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.
Sebastian, I loved this post so much I posted a link to it on my blog along with some snippets, I hope you don't mind!
Hey, Sebastian. Been a while.
I would say that video games are more appealing than starting a bank because of the lower risk. You risk a lot to start a bank or a business, write a book, or accomplish something else in real life. You risk far less sitting in a chair and staring at a screen.
Granted, the rewards are different as well. Starting a bank has a massive potential reward. Video games just give you a fleeting sense of accomplishment.
I try to do a bit of both. I play games for the story, mostly, and try to do things outside of video games (and other low risk/low reward activities) as well.
This is really interesting. I've never played video games myself, but Ive been interested in game theory since I saw the founder of Foursquare do a TED talk. For me, it's the systemization that's always been difficult; games score themselves after all. I wish I could do time tracking like you, but I always found that I would get too deeply focussed to keep track of things, and things like setting a timer to remind me to mark my time would distract me and ruin the flow. So I suppose you could say I model my surreal game after ones that focus on strategy, quick thinking, and creative problemsolving, with arbitrary points for style!
We often see game dynamics introduced as means to manipulate *other* people's behavior, whether for good (StackOverflow) or evil (credit card companies). It's nice to see you discussing game dynamics as a means of manipulating one's own behavior.
Maybe the two can meet, perhaps in a some kind of service that would help people accomplish what they want to by gamifying it. The social component would be crucial.
I suppose the hardest part is figuring out your goals, so you can accomplish the *right* things-- what you've called grand strategy. A game does that for you. I think that's related to your description of games as impersonal, since your person goals are very personal.
Sebastian- stellar post. I agree and disagree.
I think we could think of video games as IQ tests. Some of them are very, very, very difficult IQ tests-- in fact, probably some of the hardest and broadest IQ tests ever created, probably way better than what's being used now. And they're fun, which solves a key problem in testing, motivating people to take them.
But IQ tests (like video games) don't measure some things-- e.g., vision, drive, and the ability to defer gratification. And you've gotta have lots of these to do something like start a bank.
That said... I completely agree with your theme. Some video games are hellishly difficult, and if you can beat them you should be able to do most anything. And if you can learn from video games and structure your life more like one, that can be awesome.
Absolutely fantastic post. Saved it in my "Stellar Post" bookmark folder, haha :-)
I just want to add some information about time tracking, as some people seem to be interested into it in the comments section.
Time Tracking saved me from my uber-bad self-defeating procrastination habits. In my quest for ultimate productivity, I totally forgot how to actually SIT DOWN and do the effin' WORK.
I started time tracking a few months ago, thanks to those great posts and video explanations from Sebastian Marshall.
At first, I tried using seb's template and completely failed at it. It was way too much. I had totally forgotten his golden rule that he mentioned again in this post: any complex system started from a simple one.
I re-read his post and found that sentence: start small. So I went all in and JUST USED a simple text file with one header in it : Time Tracking Start
Gradually built my way up, had many iterations of my time tracking template. I'm now at version 2.0 and it feels great just to fill it throughout the day.
What helped me the most about time tracking? 2 things
1) It gave me info to finally understand why and how I was procrastinating. As the day passes and I write down what I did during a specific time lapse, I also take notes of how I felt, how I thought and what went through my head. I put these in BOLD so I can refer to them easier when I review my previous time tracks. I got a lot out of this and now I've figured this procrastination out: Sit down in front of your computer and immediately start working on important tasks. That's it.
2) It gives me some sort of "accountability". If I do something bad, I know I have to report it on my time track and it won't make me feel good. If I do something excellent, I feel great just typing it in my file. It feels excellent to say the least and keeps me motivated to doing more time tracking in the future. I want to write those great accomplishments down.
There you go! Hope this helped!
Sebastian, I just want to thank you for this magnificient post. It was one of those last steps I needed to have complete control of my life: how do you actually implement self-discipline when it's SOOOO convenient to make the easy decision? Keeping in mind the "entire consequences" of doing something is a concept that I will apply in my life from now on. Thanks man, GOLDEN stuff right there.
Wow. This is amazing. I love your blog but I think this is a post I'll read a couple of times.
I love how you pinpointed the fact that people take real life failure so personally.
I think - everyone who knows a game player, knows that they often match up to the stereotype of "sensitive, no social skills" at least to some extent. Maybe because they don't go out much and feel scared of the rejection etc? I love the concept of taking the "it hit me personally" out of failure and playing it like a game. I know, hurt and embarassment and rejection are reasons we don't take risks, but trying to take emotion out of failures, moving on to the next thing if we fail... I think that's a good goal.
Also loved the "create fantasy" stuff. I'm lazy by nature but when I'm dragged out to non-habitual places and experiences I love it! Definitely need to try to replace my values of "comfort and relaxed fun" (ie staying home, watching movies and tv shows with the hubby, ordering in, etc) with "adventure". This metaphor has been a real eye-opener for me.
I'm not time tracking yet :( But I have goals (eg, wake @6; exercise; meditate, etc) that I try to achieve for a week or two consistently and I do give myself mental achievement stars...
Are you still in Japan? What are future travel plans like?
Sebastian, I found this post quite useful. Could you link back to the posts you have had on time tracking? I'm really just getting into your blog now and they seem quite useful.
At the moment i have a system where i track my time but rarely look at where its going and that's working for me at the moment since right now in life i have time to spare, time that needs to be fueled into something.
Games are a subject all on their own, the mechanics inherent in them are awe inspiring. I recommend taking a look at extra credits http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits if you want to take a deeper looks at games or how to deliver a medium in general, they are a rare group that does a very good job at explaining and solving problems.
Life is boring as a sheep. Sheep like to play games. But when you stop being a sheep you realize there is just as much fun outside the fence, and you can make quite a life for yourself. sorry for using that metaphor, but its fits aptly here. Thanks for writing this Sebastian, It's a rare treat to find someone holding up the gaming format as a way to live.
Just wanted to drop a quick line, thanking you for so many interesting posts. I also have a few (hopefully) brief questions for you.
When you have several things to work on, how do you choose between them? I typically go back and forth, thinking that this one or that one is what I actually want to do. The problem is that none of these projects are small. And constantly changing my mind means that nothing gets done.
When you have a wide variety of interests, how do you choose what to spend your time on? Like I said, I go back and forth a lot. I'm only now taking a piano class (my second) because I forced myself to. Making myself take first aid type courses this summer as well, but there are a LOT of things I want to do. Art, more music, more programming (I'm a software developer), writing, and so on.
How can you fit your interests into the day when you have work, trying to find someone to start a family with, trying to keep healthy, and taking time to relax? The only way I can see it is to try to combine as many as you can into each activity. For example, find a job that keeps you active, do a relaxing social activity, and such.
No one is going to tell you an easy way to make money
In the beginning days of my gambling thing, it was very easy to make money. The system was basically foolproof and anyone with a credit card could make a good yearly income. I wasn't making money through any sort of skill, I was essentially exploiting a loophole. But here's the thing about loopholes: no one is going to tell you how to do them, especially not someone you don't really know personally. Because if too many people find out about a loophole, it closes. So if you want to make "easy money", you're probably going to have to stumble upon it yourself. If someone IS trying to share a loophole with you (especially aggressively, by email) it's probably a scam like a HYIP or a Forex trading scheme.
Most of the people who were gambling like I was now play poker. You can play poker online or in casinos and make six figures a year. But it's not a loophole, so it's okay to tell everyone. The barrier to entry is a few years of exhaustive practice, thousands of dollars to lose while learning, and the ability to sustain that lifestyle while you struggle to break even.