anti akrasia checklist and techniques

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

[New? Start here:]

First, I want to say that akrasia, by itself, is a functionally meaningless concept. I put it in the same category as depression, cancer, epilepsy, etc. Applying the label doesn’t tell you what to *do*. I don’t ever use the label “akrasia” in my own thinking.

I feel somewhat qualified to talk about this because I experience this state only transiently, and it’s pretty painless–I don’t beat myself up over it. I just systematically work through what’s actually going on, and I’m on my way.

If you are in a category that I’ve missed, let me know! If you think one of my “solutions” is lame, let me know! If you think I’ve missed a solution, let me know! This is a first pass, and it probably won’t be as empathetic and helpful and complete as I’d like it to be.

So let’s get to it: Some of these “problems,” as I’ve framed them, are “phenomenal” in that you can feel them. Others are more “outside viewy.” And all of them could be going on at once, and the boundaries blur, etc.

Problem: “You just can’t make yourself X.”

Explanation: You’re probably doing the wrong X, rather, you’re trying to do X the wrong way, in terms of how you believe X must be done. Let’s make X studying for a math test. Remember, there’s no such thing as studying for a math test. Or, there are in infinite number of ways to study for a math test. In fact, there are even an infinite number of ways to study for a math test that all look the same from the outside. In fact, there are probably an infinite number of *acceptable* ways to study for a math test just adjacent to your unacceptable way. In fact, there are probably an infinite number of ways to study for a math test that are near-optimal, for you. Consider that your rigid sense of “how to study for a math test” is, for whatever reason, not workable. And, your tacit “workability” detector knows this, and won’t let you proceed, because the outcome of your way of studying would be worse than not studying at all.

Solution: Ease into the moment-to-moment “how.” Don’t try to get into “study for your math test autopilot.” Pay attention to the “how” of your studying. Sometimes all it takes is a different feel inside. If the very thought of entering into X consciously is horrifying, then your issue is more likely one of the ones below.

Possibly useful:


Problem: You can’t get started on a long-term creative project.

Explanation: I’m going to hazard here that you’re trying to start a blog, or write a book, or start a business, etc. The issue here is that, once again, on some level you don’t believe that your project will succeed in whole, so you can’t muster the motivation to start. The solution is not to have a more detailed and precise plan, not to prove to yourself that it will work. I mean, if you can do that, go for it. But the future is almost always too uncertain.

Solution: As in the section above for very short-term things, the solution here is to once again focus on the feel of the “how.” Your sense of long-term “how to get from point A to point B” isn’t workable. Or, it provides absolutely no payoff until your final success. You need to find a way to extract legitimate value from more of the process, at least until uncertainty starts getting reduced (if ever). And that comes from leaning into the “how,” what feels right and good about doing what you’re doing right in this moment. I’m not talking about fooling yourself. I’m talking about cutting to the heart of what really actually matters, and doing that. Maybe you think you need to have marketing and sales and one hundred blog posts and a slick CSS template. And maybe you’re going ugh; none of that is why you care. But maybe you’re really trying to get a simple (or complex) message across, and, yes, you want to scale that message or make money from that message. But put your efforts into that message. Again it comes down to losing motivation on unnecessary pieces. Cut to the heart of what matters and start with that. Find the pieces that actually matter to you, strip away everything that doesn’t, and start there.

Again possibly useful


Problem: You brain doesn’t believe you’ll follow through.

Explanation: Your brain abhors wasted cognitive effort that could be used for something else. You need to give your brain believable structure so that it knows a current effort wouldn’t go into the void, a drop of water in a hurricane, meaningless. You want your actions to believably build on each other, you want traction, cumulative progress. Otherwise, why start?

Solution: Simple systems. Check out my timesheets, linked below. I use them in a few different ways.

