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The Akrasia Effect: Why We Don’t Follow Through on What We Set Out to Do (And What to Do About It)

16 January 2016

From James Clear:

By the summer of 1830, Victor Hugo was facing an impossible deadline. Twelve months earlier, the famous French author had made an agreement with his publisher that he would write a new book titled, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Instead of writing the book, Hugo spent the next year pursuing other projects, entertaining guests, and delaying his work on the text. Hugo’s publisher had become frustrated by his repeated procrastination and responded by setting a formidable deadline. The publisher demanded that Hugo finish the book by February of 1831—less than 6 months away.

Hugo developed a plan to beat his procrastination. He collected all of his clothes, removed them from his chambers, and locked them away. He was left with nothing to wear except a large shawl. Lacking any suitable clothing to go outdoors, Hugo was no longer tempted to leave the house and get distracted. Staying inside and writing was his only option.

The strategy worked. Hugo remained in his study each day and wrote furiously during the fall and winter of 1830. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published two weeks early on January 14, 1831.

. . . .

Human beings have been procrastinating for centuries. Even prolific artists like Victor Hugo are not immune to the distractions of daily life. The problem is so timeless, in fact, that ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle developed a word to describe this type of behavior: Akrasia.

Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Loosely translated, you could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control. Akrasia is what prevents you from following through on what you set out to do.

Why would Victor Hugo commit to writing a book and then put it off for over a year? Why do we make plans, set deadlines, and commit to goals, but then fail to follow through on them?

. . . .

One explanation for why akrasia rules our lives and procrastination pulls us in has to do with a behavioral economics term called “time inconsistency.” Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.

When you make plans for yourself — like setting a goal to lose weight or write a book or learn a language — you are actually making plans for your future self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.

When the time comes to make a decision, however, you are no longer making a choice for your future self. Now you are in the moment and your brain is thinking about the present self. And researchers have discovered that the present self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff. This is one reason why you might go to bed feeling motivated to make a change in your life, but when you wake up you find yourself falling into old patterns. Your brain values long-term benefits when they are in the future, but it values immediate gratification when it comes to the present moment.

. . . .

Aristotle coined the term enkrateia as the antonym of akrasia. While akrasia refers to our tendency to fall victim to procrastination, enkrateia means to be “in power over oneself.”

Link to the rest at James Clear

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18 Comments to “The Akrasia Effect: Why We Don’t Follow Through on What We Set Out to Do (And What to Do About It)”

  1. Commenting so me can get emailed the comments …

    • You don’t actually have to post a comment in order to get email updates of new comments. Just click the “subscribe” link below where it says:

      “You can also subscribe without commenting.”

      😉

      • When I added that comment, that option wasn’t yet there! 😛

        (which is why I didn’t have to do the ‘comments’ bit on the newer ones … 😉 )

  2. Clearly somebody needs to raid GRRM’s closet. Clearly.

  3. This article is brilliant! I’m sharing it with everyone I know. I especially like this: “Don’t worry about the results until you’ve mastered the art of showing up.”

    I used to put a quote from Woody Allen at the top of all my syllabi: “83% of success is just showing up.” Probably only 15% of my students noticed it :-).

  4. I’ll have to read this article, as soon as I get around to it. 🙂

  5. Akrasia!

    I always knew I had a condition. All I have to do now is add the word syndrome and I’m golden. Of course, as there is no cure other than stripping off your clothes (which in all good faith I cannot do as I must “think of the children.”), I think I’ll go and google something about semi-colons, or maybe the Kardashians . . .

  6. And thus my entire life is explained.

  7. Excellent link! Thanks 🙂

  8. Not sure this is accurate, but havent time to look it up at the moment, maybe later: “Aristotle coined the term enkrateia as the antonym of akrasia. While akrasia refers to our tendency to fall victim to procrastination, enkrateia means to be “in power over oneself.””

    I think Aristotle may have contrasted enk with ak in his writing, but coined the word? If you use it in a novel, prob ought to double check. Lots of the old guys quoted common sayings/ equivilencies popular at the time especially as quoth the Gods via the playrights of the time, but were not the originators of such. Folk wisdom, proverbs have had this contrast one way or another since time out of mind.

  9. YES. Of course I have read like 5 articles on the same topic since the new year started and I still struggle with just getting started on the tougher projects.

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