Ego depletion refers to the draining of mental resources that form our willpower. However, ‘willpower’ has many different faces and is a limited resource. We use it every day, with every tiny decision – what to have for lunch, focus on work instead of checking social media, hold back screaming at your boss – each decision takes some amount of mental resources.
Have you had a fight with a loved one that left you feeling like you’ve run a mental marathon? Have you had days where you’ve needed to solve a relatively simple problem, but found yourself incapable of doing so? Have you worked long hours without regular breaks, only to give up and overeat at the end of the day? All of these are cases of ego depletion where our mental resources are almost running dry. We usually brush them off as ‘one of those days’. For most of us, it is indeed just a few hours or days before we recharge our mental well of resources; this is normal and, in most cases, healthy. Sometimes though, we withdraw resources faster than we replenish them. This can easily lead to burnout.
For long now, I have been interested in ego depletion faced by PhD students. However, it wasn’t until I started talking to Jimita Toraskar that I realized how different each person’s path to dealing with stress during a PhD can be. Jimita and I, originally from the same city in India, started our PhDs in different countries, around the same time. We recently reconnected and quickly realized that we had both struggled, and recovered, during our PhDs; but our struggles and paths were very different. Thus, was born this collaborative post on how we recognized ego depletion and dealt with it. Below is a list of questions that both of us took turns answering.
Q – Have you ever experienced ego depletion or burnout of some kind?
Jimita: Yes. I think it is pretty common for people to experience burnout of some kind. It is hard to strike work- life balance, especially at the beginning of your career.
Divya: Yes, although identifying it has been tricky sometimes.
Q – Could you give examples? When did you experience it?
Jimita: When I transition from one job to another, move cities, start working on a new project that requires me to learn new skills. Most of the jobs in the research field are contract based. I am in my mid-20s and I have already moved to and worked in five different cities in different countries. Though relocating is exciting in the beginning, it also means that you will have to deal with a different culture, make new friends again, learn the local language, and find places to shop good grocery. It might sound silly and small but if you have to ‘unpack-furnish-pack’ again and again it gets tiring. It takes me at least six months to find my comfort zone, and by then I may have to move again. International exposure is a must, I don’t deny that. My work experience in different cultures sets my resume apart from others and it has given me a lot of confidence and social skills. But I have realized that it is one of the reasons that makes me feel power depleted.
Divya: I experienced it most in the first two years of my PhD. To pursue my PhD, I moved to Germany. In the beginning, I was learning essential research skills with planning and designing my study, but this was further complicated by the fact that I also had to set up my own lab and I wasn’t prepared to deal with hardware and software problems of this nature and intensity. I was really excited to be working on my project and curious about my problems, so I didn’t notice my resources being depleted. As if this wasn’t enough, I also wanted to learn German to be able to carry out my testing sessions myself. This meant that at some point in my first year, I had six months of German class over Skype at 6am, followed by work that mainly involved a steep learning curve and troubleshooting that did not always work, and ending the days with Language-Tandems as a way to meet people and improve my German skills.
Q – How long did the situation last before you felt tired/ will-power depleted?
Jimita: Fortunately I identified the problem well in time. ‘Pause. Take a few steps back and breathe’, has been my mantra. We all have different thresholds. I didn’t feel any stress at the beginning but there was a phase where too many things were happening on my social and professional front, and I realized that it is affecting my productivity. We are wired to strike work-life balance and not life-work balance. This makes us easy prey to power depletion.
Divya: A few months, at least. The start, even of problems, can be exciting. Small hurdles or setbacks in a 3-4-year project do not feel that crushing. In a new project, new place, new work environment, you also need time to find a yardstick to measure progress with. Being physically tired, having lots to do, or even having long days, is not the same as being drained of resources.
Q – What does ego depletion feel like to you?
Jimita: Jumbling of thoughts. Blank out at times. Frequent headaches. Less efficient/productive at work. A very concrete example is that I find it hard to wake up, when am power depleted.
