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Volume 16, Issue 20;   May 18, 2016: Ego Depletion and Priority Setting

Ego Depletion and Priority Setting

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Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting.
A piece of chocolate cake

A piece of chocolate cake. Try a little experiment. Contemplate this image for a time. Notice whether you feel cravings for eating chocolate cake. If you do crave it, but don't actually eat it, you'll be drawing down your reserves of energy for self-control. Over the next half-day, notice how well you do when exercising control over your behavior in other ways. The ego depletion model predicts that you won't do as well as you would have if you hadn't seen this image. It's always difficult to observe oneself, but you might succeed.

Methods for setting priorities are, um, high-priority topics for management consultants and life coaches. But experience suggests that when people do set priorities, they do it pretty well. Compared to priority setting, two skills might then be even more useful: first, actually remembering to set priorities, and second, maintaining the priorities we set. There are two issues:

  • Task jumping: Why do we so often jump into a task before assessing its importance relative to other tasks?
  • Task dumping: why do we have difficulty undertaking or staying on tasks that we acknowledge are important?

The ego depletion phenomenon might provide answers to both questions. Briefly, ego depletion is the idea that energy spent on self-regulation isn't available again until we rest and recover. That is, we have available only a finite reserve of energy for regulating impulsive behavior. When that reserve is drained, self-regulation becomes difficult. We just can't be "good" indefinitely.

For example, we know that little good comes from undertaking tasks before we understand them or their importance relative to other tasks. But if our energy reserves are depleted, and the task is appealing, we have difficulty resisting task jumping. We can analogously use ego depletion to understand task dumping.

More important, using the ego depletion model, we can devise strategies for mitigating the risks of task jumping and task dumping. Here are three examples.

Accept that ego depletion does happen
Conventional approaches to priority setting ignore ego depletion. We tell ourselves, "X is important, so I must do X and keep doing it till it's done." We make no allowances for our limited ability to stay on tasks we find unappealing.
Ignoring ego depletion is a setup for failure to stay on task, or failure to even undertake a task, which is commonly called procrastination.
Beware anticipatory ego depletion
We sometimes use our reserves of self-regulation energy when we anticipate an unappealing task. Merely forcing ourselves to begin such tasks can be exhausting. When work finally begins, we're already depleted.
Scheduling To restore energy reserves, allow
for periods of rest, or better yet,
interleave periods of unappealing
activity with periods of
more appealing activity
energy-generating tasks in advance can reduce the drain. For example, scheduling something we find appealing so that it occurs at some defined point during the unappealing task can shift our focus from anticipating unpleasantness to anticipating something more desirable.
Use appealing tasks to restore reserves
Conventional approaches to unappealing activity usually entail what many call "toughing it out." We tell ourselves, "Just get it done." But even if we manage to stay on a task we find depleting, work quality can suffer.
Allow for periods of rest, or better yet, interleave periods of unappealing activity with periods of more appealing activity, as needed, to restore energy reserves.

Finally, beware distortions in priority setting when tasks are unappealing. By convincing ourselves that unappealing tasks are less important than they actually are, we become comfortable deferring them. We're very clever that way. Go to top Top  Next issue: Wacky Words of Wisdom: Part V  Next Issue

Note: The ego depletion model is relatively recent. Although it has been confirmed experimentally many times, recent research has raised questions as to its validity. Stay tuned.

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