Akrasia, the glum staring trap, and that novel I keep threatening to write

21 Aug 2014, 7:57 p.m.

I learned a good new word the other day: akrasia, or acting against one's better judgment. That is to say, not doing the things you would prefer to do, even though you have the capability. A good example might be all the nights I've spent staring glumly at the computer screen, rather than writing or blogging or reading.

I picked up this word on the Beeminder blog, which I was, admittedly, reading as procrastination on another task. Beeminder was introduced to me by my flatmate, David

Oh, you didn't know that the-other-David and I had a flatmate now? Surely I blogged about it. Oh. Well, we moved in with him at the start of the summer, into a bigger flat with a view of the city, and got two cats, Sinister and Dexter. Here are some pictures:

Sinister and Dexter curled up on the sofa

The view from our new balcony. You can see the Alps in the distance!

Anyway, David is a big fan of Beeminder. He also gets a lot of writing done on his blog, reads lots of books, exercises and programs and does maths for fun and gets up earlier than me. I would love to do all that, but I will settle for spending less time staring glumly at the computer.

Why do I spend so much time doing this? (It really is quite a lot.) I think it's because what I would like to be doing, and what I think I ought to be doing, in my spare time is working on one of various projects that are largely computer-based: there's a novel that's been beating against the walls of my brain like a moth in a lampshade for months now, there's Crowdpee and related work, there is the website for the Ludothek and this blog, which I do occasionally think about keeping up. However, all of these totally voluntary and theoretically enjoyable tasks have a strangely high stress associated with them. I get as far as the laptop and then my willpower kind of peters out. Needless to say, resolving to work on a project and then spending the evening refreshing MetaFilter does not boost my self-confidence particularly much.

I am also gifted with true superpowers of avoidance and denial, which are ... not the superpowers I would have asked for. As such, I've been rather skeptical both that the Beeminder model would work for me, and that David's excellent blog post, You should write more, applied to me. It sounded more like, "You should subject yourself to stress and misery for uncertain gain."

I have found one tactic that's been working quite well, in the last couple of months. If I notice that I'm falling into the glum staring trap, it's time to shut the laptop and pick up a book. The idea is that time spent reading is much more enjoyable, and more useful, than not doing whatever it was I intended to get done, and that's not getting done anyway. I've definitely been reading more this summer than I was before (here's my Goodreads shelf for July).

The whole household — minus the cats, though their Twitter profiles do claim that they're co-developers on Airships — is also gearing up for a mini-hackathon this weekend, since we could all do with some time to focus on projects and also because David-my-boyfriend said we could get pizza in.

And then I was talking about the non-existent novel on Twitter, and Chrisi threatened to send me pictures of her pouting face for every day I didn't write, and I thought, wait, that sounds like a tactic I've heard somewhere before...

I am still pretty doubtful that I can make myself do anything productive, and I'm darkly curious to see what will happen when my motivation ebbs, as it will, but I'm going to give it a shot. For now, I have just three simple goals: blog more often, work on this damn book, and cycle to work. And I get a point for the first just as soon as I hit post on this.