Why You Can’t Finish Anything You Start
Clue: It’s not because you are lazy or lack of discipline
Recently, I had trouble keeping up with my goal of writing one article a week. As soon as I face my laptop and start hitting the keys, nothing seems to come up. I have my outline already in place. But it seems I don’t have the drive or enough willpower to finish what I started. If there is a subject about “task delaying”, I will get an A+.
“Is there something wrong with me? I didn’t know I was this lazy. I don’t know what to do with myself.”
These self-sabotaging thoughts keep running on my mind on those days. Instead of trying to accomplish what I’ve started, I find myself watching Youtube. I immersed myself in reading blog posts on how to motivate myself. You know what happens next. I found myself laughing and distracting myself from thinking too much about my so-called deficiency ( for a lack of better word.)
Days have passed, I have the same problem. I know what I need to do but I don’t do it. I’ve created a schedule but didn’t follow. Someone suggested having an accountability partner but it is not part of my plan. I’ve listened to motivation music but nothing seems to work. I asked myself again what could be missing. Again, I tried to research what could be the problem. What I found is surprising.
What I thought was just me being lazy or having a lack of discipline, experts called it Akrasia.
Akrasia is the experience of knowing an action would be in your best interest… but you don’t do it. It is the heavy feeling I have to finish the article writing but I didn’t. If you will check the etymology of the word “akrasia”, it means “lacking command (over oneself).
Why Do We Experience Akrasia?
I tried to find what is the cause of Akrasia. The research says that we experience akrasia because of the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.
A good example of this is when we are in the planning stage. You know the excitement and adrenaline rush that you feel when laid out in your future plans. You write down all the things that you need and how to achieve those. You have also figured out what to do when obstacles come. And yes, you are ready to go! On Day 1, the excitement is still kicking in. Everything seems to run smoothly. Same on Day 2, Day 3, Day 4. But on Day 5, the excitement starts to cease. The energy tank you have in the first four days needs recharging. Soon enough, you will get tired without knowing why. Just by looking at your task depletes the drip of energy left. The future plans that are within reach and possible are now it’s out of reach and appears impossible. If ever you have experienced this or are experiencing it right now, welcome to the club. That’s Akrasia.
Now you know what Akrasia is, the question is how can you overcome akrasia? Well, there’s a way. And like to call it Anti-Akrasia Strategies.
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, offers three strategies.
First, design your future actions.
This can be done using commitment devices. A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future.
Example: To avoid overspending, you can leave your credit card or control the amount of money you have in your wallet.
Second, reduce the friction of starting.
The bigger the task is, the more overwhelming is it to accomplish. The way to counter this is to break the task into subtasks. Doing one step at a time.
Example: Instead of cleaning the house in one day, you can clean one area at a time a day.
Third, use implementation intention.
It is stating your intention to implement a behavior at a specific time and place in the future. This is preloading your actions and tied them in a particular behavior. A good way to do this is by, completing this sentence: After I [existing behavior]. I will [your desired action].
Example: After I sit down on my office chair, I will meditate for two minutes. With this, you are more likely to perform tasks than just saying “I will meditate for two minutes.”
To better understand this, let me show you how I apply the Anti-Akrasia strategy in my unfinished writing problem
To design my future actions, I decided to set a schedule without distraction
That would be 5 AM in the morning. To back it up, I give myself a deadline to publish the article in three days. First Day is the writing draft. Second Day is the revising day. The Third day is finishing and publishing.
The next question is what is my commitment device?
What I did is I put the book Atomic Habits and put it into the table near my bed. I set my mind that the moment I wake up, it will trigger my mind to remember that I have a task to do. Waking up early is not so big of an issue for me since 5 AM is my usual wake up time.
The next step is the hardest. How will I create implementation intention?
There are many activities I can link to writing. I came up with a good-better-best strategy.
Good: After I sit down, I will start writing.
Better: After I open my laptop, I will start writing.
Best: After I sip coffee, I will start writing.
I choose to start writing after the first sip of coffee. I thought it will be more effective If I choose a behavior that is nearest to my writing task.
Lastly, how can I reduce the friction of starting? How can I break the task so that I will not be overwhelmed?
Breaking a task involves two areas:
a. The Task itself
b. The time allotted
But since prior to this experiment I have already an outline, so naturally I will follow the flow I’ve created.
This is when I decided that I will opt for breaking my time allotted. My goal is to set a specific time frame wherein I can write and stop writing as soon the time is up. Since I have other tasks waiting for me, I think this is the logical decision. I set a timer for 25 minutes Work and 5 Minute Rest Interval. I do this twice in a row.
(For those who are not familiar with this time management tool, it’s called the Pomodoro Technique. You can learn more about this here.)
My Takeaways On This Experiment
It works! I’m proud to say I accomplished my task and beat Akrasia. I’ve published on my desired schedule without relying too much on willpower or motivation. This leads me to three realizations.
First, It’s not a character problem
The idea that you have character problems for having unfinished tasks is not true. Yes, you will feel unmotivated. You have this heavy feeling that no matter how much you want it, you cannot push it. The real problem is not you but the system itself. When you create a system, you can almost accomplish anything on the line.
Second, having this system will create more freedom.
Okay, I hear you, hearing the word “system” seems constricting. It seems counterintuitive. That’s what I also thought. But it’s the other way around. Since practicing this Anti-Akrasia strategy, I got more time for other things that I love to do. I am able to create more time instead of bleeding time. Like writing this article, I started writing this last May 21, 2020 for 25 minutes a day. And on May 24, 2020 (today), I will be publishing the finished product. Then write the next article.
Third, celebrate your small successes
After accomplishing your tasks, don’t forget to give yourself a tap on the back. BJ Fogg said that celebrating is a great way to reinforce small changes — and pave the way for big successes. Just by saying,” Great job, Brian.” I get more motivated and excited to accomplish the next task.
Call To Action
The Anti-Akrasia Strategy can be used in any tasks and projects in any field. And it doesn’t matter how big or small it is. This system works.
Apply this by asking yourself these three questions:
1. What commitment device can I use to design my future actions?
2. What action/behavior/habit can I tie with this new task? Do this by completing the sentence; After I [existing behavior]. I will [your desired action].
3. How can I break the task small enough so I will not be overwhelmed? (It can be in quantity, time or both]
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