"Compare your normal level of consciousness with that of an athlete in the zone, or with a person in an emergency. You'll realize that daily life consists mostly of different degrees of dullness and mindlessness."

- Culadasa (John Yates, Ph.D.), The Mind Illuminated

It has been noted that the term akrasia does not seemingly carve reality at the joints in a useful way. The general problem of knowing that you should do a thing and yet having trouble getting yourself to do it is an ancient problem, and luckily, people have actually been working on solving it for a long time.

A useful approach for solving a general problem is often to thoroughly solve a specific instance of that problem and then to try to generalize it. For thousands of years, humans have been working on solving a specific very difficult problem: how to make themselves sit down for up to an hour a day and meditate.

Meditation, on its face, is an overwhelmingly boring task, providing almost no intrinsic reward, especially for beginners. It is almost the degenerate case of making yourself do the most boring possible thing within the realm of actual human activity. It might (or might not) come as a surprise that over the centuries, those who teach meditation have narrowed the potential obstacles to meditation to only five: Desire, aversion, laziness or lethargy, agitation due to worry or remorse, and doubt. In this article, I will attempt to generalize these five hindrances to be applicable to any task, not just meditation. In so doing, I hope to provide a road map to fighting akrasia in the moment.

The following section is organized as follows: Each hindrance has specific qualities, which will help you recognize its occurrence; a cause, which explains why this specific form of resistance arises; and remedies to be employed in the moment of recognizing it.

  1. Desire

    • Qualities

      • Distraction due to intrusive thoughts of pleasures related to material existence or attempts to avoid their opposites.

      • Gain/loss, fame/obscurity, pleasure/pain, praise/blame.

    • Cause

      • Desire is the sensation of wanting to obtain or keep something, and is healthy and good in the appropriate context.

    • Remedies

      • "Unification of mind" - cognitively emphasize the utility of having a mind that is singularly engaged on the current task, and set the firm intention to do so.

      • Briefly address the negative consequences that would come along with getting whatever pleasure it is you feel distracted by.

      • Focus on the pleasure of the current moment. If you are actively engaged with an important task, there will be pleasurable sensations and thoughts associated with that fact. Give yourself a mental pat on the back. Let yourself appreciate your own attentiveness and specifically note the quality of pleasure associated with doing so.

  2. Aversion

    • Qualities

      • Resistance, rejection, denial, dissatisfaction, judgement, self-accusation and boredom.

      • Wanting things to not be the way they are.

      • Fear is a case of being averse to something that hasn't occurred.

      • Pain causes aversion, but isn't itself aversion.

    • Cause

      • Aversion motivates us to avoid or eliminate what is unpleasant or harmful.

    • Remedies

      • Rest and narrow your focus toward the task at hand. Increase your concentration.

      • Conversely, you can broaden your focus to your whole sensorium, making the distracting thought/sensations seem diminished by comparison, and then refocus your attention on the task at hand.

      • Similarly to the remedy for Desire, focus on the pleasure/happiness to be found in the present moment, and whatever other present-oriented positive mental states can be recognized.

      • If your aversive thoughts involve ill-will toward other people or yourself, switch briefly to producing feelings of good-will for your target, then gently put your attention back on the task at hand.

  3. Laziness or lethargy

    • Qualities

      • Procrastination, sleepiness, lack of motivation.

      • Laziness arises when the cost of an activity seems to outweigh the benefits.

      • Lethargy arises when there seems to be nothing interesting or rewarding going on.

    • Causes

      • Laziness motivates us to conserve our energy for tasks that might be more valuable.

    • Remedies

      • Intentionally muster up the motivation for the task by focusing on future rewards.

      • "Just do it" - plunge into the task despite resistance and focus on the positive qualities of the task (i.e. just start the task and if Aversion arises, then employ the remedies for Aversion).

      • Try to remain in the moment, focus on what you're actually doing, stop watching the clock.

      • Do more. Go faster. Engage harder. If the task isn't stimulating you, push the throttle until it does.

      • If you suspect your torpor to be of a partly physical origin, re-invigorate your body and mind by moving around, drinking some water, splashing cold water on your face, then aggressively engage with the task again.

  4. Agitation due to worry and remorse

    • Qualities

      • Agitation due to possible consequences.

      • Anxiety due to imagined scenarios.

    • Causes

      • Helps us prepare for an uncertain future.

    • Remedies

      • Resolve to take positive action to correct past mistakes.

      • Cognitively let go of past mistakes.

      • Intentionally focus on the present joy and pleasantness of the moment. Joyfulness both makes it difficult to focus on negative events or possibilities, and situates remorse in a more psychologically tolerable context, from which you can move past it in the moment.

      • As with Aversion, you can either broaden your focus to the entire current context, or narrow it back onto the specific thing you need to do. One of these will probably feel more "right". Agitation has its own Aversive quality, so it makes sense that some of the remedies for Aversion will work here, and vice versa.

  5. Doubt

    • Qualities

      • Focus on negative results or outcomes.

      • A positive mental quality that becomes pathological when one focuses only on the emotional quality which saps motivation rather than performing a cognitive appraisal of the utility of the task.

      • May involve comparing your own performance to others'.

    • Causes

      • Keeps us from wasting our time and resources on unnecessary activities.

      • Invites us to question our current behavior with reasoned skepticism.

    • Remedies

      • Use reasoning abilities to fully engage with and dissolve the doubt (or find it to be a valid doubt, if rational analysis proves it to be so).

      • Doubt is dispelled by the trust and confidence that comes from success; success comes from persistent effort; just keep going!

      • Re-examine your motivation and ensure it is powerful and convincing.

      • Sustained attention to the task at hand.

