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.

Akrasia

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 Akrasia?

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

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.

Glucose

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.

Lots of 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.

Reptile 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).

Hence Akrasia

That anatomy lesson is my geeky way of telling you that even though:

  1. Your sense of self and conscious control of your actions is seated in your forebrain,
  2. and even though you want to write instead of checking your e-mail,
  3. 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.

Sweet Productivity

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.

Loss Aversion Bias

Numerous studies have shown that people feel losses more deeply than gains of the same value (Kahneman and Tversky 1979, Tversky and Kahneman 1991).
Goldberg and von Nitzsch (1999) pages 97-98

A friend of mine, we’ll call him Joe so I can feel free to ridicule him publicly, complained to me the other day about a kit he bought called the “Robot Builder’s Bonanza”—it’s a beginning robotics kit. He bought it from some off brand electronics site for around $20. So he thought.

The kit arrived, but after checking his bank statements Joe noticed the charge had gone through for $31.02.

I asked him what he did about it. He e-mailed the company about the problem, and got a bullshit boilerplate response back. He did a few backflips, I guess by looking at the domain’s whois information to find a number, and eventually got on the line with someone at the company who, he reported, was rude and told him to piss off, in not so many words.

Joe is nothing if not tenacious. He called his credit card company to initiate a chargeback for the transaction. Since it wasn’t cut and dry—he had received the thing he bought, he was just charged the wrong price for it—he had to download a form, fill it out and fax in a signed copy.

After about three and a half weeks he got the difference of $11.14 refunded.

I know this because as Joe was relating this story I was totally fascinated, and I asked him for more and more detail. I knew this was a textbook case of the Loss Aversion Bias, and I wanted the full scoop to share with you.

He spent 4 hours to get an $11 refund

In all, Joe had gone through considerable effort to find an e-mail address, all the relevant transaction data, even more hassle to find a number and call it, waited on the phone with his credit card company for almost an hour, then printed, filled out, and faxed a form. All told, he had spent four hours or so over the course of a few days getting his refund. His $11 refund.

So I proposed a business deal for Joe. I said to him, listen, I have these bitchy customer service people I don’t want to deal with. You’ll have to do a little a sniffing to find the right people to contact. You’ll need to call them, figure out some paper work they’ll need, and send it all in. Shouldn’t take more than half a day’s work, I said. I’ll give you $11 to do it.

For some reason, Joe told me to fuck off.

Why Loss Aversion Bias is Dangerous

Loss aversion is a error in our brains that makes us fight like a rabid animal to avoid a small loss, while chewing our cud stupidly when it comes to getting what we want. Data from Kahneman and Tversky suggests we prefer avoiding loss about twice as much as acquiring gains.

That’s a trap.

It’s counter productive because it’s rare to find a slam dunk in life. You can find a job that’s a little better—in fact, getting better job often leads to getting an even better job. You can achieve “100% better.” The problem is that you’ll rarely achieve 100% better in one move. That’s why loss aversion tends to “stick” you exactly where you are unless you get a lucky break with a job that is twice as good.

Consider also that whatever you have, you’ll work twice as hard to keep it than you would to acquire it in the first place. If your husband is sort of a shit, you’ll fight to “make it work.” If you had just started dating him though, you’d only work half that hard to get the same guy. Again, loss aversion tends to “stick” you exactly where you are.

How to Short Circuit the Loss Aversion Bias

When you realize you’re choosing between something you’re attached to and something that’s potentially better, the easiest way to short circuit the loss aversion bias is to turn it on its head.

  • To Joe it made perfect sense to spend the time and energy to make sure he didn’t unfairly lose his $11.14, but when I reversed the question and asked him to spend equivalent time and energy in order to gain $11, he knew intuitively that it was a crappy deal.
  • If you’re working massive overtime to get a promotion, ask yourself: would I work a 40 hour week at a job paying what I make now, plus another 40 hours a week without pay for a whole year in order to make 10% more than I make now?
  • If you’re with someone who doesn’t make your heart sing, ask yourself: would I fight to acquire the companionship of a person who I know is dull and and kind of annoying?

