In the process of reading Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, I once again came across the concept of “ego depletion.” You may have read about it recently – it’s the idea that we have a finite amount of mental energy to resist temptation. If we wear down our willpower resisting many things, forcing ourselves to do tedious work, we’re more likely to indulge in some ice cream later.
Now, I’m not sure how I feel about this. One of my strengths is self-discipline and self-control – one year, I made and stuck to the restriction to have dessert only once per month. I willed myself to study from 9 am to 9 pm during half of college, as well. I go to the gym every other day, in the morning, without fail. The fact that people who repeatedly exert self-control are more likely to lose self-control later doesn’t necessarily imply that we have a finite amount of it. It may suggest, for example, that after avoiding temptation so much, most of us feel we deserve to give in.
In any case, the concept still helps explain why I have so much self-control. I believe it’s because my “acts of willpower” don’t actually use any (or much) willpower. In my head, it’s not a choice whether or not I go to the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday – it’s almost a fact. I don’t wake up and consider whether I should skip a day. The same thing with dessert – my now (more reasonable) weekly indulgence is not up for debate: if I’ve had it, there’s no more dessert until next week.
And I’ve actually noticed what happens when I stray from this. When I wonder, “Well, does this really count as dessert? Maybe I’ll just have two this week?” it starts wearing me down. I feel exhausted by all the self-denial.
So the way to avoid temptation, it seems, is to make temptation completely off-limits. Ariely suggests doing that physically – not buying cookies or ice cream, or avoiding bakeries – but I think you can do it mentally. Commit to a certain goal, and treat it as a fact. It’s not foolproof, but it can certainly help.