Akrasia, the planner self and lazy self

Jill Renaud & Daniel Reeves — №13 with Graham Allcott

Many of us have a problem following through on our intentions. And it’s more than just a difficulty in predicting our future desires. It’s not like “Gee, I thought I wanted to get in shape but it turned out there was always something really good on TV!” No, even in hindsight, you regret not doing what you said you wanted to do. It’s not even that you’re merely conflicted about what you want. The trade-off you made — more TV watched, still not in shape — was patently ridiculous. You somehow don’t do what you genuinely want to do.

What is Akrasia?

Philosophers back to Plato and Aristotle have a fancy term for this paradoxical failure of the will: akrasia. It encompasses procrastination, lack of self-control, lack of follow-through, and any kind of addictive behavior. Another way to define akrasia is by generalizing from procrastination to include preproperation as well. Procrastination is the irrational delay of tasks with immediate cost and delayed benefit. Preproperation is the irrational not delaying of (overindulgence in) activities with immediate benefit and delayed cost. People who suffer from akrasia are often chronic planners — they say “I will do x, y, and z tomorrow” and instead do a, b, and c.

How do we solve this problem? The answer is self-binding, that is, the use of commitment devices.

The term commitment device is from game theory and applies to strategic situations. It refers to a way of changing one’s own incentives to make an otherwise empty threat or promise credible. But it’s hard to characterize as rational the use of self-binding with no one but oneself… until you appreciate that there’s in fact more than just one self.

The first self is the planner, who wants you to lose weight, clean the house, watch less TV, and be more productive overall. The second self is you in the now, who wants to eat candy, drop their clothes on the ground, watch TV, and laze about. The You that the planner wants to be is often in direct conflict with the lazy “now” You. Why do today what can be put off until tomorrow?

So what’s the antidote? There’s an endless stream of advice about how to beat akrasia but most of it misses a very fundamental point that renders it nearly useless: The lazy now self that thwarts your intentions is every bit as smart as your planner self. You can make lists and set rewards and break tasks into small chunks, or plan diets and buy treadmills and establish routines, but mostly your lazy self will see right through all the tricks and just won’t give a damn. That version of yourself just wants to surf the web and/or eat pie. So that’s what you do, when the chips are down.

The only way to be immune to lazy-you thumbing its nose at your planned intentions is self-binding with commitment devices. Successful anti-akrasia tricks will involve commitment devices. That’s because, by definition, a commitment device meaningfully constrains your recalcitrant lazy self’s actions.

Commitment contracts allow you to make a “law” related to a goal that you want to achieve — if you fail to meet your goal, you must pay a penalty. If you opt for it, the penalty is a monetary fee.

Since these devices make it possible to discipline your lazy self, your planner self has a chance to reach its goals. Allowing for external punishments of your lazy self, you slowly become the person you want to be. Even your lazy self likely doesn’t want to give money to a stranger just so that they can sit on the couch.

6 steps to thwarting your lazy self:

  1. Make a contract (with one of these tools) that involves something measurable. For example, your weight, distance run or time spent doing certain actions. You need to commit to recording/reporting values for this daily to effectively track your progress.

  2. Graph all of your fancy data so that you can easily visualize your progress. You can use Excel or a pencil and paper or a tracking program.

  3. Look at your graph for trends. For example, just because your weight goes up one day doesn’t mean that you’re failing to meet your goal. Daily weight fluctuates. Consistent (daily) measurements allow you to discern a meaningful trend from your data.

  4. Based on the trends, identify what’s working for you and what isn’t. If you see that you may fail to meet your current goal as long as you’re still making progress in the right direction!

  5. Share your progress with a loved one or friend. Having a friend to cheer you on really can help!

  6. Reward yourself if you meet your goal! If you fail to meet your goal, pony up the money to whoever you made the contract with and try again.

With the use of commitment devices, the “planner” You can defeat the “lazy” You.

Photo: © Anton Brand / Shutterstock

J renaud and d reeves

Jill Renaud & Daniel Reeves

Jill Renaud works on the Beeminder support team. She got interested in the company as she wanted to get in better shape.
Daniel Reeves is the Co-founder of Beeminder.com. He worked as a research scientist at Yahoo on incentive systems. This makes him a (self-proclaimed-but-he’s-kinda-serious) Expert on Akrasia.

Visit Beeminder's web site Follow Daniel on Twitter