Do you still remember your new year’s resolution from four months ago? You may have thought: New Year, new me. Well at least I did. I was sure that I would start working out. Instead, I ended up laying on the couch every evening. That is why I asked myself, why do I keep getting in this circle of not controlling myself to follow my exercise goals?
A possible answer to this question is provided when you look at self-control like a limited resource (Inzlicht & Friese, 2019). For example, when you have to control yourself for eating chocolate, it gets more difficult to control yourself to say no to other things you desire. You can run out of that limited resource, to control yourself. This is also called ego depletion (Lyu et al., 2017). When your ego is depleted, you lower your end goals (Lyu et al., 2017; Ryan, 2019). You focus more on your desires and less on motivations. If you are high on ego depletion your desire to not exercise does not increase, but your motivation to exercise decreases (Haynes et al., 2016).
Before I continue with this blog, I do want to put a disclaimer on the term ego depletion. There are many debates between scientists if ego depletion is real (Inzlicht & Friese, 2019). Both points of view show a lot of evidence that it either may or may not exist. Most studies that reject or accept ego depletion are not experimented in real life, but conducted in the lab (Inzlicht & Friese, 2019). In my opinion, this is not the right way to test ego depletion. I believe that ego depletion exists, because I experience it in everyday life. For example, after a long day at work, I cannot control myself to do things I should have been doing. So that is why I will use the term ego depletion like it does exist, until further research that is conducted in the real world, have proven me otherwise. With that being said, I will share the tips that I found from different researchers about how you can make your exercise plans into actual reality.
Rebar et al.(2018) came to the conclusion that it is necessary to have exercise intentions, but that intentions alone are mostly not enough to change exercise behaviour. In their research it became clear that if you want to change your behaviour for example to be more active, you should need to focus on “behaviour as the outcome, rather than plans”. They suggest that when you want to make realistic exercise plans, you should make them when you are highly ego depleted. This will decrease the gap between intentions and exactly behaviour in the future (Rebar et al., 2018). For example, make your exercise plans after a long day at work for the morning afterwards.
The study of Webb and Sheeran (2003) came with a possible solution to prevent ego depletion. They suggest to use the strategy of implementation strategies. With implementation strategies you specify at which locations, when and how you would act. So, you say in forehand what you would do when something happens, for example to do five squats when you have to wait in line for the toilet. When you use this strategy, you will automatically set the intended behaviour in motion (Webb & Sheeran, 2003).
Another possible solution against ego depletion, is self-affirmation according to the research of Schmeichel et al. (2003). They said that self-encouraging by self-affirmation has a significant positive effect on self-control. In the paper it became clear that when participants institute their feelings for self-affirmation, the capability of focussing on the bigger picture increases, because their mental construal increases. Mental construal refers to the way that people interpret and perceive the world around them. By interpreting the world around you, you can determine your own actions (Alleydog, 2021). People with a low mental construal have a tendency to lose the bigger picture and possibly forget that exercising is good for your body now and in the future (Schmeichel et al., 2003).
Preventing ego depletion by using self-encouragement is not in line with the thesis from Oehring (2020). Oehring submitted a thesis about prayer as a possible shield, or how she called it buffer, against ego depletion (2020). In the research she tested if prayer worked as a buffer against ego depletion. She tested three groups, among one group that used self-encouraging talk to prevent their ego depletion. But in the experiment of Oehring (2020), self-encouraging did not lead to a significant difference from the control group. A possible explanation for this is, because in the research of Schmeichel et al.(2003), they looked at their mental construal within participants, where participants looked at their own core values. While in Oehring’s experiment the participants just received a text that they should say to their selves. Although self-encouraging did not lead to a significant result, praying did in Oehring’s research (2020). The positive significant result might be explained by the fact that prayer causes positive effects on your mood, which can lead to less loss of self-control. The research of Tice et al. (2007) showed that positive moods have a positive effect on preventing ego depletion, while negative moods have a negative influence on preventing ego depletion.
All in all, we can conclude from these articles that the first step is to make exercise intentions, while you focus on your behaviour as well. If you want to make realistic exercise plans, you should plan them when you are high depleted. If you want to prevent ego depletion you should make use of implementation strategies, focus on self-encouragement, start praying before you exercise and just be in a good mood. All those tips will hopefully prevent depletion of your ego and help you start working out.
For me all those tips led to making an exercise plan after work. After my morning prayer I transform those plans into reality. I pray about wanting to have a good mood and the encouragement that I need to really exercise that day. At least the tips about being in a good mood and encouraging yourself, is in my opinion 50% of the work. When I am in a good mood, I almost even like to sport 😉.
Construal definition | Psychology Glossary | alleydog.com. (2021). www.alleydog.com. https://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition.php?term=Construal#:%7E:text=Construal%20is%20a%20social%20psychological,our%20own%20actions%20and%20judgements.
Haynes, A., Kemps, E., & Moffitt, R. (2016, 1 november). Too Depleted to Try? Testing the Process Model of Ego Depletion in the Context of Unhealthy Snack Consumption. International Association of Applied Psychology. https://iaap-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/aphw.12080
Inzlicht, M., & Friese, M. (2019). The Past, Present, and Future of Ego Depletion. Social Psychology, 50(5–6), 370–378. https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-9335/a000398
Lyu, R. W., Lai, C., & Liu, J. (2017). The Role of Ego Depletion in Goal Pursuit: A Construal-level Perspective. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 45(7), 1143–1156. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.6337
Oehring, D. (2020). Prayer as a Potential Buffer Against Ego Depletion. Digital Commons@Georgia Southern. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/etd/2118/?utm_source=digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu%2Fetd%2F2118&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages
Rebar, A. L., Dimmock, J. A., Rhodes, R. E., & Jackson, B. (2018). A daily diary approach to investigate the effect of ego depletion on intentions and next day behavior. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 39, 38–44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2018.07.010
Ryan, R. (2019). The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation (second editie). Oxford University Press.
Schmeichel, B. J., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Intellectual performance and ego depletion: Role of the self in logical reasoning and other information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(1), 33–46. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.11
Tice, D. M., Baumeister, R. F, Shmueli, D., & Muraven, M. (2007). Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(3), 379-384. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.007.
Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2003). Can implementation intentions help to overcome ego-depletion? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39(3), 279–286. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0022-1031(02)00527-9