Divya: Psychosomatic problems like jaw clenching in my sleep, or being tired all the time, being emotionally vulnerable and having breakdowns, having intense feelings for small triggers, or sometimes no triggers. Actually, a good way for me to find out what is depleting my resources is to do different tasks. There are times when I’m tired only when I have to work. I would get tired the moment I switched on my computer. But if at that moment, I decide to not work and talk to a friend instead or do yoga or do something artistic, I wouldn’t be tired. These are clear giveaways that something specific is making me tired and it’s not physical fatigue but rather psychosomatic fatigue.
Q – Are the ‘resources’ being depleted internal, external or both?
Jimita: Internal. Feeling overwhelmed at work or in life can easily put you in a spot. For example, if you take a sick leave for 5 days your emails pile up. When you resume work, you again work overtime to sort out your backlogs and unintentionally you end up disturbing the work-life balance. Or the other way around. When a loved one in family falls sick, you stay with them to help/care and count those days as your ‘paid holiday’. But how relaxed do you feel when you use up your holidays taking care of family?
Divya: Internal. Ego depletion in a PhD is like trying to solve a 500-piece puzzle, without having the attention, motivation or concentration for it…and maybe your hand is bandaged as well.
Q – What are some protective factors in situations that push you to empty your resource pool?
Jimita: It’s hard to feel satisfied and accomplished at both work and life. But one can work on it and make it better each day. My most important resource has been my direct supervisor. Yes. The person who grades my performance. Do not waste time impressing your boss. Be yourself. Be clear and straightforward. I have always been able to discuss my workload with my supervisor. Together, we have paced out realistic deadlines and periodic evaluation. Everyone in the work pyramid needs ‘constant motivation’ and ‘constructive feedback’.
Divya: Graduate school environment can be very stressful. The academic environment pushes everyone in it, and you may knowingly or unknowingly get pushed in the currents. Reflecting back, I can think of jokes and comments from my work environment that told me I had to push myself every day, or I was doing my PhD wrong. It helped me to develop a strong support outside my work. Support in the form of hobbies and people. I was lucky to have started yoga and dance classes from early on in my PhD because of friends who got me hooked onto it. Physical exercise, healthy relationships, and planning in fun time into my schedule helped to break the graduate-stress-cycle. I remember attending a time management course for PhDs where we were taught to make a weekly plan – first, jot down all the fixed appointments, then jot down times for personal hobbies, friends, recovery period, and then fill the rest with work. It’s something I try and practice.
Q – What stopped you from taking a break?
Jimita: ‘FOMO’. Fear of missing out is actually beyond social media. In general, people only share success stories. No one says ‘hey I failed at XYZ task today’. This creates a mirage, where you start believing everyone is happy and successful, but you. So even when you know that you need a break, you hesitate; only to display a strong self. I now know that there is no shame in embracing your vulnerabilities, talking about your failures takes you closer to success.
Divya: Not realizing that I needed one. But I’ve since learned to proactively plan breaks anyways. It’s not wise to wait till you’re empty and suffering.
Q – If someone would have told you ‘you need a break’ and dragged you out, would you have appreciated it?
Jimita: I would have and I did. I do not prefer to travel when I feel power depleted. That’s not my definition of taking a break. My definition of a break is a short period of rest at regular intervals. Start by following the weekend rule. Work only 5 days a week. Weekends I use to declutter, organize. I started following minimalism. Clean and neat office desk/home does give you better room to think. Remove junk from your laptop. Starting your day with a paper and a pen. Write down things to do at work and things to do at home. Be realistic in setting goals.
Divya: A few years ago, no. Today, yes. A few years ago, I thought I was capable of seeing when I needed a break. Early on in my PhD, I had plans for every day of the week. I thought if I could wake up, go to work and I wasn’t depressed in bed, I was fine. Now I know that reaching a stage of ‘not-fine’, means I’ve neglected myself for too long already.
1. Ego-depletion can be stealth– keep your eye out for it
2. Notice your body – in can give you insights into your mental well-being
2. Develop your mechanisms – keep things that make you happy close by and handy
3. Exercise, meditate or just sit in silence– push yourself to be regular.
4. Take preventive care – set SMART goals, and factor in breaks.
5. Remember – Don’t hesitate to ask for help