Effective Brain Training: Strategies To Overcome Akrasia & Follow Through

Not following through with your intentions or commitments is one of the major obstacles for effective brain training. For as long as training programs have been around to improve health or performance, we have been delaying, avoiding, and procrastinating with our training schedules.

This article looks at some of the science behind what the ancient Greek philosophers called Akrasia – the failure of will and self-control where we act against our better judgement. The article shares some useful strategies that can help with Akrasia, promoting effective brain training.

 

Akrasia – What Is It?

Akrasia can be defined in terms of two distinct problems:

  • Procrastination – the irrational delaying of tasks with immediate cost but long-term benefit (e.g. putting off your training today).
  • Preproperation – the irrational pursuit of activities with immediate benefit  but long-term cost – i.e. instant gratification (e.g. scrolling through your FB feed, rather than training this morning).

The Greek philosopher Socrates claimed a person never chooses to act poorly or against his better judgment. Actions that go against what we judge to right are only a product of being ignorant of facts or knowledge of what is best or good – in other words, Akrasia does not exist. “No one goes willingly towards the bad” says Socrates. The more knowledgeable and wise we are the better our outcomes.

But while this theoretical view is life-affirming it is clearly in error in practice. Akrasia seems to be more of a problem than ever. The percentage of people who admit to difficulties with procrastination quadrupled between 1978 and 2002 according to one survey.

Akrasia isn’t an issue of changing desires. It’s not like “Well, I thought I didn’t want another heart attack but it turned out there was always something really tasty to eat that was salty, fatty and high in cholesterol!” As though what you really desire changes as the opportunity to binge on junk food arises.

And Akrasia isn’t an issue of being conflicted about what you want. The trade-off you made – more unhealthy food, high risk of heart attack – was clearly irrational.

You somehow we often don’t do what we genuinely want to do and know we should do.

What does the science tell us to help explain why we avoid the things we know we should be doing? If we can tease out some underlying causes for this problem, we can start to devise some strategies to counter it.

 

TIME-INCONSISTENCY

One answer is what psychologists call ‘time inconsistency’ which is our tendency to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.

This is illustrated nicely in a famous study on grocery-buying habits: When shopping for groceries online for delivery tomorrow  we tend to buy a lot more sweet ice cream and a lot fewer healthy vegetables than when we’re shopping for delivery next week. Our preferences are inconsistent over time. Our ability to weigh the benefits (yumminess, healthiness) is weakened when we can tap benefits immediately and get instant gratification.

A useful way to understand this is by imagining that you have two selves: your Present Self and your Future Self. When you set goals for yourself like completing a 20 Session brain training program, or losing 10 kg of weight or increasing income by $1000— you are envisioning what you want your Future Self to have accomplished.

But long-term rewards are harder to motivate us than short-term rewards. It is far easier for your Present Self to see the value of spending $50 now, than spending $50 or more for the 70-year-old you! And it’s easy to rationalize with your Present Self.

Your Future Self wants to be fit and healthy; your Present Self wants ice cream. But hey, consequences like an increased risk for diabetes or heart failure are years away.

Your Future Self wants to have saved for retirement from your 20s or 30s; your Present Self wants to spend all surplus earnings on holidays. And hey, the benefit of saving is decades off, in an uncertain future.

So what can be done about this glitch in our rationality – this time-based source of akrasia?

 

Self-binding

One technique we can use is a commitment device. This is a way of changing one’s own incentives to make an otherwise empty longer term promise credible. A classic example is a game of ‘chicken’ against an opponent, where you e.g. rip the steering wheel out of your car so you can’t swerve, thereby increases the chances of winning. With a commitment device you meaningfully constrain your future self’s actions. This is one way of making your Present Self as travels through time more consistent with your desired Future Self – more time consistent.

Some common examples from everyday life are the following (from the blog Beeminder):

  • Deleting games from your computer so you can’t be tempted to play them later.
  • Going somewhere without internet access to get work done or using a purposefully handicapped computer.
  • Using software that stops you from visiting time-wasting sites like Facebook. E.g. LeechBlock or SelfControl for Macs.
  • Use a habit tracking app such as Productive that makes your daily actions more accountable, giving you game-like incentives to stick to your commitments on a daily basis.
  • Commit to doing something with a friend at a specific time. The cost of skipping the task becomes more compelling –  you look like a jerk.
  • Make a contract with someone – or a charity – that commits you to forfeiting a significant sum of money if you don’t follow through on your goal (such as Beeminder or Stickk)
  • Not having a TV in the house.
  • Choosing to live somewhere that will force you to walk/bike further. (In theory you could live closer and take a longer route, but you won’t.)
  • Using debit cards instead of credit cards, which force you not to spend more than you have.
  • Withdrawing less cash from the ATM to limit future spending or using MasterCard’s inControl credit card that shuts off once a set budget is reached.
  • Putting money in a Christmas Club account — a savings account that you cannot withdraw from until December. Or using a layaway program to force yourself to save up for a cherished item.

