Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 20;   May 18, 2016: Ego Depletion and Priority Setting

Ego Depletion and Priority Setting

by

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: 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.

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendaLAVOfcLywFIVBoner@ChacDSQDtDtAIFFALdVioCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

The main reading room of the US Library of CongressPersonal Trade Secrets
Do you have some little secret tricks you use that make you and your team more effective? Do you wish you could know what secret tricks others have? Here's a way to share your secrets without risk.
The wreckage of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio RiverHyper-Super-Overwork
The prevalence of overwork has increased with the depth of the global recession, in part because employers are demanding more, and in part because many must now work longer hours to make ends a little closer to meeting. Overwork is dangerous. Here are some suggestions for dealing with it.
A map of the Internet ca. January 2005Intentionally Unintentional Learning
Intentional learning is learning we undertake by choice, usually with specific goals. When we're open to learning not only from those goals, but also from whatever we happen upon, what we learn can have far greater impact.
A schematic representation of a MOSFETBottlenecks: II
When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern.
Astronauts Musgrave and Hoffman install corrective optics during the Hubble Telescope's Service Mission 1How We Waste Time: I
Time is the one workplace resource that's evenly distributed. Everyone gets exactly the same share, but some use it more wisely than others. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways we waste time.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Mistletoe growing in abundance in the Wye Valley, WalesComing April 25: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI
Narcissistic behavior at work distorts decisions, disrupts relationships, and generates toxic conflict. These consequences limit the ability of the organization to achieve its goals. In this part of our series we examine the effects of exploiting others for personal ends. Available here and by RSS on April 25.
A shark of unspecified speciesAnd on May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenNCmutbQJrOdGTPwUner@ChacFOkcOHbfzNRfpTgtoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.