Managing ego-depletion to save time (self-control)

How much self-control do you have? When is your self-control strongest and when is it weakest? Having self-control is clearly a good thing, but learning to make the most of it is even better. ‘Ego-depletion’ sees self-control or willpower as a limited resource that is depleted after exertion. Understanding this concept can help you make better use of your self-control and save time. Manage Ego Depletion to Save Time

The importance of self-control

We all need self-control to resist temptations and focus on using our time well. By exerting self-control we are (in general):
  • Better able to achieve academically. A study has shown self-control to be a better indicator of academic performance than IQ (Duckworth & Seligman)
  • Better able to get along better with others, and maintain long term relationships.
  • Less likely to commit crime or become involved in drugs. Research has identified poor self-control as the most important cause of crime. (Baumeister & Alquist, 2009).
  • More likely to have better health, diet and fitness
  • Better able to manage personal finances.
  • Achieve more at work. Also, apparently, having a good self-control makes someone a better boss. (Baumeister & Alquist, 2009)

What is ego-depletion?

We all have the ability to exert self-control. According to the strength model of self-regulation - self-control operates like a muscle. With use, the self-control muscle becomes fatigued (depleted), which can reduce our ability to regulate behaviour in subsequence tasks. (Muraven, et al , 1998).

Ego-depletion in practice

If ego-depletion leads to lapses of self-control whereby we give into temptations and impulses, then it can lead to all sorts of negative results such as – “excessive personal debt, substance abuse, obesity, unplanned pregnancy … crime and violent behavior” (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000) Consider some examples -
  • Exercise and dieting In a Time magazine article “Why Exercise won’t make you thin” (9th August 2009) , John Cloud wrote - “Could pushing people to exercise more actually be contributing to our obesity problem? In some respects, yes. Because exercise depletes not just the body’s muscles but the brain’s self-control ‘muscle’ as well [ie- ego depletion], many of us will feel greater entitlement to eat a bag of chips during that lazy time after we get back from the gym”.
  • Concern for others Showing concern and consideration for others usually involves self-control. Studies have shown that ego depletion can lead to less concern for others. For example, John exercised a lot of self-control at work. When he returns home in a depleted state, he will feel less incline to help at home. It is not because he is physically exhausted (he may have been sitting at a desk all day), rather it is because of ego depletion.
  • Aggression Other studies have looked at how ego depletion can lead to aggressive and violence responses to circumstances which normally wouldn’t trigger such responses.

Managing ego depletion to save time

Self-control is critical for time management. Hence, if the theory of ego depletion is correct, then logically this impacts how we manage our time. If our self-control is a limited resource, then we need to be careful how we use it. In particular we should consider the following:
  1. Develop habits - Converting activities which require great self-control into habits can neutralize ego-depleting events. For example, say you are unfit and decide start exercising 4 times a week. To implement this change you probably need a lot of self-control. However, if you stick at it for a few weeks then regular exercise should become a habit. Once it becomes habit you will not require as much self-control to keep exercising, and hence less ego-depletion will occur. Ego Depletion diagram
  2. Limit goals – Having too many goals or new year resolutions can be counter-productive. Best to focus on one or two important goals. (Refer to - Do more by doing less)
  3. Set time-use priorities – Clearly we need to organise our days to ensure we focus our energies and self-control on the most important items. We need to remember that if we consume all our will power on one task, we may not have another will power to apply to other tasks. (Refer to - Priority setting 101 - Using time effectively)
  4. Conserve ‘self-control’ – A smart move might be to converse your ‘self-control’ for an important event. For example, if you are sitting an exam, best not to tax your brain in the few hours prior to commencement.
  5. Be careful when you make decisions - Don’t make important decisions when you are ego-depleted. This can lead to bad decisions.
  6. Boosting our self-control capacity - How can we increase or boost our self-control capacity over time? If self-control is like a muscle then – (i) we should be able to strength our self-control over time; (ii) we need recover-time to replenish our self-control. For a related CraveTime article refer to Energy Management - How managing personal energy levels saves time.

Warning – be careful with what you know

The concept of ego depletion seems intuitive. Earlier this, a research paper by Jobs and friends raised concerns about ego-depletion. They stated: “People who learn about the strength model of self-control [ie- ego depletion] may conclude that they are at the mercy of a fixed, physiological process that limits their willpower. It is important that people understand that their own beliefs about willpower as a limited or nonlimited reousrce can affect their self-regulation.” In other words don’t let your understanding of ego-depletion become an excuse or a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would be unwise to use ego depletion as an excuse for not doing things. For example – saying “sorry I can’t do the dishes …. I am ego-depleted”.

Related CraveTime articles


  • Baumesiter R & Alquist J, “Is there a downside to good self-control?”, 2009, Psychology Press, 8:2, 115-130.
  • Billiet D & Joireman J, “Ego depletion reduces proselfs’ concern with the well-being of others”, Group Processes Intergroup Relations, 20 10 13:227, Sage publications
  • Cloud, J. “Why Exercise won’t make you thin”, Time Magazine, 9th August 2009.
  • Duckworth A., Seligman M, “Self-discipline out-does IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents”, Psychological Science, 17, 939-944, 2005.
  • Hagger M, Wood C, Stiff C, Chatzisarantis N, “Self-regulation and self-control in exercise: the strength-energy model”, International Review of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Vol 3, No1 ,March 2010, 62-86
  • Job V, Dweck C., & Walton G, “Ego deletion – is it all in your head?: Implicit theories about willpower affects self-regulation”, Psychological Science, 2010
  • Muraven M, Tice D., Baumeister R, (2000), "Self-regulation and depletion of limimted reousrces: Does self-control resember a muscle", Psychological Bulliten, 126, 247-259
  • Muraven M, Tice D., Baumeister R, (1998), "Self-control as limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns", Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, 73(3), 774-789.
  • Schmeichel B, Vohs K, & Baumeister R, (2003) “Intellectual performance and Ego Depletion: Role of the Self in Logical Reasoning and Other information Processing”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 85, No 1, 33-46


Hi Guys
This is an interesting article. I had not heard of the concept of ego-depletion, but I reckon I have experienced it! Sometimes our self control goes out the window if we have been depleting ourselves by trying to do too much. I can only work so much before I do become very depleted and start losing self control in such ways as irritability and overeating. I had not thought about it in this way before. Developing good habits is very helpful. I read the Time article about exercise also - some interesting research there but I don't know about their interpretation. The science of weight, diet and exercise is really interesting and quite contradictory in some ways. Thanks for the article. Cheers - Sonia

This does make sense. I generally avoid taking on too many new things at once. I prefer to get one thing sorted before moving to the next one. If I'm studying for an exam I don't try and take on other change - not so much because of lack of time but I don't feel I have the head-space to take on more challenges.

This is an important concept in sport too and often referred to as periodisation. If you're training in running it's better to spend 6 weeks doing endurance training and then 6 weeks doing speed work rather than trying to do everything each week.