 

Self-binding for effective brain training

  • Commit to a certain number of training sessions each week, and use a habit tracking app like Productive to stick to help with that commitment. If you want to be more radical, use Beeminder to forfeit money if you do not keep up with your daily schedule.
  • Use social accountability or coaching to motivate you to train with an app such as Coach.me.
  • Go somewhere where there is no internet access during your training. i3 Mindware is a desktop download.
  • Alternatively, use software to stop you visiting time-wasting social media sites when you want to train.
  • Remove your TV for the duration of your training, if this absorbs time that conflicts with your training goal.

 

ACTION THRESHOLDS

It has often been observed that friction that causes procrastination is often centered around starting a task, not actually following through with it once you’ve begun.

Think back to when you’ve had a deadline for a report or paper. You keep putting it off, even though you experience some guilt and anxiety thinking about it. The emotional cost of putting it off is not enough for you to cross your action threshold earlier – at a time when you should be crossing it. But then…wham: what were more remote future consequences come crashing down on you in the present, and the day before the deadline the pressure ‘forces’ you to cross the action line, frantically writing that report just hours before it is due!

What is worth observing here is that the emotional pain – the anxiety and guilt – you may feel while procrastinating is often  worse than the effort you have to put in while you’re working. The problem is not doing the work, it’s starting the work.

“On a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.”

           Eliezer Yudkowsky

So how can we give ourselves a ‘nudge’ to cross the action-threshold and get relief from the emotional costs of procrastinating, while benefiting from the momentum of the task itself?

 

1. Temptation-bundling

Temptation-bundling is one method we can use to cross the action-threshold. This concept came out of behavioral economics research undertaken by Katy Milkman at The University of Pennsylvania. She based this research on a personal insight:

“I struggle at the end of a long day to get myself to the gym even though I know that I should go. And at the end of a long day, I also struggle with the desire to watch my favorite TV shows instead of getting work done.

And so I actually realized that those two temptations, those two struggles I faced, could be combined to solve both problems.” Katy Milkman, Wharton School of Business

By ‘bundling’ like this, not only did Milkman go to the gym more often, she actually looked forward to going to the gym because it meant that she got to do one of her favorite things – watch her favorite TV shows.

This strategy requires that you bundle a behavior that is gratifying now – for your Present Self – with a behaviour that is good for you in the long-term – for your Future Self. In this way it’s easier to get started, and the momentum of this commitment may then carry you through.

Here are a few examples from James Clear’s blog:

  • Only listen to audiobooks or podcasts you love while exercising.
  • Only watch your favorite show while ironing or doing household chores.
  • Only eat at your favorite restaurant when conducting your monthly meeting with a difficult colleague.

 

Temptation bundling for effective brain training

You could try any of the following to apply this principle to your brain training program:

  • Only drink the coffee you look forward to each day when you are doing a brain training session.
  • If you snack regularly, only have food snacks that you love – e.g. ice cream, chocolate, desserts, sweets – when you are doing your brain training session.
  • Do your brain training when you are feeling great after a hard workout (this is particularly good for the synergy effect).
  • Do your brain training after work when you change clothes and feel relaxed, in your own comfort zone.

 

2. Habit-building

Another way of crossing the action-threshold to follow through with our intentions is by turning your goals into low-intensity habits.

Our habits account for about 40% of our behaviors on any given day according to this Duke University review.  Understanding how current habits work and how to build new ones efficiently is critical for making progress with your health and performance goals.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams’s claim that goals are for losers. Adams argues we need systems not goals. ‘Systems’ are defined as “something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run”. A ‘system’ is a habit.

“If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal. […] Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.” Scott Adams

What is needed is a process of continuous progress through habits rather than a fixation on end states.

Take the example of weight loss. Better than a goal of  “lose 10 pounds in 2 months” is to have habits in place for living healthier and losing fat like “work out at least 3 times a week” or “skip dinner every other day”, or “cut out snacks”.

One way of encouraging a habit is the Don’t Break The Chain hack that became famous with Lifehacker’s article ‘Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret’.  This is the psychological trick of getting yourself to do something every day by looking at the chain of X’s for the days in a row you’ve done it so far. If you build up a nice streak it feels like a shame to break it – so you don’t.