1. Tracking time on task. When I use the timesheets for this, I log quarters of an hour for when a) I know I can’t possibly be interrupted, and b) I do nothing but X. If those two conditions hold, then I have a timer running. Doing this proves to myself that I have momentum, and, if nothing else, I’m honestly putting in my time for that day, and I can do nothing more. This isn’t the right strategy for lots of different things, but it can be the right one. I find that when I do this, for the right kinds of problems, I work more and longer, am more efficient, and I stress far less when I’m not working. My longest one of these clocked in at about 120 hours, which isn’t even that long, but it’s what I needed to get done.

2. Tracking atomic events. I have two different kinds of workouts that have evolved over many years. They are stable, so on the days that I do them, I just write down the name of the workout on a dedicated timesheet. I know about how often I should do them, so this gives me a lot of flexibility. And I don’t have to ever wonder if I should be doing them. And, if I need to skip, it’s painless to get back on track because I can see the huge amount of them that I’ve done already.

3. Tracking project touches. If I’m working on an artifact, even I don’t know what it is yet, I give it a letter. If it’s just a bunch of files and I have no idea what it’ll be, if anything, I stick it all in a digital directory and give the directory a letter. On an index, next to that letter I put a little text string about how to find that artifact in progress. Then, if I spend some time with it on a particular day, I’ll write down the letter on the timesheet. I have extra symbols for inception and completion. At a glance, I can see that I haven’t touched a story draft in six days, or whatever. Things that are “live” don’t get lost, and even if I have no idea what something is, yet, it still won’t get lost. This is separate from my GTD-esque system which has a very different internal “feel” to it. Different brain systems, or something. Anyway, something ephemeral, that would otherwise become lost, becomes a “thing”, and I don’t even have to know what it’ll eventually be.

Possibly useful

Possibly useful [timesheets]:


Problem: You just don’t want to do X. It’s fundamentally aversive, you feel like you’re being torn apart inside when you try to do it or you even think about trying to do it.

Explanation: Well you probably don’t want to do X. It’s probably stupid. But, from an outside perspective, it doesn’t tear most people apart, so something’s probably up. My guess is that a part of you feels that the act of doing X will reveal or confirm a feared truth about you or the world. This happening would be so bad that not doing X is far preferable to doing X, regardless of the damage not doing X would cause. Try to simulate what would happen if you actually did X: Especially if you go numb, or your brain goes slippery, this could be what’s going on.

Solution: The long-term solution (which *might* be a pretty fast fix) is Coherence Therapy. (I am not a licensed mental health professional, etc., etc. This is not mental health advice.) Not including beating yourself up about not doing X, if doing X or trying to do X just *kills* you, is *nightmarish,* impossible, this is probably what’s going on. If you can’t nail it on your own, find a wicked-smart therapist who can help you frame what’s going on. They are rare but they exist.

Possibly useful:


Problem: You can’t seem to focus on X for very long. Head’s not in the game.

Explanation: You are probably solving a huge problem, e.g., on the order of you’re gay or genderqueer and you’re not living the right life, or you have no long-term, self-believable career prospects, or you don’t have the kind of friendships you need, and/or something else deeply, precisely personal. Or, modern culture just doesn’t line up with your nature and nurture, you haven’t found a good fit yet, if you ever will, even if you solve all your fears and neuroses and inaccurate beliefs. This is the kind of problem where if you don’t solve it or least feel like you’re moving forward on it, nothing else matters, so you do just the minimum in life that you can live with, while all the rest of your time is waiting (e.g. in front of the TV) or trying to solve the problem. These are the sorts of problems that subtly pervade your entire life and consume massive, massive, MASSIVE computational resources in your brain, and you’re not even necessarily aware of it because you’ve felt this way forever or it crept up on you slowly. If you’ve “fucked up your life,” or you’re always on the verge of fucking up your life, or, if you’ve “succeeded in spite of yourself,” or you’re a master of “just enough self-sabotage,” or you’re not living up to your own sense of your potential, then this might be you.

