CEO Victory in the Battle of Akrasia

CEO Brain

Inside the CEO Brain

What Is ‘Akrasia’?

Akrasia is the experience of knowing an action would be in your best interest… but you don’t do it. Akrasia is one of the most widespread and persistent barriers to getting things done.

Josh Kaufman Explains ‘Akrasia’

In one of his most famous standup comedy routines, Jerry Seinfeld describes his difficulties going to bed:

“I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night, cause I’m Night Guy. Night Guy wants to stay up late. ‘What about getting up after five hours sleep?’ That’s Morning Guy’s problem. That’s not my problem, I’m Night Guy. I stay up as late as I want. So you get up in the morning, you’re exhausted, groggy… Night Guy always screws Morning Guy. There’s nothing Morning Guy can do. The only thing Morning Guy can do is try and oversleep often enough so that Day Guy loses his job and Night Guy has no money to go out anymore.”

The routine is funny because it’s so familiar. All of us have had the experience of knowing or feeling that we should do something, or that an action is would be in our best interest… but we don’t do it. The term for that experience is Akrasia (pronounced “ah-KRAH-see-ah”).

Akrasia and procrastination are related, but they’re not the same thing. Procrastination occurs when you’ve decided to complete a task, but you keep putting it off until later without consciously deciding to do it later. If you have “answer email” on your to-do list, but you browse the internet for hours without answering any email, that’s procrastination.

Akrasia is a deeper issue: it’s a general feeling that you “should” do something, without necessarily deciding to do it. The “should” feeling doesn’t lead to decision or action, even if the action seems to be in your best interest. Most people experience Akrasia when considering changing Habits they no longer want (“I should quit smoking,”) taking a new action (“I should donate to that nonprofit,”) or contemplating an uncomfortable topic (“I should look into life insurance and talk to a lawyer to write a will.”) The “should” feeling sticks around, but never leads to action, generating intense frustration.

Akrasia is a very old problem: discussions about the source of Akrasia go back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The term comes from the Greek ἀκρασία, which means “lacking command (over oneself).” Socrates and Plato believed that Akrasia was a moral defect, while Aristotle argued that it stems from a mistaken opinion about what a person “should” do. Even though philosophers have been debating the topic for centuries, they haven’t discovered a cure.

Akrasia is one of the most widespread and persistent barriers to getting things done. In order to spend your time making progress vs. fighting both sides of a battle of will, it’s useful to have a strategy for recognizing and combatting Akrasia when your recognize it.

In my experience, Akrasia has four general parts: a task, a desire/want, a “should,” and an emotional experience of resistance. Within this framework, there can be many potential sources of resistance:

  1. You can’t define what you want.
  2. You feel the task will bring you closer to something you don’t want.
  3. You can’t figure out how you’re going to get from where you are right now to where you want to be.
  4. You idealize the desired End Result to the point your mind estimates a low probability of achievement, resulting in Loss Aversion.
  5. The “should” was established by someone else, not you, prompting Persuasion Resistance.
  6. A competing action in the current Environment promises immediate gratification, while the reward of the task in question will come much later. (Psychologists call this “hyperbolic discounting.”)
  7. The benefits of the action are abstract and distant, while other possible actions will provide concrete and immediate benefits. (Psychologists call this “construal level theory” or “near/far” thinking.)

Akratic situations can take many forms: eating a cookie vs. “becoming healthier” by sticking to a diet. Browsing the web vs. exercising. Staying in a bad relationship vs. moving on. Dreaming about a new business idea vs. testing it. Whenever you “should” do something, but resist doing it, you’re experiencing Akrasia.

Akrasia is a slippery problem, and there’s no easy, universal solution. That said, there are many strategies and techniques that are useful in preventing and resolving akratic situations, which we discuss in Chapter 7: Working With Yourself.

Questions About ‘Akrasia’

  • When do you tend to experience Akrasia?
  • What do you do when you notice an akratic situation?

“Some of the greatest battles will be fought within the silent chambers of your own soul.”

Ezra Taft Benson, former US Secretary of Agriculture