Akrasia is failure of the imagination, not failure of the will: goals and planning with paper, timesheets, and tally marks

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I’ve noticed that System One seems to want to do things all in one motion. It wants the accomplishment of every goal to be as simple as extending your arm and hand to grasp a cup. Also, desire and “how,” ends and means, are intertwined: System One often does not make a distinction between X and “how to get X.” There’s just “Y,” which mixes those two things together.

If you’re bumping up against the seeming limitations of reality, I’ve found it tremendously helpful to explicitly split out “goal” and “planning.” I actually don’t even think about a single explicit GOAL. I simply have “goal time” and “planning time.” During goal time I only explore what I really want. During planning time I only explore how to get it. I can switch back and forth as many times as I want, but I have to spend at least six minutes before each switch. (I use six minutes because 6*5*2 = 60 minutes and then two sets of tally marks is one hour.)

For a single, broad, “goal-ish context,” like, I don’t know, fun+money+relationships (it should be bottom-up organic), I keep separate timesheets for goal time and planning time, as well as scratch paper per section, and some card stock for dividers and stiffness, all stapled together into a single packet.

I have a third section for “doing,” but I haven’t used it that much. If you spend time on “goals” and “planning” you may have some strong, unpleasant emotions for five minutes to 48 hours, depending on difficulty level. But then you might find yourself spontaneously and effortlessly springing into action.

Akrasia is failure of the imagination, not failure of the will. If I feel like I need to force myself to do anything, beyond some simple, painless behaviorism and bookkeeping, that sets off a blaring klaxon and flashing red lights that something’s gone horribly, horribly, horribly wrong. And I don’t stop messing around until the need for will goes way, way down to acceptably minimal levels. I try to use nearly 100% of my will to obviate the need for will. That scales.

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4 thoughts on “Akrasia is failure of the imagination, not failure of the will: goals and planning with paper, timesheets, and tally marks

  1. Thanks for this one, just when I needed it.
    I have spent the week doing activites that basically require ‘pushing through’ with will power to do them, at least for me, right now, and seemingly not getting anywhere. (I’m in the midst of a job-search, basically, with not much of a financial cushion beyond April.)
    Not sure what the ‘imaginative’ way out here is .. but at least you got me thinking about it. I’ve read alot of stuff about not “pushing through” on things… especially from p.j.eby and that All japanese all the time site (not sure if your’re familar with it) … but I seem to have a problem applying the insite …
    Then there is this entry from my journalling last weekend:

    One aspect that sometimes causes a sudden rise in mood and the feeling of a sudden LIGHTS ON insite is : a realization that
    you can just PUSH THROUGH in certain things, and this radically opens up the set of possiblities , since anything can be pushed
    thru. (example: weight-lifting myosynthesis.com : joint pain …. it worked!!, but also the immediate rise in mood upon deciding to do it!! )
    But, there is of course limited energy to push through things during any day.AND, there IS an expectation that “push” through will eventually yield to ‘momentum’ …
    I seem to be very seduced by this possibility, even though there are real limits to its sustainability, and I like to think that i am very rational in understanding the limits of ‘will power’, but I find myself in situations where i need it over and over, too often, really.

  2. When I used the term “imagination,” I maybe meant, “didn’t know what to do next but now you ‘mysteriously’ do,” or “find yourself in productive motion without even realizing it, except when reflecting back over the past ten minutes or three hours.”

    Money stuff is hardcore. Venkatesh Rao paraphrases: “Reality is that which you cannot ignore once you run out of money.”


    It’s been my experience, too, that you can pretty much push through anything. But, you only get so much of that each day. (And, it seems that you sometimes need *multiple* days to recover after a big push.)

    I’ve noticed too, though, that prolonged (days, weeks, months) of teeth-gritting and white-knuckling greatly narrows one’s behavioral repertoire. Like, ok, I’ve showed up for hard-or-shitty situation, but, like, I’ve still kind of shut down in the midst of it. I’m not performing. So, yeah, there are limits.

    Anyway, this post was about the curious phenomenon where the currency of the brain is time and emotion or maybe even just time. If you systematically focus on solving a problem, you’ve paid the fee, and your brain puts resources to work outside your conscious awareness. The more you pay, especially day after day, the more resources get designated. Sometimes you get nothing and sometimes you get surprised by ideas or effortless action.

    Indeed, “planning” by itself I believe has empirically been shown to increase working memory: if you come up with a believable, workable plan, your brain saves it off to be executed later, and you slowly realize you’ve become much smarter, because more of your processing power has been freed up for whatever you’re actually trying to focus on. If you don’t do the planning, your brain tries to get you to deliberately solve whatever isn’t “handled” and it chews away at the edges of your conscious mind and working memory.

    And, by splitting out “goal-ing” and “planning,” I seem to get some extra leverage, more bang for my buck, as it were.

    A couple hours of this (six minutes at a time, gently), clustered, but spread over about 48 hours, seems to take a great weight off my mind, if I haven’t done it for a while. I try to do this every single day.

    I hope this is helpful. Take care.

  3. Thanks.

    Yes, but even ‘hardcore’ stuff follows the same ‘energy-dynamics’ of more voluntary stuff, so its good to map the process out and see what raises energy and lowers it .. etc… its even more important, really.. (I’m a big fan of ribbonfarm, so yes, I remember that quote.)

    When you say ‘6 minutes’ , do you mean 6 minute ‘pomodoro’-type sessions where you focus all energy intensely?

    I do alot of ‘planning ‘ myself, but its different… I will do long ‘planning’ sessions 3-5 hours , (which allows for a more relaxed, ‘meditative’ pace.. which i find helps if you can avoid distractions … this is the opposite of the ‘pomodoro’ thing) I noticed that these sessions seem to give your brain a chance to ‘rehearse’ actions, and find connections between things etc.. Often the goal may not even be to make decisions to do anything in particular, but to let the ‘subject matter’ just wash over you for an extended period of time — you can read a book on the subject where the actual content is terrible or old, it doesn’t matter. This
    seems to ‘prepare’ the brain for doing the work later..

  4. I do mean six-minute pomodoro-style time periods. It doesn’t have to be super-intense, but that’s what you’re doing during that period. After recording the time spent, sometimes I take a mini-break before the next one, and sometimes I reset the timer and keep going.

    I agree the money stuff is the same. I was trying to empathize because… money stuff. 😦 🙂

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