Question from a reader -
Kaizan (I believe this was the word encapsulating the concept that small but regular efforts both build momentum and create a larger effect)
You seem to have some of the best discipline and commitment I've seen in anyone. Quite frankly I have the toughest time fighting the urgency of the present for the promised windfalls of the future. Are there any tips you have for effectively depriving oneself now for greater long-term success? If you feel as though each small effort has no measurable impact, beyond the short-term perceived negative effects, how do you justify and reason that the long-term positive effects will come. E.g. how do you say "no I can't drink this coffee with milk in it because I'm avoiding carbs" or "I can't buy this interesting book because I'm trying to save" when the correlation between those individual events and the desired result (weight-control/savings) is unmeasurable?
I'm not sure the exact year, but somewhere around 2008 to 2010 I started thinking about why video games are so easy for people to get engaged in.
When you look at it objectively, a lot of video games are more difficult, more time-consuming, and more tedious than getting large real life successes.
Have you heard of the game NetHack?
It's been in continuous development for the last 20 years or so. It's all text-based graphics, very spartan in that sense, but those limited graphics make for extremely rich and deep gameplay and interaction with the world.
Oh, and it's really, really fucking hard.
When you die, you're dead forever. And it's really easy to die.
Basically, every time you touch a key on your keyboard, a turn passes.
If you hold a direction key on your keyboard, 20 turns will pass and you'll have moved 20 squares.
It's very, very possible to have a threat emerge and kill you in 2-3 turns. The game requires extreme patience, caution, and planning to get through. Even that might not be enough, but it's definitely required.
Beating NetHack is called "ascending" - I finally did it after a few years of playing.
And afterwards, I thought to myself - you know, I bet it's easier to start a bank in the real world than it is to ascend in NetHack.
So, I started looking up the requirements to start a bank. In the United States, it takes $16 million to capitalize a new bank, plus there's licenses and regulations and whatever. I was in Mongolia at the time, and I think Mongolia has a lot of space for new commercial banks.
So I went and met some people at the Mongolian Central Bank. I talked with some people in finance in Switzerland and America first, figured out what we needed to ask them, and then inquired about getting a banking license. I met... five or six people there, eventually culminating in meeting the Governor of the Bank's secretary, who gave me a copy of their annual reports and showed me where to find the relevant regulations.
Anyways. I haven't started a bank yet. But I really seriously suspect it's easier than beating NetHack. If you took 200,000 perfectly normal people and split them into groups of 100,000 - and half of them were instructed to beat NetHack and the other half were instructed to start a bank, and it was a really big deal if you succeeded or failed... I bet you'd get more new banks than NetHack ascensions.
Maybe I'm mistaken on this. But if you're playing NetHack, maybe not, huh?
So - that was my starting part into investigating success and habits and discipline and willpower.
Why are video games (even very challenging ones) more easily playable than real world achievements?
I don't play games any more, but I used to like hard games. NetHack, Darklands, Civilization IV on the top difficulties.
These are objectively more difficult, require more study, more nuanced, and more complex than the important things in the real world.
Writing emails to 100 people you admire is easier than crashing the Knight Templar's fortress in Darklands. Objectively, it is. Darklands is much more difficult than researching and reaching out to people you admire.
It takes far more time to research how to run a specialist economy in Civ IV than it does to optimize your personal finance infrastructure. I just got new credit cards that have no foreign exchange fees and good rewards... this means all my spending will cost 3% to 5% less in foreign countries going forwards. It was much, much easier to re-do my personal finance infrastructure from scratch than it was to beat Civ IV on Immortal difficulty.
So, why do people play games, but not build businesses, not build their personal finance, not research their personal health, not optimize their time, not do more creative work, not do more enterprising work, not reach out to people they could admire, not travel, not have new experiences, not train themselves, not become stronger and healthier, not read and learn and grow and...?
Well, I think we don't have to. I think it's very possible to choose to make your free time that you could be playing games into something else.
But you'd be wise to take some lessons from video games.
Off the top of my head -
In a video game, you don't personally identify with the results. If you get ambushed in Darklands and your party gets wrecked, you feel annoyed for a moment, then you reload or start a new game. But when you reach out to someone you don't know and they don't write back, you take it personally. At least, most people do. I think this holds people back. You can't take things personally... there's cause and effect. You have some influence over cause, and no direct influence over effect. You try to do interesting things in the world, and sometimes it doesn't work. Shrug. Reload the game or start a new one. You have to look at it like this when you're trying to meet people or do business or sell or whatever. If you invest all your identity and emotion and hopes and dreams into something, it becomes massively stressful and neurosis inducing. Try to dissolve that.
In a (well-designed) video game, you get an enjoyable learning curve. You get into the game, you start learning how to play, you gradually move up in skill and difficulty... in the best games, this is extremely fluid. You're always challenged a little bit. Real life doesn't work like this. You start off MASSIVELY terrible and ignorant and there's a ton of things you need to know to even get started adequately. Once you get those down, you go through a really enjoyable growth phase... but then you plateau for a while, and need to work at it to get more gains.
