I was first introduced to the idea of ego depletion in Roy Baumeister’s book Willpower, Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Ego depletion is one of the primary factors affection our willpower. Our willpower and self-control draw on a limited pool of mental resources. Our mental resources are directly related to our available energy which is composed of the energy we get in our food, the amount of sleep we get, and our beliefs. Every decision we make uses our willpower and depletes our ego. Experimental psychology and social psychology has revealed ego depletion as factor in our daily interactions. Similar to a muscle our self-control may be strengthened with use or weaken or atrophy with disuse. It is susceptible to fatigue and over use. Every day we have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted with use and all manner of tasks use it.
With a little observation, we can see the effects of ego depletion in our daily lives. People with chronic pain may be grumpy. People with unexpected injuries can be difficult to work with. People who don’t eat breakfast before going to work may be difficult until they get their bagel, coffee or other form of nutrients. Ultimately there is no obvious feeling of ego depletion as everyone deals with life differently. However, there are some signals typical of it like a random change in the overall intensity of a feeling; happier than normal; or being frustrated with small inconsequential things.
For myself, I recently broke a rib. By the end of the day, I’m not able to deal with the typical trials and tribulations that a four- an eight-year old bring. My wife, also aware of ego depletion, has been asking me if I’ve taken my Aleve or even suggested I take my prescription medication to facilitate my normal functioning as a father and husband. I thought things were getting better after a week an a half. At work, things were good and I was experiencing more discomfort than pain. Maybe I was just getting used to it. Then, I sneezed. Not once, but twice in a couple hour period. For those that haven’t experienced a broken rib, it felt like I had re-broke it, twice. Waking up the next day, the discomfort had returned to pain. I handled it well enough and just did what I had to do at work. However, at the end of the day, I had little left to deal with the rest of life and I was unable to integrate and help my family with their needs.
The point in all of this, is simple. When managing our daily business, it is critical to understand we have limited energy to deal with the onslaught of issues, pain, problem solving, interacting with friends, coworkers, petty tyrants and the like. Like flying an airplane or driving a car, we have to monitor our fuel and know when to pull over for a refill or just to take a breather. We have egos and energy that need managed. It’s also good to realize that everyone in our lives are in the same situation. When someone reacts to us with disproportionate frustration, anger or other energy, we need to ask, “Where is this energy coming from?” or “Is this energy appropriate?” The same is true of ourselves. Observing our own reactions to others can be a great feedback mechanism to tell us whether we need to recharge or simply take some time to get our heads in the right place.