Tied to self-control and willpower, the theory of ego depletion suggests that people have a limited amount of strength or ability for self-control. In this theory, the exertion to maintain self-control can drain energy or willpower to apply it to another, subsequent task or to resist temptation.
While this theory has been supported in a wide range of studies, recent findings indicate there might be extenuating factors affecting one's ability to exert self-control, and that it may not necessarily be a finite resource that can be depleted.
Such factors as attention, motivation, and beliefs may affect willpower more. In addition, the habits you form to support your goals may prove key in your ability to stay motivated. It may be the habits themselves that are more influential in helping you achieve your goals. To understand this theory in more detail, it can be essential to look into the research behind it and how to prevent a “loss of self-control.”
What Is The Ego Depletion Theory?
The ego depletion theory is based on the concept of energy available to the self. When energy lowers because of the effort required to exercise self-control, this energy is referred to as depleted.
According to researchers, "exerting self-control depletes a limited resource (ego depletion) that is necessary for the success of self-control. Hence, after exerting self-control, individuals are less able resist temptations." For this reason, one may struggle to keep the same level of self-control on another task or sphere after doing a task that requires sustained effort.
A core assumption of this theory assumes that one's energy is a limited resource, comparable to an ability that can be strengthened or weakened according to how it's used and how often. For example, a person who has applied themselves to a task that required great self-control for the entire day may be less able to maintain that willpower when faced with choices that demand self-control, such as avoiding substances or unhealthy food.
If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
Elements Of Ego Depletion
Below are some of the ways ego depletion may impact individuals.
Whether it's a task or a temptation, ego depletion may occur when you've had to exercise self-control, according to the theory. Avoiding temptation may become more difficult the more you've had to deny your impulses.
For example, if you've had to refrain from making a snide comment after an insult, or had a salad when you wanted a lasagna, resisting another temptation may be more challenging. The more you've had to deny your impulses or urges, the more of a toll it may take, making further temptations more difficult to resist.
Self-Control And Willpower
They may be related, but self-control and willpower differ. While willpower relates to the ability to resist temptations that arise and get in the way of your goals, self-control relates to your ability to control your behavior to achieve what you want and avoid getting what you don't want. Your ability to control your behavior, however, may shift and fluctuate. Some may liken it to a fluctuating resource as opposed to an innate capacity.
Willpower And Success
Willpower is linked with higher self-esteem, positive relationship skills, less substance use, less binge eating, and other benefits. Self-discipline may be a greater predictor of success than IQ. However, maintaining one's willpower depends on multiple factors.
Factors Affecting Willpower
While it may be challenging to have willpower when faced with temptations, tasks, and choices, other factors may influence it.
Beliefs and attitudes may impact willpower and your ability to sustain it. For example, partaking in an activity because of internal desire instead of the desire to please others may increase motivation and the ability to resist temptations. Being in a positive mood may also enable you to more easily overcome ego depletion.
Believing that your willpower is limited may also affect this area of mental health. If you believe that you are likely to experience ego depletion, it may impact you more strongly.
Can Willpower Be Learned?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) annual Stress in America Survey, the majority of respondents claim the main reason for not following through with changes they wish to make in their lives is lack of willpower. At the same time, those same respondents said they believed willpower is a skill that can be learned.
To maximize one's ability to meet goals, they suggest the following must be in place:
Motivation to change or achieve a certain goal
Ability to delay gratification
A clear, achievable goal
Monitoring your behavior in the process of meeting that goal
Ability to resist temptations in the short term
The Role Of Motivation In Willpower
Motivation may affect willpower and override one's tendency to have lower self-control. Motivation is credited with the ability to stay on the course and overcome resistance, but may also be related to the habits that help you achieve your goals. By acting on your motivation to change or achieve a goal, you create more positive habits.
For example, if you want to have more self-control, you may start incorporating mindfulness meditation into your daily life. The practice of meditation is linked with lowering stress, increasing self-awareness, and aiding concentration and focus, as well as providing a host of other benefits.
What Is The Hot-And-Cool System?
The "cool" system is associated with cognitive processes—thinking patterns like actions, goals, and reflection. The "hot" system relates to emotions and impulses that are more reflexive and impulsive in nature.
When one experiences reduced willpower, it may be due to emotions and impulses overriding reflective, cool-headed decisions. However, some people may be more susceptible to emotional events than others, and brain activity patterns have been shown to differ between people who display high versus low self-control.
Meditation has also been proven to affect the brain, enabling it to maintain focus and attention. As a practice, mindfulness may work as an exercise for the brain to hone these abilities over the long-term and reduce ego depletion.
Professional Support Options
If you think you might benefit from guidance on strengthening your willpower, consider therapy. You can meet with a therapist in person, online, or over the phone. If you are considering online therapy, a modality that enables you to meet with a therapist from a personal device, platforms like BetterHelp are also an option.
Online therapy platforms can match you with a licensed therapist available by video conference, phone call, or in-app messaging. Often, the matching process works within 48 hours, and you can change your therapist if needed. On some platforms, therapists can input goals for their clients, and you can track your progress together.
Some therapists use mindfulness to support their clients in achieving their goals. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can be practiced online, and one study found that this format was as effective as mindfulness-based therapy in person. Clients experienced reduced depression and anxiety scores after treatment.
On your way to creating habits and strengthening your ability to resist temptations, consider therapy and mindfulness. A therapist who incorporates mindfulness training into their practice may help you develop the focus to achieve your goals. You can reach out to a provider online or in your area to get started.
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