The effect of acrasia: why we do not fulfill our plans, and what to do about it

Original author: James Clear
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Victor Hugo; The photograph was made by Etienne Qaryat in 1876

By the summer of 1830, Victor Hugo was faced with an impossible deadline. Twelve months earlier, the famous French author had agreed with his publisher that he would write a new book for him, “ Notre Dame de Paris ”.

But instead of working on a book, all year Hugo was engaged in other projects, entertained guests, and put off work with the text. His publisher became increasingly irritated by the continued procrastination of the author, and reacted by setting a frightening deadline for putting the book. He demanded that Hugo finish the book by February 1831 - that is, in less than six months.

Hugo has developed a plan to combat procrastination. He collected all the clothes, carried her out of the rooms and locked her. He had nothing more to wear except a big shawl. In the absence of suitable clothing to go outside, Hugo was no longer tempted to leave the house and be distracted. He could only stay at home and write.

The strategy worked. Every day, Hugo was sitting in his office, and wrote violently throughout the autumn and winter of 1830. "Notre Dame de Paris" was published two weeks before the deadline, January 14, 1831.

Human beings have been engaged in procrastination for centuries. Even such fruitful creators like Victor Hugo were not spared from the distracting aspects of everyday life. This problem is so old that the ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates and Aristotle, even invented a word to describe this behavior: acrasia .

In the state of acrasia, a person acts contrary to his convictions. This is when you do one thing, knowing that you have to do something else. Roughly speaking, acresia is a procrastination, or lack of self-control. Akrasia does not allow you to do what you have planned.

Why did Victor Hugo have to agree to write a book, and postpone it for a year? Why do we make plans, set deadlines, devote ourselves to achieving our goals, and then cannot implement all of this?

Why we make plans, but do not take action

One explanation of why acrasia governs our life, and procrastination delays, is associated with a term from the field of behavioral economics called “temporary inconsistency”. Temporary inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to appreciate an immediate reward higher than a delayed one.

When you make plans for yourself - set a goal to lose weight, write a book, learn a language - you make plans for the future of yourself. You imagine what kind of life you want for yourself in the future, and when you think about the future, it’s easy for your brain to see the value of actions that have long-term benefits.

But when it comes time to make a choice, you are not already acting for the future of yourself. You are in the present moment, and your brain thinks of you as the present. Researchers have found that the current “I” loves instant rewards, not long-term benefits. Therefore, you can go to bed with the motivation to change your life, and when you wake up, you feel like you are immersed in the old scheme of action. Your brain appreciates long-term benefits when they are in the future, but instant gratification when it comes to the present.

This is one of the reasons why the ability to postpone a reward well predicts success in life. Understanding how to resist the temptation of instant gratification — at least sometimes — can help you move from where you are to where you want to be.

The platform you need to combat procrastination

Here are three ways to overcome acrasia, defeat procrastination, and follow your plans.

Strategy 1: Work on your future actions.

When Victor Hugo closed all his clothes to concentrate on the letter, he created what psychologists call the “method of self-restraint”. Self-limiting methods are strategies that help improve your behavior through increasing barriers or the cost of misbehaving, or by reducing the effort that you need to spend on correct behavior.

You can curb food habits in the future, buying food in separate packages, and not in large quantities. You can stop wasting time on your smartphone by deleting games and apps for social networks. You can reduce the likelihood of mindless channel switching by hiding the TV in a closet and taking it out only to watch major sporting events. You may be asked to include you in the black lists of casinos and gaming sites to prevent future gambling jokes. You can create a savings account on a rainy day by setting up an automatic transfer of funds to it. All of these are self-limiting methods.

Circumstances change, but the meaning remains: methods of self-limitation can help you plan your actions in the future. Find a way to automate behavior in advance, instead of relying on willpower at the right moment. Build your future actions, instead of becoming their victim.

Strategy 2: reduce friction at the start

Guilt and irritation due to procrastination are usually stronger than job discontent. As Eliezer Yudkovsky said , “From the point of view of the current moment, being in work is usually not as unpleasant as being in procrastination.”

Why do we do procrastination? It's hard not to be at work, but to start it. The frictional force that prevents us from proceeding to action is usually connected in order to start doing something. Once you start it, it’s usually not so unpleasant to continue working. Therefore, when building a new type of behavior, it is often more important to develop a habit of starting to work than to worry about whether you will succeed in this work.

It is necessary to constantly reduce the size of habits. Direct all efforts and energy to the construction of the ritual, and make it so that it is as easy as possible to begin. Do not worry about the results until you have reached perfection in starting work.

Strategy 3: use intent to implement

The intention to implement is your statement of intent to show certain behavior at a certain time in the future. For example: "I will be engaged for at least 30 minutes of such and such a number in such and such a place at this and that."

Hundreds of successful studies demonstrate how intentions to implement have a positive effect on everything, from physical exercise habits to flu shots. In a study on vaccinations, scientists worked with a group of 3272 employees of an American company, and found that those who recorded a specific date and time for the planned flu vaccine received this vaccine with a much greater likelihood after a few weeks.

The statement that planning things in advance can somehow influence them seems simple, but it is proved that the intention to implement can increase the probability of an action in the future from 2 to 3 times.

Fighting acrasion

Our brain prefers instant reward delayed. This is a consequence of the work of our consciousness. Because of these tendencies, we often have to stoop to insane strategies for achieving goals - like Victor Hugo, for example, who has locked all things up so he can write a book. But I think it is worth spending time creating intentions for implementation if your goals are important to you.

Aristotle coined the term "encratia" as opposed to acrasia. Akraiya speaks of our inclination to become a victim of procrastination, encratia means to be "in control of oneself." Working through future actions, reducing friction at the beginning of proper behavior, and using intentions to implement are simple steps that can help you live your life in encratia, not in acrasia.

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