What Is Ego Depletion and How to Replenish It as a CPA

Gusto Editors

Do you want to know how to improve self-control?

People frequently associate willpower with self-restraint. We think we need more willpower to stop our cookie binge in its tracks, avoid scrolling on social media, or keep ourselves focused during demanding work projects. However, it turns out that there’s more to the story than simple willpower.

To help you perform at your peak, we partnered with CPA Academy to bring you a webinar called “Painless December Ethics CPE.” The webinar was hosted by Caleb Newquist, Gusto’s Editor-at-Large, and Greg Kyte, founder of Comedy CPE

Greg Kyte is a stand-up comedian and CPE who merges humor with CPE education. He’s a respected accounting expert, and as a performer, he has shared the stage with many notable comedians. Greg loves to make audiences laugh and learn at the same time, and he is passionate about behavioral science and ethical behavior.

In this article, you’ll learn how ego depletion leads to emotional distress and mental fatigue, what to do when you’re mentally tired, and how to improve self-control.

What is the ‘ego depletion’ theory?

Greg referenced Dan Ariely, social scientist and author, who is an expert on human behavior. Dan Ariely studies what motivates people, why they make decisions, and how other people and the environment impact their actions. He’s especially concerned with people’s ethics and what drives people to choose instinct and ego over higher motivations.

Woman looking confused while doing paperwork.

Dan Ariely and his colleagues were determined to see what causes us to cave into temptation. In one of many different experiments, he and his colleagues gave people a tedious test and observed their behavior. 

“A chart … came up on a computer screen for one second, then disappeared, and if I were the person being experimented on, I’d see it for a second [and then] it would go away. Then my whole job [would be] to figure out if there were more dots on the upper right-hand side or more dots on the lower left-hand side. That’s my whole job—to show where there are more dots. If there are more dots on the upper right, I hit right. If there are more dots on the lower left, I hit left.”

– Greg Kyte

They postulated that by seeing when people give up on answering correctly, they’d learn why people might cave into temptation in their daily life. They wanted to see when people got tired and became apathetic. 

“You had to do this experiment for an hour, over and over. And … you got paid for your answers, but not for getting the right answer. You paid five cents every time you hit the right button, and you got paid half of a penny every time you hit the left button. Regardless of whether you were right or wrong, you just got paid by hitting right or hitting left.”

– Greg Kyte

Interestingly, experimenters found that regardless of how long people lasted, they all displayed a similar pattern. Instead of there being a gradual drop-off in the right answers, they all had sudden drop-offs in which they abruptly stopped getting the right answer. In other words, they just ran out of steam and stopped trying.

“They didn’t find a specific time, but they found that for everyone, they’d be trying to answer accurately and they’d be going along, and then all of a sudden they just hit [a wall]. They’d go, ‘This is ridiculous. Why did I ever sign up for this experiment? Screw everything that I’ve ever thought was true or good.’ And they would just start [hitting any button], regardless of [whether it was right]. They were just like, ‘I’m just getting money now because this is horrible and stupid and I hate everything right now.’”

– Greg Kyte

Greg’s humor aside, people simply got fed up. Can you relate to this? If you’re a hard-working perfectionist, you probably pride yourself on putting in long hours, doing meticulous work, and checking every detail. However, there’s only so long that can last. Maybe you make it through days, weeks, or months like this, and then you suddenly just can’t do it anymore. That’s when you could swing in the opposite direction of being cavalier or careless or even getting sick.

“That’s exactly what ego depletion is. … You just stop caring. The temptation is right there for so long. … Eventually, you just get worn out. That’s what happens with ego depletion and our [professional] culture. … You’re going to be putting in a ridiculous amount of hours at work, and you will get … depleted by doing that.”

– Greg Kyte

Ego depletion theory holds that we have limited reserves of willpower, and we chip away at them with repeated use. Each moment of self-restraint takes an invisible toll that only becomes apparent when our reserves run dry. If this is the case, it makes more sense to take a moderate approach to self-restraint rather than being a perfectionist. By being mindful of how often we exercise restraint, we can keep ourselves in balance in the long run, rather than burning out and caving into temptation.

How to bounce back from ego depletion and self-defeating thoughts

Group of young businesspeople laughing together during their coffee break in a bright modern office.

If you’ve ever been on a diet or a cleanse, you’ll know that it’s on Friday nights after work that you’re most likely to give in to red wine and steak. All week, you’ve been diligently having hot water with lemon first thing in the morning, walking briskly past the pastry shop next door, and steaming broccoli for dinner. But on Friday night, all bets are off. Why is that?

