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« Calling Your Future Self to Account | Main | No Blog Post Today »

Ego Depletion Depletion

This article by Daniel Reeves is re-blogged from The Beeminder Blog with his permission as I believe it has considerable implications for time management.

The big news in psychology this week is that Baumeister’s Ego Depletion model is bunk. At least it has failed to replicate.

I’m trying not to gloat too much but I’ve been pooh-poohing Ego Depletion for years. My take has been, based on the theory of hyperbolic discounting, that willpower is an illusion — a manifestation of the conflict between desires at different timescales. Which is why commitment devices, by changing your incentives, route around the problem entirely. Hooray Beeminder and friends! And hooray for economist Robert Strotz and psychologist George Ainslie who figured this all out between 1955 and 1975 or so.

Actually I really can’t gloat too much because I was far from the first to balk at Baumeister’s model. In fact, it wasn’t until Carol Dweck’s challenge that I publicly expressed my skepticism. Then Nick Winter wrote a book, The Motivation Hacker, the thesis of which is basically that willpower is an unlimited resource.

More recently, Slate Star Codex reviewed Baumeister’s book, which is surprisingly light on Ego Depletion theory, other than to take it as a background fact. Slate Star Codex expressed skepticism, and even pointed out another replication failure for Ego Depletion from 2014, but did agree with the premise that mental willpower is depletable like physical willpower is. With the right inducement you may be able to eke out another mile of running or another hour of studying but in both cases the fatigue is real.

My counterargument is that with physical endurance you approach a physical limit asymptotically. The feeling that you can always eke out more with the right inducement is an illusion. Eventually one more straw will in fact break a camel’s back. With mental willpower it’s different. With the right inducement (say, continued employment) you can exert superhuman willpower, like waking up early and going to work every day for years or decades. Which is to say that with the right incentives, willpower doesn’t even need to be invoked. You can route around it and find creative ways to induce yourself to do what you really want to do.

Since I’ve now segued elegantly back to Beeminder, the best way to use such a commitment device, at least initially, is not to probe the hard limits of willpower but to fix egregious instances of akrasia — to do a bit more than the bupkes you’d do if left to your own devices. You can then gradually dial up the steepness of your graph, but stop before feeling overwhelmed by stress and anxiety.

In other words, make a measurable improvement well below the point that the limits of willpower are even a question (if you don’t think of it as routing around willpower altogether). Some people — like the productivity-ueber-alles types who try polyphasic sleep and whatnot — thrive on adding stress and Beeminder can accommodate that. But using it in moderation can reduce stress and that depleted ego feeling, like by getting you to spread your studying out over a semester instead of cramming for exams, or by making you pay attention to your Fitbit just enough to get in 10k steps a day, or getting yourself to bed on time instead of staying up until 6am writing a blog post.

PS: Discussion of Ego Depletion’s current replication crisis, along with practical implications, is ongoing in the Beeminder forum.

Reader Comments (25)

Could someone please translate this article for me into simple English?
March 11, 2016 at 0:01 | Unregistered CommenterTom
I can! Here are some of the key points:

1. A big finding in psychology is that "willpower is like a muscle". For example, exerting willpower to not eat pie for breakfast will "deplete your ego" and make it harder to resist watching youtube videos instead of working in the afternoon. That spawned lots of advice about picking your willpower battles in the course of a day. The willpower-as-muscle analogy also led to advice about building up the strength of your willpower by exercising it.

All that advice was based on a lie. The evidence for it now appears to be bogus.

2. This is a massively big deal for the whole field of psychology because Ego Depletion was a very well-established result -- dozens of studies all agreeing -- and if it's wrong then can we really believe any results from the psychology literature? This is is psychology's replication crisis and to the field's credit they're taking it dead seriously, like by launching the Reproducibility Project.

3. How does willpower actually work? My opinion is that there's no such thing as willpower, just responding to different incentives. You want this whole pie in your body right now, and also you want to be two sizes smaller by next summer. Conflicting preferences are normally no big deal. You just, y'know, weigh them, make your tradeoffs, and reach a decision. But when the preferences apply at different timescales (pie now, thinner later) humans suffer from a massive irrationality which philosophers call akrasia and economists call dynamic inconsistency and normal people call ... being stupidly short-sighted, or in the case of time management: procrastination.

4. Commitment devices are a way to change your own incentives so that willpower is a non-issue. They make your short term and long-term incentives line up. There are many less drastic things you can do as well.

5. To the extent that you still want to think in terms of willpower, don't try to jump straight to superhuman feats of strength. Start with fixing the egregious failures. Maybe pick a hobby that you've spent zero time on for weeks. It seems like you've been "too busy" but you know that's false because you've spent non-zero time on many things of less value to you. So beemind spending at least half an hour a week on the hobby.

