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.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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119 thoughts on “Akrasia, or Why You Act Against Your Own Better Judgment”

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  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?

    1. 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

      1. 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!

        1. 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.


    2. 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.

    3. Something pretty much identical was posted up on “The Art of Manliness”, if you want any more info.

    4. 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….

      1. 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.

  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!

  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 😀

    1. 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.

        1. 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.

    2. 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!!

      1. 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.

      2. 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 🙂

        1. 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.

  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.

    1. This seems very workable. Thank you for the book recommendation!

    2. 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.

    1. i tend to disagree — i find it much easier to be “perfect” than moderate.

      1. I’ve heard this attributed to everyone including Ben Franklin and Mark Twain. I would love to know who the true author was.

        1. Be moderate in everything, including moderation.

          Horace Porter

        2. Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.

          Oscar Wilde

  5. 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. 🙂

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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?”

  9. 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. 🙂

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. “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.

  13. 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.

      1. 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 😉

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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!”

    4. I had a dream that Michelle from Nom Nom Paleo ripped up my Paleo Comfort Foods cookbook…weird.

      1. 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.

    5. 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!

  14. 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]

  15. 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)

    1. 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.


    2. Sharon, this is EXCELLENT! I’m copying this down and keeping it where I can see it daily. Thanks for your input.

  16. 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 😉

  17. 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.

    1. Matthew: “Watch and Pray, lest you enter into temptation”


      Wilde: “I can resist everything except temptation”



      “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?

    2. Amen! The power of the Spirit over the cravings of the flesh. We fall, we get back up again!! 1 John 1:9

  18. 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.]

    1. 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.

        1. Oh, and just think of all the diet pills, surgery, and other acts of desperation people resort to because of that nagging hunger.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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?

  22. 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:
    Willpower: It’s in Your Head
    Serge Bloch
    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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

    1. 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.

  27. 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!

  28. 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..

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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 :-).

    1. “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.”

  32. 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’. =)

  33. Three words:




    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!

    1. 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?

    2. Be careful about devouring books, no matter how hungry you get. They have too much fiber, and are definitely not Primal. 😉

  34. “Staying up late to watch one more episode of Breaking Bad…”

    Are you reading my mind??

  35. 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!

  36. “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.

    1. 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!”

  37. Great timing for this post! Just last night I was browsing my favourite forum until 3AM last night when I knew I had to be up by 8. Damn my laptop!

  38. As a relatively new Grokette, I have a few thoughts about this. Every other “diet” or fitness goal I have ever set for myself has barely ever reached takeoff. I look forward for reasons to avoid exercising and cheating. Since starting this three months ago, it has been dramatically the opposite. I am petrified of accidentally eating non-primal food or being in a social situation where I have to eat something I don’t want. The difference is that the primal lifestyle is intensely rewarding. I had trouble sticking to a way of life that did not reward me. Now when I look back on it that way, I’m willing to re-classify myself as a person with the willpower to stay healthy, but poor willpower to things that make me feel bad.

    That being said, I am TERRIBLE about staying awake too late, even though the effects are so obvious the next day. With this article in mind, I am going to work on that.

    Thanks for everything, Mark.

  39. I was so taken with this will to fail idea that I googled it and came across a recommendation for a book by Dorothea Brande called Wake Up and Live! Has anyone read this? Here’s an excerpt:

    Failure indicates that energy has been poured into the wrong channel.

    It takes energy to fail. A powerful struggle must be waged against the forces of life and movement in order to remain inert, although this struggle takes place so far beneath the surface of our lives that we do not always become aware of it. Physical inaction is no true sign that life-force is not being burned away. So even the idler is using fuel while they dream.

    All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail. That is the talisman, the formula, the command of right-about-face which turns us from failure towards success.

    Success, for any sane adult, is exactly equivalent to doing one’s best. What that best may be, what its farthest reaches may include, we can discover only by freeing ourselves completely from the Will to Fail.

    1. Have not read this book – but it sounds like a good one to put on the reading list. Thanks for sharing.

      I was thinking thoughts along these lines when I read the other comments about “will to fail”.

      There’s a saying – where mind goes, there energy flows. Its sorta like the saying – whatever we subsidize we get more of. When we invest energy in the idea of failure it makes failure more likely. That’s why I don’t ruminate on lapses. I just stop and boot strap myself into “doing my best”.

  40. Great article! I am very guilty of staying up way too late. But I’m working on it. I think this also helps to highlight why many find it difficult to go primal/paleo. My family, despite knowing how bad it is, chooses to eat terrible food as they are saying how they need to eat better and/or lose weight. There is something in the mind that gets a thrill out of doing what’s wrong. I hope that made sense.