Bonus meta-skills:

  • When you find your mind wandering from the task at hand, rejoice. Give yourself a big smile and mental cheer. Imagine that sound that plays when your character gains a level. If you react this way, you'll condition yourself to notice mind-wandering. Do not beat yourself up. If you yell at yourself, you'll condition yourself to avoid noticing mind-wandering.

  • Likewise, when you notice reluctance to start or continue a task, engage with the resistance with curiosity and objectivity, and try to lightly and playfully ferret out which of the above hindrances might be in play. Use the acronym RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Non-Identification. This means you notice the resistance, you accept its presence neutrally, investigate it calmly, and don't identify with whatever you find. Give yourself a pat on the back when you employ this algorithm. The last thing you need is aversion about your aversion.

  • You may have noticed that some variety of "engage with the present moment and focus on the intrinsic pleasurable qualities of whatever it is you're doing" appear as remedies for more than one of the hindrances. You can preempt the manifestation of most of the hindrances by maintaining this kind of mindful, present-oriented, enjoyment-based approach to your tasks. There's something engaging and pleasurable to be found in any possible task, even if that task is sitting with your eyes closed.

The five hindrances are likely familiar to you, and I personally find that "akrasia" is just one of these issues surrounded by an aversive haze that obscures its true nature. The remedies may feel obvious to you. Regardless, you'll find it's convenient to have a handy, semi-proven, distilled flowchart of solutions to the specific issues that arise while battling the many-headed hydra of akrasia.

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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:37 AM

I like the practicality of this! There are a couple of additions I'd like to see to it, specifically citations and references for a couple of points:

It has been noted that the term akrasia does not seemingly carve reality at the joints in a useful way.

A useful approach for solving a general problem is often to thoroughly solve a specific instance of that problem and then to try to generalize it.

over the centuries, those who teach meditation have narrowed the potential obstacles to meditation to only five:

It also seems like there's some shared inspiration with this post on procrastination and I'd be interested in seeing some discussion of how these different frameworks relate to one another.

Off the top of my head, desire seems related to impulsiveness, laziness relates to all of expectancy, value, and delay, doubt primarily relates to expectancy, and aversion and agitation don't seem to have parallels (aversion might also involve expectancy?). Does this mean that separating value and delay isn't useful, or that it just isn't useful for meditation? Is there an extra focus on expectancy in meditation? This is also the sort of thing where having more in depth sources for where you found these obstacles might allow me to answer these questions on my own.

Regarding references, you're right, I should track those down. I should have put them in the original post, actually. The main resource is the book The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa (John Yates), but many of the one-off claims you cited were from old Less Wrong posts. For example, the mention of akrasia being a less-than-clear term came from Less Wrong.

Regarding Lukeprog's post, I think the approach of manipulating terms of the Motivation Equation (1) doesn't address all potential reasons why you may find yourself resistant to doing a thing, (2) is a very abstract set of tactics that requires a large amount of thought and analysis that you won't feel like doing if you find that you have a haze of resistance around the task, and (3) the remedies in that post don't actually work, though they seem like they should.

Regarding (1), How to Beat Procrastination will not help you if your problem is aversion. If some component of you has icky feelings about it, you can tweak Expectancy, Value, Impulsiveness and Delay all you want, and you're still going to be hugely resistant to starting the task, and if you do start it without addressing the aversion, you're going to do so with a lot of cognitive overhead dedicated to keeping the aversion at bay. You're probably going to be in a terrible mood the whole time.

In contrast, if you face the aversion directly, you may find that your Motivation Equation terms are all just fine, and the obstacle to starting is removed.

Regarding (2), does anybody every actually ... do what Lukeprog suggests? Successfully? If so, for how many tasks in a week? At some point, the task of doing the Motivation Equation Analysis is such a chore that you have to do a Motivation Equation Analysis on it.

Regarding (3), back when Lukeprog wrote that, I actually tried those tactics, and indeed found that I could put forth great effort to construct the most carefully crafted SMART goals humanly possible and still find that things weren't getting done. I tried analyzing the terms of my Motivation Equations and found that I couldn't materially budge the parameters. Maybe other people are different. What helps me is a framework in which I can readily and simply diagnose what's happening, in the moment, and apply a simple remedy.

I agree with magfrump on using citations, and I'm also interested in seeing how different anti-akrasia frameworks relate to each other. For example, the Motivation-Opportunity-Ability model comes to mind, which seems strictly simpler than the "five hindrances" presented here. But I guess there is the question of how specific vs. how general we want to be: too fine-grained and the model becomes impractical to use; too coarse-grained and it loses effectiveness due to being vague.

I think the different anti-akrasia (or, as I might prefer, pro-getting things done) frameworks are hierarchical in some cases.

The Motivation-Opportunity-Ability model would be closer to the top of the hierarchy. Opportunity and Ability are requirements that can't be ignored, but they also aren't usually what people are talking about with akrasia. You don't blame "akrasia" when you can't do something because you forgot your tools at home, you blame poor planning.

When you find yourself in the right situation with the right tools and full ability to solve the problem and yet you still find that you aren't working on it, you know that your problem is Motivation. Something like the Five Hindrances model as well as any method based on looking at the Motivation Equation are addressing Motivation specifically.

Also, the Motivation Equation is abstract and lacks built-in solutions, while something like the Five Hindrances approach is specific and actionable. You can look at the Motivation Equation and realize that the problem is that your Delay term is too big. Okay, so? You should be able to work on things that don't require instant gratification.

But you could look at the Five Hindrances model and view this as an Aversion to wasting time and also a straightforward instance of Laziness/Lethargy. Apply the appropriate antidotes to those hindrances. Suddenly you find that you did the task despite that daunting Delay term.