Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Feb

Akrasia, or Why You Act Against Your Own Better Judgment

Akrasia: it’s the word of the day. It may be a 25¢ word, but it’s a concept with which we’re all familiar. Essentially, it’s acting against one’s own best interest. We’re not talking here about the noble, altruistic deeds that purposefully put others’ needs before our own. Akrasia encompasses that irrational, confounding state of mind in which we wittingly throw caution, reason, and consequences to the wind in order to pursue a choice we understand will be bad for us. In other words, we know better. In fact, we know pretty much exactly what repercussions will befall us. That chocolate donut in our hand, for example, will undoubtedly cause our IBS to flare up – or have us bemoaning the paunch look later. Staying up late to watch one more episode of Breaking Bad will leave us comatose in tomorrow’s big meeting. Skipping yet another workout keeps us on track to lose all the gains we’ve built up the last few months. Stewing over the day’s stresses and playing out angry scenarios in our heads will keep our kids and partner at arm’s length and us up half the night with stomach pain.

But damned if we don’t make the choice anyway. Why? What’s wrong with us that we go down these roads when we clearly understand the fallout? Is it temporary insanity? Delusion? Just human nature? Can we truly write off our responsibility so easily as that – “hominids will be hominids”? As much as we’re subject to evolutionarily honed instincts, I think we have enough higher order thinking skills to generally pull ourselves back from the brink when we’re so inclined.

Philosophers for millennia have proposed all manner of explanations and parameters for akrasia. We lose our footing in a convoluted jumble of justification gone awry. “Baser” instinctual appetites (e.g. for food, sex, risk) get the better of us. We tell ourselves a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Emotion trumps logic. We’re weak of will.

Modern science, on the other hand, has illuminated the battle for self-control in its own way. Willpower, experts say, is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. On the other hand, research also suggests it’s a finite supply each day. The more we resist temptation in a given day, the weaker our will gets as the day goes on. Setting ourselves up for success by avoiding as much temptation as we can and reducing the mental clutter of meaningless decisions (e.g. Should I buy the teddy bear or floral print paper towels?) can go a long way toward avoiding disruptive impulses and conserving our willpower resources.

Nonetheless, I think there’s more here. Akrasia as a state of mind suggests something deeper, perhaps more pervasive in our lives. The concept begs a more intimate study, a more individual inventory. When I’ve talked to readers, clients, and friends about what has held them back from embracing better choices – a better life overall – they offer profoundly personal chronicles. Sure, their accounts can generally be distilled into some core – and common – themes, but the power behind their tales is poignant and personal experience. It’s a story – not an abstraction.

When we examine why we’re occasionally – or not so occasionally – drawn to act against our best interest, I think it’s helpful to know the potential toward akrasia is universal. We’re all subject to the conflicting impulses and better spirits of our human heritage. The complexity that defines our exercise of free will at turns confounds, frustrates, and amazes. Yet, within this theoretical idea we find a more nuanced and telling version of our own journey (sometimes struggle) in cultivating healthy self-interest. If we’ve decided what rational self-interest looks like for our life, what do the forces that contest it look like in our imaginations – relics of the past or ambiguities of the present as they so often are? What shape do they take? What voices do they have?

Part of self-control is self understanding. Knowing the circumstances that test your confidence. Preempting the script that tends to play in your head when life gets tough or you have time on your hands. Only then can you divert the narrative, anticipate your needs, and genuinely tend to your weaknesses before they get the better of you. It’s about understanding within a circumstance that this, too, shall pass. The power to choose in full consciousness today determines who and what ultimately directs your overall life story.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Let me know your thoughts on today’s concept.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great post – I’m definitely guilty of staying up to watch Breaking Bad (awesome show), as well as finding myself purposeless yet consumed by my computer late at night, when I should be in bed. The workaholism is tired, so it just becomes a waste of time. Most everyone I know is admitting some kind of ‘internet addiction’ that fuels this kind of mindless connection. Anyone have good ideas for kicking this habit?

    Jess wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • f.lux + wake up at five AM every morning

      fixed the internet addiction for me; also get a jump rope and go to town on it, might be too cardio-ish but puts the akrasia impulses elsewhere for awhile

      trakan wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • f.lux is AMAZING. I recommend it almost everyone I know with insomnia issues. It’s so simple and easy on the eyes and FREE.

        Coincidentally, I am also up at 5am every morning to get my heart pumping. I’m not a morning person at all, but f.lux has made it easier to get to bed!

