Akrasia: A lack of command over oneself; a weakness of will. Akrasia encompasses procrastination, lack of self-control, lack of follow-through, and any kind of addictive behavior. (Source: Daniel Reeves, an economist who blogs at Messy Matters.) Pronounced ah-CRAZE-yah.
Akrasia was coined in ancient Greece from words meaning “lack of” and “power”; the word was used by Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers to describe a paradoxical inability to act in one’s own interests. Research scientist Daniel Reeves explains the concept:
It’s not like “Gee, I thought I wanted to get in shape but it turned out there was always something really good on TV!” No, even in hindsight, you regret not doing what you said you wanted to do. It’s not even that you’re merely conflicted about what you want. The trade-off you made—more TV watched, still not in shape—was patently ridiculous. You somehow don’t do what you genuinely want to do.
For millennia, humans have attempted to avert akrasia by employing some form of commitment device, defined by Freakonomics co-authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt as “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.” The classic commitment device was the one used 2,000 years ago by the Chinese general Han Xin, who assembled his soldiers with their backs to a river so that retreat was not an option. The contemporary version of Han Xin’s drastic tactic is an online program like StickK (yes, that’s how they spell it) or Beeminder. Both programs involve creating “commitment contracts” and tracking your progress. And both programs have serious pedigrees: StickK’s founders include Yale University economist Dean Karlan, author of a study of commitment devices; Beeminder was cofounded by the aforementioned Daniel Reeves, who has a PhD in computational game theory. I’ve used neither but admit a bias toward Beeminder because of the clever name, which suggests industriousness, and the nice tagline: “Reminders with a sting.” On the other hand, I applaud Karlan for including a reference (footnote #13, if you’re interested) to “The Simpsons” in his study.
Akrasia is also the name of a single-player game developed by the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab. According to the website, “It is based on the abstract concept of addiction, which is expressed metaphorically throughout the game.”