Akrasia, or How to Stop Checking E-mail
My calendar says I should write today from 8:00am until noon. I began thinking about possibly writing at 9:28, and I’ve been glancing back and forth between potential titles, hacker news, and my e-mail since then. It’s 10:31.
I like writing. I want to write. The moment I get stuck on a word or I’m not sure how to structure the essay, I “give myself a minute to think” … by checking my e-mail.
The good news is that I only have 10 e-mails left in my normally bulging inbox. I have my inbox configured to show 100 messages per page, and this is the first time I’ve seen a 1 page inbox in about 2 months.
The bad news I’ll never get any writing done at this pace, even though I know I should be writing, and I want to write.
I’m the only person in the world that this happens to. I’m lazy and unfocused, and if I were serious about success like all those serious writers out there, I wouldn’t be going through this.
Ancient Greek ἀκρασία, “lacking command (over oneself)”
The state of acting against one’s better judgment.
Ok, I’m the only one in the world aside from Socrates and Aristotle. And Plato. And sometimes Einstein. And I heard Feynman also. And Twain, and Douglas Adams.
Maybe this actually happens to everyone.
Why do I check my e-mail when I know I should write and when I, in fact, want to write?
I just checked my e-mail again.
Here’s my theory about akrasia.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for cognition, voluntary movement, motivation, punishment and reward, lactation, sexual gratification, sleep, mood, attention, working memory, and learning. And some other stuff.
It’s a complex issue, but for our purposes know this: dopamine is a happy chemical, and your brain is a dopamine fiend.
You have receptors hungry for those delicious, microscopic squirts of happy juice, and there’s hardware deep in your brain that’s been there since your mom was a gila monster, that drives you to get more of that succulent dopamine at almost any cost.
But there’s will power right? You can bring to bear the mighty weight of your rational mind to overwhelm your animal urge to fight and fuck and check your e-mail for the 54th time today.
It turns out that will power is mediated by another molecule you may have heard of called glucose, which is blood sugar. Glucose is the simplest sugar, and almost everything your cells do require a glucose molecule to make it possible.
researchers have found that you can’t stop yourself from doing things you kind of want to do if there’s not enough glucose in your brain.
The thing you have to understand about your brain is that it’s made of layers that were evolved at different times, and they are stacked one over the other, oldest on the bottom, newest on top.
Basic functions are controlled by the hindbrain, sometimes called the reptilian brain or the lizard brain. Much like Tom Selleck’s mustache, the hindbrain is nearly unstoppable. You can be legally dead, and still that lizard brain will pump your blood, and suck air into your lungs. That’s why it’s nearly impossible to hold your breath until you pass out: your conscious mind (which holds breath) cannot overwhelm the basic urge to breath.
A layer that sits above the hindbrain is the limbic system, sometimes called the Paleomammalian brain. The limbic system that controls emotions and long-term memory.
Remember the time you walked into a Chinese buffet and noticed the fish tank was a little skanky? But you ate the chunky shrimp and crusty rice anyway? Do you remember shitting your guts out and wishing for death a couple hours later?
And now your sphincter quivers a little when you see a Chinese place, even though you know the food probably won’t make you sick?
That’s the limbic system telling you that no, week-old-shimp is not your friend. Even if your conscious mind wants cheese wantons, your limbic system makes you feel like you just ate a dirty sock if you so much as think about going there again.
The final layer I’ll talk about is the frontal lobe, seat of the rational mind. It’s woefully underdeveloped by many, but even in the best case, its ancient cousins easily overwhelm it. It can’t be blamed, it’s only been evolving since a few million years ago, which is when monkeys figured out that lying and cheating was a great way to get laid.
It feels the most real since that’s where our sense of self sits, but it’s actually the least integrated and flimsiest part of the brain.
That’s why starving a child of oxygen at birth will render him unable to speak or do math, while he’s perfectly capable of feeling happy (limbic system) and certainly has no trouble keeping his heart beating (hindbrain).
That anatomy lesson is my geeky way of telling you that even though:
- Your sense of self and conscious control of your actions is seated in your forebrain,
- and even though you want to write instead of checking your e-mail,
- the deeper portion of your brain had a couple billion years extra to make sure it will almost always win.
The end result is rationally wanting to run a mile a day because you know it will make you feel better in the long run, but stuffing your face with greasy potato chips to get that dopamine rush in the short term.
You’re a slob because evolution told you so, and there’s nothing your flimsy upstart forebrain can do about it! Essay over.
How to beat Akrasia
Actually, not so much. Like a woolly mammoth versus a cro-magnon man, the hindbrain will win in a fair fight against the frontal lobe. But mammoths don’t have strategies and sharp spears, and men don’t fight fair.
It’s possible to outsmart a mammoth, and it’s possible to outsmart your hindbrain.
It wants dopamine. You need glucose.
I just checked my e-mail again.
Give your Body Glucose
Glucose is easy: eat. If you’re one of those no breakfast and coke for lunch people, then knock it off.
Keeping your blood sugar up and even will make a huge difference in your ability to control your own behavior.
Pure glucose (called dextrose on food labels) takes 15 minutes to enter your bloodstream. Cheap carbs like white bread will take between 30 minutes and an hour. Better stuff like whole wheat will take between 1 and 2 hours, and up to 3 hours for a food like hard wheat pasta.
The food that takes longer to absorb will also take longer to break down, which means you won’t burn through your energy and feel like you’re starving again 15 minutes after eating (McDonalds).
Eat a solid meal with good, slow release energy about an hour before you plan to work. Don’t stuff your face until your stomach is distended, just eat until you’re not hungry.
The next step is to flood your system with happy juice.
Give Your Brain Dopamine
Much like sexual urges ebb and flow as you satisfy them, your need for dopamine can be stronger or weaker. You can time your productive periods during an ebb in your dopamine cycle.
Aside from vigorous coitus, by far the most effective method of flooding your brain with happy juice is exercise.
A run, a swim, a spin on a bike, anything to get your heart rate up. Keep your heart rate high for 20 minutes and you will feel like a million bucks because of the dopamine and other happy chemicals now swilling around in your brain.
You’ve eaten enough good food to support your exercise and your brain power for the next few hours, and you’ve satiated the inner beast by giving it the dopamine it craves.
Now, sit down and enjoy the clarity of an amazing mood, and the will power to stay laser focused.
Before I let you go, let me also throw in that it’s important to move around and eat light snacks throughout the work day to maintain the effect. I have a system that I use to do exactly this (that I should’ve been using today). When I use it I am a well-oiled machine of productivity. I’ll share the system with you soon!
ps. There is some controversy about the glucose/willpower link. However, even the people who say there’s no link say that eating right and exercising produce marked improvements in willpower, so my advice stands even if my physiology lesson is wrong.
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