Can you think of a situation where reversing your thinking would make it clear that you’re fighting tooth and nail for a crappy deal?

Sunk Cost Fallacy

Sunk Costs are costs which have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. The Sunk Cost Fallacy is a mistake in reasoning in which you consider the sunk costs of an activity (instead of the future costs) when you decide whether you should continue the activity or not.

“I’ve put everything I have into this business. If I stop now all that time and money will be lost! I can’t stop now!”

The resources and effort are already lost, no matter what you do now. Therefore, the only thing you should worry about is what your goals are today, and most logical way to achieve them starting today.

Examples include:

  • “I’ve spent 5 long years at this crappy company, and I’m this close to getting a promotion, so I’m not giving up now.”
  • “I’m 3 years through my college career, and If accept this amazing job now, all that time will be lost.”
  • “I’ve spent a year renovating this drafty rat hole, if I sell before it’s done, all my effort will be wasted.”

The Danger of the Sunk Cost Fallacy

The danger comes in two flavors.

  1. By definition, anything you’ve tried in the past gets more weight than something you might try in the future:
    Resources and Effort Put in
    Stuff you’ve tried before Some
    Stuff you’ve never tried None

    You have always put “some” resources and effort into stuff you’ve already tried, and no resources or effort into stuff you haven’t tried yet. So if you fall for this trap, you will always favor the crap you’re doing now, over the changes you could make.

  2. The stuff you’re doing now, the stuff that isn’t working: that stuff is not going to start working. You think it will. I know you think the stuff you’re doing now (that isn’t working) will “maybe” start working because that’s the second flavor of the danger.

    The more resources a person pours into an activity, the more optimistic he is about it.

    Even if you ask yourself: “Would I accept a job at this company again, if I had just gotten the offer today?” you’ll probably answer yes, even if you really wouldn’t take it. Maybe the culture you expected didn’t pan out. Maybe you expected raises and promotions you never got, but always feel “close” to. Why will you think it’s still an okay deal? Because of the sunk cost fallacy: you’ve put so much time and effort into your employment that your puny psyche couldn’t stand the possibility that the time was a mistake.

How to Beat the Sunk Cost Fallacy

Bill Gracey @ Flickr

The calculation you need to make is whether the activity in question is worth what resources you haven’t put in yet, not what resources you already put in, which are gone forever no matter what you do.

Example of Ignoring a Sunk Cost

Imagine you’re planning a vacation to Florida since you can’t afford Hawaii. The vacation will cost $20,000 in total, and you have already paid a $10,000, non-refundable deposit. A week before the trip, your best friend calls you to tell you about a fantastic deal: if you go to Hawaii with him, you can go for only $10,000.

The cost of going to Florida to you is $10,000. The cost of going to Hawaii to you is also $10,000. You prefer Hawaii, so you should go there. The $10,000 Florida deposit is gone no matter what you do.

Techniques for Ignoring a Sunk Cost

Ongoing Activity

If you need to ignore the sunk costs of an ongoing activity like a relationship or job:

  1. Ask yourself: if I were just starting this today, would I think it was a good idea? Knowing what I know now about my job, would I accept an offer? If I met my wife today, would I be attracted to her? Knowing everything I know about her, would I marry her?

    This alone won’t work because of the dangers I talked about earlier. This is just to get you asking the right questions.

  2. Fictionalize the Situation. Instead of your wife Susan, imagine you’ve just met Betty. Imagine Betty with as much detail as you can: how tall is she, what color hair and eyes does she have, what does her voice sound like? Make her as real in your mind as possible. Make her as similar to your real wife Susan as you can.

    Now ask yourself the same question from above, but imagine it’s about Betty.

The idea is that you remove the sunk cost trap by first changing the context to one in which you have invested nothing (Susan is your wife, but Betty is a stranger), then considering the situation as it is now, not as it was when you began.

One Discrete Item

If you need to ignore the sunk costs of an item, like a college degree, then write down the cost of the item that you have yet to pay, then ask yourself: would I want this item if it cost me exactly what I have written down here?

