Could akrasia be getting in the way of your health goals? Here’s how to overcome it

akrasiaFirst off, you might be thinking, akrasia? Is this some new sensitivity associated with gluten? Is it slowing down my metabolism so I can’t lose weight? Is it causing leaky gut syndrome so I’m retaining water and feel bloated all the time? Is it altering my thyroid and messing with my hormones?

Here’s the definition of akrasia from the Oxford Dictionary:

a·kra·sia
əˈkrāZH(ē)ə/
noun: Philosophy
noun: akrasia; noun: acrasia

  1. The state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgment through weakness of will.

So, in other words, this state of mind:

I think I’ll sleep in rather than get up and go for that run I planned to do because my bed is cozy and warm and it’s cold and gross outside, even though I know running will make me fitter and boost my mood.

Or

Might as well eat this whole bar of chocolate/extra piece of pizza/bag of chips because it’s delicious and I’m feeling stressed, and this helps make me feel better right now… even though I’m trying to cut back on sugar/salt/fat to try to lose weight so I can be healthier and have more energy to play with my kids.

According to fantabulous article by James Clear, a writer and researcher on behavioral psychology, akrasia is essentially “procrastination or a lack of self-control” most likely caused by something called “time inconsistency”.

Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.

When you make plans for yourself — like setting a goal to lose weight or write a book or learn a language — you are actually making plans for your future self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.

When the time comes to make a decision, however, you are no longer making a choice for your future self. Now you are in the moment and your brain is thinking about the present self. And researchers have discovered that the present self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff. This is one reason why you might go to bed feeling motivated to make a change in your life, but when you wake up you find yourself falling into old patterns. Your brain values long-term benefits when they are in the future, but it values immediate gratification when it comes to the present moment.

In the article, Clear describes how writer Victor Hugo had procrastinated away 6 months of writing time for his new book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in 1831. With the publishing deadline looming, Hugo forced himself to stay in and write by getting rid of all his clothes except a shawl to wear so he wouldn’t be tempted to go out and socialize instead. He was able to meet the deadline and published the book on January 14, 1831 (my birthday 154 years later!).

You might not need to take such drastic measures to force your present self to do something good for your future self — such as locking yourself in a room with a treadmill and a pair of running shoes until you run every day for seven days straight — but if you find you’re slipping back into old habits that aren’t serving you far too easily, you might need reevaluate your technique.

If the typical akrasia-fighting advice of setting SMART goals, building tiny healthy habits and getting rid of barriers isn’t working for you, it might be time to be a little harder on your present self. I had (have) a major dry cereal addiction — I could eat a Costco-sized box of Honey Nut Cheerios in a week —  so I stopped buying cereal except oats, because eating dry oats out of a bag is not tasty at all. I won’t even allow myself so have a bowl of sweet, crunchy and carby goodness, because I know I won’t be able to stop at one. For you, maybe that’s chips. Or pop. Or chocolate. Or wine. I know I say there’s room for everything in your diet, but if you find you lose all self-control with a certain food, it might be time to pull a Victor Hugo and banish it for good (or at least until your goal is reached).

The same goes with exercise. If running outside in the winter isn’t happening for you, you might need to bite the bullet and join a gym, buy a treadmill, sign up for sessions with a personal trainer (accountability), subscribe to online exercise videos (you’re paying for it so you might as well use it), or hire a coach to keep you working hard for your future self so you can live in a state of enkrateia — the term coined by Aristotle as the antonym of akrasia, meaning to be “in power over oneself” — instead of constantly falling victim to procrastination.

I'd rather be in bed instead of running in the dark in the cold and rain...

I’d rather be in bed instead of running in the dark in the cold and rain…

I think just having an awareness of when you’re experiencing akrasia is helpful in defeating it. So when you find yourself making up excuses for not doing something less pleasant in the moment that you know will benefit your future self, call yourself on it and take a moment to think about what’s most beneficial for you in the long term. Then make a plan to get yourself there in that moment — such as putting on your running gear (that’s not terribly unpleasant, right?) instead of lying in bed; having a glass of water and tuning in to your body to see if you really are still hungry and in need of calories instead of reaching for another slice of pizza; or stepping away from the computer (and Facebook) for a moment and doing something else (do you really need to take that quiz to find out which Disney princess you are?) to limit your screen time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dump the rest of my delicious coffee and NOT go for another cup, go get my running gear on instead of sitting in here wrapped in a cozy blanket in my jammies, close my laptop and hit the gym for a workout, because my future self — the one heading to Maui in less than a month and who wants to feel confident and strong in a bikini — is going to thank me for it.

Do you live in a state of akrasia? What do you procrastinate about the most? Have you ever had to pull a Victor Hugo and take drastic measure to achieve your goals?

bri-sig