Contrary to the ego-depletion hypothesis, participants in the depletion condition did not perform worse than control participants on the subsequent self-control task, even after considering moderator variables. These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting ego-depletion is not a reliable phenomenon. . .
– John Lurquin et al, “No Evidence of the Ego-Depletion Effect across Task Characteristics and Individual Differences: A Pre-Registered Study,” PLOS One, February 2016
Over the past several months, a number of studies have surfaced suggesting the popular idea of ego depletion may not be a real thing after all. Possibilities of bias are showing up in the analyses of of studies from the 1990s and 2000s. At the very least, no one has been able to replicate widely cited studies that led to the notion that willpower, like a muscle, grows fatigued with overuse.
This may be background noise for most of the thinking public. After all, pop psychology is as ubiquitous as wellness and mindfulness. The various trends are often jumbled up together, adding to the incessant self-improvement chatter that populates our news feeds. The nuances are for the researchers, clinicians, and educators.
Maybe, too, for college personnel.
To a person who works with graduate students, this is a sonic boom.
Much of the advice I give students has to do with setting themselves up for academic and professional success. Students who move steadily through a doctoral program tend to do little things well. This involves putting in place many small systems across a life’s numerous and unique dimensions. Implementing basic organizational tools, for example, and actually using those tools are tricky for most of us. Effective students set up spaces that are conducive to studying. They outline projects and manage time in a structured way, mapping out hours, days, even years. In this way, they break a doctoral journey down into manageable chunks.
Students also perform better when their finances are in order, their families on board, their workplaces supportive, and their mental and physical health care structures sturdy. Taking full advantage of the resources available to them at the university, successful students master research tools and set up study and writing groups with their peers.
These folks aren’t more intelligent or “better students” than their floundering counterparts. They are simply more organized. They persist with the systems they implement.
Organization and persistence are not qualities in an of themselves. More like mosaics, they are a collection of many small habits coalescing into a general way of being. These are habits of mind as much as behavior. Many students come into a PhD program with skills suited to passing courses on the fly or excelling in their jobs. Developing a scholarly MO is a different game with different rules. Setting the pieces in place takes dogged attention to detail.
In order to advise my students effectively, I’ve immersed myself in literature on habit formation. That branch of psychology has been awash in ego-depletion for the past 10-15 years. It’s a compelling idea. I bought into the paradigm that self-discipline, as a limited resource, must be conserved for the important things. Barack Obama only wears his blue and gray suits and he has someone else select his outfits each day. He has a country to lead, right? He shouldn’t be tapping his store of willpower for fashion picks.
Because of this thinking, I’ve developed guidance for students that has to do with putting the hardest work in the early part of the day and reducing the number of “intersections,” or places where a choice is required. To reduce decision-fatigue and keep that discipline muscle focused where it needs to be, students should cut out the complexity and stick with certain rules. Pack the same lunch every day. Take the same route. Study in the same place. Carry the same backpack, wear the same shoes.
All of these are great bits advice as long as two conditions are met: 1) ego depletion is a real phenomenon; and 2) a life is predictable enough to support invariability and routine.
I’ll get to point #1 in a moment. Regarding point #2, let’s ask the next question, with the understanding that a PhD program is a commitment of anywhere from 5-10 years. Has any of us ever lived through a 5-year period free of change? Jobs change, rents go up, recreation morphs into addiction. Partners come or go or get sick. Families grow, shrink, move. Children need IEPs or swim lessons. Bus lines get terminated, cars break down, knees blow out. Libraries close. Stock markets crash. Babies are born.
Far more effective than simplicity and routine are adaptability and resilience.
Perhaps I need to look differently at my effective students. They may have structures in place, and organization is still a critical skill. That said, a focus on habits may miss a key contributor to the ability develop and stick with habits. Underneath the external behaviors may be an effective mindset. Self-concept unites with a particular framing of the world, creating the way we respond to change. Yes, successful students implement sound structures. They also adjust those structures as the ground shifts. They dismantle the parts that were fixed in one place, then redesign and rebuild them to function on new terrain.
How can a person cultivate a growth and adaptation mindset? It may be time for a new approach in my advising. While habits are critical, the perceptions from which those habits grow may be equally, if not more, important. Clearly, I have some work ahead of me.
Regarding point #1. . .
. . .it may not even really matter that much whether ego depletion is “real” or not. What matters is how you think about your own amount of willpower. A very intriguing direction of research is finding the power of a person’s own beliefs about willpower may be what makes the difference here. When people believe their willpower is limitless, they’re more likely to go after personal goals, they’re less likely to burn out, and they’re happier. In a sense, when people believe their willpower is limitless, it turns out to be true.
– Melissa Dahl, “If You Believe your Willpower is Endless, It Is” in New York Magazine
Students who persist and finish a PhD are most likely those who see themselves as capable of maintaining momentum under any circumstance. It’s true for the rest of us, too, right? What happens when we think of ourselves as fundamentally resourceful? When we picture ourselves having a consistent and bottomless capacity for working through the tough stuff?
What happens is this: As if by magic, the source delivers. We find a way.
Image: Martin Klein, “Unwavering”