How was that?
March 11, 2016 at 1:15 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Reeves
Nice job, Daniel! I especially like the idea that "there's no such thing as willpower, just responding to different incentives." Hmmm, provocative. I'll be thinking about that one! Can you say a few more words about commitment devices, or just give me a link to an article or two that goes into it.
March 11, 2016 at 4:22 | Unregistered CommenterTom
Thanks! Despite its age I'm still quite proud of the introduction to akrasia and commitment devices in the augural post on the Beeminder blog:

Or dive in to the list of all the current commitment device apps that we know of:

Or here's a definition of commitment devices and a bunch of synonyms and related terms:
March 11, 2016 at 6:12 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Reeves
I think we should be careful not to draw quick conclusions from the reproducibility studies. We don't yet understand why the ego depletion study failed to replicate its results, but if Dr. Baumeister's results are bogus then so are Carol Dweck's as her conclusions depend on work that reproduces Baumeister's original findings.
March 11, 2016 at 21:15 | Unregistered CommenterJohn
Sorry, that last comment wasn't quite what I meant.

Carol Dweck's comments don't support the idea that Dr. Baumeister's conclusions were 'a lie' because she suggests that his results depend on specific circumstances, not that they were faked or the result of lazy science.
March 11, 2016 at 22:07 | Unregistered CommenterJohn
Thanks for the links, Daniel. You wrote, "Commitment devices ... make your short term and long-term incentives line up." That's amazing! Making those two line-up should make doing "the right thing" infinitely easier. Can you say a few more words about this?
March 11, 2016 at 22:19 | Unregistered CommenterTom
Half of reproducibility in the hard sciences is about discovering the little things that were important that no one thought to record. Most psych studies were done on Western university students. That definitely skews the data. Even more so if the campus has a strong tech program. We engineers threw off the word-recognition experiments. Many of the supposedly-nonsense words were in SciFi books or acronyms or mnemonics for our courses.
March 12, 2016 at 0:27 | Registered CommenterCricket
@John, agreed about Carol Dweck. I didn't mean to imply that she was the one who debunked Baumeister. Slate Star Codex actually changed my thinking on Dweck recently:

@Tom, thanks for the kind words! A commitment device works by taking away tempting choices or making them more costly, or making the smart long-term choices less costly. Examples of simple commitment devices include keeping candy out of the house or buying a gym membership or going somewhere without internet access (or implementing Mark's systems on paper!). You're pairing the immediate temptation with an immediate cost (having to go out to buy candy) or making the right choice more frictionless (gym is a sunk cost so it's like it's free now).

Harder core commitment devices set you up for immediate pain with the otherwise tempting choice. Like in my example of beeminding half an hour a week of a neglected hobby, every day Beeminder tells you the bare minimum you have to do to stay on track that day to keep your average to half an hour a week. If you don't do it, you'll be charged money. Being lazy is now costly -- right now, not just in the nebulous future -- so you don't be lazy.

I've been clear that I'm a cofounder of Beeminder, right? So take that part with a grain of salt, but there's lots of research backing this kind of thing up. Not psychology research either. (Oh snap) Like this study on smoking cessation in the New England Journal of Medicine:
March 12, 2016 at 7:57 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Reeves
I've been to Bielefeld - it does exist!

(You will only know what I'm talking about if you have read the whole of the Slate Star Codex which article Danny references AND followed the links. The question is whether you will have done that because of your innate ability or because of your belief in hard work).
March 12, 2016 at 10:25 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Ha, yes, Slate Star Codex is delightful. I'm pretty excited if I've turned you into a fan, Mark! :)
March 12, 2016 at 18:45 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Reeves
Daniel Reeves, thank you. Read through post with interest, enjoyed finding new (to me) words/concepts and looking them all up. So was good to read your explanation here, find that I had mostly correctly understood and also deepen that understanding.
March 14, 2016 at 19:44 | Registered CommentermatthewS
Concerning Bielefeld, there is a long running German crime series called Wilsberg (50 films already), where every episode contains some form of reference to Bielefeld. The 35th episode is even called The Bielefeld Conspiracy (Die Bielefeld Verschwörung). I don't know if the series is known outside the German-speaking part of the world, but they are really funny!
March 15, 2016 at 15:25 | Registered CommenterMarc (from Brussels)
Daniel - The willpower muscle analogy makes sense to me and fits my own experience. Saying no to donuts at work is easy in the morning when I'm fresh. Saying no to dessert at night is very difficult if I've had a physically, mentally, or emotionally exhausting day. What would you say causes the difference in my strength to say no?
March 16, 2016 at 1:33 | Unregistered CommenterZane
@Zane, I've been having a similar debate with Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex. Is it possible you simply value dessert more after a hard day than you do donuts in the morning? That's what Occam's razor might suggest. No difference in willpower, just a difference in circumstances/preferences.

But I'm not actually taking the hard line that willpower is constant. Maybe hyperbolic discounting gets noticeably more or less severe depending on your level of mental fatigue.

Actually, let's define willpower as overcoming akrasia by pure introspection. If we agree on that definition then I have 2 different claims:

1. Willpower isn't any more depletable than, say, ability to do mental arithmetic.
2. If you align your short and long term preferences then no akrasia and no need for willpower.

I'm not that wedded to #1. Again, I think your donuts/dessert example is more elegantly explained by a simple reassessment of priorities in light of your hard day. But disagreements on #1 may be hair-splitting.