        Shona wrote on February 9th, 2012
        • f.lux is a great thing!

          Mike wrote on February 9th, 2012
        • What is f.lux?

          Lisa wrote on February 16th, 2012
        • Lisa:

          F.lux is pretty awesome. Robb Wolf recommended it last year at the Paleo Solution seminar in Toronto. I honestly think I sleep better after having installed it. I also work ALL day on my computer, so I have also noticed an improvement in what used to be almost constant eye strain after long sessions.

          From the website:

          “During the day, computer screens look good—they’re designed to look like the sun. But, at 9PM, 10PM, or 3AM, you probably shouldn’t be looking at the sun. F.lux fixes this: it makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day.”

          “It’s even possible that you’re staying up too late because of your computer. You could use f.lux because it makes you sleep better or because it simply makes your computer look better. f.lux makes your computer screen look like the room you’re in, all the time. When the sun sets, it makes your computer look like your indoor lights. In the morning, it makes things look like sunlight again.”

          “Tell f.lux what kind of lighting you have, and where you live. Then forget about it. F.lux will do the rest, automatically.”

          And it’s free. :) Was super easy to load and run.

          http://stereopsis.com/flux/

          Rosemary444 wrote on March 21st, 2012
    • Whats scary is I just started watching Breaking Bad on Netflix last night….Up too late, and I just so happen to have a meeting today. Ugh. But I had an epic breakfast and sipping on some Black tea should hold off the yawns for a bit.

      Franz wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Something pretty much identical was posted up on “The Art of Manliness”, if you want any more info.

      Nathan wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • My alarm clock has two alarms. One is set for 5:45 AM, and the other is set for 9:30 PM. When the PM one goes off, I have to get up from the couch to turn it off, and then I just get in bed. It keeps me honest, or I would never be able to keep a healthy sleep schedule on my own. And with a good night’s sleep I can do a better job of making good decisions the next day. Ooops, there it goes now. ‘Night all….

      Laura wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • This is a great idea! I’m not quite ready to give up the luxury, of sleeping whenever I like, that comes with retirement. I sleep very well and always get around 8 – 9 hours of restorative sleep. So, changes to my sleep pattern are not the highest priority right now. Heading for bed by midnight is as far as I am willing to set limits right now. I do like the idea of rising with the sun so when I am ready for that change I’m going to use your method of keeping honest. Thanks for sharing.

        rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • Brilliant!

        Mary wrote on June 28th, 2012
  2. Oooh subtle!!

    This is definitely one of those high level, adult skills which can only be cultivated through self awareness and unflinching honesty. For years I have wondered about my backsliding in the face of the best intentions and have longed for some wise blogger to give me the scoop on how to perfect my willpower.

    Thanks for this Mark. It is good to realize that this is a universal phenomenon and that the best way to deal with it is to up my awareness and pay attention to my triggers, so that I can fight the demons of Akrasia!

    Matt wrote on February 9th, 2012
  3. ha! seconds away from nicotine relapse and i find this! thanks mark, i am now gonna go buy a pound of jerky instead. day 12 and still going :D

    trakan wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • :)

      samui_sakana wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Awesome!

      Maureen wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Great job, keep it up!

      spincycle wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • If you do happen to relapse I recommend an e-cig or water filter. If you smoke, don’t forget the power of a coffee with your cigarette. The antioxidants should act as a shield.
      I haven’t quite kicked my bad brain-bubbling habits (lasted about a week after making resolutions) but am currently going the damage mitigation route.

      Animanarchy wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • One should be aware that coffee actually enhances the effects of nicotine and makes it more enjoyable, thus in my mind making the habit harder to drop. Short abstract here.
        http://biopsychiatry.com/cafnic.htm

        DComeauDC wrote on February 9th, 2012
        • Yes, that was my experience as well. When I quit smoking I also quit coffee for a while – switched to tea. Years later, after successfully avoiding smoking relapse long term, I resumed coffee.

          rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Bravo!

      Amy wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Fantastic! Quitting smoking was the best thing I EVER did for my health…and doing it Primal/Paleo made it SO much easier than previous attempts. It wipes out the munchies. Good job doing both – each makes the other easier, I promise! Great work!!

      Josh wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • I second that. Quitting smoking ROCKS. Best thing I have ever done for myself or my family by a long shot. Never stop quitting. Feb 2004 is my quit.

