Ego depletion imageA great post by Lee Newman on the Harvard Business Review blog turns the spotlight on our default reactions in challenging interpersonal situations. For example, how would you respond if someone attacks your cherished pet project at work? Some people’s default reaction would be to attack back, some would instinctively cave in or seek compromise, some would attempt to take the heat out of the situation by using logic, or distract the attacker with a joke.

What we often don’t realise is that our attention, self-control and will-power (which I think are all different names for the same thing) are depletable resources that run down in the course of a working day. Experiments by the psychologist Roy Baumeister have shown that when someone’s will-power is depleted by, for example, being required to eat ‘virtuous’ foods while resisting the temptation of chocolates, they give up sooner than normal when they then have to do a stamina test or a challenging cognitive task.

Baumeister calls this ‘ego depletion’. It also happens when we are physically tired or hungry, or emotionally exhausted. The good news is that our will-power is like a muscle – it gets stronger if we exercise it – and I’ll probably post some ideas on this in the future. This article focuses on how best to manage your will-power at its current strength level.

Because thinking, choosing, and resisting takes effort and energy, you have a kind of ‘autopilot’ that can save effort by falling back on habitual reactions in any given situation. Often these reactions will get the result that you want – but because every situation is different, there will be times when the default reaction is not the best one.

These default reactions emerge when our will-power is depleted, from the ‘autopilot’ part of our mind that doesn’t involve conscious thought (Daniel Kahneman’s ‘System One’ or Jonathan Haidt’s ‘Elephant‘). They won’t change unless we give some attention to reviewing and considering them. Default responses like automatically caving in if your proposals are challenged, or reacting to critical feedback with an angry outburst, will reduce your effectiveness as a leader or even derail your career completely if not managed.

So, even before you start exercises to build up your will-power like a muscle, what can you do to manage your default behaviours? Here’s my take on Newman’s suggestions:

  1. Become aware of your default behaviours. Think about the typical challenging moments in your work day (or your family life). List them out, and for each one identify your default reaction, especially where it often doesn’t get the result you want. It might be interrupting, hiding, pulling rank, losing your temper… Awareness of what you want to change is the crucial first step.
  2. Use ‘if-then’ rules to plan better responses. Research shows that planning desired responses to challenging situations (“If my boss criticises me, I will stay calm and ask for a specific example”) makes it much more likely that we will actually respond in that way when the situation happens for real.
  3. Plan your day to work with your energy levels. Schedule the most challenging tasks for when your energy and will-power reserves are at their highest. If you’re a ‘morning person’, get the toughest meetings out of the way in the morning. Don’t schedule several challenging meetings one after the other. Don’t take difficult decisions when you’re hungry, just before lunch. And remember to take breaks to recharge your energy levels!

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Image by Ben Earwicker/

Are Your ‘Autopilot’ Reactions Reducing Your Effectiveness?

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