Akrasia

by Michael Ruggiero

Akrasia is a Greek word meaning “lacking command over oneself”. It’s when you know the right thing to do, while you do the other.

In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates won’t even admit that akrasia exists, and claims that someone willingly going “toward the bad” is absurd. Somone knowingly doing the wrong thing means they are either ignorant, or under the misapprehension that the bad thing they are doing is actually good.

As an ex-smoker, I can see Socrates’ error here: will to change and knowing change is needed may not coincide at all. It may be that the belief “I need to stop smoking” is less powerful than the belief “I’m not ready to stop smoking (right now).” Beliefs that are “positive” may share real estate with more powerful beliefs.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with Beeminder, a service that lets you track goals and enforce conditions when you veer off-track. It integrates with Github, so it was easy to get started tracking commits. More recently I dialed in a lot of goals that, in the past, fell victim to akrasia. With some goals, I’m holding on to the bare minimum number so that I don’t get out of line, while with others I try to plow ahead as far as I can. I guess it has more to do with the fun/ease of the goal than it does with the premise of the goal itself.

The interesting thing is that, in sticking to something instead of starting strong and flagging, I’m actually evaluating goals with more objectivity than “this isn’t fun anymore.” I stay with something for more than a few weeks, and come to realize I can really gauge “is this a good goal for me?” outside of akrasia’s magnetic pull. Which is cool.