The ideal is the opposite - stay on an enjoyable, gentle growth curve. I've got goals on a weekly level for what I'm working on. I aim for a 70% success rate on those goals - if I'm succeeding above 70%, I add more difficulty or more things to do. If I'm falling behind and only hit 20% of my goals this week, I simplify and cut back to what's most important. That way I'm getting more wins than losses, but still in my stretch zone all the time, at the edge of my capability.
Life doesn't do that for you automatically. A well-designed video game does. But you can design your life and what you're working on like a good video game. You can set goals, interact with them, measure them, and so on - so that you're always on the challenging-but-enjoyable part of the growth curve.
Beyond that, almost all games have some sort of score, points, achievement, medals, gear, loot, something like that. When you slog through a painful dungeon or whatever, it's difficult and tedious maybe, but at the end you get the Grand Horned Helm of Whatever and... you know, it sounds trivial, but people love that sort of thing. Heck, when you play the original Super Mario Brothers, you get 100 points for jumping on a goomba. How much less addictive would those games have been without points?
So, create points in your own life. Now, I DON'T recommend you make some weird complicated structure. All successful complex structures grow out of successful simple structures.
But a couple things I enjoy - I track my time, the minutes literally going into different buckets.
Here's the last few weeks:
This week: EX 39/GD 416/OK 148/BD 116 (Tokyo/Kyoto, 9 days*, only 7 tracked)
2 week ago: EX 81/GD 568/OK 131/BD 121 (Chiba/Tokyo8 days)
3 week ago: EX 197/GD 648/OK 163/BD 22 (Tokyo, 6 days)
4 week ago: EX 86/GD 399/OK 286/BD 114 (UB/transit/Beijing/transit/Tokyo, 7 days)
5 week ago: EX 64/GD 411/OK 150/BD 284 (Ulan Bator, 11 days)
6 week ago: EX 82/GD 350/OK 96/BD 295 (Ulan Bator, 7 days)
That's in my shorthand. But basically:
Last week I spent 39 minutes per day on excellent tasks (mostly this is just high level creative work or enterprising work), 416 minutes a day in "good" time (regular maintenance work, walking, reading, etc), and then, unfortunately, 148 a day on "Okay" stuff (errands, general life) and 116 a day on "Bad" (mindlessly surfing the internet, stuck in transit without anything interesting happening).
Look at 3 weeks ago - 197 minutes per day on Excellent stuff... that was awesome, fantastic week. 648 a day on Good. So I was spending a little more than three hours a day doing important stuff, and just under 11 hours doing Good things with my time. Only 22 minutes on Bad - almost no time surfing the internet or wasting time or screwing around. But that was a legendary week right there.
Anyway, I've extolled the virtues of time tracking in the past so I won't do it again. An easier way to record your accomplishments to just have an "Accomplishments" file or section of your daily planning. Then write down everything you do that you're proud of. At the end of the week, you can see exactly where your time went.
Funny enough, you'll have days where you have no Accomplishments... and you'll see that... and you won't want it to continue.
Beyond that, video games are ridiculous and fantastic and almost surreal. I think there's some value in having ridiculous and fantastic and almost surreal experiences in your life. I should clarify that I quit all drinking and recreational drugs back in 2006, so I don't mean that. I mean, there's tons of interesting and weird things happening all the time, so jump in. Go to events you don't know anything about, check out different kinds of music, meet all sorts of different kinds of people.
Go through temples and ruins and nature. Go shoot different kinds of guns, try your hand at archery, go snowboarding, get your scuba licenses, go hiking, go camping, go to art shows, go to nightclubs, go have coffee at a high end hotel, go... go do stuff, y'know?
Heck, you can generate your own surreal and ridiculous experiences just by trying to not have smalltalk. I like talking history with people I meet. "Dai Nippon Tekoku ski des ka?" ("Imperial Japan... do you like it?") tends to kick off interesting discussions.
("That was a long time ago." "Not that long ago." "It's complicated." "I don't think it's complicated. Either you think Imperial Japan would have done better or worse job governing Eastern China than Mao, of governing Korea than Kim il-Sung and Syngman Rhee, of governing Vietnam than Ho Chi Minh and the red forces, and of governing Cambodia than the Khmer Rouge... do you think Japan would have done a better job? Interior China probably would have gone to Chiang Kai-shek without the red forces seizing Japan's weaponry and positions, and Japan couldn't have dug them out in the interior since Japan's strength was in the Navy... yes, what do you think? Dai Nippon Tekoku, sugoii ne?")
Video games are surreal and ridiculous, which makes them engaging and entertaining. What if you could get doses of surrealty and ridiculosity into your life? It would be possible, no?
In terms of the nuts and bolts of your question, I suppose I should answer directly - when I consider doing an action, I try to think about the full and entire consequences of it it. So I don't just think the cake will taste good - I think the cake will taste good, I'll get a sugar high, and then I'll get a crash from my bloodsugar going down, and then I'll be more fat and sluggish later. If you can encapsulate all of that in a thought, then it becomes easier to make the right decisions.
But decisionmaking is tricky. Setting rules and guidelines for yourself is easier. For me, I've tried to build my life to include the elements that make video games so playable and enjoyable, and I think it's largely helped.
It's not that I'm so disciplined. I'm just having a lot of fun playing a ridiculous and enjoyable and surreal game.