Ego depletion: The more decisions you make, the worse they become!

27 mars 2024


Ego depletion: The more decisions you make, the worse they become!
Laetitia VitaudExpert du Lab

Autrice, consultante et conférencière sur le futur du travail, spécialiste de la productivité, de l’âge et du travail des femmes

Does decision fatigue sound familiar? The more we have to make decisions, handle information, and make choices, the harder it becomes for our brains. We typically make thousands (both major and tiny) of decisions every day. Needless to say, with the digital revolution and its constant demands, our cognitive abilities have taken a major hit. The result? They’re being increasingly depleted … to the point of seriously impacting our productivity.

For a few years now, many of us, whether we’re managers, employees, or freelancers, have at times at the very least felt a sense of drowning in information (emails, notifications …) and freezing when it comes to decision-making. Some of us procrastinate more. Others feel exhausted and unmotivated. As this also affects our counterparts, this seemingly slows down the whole decision-making process and makes us all increasingly less efficient. Has ego depletion therefore become enemy number one for our well-being at work—and its close relative, our declining attention spans? Since our ability to make decisions is a limited resource, we need to learn to ration it and improve how we organize work to better adapt to this constraint. But how?

Egos also have their limits

Have you ever noticed how consumers appreciate a refined menu in restaurants, shops that offer a smaller range, and turnkey experiences that don’t require “too much” decision-making? You may even tend to seek out situations at work or in your personal life where you don’t have to decide anything at all. It’s all pretty normal …

During the decision-making process, decision fatigue sets in and leads to a deterioration in the quality of an individual’s decisions over time. This is the case, for example, with a manager who has been in back-to-back meetings having to decide on action plans or with a buyer who has spent hours choosing providers, products, or services for their company. Every choice involves a trade-off and you engaging with your ego. The latter figuratively being the process where decisions are made. “Ego depletion” is thus the term we use to describe this phenomenon which can lead to bad choices and/or decision deadlock.

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have developed a model describing self-control as a muscle, which is subject to both potential fatigue and strengthening. Their research has shown that the initial use of this self-control “muscle” can lead to a decrease in its strength for subsequent tasks. Experimental findings have confirmed this model, thus demonstrating the existence of ego depletion. A groundbreaking experiment conducted by Baumeister and his team in 1998 demonstrated, for example, that individuals who had initially resisted the temptation to eat chocolate were subsequently less able to persevere with a tricky and frustrating puzzle.

This phenomenon is the result of resisting temptation beforehand. Therefore, a person who’s dieting will demonstrate less patience and perseverance when it comes to effort—not just because of the loss of food, but primarily, because of the “willpower” required by these dietary restrictions. When decisions are irreversible and significant, this depletion becomes even greater. This is known as “crossing the Rubicon”. These types of decisions—such as hiring or firing people—are particularly demanding both emotionally and mentally. Our willpower is limited: constantly having to draw on it means jeopardizing your mental health, your individual well-being, and your productivity.

A problem on the constant rise

Although this is not a new concept, the issue of ego depletion and its impact on productivity and our well-being at work seems to be growing, primarily because of our excessive digital practices. According to a study conducted by Oracle in April 2023, the growing number of decisions we have to make is greatly exacerbated by the heightened volume of data published and consumed online. All of this leads to a sense of frustration and malaise for individuals faced with this huge amount of information, consequently undermining their self-confidence.

By using your willpower “muscle” to sift through information, delete unnecessary emails, apply critical thinking to determine the veracity of information… we experience a drop in our ability to persevere in other cognitive domains. This information overload complicates all our decision-making processes, negatively impacts the quality of life for managers and employees, and undermines the smooth running of organizations by leading to greater organizational inaction. It’s somewhat akin to the whole organization having a cold.

The Oracle study revealed that for 86% of people, the growing volume of data is making decision-making unduly complex with 35% of respondents now struggling to trust data sources. Yet, 74% of people have seen a ten-fold increase in the number of daily decisions over the past three years. Meanwhile, 86% believe that information overload is making both personal and professional decisions more challenging with 85% saying that this is all having a negative impact on their quality of life.

Tackling the phenomenon

The issue of information overload is today largely linked to the exponential increase in the amount of data produced and published online. Generative AI is exacerbating this at a rate that I’d struggle to truly assess. In other words, this is a collective problem—a little like global heating! It’s a systemic issue that will not be tackled by personal development tools alone. Practicing meditation, trying out hypnosis, and doing exercise every morning isn’t a bad thing—but it won’t be enough. We need to, on an organizational level, reflect on all this and come up with systems that minimize ego depletion.

However, if you’re in a position where you have to regularly make decisions that affect the lives and jobs of others, I can offer three useful ideas:

Eliminate as many decisions as possible from other areas of your life: anyone who is responsible for people’s lives—such as a surgeon or a pilot—should steer clear of any potential decision-making in other areas. Even when you’re not saving lives, having all the decisional assistance you can get will prove really beneficial. A set menu at a restaurant, a uniform, anything will help. After all, why do you think Steve Jobs always wore the same clothes?

Make important decisions early in the day: if ego depletion increases with the number of decisions made, and if the quality of these decisions declines as a result, it’s probably better to resolve the most important issues first. This way, the bad decisions will only affect the less important issues. Regardless of whether your day starts at 7 am or 11 am, it’s early in the day that you should be scheduling the most critical tasks.

Completely eliminate multitasking: doing several things at once fuels decision fatigue and ego depletion. Set aside physical spaces and timeframes to secure your focus on a single activity. Artificially limit any persistent temptations. Ulysees had his crew put wax in their ears so they wouldn’t hear the bewitching song of the sirens. You can use apps that prevent you from going on social media for example.

Translated by Jamie Broadway

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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Ego depletion: The more decisions you make, the worse they become!