        Buffdv wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • thanks ya’ll for the words of encouragement! funny thing is though i’m actually using the munchies to my advantage; as of 12 days ago i weighed 147lbs, as of five minutes ago i weigh 152lbs. at 6’3″ this is a good thing, my ribs are getting harder to count :)

        trakan wrote on February 9th, 2012
        • I just found this and hope you are still doing well, trakan. I like the post “never stop quitting” – my quit date ended up being 5/9/97.
          Best wishes to you.

          Mary wrote on June 28th, 2012
  4. There’s a great book out there called “Change Anything: The Science of Personal Success” that looks at the antidote to this problem. It doesn’t mention the word “akrasia” but it seems to address how best to deal with bad choices. With anything, planning and strategizing go a long way. You also have to analyze the factors surrounding the things that make you fail in your attempt to resist the Taco Bell burrito. To use the Breaking Bad example…you look at the events surrounding your decision to stay up late. You notice that when this happens you are usually already at the TV set, you are enjoying a before bed snack, and you have not yet changed into your bedtime clothes. Now you start to mess with all of those factors. Instead of having your before bed snack in front of the TV, have it at the table and read a book or magazine to let yourself be entertained while you eat. See if that helps. If it does, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, work with the other two factors: change the clothes before the snack avoid the TV at a predetermined time….etc.

    Erik wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • This seems very workable. Thank you for the book recommendation!

      Joy Beer wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • just requested the book from my library. Thanks. I find that changing my diet has certainly changed my attitudes. I am much more positive and have no brain fog, so I am thinking about other aspects of my life, relationships and moving forward–now with a more determined outlook. Disorganization is a problem for me and focus, but if I can translate the focus I have on my new eating life into the rest of my life (which is the Primal Blueprint goal doncha’ know)moving forward even from 63 yrs old looks VERY exciting.

      janet wrote on February 9th, 2012
  5. Moderation is the key.

    Bearrund Downmountain wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • i tend to disagree — i find it much easier to be “perfect” than moderate.

      tess wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • Me, too. Usually.

        rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • Yes, I agree. I seem to be an all-or-nothing person.

        Lyndrea wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Everything in moderation. Including moderation.
      Oscar Wilde

      Barry wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • I’ve heard this attributed to everyone including Ben Franklin and Mark Twain. I would love to know who the true author was.

        Grok Doll wrote on February 9th, 2012
        • It was Twain I think.

          Sean wrote on February 9th, 2012
        • Be moderate in everything, including moderation.

          Horace Porter

          rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
        • Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.

          Oscar Wilde

          rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
  6. excellent — hope to see more articles like this

    tuned wrote on February 9th, 2012
  7. Wow, this came just after a night where I probably (or maybe definitely!) should have taken a pass on the repeat of The Colbert Report….and wondered AS I WAS MAKING THE CHOICE TO STAY UP why the heck I was doing that to myself.

    Knowledge is indeed power. Thanks for more knowledge. :-)

    deb wrote on February 9th, 2012
  8. Akrasia: fantastic addition to the lexicon.

    Will power within a day is certainly finite, because if the battle of not falling into a temptation rages on all day, the resolve weakens because the temptation is constantly on the mind. We typically act out the content of our thoughts; especially obsessions.

    I think it’s important, according to how much is within our power, to not place ourselves into circumstances that will inevitably cause failure, such as an ex-alcoholic walking into a bar.

    I still have many epic wars to wage against my inner demons.

    Excellent post Mark, and well written.

    Jared wrote on February 9th, 2012
  9. At one point I thought of going raw Vegan (though did not follow through). Overcoming cravings is a huge hurdle I was warned. But the experts and mentors have pretty effective methods – and I’ve found them applicable to all habits! Some of their points are:
    * your first day is the hardest – everyday after will be a little easier
    * your brain doesn’t really distinguish real and imaginary; so what you perceive as a desire for a donut, smoke, alcohol is really your brain going OCD in it’s most familiar thought patterns (of course their could also be chemical dependencies).
    * overcome that with EFT (the tapping treatment) alerts the brain that the real world is trying to get it’s attention and focus on what you are doing right now and that you decided not to do that other thing
    * you don’t want to dwell on ‘denial’ but rather replacing the stuff that is crappy with good stuff that can bring your body and mind (pleasure sensors) just as much satisfaction
    * it takes 21 days to form the new habit
    So their are a few ideas to avoid choosing to wrong things.

