Acedia: A New Word For Me

Many years ago the word “procrastination” entered my life. I had a word to describe that thing that I did: postponing stuff I needed to do. Waiting until the last minute, or until I was on the verge of trouble. In all these years, I have thought (and written) about procrastination quite a bit.

I still procrastinate.

Friday, a new word entered my world: acedia. It came to me through this article. It came on the heels of reading Laziness Does Not Exist, which amongst other things introduces the idea of executive function issues.

Acedia describes what I struggle with perfectly: I don’t feel like doing stuff — to the extent that it becomes a problem. And I feel bad about it. And I spend time faffing about, doing stuff I don’t really want to do, and feeling gloomy. Tie in recent discussions about social media and compulsion.

And the remedy — action — also feels familiar. Over the years, my quest to “solve” procrastination has led me to explore productivity techniques, forming habits and understanding habituation, establishing routines, happiness research… And one thing that I figured out was that when I was active, I was better. And that when I didn’t feel like doing anything, the best remedy was to do stuff. Catch-22, isn’t it?

Acedia is one of the seven sins. A lot of the literature around it is steeped in christian morality, or dated, but it’s still useful and interesting. That’s what’s wonderful about philosophy. We can learn from the ancient Stoics for our lives today, just like we can learn from Saint Thomas Aquinas. Go beyond the sin and figure out the psychology that is hiding in there. Here are a bunch of things I found.

I’d like to quote the really helpful comment on the first article nearly in full (thanks, Josh, whoever you are):

Throughout my attempts to change, I have thought long and hard about the question you raised. How do you choose to act when you don’t feel like it? How, in that moment when you are lying in bed about to fall asleep, and then you realize you didn’t take out the garbage which is going to be picked up early next morning, and you know you won’t get up early enough to take it out but you tell yourself you will get up anyway, how do you choose to get up and do it? This concept of knowing somewhere deep down inside that you should do something, but not doing it anyway, is known as akrasia, or the weakness of will. This is related to acedia but not the same thing: acedia is larger than akrasia but encompasses it.
The key part is that somewhere inside of you you believe that you should do that thing. If you didn’t believe that you should brush your teeth, then there wouldn’t be a problem (well, there would be, but it would be a whole different problem). And presumably you believe this for reasons. I believe that I should brush me teeth because if I don’t I’ll probably get cavities and lose my teeth which will be painful, expensive, and somewhat incapacitating. I believe that I should spend time with this person because I care about them, I want to develop their relationship, and it will ultimately be better for me as well. I believe that I should take out the trash now because otherwise it will overflow and my yard will start smelling like trash.
But apparently these reasons aren’t enough, or at least they aren’t always enough, evidenced by the fact that I don’t brush my teeth, take out the trash, or spend time with people a lot of the time. And yet if you look at the reasons I just gave, they should be completely sufficient for a rational person to do the given behavior. There are two factors as to why I don’t do these things in the moment. The first is because of little excuses I make in my head. For instance in the case of taking out the trash, I might tell myself, “I’ll take it out early next morning” or “I can go another week without overflowing the trash bin”. Or I might not even give a justification, like “It’s not that big of a deal.” The second is that I just don’t feel like it. I don’t have any energy. I feel empty. I don’t have the will. So I don’t do it.
So you have these two conflicting parts of you. The one that tells you you should get up and take the trash out. And the one that tells you should just go to sleep. There are six things that I have found most helpful in choosing the former self.
First, I think it needs to be said, you need to accept the reality of suffering. As much as I hate saying this and wish it wasn’t true, at some level, you need to accept that getting up will be unpleasant and move past that. As to how you accept and transcend this pain, it’s something I think that you need to learn in your own way. But there are certainly ways to help, which is what the next ones are.
Second, keep in mind your place in time. Remember how short your life is. Think about your funeral, and what kind of person you want to remembered as. Think about how the decision effect the type of person you’re becoming. Think about the percentage of your life that has already gone by, and the average human life span. Think about what you will think about yourself the next morning. Think, and think honestly, about the consequences of your decision.
Third, make and memorize rational sentences about why you should do the behavior, and then repeat them to yourself in the moment of ambivalence. This helps fight against the little lies you tell yourself to make yourself feel better about not doing the thing. For instance, if you’re trying to fight the urge to not brush your teeth, you might say the statement in your head, “By not brushing I am contributing to cavities, which in turn will be painful, expensive, make me less attractive, and I will never be able to get my real teeth back ever again.” Also you might prepare a mental image of what you would look like without teeth. Or you can also memorize and repeat more general things like a bible verse. “How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” Proverbs 6:9–11.
Fourth, use mental pictures. People think in pictures: they are extremely powerful. If you picture yourself after having done the thing you don’t feel like doing, this will almost certainly help motivate you.
Fifth, if it is something that will take an extended period of time, do it systematically. Break the thing up into manageable chunks and consistently work on the chunks over time, consistently being the key word. Plan things out ahead of time. Structure. Order. And do it intelligently and efficiently.
Sixth — more of an encouragement really, the more you repeat the said behavior, the more self-respect you gain, and the more self-respect you gain, the easier it becomes the next time. Eventually it will develop into a habit, which you won’t even have to think about. It may seem to get harder the longer you do it, but if you do it consistently for over a month then I guarantee it will get easier.

So, acedia.

I think there is something logical in that idleness breeds idleness, and action, action. I can’t remember if I ever read The Moral Animal to the end, but I did find the evolutionary psychology approach very interesting.

Go back to our “cave-dwelling” ancestors. If there is nothing you need to do to keep yourself safe and fed, then maybe it’s good not to have an urge to go out there and hunt and get eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. On the other hand, if you are busy keeping yourself alive, then maybe you want to keep that drive going. This is just an intuition of mine, an explanation I like, and I’m aware it’s a bit simplistic.

So, now that I’ve written this article, off to my next activity :-)


Originally published at Climb to the Stars.