to prepare a big batch of healthy food, cook it while I was asleep, and then I have enough meals to last me a couple days. That’s my first recommendation to people looking to eat healthier in a hurry. Since you can make just about any type of dish, you’ll probably find some good recipes you’d enjoy that take less than 10 minutes to prepare.

      Like

  47. LOVED THIS POST!!! Explained to me why after a long week of work where I feel I have been overwhelmed with so many decisions I’m must more open to stuffing myself and overeating. Sometimes I rationalize and tell myself “I deserve” this junk food and binging overeating.

    My action item from this post is to make the small decisions before hand so that when I am faced with the simple decisions, such as what I eat for breakfast, it has already been planned. This will save my decision making willpower I need for much bigger and more difficult decisions.

    Like

  48. Hi,
    I’ ve just bought your book and started to read and I have a problem becouse in my town there is no one place where I can check how much fat is in my body ;( can I try whitout it ?

    Like

    • I doubt very much that the purpose or application of this post mani intended to rationalizing the manipulation of long term relationships.

      Like

  49. That is one of my favorite someecards :).

    I think this article is good, but really misses a big part, which some commenters have already brought up: how to increase one’s total reservoir.

    Hypothesis – What if it is exactly when we are feeling most depleted that pushing ourselves to focus causes the most growth in mental reserves/willpower/hitpoints? Perhaps it is similar to working out, where the last bit of effort to the point of failure is the most important?

    “Dan decided that giving in to daily dessert would be his best defense against being caught unawares by temptation and weakness down the road.”

    If reserves can be grown, then the above seems like a bad decision…maybe he should have decided to give in 4 days a week for a month, then 3, etc…?

    Just my thoughts.

    -JC

    Like

  50. Tim Ferriss make a trip to India. Your blogs are so informative and I use many of your advise from Slow Carb Diet to Entrepreneurship. I’ve just completed MBA and looking for a job but your blogs makes me think I should follow my dreams of public speaking and also being an entrepreneur (make my ideas work for real). You’re my favorite writer, fitness guru, travel guide, break-dancer & mentor all rolled in one. My favorite writers are Shakespeare and Dale Carnegie too but they couldn’t dance like you…Come to India…so wanna listen to you live.

    Like

  51. Hello,
    I have read the book by Timothy Ferriss: The 4-hour workweek. And I think it is pure gold!
    I wanted to ask you a question: It would be good idea to ask Brickwork India I did a Google Adwords (PPC)? I have done some work Brickwork India Marketing online to any of you?
    intersa me your opinion.

    Thanks for your time,
    regards,

    Jose Andres

    Like

  52. Genuinely very interesting.

    Giving in to temptation can be exactly what you need to acheive goals.

    Look at things like the cyclic ketogenic diet, which I have followed on numerous occassions, without the cheat days (recarb) it just wouldn’t work!

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  53. This article explains a lot. I always wondered why I’d make such stupid decisions on uni placement, work etc from about 3pm onwards, even though I knew they were consciously bad in hindsight when I looked back on them the next morning. And why at work, I’d dread the 5pm-7pm time slot, when I just KNEW I’d do something stupid that would annoy the boss, and I’d just try to keep my head down and hang in there.

    Also why I always knew it was a BAD idea to go on a date, straight after a long day at work..I’d always end up sleeping with the girl who was no good, or friend zoning the one I liked, and uppercut myself later :p

    and why, if i don’t get into bed by 11pm, I find it impossible to ‘force myself’ to go to sleep before midnight, and about that time I start watching p*rn and won’t have the willpower to stop until 2am…oh crap its 1150…I know how tonight’s going to end :-O

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  54. Hey Tim,

    I really love your article. I am trying to establish the habit of 1 hour of meditation daily at the moment. I think its tough because my ego does get depleted due to the length of the session from time to time. On those low days I just do 10 or twenty minutes, gives me time to go the full length the next days.

    Cheers,

    Brandon

    Like

  55. Great article, I had never given much thought to how the process of giving into temptation works. I think you may have just caused a quantum shift in my thinking in everything from eating to working and living…

    Like

  56. Hey Tim, awesome post. I have been curious as to what you would say was your biggest accomplishment prior to being and entrepreneur and best-selling author?
    Also, what kind of tea do you drink before you start your writing process??

    Like

  57. Thanks Tim, great article, excellent picture to start the post off – it’ll take some digesting to take it all in, but am working on it. Hopefully it’ll help with my stress factors.

    Like

  58. This topic is interesting, it certainly makes you think about environment control (inner and outer) and its correlation to accurate decision making. In other words, how having a mess or a workplace and a stressful work environment can lead to poor decisions; Interesting indeed. I is also a useful tool to analyze and define optimal times for decision making (80/20), and maybe set a time of the day or a day of the week to make business or life decisions.

    Also, I have been following the Slow Carb Diet for a couple of months now, and its helping. I think that “cheat day” is a useful tool that can be extrapolated to other things as well, included decision making. Interesting concept.

    Cheers man, saludos!

    PS Currently reading the extended version of the 4HWW, its great!