    RobG wrote on February 9th, 2012
  10. What a wonderful article! I always thought it was a conflict of self-love and self-pity, where self-love makes you do things that the self-pity whispers against. You know… ‘your life is so hard, boo-hoo, of course you can have some jam/chocolate bar/whatever, what other joys have you had today and will ever?”

    leida wrote on February 9th, 2012
  11. Akrasia–so nice to have a word to describe a very complex set of assumptions, decisions, personal biases and biological influences which sometimes help to make my life a little miserable.

    I guess this is where self-forgiveness and the concept of trying again come into play, to counteract the effects of akrasia.

    I will certainly continue to consider this post for the remainder of the day as I feel some ideas are just germinating as I am writing this reply.

    Thanks for the post, Mark. :-)

    Happycyclegirl wrote on February 9th, 2012
  12. Great post, Mark! This is exactly the sort of self-talk that enabled me to escape the self-destructive impulse of alcoholism two years ago. I think that part of our human nature, that cannot be denied, is that we are all naturally drawn toward pleasure and away from pain, a trait that allowed our species to survive for millenia.

    The trick I believe is to redirect our pleasure impulses toward stimuli that do not destroy our bodies and relationships. The problem with alcohol, sugar and drugs is that they can elicit a level of euphoria that is quick & easy and difficult to match naturally, e.g. the so-called “runner’s high” or fleeting endorphin rush.

    Primal Nicky wrote on February 9th, 2012
  13. Daniel Gilbert wrote a fantastic book which covers this topic, it’s called “stumbling on happiness”. I won’t go into it here as I won’t do it any kind of justice, but for further reading it presents a great start.

    Steve wrote on February 9th, 2012
  14. Good timing! I am to have lunch at a place where I know there will be nothing primal. Considering my options…

    Alison Golden wrote on February 9th, 2012
  15. “Part of self-control is self understanding.”

    I agree. I think we succumb to the not-so-healthy impulses when we want something to help us feel better. When we are tired, bored, stressed or in pain (emotional or physical), there’s a tendency to look to certain foods or other things that we think will lift us up. But if we can understand, “I’m just tired [or stressed/unhappy/bored because–fill in the blank]” then sometimes logic can take over again and we can remind ourselves, “sleep [or talking to a friend/exercising/enjoying a pleasant activity] is more likely to make me feel better in the long-run (and maybe in the short-term, too)than the unhealthy choice.

    DThalman wrote on February 9th, 2012
  16. Akrasia! So funny, I had a dream last night I was eating a big bowl of spagehetti (and not the squash variety). I was totally tripping in my dream but couldn’t stop eating. Anyone else have funny food dreams? I have been Primal almost a year.

    samui_sakana wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • *spaghetti

      samui_sakana wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • I had a dream last night that I was out to dinner with my dad where we ate onion rings and a whole cookie cake. I woke up and was like, “Haha, very funny dream subconscious! This girl ate a nice paleo stir-fry for dinner last night!” Dream cookie cake is pretty fantastic though, can’t lie ;)

        Emily Mekeel wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • I have funny cigarette dreams every few years. I used to be a cigarette smoker – a dumb, rebellious adolescent move on my part. Didn’t last long, thankfully. I went through a few quit/relapse cycles until I finally kicked it for good cold turkey 33 years ago. Have not had one single cigarette since then – not even one mental craving after the first week or so.

      However, after a few years I started having really fun dreams where I was having a great time smoking. The first one sorta appalled me – and then I thought about it. We do all sorts of things in our dreams that we would never do in waking hours. I think its just a safety mechanism of some sort.

      rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Upon further thought – and a nice walk around outside with the dogs – I’d like to mention a specific aspect of my previous thought about safety mechanisms in dreams.

      I believe that the “Universe” (if you will) sends us messages. Could be our own body, our “subconscious”, or maybe even something external that is trying to get our attention.

      For instance, if I were to start having frequent and/or dramatic dreams about carb foods, I might stop to consider that maybe I need to make a change. Maybe I need to try re-feeding.

      Or, maybe the message is more indirect. Like, I am experiencing a health issue and having a hard time figuring it out. The origin may be in a carb food that I no longer eat but the health issue still lingers.

      I think that its important to listen to these messages – but not over-react or jump to conclusions.

      rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Every once in a while. My reaction in the dream is “oh shoot!” And when I wake up it’s like, “Oh good, it wasn’t real!”

      carol wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • Yep, I do that, too.

        rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • I had a dream that Michelle from Nom Nom Paleo ripped up my Paleo Comfort Foods cookbook…weird.

