Akrasia is a socially convenient narrative: “I, the real me I identify with, wanted to do this thing, but some mysterious thing, which is not the real me and which I don’t identify with, prevented me from doing it.” One way of describing what’s happening is that you’re identifying with your System 2 and distancing yourself from your System 1 so you can lay the blame on it.
But your System 1 is where your motivation comes from, especially your deepest motivation; it’s where you love from, it’s where you defend your loved ones from, etc. It is you, not just a subsystem of you that you have to wrangle. You are the elephant too, not just the rider.
So you don’t “have akrasia,” you didn’t want to do the thing, and there’s some social / psychological weirdness around admitting that fact to yourself or others. You can further try to figure out why you didn’t want to do it and whether you could want to do it later, but that’s secondary to just admitting to yourself that you didn’t want to do the thing.
Sufferers do things despite thinking they’re bad decisions. They tend to be things that bring small amounts of happiness in the short term, but other times they seem to do nothing more than alleviate boredom. Some examples are simple games, and classifying literary devices. It’s not uncommon for the victims to spend most of their lives on unproductive things.
Antipleasure is a rare disease in which a victim’s happiness is so low that they would prefer the events not have happened in the first place. Not simply that it’s replaced with an average event, but removed altogether. It can be short but powerful, commonly triggered by physical damage, long and weak, generally triggered by psychological issues, or in rare cases, long and powerful, triggered by such things as kidney stones and jellyfish venom. In extreme cases, sufferers have been known to take their own lives.
This affliction causes the victims to atrophy. The damage gets more extreme, eventually leading to death. No victim has ever survived longer than 122 years.
People afflicted with this syndrome can generally heal from small wounds, but large enough wounds, along with several other possibilities, lead to them degrading into inert matter. The victims go to great lengths to postpone this unimaginably horrific fate, but it’s believed to be impossible to prevent completely.
Akrasia cure: Self-cast the imperius curse.
Akrasia is the tendency to act against your own long-term interests
No, akrasia is acting against your better judgment. This comes apart from imprudence in both directions: (i) someone may be non-akratically imprudent, if they whole-heartedly endorse being biased towards the near; (ii) we may be akratic by failing to act according to other norms (besides prudence) that we reflectively endorse, e.g. morality.
I tried creating a separate login on my computer with no distractions, and tried to get my work done there. This reduced my productivity because it increased the cost of switching back from procrastinating to working. I would have thought that recovering in large bites and working in large bites would have been more efficient, but apparently no, it’s not.
I’m currently testing the hypothesis that reading fiction (possibly reading anything?) comes out of my energy-to-work-on-the-book budget.
Next up to try: Pick up a CPAP machine off Craigslist.
Akrasia-related but not yet on lesswrong. Perhaps someone will incorporate these in the next akrasia round-up:
1) Fogg model of behavior. Fogg’s methods beat akrasia because he avoids dealing with motivation. Like “execute by default”, you simply make a habit by tacking some very easy to perform task onto something you already do. Here is a slideshare that explains his “tiny habits” and an online, guided walkthrough course. When I took the course, I did the actions each day, and usually more than those actions. (IE every time I sat down, I plugged in my drawing tablet, which got me doing digital art basically automatically unless I could think of something much more important to do). For those who don’t want to click through, here are example “tiny habits” which over time can become larger habits: “After I brush, I will floss one tooth.” “After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.” “After I walk in my door from work, I will get out my workout clothes.” “After I sit down on the train, I will open my sketch notebook.” “After I put my head on the pillow, I will think of one good thing from my day.” “After I arrive home, I will hang my keys up by the door.”
2) The Practicing Mind. The author confronts the relatively mundane nature of most productive human activity. He works on pianos for a living, doing some of the most repetitive work imaginable. As he says: “out of sheer survival, I began to develop an ability to get lost in the process of doing something.” In general, I think the book details the way a person ought to approach work: being “present” with the work, focused on the process and not the product, being evaluative and not judgmental about work, to not try too hard but instead let yourself work.
I’ll share one concrete suggestion. Work slowly. “[S]lowness… is a paradox. What I mean by slow is that you work at a pace that a
Akrasia doesn’t begin to describe the problem. I’m going to quote a line from HPMoR that resonated strongly with me:
“You could call it heroic responsibility, maybe,” Harry Potter said. “Not like the usual sort. It means that whatever happens, no matter what, it’s always your fault. Even if you tell Professor McGonagall, she’s not responsible for what happens, you are. Following the school rules isn’t an excuse, someone else being in charge isn’t an excuse, even trying your best isn’t an excuse. There just aren’t any excuses, you’ve got to get the job done no matter what.”
I get heroic responsibility. I’ve felt it in my gut since I was five. When I was 13, and it finally dawned on me that everyone around me was miserable and terrified and angry because the God they were praying to wasn’t listening, my immediate resolution was to abandon worshipping him, and attempt to become a better God myself.
But, some of us aren’t as smart as others, or as charismatic, or as willful, or as physically or mentally strong or resilient. We hear the call, but we don’t have what it takes to answer it properly.
And that’s our fault, too.
And we can’t just stop listening. Not knowing that people need saving isn’t any more of an excuse than not being strong enough to save them. Re-wiring your mind to not feel the crushing need to save them is ALSO a cop-out.
