Use your willpower carefully, because it runs out

Written by Caitlin Schille

Most people have the best of intentions when it comes to their health. They intend to go to the gym, they want to wake up early and go for a run, they want to control how much they eat, and they want to choose the banana over the donut at their afternoon meeting. Why is it so hard to align our aspirations with our actions? A concept called ego depletion may help answer this question.

Ego depletion is the idea that individuals have a limited amount of self-control and willpower. Tasks that require a lot of self-control more rapidly drain the finite store of willpower than easier tasks that do not require a person to exercise self-control. This phenomenon is easily seen in everyday life and experiences, especially those relating to decisions we make about our health. Think about the last time somebody brought cake to the office. Did you spend all day using your willpower to avoid eating the cake only to go home and binge on a stash of junk food that evening? Try and recall the last time you bought a gym pass and promised yourself you would go. Did you force yourself to go every night for two weeks only to spend the next several months avoiding the gym? If so, you’re not alone.

When we expend a tremendous amount of mental energy and willpower on certain tasks or avoiding certain pitfalls, we use up too much of our valuable stores and end up “running out” of needed willpower for future situations.

A.k.a: self-regulatory fatigue

Ego-depletion is a real and powerful phenomenon. So how can we combat this idea to help make better decisions about our diet and exercise habits?

In regards to diet, one strategy is to restructure the physical environment. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a good place to start. If tempting treats are in the break room at work, avoid walking into the breakroom. If fast food is your vice, take a different route home to avoid driving past your favorite stop. Grocery shop on a full stomach so that you’re more apt to buy healthy foods, helping you avoid stocking your easily accessible pantry with junk food. Making one good choice can often mean you’re cutting off willpower drainage for an extended amount of time.

To avoid ego-depletion in relation to exercise, take a figurative page out of Dr. Michelle Segar’s book “No Sweat.” Among other strategies to promote a lifetime of exercise, Dr. Segar asserts the concept of finding exercise you enjoy! As in the previously mentioned example, many people force themselves to trudge to the gym every day for a short period of time, get burnt out, and then stop exercising all together. If you hate the gym, don’t go to the gym! Find other ways to move your body, and get creative. Dancing in your living room, walking your dog, and playing outside with your kids are just a few fun ways to get moving. When you like what you’re doing, you’re not burning through those willpower reserves.

Research on ego-depletion also shows that self-regulation can be improved as we exercise self-control on a regular basis. This means that the more we try to do what we should, even if it’s hard, the better we will get at doing those things. Additionally, research shows that as self-control improves in certain tasks, improvement in self-control begins to spread into other parts of life. Master your exercise habits, and watch the rest of your life improve too!

Sources:, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology

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