Shad's Musings


When I started this blog, I hoped to churn out at least one article every two weeks. However, it has been over 8 months since my last post and I felt frustrated because it was not the first time I set a seemingly easy goal but failed to follow through.

Out of my frustration came a desire to understand why I couldn't maintain my goal of a post every 2 weeks. I began my research on procrastination around September and I came across an interesting concept called Akrasia. This post is a series of notes I made on the topic.

What is Akrasia?

According to Google's dictionary, akrasia is:

the state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgement through weakness of will.

A student wants to set aside some study time in the next hour. The student knows the benefits of study time, however, they find themselves watching family guy during this period.

Here is another example:

9:00 AM: I have to study at 3PM
2:30 PM: Champions league game is on; Not feeling like studying, I can push it off to 5PM
4:55 PM: Got invited for early diner; I still have time in the evening, I'll study at 7PM
7:00 PM: Okay enough procrastinating, let me actually get some studying done.
7:30 PM: Oh crap! I have way more material to go through than I thought (panic sets in)

In those two examples we can see two things happening:

  1. Procrastination: irrationally delaying a task with immediate cost and delayed benefit.
  2. Preproperation: overindulgence in activities with immediate benefit and delayed cost.

How is it possible that we do stuff that's against our best future interests?

The most compelling explanation for me came from an economics concept known as time
. It's when your preferences change over time in such a way that what you like
today, is not what you like in the next hour, or tomorrow, or at some other point in the future. An example is how TV time is more preferable than study time in the present, but if asked yesterday on how to spend your time today, you would gladly mention that study time should come on top.

Unfortunately, Akrasia is a default setting for all humans, and the faster you recognize it, the better the chances of avoiding a potentially deleterious sequence of actions.

Let's start running

Let's say you want to pick up a running habit. If you are a first time runner, you will probably research on the best shoes, proper form etc., and it's easy to find yourself in forums where people are clocking 10K runs daily, and then you get discouraged because the thought of running 10K in the Nairobi sun is too daunting. However, the initial goal was to pick up a running habit, and not to run a 10K daily so let's stick with the former. You can break this up into 20 minute run sessions with the basic minimum of giving your best effort, and just like that we have made the goal easier to achieve, just a 20 minute run with no speed requirements. The most important thing is to get started and to get over the initial hump. However there are 2 things that
are likely to happen:

  1. You fail to get over the initial hump
  2. You get bored after the initial hump

Certain people may never face these issues, others might quickly recognize things going south and they will correct their path, and others(including myself) might fall into one of the aforementioned situations. However all hope is not lost, in fact, there are tools and strategies out there to help you defeat the tendency to "give up"/"get bored". I'll focus on one the one that I found most effective for my own challenges.

Commitment Contracts

One of the more impactful strategies that I came across was creating a commitment contract. Basically, you need to set penalties for your current self whenever you fail to do an action that you know will cost you in the future.

An example of a commitment contract would be, you will lose $5 if you do not get out of bed and meditate as soon as your alarm goes off. You set your alarm because you wanted to create time to meditate. When the alarm goes off, you might be tempted to stay in bed because it is warm, and you might end up rationalizing your behavior e.g. "I have never meditated in my life, so one day without meditation is not going to kill me". Although lack of meditation won't kill you, you will be denying your future self the upside of a meditation habit. The commitment contract now comes into play by adding a penalty that's felt in the present i.e. you get charged for not waking up early and meditating. You are now forced to meditate more, but after a certain period of consistent meditation, it becomes a habit, and you may not need that commitment contract anymore.

How can we apply the commitment contract to our running situation? I can create a contract whereby if I fail to go for a scheduled run, I will lose some money. The money represents the future fitness"points" that I lost because I didn't go for my run. I'll be starting off with small 20 minute runs, and I am unfit so I end up doing 2 miles. For some, that running time is awful, but remember our objective is to start running, not to run 4 miles in 20 minutes. Whenever I feel like slacking, I am reminded that I will lose $5, as a penalty from future self. Over time, my body gets accustomed to running, I notice that I am faster, and I am fitter. I am
finally realizing the gains of running consistently. I may have even reached a point, where I cannot start my day without a solid 5k run.

How can we apply the commitment contract to our student trying to study? We could get the student
to study could be to ask them tol donate money to a cause they hate for every hour that they procrastinate.
That way, watching that champions league game means that your least favorite charity gets your money. Although the incentives might be a bit warped, you will be setting up your future self for success.


Commitment contracts are great for getting over the initial hump of the habit forming process, but they can help with just getting things done that maybe spanning a long time horizon e.g. a thesis.

I created commitment contracts for my most troublesome habits/activities. I used beeminder and it has kept me honest for the last 6 months. You can track some of my activities on beeminder page, and you'll see that I still struggle from time to time, but I have also made considerable progress that have translated to real life benefits.

I plan on reviewing the data towards the end of the year and share any insights I can find.

Further reading

  1. Beeminder Blog :
  2. "Deep Work" by Carl Newport
  3. "Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick" by Wendy Wood
  4. "Getting Things Done" by David Allen