Pursuing the Excellent Life
Feb. 28, 2023

Overcoming weakness of will

Do you find yourself struggling to follow through on your goals and commitments, even when you know they are important? Do you ever feel like you lack the willpower to make lasting changes in your life? If so, you may be experiencing akrasia, or the weakness of will.

In this episode, Craig explores the causes of akrasia and provide practical strategies for overcoming this common challenge. Drawing on insights from psychology, philosophy,  and personal experience he discusses the causes and cures for akrasia. 

Whether you're struggling to stay on top of your work, get in shape, or make meaningful changes in your personal life, this episode offers valuable insights and practical tips to help you overcome akrasia and flourish in all areas of your life. Join Craig as he explores weakness of will and how to overcome it to achieve your goals and live an excellent life.

Live Well and Flourish website: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/

The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, hazel.crossler@gmail.com.

Production assistant - Paul Robert


Craig 00:01 
Did you ever do something that was against your better judgment? Maybe you ate that second cookie, or watched a stupid TV show rather than reading a good book (or listening to a good podcast!). If so, you’re human. In this episode, I offer some insights on what causes us to act this way, and what we can do to overcome weakness of will.

Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.
Sometimes, maybe even often, we seem to act against our better judgment. We do things that just don’t serve our long-term interests, even though we know better. It sure happens to me from time to time. Yeah, I’m looking at you key lime pie with a cold lager. It's delicious (try it if you don't believe me), but it's really not very healthy.

Craig 01:11  
Unfortunately, acting this way is contrary to flourishing because flourishing involves acting according to reason. If you act against your better judgment often, doing so will also get in the way of leading a fulfilling and satisfying life. Not a good thing …
It turns out that acting against better judgment isn’t new. People have been doing it … well, as long as there have been people. Philosophers have been interested in this phenomenon for a very long time. There’s even a Greek word for it: akrasia, which means weakness or lacking command. It’s a lack of self control, sometimes called a weakness of will. Akrasia involves acting against your better judgment - when you know what you should do, but you don’t do it, instead you choose to act in a way that’s detrimental to your goals and values. Lots of really smart people have thought about this problem for a long time. This ranges from the ancient philosophers to modern psychologists. Akrasia is a huge, pervasive human problem, one that’s deserving of our attention.

Craig 02:16 
What causes akrasia? I’m going to approach this question from three perspectives, Aristotle, modern psychology and my own take. 
Aristotle believed that akrasia was the result of conflict between reason and desire. He thought that people possess both rational and irrational parts. The rational part is, no surprise, responsible for using reason and making wise decisions. Emotions and desire drive the irrational part. When the irrational part overrides the rational part, akrasia results. You know what you should do (or not do), but that’s not how you act. Aristotle also believed that the ultimate cause of akrasia is a lack of virtue. Virtue, then, can also provide the antidote to akrasia. I’ll talk more about this in a bit.
Craig 03:06 
Modern psychology also gives us some clues on why akrasia is a persistent problem. I want to talk about a couple of these. The first comes from something called the dual-process theory, which says that there are two types of human mental processes, unconscious, automatic processes and conscious deliberate processes. The unconscious processes are responsible for quick, impulsive decisions, while the conscious processes take care of the deliberate, thoughtful decisions. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed from the words “automatic” and “deliberative,” the unconscious processes often rule. For many things, this isn’t a problem, in fact, such automatic processing is really necessary for functioning as a human. But for decisions and behaviors that have real consequences, letting the automatic processes win too often is a bad thing. When you do so you’re acting against your best interests.
Craig 04:03 
Psychologists also recognize the role of emotion in akrasia. Emotions can have huge impacts on decision-making, often leading to acting impulsively without thinking through the long-term consequences of a decision. Comfort food provides a good example. Sometimes when we’re feeling down, we reach for the ice cream, or make some creamy mac and cheese. Yummy and comforting, but only temporarily. Often the yumminess turns to regret when you realize that you’ve acted against your better judgment. That being said, the rare treat isn’t really a problem. Like a lot of things, it’s only a problem when you do too much of this. One interesting aspect of things like using comfort food as a coping mechanism is that they usually offer only temporary relief from the negative emotion or stress, nothing is done to address the situation in the long term. So whatever is bothering you is likely to recur.

