The Battle with Akrasia: Why We don't Follow Through on Our Plans and How to Overcome This Problem.
In 1908, a young writer and novelist, Franz Kafka, was promoted to the position of chief clerk at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague.
Prior to his promotion, Kafka would lament about his twelve-hour working shifts, which left no time for his writing.
2 years later, he landed the coveted “single shift” system. This meant that Kafka’s working hours would commence at 8 or 9 a.m. in the morning until 2 or 3 p.m. in the afternoon.
Kafka would go on to use these new free hours to write more and improve his productivity, or would he?
Instead of writing in his free time, Franz Kafka would procrastinate on writing. His daily procrastination routine included lunch, a four-hour-long nap until 7:30 pm, 10 minutes of exercise, a short walk, then dinner with his family.
After wasting several hours, Kafka would start writing around 11 pm; even though most of this time was spent writing diary entries and letters.
Kafka noted that at night he’d work, “depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o’clock, once even till six in the morning.” His last-minute routine left him struggling to go to sleep and arrive at the office on time.
Even worse, Kafka’s health began to spiral downwards to critical levels. In response to his fiancee’s letter of concern, Kafka replied:
“The present way is the only possible one; if I can’t bear it, so much the worse; but I will bear it somehow.” 
Kafka would write letters again lamenting that his working hours were holding him back from writing productively, despite the extra free hours he had available.
Although Franz Kafka is considered to be one of the most influential writers in the twentieth century—particularly through his famous story, “The Metamorphosis”—much of his writing has been left behind as unfinished works.
Had Kafka used this free time more productively, he could have finished writing his unfinished stories—some of which could have gone on to transform modern literature as we know it today.
It’s easy to point the finger at Kafka and criticise him for wasting his free time. If we’re being honest, we can also relate to the struggle of setting out to do something productive in our free time, but instead finding ourselves wasting hours doing something else.
Why do we act against our own best judgement and fail to follow through on what we set out to do? And what can we do about this?
Let’s discuss how to overcome this problem. The problem of Akrasia.
The Problem of Akrasia or “Weakness of Will”
Akrasia is a greek word, usually translated as ‘lack of self-control’, although the general term for its’ phenomenon is better known as weakness of will.
By definition, Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgment. Just like Kafka, Akrasia causes you to do one thing even though you planned to do something else.
This problem has existed for centuries, to the extent that Ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle debated the source of and the solution to Akrasia.
Unlike procrastination, which is the act of putting off doing a task immediately without deciding to do it later, Akrasia is a deeper issue.
It concerns the ‘feeling’ of what you ‘should’ be doing, without following it up with action—leading to frustration and beating yourself up for being unproductive.
If you’ve ever had a feeling that you “should” be doing something, but never did it i.e “I should be writing…exercising…studying…praying etc.,you’ve experienced the problem of Akrasia and the frustrations that come with struggling to follow through on what you set out to do.
Why can it be so hard to follow through on what you “should” be doing and what can you do about this?
Why do We Struggle with Akrasia?
There are several reasons why we may struggle with Akrasia. Some possible reasons, provided within the procrastination equation, include a lack of self-confidence and distractions preventing sufficient action.
Another possible reason for Akrasia, is the lack of commitment or “stakes” i.e. negative consequences of inaction.
The less painful the consequences of inaction, the more likely you’ll struggle with Akrasia.
A more plausible explanation for this problem is our tendency as human beings to place more value on rewards and instant gratification today than the future rewards from delaying gratification.
For example, let’s say you decide to start eating healthy and exercising regularly, you may not see the rewards of your consistent efforts for several months. In this case, you are actually making decisions today that will make your future self better off.
But there’s a problem.
When you are presented with a temptation right now, to eat that chocolate cake or skip a workout, your brain is only concerned about instant gratification for your current self instead of the consequences on your future self.
This tension is what often leads to the constant back and forth struggle of inconsistency with our goals.
The better we can exercise our self-control over the pull towards immediate gratification today at the expense of our future self, the easier it will be to overcome Akrasia.
How to Overcome Akrasia
Based on some of the reasons outlined as causes for Akrasia, here are some effective solutions to four of the major causes of this problem.
If you don’t have enough pre-commitment or “stakes” in place then consider:
- Joining an accountability group that will actually make you pay up a painful amount of money for inconsistency.
- Using the public to keep you accountable by sharing your progress with them. This is exactly what I’ve done to stay consistent with my writing. Many sleepless nights have been spent finishing an article because I didn’t want to fall short of my readers’ expectations.
- Writing out the painful consequences of inaction on your family, friends, life plans etc.
If you struggle with distractions, consider:
- Removing items around you that make bad decisions easier and good decisions harder. For example, if you struggle with phone app distractions during productive hours, you could move the app into a hard to reach folder in your phone. Designing your environment this way, will buy you more time to avoid making bad decisions and make it easier to make good ones.
- Creating a plan to work on your most important tasks when your energy and willpower are at their peak. This will help you to preserve your highest levels of willpower to resist immediate gratification during working hours.
If you struggle with delaying gratification and following through on your immediate plans:
- Use the strategy of “Implementation intention”to predetermine your behaviour ahead of time by stating where and when you will execute your plan. For example, in one study on the frequency of how often people exercise, researchers found that the group of adults who specified what, when and where they will exercise were up to 3 times more likely to exercise than those who don’t . Simply write out your plan in the format, “I will ____ for at least____ minutes on [DATE] in [PLACE] at [TIME].”
If you struggle with the overwhelm or fear of getting started, consider:
- Delegating the task to someone else who is more capable.
- Reducing the size of the habit, until it’s nearly impossible to say no to doing it.
- Joining a support peer group or forum dedicated to supporting you towards achieving your goals.
The Lifelong Battle With Akrasia
Akrasia and Procrastination work hand in hand to prevent us from enjoying a healthy and productive life.
Specifically, Akrasia is the force behind the constant nagging feeling of what we “should” be doing versus what we find ourselves actually doing.
Just like Franz Kafka, we often find ourselves filling up our free time with more unproductive tasks, working late last-minute hours and beating ourselves up for our lack of progress.
Our human desire for immediate gratification versus delayed gratification is one of the primary reasons behind this constant battle with Akrasia. The truth is it’s a lifelong battle with Akrasia, but it can be managed effectively.
Through use of different strategies including accountability, stakes, implementation intentions and environment design you can take control of your habits and productivity to live a healthy life.
In the end it’s the actions that count or better said in the words of Albert Einstein, “nothing happens until something moves.”
- Original story on Franz Kafka is from the Book, Daily Rituals.
- Exercise study on Implementation Intention. Milne, S., Orbell, S., and Sheeran, P. (2002). Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation: Protection motivation theory and implementation intentions. British Journal of Health Psychology, 7, 163-184.
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