I’m going to explain one of my favorite life-improvement techniques over the past couple of years.
I thought of it as a result of talking to Ben Hoffman. He mentioned some innovation that worked for him, and sounded impossible for me. I think it was ‘regularly reflecting on what you are doing and how it could be better’ or something vague and virtuous like that. I’m a big fan of reflecting on one’s life and how to improve it, but doing it at really appropriate times seemed hard because often I’m distracted by other things, especially when things are going badly somehow. ‘Things could be better’ is not a very salient trigger upon which to act. And I had been struggling to allocate time to reflect on my life even when I actually put it in my plan for the day.
But then I realized that there was a thing I already wanted to do exactly when things were going badly—play a computer game. At the time it was a game I shall call SPP.
So I set these rules:
- I am not ever allowed to play SPP unless I have first gone to the place on my computer where I reflect, and written anything at all about what is going on in my life and how it could be better.
- If I reflect, I may then play SPP for five minutes.
This could be repeated arbitrarily often. Like, I can just swap back and forth between reflecting and playing SPP all afternoon if I want.
Consequently, every time the rest of my life became less appealing than playing SPP, I would briefly think about what was going wrong, and try to fix it. It is easy to remember to play a computer game. It is also easy (for me at least) to remember that I must not do a thing that I often want to do—much more so than it is to remember that I should do a thing that I rarely think of.
This system has worked really well for me I think. If I am feeling bad in any way, I’m very willing to reflect for an arbitrarily short time in order to be blamelessly playing a computer game for five minutes. And once I’m reflecting, I almost always do it for long enough to make a number of concrete improvements to the situation (e.g. put on noise-cancelling headphones and find some painkillers, or think of some way to make the task at hand less complicated). And I feel like this usually helps. Sometimes I become more physically comfortable. Sometimes I realize I should be doing some other activity entirely.
(Writing in particular seems more useful for me than freeform thinking—I might put down ten ideas about what is going wrong, and consider some ways to improve all of them, and then work through the list, which is too complicated for thinking.)
From the perspective of productivity, something like tens of minutes of gaming per day is a pretty good exchange for some well-timed problem solving, and probably pays for itself in terms of other dallying. From the perspective of having fun, this arrangement is more entertaining than most productivity hacks, because it allows me to play computer games about as much as I feel like.
There have been times when I have just gone back and forth between playing games and reflecting for many iterations. For instance, when I’m sick or have a bad headache. I think the likely alternative in those cases would often be to just focus entirely on escapism, and adding the short bouts of iterative improvement has helped me to actually escape from needing escapism faster.
It helps that playing a computer game is a natural response to a variety of problems for me (lack of motivation, physical pain, distractions, anxiety, social distress), but my guess is that other people feel the same way about other procrastinations. I got tired of SPP and didn’t have a new game for a while, which I think made my life worse. Lately I have found another one, and have picked this habit back up again.
I expect there are many reasons this won’t work for other people, but maybe it will for some, and maybe some variant on the underlying idea is useful. I think the underlying idea is something like this: instead of trying to remember to do X at time Y, find thing Z that you generally want to do at time Y, and prohibit it always without X. Or less generally: make some beloved source of procrastination contingent on a small amount of agentic contemplation of your problems.