Craig 05:02  
Alright, here’s my view. Let’s assume that you have the ability to reason and to think through possible consequences of your decisions and actions. (Since you’re listening to this podcast, I’m pretty confident in this assumption!) If you know how to think rationally, I think akrasia comes down to three things: a lack of mindfulness, a lack of knowledge of or focus on your core beliefs, values, and purpose, and a lack of a long-term focus. By the way, I’ve talked about these issues in previous episodes. I'll put some links in the show notes.
A lack of mindfulness can lead to akrasia. By the way, I’m using “mindfulness” here to essentially mean conscious awareness and attention, not the Buddhist notion of mindfulness. When you’re not really aware of what’s going on, of your own thoughts and feelings, it’s easy to let autopilot take over. Deliberative decision-making and intentional action require input and conscious awareness… they require being mindful. 
Craig 06:03 
It seems to me that another cause of akrasia is a lack of self-knowledge, particularly about your core beliefs, values, and purpose. Understanding these gives you guidance about what is a good or bad decision. Something can't be categorized as good or bad without applying some set of values or beliefs. So, applying judgment requires knowing what you believe and value. Purpose serves a similar … well purpose. It provides a standard against which to judge different actions. If you don’t have your values, beliefs and purpose as guiding lights, you’re flying blind.
Finally, I see a lack of long-term focus as a major cause of akrasia. It’s really easy to see short-term benefits. You know how great that steamy bowl of creamy mac and cheese is gonna taste. It’s harder to see potential heart problems that are years away. But that’s a possible outcome of too much akrasia when it comes to your diet. There are a lot of reasons for this - too many to get into here, but let’s just say that short-term thinking is easy and long-term thinking is hard.
Craig 07:12 
Let me make a connection to a larger point here. As regular listeners know, I’m a big proponent of taking conscious control of your life in order to flourish. That’s really the thread that ties most episodes together. Akrasia is rooted in a lack of control. Remember, to flourish, you must be in control of your thoughts and actions.
Alright, now you know what causes akrasia, so let’s talk about what you can do to avoid acting against your better judgment.
I’m going to share two views of how to overcome akrasia -- Aristotle’s (big surprise there) and mine.
For Aristotle, the keys to overcoming akrasia are to develop practical wisdom and to practice virtue. Practical wisdom is the ability to apply general knowledge to specific situations in a pragmatic way. This isn’t the navel gazing kind of abstract wisdom, this is wisdom for daily life. Practical wisdom involves balancing reason and desire, recognizing what is truly good for you, and then making choices that align with your values, beliefs, and purpose. See why those are so important? By the way, I’m planning an episode on practical wisdom, it should be out in a couple of weeks, if my plan isn’t overcome by akrasia!
Craig 08:29 
Aristotle also believed that virtue is essential to defeating akrasia. To Aristotle, living according to virtue is the result of deliberate practice to develop the habit of acting according to virtue. You become virtuous by consciously and consistently practicing virtue so that virtuous behavior becomes automatic over time. Note the link between the dual-process theory and Aristotle’s view. If your unconscious, automatic mental processes move you toward acting with virtue, you’ve taken what was an impediment to your flourishing, automatic processing, and made it a tool for overcoming akrasia. That's pretty nice, huh?
Craig 09:11 
Several virtues are especially important for overcoming akrasia, including courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. So, pay attention to developing these virtues and making them part of who you are, and you’ll be well on the way to overcoming akrasia. Benjamin Franklin developed an ingenious method for making virtues a habit. As you might have guessed, I did an episode about it. Yep, show notes or you can just go to livewellandfloursih.com and browse the episodes. Last time I looked it was on the second page of episodes.
In my view, engaging in four key practices will help you avoid akrasia.
Practice self-knowledge. I’ve already talked about the importance of understanding your values, beliefs, and purpose, so I won’t belabor the point here. I’ll just say that investments in increasing your understanding of yourself pays huge dividends in your flourishing.
Craig 10:06 
Practice self-awareness. To reduce akrasia, you need to be aware of how your choices, even small choices can help or hinder you in your journey towards living a flourishing life. Self-knowledge isn’t enough. You need to remain mindful about how your choices affect your path towards becoming the person you want to be and living the life you want to live.
Practice self-reflection. Reflection is what ties all of this together. Reflection is critical to growth and learning. Look, you’ll make some good choices, and sometimes akrasia will rear its ugly head and you’ll make bad choices. That’s life. Taking the time to reflect on the good and poor choices will help you become more aware of what makes a choice good or bad, and will also help you make better choices in the future.

Craig 10:56  
Finally, practice self-compassion. I’ve got news for you. You’re not perfect. Neither am I … nobody is. When you experience akrasia, it’s easy to become overly self-critical and that can lead to you engaging in negative self-talk. Don’t do it. That does you no good. Everyone runs into obstacles and experiences setbacks. Take these for what they are; temporary setbacks, not permanent states. Cut yourself some slack. You’re human. Engaging in too much self-criticism lowers your perception of your competence and autonomy, which hurts your well-being and also reduces your motivation to continue to try to act with conscious intention. When you practice your self-reflection, make it evaluative, not criticizing. Make it about learning, not about criticism and regret.
Craig 11:50 
OK. That’s my take. Let’s move on to three things you can do this week to reduce the effects of akrasia. But before doing so, I’d like to ask you a favor. If you get something out of the podcast, please do one of two things. Either send a friend to livewellandflourish.com so they can benefit as well, or really make my day and send me a message, even if it’s just to say that you’re listening. You can get in touch with me by using the “Contact Craig” link at the bottom right side of the main livewellandflourish.com page, or by emailing me at livewellandflourish@pm.me. That's livewellandflourish@pm.me

I'd really appreciate it if you'd do one of those two things.

Craig 12:38 
Alright, here are three things you can do this week to help overcome akrasia. My first suggestion is to set aside time at the end of each day to think about one or two times when you acted against your better judgment. Trust me, you'll be able to find some.  Ponder the nature of the situation that led you to act this way. Were you rushed? Overly emotional? Lacking awareness? Whatever. Spend a few minutes to analyze the event. Keep in mind that you WILL experience akrasia, a lot, usually many times a day if you're like me. That’s just being human. So, don’t get all judgy on yourself. Awareness is half the battle, but acceptance that you’re human is also critical.
Second, do the same thing for one or two times that you avoided akrasia through deliberate action. Dissect these as you did for the times when you fell victim to akrasia. It’s important to recognize the good decisions, don’t just focus on the bad ones. These self-reflections are the foundation for the third suggestion.
Craig 13:44 
Once you’ve done your reflecting you can write down two or three ways you’re going to try to avoid akrasia in similar situations in the future. I think writing these down is pretty important. Doing so will form a sort of commitment to yourself and will also give you a concrete goal to work towards. Focus on actions that will help you build a habit of relevant virtues. Remember the causes and cures I discussed today as you develop these goals.
It feels like there’s a lot in this episode, I know. There’s even more in the show notes. So I really encourage you to check out the notes for relevant links. There are a bunch of them.

Let’s close with a quote from author Will Durant, who is summarizing Aristotle here, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Until next time, be well my friends.
I produce Live Well and Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflourish.com
Until next time.