      Andrea wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • That’s a good cookbook, isn’t it? I got a copy right away when I decided to go primal. I have a tendency to be an emotional eater and love comfort foods. So, I thought that I was hedging my bets by making sure that I could have comfort food if I needed it to stick with the diet. Then, I made the change and discovered that I didn’t need that sort of support. But, Its still an informative and fun cookbook so no regrets at all.

        rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Last night I had a dream where I had ordered a whole cow, but I had forgotten to ask that they butcher it for me! They delivered the whole cow and put it on my living room couch, and then I was trying to cut a piece from around the jaw line, but I kept running into bone. I was totally panicked that I wouldn’t be able to get any meat at all off this giant cow I had bought!

      Virginia wrote on February 10th, 2012
  17. In my opinion the fundamental solution to akrasia is commitment devices. If you’re into this kind of thing, check out StickK.com and Beeminder.com — handy tools for us akratics.

    [disclosure: i’m part of Beeminder]

    Daniel Reeves wrote on February 9th, 2012
  18. I have been reading a book on survival. In it, the author shares a technique he uses in his survival class if he has a student that balks at killing a small animal or cutting down a small tree. He gives them a piece of paper and pen to write to their loved ones. Then asks them to write something like this.

    Dear (fill in the blank) I love you dearly but I love this rabbit, tree, etc more so I am going to die out here and will not be able to see you again.

    I think this may be a technique we can use when we are thinking to do some self destructive act.

    I just do this in my head. Dear husband, I love you dearly but I love sitting in this comfy chair more and plan to never get up again. (I happen to be working on getting more exercise)

    Sharon wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • I’m in the same boat with getting off my butt. Once I’m home from work I have a really hard time doing anything other than vegging out.

      Think I’ll try some of those sentences.

      thanks.

      Sitara wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • LOL That’s a good one!

      rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Sharon, this is EXCELLENT! I’m copying this down and keeping it where I can see it daily. Thanks for your input.

      Terry wrote on February 9th, 2012
  19. I almost fell out when I saw the title of this post haha. I’m a philosophy major and learned all about akrasia last semester. Last semester was a whirlwind of stress and some personal set backs… I fell off the wagon and am now dealing with some extra pounds and really bad habits. Anyways, it was just funny to see this because ever since I learned this concept I’ve had sticky notes all over the place reminding myself to “overcome akrasia!” haha. Oh Plato, if only it were so simple to become less ignorant ;)

    sp wrote on February 9th, 2012
  20. Some would get inspiration and the wherewithal to make the right choices from the following:

    Romans 12:1-2
    1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

    Gary wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Matthew: “Watch and Pray, lest you enter into temptation”

      or

      Wilde: “I can resist everything except temptation”

      or

      Augustine

      “Lord, Make me chaste, but not yet”.

      Is one’s character focused on immediate or future gratification?

      Is one an adherer or a non-adherer?

      LeonRover wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Amen! The power of the Spirit over the cravings of the flesh. We fall, we get back up again!! 1 John 1:9

      Justin wrote on February 10th, 2012
  21. Giving up wheat helped. When I eat wheat there is a nagging craving for an unidentified something constantly in the back of my head. After a couple days without wheat it goes away. [I’m not cheating, it was an experiment to determine how I really react to wheat. Answer–badly.]

    Gail wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • My whole life, I have been a bread addict, leaving me hungry ALL THE TIME. I have always had this kind of push (nagging voice) behind me to eat, eat, eat. I have been Primal for a month now – and it’s the first time in 54 years that I have not been hungry. I still can’t believe that it’s happening. I am finally realizing that wheat is nasty.

      DEBRAKADABRA wrote on February 9th, 2012
      • Truly liberating, isn’t it?

        rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
        • Oh, and just think of all the diet pills, surgery, and other acts of desperation people resort to because of that nagging hunger.

          rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
  22. We act against our own instincts and rationality because a lot of times the paradigms and dogmas around us take the decisions.
    If we shut the noise from the outside down, our lives would be different.
    We are amazing right now, but think of the potential of doing anything you’ve ever wanted, not just a trip or some material things, but as human beings with a purpose. We would serve our purpose and through it we would get the happiness and love we want and need.

    Paul Alexander wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Well said. Sounds like freedom.

      Jason wrote on February 9th, 2012
  23. I think the most powerful thing we can do is set ourselves up for success. Last year I didn’t have cable and I didn’t miss it. This year, it came for free with my lease and I found myself wasting time watching tv when I KNEW there was something else I had to get done. The best remedy I found was to cancel the cable and once it was gone I felt stronger.