So… yeah. And lest anyone think I’m trying to be self-congratulatory here about my “superior morality”, please understand that I am most assuredly not doing it right—this is a bug, not a feature.
Akrasia, pure and simple. Procrastination is my fiercest foe.
Akrasia can strike anywhere, but one place it doesn’t seem to strike too often or too severly, assuming you are employed, is in the work place. You may not want to do something, and it might take considerable willpower to perform a task, but unless you want to get fired you can’t always play Solitaire.
Akrasia struck all the time back when I was working at (gasp!) Burger King. There were employees and managers that would follow this behavior. “Well, I should do this because it is what my employer wants, but...” The trick is to do as little as possible without getting fired. Lying helps.
This is the biggest issue I have with some of the punishment/penalty systems suggested in the comments is that they teach people not to get caught instead of doing whatever it was they were supposed to be done. The clock Alicorn linked to is a minor example, but the workaround is to turn the clock off and sleep anyway. Most punishment systems have similar problems.
Eliezer, you mentioned suffering from writer’s molasses and your solution was to write daily on ob/lw. I consider this a clever and successful overcoming of akrasia. What other success stories from your life in relation to akrasia could you share?
(Akrasia, because that’s all I ever talk about):
I do not know to whose attention I should bring this so as to combat the problem, so I’m asking here:
I have a stupidly difficult time talking to people, too, especially my parents (who pretty much have to manage all the details, because of course they do). This does not help.
Yes, I’ve read all the Akrasia articles on Lesswrong that I can find. Mostly, I’m hoping there’s someone better equipped to fix this than me or the internet, and that someone can help me find that entity and extract a solution from them.
(But if that someone happens to post the solution here, first, that’d be nice. Although turning it into an arduous quest through the temple of doom seems like it could only help, assuming no crippling injuries along the way.)
“Akratics”, I think.
Akrasia is a big topic here because it seems to be a common problem. However, excessive impulsiveness can also be a problem.
It’s possible to think of impulsiveness as a sort of akrasia—it’s habitually insufficient effort put into self-regulation. However, doing something without thought has a different feel than low-energy time-killing, and probably requires a somewhat different approach to deal with it.
And there are sorts of irrationality which aren’t very much like either. There’s lost goals, and there’s insufficient research—doing something because you’d heard somewhere that it was a good idea without checking on how well-founded the theory was or whether your life is getting improved.
I have no reason to think this is a complete typology.
Akrasia is an applause light.
Or perhaps a fake explanation or a mysterious answer.
“Why am I not doing X?”
“Because you suffer from the not-doing-the-thing syndrome, which people educated in Latin call ‘akrasia’.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious, you solved my problem!”
“Actually, I am a Captain Knows-One-Latin-Word, but you are welcome!”
Akrasia is getting stuck in a local optimum. It’s more pleasant to spend the next instant surfing the internet than writing your paper, so that’s what many simple optimizing algorithms (such as a hill-climbing algorithm) will end up doing, rather than “discover” that having finished the paper will be even better.
Akrasia has been talked about a lot, with little progress. This approach doesn’t seem useful, maybe because it’s solving the wrong problem. You are right about my comment being too general, though, and I retract the claim as stated.
Akrasia is already a huge problem for a lot of rationalists. If you increase the filter for which actions can be taken you are likely get less actions taking in general and might reinforce already existing akrasia.
Akrasia might just be a symptom of depression rather than something more complex.
Akrasia has been talked about a lot, with little progress.
Agreed that this strongly argues against thinking up new amazing solutions just to put them in comments to the post. (“Hold off on proposing solutions” seems usually misused. An injunction closer to the present topic is Beware of Other-Optimizing.)
Akrasia’s a big problem for me.
Me too, but I’d hate, hate, hate someone running my life beyond the basic (friendly) pressure to study and give a helping hand that my parents put on me, so I’d consider it hypocritical to support a system of direct coercion in society, like the apprenticeship in medieval guilds.
Of course it’s a shame if people, through mistakes or demotivation, can’t set foot upon a path contributive to society, but I consider it to be beneath the modern civilization to just drag people to where some expert wants them to be. There should be some kind of positive stimulus for everyone that’s simultaneously not turning things into a ruthless meritocratic race (e.g. the government coaxing some performance out of unmotivated young people with harmless drugs instead of the career and status they don’t care about would still be unethical at the core).
That’s one of the reasons why I’m so attracted to Socialist thought; it has wrestled long and hard with the problem of motivation, although it has produced nothing solid but various criticism of the existing solutions.
a more authoritarian parent who set goals and boundaries and so on
It’s very understandable that you don’t want to disclose private things, but this sentence tells nothing. What kinds of “goals” or “boundaries” would you consider acceptable, and from whom? (If the answers are like “Don’t smoke weed while you live with your parents if they order you not to, although it shouldn’t concern the government”, then your view is utterly mainstream, of course. If it’s “Parents can forbid you to look at any porn until you’re 18 just because it’s in the law”, then I disagree. Sexual excitement is a basic human need while drugs aren’t. Although some personality types DO seem to need an addiction, maybe for an additional reward structure in their life, more than others. Mine is INFP by the way, what’s yours?)
EDIT: Dear downvoter, please cut this out. If you really, really want to punish me for “f