  41. Like 🙂
    Good timing, as I find that I am getting stronger in my mind to do the right things as the days tick by in this new year.

  42. Akrasia: Giving up what you REALLY want for what you want RIGHT NOW.

  43. Attitude = Priorities = Decisions = Actions = Results.

    2 attitudes (spiritual/carnal)
    2 priorities (heavenly/worldly)
    2 decisions (good/bad)
    2 actions (right/wrong)
    2 results (blessing/cursing)

    Life is much simpler when we realize there are always only 2 choices. Never more, never less.

    1. Interesting…..I like how you put that.
      Although, the first one: spiritual/carnal, could mean different things to different people. What exactly do you mean?

      1. Hi, Renee. The verbiage isn’t as important as the principle. For attitudes you could say Humble/Arrogant, Teachablle/Unteachable, etc. The bottom line is approach life knowing there are always only TWO ways to go and it’s a LOT easier to choose the right way. My personal guidance comes from bible doctrine but please note, I do NOT practice a religion!

  44. Did you ever see that Peanuts episode where Charlie Brown goes to see Lucy at her doctor’s stand, and she starts naming things that might be wrong with him, and then she describes “pantophobia” (the fear of everything) and he yells “THAT’S IT!!!” and Lucy goes flying backwards and lands in a pile of snow?

    This was like that.

    1. Yes, I’ve see it – and laughed my butt off!

      Do you mean that learning about “akrasia” was an “aha” moment for you?

      Btw, poor ol’ neurotic Charlie Brown might benefit from a change of “therapist” (stay away from that mean, overly directive, judgmental Lucy!)

  45. If you have to rationalize doing it, then you either aren’t ready, or shouldn’t do it at all. Easy way for me to avoid having things sneak up on me.

  46. Another timely article as usual mark. Just got done writing a willpower piece and excited to have this post to link back to!

  47. I think If I hung my rescue inhaler around my neck it would be visible enough to remind me to never eat the chocolate that is in front of me every day at work… I have not had a problem with it until I attempted to lower the fat in my paleo diet.

  48. Great post. Akrasia may be the name for the behavior, but the behavior probably arises from our need to habituate. A new book, by C. Duhigg, “The Power of Habit” is coming out any day now about how habits control so much of our lives. A review mentioned that rats taught one path to a reward food, then switched to other less rewarding paths for even longer, immediately will revert once the old path is opened. It certainly rang true for me: I can go months without veering off my primal path, then one event can send me down that old path. But, at least now it can be a one time event, and not days or weeks worth.

  49. Akrasia…… Sounds a bit too much like Crazy! lol

    Either way, I suffer from it, too. It has been a struggle for me all of my adult life.

  50. We are all human and all make choices, always have. This stuff is semi-interesting to read about, but I don’t see the point really. I’m my business, we call this stuff “Gee whiz”
    “Gee whiz, there are things going on inside my head!”
    So what. 🙂

    1. The question “what’s the point” is right on point. I am a management consultant working with a variety of businesses every day. One of the most persistent challenges is staff and management not doing what they know is best. They pay me to tell them what they already know, but don’t do. My completely unscientific estimate is that if everyone in businesses and organizations did what they knew was the most effective, best practices, they would save up to 20% – and put me out of a job.

  51. consider for a moment that you are made of two identities–one that is for something and one that is against this thing, particularly, one that says, “eat it! it will taste good!! just a bite or two won’t hurt!!!” (of course, it’s probably two that a bite or two won’t hurt. the problem is that one leads to two, two leads to three, and very often three leads to very many bites.) the other identity says, “no don’t do that. don’t take that bite. you know it won’t just be one or two bites. it’s not good for you and it proves that you are not looking after yourself and that you are weak.”
    my suggestion is that the self that says have a bite or two has a good intent and a poor method. i recommend that you put yourself into this ‘temptation’ identity and feel what it is like to be for the bite(s). as this identity find out what your intent is. here is a sample, “i just want you to enjoy yourself. life is short. i am trying to look after you so that you will feel good and enjoy the moment.”
    knowing the good intent of this part of you is helpful but not sufficient. the next step is to establish a conversation between these two selves and to facilitate their relationship so that they can work together as it turns out that they have the same goals but not the same methods or understanding of human nature. the self that wants to say, “no” to the bites has a longer range view and the self that wants to encourage the bites tends to be more pleasure and immediacy oriented. working out their differences and finding ways to align has great possibilities. as well, trying to shut down a part of yourself has implications that are not the best.
    enjoy the inner conversation!