The Akrasia Effect: Why it happens and how to overcome it
Updated: Mar 7
Have you ever felt bad about procrastinating? Did you know that great geniuses in history were great procrastinators?
Mozart wrote the overture for his famous opera Don Giovanni just the night before it premiered while he may have been hungover. It is even said that during the premiere of the opera, the ink on the music sheet had still not dried, and it was performed without any rehearsal. Another example is Leonardo da Vinci. The Renaissance Man only completed a total of 20 paintings in his life as he got distracted doodling. Also, you may not know that completing his most famous work; The Mona Lisa took him 16 years while The Virgin of the Rocks, 13 years.
These two aforementioned examples do not mean that we should do it, but they are a way to illustrate that procrastination is a tendency of human nature. Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle developed a word to describe this type of behavior: Akrasia. Etymologically, this concept comes from two Greek words, a, which means “without,” and kratos, which signifies “power” and “strength.”
The modern conceptualization of procrastination (from Latin pro meaning “forward”, “ahead” and crastinus meaning “tomorrow” and “up to tomorrow”) is defined as “a behavioral tendency in delaying what is necessary for achieving the goal” (Moonaghi et al., 2017, p. 45).
Once this concept has been addressed, we have to ask ourselves what psychological biases perpetuate these behavioral patterns. Literature in Psychology has revealed that procrastination occurs due to a phenomenon called time inconsistency, which refers to the tendency that we humans have to value immediate rewards more than future ones (O’Donoghue et al., 2001). Researchers have found that when we think about our future selves, it is easier for the brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits (Sirosis et al., 2013). However, while our future selves can set goals, only our present selves can take action.
Therefore, what actions can we take to overcome procrastination?
Reward yourself for taking immediate action: One way to bring future rewards into the present moment can be done through temptation bundling (Milkman et al., 2013). This strategy suggests that you bundle a behavior that is good for you in the long run with a behavior that feels good in the short run. For example, listening to your favorite music while exercising or watching your favorite TV show while ironing.
Consider the consequences of procrastination: There are many ways to force you to pay the costs of procrastination sooner rather than later. For example, you can bet something if you cannot finish a task in due time.
Design your actions: One strategy you can use is a “commitment device” (Bryan et al., 2010), which would help you design your future actions ahead of time. For instance, you can reduce the time spent on your mobile by just deleting certain social media apps.
Make actions more achievable: Making your tasks more achievable is essential for two main reasons. First, little progress would help you maintain the momentum and you would be more likely to complete big tasks. Second, the faster you complete a task, the more quickly your day will develop, creating a feeling of productivity and effectiveness. A great way to make tasks more achievable is to break them down. For example, if you want to write an essay, you can set a goal of writing 250 words every 15 minutes for three hours each day. Also, as starting a new task can be difficult, you can follow the 2-minutes rule, which means that when you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.
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Bryan, G., Karlan, D., & Nelson, S. (2010). Commitment Devices. Annual Review of Economics, 2, 671-698. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.economics.102308.124324
Milkman, K., & Minson, J., & Volpp, K. (2013). Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling. Management Science, 60(2), 283-299. 10.1287/mnsc.2013.1784
Moonaghi, H. K., & Beydokhti, T. B. (2017). Academic procrastination and its characteristics: A Narrative Review. Future of Medical Education Journal, 7(2), 43-50. 10.22038/fmej.2017.9049
O'Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (2001). Choice and Procrastination. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 116(1), 121–160. https://doi.org/10.1162/003355301556365
Sirois, F., & Pychyl, T. (2013), Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 115-127. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12011