Caleb and Greg argued that it boils down to ego depletion. Referencing Dan Ariely’s research, Greg observed how by 5 PM, his willpower to eat only healthy foods peters out and gives way to cravings for the treats he loves so much.

We have limited willpower. It’s like a muscle, and we can build it and use it, but if we overexert it, we’ll need a recovery period. The problem with running out of our reserves is that it happens suddenly and when we’re not expecting it. We can burn out or suffer abrupt mental and emotional health challenges. Perhaps we overindulge or underperform at work. 

Luckily, there are many ways to combat the effects of ego depletion. It turns out that fun, relaxation, humor, and an overall positive mood can help you recover faster. Greg pointed out that when experimenters boosted people’s moods with unexpected gifts (like a chocolate bar) and a funny cat video, people recovered their self-control more quickly.

“Those were like two silver bullets they found to bring people back to where they could [perform better].”

– Greg Kyte

It turns out that being happy and having fun aren’t just good for their own sakes. If you really need a reason to enjoy yourself other than pure enjoyment, consider that it will help replenish you and make you more resistant to temptation.

Additionally, you can prevent depletion by having a balanced lifestyle. Don’t let yourself get to the burnout stage during the busy seasons. Have limits and boundaries around your work life and personal life. Get up from your desk every hour to walk around. Go outside and exercise in the fresh air. Don’t stay awake all night burning the midnight oil, and do make time for fun and friends.

“Any time that you can spend time with friends or loved ones, even if it might be inconvenient or it’s last minute, is a really good way to replenish [yourself]. [During the busy season], you might not feel like you have time to do that stuff, but you should probably go out of your way to make time so you don’t suffer from ego depletion.”

– Caleb Newquist

Maybe you’re juggling family and work responsibilities, and you just don’t think you have the time to socialize. Try anyway. Don’t fall into the trap of overwork; your well-being and ability to have self-control depend on how replenished you are.

“If there’s a way where you can get away for a 30-minute lunch with your friends from work and just say, ‘We’re not talking about work. We’re telling jokes. Everybody, let’s make each other laugh,’ that’s something that’s going to help [cultivate a positive mood].”

– Greg Kyte

Greg brought up a counterpoint he heard from a friend in the military. His friend disagreed that repetitively exercising self-control leads to ego depletion. He shared how repetitive, tedious actions are the norm in the military, but you simply can’t lose focus or give up.

“He totally disagreed with this whole concept of ego depletion. … He [talked about] his time in the military and how something] might be the most boring, most repetitive thing that you could possibly do, but you have to do it for a week without stopping, and he would do it. … They’re training them for that because they know that in an actual combat situation, you doing this tiny, repetitive thing over and over again [could save your] friends’ lives.”

– Greg Kyte
Woman working with online clients in a modern office.

In some cases, people may exercise a higher level of sustained self-control when they have a higher purpose in mind. While accountants might not be saving people’s lives, they’re trusted with people’s money, which is huge. Greg urged CPEs to consider the higher purpose of the accounting profession. It may be what keeps you focused when you feel your motivation waning.

“If we think about the magnitude of [some of the fraud scandals and] how many people lost all of their retirement savings because of Enron you go, ‘Well, I’m part of that bigger picture. [This] profession helps people … to be able to hang onto their retirement [savings] so they can live into their old age comfortably.”

– Greg Kyte

Between making time for fun and play, setting boundaries with work, and considering the bigger picture of your job, you should be able to replenish yourself and make good choices consistently.

Learn more about the ego-depletion theory

Behavioral scientists conducted an experiment to see how repetitive actions wear us down and take away our willpower. They dubbed this phenomenon “ego depletion.” We don’t have an endless supply of motivation, so we need to balance indulgence and self-restraint. Otherwise, we’re susceptible to sudden burnout or caving into temptation. To replenish ourselves, we need to make fun and play a priority. Humor, socializing, and other relaxing activities help us recover our motivation faster.

If you liked this article, check out the full webinar to learn more. Additionally, take a peek at our other articles based on the same episode: Navigating the Space Between Honesty and Dishonesty in CPA Ethics, CPA Ethics & The Ultimatum Game, The Science of Moral Codes and AICPA Ethics, The Sunglass Experiment and How It Applies to CPE Fraud, and How to Build an Ethical Culture at Your CPA Firm.

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