What I will attempt in this post is to define 3 common types of akrasia as I experience them, in the hope to generate more useful vocabulary for this very important subject.

This post is greatly inspired by: Do a cost-benefit analysis of your technology usage, and other posts linked from that. It did not say much in terms of new things, but it was yet another unironic "wake up, sheeple" call to re-inspect my phone usage.

Some clarifications about akrasia.

Something important to understand is that akratic behaviour is not the same for everyone. There is great variance about what people even consider an "unwanted activity". Most people are completely fine spending a weekend watching Netflix or playing a fun video game. And that's great. Akrasia is more about when you don't want to do these things: e.g. when you can't stop even though you wanted to do other things that weekend (like taking basic care of your body, or doing a straightforwardly more fun activity, like visiting a friend).

I think I am more on the strict side when it comes to considering things as akrasia: I find that doing many things that others consider normal makes me feel sick, guilty, and unsatisfied. And that I only do them when I'm akratic. I have a theory that most people should consider more things as serious unwanted behaviour, but that's a tale for another time.
What I'm trying to say is that this post is about activities that ultimately cause more harm than good, not legitimate fun activities. 

Now, I think it is useful to talk about 3 different kinds of akrasia: catastrophic akrasia, routine akrasia, and momentary akrasia.

1. Catastrophic akrasia

When, on some (hopefully rare) events, you spend many hours/days akratic and doing unwanted behaviour.

Examples

  • Binging Netflix
  • Scrolling Reddit/social media
  • Doom-scrolling
  • Deeply immersing into Skyrim
  • Playing one-more-turn of Civilization
  • Wikipedia deep dives, specifically into 99% irrelevant stuff that you know you will forget. I don't do this, but I understand some people do. You know who you are.
  • Spending the entire day high on weed
    • It's extra important for me to emphasize this last one with the fact that all of these activities are not always bad behaviour, and that this is a legitimate and good idea for some people. At least some of the time.

Symptoms

  • This obviously varies from person to person: magnitude varies widely: someone's catastrophic failure can be 3 hours, while another's can be months. It tends to be longer when it comes to things that really are Actually, Properly Addictive.
    Frequency also varies: some people crash every day, or every weekend, or every time they experience some repeating bad event (e.g. an argument with someone, or a bad day at work). To others, it's rarer, but sometimes higher rarity comes with a more catastrophic downfall.
  • Takes up valuable free time: often this is time that wasn't going to be spent on "productive" activities anyway. But that does not mean it wasn't going to be well spent. Not all fun and relaxing activities were created equal: some things make you feel better while/after doing them, while others make you feel worse. Calling both of them "entertainment", and saying they are what you should do because you want to have fun, is deceiving.

2. Routine akrasia

When every day you spend a medium amount of time on behaviours that do you harm. From 15 minutes to a few hours.

Examples

  • Spending 15-30 minutes on the phone as the very first thing after waking up.
  • The 30 minutes between when you finish eating in front of a video, and the time when you stop watching videos and get on with your life.
  • The 15 minutes between when you finish pooping, and the time when you stop scrolling and get on with your life.
  • Watching the news every day after work, despite strictly better alternatives existing, or despite no actual benefits.
  • Doing pretty much any item in the catastrophic akrasia examples list for more than 20 minutes, despite it not making you feel any better during or after doing it.

Symptoms

  • Lost time: again, this is time that could be spent doing something more fun, if that is what you want. I'm not against doing fun things, I'm against doing harmful or extremely inefficient things.
  • Bad morale: sometimes, watching YouTube just makes me feel more tired and unproductive. What started as a motivational flame sometimes dies out after a few videos that I started watching for no good reason.

3. Momentary akrasia

Akrasia that doesn't take much time out of the day, but it destroys your attention by constantly checking your phone, and having a damaging default behaviour for breaks/transition periods during the day. There is already much written about this subject, specifically the inspiration for this post. So I will keep this shorter.

Examples

  • Opening endless feed apps whenever there is even the smallest of empty moments during the day: Reddit, Instagram, TikTok.
  • Habitually checking communication apps: Facebook, Email. Potentially even WhatsApp or other messaging apps, but that is a more controversial addition.
  • Opening your phone on the toilet.
  • Opening mobile games or feed apps when there is a bit more time: while waiting for the bus, while riding the bus, while standing in a queue, while waiting for a class to start, etc.

Symptoms

  • Damages attention span and ability to focus.
  • Replaces passive thinking that would have been done during the empty spaces in the day.
  • It's important to note that this one does not take noticeable amounts of time, since it takes up only small empty moments and not big chunks of the day. This is fortunate, but it also means this sometimes sneaks under the radar under the false premise of "no time taken = no harm done".

Conclusion

I think these 3 types draw some useful distinctions. When talking about some unwanted behaviour, it may be valuable to put it in one of these 3 buckets.

Use cases:

  • "Playing Skyrim after work is the favourite part of my day, but sometimes I do it for an entire weekend, and it makes me feel sluggish during the following week. I don't categorize it as routine akrasia, since it makes me very happy every day. But the risk for catastrophic akrasia is a problem"
  • "I have a system in place to stop me from gaming for more than 3 hours, so catastrophic akrasia is not an issue. But if every day I routinely spend these 3 hours gaming, I don't have time or energy for any of my other hobbies"
  • "Having the Reddit app on my phone is fine in terms of catastrophic akrasia, because even in the worst case I get tired of it after an hour. The problem is that I keep opening it whenever there is a boring moment, even in class. So it's more of a momentary akrasia thing"
  • "I don't understand why people have trouble with their phones. Sure, the only time I'm more than 3 meters away from my phone is when I shower [momentary akrasia], but it doesn't take any noticeable chunks of time, so what's the problem?"
  • "I never had a routine akrasia problem with Facebook, but I still keep opening it for tens of times a day. So I'm going to uninstall it to prevent momentary akrasia"
  • "The reason I don't keep mobile games on my phone is I'm worried it will mean every time I'm opening my phone I will be on it for a while, and that it will stack up. I barely pick up my phone, so it's less of a momentary thing and more of a routine akrasia problem I'm trying to avoid here."

Potential causes and treatments are out of the scope of this post. But maybe I will share my current system in the future. If I do, I suspect this vocabulary will be quite useful.

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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:00 PM
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I felt like this classification system is potentially helpful.

But I felt that the title of the article could do with being refined. I read it as meaning that there were types of akrasia that could actually be beneficial for you in some surprising way, rather than it being beneficial to categorise akrasia by this typology.

Thanks for leaving a comment! This is my first LW post, so it's pretty exciting. :)
I will think more about the title when writing future posts.
 

This leans a bit close to the pedantry side, but the title is also a bit strange when taken literally. Three useful types (of akrasia categories)? Types of akrasia, right, not types of categories?

That said, I do really like this classification! Introspectively, it seems like the three could have quite distinct causes, so understanding which category you struggle with could be important for efforts to fix. 

Props for first post!

Oh, oops. I added the "categories" as panic-editing after the first comment. I have now returned it to the original (vague) title. Seems like a good time to use the "English is not my native language" excuse.

Thanks! I hope it helps you in the future.

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