Akrasia, derived from a Greek word meaning “lack of command,” is the phenomenon in which you act against your own best interests.
Aristotle attributed it to either being overpowered by your emotions or having a weak will, while Plato believed that akrasia resulted from failing to understand what is truly good for you.
Akrasia is normal, and you can combat it by carrying out strategies that will nip it in the bud before it gets to fully take hold of you.
The goal is to reduce the power akrasia has over you by cultivating better power over yourself and your actions.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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Akrasia is whenever we work against our own best interests.
Aristotle claimed we could combat akrasia through self-disciplined action toward our goals, repetition, and being honest with ourselves.
Plato claimed we simply needed to avoid finding goodness in bad actions.
You know you want to get in shape, and you’re finally committed to it, buying an expensive gym membership and laying out a new plan for exactly how you’re going to gain strength.
Day one and two of your new protocol work well, but on day three, something strange happens.
You skip your workout.
Despite knowing how badly you want to be better, despite understanding all the benefits on the table and how proud and confident you’d feel if you actually achieved this goal, despite all the dedication and good will you began with, you skip your workout and watch YouTube videos instead.
What happened? It’s a strange part of the human condition when you really think about it.
We have what feels like a will to do something, and yet there is something else seemingly acting against us.
Some call it plain old temptation, i.e.
going for the pleasurable thing in the moment rather than staying the more difficult but more rewarding path.
Others would call it laziness, procrastination, weakness, or self-sabotage.
Some would suggest that behaving this way means you simply don’t want your goals badly enough, because if you did, you’d move mountains to achieve it.
It turns out this problem existed long before the modern distraction of YouTube, however.
Ancient philosophers tried to understand this phenomenon and asked themselves, why do people act against their own interests? And seeing as we do, how can we take control and reach the goals that are so important to us? The term akrasia describes this phenomenon, and is from the Greek ἀκρασία, which means “lack of command.” Lack of command over what? Yourself.
Plato asked the question in his dialogue Protagoras, wondering why a person who acknowledges that something is the best and most rational course of action would then still fail to do it.
Aristotle believed that akrasia comes in different forms, and one type of akrasia occurs because of what he called passion, which causes the apparent lapse in good judgment and rationality.
The idea that emotions could derail rationality and lead to foolish behavior was a common theme for philosophers of the day.
The other type of akrasia, according to Aristotle, was down to a weak will.
Rationally and intellectually comprehending the results of your behavior is one thing, but deliberately choosing against your best interests speaks to a lack of self-discipline.
So, according to Aristotle at least, the phenomenon of akrasia comes down to being either too passionate (a will overrun with emotion) or too weak (a will that isn’t strong enough).
For Aristotle, akrasia was simply a sign that a person’s will was not up to the task of achieving the magnitude of their goals.
He didn’t see any logical problem with saying, “Person wants A, but ends up doing B”—he only saw a lack of discipline.
Now, you might have a strong will but simply choose not to apply it to certain ends, and that wouldn’t be akrasia; however, if you sincerely intended something and still couldn’t muster the discipline to do it, it is akrasia, and comes down to one or another of the reasons above.
Plato had a somewhat different view.
In essence, he believed that akrasia (as it’s defined above) doesn’t really exist at all.
To understand his viewpoint, you need to know that for Plato, goodness and pleasure were essentially the same thing.
He believed that people do what feels good to them, and that there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with this impulse.
Plato suggested that people will act freely and without struggle to do something they genuinely gain pleasure from.
Addictive and avoidant behaviors aside, it’s probably fair to say that we all enjoy the things that are genuinely good in life.
From this, it follows that if we are not doing something we said we would, then we can look at what we are doing and assume that we’re doing that instead because it feels good.
Plato famously said, “No one goes willingly toward the bad.” What did he mean by this? For Plato, any action that went against your best interests was simply a sign that you didn’t know any better and didn’t have a good grasp of what was good for you.
