Akrasia, or How to Stop Checking E-mail

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.

Responses

  1. Peyton Q ()

    Ha!! And suddenly my ability to be productive and in an amazing mood now that I’m pregnant (and eating +/- every 2 hours… silly parasite needing fuel to grow and stuff) and and know how to eat right makes a bit more sense!!

    I am highly amused. And what I’ve read of your blogs (very sporadically, admittedly) has always been entertaining/enlightening. It’s good to know that you’re doing well these days.

    Keep writing!! (and no, you *don’t* need to check your email. again.) :) (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Good to see you Peyton, glad your little bakery experiment is going well (bun in the oven? too much of a stretch?). I have no doubt eating regularly has a lot to do with it, but also pregnancy makes you a little test tube of chemicals. I’m glad your particular combo keeps you happy and focused 8) (Reply)

  2. Tom Meitner ()

    Kudos on two things: 1) having a schedule that tells you to write from 8am to noon, and 2) working in a wonderful reference to Tom Selleck’s mustache.

    Actually, thanks for doing a lot of this legwork on research. The people that tend to tell me they could never focus enough to work from home are also the ones that skip meals or eat garbage all the time. Looks like there’s a correlation. Interesting post! (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      The mustache is glorious, it’s true. And yes, people get stuck in a rut many times thinking traits are inherent to their personality or something (“I can’t self-start”), when what they really experiencing are just environmental pressures.

      Simple changes can make worlds of difference, especially for people who are operating at a low level already. Making a small change when you’re already productive and consciously efficient might help 1%, but if you’re a slob and you know it, a simple behavior shift could fundamentally change your life. (Reply)

  3. kara rane ()

    fun to read article, and I do agree that real food is a key to balance, and thus efficient work schedule. Although, there is more power to be had in our conscious breathe. We humans -according to some scientists- are the only animals able to consciously control our breathing (this is actually untrue, as sea mammals do sometimes cause their own demise with controlled breathe).
    Higher intelligence = controlled breathing. Breathe consciously 10 times, and feel more alive, happiness, clarity. (Reply)

  4. Purple Hatting ()

    Hi Pete,

    I got to try this glocose thing out – just to be sure. But yeah, the exercise really works.

    I just started two weeks back – everyday on the treadmill for around 30 minutes does wonders.

    Now I don’t knwo what to do with all teh extra energy! Write, maybe? ;) (Reply)

  5. Laura C ()

    This is hilariously fitting for me to read today (as I check my email to procrastinate writing at 1:00 am), as I did something I haven’t done in a while: I skipped breakfast, which led me to eat a terrible lunch (willpower out the window in favor of not feeling like I’m starving) which led me through an afternoon of feeling full from eating fat while feeling jittery from running on empty calories. Yuck. Maybe it’s good to remember how shitty this feels once in a while so I reinforce why I cut this behavior out years ago. For me, at least, there also seem to be severe consequences for being able to control my behavior when I’ve been working too hard too. I get going too fast and do things like, say, turning left at a don’t turn left sign in order to not be late for a meeting… which costs $130 in the city of Ann Arbor. Time to get back on track! You see officer, all this started because I ran out of Larabars this morning…. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Lol! Yes, it’s really easy to get derailed, and one bad thing leads to another, and soon you’re sitting in a jail cell with a girl who might be man, and wishing you’d just eaten some fresh granola and a spinach smoothy that morning instead of skipping breakfast. Let that be a lesson to you! (Reply)

  6. Ayngelina ()

    It’s my goal in 2011 to be more focused. I’m the typical type-A have 5 windows open at a time and swear I can handle it all.

    Actually I may not be doing so well as I have six open right now plus Tweetdeck and iTunes. (Reply)

    • Seth ()

      (This is not really directed at you, Ayngeline. You just got my wheels whirring and reminded me of something I find interesting.)

      It always makes me smile to see references to Type-A personality. Type-A/B stems from research done by a pair of cardiologists to identify people with high lifestyle/behavioral risks of coronary heart disease. Type A people are the high stress, high risk folks. Sure, more research has been done since then to expand our understanding of heart disease, but I still find it amazingly remarkable that we’ve somehow morphed it into an idolized persona in North American society. (Reply)

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  10. Daniel Reeves ()

    For anyone who wants to break out the heavy (anti-akrasia) artillery, what you’ll want is a commitment device [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commitment_device].

    There are various websites that offer them, like StickK and Beeminder.

    [disclosure: i'm part of beeminder] (Reply)

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