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Akrasia, Tomato

Sometimes you have to embrace the tomato to get things done.
Sometimes you have to embrace the tomato to get things done.

I ran across the term "akrasia" at a site I like called Beeminder.com. You can read more about akrasia in a nice essay over Beeminder, but for me the takeaway about akrasia is that if you set yourself on a certain course--developing a hundred lines of code a day, say--you aren't allowed to change your ground rules the moment it doesn't suit you to do the work anymore.

Akrasia is more complicated than that -- it's an old Greek word, afterall, but in the Beeminder world it works by making you take a breath before changing your game plan. It tries to tackle the problem of realizing you've overcommitted to a project (500 lines a day? You can't really do that, not every day), allowing you to modify your goal, but not allowing you to dial things down so that you're doing next to nothing every day starting right now.

Instead, you can change what you're committed to, but not for a week. In other words, the horizon for when you can change your game plan is always a week out.

And the one week part of it is more or less arbitrary. Beeminder locks you into a one week window just to keep things easy, but I can certainly imagine situations when three days were perfectly workable.

By way of a concrete example: say I decide to write one blog entry a day and I set up a Beeminder goal to that effect. Maybe five days into this madness I'm realizing that I'm really struggling with writing that blog post each and every day. My schedule just doesn't really support that level of effort.

So I need to change the program.

In an unstructured environment, that would probably end with me deciding that today was a great day to skip a blog post. Heck, probably tomorrow too.

In a world structured around the akrasia concept, I decide what my schedule should change to in a week. A week from now, I decide, I can change to three times a week. For the next week, however, I've got to hunker down and honor the commitment that I made to myself.

It doesn't sound like much, but it's a powerful concept.

Beeminder has a particular way of approaching this and making your progress toward a goal visible, but it's not the only way to thinking about it and I'd like to discuss here a couple other aspects that relate to akrasia, along with a couple of other tools that work nicely.

Future time

For the longest while, I have been thinking about a time management tool that I hope to build someday (someday!). It just can't be my top priority right now, but the closest thing I've seen to it so far is a site called Done By When.

It's a Google app, so you have to use it within Chrome. Basically, it's a to-do list where you superimpose the time you project needing for each task across a timeline. Once you've got a list of tasks entered into the system, it begins with today. Let's say you've set your "day" to be eight hours. Once you've got eight hours worth of tasks entered, the next task will be next to a timeline indicator that says it's a task for tomorrow. And so on, as tomorrow fills up.

In theory, when someone comes to you and asks you to do some new task, you should be able to tell them when you'll be able to do it. If they want it sooner, you should be able to tell them the consequence to other tasks if this task is prioritized. And you can drag around the tasks to move and reprioritize as needed. As the name of the service implies, you'll be able to see when things will be done by.

In reality, of course, this is largely wishful thinking. Things take longer than you think they will. You are given more tasks than will fit within your week, but they're all due within the week all the same.

Still, DoneByWhen gives you a chance to think about what to do and how long it will take to do it.

For myself, I find that once a couple dozen to-do's get tossed into a calendar like that, I start to fall behind and then I start to freeze up, unsure whether to do what's in front of me, or rethink the whole order of things. To get focused on doing something, I've found the Pomodoro technique something of a useful starting point.

I haven't turned out to be a real slave to the tomato, for one thing because my tasks tend to be a mix of long tasks (write an article) and very short tasks (manage projects with other people via email). For me, the trick turns out to be as simple as just really getting focused on *something*. What works for me is to set my iPhone timer for 10 minutes and start the countdown before I can dither any further. If I'm trying to decide what to do next, I go ahead and press the button to start the timer, at which time I have an ironclad rule that I have to *do* something, rather than think about process or read Web news or whatever.

As simple-headed as that sounds, it works. I start doing something, figuring I only have to do it for ten minutes, and then stuff starts getting done. When time's up, I repeat. Sometimes it's the simple things.

image by Thelonious Gonzo, http://www.flickr.com/photos/straight-nochaser/, used with permission.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Richardson is the principle nomad here at the Mode.
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