Nick Hobson Ph.D.

Ritual and the Brain

Why You Can't Bring Yourself to Plan Things When Stressed

New research shows how stress-induced ego depletion causes lapses in planning

Posted May 14, 2018

It’s the end of the week, and you are both mentally and physically exhausted. Your boss has “asked” you to work overtime on the weekend and your colleagues are shirking on their duties, only for you to come home to a nagging partner who is resentful of your busy work schedule.

All of a sudden, you realize that that the big trip you and your partner are taking is only a month away, and you still haven’t done any of the planning you were put in charge of. The flights are not booked, you vaguely remember the specifics of the sightseeing activities you talked about, and you certainly haven’t mentioned anything to your boss. By the sound of it, the trip is most likely to be a total disaster unless you get yourself together and start doing your research.

And even though you fully understand the consequences messing things up, you just can’t bring yourself to figure it out. You suddenly feel a strong aversion to the thought of having to plan things ahead of time.

Why does this happen? Why does it become so difficult to plan as pressures mount in our life? Well, we’re learning from a new line of research that the ability and willingness to plan is directly disrupted by stress-induced failures in self-control. There’s even more reason, according to the research, to resolve personal stress in the name of maintaining self-control and making good decisions for the future.

The link between planning and self-control

Planning is an extraordinary ability that distinguishes us from nonhuman animals. As opposed to other species who live out their instincts in the present moment, we can think about and flexibly anticipate future events, tailoring our current thoughts and actions to fit our long-term goals.  

The ability to forecast ourselves and our lives into the future allows us to exercise self-control, to strategically delay our decision-making in hopes of securing a better reward down the road. One famous study that looked at delayed gratification in children, found that those children who were better at resisting the immediate rewards were more successful as adults, both occupationally and socially. Likewise, there is evidence that countries that value future rewards more than immediate ones fare better economically.  

Planning and self-control work in tandem. Both mental activities involve not only thinking about the future, but also making decisions in the present that will lead to a better, more desired outcome, while avoiding any possible obstacles and temptations along the way. In short, they require a degree of mental effort.

If we fail to engage in these activities, it is because such effortful cognition consumes a very limited mental resource. When that resource has been used up by other demanding tasks, such as stressful situations at work, we may be more reluctant to think about the future. In other words, because stress is depleting, it uses up the cognitive reserves needed to effectively plan ahead.

Given that the capacity for self-control differs across both people and situations, the researchers in the present investigation conducted a number of studies to examine the link between self-control and planning, as well as what happens when the fatigued individual experiences a reduced capacity for self-control. They hypothesized that i) people high in self-control engage in more planning, and ii) being depleted and fatigued of ego reserves will make people less likely to plan.   

Study methods and results

In the first study, the researchers wanted to see if the people who had higher levels of trait self-control engaged in more planning and more intentions to plan. 201 of the recruited participants were first instructed to complete a brief self-control scale, and then report how much planning they had done earlier in the week, as well as how much planning they imagined they would do in the following week.

As the researchers predicted, people who scored high on trait self-control reported more planning, both in the preceding and upcoming weeks.

Studies 2 and 3 experimentally measured the effects of impaired self-control, or ego depletion, on people’s willingness to plan. In the second study, 105 student participants were randomly assigned to either the ego-depletion condition or the control condition.

The experiment included a writing exercise in which participants were told to change their writing in a way that would involve either very little or a lot of self-regulation. For example, while writing their essays, participants in the ego depletion condition were instructed to avoid certain commonly used letters such as ‘A’ or ‘N.’ This would require constant habit inhibition and effort, depleting participants’ self-regulatory resources.

Next, to measure their willingness to make plans, participants were presented with a choice. They could either “take a relaxing ‘time out’” or “make a plan for the next four weeks.” They then expressed how much they wanted to do each task using an 11-point response scale.

In line with the researchers’ predictions, participants were much more mentally exhausted in the ego depletion task, and as a result were less willing to make plans than those in the control condition.

The third study was a field experiment that looked at how decision fatigue, as a result of shopping at IKEA, influenced people’s willingness to plan. 112 participants were approached either right before entering the store or right after leaving, and were asked to complete a survey that measured their exhaustion, and whether they wanted to relax or make plans for the next four weeks.

Again, as predicted, the decision fatigue associated with the IKEA shopping experience made people less willing to make plans, as compared to those people who were just entering the store. And just think, they hadn’t even begun the most depleting process of piecing together all that IKEA furniture.

Implications of findings

Based on the above findings, it seems that planning is in fact a demanding cognitive task that uses up the same resources associated with other executive functions such as self-control and decision-making. When these resources are depleted by prior tasks that require increased effort and concentration, we can experience a deep-seated aversion to planning, knowing that it would require the mental energy we simply can’t expend.

That’s why after a tough work week, the idea of making plans (even fun ones) can be so unappealing. It doesn’t mean that you are lazy or a bad person; it simply means that you are too tired to put in the mental effort needed to plan ahead. So rest up that brain. And plan not to make any plans until you’re back to your regular, rested self.

References

Sjastad, H., & Baumeister, R. F. (2018). The future and the will: Planning requires self-control, and ego depletion leads to planning aversion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 127-141.