Master Ego Depletion To Keep Out of Trouble At Work

Tired Person

In project management, you are used to managing resources. You probably look at your calendar and project schedule dozens of times each day.

You may also have a fine tuned approach to managing your project’s financials. Monitoring and controlling these resources is fundamental to keeping your project running smoothly. What about your own mental energy?

If you fail to manage your mental resources effectively, you are likely to make dumb mistakes and erode your credibility.

What Is Ego Depletion?

Reading, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman was the inspiration for this article. I was fascinated to learn about psychological research that explores the human ability to exert deliberate thinking. As Kahneman explains:

“Baumeister’s group has repeatedly found that an effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomenon has been named ego depletion.”

I think of self-control as a finite, renewable resource. Over the course of a day, there is a certain amount of mental energy available and various activities reduce it (e.g. resisting chocolate, suppressing negative comments, or staying calm under pressure). Result? The typical person in a 9-5 work schedule will be less effective at 4pm compared to 10am due to ego depletion.

How To Keep Out Of Trouble At Work With Ego Depletion

Working with people, navigating complexity and developing creative solutions will tend to drain your energy. Here are a few ways that individuals and managers can avoid disaster by managing their mental energy.

Know Thy Energy

Many people have their best mental energy level in the first few hours after they wake up. Not sure if that pattern fits you? Track your energy levels over a few days. Proxy measures for mental energy include: time to solve problems (i.e. you will generally take longer if you are tired) and patterns for negative outbursts (i.e. if you are consistently yelling at people after 4pm but never before 12pm, then you have a pattern on your hands).

Resource: Read The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal By Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz for more on energy management.

Play To Your Energy Strengths

Once you understand your energy strengths, arrange your work accordingly. In my experience, creative work and problem solving are much more difficult when I’m tired. That’s why I aim to get those activities done earlier in the day. Of course, few people have 100% control over that work schedule – I’m not telling you to ignore the VP’s urgent request. Instead, manage what you can and think carefully about when you plan your own work.

Resource: Horstman’s Noon Rule of Scheduling. A great podcast that explains the value of completing high value tasks in the morning.

Use Energy Restoration Strategies

What about those situations when you need to perform even though your energy is low? What can you do in those situations? Kahneman describes an experiment where people consumed glucose (sugar) and found that it can help. The sugar strategy does provide a short term boost with a longer term cost. What are alternatives to boost your energy?

  • 20-30 Minute Nap. A number of companies provide nap rooms and facilities so staff can recharge. If available, look into this option. For more insight, check out this Scientific America article: Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime.
  • Remind yourself of the why. Working through the details matters. When your energy and motivation decline, it’s time for a different approach. In those cases, I suggest looking into the big picture why. For example, if the project is focused on cost savings remind yourself why that matters (e.g. “If we achieve $1 million in cost savings with this project through process improvement, then we can avoid layoffs). For more on this topic, read Start With Why by Simon Sinek.

Use A “Brain Dead List” For Low Energy Moments

I heard about this concept via one of David Allen’s staff. He once mentioned that one of his staff keeps a specialized to-do list called “brain dead.” This task list has activities that he can easily perform even when he has low energy and motivation. Sure, we all like to scan that Facebook newsfeed (or email inbox) over and over again but perhaps you could do something else instead? Examples of brain dead tasks vary depending on your strengths. It could be organizing email or cleaning up your work space. It’s any task that comes easily to you and takes little time to accomplish.

Avoid Big Decisions Right Before Lunch: A Cautionary Tale For Managers and Leaders

Do you manage people? Take note of the experience of a group of Israeli judges and their decision making patterns. The implication is important. Even highly trained and experienced professionals, who are handling life changing decisions each day, appear to be significantly influenced by breaks and meals. Here is the Economist’s take on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, “I think it’s time we broke for lunch…“:

The team found that, at the start of the day, the judges granted around two-thirds of the applications before them. As the hours passed, that number fell sharply (see chart), eventually reaching zero. But clemency returned after each of two daily breaks, during which the judges retired for food. The approval rate shot back up to near its original value, before falling again as the day wore on… In truth, these results, though disturbing, are unsurprising. Judges may be trained to confine themselves to the legally relevant facts before them. But they are also human, and thus subject to all sorts of cognitive biases which can muddy their judgment.

Rationality is important. We also need to remember that reason and logic occur in a human context. If you’re hungry, tired or drained from difficult work, your reasoning capabilities will underperform.

Question of the Day:

What strategies do you use boost mental energy when you have to complete an urgent project?

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4 thoughts on “Master Ego Depletion To Keep Out of Trouble At Work

  1. – A walk outside
    – taking a NAP
    – avoiding meetings and other big decisions before lunch

    All great advice! I regularly send people this article on how to properly take naps. Like many other things in life, even napping is actually a skill that you develop overtime. A lot of people either just have a lot of trouble resting their brain, or have the opposite problem of falling into deep sleep. This article does a great job of teaching you how to moderate in between those two extremes and get the most out of your nap. Excellent stuff at usual Bruce!

    And Thinking Fast and Slow is an AMAZING book – a must read for ANY ONE – no matter what keeps you busy during the day!

  2. Make a list of tasks to do that day. I usually do this when I am losing energy in the morning.
    Then when energy gets low in the afternoon, do the easier, yet important things. Bite size chunks.

  3. Great post. I was talking about this with my flat mate the other day. He follows the same waking up/breakfast routine every day (and prepares the night before) so that he has to make zero decisions in the hour or two before work