Motivation, Ego Depletion, and Automation

Motivation is a tricky thing. Its presence or absence enables or prevents us from accomplishing our goals and from pursuing what we find meaningful in life. It’s crucial to rising to the challenge during periods of difficulty, allowing us to perservere even when we wish we could take the easy road. Unfortunately how best to maintain it is sometimes unclear. Because of its elusiveness and importance to the human experience I find it a very interesting facet of psychology to try and understand, and sometimes that understanding can be applied to make maintaining motivation just a little bit easier. In the next few posts, I’ll explore various motivational factors and how we can use our knowledge of them to improve our motivation in practice.

What is motivation, anyway?

For the purposes of this blog, we’ll define motivation rather narrowly:

Motivation is a mental state where we feel a desire to accomplish some goal.

This can come about for a variety of reasons including a sense of duty, pursuit of personal gain, a love interest, or simple curiosity. When it occurs, motivated people pursue their tasks willingly and get a sense of fulfillment from carrying them to completion.

Our limited definition does not include a wide variety of other stimuli that comprise motivation generally. We’re going to focus on the positive aspects of motivation and attempt to avoid the negative ones like fear of loss or pain. While these are powerful incentives, they simply aren’t sustainable over the long term and they often don’t produce very good results when we try to use them on ourselves.

Positive motivation, on the other hand, can be nurtured through lifestyle choices that we can make for ourselves. Small tweaks to our behaviors or environment can help to inspire or maintain our enterprising spirit, addressing aspects of human psychology by making demotivating factors less powerful and motivating ones more effective. In order to design these lifestyle modifications, we first need to understand the psychological principles that govern their use; one such phenomena which is simple to understand and easy to address is Ego Depletion, the topic of our first post.

Ego depletion

Ego Depletion (or Willpower Depletion) is a mental phenomena where the very act of making hard decisions and resisting tempting options makes it more likely that a person will be less able to continue to resist temptations during subsequent decisions. For example, if Sam works in a difficult job where she needs to make lots of small but difficult decisions over the course of the day, in the evening she will be less likely to be able to choose to focus on her math homework over watching TV.

The theory goes like this: We begin with a certain amount of willpower, and as we progress through our activities during the day we make a variety of decisions with varying levels of difficulty. Each time we resist temptation we draw on our willpower reserve, with harder decisions requiring more and easy decisions requiring less. By the time we reach the evening of a particularly difficult day we may have fully depleted our willpower reserves and opt for short term gratification that works against our long term goals, like eating ice cream instead of a fruit salad.

This phenomena seems to happen to everyone, from painters to Presidents - one anecdote[1] explains that President Obama chose to only wear two colors of suits (gray and blue) in order to reduce the cognitive load he must spend on matters that don’t directly relate to the governing of the United States. In the context of ego depletion theory this makes perfect sense, and in fact this reveals a remedy and points to how we can implement it via automation. Because willpower is used during decision making, if we can either make decisions up front or reduce the number of decisions we must make overall, we make more of our willpower available for the hard things (like not eating all of the ice cream in the fridge)[2].

Mitigating ego depletion with automation

Reducing decision load via automation is relatively straightforward, and it doesn’t just help to save up on willpower, but it can also aid you in accomplishing other lifestyle changes - for example, I’ve used it to help me maintain my sleep schedule. By automating all of the floor lamps in my apartment, I can set them to turn themselves on and off on a daily schedule which helps me to maintain my desired sleep and wake times. This helps enormously when deciding whether to go to bed. If the living room lights are on, I can stay up; when they turn off, it’s time to turn in - no decision required.

Another source of decision load that is ripe for automation or pre-planning is the week’s meal menu. Deciding ahead of time on a meal plan for the week makes shopping and cooking easier, and picking a recipes which share a common base allows you to pre-cook ingredients for use during the week, further reducing the number of decisions each day[3]. These kinds of small tweaks enable you to offload decisions from your future self by taking them on when willpower depletion isn’t a problem.

This isn’t to say that you should abandon spontaneity - far from it. By removing some of the drain on willpower created by decisions about things which don’t change often and aren’t in the critical path of your fulfillment, you can have more energy available for the decisions that actually matter to you. In particular, consider automating things that already occur on a schedule and which don’t require human input. Decide ahead of time on things which don’t need to be handled on the spot, and use routines to get periodic tasks handled with a minimum of effort. All of these can help to keep you at your best for the times when your decisions are critical to your goals.

  1. This anecdote comes from Michael Lewis’ 2012 profile of President Obama’s routine in the first years of his presidency.  ↩

  2. Some research has indicated that ego depletion is linked to blood sugar levels, and can be reversed somewhat by replenishing those resources. Performing complex tasks on an empty stomach is generally a poor idea.  ↩

  3. This is one area where I think Soylent could be very useful.  ↩