    Dana wrote on February 9th, 2012
  24. Sometimes I wonder.. should I go outside for a walk even though my legs need rest or keep sitting inhaling second hand smoke playing COD?

    Animanarchy wrote on February 9th, 2012
  25. Wonderful post. I read some of the studies in willpower depletion as a psych major in college, and have widely endorsed that concept since then, especially because it makes so much sense. So, imagine my surprise when I saw an article in the NYT recently that challenged this idea:
    GRAY MATTER
    Willpower: It’s in Your Head
    Serge Bloch
    By GREG WALTON and CAROL DWECK
    November 27, 2011

    Based on: Job, Dweck, and Walton
    “Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head?: Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation”, Psychological Science, November 2010 21: 1686-1693

    These scientists found that willpower is indeed limited, but *only if you think it is a limited resource*. In other words, if you believe that you have unlimited willpower, tasks that would deplete others do NOT deplete you! As reluctant as I am to part with my long-held excuse that I “use up” all my willpower during my workday and thus cannot reasonably be expected to keep making good choices when I get home, I may have to relinquish this. And this is a good thing–no more excuses. Will I still make some poor choices? Sure. Will I continue to justify it with science? Probably not–time to own those choices, and make peace with 80/20.

    MD_HealThyself wrote on February 9th, 2012
  26. Well, let’s look at the temptation of eating a donut: it makes absolutely no difference if you eat that one donut on that one day or not (in terms of gaining weight)…so, obviously it is more pleasurable to eat it and tell your body that you will not eat “other” donuts on “other” days. Of course then you do (cuz you have not taught yourself how to say know) and failure becomes your constant companion.

    Milemom wrote on February 9th, 2012
  27. Interesting post, but I think only the last example is true Akrasia. The others are more examples of short term pleasures vs. longer term costs (some could judge the taste of the donut as worth the IBS or weight gain). The last seems to impact life negatively no matter how you slice it. In other words, you’re paying for both short term and long term misery, not short term pleasure vs. long term misery, or short term pain vs. long term pleasure.

    John wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • The Classical philosophers saw in the earlier terms.

      Jen wrote on February 9th, 2012
  28. I have found that, over time, the more I deny myself a particular temptation, the easier it is to say no next time. And when I do make a conscious decision to indulge (i.e., deciding to have dessert on a rare outing to a very nice restaurant with friends), I find that it’s easier to control my portion and I have fewer cravings afterward. So I agree with the idea that willpower is like a muscle.

    Danielle wrote on February 9th, 2012
  29. Funny, I’ve been thinking about this all week. You can make a path for success, and you can warn yourself about all the things you shouldn’t do if you don’w want to fail . . . and then fail anyway, step by careful step. It’s so strange. “Lack of willpower” hardly covers it. It’s more like a second will, a will to fail, has taken over.

    I didn’t know there was a word for this, nor that akrasia was universal. But I agree that understanding the motivation behind it is the only way to shut it down. Sometimes I think it’s about self-punishment; other times about expressing frustration or anger. But it’s probably different for everyone.

    Having the right word for this experience is surprisingly meaningful. A few years back I stumbled across the word “Velleity” in a dictionary: it means “plans made without the intention to act.” I’ve been sort of haunted by the idea, feeling like every failure meant I wasn’t really serious about my good intentions in the first place. “Akrasia” is more active, and more useful.

    Weatherwax wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Found this really interesting. The concept of a “will to fail” really got me and I think it will stick with me. It’s an interesting and powerful way to put it.

      Fay wrote on February 9th, 2012
  30. Self understanding is definitely the key, however, in my professional experience as a coach, that means a lot more than what has been mentioned here so far. Changing one’s behavior is much easier when we understand our:

    1) Core beliefs
    2) Values
    3) Attitude
    4) Thoughts and feelings
    5) Choices
    6) Behavior
    7) How they all work together

    Willpower is somewhat like a muscle, but that muscle isn’t what makes changing easier. Making change easier also involves strategy, including how to deal with one’s own internal “operating system” as described by the 6 points above.

    Do you know what your own core beliefs, attitude and values really are? They’ll get you every time if you don’t!

    Jason Keen wrote on February 9th, 2012
  31. I’ve been frustrated lately by my bad choices, and the guilt that goes with it…Choosing to have the buttered bun or the cheesecake…I have the knowledge that Paleo is the best choice for me, I feel so much healthier, calmer, energetic, etc etc, Yet against all logic WHY am I choosing the buttered bun! It tortures me sometimes..