Solution: Lame, but: Be gentle with yourself. Yes, ideally you could get this figured out while not destroying your life. Your life might even look pretty much the same after you get this figured out. Yes, the problem might not even be what you think it is. But, thing is, something is wrong. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a quick easy fix (or a long, dedicated, patient fix), but something is wrong. Even if you can’t put it into words, or even if you can (and then the words no longer quite fit three hours later), something is wrong. And you’re the one living through it. Friends, therapy, finding a therapist who’s at least as smart as you, books, targeted random acts of experimentation, internet searching, yeah, it’s going to eat up a lot of time and mental energy. It helps to explicitly acknowledge that you’re in problem solving mode, so you’re at least not doubly beating yourself up for destroying your life or whatever, and you can try to aim more directly at the problem, as ridiculously slippery as it is.

(As for myself, I’ve been chipping away at one of these for over a decade. It’s affected my career, friendships, relationships, everything. I’ve had the privilege, the luxury, of devoting lots of my time and energy to my issues, lots of navel-gazing. But not everything has that luxury, and, even if you do, like me, you’ve probably experienced great personal cost. It’s not fair. Life is harder. People who can plug into work and culture easily don’t get it.)

A partial solution is to become viciously good at time management and managing your cognitive resources. See below.


Problem: Health.

Solution: Solve your health issues and/or eat smarter and/or sleep smarter. Yes, some of it might be psychosomatic or psychogenic. But if you can’t sleep or you’re experiencing unrefreshing sleep, or you’ve got brain fog, etc… And if you’re solving some big problem (see above) the last thing you want to do is expend cognitive or monetary resources on health stuff. But, everything is so much EASIER when you don’t have subclinical sleep apnea and a massive h. pylori infection. (A result of multiple other issues outside of my control, self-diagnosed, self-treated, YMMV, etc., etc.). You have much more energy to do mundane life stuff *and* the stuff you care about/need to do, if you get these things fixed.

Having more time/mental energy for the above can be achieved by becoming viciously good at time management and managing your cognitive resources. See below.


Problem: Zeigarnik overload [I made up this term]. Ok, so maybe you don’t have good capture and processing systems for all the stuff flowing through your work life and personal life. If your head is swimming then it’s harder to do any one thing.

Solution: Something GTD-esque, that isn’t annoying, that actually works for you. When stuff is “handled,” even if it’s not done, then it consumes less unconscious resources and you can do the stuff you’re “supposed” to be doing more easily. Personally, I pretty much live off of paper and index cards because visible, tangible stuff reduces use of cognitive resources (for me) which I can use for other things. I don’t precisely use the GTD buckets, and you have to be careful with GTD because it can actually cause “akrasia” by making “what needs to be done” too rigid and inflexible. But it can also free you. Double-edged sword.

Possibly useful

Possibly useful

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Anyway, this is just a first pass. I use all of this stuff and I (transiently, and in one case ongoing) experience all these things. I’m curious if the above is helpful or not helpful to anybody. If you read this and are just like, “Nope,” I would really like to talk with you to see what I’m not getting. I know much more than I can say, so I might have something useful for you. And I won’t be an arrogant dumbass and try to tell you “what you’re doing wrong” or something idiotic like that.

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4 thoughts on “anti akrasia checklist and techniques

  1. Also: I am presently dealing with an inability to stick to a healthy eating plan; I do fine in the first part of the day and then just blither into rationalized crap-eating by the end of the day. My plan today is to try very hard to apply your pay-very-close-attention-to-what-is-going-on-with-me-while-it-is-happening strategy.

  2. Something you might have missed. I just finished a long-term creative project. And was immensely motivated to get it done, and it did get done. And now there is just emptiness inside, no fire, no drive. Everything feels void in a way and there is no desire to actually work on anything else. (Even though I recognise there are other important/fun things to work on.)

  3. Hmm, no comment at this time. But I think that’s “normal” or usual. I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen it written about in other places. It usually seems to be temporary. Actually, you may want to read this new Ribbonfarm post:

    In the language of that post, perhaps you became oversubscribed to a particular finite game. You beat that finite game without it being a part of a larger, infinite game. So in beating that particular finite game, you did not produce, encourage, sustain freedom to win in a larger sense? Eh, maybe.

    But, congratulations! That is a good problem to have!!!

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