The Don’t Break the Chain technique is built into the better habit building apps on the market such as Productive for iOS or HabitBull for both iOS and Android.

 

Habit-building for effective brain training

The quickest route to turning brain training goals such as ‘complete the 20 day course’ into actionable habits, is to make a daily or 5-day habit out of your training, using a habit building and tracking app.

 

3. Reducing habit load

If your habits are small and easy to start, then you will be less likely to procrastinate.

One strategy for making habits stick is to break them down into more manageable chunks. James Clear gives the example of the remarkable productivity of the famous writer Anthony Trollope.

“He published 47 novels, 18 works of non-fiction, 12 short stories, 2 plays, and an assortment of articles and letters. How did he do it? Instead of measuring his progress based on the completion of chapters or books, Trollope measured his progress in 15-minute increments. He set a goal of 250 words every 15 minutes and he continued this pattern for three hours each day. This approach allowed him to enjoy feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment every 15 minutes while continuing to work on the large task of writing a book.”

By managing your regular daily activities in this way cultivates an attitude of productivity and success (on your own terms) and helps you maintain momentum over the long-haul, improving the chances of attaining your Future Self ambitions.

Reducing habit-load for effective brain training

The simplest way of reducing habit load for your brain training program is a) starting with simpler games (e.g. Practice sessions) for shorter periods of time until you feel the relevant level of mastery has been attained to do the complete training exercises, and b) break up your daily training into smaller (e.g. half Session) blocks, in order to succeed in completing your training session, and build momentum for your one or two month program.

 

4. Prioritizing our efforts

Part of a ‘systems’ approach to seeing through your intentions and being productive is knowing how to prioritize your tasks. Prioritizing is another way of helping us cross our action thresholds.

One simple but effective way of determining priorities and following through with them is using a simple daily tick list. Back in 1918, Charles Schwab (one of the richest men in the world at the time) hired a productivity consultant called Ivy Lee to advise on better ways to boost efficiency. According to the story, Ivy Lee spent 15 minutes with each of the firm’s executives and told Schwab that if he saw results, to pay him in three months “for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.” After this test period, Schwab wrote Lee a check for the equivalent of $400,000 today. Here’s what Lee told each executive, now known as the ‘Ivy Lee Method’:

  1. At the end of the day, write down the six most important things that need to be done the following day.
  2. Prioritize them by importance.
  3. Next day, start on the first and most important task and work on it until it’s finished. Work on one task at a time.
  4. Do the same for every remaining task on your list. Move any tasks not finished by the end of the day to the next day’s task list.
  5. Do this every working day.

The Ivy Lee Method is similar to Warren Buffett’s 25-5 Rule that requires you to focus on just five critical tasks and ignore everything else.

This tick-list approach can be effective for the following reasons:

  • It is simple, robust and easy to apply
  • It is highly constrained, eliminating everything but the essential, thus concentrating our time and efforts to get results
  • It encourages us to work on one task at a time rather than multi-tasking which is a more efficient way of working
  • It is a system which helps build long-term habits
  • It provides incentives to cross our action-thresholds

 

5. Using motivating cues

The apps Productive and Beeminder are not only habit builders but also habit trackers – they provide visual feedback in the forms of verbal prompts, graphs and statistics to help us initiate our tasks and visualize our progress over time.

By definition, habits are repetitions of actions that can be initiated without intention and runs to completion with minimal conscious control. Habits are set off automatically by cues and motivating contexts.

The visual cues your habit app with its daily tick list give you can provide just this type of triggering cue. Your technological environment helps nudge you in the right direction, building over time contextual associations that can motivate successful habits. As the visual evidence of your actions accumulates using positive or negative feedback and the ‘Don’t Break The Chain’ strategy you are building  more compelling cues to sustain your habits over time. There are a variety of behavioral economics studies that demonstrate a similar effect called the Endowed Progress Effect.

 

Prioritizing our efforts and using motivating cues for effective brain training

I’ve found a very effective way to enact my  brain training as a daily (or x times per week) priority and to build brain training as a regular habit is to use the iOS app Productive.  HabitBull may work as an Android alternative. Productive enables you to implement the Ivy Lee Method or something similar, and provides a rich set of contextual cues and feedback for habit formation and tracking.

 

I am a cognitive scientist specializing in health, resilience and performance (HRP) brain training interventions and self-quantification. I have a joint Ph.D in cognitive psychology and neuroscience from the Center of the Neural Basis of Cognition (Carnegie Mellon/Pittsburgh) and for a number of years was a researcher at Cambridge University.

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