    Tonya L wrote on February 9th, 2012
  32. omigosh mark you are really so smart. yes, i have been going through this recently, refusal to do my workouts and some resurgent celiac. i know too much to go in to denial. ugh it is frustrating especially since there seems to be a continued attack on health nuts- that’s my take on it anyway. a refusal to eat many things combined with a focus on exercise- definitely makes you orthorexic. at least to the mainstream ppl.

    kathy wrote on February 9th, 2012
  33. Great scrabble word, but how does one pronounce it?

    roberta wrote on February 9th, 2012
  34. In the case of that donut, or any other wheat-based temptation (which I have sitting right in front of me all day at work), it’s worth remembering that some of the products of wheat digestion are categorized as “exorphins;” exogenous substances capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier and exerting the same neurological effects as endorphins. Addictive via the same mechanisms as opiates, though not as intensely.

    So it’s worth bearing in mind that you’re not just fighting a craving, in that case: you are fighting an actual chemical addiction. This is not meant to be an excuse for giving in. The better you know your enemy, the better equipped you are to combat it.

    Erik wrote on February 9th, 2012
  35. Interesting topic.

    As a human being, it does seem to me that there is something universal about human beings engaging in behavior that is incongruent with their belief system, goals, and objectives.

    We all do it. Or, at least I have yet to meet anyone who is completely free from these tendencies.

    I believe that Buddhists would call someone thus freed “enlightened”. But, even earth bound individuals like the Dalai Lama still struggle this way. So, my guess is that totally enlightened individuals are not often encountered in this realm.

    On the other hand, as someone with formal training in several related, relevant domains, I can attest to the fact that even the very notion of a “free will” has not yet arrived at consensus.

    Philosophers and scientists still study and debate notions like “free will”, “self-deception”, “self- defeating thoughts/behaviors”, and so on.

    No consensus has been established regarding the fundamental valence of human nature. One camp believes, as in the Socratic position described in the wikipedia link that Mark shared, that humans are fundamentally good by nature. Thus, the very idea that they would act against their own self interest is illogical/irrational.

    Other camps take a dimmer view of human nature. For example, Sigmund Freud – both philosopher and scientist – hypothesized the psycho-sexual stages of human development founded on the notion that humans are all born naturally irrational, selfish, self-destructive and so on – aka the “Id”.

    Self-control is just an illusion, anyway, if you listen to the Existentialists. We need to believe that we can actually control anything in life – because life is actually unpredictable and uncontrollable. We all have existential fears about death – the ultimate loss of self control.

    So forth and so on – ad nauseum, if you ask me on some days. Other days, not so much.

    I tend to take a pragmatic approach to minding my own behavior. While I enjoy the intellectual exercise of debating notions like free will, when it comes to my behavior I don’t expend much time or energy on them. I just realize that I will sometimes act in ways that are incongruent with my goals.

    I will also attempt to convince myself otherwise. So, I turn that “self-talk” on its head and use it to convince myself to stick to the plan. I also find viable methods that reduce urges – such as eating primal food reduces and (at least so far) virtually eliminates any urges to eat foods that I believe are bad for my health. I make a focused effort to create good habits that will withstand adverse circumstances.

    In other words, I look for ways to set myself up to succeed. If you don’t, you are potentially setting yourself up to fail.

    When I have lapses – I don’t waste energy ruminating over it or self-castigating. I just stop. I “boot strap” myself out of these dead ends and get back to doing better. I am always on the look out for new methods, too. Keeps life interesting and busy until I die :-).

    rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • “If you don’t, you are potentially setting yourself up to fail.”

      My poor word choice. Make that, “If I don’t, I am potentially setting myself up to fail.”

      rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
  36. Good post and lots of interesting comments!

    Related to the first donut comment, and since it hasn’t been explicitly stated I’ll share my method.

    As someone who has had strong addictions to sodas/energy drinks…it helped me to take it one day or one decision at a time. To think of each craving as an isolated instance, i.e. ‘All you have to do is say no now’ as opposed to thinking I’m giving it up forever. In addition I would think ‘If you can’t say no now, how will you ever say no later?’. As time went on I started to keep track of how long I had been saying no and making the right decision…the decision becomes automatic(and the cravings decrease).

