“You know you don’t *have* to do this.”
I am standing outside a networking event thrown by my employer in San Francisco in 2011, having a fast-paced conversation in my head, and trying very hard to look very casual.
“But I really should do this! It’s good for my career. And I bet I’ll feel better once I’ve done it.”
“Ugh, all those people. And you are terrible at small talk! You could be at home in 15 minutes — it would be soo nice to not have to do this, wouldn’t it?”
“You’re right. Let’s get out of here.”
And so passed another evening of knowing what I *should* do, but choosing not to do it because ugh — too hard, too scary, too uncomfortable.
What is akrasia, and how does it work?
How often do you have the feeling that you know what you should be doing — coding, reading, networking, blogging, socializing — but you just don’t do it? That feeling is called akrasia.
Akrasia is that nagging voice inside your head that tells you that you know better. You are smart; you know what’s important in your life, so why are you letting procrastination and things that don’t matter get in the way?
Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA, breaks down akrasia this way:
Akrasia (pronounced “ah-KRAH-see-ah”) is the experience of realizing an action would be in your best interest… but you don’t do it.
There are seven primary causes of akrasia:
1. You can’t define what you want.
2. You feel the task will bring you closer to something you don’t want.
3. You can’t figure out how you’re going to get from where you are right now to where you want to be.
4. You idealize the desired End Result to the point your mind estimates a low probability of achievement, resulting in Loss Aversion.
5. The “should” was established by someone else, not you, prompting Persuasion Resistance.
6. A competing action in the current Environment promises immediate gratification, while the reward of the task in question will come much later.
7. The benefits of the action are abstract and distant, while other possible actions will provide concrete and immediate benefits.
Akrasia is kind of like procrastinating with a purpose. You convince yourself that you have a very good reason not to be doing the thing you know would make you better or happier or smarter, and so you convince yourself not to make the progress that you should.
Of course, the problem with this strategy is that it just prolongs the inevitable. If you really do care about your career, you’ll most likely end up doing that thing you’ve been putting off eventually — but you’ll do it later than you could have. You’ll be playing catch up, which, while not impossible to overcome, is a disadvantaged place to be managing your career from.
Akrasia and “the shoulds”
Another feeling similar to akrasia that many people suffer from is that nagging feeling that there is a lot they should be doing, even if it’s not something they really want to be doing or are certain would help them improve.
It’s usually brought on by having lunch with your much more successful/rich/famous friend, and realizing how small you and your accomplishments seem in comparison. You quickly start making a mental list of all the things they do and are and have that you need to start and become and get in order to get to their level.
But this strategy — compiling a list of “shoulds” based on one person who you are momentarily jealous of — is hardly ever productive. Why? Because when you play the comparison game, you almost always come out the loser.
Is it because you actually aren’t as good as everyone else around you? Of course not. It’s because we are all different. So if you’re looking for reasons why they are more successful/rich/famous than you, you will always be able to find one, because you’ll always be able to find a way in which they are different from you.
Whether these reasons are actually valid or helpful is another question. (They usually aren’t.)
Comparing yourself to others and looking for “shoulds” is actually a form of akrasia in itself. You are choosing to focus on a wishlist of qualities that may or may not actually make you better at your job. It’s arbitrary. You can assume this person is more successful than you because they went to an Ivy League school, or because they dress so well, or because they founded a company last year — but those are just “things” about them. You don’t really know the secret to their success, or even if their success is real.
It’s much more helpful to focus on being inspired by (or even feeling jealous of) the things they’ve done. What have they built? What results have they achieved? How do those results compare to the results you hope to have in your career? Those are the things that matter.
It’s easy to fall into the comparison game when you don’t have a clear idea of your goals or the skills you need to improve. Instead of doing the hard work of improving yourself or nailing down a goal, many of us choose to focus on much more surface-level facts about a person we envy and let those distract us from the only thing that really matters: results.
Once you know your goal and the results you want to achieve, feeling envy can actually become a great motivator; this tends to be the case only when you already know where you’re headed and the results you want to achieve, though.
“I like when I get mad at music cause it’s so good. I’m like, “Oh shit, why didn’t we think of that? Why didn’t we do that?” — Kanye West
So instead of looking around at the more successful people around you and looking for all the ways you think they are better than you, look around at them and consider what they’ve done. Let their path of success inform your path, by learning from what they did, not who they are or what you think they’ve got that you don’t have.
How to get over “the shoulds” and start taking care of business
In the years since I sheepishly ran away from that event in San Francisco, I have made it successfully inside more than one networking event, and have even managed to make some small talk, in spite of my introverted, wish-I-was-at-home tendencies. Do I still have this conversation in my head outside events sometimes? Sure, perhaps more often than I’d like to admit. But luckily, the side rooting for what I should do usually wins out these days.
But that doesn’t mean I never experience akrasia. I think it’s a feeling most of us experience throughout our lives and careers. so we have to be constantly on the lookout for it.
And when it comes, here are a few strategies that will hopefully help you overcome it quickly and get on with the business of being awesome:
“If all you can do is crawl, start crawling.” — Rumi. In other words, just do *something*. Anything. You won’t believe how much momentum one phone call or crossed off to-do item can create. Taking a first step, no matter how small, makes completing the rest of the task suddenly seem so much easier. Even when the task feels insurmountable, force yourself to do one tiny part of it.
Break a task into small pieces. When a task feels like it may be too big to handle, or that the results (a huge career leap, perhaps) might be too overwhelming, that can stop you before you ever get started. But while “starting a business” is a *huge* task, doing 10 phone calls to potential future customers is not so huge. And doing 1 phone call to a potential future customer is even smaller, and even easier. Every big task is just a series of many, many small tasks — and you can do small tasks.
Reward your progress; don’t punish your failures. I used to beat myself up about the things I put off or felt incapable of. But it turns out that strategy only made me feel like I was *less* able to do the things I needed to, which made me even less likely to try. These days, I reward myself for my successes and results instead.
Think about the source of your akrasia. Sometimes just knowing what is causing your delay is enough to help shake it loose. Are you putting things off because you’re afraid to fail? Or maybe you’re just feeling lazy (sitting on the couch = way easier than training for a marathon). Acknowledging the source of your procrastination will help you identify the best cure.
Don’t forget that sometimes akrasia is brought on by not being sure this action is the right thing to do to achieve your goals. If you’re feeling on edge, double check that this action really makes sense for what you want to accomplish. Don’t be afraid to change course or cut things out that don’t help you make progress on your goals.
Check in with (or write down) your goals. When you’re stuck and not taking action, it’s so helpful to remember why doing this thing is so important. Maybe you’re really nervous about public speaking, but you know it’s an important way to grow your company. Well, start thinking about *why* you want to grow your company. What’s going to be the reward? Remember what you’re working towards, and it will make it easier to do that thing you’re hesitant about to get there.
- When you’re feeling envious of someone, focus on *what* they did not *who* they are. Being jealous of who someone is does you no good. You aren’t them, and trying to pretend to be will only make you tired. Instead, look at what they’ve done or how they’ve made an impact, and think about the steps it took them to get there. Focus on actions, not qualities.