My big thing is that it's possible to route around willpower altogether.
March 16, 2016 at 4:23 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Reeves
It seems very simple to me: it's harder to make decisions when I'm tired. Just like it's harder to do arithmetic, or maintain focus, or for that matter, to wash the dishes, or drive a car, or anything that requires thought or exertion. So when I'm tired, I tend (even more than usual) to follow the path of least resistance. And the path of least resistance is whatever you have habitualized yourself to do in such situations.

To invoke Occam's razor again, this doesn't need to bring in depleted willpower or depleted ego or conflicting value systems or even reassssment of priorities.

If, later when one isn't so tired and can address the situation more consciously, one decides to do something to change one's habits (or, on the other hand, decides NOT to do so), then perhaps this is the point at which you can claim someone is making value judgements or setting priorities.
March 16, 2016 at 5:21 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

<< So when I'm tired, I tend (even more than usual) to follow the path of least resistance. And the path of least resistance is whatever you have habitualized yourself to do in such situations. >>

An alternative explanation (which would certainly apply to me) is that one tends to have more stable routines in the morning.
March 16, 2016 at 8:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Yes, there's that too! :)
March 16, 2016 at 15:31 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
@Daniel - I agree with #1 and #2. My question rose from your statement "My opinion is that there's no such thing as willpower, just responding to different incentives." But now that you've said "My big thing is that it's possible to route around willpower altogether" I think you do believe willpower exists.

And I completely agree it's possible to route around it using positive and/or negative incentives.

If I were going to bet I'd say research will eventually show there are good, but not perfect, similarities between a physical muscle and willpower. It is (still) a good analogy, one that helps us understand willpower's limitations and the need to route around it.
March 16, 2016 at 17:04 | Unregistered CommenterZane
Daniel, Zane and all:

Well, here's a question.

If we have no willpower, then presumably we will follow the path of least resistance at all times. This will of course vary enormously in where it leads us. We may follow the path of least resistance by failing to get up in the morning, or by binge eating chocolate cake. On the other hand In the Army getting out of our trench and facing almost certain death by charging the enemy may be the path of least resistance for all sorts of reasons.

However if we decide that we want to get up in the morning and don't want to binge on chocolate cake we can, as Danny puts it, "route around willpower altogether".

One way of doing this is to set up a Beeminder goal.

My question is: "Does it take willpower to set up a Beeminder goal?" (I'm talking about the actual setting up process for the goal, not the carrying out of it).
March 16, 2016 at 23:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

"My question is: "Does it take willpower to set up a Beeminder goal?" (I'm talking about the actual setting up process for the goal, not the carrying out of it)."

Without a personally compelling incentive experienceable in the short-term, yes. It takes "willpower". With a personally compelling incentive experienceable in the short-term, no.
March 17, 2016 at 1:18 | Registered CommenterMichael B.
Great points from Seraphim and Mark! Following the path of least resistance / habituation when tired, or just having a more stable routine in the morning, are nice simple explanations for Zane's donuts vs dessert example. My Occam's razoring may have still left me a little hairy. :)
March 17, 2016 at 5:12 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Reeves
Ooh, great question! ("Does it take willpower to set up a Beeminder goal?")

That may be Beeminder's Achilles heel. I think it's similar to starting up any new productivity system, or making a new year's resolution or whatnot. We often have these little bursts of motivation and the hard part is the follow through. So if you can seize on your next motivation burst to get a Beeminder goal set up then -- if Beeminder works as advertised (and please, please talk to me if you feel it doesn't!) -- the follow-through will be in the bag.
March 17, 2016 at 5:21 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Reeves
I enjoyed reading this discussion. A few years ago, when Baumeister and Tierney’s Willpower was published amidst glowing reviews, I wrote a negative review of it on Amazon which generated a lot of discussion and more than 100 comments, many of them not exactly kind, from readers .Coauthor Tierney was so incensed as to write me a personal note saying that he’d be fired if he wrote a review like mine.

When you are tired, many of your mental abilities take a back seat. Why hypothesize a pseudo-scientific entity like “ego” that is somehow depleted to account for willpower? And then pretend that this is somehow relevant to willpower and, as a result, willpower is like a muscle? Besides what is willpower anyway? If I suddenly quit smoking one day but constantly struggle with my decision to quit, do I have willpower? If I quit and have no desire to smoke anymore because I see how harmful it is, do I have willpower or is it some other cognitive process?

The exchange between Daniel and Seraphim is similar to what went through my mind when I first read Willpower. When I heard that “ego energy depletion” theory was debunked, I wasn’t surprised. I just wondered why it took this long.
March 17, 2016 at 17:51 | Unregistered CommenterChuck
I'm finding the opposite. If I grab a book rather than doing physio first thing in the morning, my day is shot. I can do many of them in my warm bed, and by the end I'm ready do the standing ones. If I start with physio, then I open my book to put in a checkmark, and see all the other things I want to do.

Yes, it might be more about waking my body and mind rather than turning on my discipline.
March 18, 2016 at 18:02 | Registered CommenterCricket

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