He believed it wasn’t necessarily a lack of self- control that led to akrasia, but a tendency to find relatively more pleasure in all those things that didn’t lead to our goals.
In other words, akrasia is not necessarily moving away from what’s good for you, but moving toward a “bad habit” and justifying it one way or another.
This is a subtle but fascinating perspective.
Plato is saying that, in effect, we do behave rationally when we act.
If you skip your gym workout to waste time online, it must be, he said, because you have found enough goodness in doing so.
Consciously or unconsciously, you have made the decision to do what you’ve done.
No paradox or irrational behavior needed.
We can all identify with this.
It’s easy to commit to a new diet when you’re feeling inspired (i.e.
you’ve focused on all the goodness and pleasure that comes from being slim, healthy, and energetic), but when faced with a slice of chocolate cake, you forget all that and focus instead on the goodness and pleasure that comes from your stuffing your face with it.
More contemporary philosophers have tackled the issue of akrasia both as a logical argument and a seeming paradox, and as an element of a more moral or ethical approach to understanding humanity’s potential and weaknesses.
Philosopher Donald Davidson, for example, aligns with Plato’s view and suggests that if it’s really true that someone wants to do A, but when it comes down to it, does B (which they already decided was less appealing than A), the only explanation could be that they have temporarily appraised B as more appealing than A.
They may do this because they haven’t properly considered all the facts that weigh in on their judgment about which is better—for example, how delicious and tempting chocolate cake is and how much they really enjoy eating it! Other philosophers and behavioral psychologists have echoed Aristotle’s view that there are essentially two driving forces or kinds of motivation at work—and it’s perfectly possible for them to conflict.
For example, one more rational, future-focused part of us genuinely wants to eat better, and another, more emotional, present-based part of us wants to eat the cake now.
There is no contradiction, only the evidence of two different motivations that inspire our actions to different extents in different contexts.
Since this book is all about self-discipline and strengthening our will to help us achieve our goals, it makes sense to start with the concept of akrasia.
But how exactly does it relate? Akrasia is a part of life, but we can lessen its effects by deliberately strengthening our self-discipline.
Properly understanding and managing akrasia is fundamental, because it has the potential to undermine all our self- improvement efforts.
You could work incredibly hard, gather all the necessary skills and mastery, commit to realistic goals and more, only to have the whole thing fall to pieces because you procrastinate right where it counts.
If you are trying to develop self-discipline, it makes sense to begin with a realistic appraisal of all the ways human nature works against self-discipline, so that these obstacles can be removed consciously.
Many people waste time making elaborate justifications for doing the thing they didn’t plan to do (I ate the cake because it’s my cheat day, and it doesn’t matter, because I’ll start again tomorrow, and it was only a little slice of cake anyway, and a very healthy cake …), but this gets them no closer to where they actually want to be.
Counterintuitively, it’s in understanding why we fail to do the things we know are good for us that helps us better understand how to succeed at doing those things.
We can then work on solving the problem intelligently, controlling our natural tendencies rather than being passively subject to their whims and having them control us.
We can use Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas on akrasia as a springboard to better grasp our own tendencies to self-sabotage.
You might have already identified a possible solution given the explanation above: can we be more self-disciplined by making ourselves feel as though what we are doing is good and pleasurable? Instead of trying to force ourselves to avoid temptation and push on diligently, can we understand our stated goals in such a way that they become the thing we naturally want to do, without any effort or force required? The opposite of akrasia is enkrateia, which is to “be in power over oneself.” When we are under the spell of akrasia, it’s often because we have, in one way or another, decided that the non-planned course of action is more pleasurable or better somehow.
But if we take control of ourselves, we can adopt a perspective that refuses to rationalize or find goodness in harmful behaviors, while deliberately seeing the good in a stated goal.
We need to be smart about akrasia, and think ahead.
One of the mistakes we make is failing to recognize that our lazy selves are just as smart and dedicated as our rational, planning-ahead selves.
It means that whatever you do, your lazy self will be there, dreaming up an excuse or justification that will topple the best laid plans.