    I also wanted to second the notion of giving up cable! I did this as a college student because I realized it was a sneaky time waster for me and removing the temptation/distraction was one of the best things I did! (Similar to only shopping the perimeter of the grocery store…don’t put the temptation in the house)

    Even now my wife and I don’t have cable and we find we’re so much happier with the things we get done. We do watch a lot of movies, but those are finite and count as planned ‘play’. =)

    Danny wrote on February 9th, 2012
  37. Three words:

    Girl

    Scout

    Cookies

    I recently stumbled upon this site (when I say recently, I am referring to last week). I am a Type 1 diabetic, and have devoured the Primal Blueprint book and been eating primally since last Wed or Thursday.

    What a difference even a week makes! My insulin requirements (remember, I am Type 1, so will likely always have to inject insulin, as my pancreas no longer has functioning beta cells) have been cut drastically and I have actually lost 5 lbs already (of my 17 total goal). I realize that may sound like too rapid of a weight loss, but I promise you it has happened through strict primal eating!

    Then the girl scout cookies arrived on Monday. Mind you, I ordered these in January just to be nice to some coworkers and had every intention of putting them directly in the kitchen for others. Ugh, but those thin mints have always been my weakness and are so darned good. So, despite great blood glucose control and 5 lbs easily melted off, “akrasia” kicked in yesterday and I ate some of those evil little thin mints.

    I am appalled at my behavior (and back on track today, thank you very much). But at least now I can put a name to what I am up against! Will power may be a learned behavior for sure, but with results like these, I feel strong enough to flex those will power muscles more often!

    tx girl wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • OMG, OMG, ROTFL!

      I can SOOO relate!

      I love those evil little thin mints, too – and its so easy to justify the purchase as helping those cute little scouts….

      Those thin mints always triggered food intolerances/allergies for me. Single handedly they can give me a nasty headache. Yet, year after year I persisted in caving in until I figured out ways to stop that cycle.

      Anyway, congrats to you on the progress that you’re making! Isn’t it wonderful to discover an effective and delicious way to promote better health – and so quickly and relatively easy, too?

      rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Be careful about devouring books, no matter how hungry you get. They have too much fiber, and are definitely not Primal. ;-)

      Philmont Scott wrote on March 21st, 2012
  38. “Staying up late to watch one more episode of Breaking Bad…”

    Are you reading my mind??

    Tim W wrote on February 9th, 2012
  39. What a fascinating read, Mark.

    How cool there’s a name for this thing we all do. I’ve found it really changes things when we know name for things we do and experience – it makes them real and tangible.

    I’ve found that embracing good choices leads to more of the same. Similarly, bad choices (of the akrasia variety) can lead to a slippery slope.

    When it comes to nutrition, there’s more to it. So we know from this blog. For example, carbs make you crave carbs. It’s a physiological phenomenon. And there are our own individual “gateway foods” – which you’ve written about. One of mine is chocolate. Eating some makes me want more. Better not to get started. Better to keep myself reigned in. So I’ve found.

    Looks like emotional reasons and physiological reasons are in the mix. Makes sense – since we’re made up of a mind and body.

    Great post! Going to tweet it now. The world needs to know this stuff!

    Susan Alexander wrote on February 9th, 2012
  40. “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
    And we never even know we have the key ”

    – Already Gone, by the Eagles

    People all around me live their lives in some chains. I chose long ago to free myself of them, but freedom doesn’t come without a price, and it’s the price of freedom that prevents most from freeing themselves.

    I freed myself from a toxic family – keeping your family at arm’s length is tough, I won’t lie. But it’s worth it if you have one that’s toxic.

    I freed myself from a mistaken marriage. Again, a tough road. I’ve quit jobs too. All those decisions that I made in self-interest were tough but so worth it. Those who are not as tough as I am are the lost souls who live their days under other peoples’ and society’s expectations and interests.

    That’s not living.

    HillsideGina wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • I so agree! Have done those things myself – including casting off those proverbial “Golden Handcuffs” altogether via early retirement.

      I like what the author Richard Bach said about family: “Rarely do members of the same family grow up under the same roof.”

      Other Bach quotes:

      “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.”

      “Allow the world to live as it chooses, and allow yourself to live as you choose.”

      “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.”

      “Ask yourself the secret of your success. Listen to your answer, and practice it.”

      “Avoid problems, and you’ll never be the one who overcame them.”

      “Bad things are not the worst things that can happen to us. Nothing is the worst thing that can happen to us!”

      rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012

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