“The evidence is persuasive,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, “activities that impose high demands on System 2 require self-control, and the exertion of self-control is depleting and unpleasant. Unlike cognitive load, ego depletion is at least in part a loss of motivation.”
Yesterday I wrote about our misconceptions regarding individual self-control. I wrote about how important it is to structure our environment accordingly for productivity and self-restraint. We are influenced by far more factors in our environment than we like to admit, and we don’t have as much self-control over our behaviors as we believe we do. Being intentional with our environment, shaping the systems, structures, and institutions around us, will enable us to move through life without needing unreasonable (or unattainable) self-control and motivation.
Today’s quote from Kahneman gets more detailed with self-control, ego depletion, and our experience of focus, attention, and mental effort. Cognitive load, as mentioned in the quote, is the effort put on our thinking processes. Remembering a 7 digit number is a light cognitive load, while holding 7 digits in your mind and adding one digit to each number to get a new number is a higher cognitive load. At a certain point under cognitive load, our mind simply can’t hold any more information and can’t continue to accurately do more mental weight-lifting. This is the point where ego depletion sets in if we continue to try to push through and maintain the hard work.
The more we engage System 2, the part of our brain needed for focus activities and complex problem solving, the quicker we lose motivation for mentally taxing activities. This is the ego depletion that Kahneman writes about. Our brains in theory can keep going, we could keep reading, writing, plugging away at a spreadsheet, but our brains start to get tired, and our motivation to focus and push through with continued mental effort fades. If we continue to exercise self-control, preventing ourselves from a diversion, such as playing a video game, then we are slowly going to wear ourselves out, and we will be more likely to get a cookie, have a drink, or binge watch a whole TV series once we do stop.
Just as our brains are not able to continually hold more and more information without making mistakes, our brains are not able to continually do more and more deep work without reaching a breaking point. As Cal Newport writes in his book Deep Work, for most people who are serious about doing their best work, the limit is roughly 4 hours of intense deep work per day. The mind, even a well trained mind, will get tired and lose the motivation to keep pushing through more deep work without making dangerous mistakes and becoming less productive in the long run. We have to keep in mind the twin forces of cognitive load and ego depletion, and focus on doing the right work at the right time, before our cognitive load is overwhelming and before our self-control has been depleted. We can do great work, but we have to be intentional about how we do our deep work, and we have to set up our environment to minimize the pull of distractions and the need for self-control.