January is the month for resolutions, which also makes it the month for self-control. Whether you’re giving up your favorite latte or cutting back on Instagram, avoiding these and other temptations can feel draining. It’s as though you only have so much willpower in your tank, and the more of it you use, the harder it becomes to follow through on your good intentions.
Experts have a name for this phenomenon: ego depletion. The term was introduced in the 1990s by a team of psychologists at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. They argued that your “volition” — that is, your ability to make choices or engage in effortful behaviors — is a limited resource. The more willpower you expend, the more vulnerable you are to failures of self-control.
Ego-depletion theory quickly became one of the hottest concepts in psychology. “The idea really took social psychology by storm. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for a while it was at the center of the field,” says Michael Inzlicht, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Inzlicht himself was swept up in the ego-depletion furor and published work that supported its existence and significance.
“But then some cracks started to appear,” he says. Experts began asking what, exactly, was the resource in the brain that was being used up when a person exercised willpower? No one could say. More consequentially, researchers who tried to go back and replicate some of the most influential ego-depletion experiments found that their results didn’t hold up. Inzlicht discovered this when he reexamined some of his own work.
“Now I think the studies that ego-depletion theory was based on are bollocks, and I didn’t come to that belief lightly,” he says. “It’s partly my own work that I’m denigrating.”
But while the early ego-depletion concepts appear to be flawed, experts say that self-control can wax or wane for a number of predictable reasons. Understanding when and how this happens may help people avoid the kind of willpower failures that torpedo their aspirations.
It makes sense that you’d struggle to attend to your goals and behavior if your brain is distracted by news about friends, politics, or other captivating bits of information.
One of the challenges of willpower research is that self-control is difficult to measure. You can try to examine it by tempting people with treats such as chips or cookies. But some people like chips or cookies more than others, and so the results of these sorts of experiments are messy and unreliable.
A common workaround — one employed in many willpower experiments — involves computer-based tasks that demand self-control. For a 2020 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers found that when people completed this sort of task, they tended to perform a little worse on follow-up tests of self-control. Importantly, the researchers also found that if they increased the duration of the initial willpower task — extending it from about 10 minutes to 30 minutes — the drop in self-control was appreciably larger.
“I am very confident that this effect is true, depending on how depleting the task is,” says Junhua Dang, PhD, first author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden.
Dang has published several papers on willpower. He says that early on, ego-depletion theory described willpower as dependent on a mysterious resource in the brain — something that is drained as a person exerts self-control. This is sometimes referred to as the “strength model” or “resource model” of self-control. Dang has proposed a different model — one that centers on elements of attention and motivation.
He says that when a person exerts self-control, this seems to trigger processes in the brain that don’t stop the second a person moves on to a new task. These processes seem to “linger,” he says, and can interfere with subsequent tests of willpower. What seems like a depletion is really just a form of temporary distraction.
Inzlicht makes a similar point. “It seems pretty clear that our attention is limited, so if I’m paying attention to one thing, I can’t pay as much attention to something else,” he says.
A person’s beliefs about willpower and motivation also seem to matter.
“In the West, we have these conceptions about balancing labor with leisure,” Inzlicht says. Some of his work has found that these conceptions can lead people who have flexed their willpower muscles to feel entitled to some kind of indulgence. (For example, after a long day of work, a person may end up snacking on the couch not because her willpower is drained, but because she believes that she’s earned these rewards. Her motivation has shifted.) This finding flicks at some earlier ego-depletion work that found people who think willpower is finite tend to exert less of it than those who think willpower is unlimited.
In both cases, a person’s beliefs seem to play a role.
“There are easier, less-muscular ways to engage in goal-directed behavior than relying on willpower.”
Inzlicht says exerting self-control requires that the brain shift out of “autopilot,” and this shift demands attention and effort. Anything that distracts the brain — whether that distraction is an emotion, a need, a choice, a belief, or a new piece of information — is going to limit the brain’s ability to abandon its autopilot setting.
Looked at in this light, avoiding or mitigating distractions may be one way to bolster self-control. And there’s research to support this idea. A 2018 study in the journal Media Psychology highlighted some of the links between heavy media use and problems with self-regulation. It makes sense that you’d struggle to attend to your goals and behavior if your brain is distracted by news about friends, politics, or other captivating bits of information. Meanwhile, research has tied mindfulness training to improvements in self-regulation and self-control — perhaps because it can help people recognize and let go of distracting emotions or thoughts.
While curtailing excessive media habits or practicing mindfulness may provide some self-control benefits, Inzlicht says that no matter what a person does, willpower is going to be a fickle commodity. It’s heavily influenced by many variables, and so it really cannot be trusted. “There are easier, less-muscular ways to engage in goal-directed behavior than relying on willpower,” he says.
Avoiding temptation, rather than resisting it, is one way to take willpower out of the equation. “If you don’t have chips in the house, you don’t have to rely on willpower to not eat those chips,” Inzlicht says. This logic can be applied to all sorts of temptations: If you keep your phone in your trunk when driving, you don’t have to rely on willpower to avoid texting behind the wheel.
Inzlicht also says that building better habits is a great way to achieve your goals without calling on your willpower. There are a lot of specific, evidence-supported ways to cultivate a new habit. Many of these techniques work because they depend on proper planning and goal-setting, rather than on willpower, he says. Once you’ve made a behavior part of your routine — easier said than done, of course — keeping up with it doesn’t require much self-control.
“Willpower is overrated,” Inzlicht adds. The more you depend on it, the more you may be setting yourself up for failure.