    Like

  59. Hey Tim,
    I was thinking about this topic after dicussing it with my girlfriend, and I came to realize there are several things that can impact personal performance along the lines of “ego-depletion” that we can conciously do to multiply productivity (not just in volume, but in value). Among several examples, I think using a secondary monitor is one of that has helped me a lot (a 20” simple LCD in my case). Not having to toggle between running applications is like climbing a mountain without a backpack, you feel lighter and more natural. A secondary monitor (for certain multi-window tasks like research based writing, wordpress site updates, video editing, etc. I am against “multi-tasking” but sometimes having multiple applications open at the same time is inevitable) makes my mind feel more relaxed in a similar way the “Word/color” test included in the article was easier to complete when the words matched the color. It makes it easier for me to get into a “flow” state. I am convinced this is an 80/20 area of personal efectiveness that deserves exploring (hint, that would be a great post).

    My whole point is, as with most things, mental energy (or mental stress) can also be productively analyzed using the 80/20 principle in apparently unquantifiable aspects such as “potential creative mental energy”.

    PS Are you the dude “who studies japanese” in David Koch´s book (The 80/20 principle)? I bet you are!

    Like

  60. Wow, this was such an interesting read!

    Makes TOTAL sense though!

    I’ve been limiting the stress around here for the last few weeks and basically just being conscious of the moment I’m actually in (not worrying about the gym, work and commitments etc) and I gotta tell ya, the difference has been pretty incredible!

    Like

  61. This is a great article. It gave me an insight on what ego-depletion means. It’s really hard to make decisions and at times it can be very stressful. Dieting is a very challenging thing to do especially when a person can easily be tempted. I am also struggling to lose weight so I think I’ll try this slow carb diet. Stress is one of the reasons why we tend to overeat as food can be very comforting. so I think this article is really nice.

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  62. Well at my part I do get that alot of ego-depletions at home as well. Or at work and this may vary to a persons personality sometimes. But at my part I can be very considerate but sometimes if its too much I would object. For example taking turns in doing the chores could be a very common thing. If one person watches TV all day and the other does the chores and this keeps going till the end of the week this gotta change already. But to some people doing nothing and relaxing is better than working so it creates a feud. So to avoid this as much as possible people should create an understanding to one another.

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  63. Hi, I’ve stumbled across this post and did my best to try and understand it all.
    Is this article available in German anywhere? Also have there any test been done with people who suffer from mental illness? How would this work with a person who has a generalized anxiety disorder, or severe depression, or say ADHD? Or someone who suffers from insomnia? What about dyslexics?

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  64. Great article – all of Ariely’s work is a great read. Check out The Power of Habit by Duhigg. He covers this topic as well, but also does a fabulous job of dissecting the connection between reward and trigger (what he calls “cue”). Once you know your current reward you can “rewire” your routine to have a better routine.
    It’s a sort-of mechanical look at how to rewire any habit that doesn’t serve you. Well worth the read (start with the appendices about how he kicked his afternoon cookie habit).

    Like

  65. I’d like to say just how popular this blog is, as can be seen by the comments regularly being posted.
    It’s well worth following in order to understand other peoples thoughyts on the subject of stress.

    Like

  66. This blog post is actually refreshing. It made me remember the time when I did really bad in decision making. What I did prior to that were all about forcing myself to finish my work that it made me not sleep and eat. Hence, the bad decision. It screwed up my relationship with my peers and friends. When I realized how bad I did, I did my best to make it right, but it just ended up adding to the stress. And so, I took a little break from everything, and when I came back, I was able to make things better. And I did better! This post gave more insight into the topic, and might as well just take the advice. Thanks!

    Like

  67. I’m 54 testosterone is 325. I want raise it to 800 which is the high norm. Will this program do this for me and how long will it take? Thanks.

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  68. Hi Fellow Free People,

    Does anyone remember exactly where Tim’s writing or link about the issue of everyone being a slave, even a king being a slave to a servant girl, etc., because that really hit home with me? I realized I had fallen into my own kind of slavery down here in Corpus Christi, Texas. I am ready to break free now that I have ID’d the problem. Thanks Tim and Stoics for wising me up before I die. Can’t be free if you don’t know you are a slave. I am taking a spiritual approach to riches doing something called Millionaire Yoga by Dr Baskaran Pillai, formerly Dattatreya Siva Baba on YouTube and it has cleared my mind right up. A clear mind is a foundation of wealth creation and there are secrets of wealth creation only the very few ever heard of outside the Himalayas or in old Tibet. Enough about me. If you want to talk about implementing Tim’s ideas somehow, then I can be emailed at munroekyle@yahoo.com I am ready to listen and help if I can. Also on Twitter at BRZEE_BRZEE I am afraid most people block their own money by blaming how it comes, according to Dr Pillai who has studied the matter deeply. Kyle

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  69. An enlightening article. I recently wrote a blog in which I emphasised the importance of congruence with ones inner beliefs when defining and working on personal goals, so I particularly liked the section on the Stroop test. What I wrote was based more on my own intuition and personal belief, and it is good to see it vindicated by scientific research.

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  70. Hey Tim – Any chance you can change the E-Card at the top of this post so I can share this blog post with some elementary school students?

    Like