You’re two years through a degree. It’ll cost you two or three years of effort, $50,000, and lost wages for those 2 years totaling perhaps $100,000. In exchange for your time and $150,000 you’ll receive certification which may help you find traditional employment in certain fields, and probably approval from your family. Will you take the deal?

Two Alternative Items

Often the question is about two alternatives. If you need to ignore the sunk costs of an item among alternatives, like the vacation from the example above, then:

  1. Write down the cost that you have yet to pay for each of the items.
  2. Write down the benefits from each of those items that you have yet to receive.
  3. For each alternative, follow the directions from above for one item to eliminate any alternatives that just aren’t appealing. Maybe something that sounded good in your head isn’t that great once you look at the costs and benefits in black and white.
  4. If there is more than one alternative left (there may be one or zero left), compare the written costs and benefits of each to decide which you prefer.

From the vacation example, we determined that the cost was the same for each, but we preferred Hawaii to Florida, so the choice was easy since we didn’t let the irrelevant detail of the deposit get in the way.

Conquering the sunk cost fallacy is a powerful tool for choosing a direction in life with confidence. It’s also a heck of a way to hone your financial and business decisions.

Did this article help clarify a decision you made recently? Could I have explained something better? Let me know!

Incoherence

I’ve had a few people ask me to clarify what I mean when I say that a statement is “incoherent.” There are three types, each increasingly sinister.

Type 1 Incoherence

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Jackwocky, by Lewis Carroll, is a good example of one type of incoherence. The syllables in the poem can be pronounced, but they contain no meaning. The words used have no definition, so saying them doesn’t signify anything.

Type 2 Incoherence

Another type of incoherence, slightly less innocent than Type 1 because it could be accidentally confused for Type 3, is the type in which real words are used in a nonsense way. Leaves above the shelf wheel short love.

Type 3 Incoherence

This is the dangerous type of incoherence. This is the type I’m talking about, when I mention it in an essay. This is the type in which a statement is made that apparently makes sense, but that in fact contains no meaning.

Coherent: Pink Elephants

I have a pink elephant.

A pink elephant is coherent because it’s possible that an elephant could be painted or genetically modified to be pink. If I make a claim that I have a pink elephant in my possession, my claim is falsifiable, because I can let someone examine my elephant. It might exist, or it might not, but the concept is possible.

Incoherent: Unsittable Chair

I have a chair that can’t be sat on.

That statement appears to be falsifiable. We have a concept of a type of entity called “chair,” and we know the rough properties of that type of entity. We know what it means to sit on something. It seems that we can figure out whether the statement is true or not.

We can’t.

“Chair” isn’t an ontological entity; chairs don’t exist, except via our perception of how we can physically relate to certain shapes of matter (in this case, by sitting on the shape). A “chair,” then, is something we can sit on. To say that I have a chair that can’t be sat upon is incoherent because if I have an object that can’t be sat upon, then it is, by definition, not a chair at all.

But I’m not just wrong in my assertion that I have an unsittable chair: I’m neither right nor wrong. It’s neither true or false that I have a chair that can’t be sat on, because the concept precludes itself.

Incoherent is Worse than Wrong

Our mind creates a scaffold around these incoherent concepts, so they appear to have some reality to us. They feel like they could be real. In fact, the scaffold covers a fundamental non-existence. No one can say whether or not it was brillig, or whether the slithy toves gyred or not. The statement just contains no content. The feeling that it could be real is the mind projection fallacy at work.

The really dangerous thing about incoherence is that it’s hard to break the spell. You argue about something as though it exists, and you’re unable to come to any definitive conclusion about it. At least things that exist are falsifiable. Smart people fall into this trap all the time. Here’s one I bet you have heard before:

Since God can do anything, can he create a square circle?

Cute, but incoherent. Even if we accept the concept of an omnipotent God (which itself is incoherent), the definition of circle precludes that it could be a square. Untrained skeptics will pat themselves on the back for “proving” that God doesn’t exist, and untrained faithful will scramble and probably settle on God being able to do it. They are both wrong: the question simply contains no information. Can God create a mimsy borogove?