Resolving Freedom vs Constraint

Sometimes, we have no trouble starting a story or project, but we’re unable to stick to one for long enough to actually get it done.

That’s fine if we’re just playing and exploring, but at some point, we need to learn to push for completion in order to grow.

The trouble is that we tend to rebel against any restrictions on our freedoms. We might start out with enthusiasm, but you will hit a point where continuing feels like a chore.

Freedom is important because it’s one of the few (if not the only) values that one can argue as being intrinsically good. Restrictions are important because constraints now can lead to freedom later. When used in this way, it’s called “self-control” or “discipline”.

This tension between Freedom and Constraint is present whenever we have the power to choose. And we always have that power, even if it might not seem like it. So how do we resolve the tension?

You resolve the tension between Freedom and Constraint by giving yourself constraint in the present, and potential freedom in the future.

Here’s how. Say you’re writing a short story, and you want to finish it. But around a third of the way through the first draft, your motivation starts to wane. You feel like you’re trudging through the muck. At this point a dangerous thought comes into mind:

“I should start over. Or maybe just scrap the whole idea and do something else!”

Once that seed of doubt is there, it’s present at every decision going forward. And since writing is nothing but a very long series of decisions, you’ll be facing doubt constantly.

But, you can lay that doubt to rest, like this:

“This story isn’t going anywhere. I’ll allow myself to stop, once I write 2000 more words. If at any point between now and then I change my mind and decide to keep at it, I’ll restart this rule for another 2000 words.”

The number of words depends on the scale of what you’re working on. Or you may decide to track time spent instead. But the key is in giving yourself the freedom to stop, at a clearly defined point in the future.

As another example: say you’re trying to change your diet, and are cutting out a lot of foods. You start out strong, and feel much better, so you know the diet is a good fit. But at some point, you start to see all the things you will “never be able to eat again”, and it starts to weigh on you. The solution is simple: allow yourself to have a cheat day, but only with a one week delay. And you can cancel the cheat day at any time, but if you do, you can only reschedule it again with another delay of a week.

This is called an “akrasia horizon”, and it’s a technique I learned from the habit tracker

Here’s why it works: What we want in the present is influenced by short-term emotions (frustration, confusion, overwhelm, doubt). What we want in the future is influenced by our values.

The emotional parts of our brain have very little concept of time, so the distinction between the future and the present is hazy… clearly visualized relief in the future can create real relief in the present. The stopping rule, therefore, allows your short-term emotions to feel as if they’ve accomplished their goal: they felt fear and anxiety, and you “took action” to relieve it (even if that action is in the future).

More importantly, the akrasia horizon technique neatly resolves the tension between freedom and constraint. You can commit to something and create constraints without fear, because:

  1. You know that you have the freedom to change it in the future.
  2. And you know that those changes won’t take effect immediately, so you’re using your long-term values and your better self to make that decision.

I’ve been talking about using this technique to finish projects, but it can have life-changing impact if used in other areas. For years, I’ve understood the importance of having some sense of purpose to my life… but the idea of writing it down was terrifying. What if I didn’t choose the “right” purpose? If I keep changing my mind, is it even worth writing down? With the akrasia horizon, those fears went away instantly, and I was able to write down a very rough list of “core priorities” to live by. My akrasia horizon started at one week, and that list changed often at first. But as they stabilized and I was able to feel more connected to the values I had written down, I extended the akrasia horizon to a month.

Next time you feel a tension between giving up and going on, try setting an akrasia horizon.

Give yourself the freedom to change course, but only with a sufficient delay. In other words, not on a whim. That way you’ll know that it’s really your deeper values driving your decision, and not the short-term emotions you’re experiencing in the moment.

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