Does Focusing on a Task Leave Us Exhausted?

July 19, 2017 Richard Justenhoven

image exhausted employee

The Impact of Ego Depletion

Think about a time when you’ve focused on the detail for any period of time; when you’ve had to concentrate and not allow yourself to be distracted. The chances are that at the end of the time, you’ve been left feeling fatigued and worn out, perhaps even realising that your decision making wasn’t particularly good.

Over 100 studies have looked into the effects on our mental state following periods of intense focus on the task in hand. They show that, after completing a mentally taxing task, we are less able to focus mentally, make sound decisions, or resist temptation. This is called ‘ego depletion’.

Interestingly, most of these studies have taken place in Western cultures. Would there be different findings if other cultures were studied such as the Indian culture in which self-control and focus is viewed as energising. Those based in such a culture believe that the intense concentration needed in one situation actually helps to revitalise oneself ready for the next, upcoming challenge.

Savani and Job (2017) wanted to understand how these cultural beliefs and practices might shape the basic psychological processes underlying self-control and completed four studies involving hundreds of Indian participants, as well as participants in Switzerland and the US.

The initial study

The participants completed either an easy or difficult initial ten-minute challenge (solving mazes, word searches, an editing type task) and then undertook a second, unrelated task of a similar kind.

They found that:

  • those Indian participants who had initially completed a more difficult initial task tended to perform better on the second challenge than the Indian participants who completed an easier initial challenge. In other words ‘reverse ego-depletion’.
  • in most cases, Western participants showed the opposite pattern of performance. They produced worse results on an easier task after a tougher initial test; supporting the established ego-depletion effect.

They also found that among the Indian participants, the more strongly they endorsed the idea that mental effort is energising, the stronger the reverse ego-depletion was demonstrated.

These findings challenge the established theory in Western psychology: self-control is like a resource that, if consumed or depleted in one situation, leaves less with which to tackle the next challenge.

Savani and Job wanted to see if they could manipulate the belief sets around self-control of the Indian and American participants. They asked one group to read an article which talked about the energy gained from exerting willpower, while the other group read an article about how exerting willpower is mentally draining. Then both groups completed two tests of mental concentration in succession.

They found that those who read the energising texts showed reverse ego-depletion. That is their performance on the second task was better if the first task was more challenging. And this group also gave the worse performance on the second task if they had completed an initial easy task. It seems that if you believe mental effort is energising, then ‘easy’ tasks take more of a toll with regard to energy.

We have explored this area of ego-depletion in a previous blog but perhaps it is no long as straightforward as initially thought and warrants more investigation.

We have also written about self-control and self-discipline being key in determining the extent to which we lead a successful life, be it in terms of health, career or relationships. We know from a study by Moffitt in New Zealand that children with higher levels of self-control were as adults healthier, better off financially, less likely to commit crimes and become substance dependent.

Rather than exerting focus and self-control being an energy-sapping process, perhaps we should be viewing self-control as a stepping stone to future success and also exploring the role that motivation plays in this?

References:

Moffitt, T., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B., Ross, S., Sears, M., Thomson, W., and Caspi, A. (2011). From the Cover: A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (7), 2693-2698

Savani, K., & Job, V. (2017, June 5). Reverse Ego-Depletion: Acts of Self-Control Can Improve Subsequent Performance in Indian Cultural Contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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