A couple of months ago, a friend recommended to me the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate. It’s an intriguing read so far and serves as useful small talk topic. But, I wanted more from it than just watercooler conversation. So, I’ve used some of the insights from the book and applied them to the cause of improvement of our daily lives.
Thus far, I have read only a quarter of the book. So, I think this could be a series of posts. We'll see about that when we cross that bridge.
‘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. This phenomenon is known as Ego Depletion.’
This means that if you are involved in cognitively challenging tasks, especially the ones which you don't want to do, you would be more susceptible to give in to your urges later. An example from the book: Suppose I ask you to remember a sequence of 7 digits for a couple of minutes. And you are told that this is the number one priority for you. If at the end of two minutes, you were asked to choose between a virtuous fruit salad or a sinful chocolate cake, chances are you would choose the cake.
In a demonstration of the concept, a group of people were asked to stifle their emotional reactions after watching an emotionally charged movie. This group then performed poorly in a physically draining task immediately after. The emotional effort of the first half of the experiment, reduced their ability to sustain physical pain and they gave in to their urge to quit more quickly.
Why having a job you like matters
An important implication of the concept of ego-depletion is that the kind of job you do, and how you feel about it dictates the rest of your day as well. An effort of will or self-control is tiring. So, if you are forced to work at a place you don't like, chances are that after coming back home, you might eat more junk food, watch more senseless TV and indulge lesser in creative interests.
For example, a friend of mine who hates her job enjoys painting. But, she found that after coming back home, she had little drive to do the one thing she loves - paint. She would scroll her Facebook feed endlessly, or watch movies and not feel good about it. Ego-depletion is in part a loss of motivation. The ego-depleting job reduced her desire to engage in creative pursuits (the hard task) and made her give in to the urges (the easy task).
Instinctively, you know that your job is screwing your life (if you hate the job), but now you know exactly why. If I look back at my behavior when I was working at a regular job, the regular drinking and going out was succumbing to my urges as much as it was a deliberate fun activity.
So, if you don’t do anything productive after work and feel guilty about it, cut yourself some slack. It’s biology. Your ego is depleted and you need a change of work or a glass of fresh juice. No, really. Read on.
Mental energy is more than a metaphor
The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body. So, the more strenuous your task is, the more glucose is consumed. Blood glucose level drops and the next task becomes more difficult to execute.
In a demonstration of this concept, a group of volunteers was shown a short film featuring a woman. They were asked to interpret her body language. While they were at their task, a series of words crossed across the screen to distract them. And they were instructed to ignore the words, and refocus their attention on the woman if they found their attention drawn away. This self-control caused ego-depletion. After the end of the task, half of them were given glucose and the other half were not. Then, a second task followed where they needed to overcome their intuitive response to get the correct answer. The ones whose glucose level had increased performed much better than the others. The restoration of available level of sugar in the brain prevented the deterioration of performance.
A more disturbing demonstration of this phenomenon was in a study done on eight parole judges in Israel. Their job was to review applications for parole the whole day. It was found that the number of applications they approved was higher immediately after their food breaks. And, it dropped close to zero as the time since their last meal increased. The inference made from this data was that tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole.
Glucose For The Win
It seems almost too trivial to even point out - drink a refreshing sugary drink after a challenging task. This isn’t news right? We all know it intuitively. But, knowing the science and how it affects the rest of our day helps. So, I have started keeping a reserve of lemonade with ample sugar in the fridge. When I feel tired, a glass of it restores my glucose level. Also, since I am convinced of the positive effect of glucose, a placebo kicks in and refreshes me even more.
Let me know if it works for you.
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