In the summer of 1830, Victor Hugo faced a deadline: he had told his editor that he would have finished the book in February 1831, but the writer had practically written nothing and there were only 6 months left before the deadline.
Victor Hugo had been wasting his time, dedicating himself to other matters, avoiding doing the work to which he had committed himself. However, the book was finally published on the agreed date. It was “Our Lady of Paris”, (Notre-Dame de Paris).
How did he achieve it?
The writer developed a plan to overcome his procrastination: he collected all his clothes and locked them away. He then threw away the key, so that he was left with nothing to wear to go out except a shawl. Thus the writer forced himself to stay at home, and without distractions, dedicate himself to writing the book until it was finished. By early January 1831, the book was finished and became a success.
What happened to Victor Hugo has happened to all of us at some point, we have been victims of what the Greek philosophers called akrasia.
What is akrasia?
Akrasia or acrasia comes from the Greek ἀκρασία and was coined by Aristotle in “Nichomachean Ethics”. Etymologically, akrasia is derived from the noun kratos which means “strength” or from the verb kratein which refers to “rule” while the prefix “α” implies a negation. Therefore, this term is used to refer to a “weak will”, “lack of control over oneself” or “foolish actions”.
In fact, it is often used to indicate those behaviors that go against our long-term interests. It refers to those moments when we do something when we know we should do something else, but we lack the willpower to make the best decision. Therefore, akrasia becomes a barrier that prevents us from achieving our goals.
In a way, it is an irrational act. Akrasia occurs when we choose a path knowing that a better alternative exists. That means that acratic behavior is conscious. I mean, it may not be logical, but we are aware that it is not the best solution.
For example, eating a high-calorie sweet when we have decided to follow a diet and have the possibility of choosing a healthier option is an acratic act. However, it would not be so if we are not on a diet and we are not aware of the damage it can do to us.
Therefore, for akrasia to occur, these three elements must converge:
1. Freedom of decision, that is, the existence of other behavioral options
2. Knowledge of the positive or most convenient choice
3. Intention to choose an unsuitable alternative when we have set another objective
In fact, Greek philosophers went a step further and classified akrasia taking into account what is fixed in the rational part, the part betrayed by desire. They referred to astheneia to refer to weakness when the decision is made after deliberation, so that we do not have enough willpower to follow our decision. And propeteia, which refers to impulsivity and occurs when there is no slow deliberation, but rather we act by letting ourselves be carried away by our first impulses.
Why does akrasia occur?
Although from a logical and philosophical point of view akrasia does not make much sense, the truth is that our decisions and behaviors are not always rational. Akrasia, which can also be understood as procrastination, may be due to a phenomenon known in Psychology as “temporal inconsistency.”
Basically, it means that we tend to prefer immediate rewards over long-term rewards, even if it undermines our goals. When we set an ambitious goal, such as losing weight or writing a book, in the case of Victor Hugo, we need to understand that we will have to make sacrifices in the present to obtain a future reward.
However, when the time comes to make the decision, we think more about the present than the future, so we choose the path that gives us immediate gratification. Therefore, akrasia is a state that affects reason, generally motivated by the search for immediate pleasure and the rejection of the pain that sacrifice can cause.
That is why being able to delay gratification and maintain self-control are effective predictors of success in life. When we are able to resist immediate temptation and focus on our long-term goals, we can close the gap between where we are and where we want to be.
3 strategies to beat procrastination
1. Set deadlines for your goals
If we set goals that are too general, the chances of falling into procrastination greatly increase, leaving the effort and sacrifices for tomorrow. Instead, having a deadline establishes a horizon of time in which we must move. Saying “I’m going to exercise” is not the same as “tomorrow afternoon I’ll go for a run.” Nor is it the same to propose to lose weight as to propose to “lose 10 kilos in 10 months.”
Having deadlines helps us organize ourselves better and, in a way, adds the dose of eustress necessary to activate ourselves and achieve our goals. Knowing how long it takes to achieve something allows us to dose the effort and take steps each day that bring us closer to that goal.
2. Raise barriers
Victor Hugo decided to force himself not to leave the house, so he could focus solely on what he had to write. It is not necessary to go to these extremes, but it is advisable that we limit the options and design an action plan for the future. The trick lies in not having to make the decision, to avoid the temptation of going down a path that takes us away from our objective, so it is advisable to intelligently structure our environment.
For example, if we decide that we are going to diet, we should eradicate all “forbidden” foods from the house. If we have cigarettes on hand, it is easier for us to smoke. If we have to go out and buy them, we will think twice. The key is to anticipate as much as possible situations that can divert us from our goal, establishing certain barriers beforehand.
3. Treat yourself well along the way
Last but not least, we must treat ourselves well along the way because it is likely to be steep and berating ourselves will not exactly help us climb that hill. In fact, although self-control and discipline are important to achieve our goals, it is also important to enjoy ourselves while we try.
That means we should banish guilt and frustration from the journey. There will be days when we give in to temptation. And it’s perfectly normal. To prevent it from becoming the norm, we can plan days when we will be more indulgent, such as the day when we will allow ourselves a caloric pleasure in the middle of the diet or when we will not go to the gym. Treating ourselves with kindness along the way will allow us to stand firmer and achieve better.
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Heatger, N. (2020) The concept of akrasia as the foundation for a dual systems theory of addiction. Behavioural Brain Research; 390: 112666.
Oriol, M. (2014) Tipología de la akrasía en Aristóteles. Revista de Filosofía; 9: 35-54.
Vidotto, G. et. Al. (2006) Akrasia in ancient and modern thought–towards a cognitive model of akrasia. G Ital Med Lav Ergon; 3:(2): 111-8.