I write as soon as I wake up. I do this because it's the most psychologically entangled habit I have. It can be extremely frustrating, there are too many variables, and there isn't a well established progression. Lately I've also had to deal with a lot of proposal writing, involving multiple rewrites and knowledge that I have to learn from scratch. This results in greater bouts of anxiety, depression, procrastination, and an inability to focus.
It's exactly what Dr. Roy Baumeister calls "ego depletion" - to Baumeister, willpower is a limited resource of discipline that we drain throughout a day. So if you drain it when doing one task, you're going to have diminishing returns when working on the next. In his experiments, Baumeister accomplished this with difficult puzzles, and the resulting willpower drain would result in participants doing poorly on the next challenge - when they weren't yelling at the examiner or just walking out in a huff.
Despite the recent reproducibility problem surrounding ego-depletion, I have found it to be quite true in my own metrics (that deserves an in depth post at another time). For me, ego-depletion results not only in not accomplishing the task at hand, but failing to discharge the rest of my routine, even if the other tasks are easier. It's a catch 22 - tackle the hardest task at the beginning of the day when I'm fresh, or jumble my schedule up and get too exhausted to do my hardest, most important task.
I tend to avoid this problem by using methods to conserve willpower until I reach a hook point of automaticity. BJ Fogg's TinyHabits or other formulations of ludicrously small habits help immensely. Another bit of Fogg wisdom comes from one of his old tweets, where he says to "Stop obsessing about willpower and discipline. For long-term behavior change, focus on planning and design." Combined with the idea of avoiding decision making to prevent fatigue, I also use it in habits like my weekly meal prep, where I pre make all my lunches to avoid even having to make a decision based on food.
Training multiple habits towards mastery should be like training elite athletes using periodization: nudging skills, then backing off in a carefully controlled symphony of progression. But because real life is chaotic, ego-depletion is inevitable. Over the last few months I've been trying to figure out direct methods around this.
A DEPLETION PROTOCOL
Luckily there have been a number of unusual studies that test this. Among the variables that delay ego depletion or improve willpower are:
- External rewards, like money
- Belief in unlimited willpower
- Positive mood
- Exemplar priming - in this case, reading a passage that depicts a person overcoming adversity
- Self Awareness
I want to be clear. Ego-depletion as a theory has faced some harsh criticism, as have these methods around it. But this blog is about a first person science. As such, testing these variables in my own life is the final arbiter in my book. So I constructed my own rudimentary protocol:
My Ego Depletion Protocol
- Stop, drop and eat! (Glucose)
- Write down observations of what I'm feeling and what's happening (Self Awareness)
- Write down reasons why I could be depleted (Self Awareness)
- Watch a Youtube clip of a comedy or stand up comic (Mood)
- Drop all habits to a smaller daily minimum
- Reverse my routine
- Get out into the sun (Mood)
- Read a list of my accomplishments (Exemplar Priming)
- Read a list of affirmations (Exemplar Priming)
- Meditate (Mood or Self Awareness)
Numbers 5 is more of a continuation of Fogg's theories. If willpower over time hits a wall, then lowering a daily threshold gets us over that wall in order to reach the hook point of automaticity. For days where practice is difficult, automaticity isn't enough to get us over the wall, so lowering the daily minimum still works. Number 6 relies on momentum. While writing is mired in procrastination, working out and meditating is easy for me. When I get the majority of my tasks done in a day I gain some sort of velocity that helps me over the procrastination wall.
I have practiced this protocol on and off for last month and a half. It has worked remarkably well. On one day I was pretty close to tears in frustration and ready to give up on everything. Going through the protocol allowed me to get through all my tasks at my normal load, even though I gave myself permission to drop down to lowered minimums.
The biggest problem is formally acknowledging that I'm in this state. Normally it's just something I'm in - I find myself endlessly looking at Reddit or justifying watching a bit more of a favorite TV show. However, the more I practice the protocol, the easier it is to "catch" myself. Another difficult issue is retraining myself to view this system as a mechanistic model, rather than a personality flaw. When I'm in the moment it is incredibly easy to start self flagellating myself as being weak.
Moving forward I would like to actually test individual ego-depletion counters. I haven't had much luck finding a willpower scale (I'm still digging though the science papers!), but after a lot of search I found the State Ego Depletion Scale that was used to test these protocols. While I could not find the original paper, I did manage to find an online version of it in an appendix of a dissertation from the Netherlands!
This is an incredibly unwieldy scale at 25 questions, but it's a start. With it I hope to find what the most efficient actions are by taking the test before and after going through specific protocols.
photo cred: Svein Halvor Halvorsen