By Plum Cluverius, MA/ABS, PCC. As leaders, we engage in numerous situations every day that demand self control, which we exercise when we choose a more beneficial response even though our instinct is to take an action that feels good in the short run. It could be as simple as remembering a basic leadership tenant like not dressing down an employee in public or as complicated as determining whether your boss’ comment in a meeting was really meant as a “gotcha” and identifying the best response. It could mean sticking with a difficult or distasteful task. 

Let’s face it, some days maintaining self control is easy and other times it’s almost impossible. It turns out numerous experiments have shown that willpower is like a muscle, it becomes fatigued with overuse. In one famous experiment, psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues put subjects in a room with a plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies (you know that yummy smell) and a plate of radishes. Half the subjects were told they could eat the chocolate chip cookies and half were told they could only eat the radishes. All subjects were then given a difficult and frustrating puzzle to complete. Subjects who had to eat the radishes and resist the cookies gave up on the puzzle far sooner than subjects who didn’t have to exercise their self control to resist the cookies. The radish subjects didn’t have the willpower to persist through the task. 

It turns out that self control burns a lot of mental energy and when that energy is used up, a state psychologists call “ego depletion,” the ability to resist temptation is greatly reduced. Subsequent experiments showed that physical exhaustion and stress also impact one’s level of ego depletion as does having too many choices (remember those impulse buys on Amazon?).

Of course, the idea of ego depletion has huge implications for us personally and professionally. It helps explain why we fall off the wagon when we’re trying to start a new habit like dieting or exercising or why we react in ways that are out of character when we’ve been pushed too far. It also explains why it can be challenging to stick with new leadership habits, like writing down priorities to manage your time better, asking good coaching questions instead of telling a team member what to do, or giving specific feedback rather than talking in generalities. It also helps recognize when our demands deplete the people who work for us so that ultimately we get less from them than we want.

There are ways we can reduce the impact of ego depletion. One important way is that when we’re learning new habits we create processes and systems that make that habit an easy choice. For example, a recent client of mine who wanted to get a better handle on his priorities used a Microsoft Office tool that wiped out his to do list priorities at the end of the day so he was forced to take time to reset his most important tasks each day. Another client who wanted to get out of the habit of telling employees what to do set a rule that he couldn’t give advice until he had asked three questions. Someone who wanted to keep a neater house bought a Roomba to stay ahead of pet fur deposits.

Other ways we can make it easier to avoid ego depletion are learning to recognize when we’re getting tired and taking a break to restore our mental energy, identifying things that motivate us, focusing on things that build positive mood, such as listening to music, spending time in nature, exercising (but not to exhaustion) and watching funny videos or movies. Research has shown that these things can impact our ability to hang tough with a difficult task.

Finally, simply knowing our will power isn’t limitless (and neither is anyone else’s) can take away some of the guilt that comes from falling off the wagon and can help us recognize that we can always reset and go for our goals. We can persist through difficulties and build our mental toughness when we monitor our mental energy and take steps to renew it when it’s getting low.

To learn more about the power of encouragement and developing other critical leadership skills, schedule a consultation with Plum.