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Ego depletion

There's a psycho-physical phenomenon called ego depletion which, brain scientists speculate, is caused by over-use of the will. It happens when you have to concentrate on something, or control your reactions, or generally over-apply your conscious mind.

I'm paraphrasing a bit. Anyway, people seem to have a tank of this mental willpower stuff, and ego depletion is when the tank runs dry. When that happens, you don't have much will to spare for the next thing that requires it--like making a decision, resisting temptation, or controlling your temper.

My job goes against the grain of my personality and talents, so doing it every day has been causing me chronic ego depletion for a couple of years now. (This might be the most rational argument I've ever heard for seeking work you enjoy.)

Some studies suggest that it's possible to increase the capacity of your ego tank, kind of like building a muscle through exercise.

In an effort to survive the next couple of years at work with my retirement prospects intact, I've decided to make a two-pronged attack on ego depletion: expanding my capacity and limiting my exposure.

To expand my capacity, I've been breaking the enormous, compressed backlog of work into small bits that I can stand to focus on, then focusing on them exclusively for a few minutes longer than I'm comfortable with. Then I dole distractions out like dog biscuits in reward for good-dog behavior. I actually have mini-breaks scheduled in a special Google calendar. "Stand up. Get water." "Check personal email." "Go outside." "Online shopping."

To limit my exposure to ego depletion, I'm trying to control interruptions (for instance by logging out of email and turning off my phone). I'm on the lookout for ways to pass brain teasers that I can't handle on to people who can.

As a result, I've been measurably more productive this week but my brain is kind of sore. When I left the office late Thursday to find my bike in the garage with a flat rear tire, I almost cried. I got home by bus and ate pretty much all the cookies (gluten free lime shortbread, if you're curious) and quite a bit of the Turkish Delight that Amazon sent me, even though I'm not a huge fan of gummy sweets. "GLUCOSE! GLUCOSE!" cried my tired, metabolically-expensive, big human brain.

Then yesterday I slacked off a bit--got my tire fixed, went out to breakfast, had conversations with coworkers, did tasks I like--and lo and behold, sugar and overeating weren't a problem.

I expect incremental improvement on the job, and some lasting advantage in terms of brain function. Chances are I'm going to live quite a long time yet, and I'd like to be awake for it. But it's really hard work, this business of self-management.

Crossposted from Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comments. | Comment at Dreamwidth.



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