Might as Well be a Drug

A while back, I wrote about how the relative ease with which I traversed the education system led to a lifelong habit of procrastination. Suffice to say, the bad habit’s not yet kicked.

It’s not a terminal condition, to put it crudely. I have a job, and I get things done. But every minute I spend wandering YouTube or TV Tropes is a minute of a finite life pissed away. And while I’m not likely to go to the extreme of never indulging in these largely useless pastimes, the balance in my day is pretty badly skewed at present. It’s too much, and often at inappropriate times when I’m clearly putting off more important matters. Something’s gotta change, and that something is me.

Cue Zen Habits, a book whose Kickstarter I chipped in on last year and which has provided me with a great framework for bumping up my sporadic writing to a daily practice. Most of the book is dedicated to the formation of new good habits, but there is a chapter and an accompanying worksheet for helping quit a bad habit. So I’m putting that to use, in similar fashion to how I used public accountability, a Zen Habits tip, to goad myself into finishing last year’s NaNoWriMo. (Maybe I can come up with a similar stinger of a punishment for failure, eh?)

The goal starts this Saturday, Feb 22, with a super-easy target: 25 minutes a day of effort in which I indulge no digital distractions. Succeed with that, and I’ll add on another 25, and another 25, and so on until I have my work day full of wall-to-wall productivity. I’ve sketched out a whole plan beyond that according to the above worksheet, but that I’m sharing only with my accountability compadres on Habitica. For you folks in the blogosphere, I will instead post updates to Twitter.

Wish me luck and keep me honest!


Opiates of the Masses

Recently I read an article talking about how the eight hour work day is somewhat unnecessary, an artifact of outdated notions about employment. Despite various evidence that people tend not to be productive for more than three hours in a day, workplaces will settle for no less than a 40-hour week. The ensuing tiredness that your average worker feels upon returning home from one of these workdays then bolsters our consumer culture, because who wants to do anything besides sit and watch television and eat some easy-to-prepare food after such a long day?

I’ve also heard it said that our millennial generation is the generation of apathy. That the prevailing attitude about the great problems of our times is that there’s nothing you can do about it, so the best approach to take towards these topics is one of stoic acceptance. Putting these two things together, I began to wonder what else might be combining to reduce our culture’s ability to innovate, to create, to break free of its stale assumptions. I’ve written recently on my bad habits that keep me from being the creative and productive person I’d like to be, and I’m sure my experiences are not terribly unique. Recently I crested 80 hours of gameplay in the digital collectible card game Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, and I have to ask myself: if I’d spent those hours on my creative projects, how far along would I be by this point?

So many influences upon us in our daily environments are sedative in nature. We eat a diet high in carbohydrates that makes us sedentary and listless. Moreover, that diet is high in the psychoactive proteins found in modern dwarf wheat, putting us into a cycle of greater consumption and sluggishness of mind. Alcohol is cheap, widely available, and widely felt to be necessary to a good time or useful in escaping stress and other unpleasant feelings. Entertainment available at all hours spits out harsh blue light that diminishes our abilityto sleep, piling ever further on to the daily feeling of drowsiness and lack of ambition.

I’m no tinfoil hat wearer, but if there were some conspiracy to keep, say, the American public docile and compliant, it could hardly have come up with a better cocktail of influences. Sure, we can imbibe caffeine to give us back a bit of our lost energy and alertness, but it’s been my experience that this doesn’t entirely restore the cognitive faculties buried under the rest of this. Individually, one of these ingrained habits would be difficult enough to overcome, but in aggregate, they are overwhelming. Personal energy is crucial for fighting through frustrations and overcoming hurdles of motivation; our environments are all but tailored to afford us as little of that precious resource as possible.

I must marvel at the thought of what apotheosis we could attain if people the world over could break free of these things. If we weren’t narcotized by our food and our entertainment, how many more brilliant creative works would appear? How much easier would it be to enact political change, fight against kyriarchal systems, or pursue our “unrealistic” dreams? For those people who do manage to get out from under these widespread dulling factors and create something amazing, what is the secret sauce that enables them?

I can hope to make some dents in these things in my own life via the Zen Habits or other little insights I’ve picked up along the way, but it isn’t easy. When I get home from my standard eight hour shift, I feel a malaise that reminds me of the anhedonia of depression. I don’t want to so much as wash the dishes, much less write a novel or attend a rally. And so I play my computer games, and my life slowly ebbs away. Can I break free somehow, or will I be musing upon these same observations 20 years from now?

Social Network Unplug

This past week, I engaged in a counterculture experiment: I disconnected from the major social networks (Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter). I didn’t deactivate my accounts, but I did uninstall the apps from my tablet, and implemented DNS blocking to make the sites impossible to access from my desktop PC.

I wanted to try this for several reasons. A favorite blogger of mine, Leo Babauta, recommended disengaging from these sites as a way to reduce distraction and make room for more fulfilling activities. Recent uproar about the strange psychological engineering Facebook engages in has made me wonder: is the obligation I feel to keep up with the feed, too, artificial, engineered by advertisers rather than necessary to my most important relationships? I’ve long steered clear of discussion forums, because of how easily conversations in message threads can become toxic; the same is often true on social networks. Not only do such acrimonious dialogues frustrate me and torpedo my mood, but they tend to bring out the worst in me: sarcasm, uncharitableness, and so on.

How did it go, then?

My capacity for self-distraction goes beyond any specific site or activity. It was nice not to indulge the urge to go check networks, but I only made good use of a fraction of the reclaimed time. Instead I got hooked on “Epic Rap Battles of History,” played entirely too much “Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014,” and went on a Wikipedia spree reading articles about quantum physics. If I want to improve my motivation and productivity, social network disconnection is likely to be part of the picture, but not the whole.

The networks are insidious in their methods. Google and Facebook want to be indispensable parts of our lives, and they employ some sly tactics to achieve that goal. I found that I couldn’t use “Google Hangouts” to meet with people, because it employs the plus.google.com domain. Viewing YouTube videos put me back in the G+ sphere as well, because the comments system there is intertwined with the G+ post infrastructure. Tch!

I am indeed better off without (most) online discussion. Even a brief foray back to G+, occasioned by the Hangouts issue mentioned above, exposed me to some nasty Internet name-calling from people I know. There are more than a few folks I get along with great in meatspace, but as soon as we converse online, my interactions with them sour. And that goes both ways–my own online persona is harder to live with than my flesh-and-blood identity. Keeping things face-to-face whenever possible is likely to help preserve the peace.

Important news travels by word of mouth. Sure, I didn’t hear about the latest as fast as before, but I didn’t miss anything entirely. Conversations tend to start with “hey, did you hear about X?”, and if I say “no”, folks go on to fill me in. If I explain why I didn’t hear already, I may get a funny look, but that’s all. It’s seldom necessary, in any case; people already know that social-network news feeds are unreliable in delivering what you really want to see.

There are a few things I do miss out on. I’m involved in a handful of G+ communities, particularly some used for organizing local game get-togethers, and one for development on and support of HabitRPG. The conversations there don’t take place anywhere else, or if they do, it’s fragmentary and incomplete. Because I care about these projects, I noticed this particular absence quite a bit.

What’s next, then? Do I intend to stay unplugged? In part, at least, yes. I’m going to make a few tweaks and extend the experiment from a week to a month. I’ll use email and this blog for the majority of my online conversation-space needs, with broadcasts on Twitter to direct people here. I’m also considering how I might reclaim access to Hangouts and those few Communities without activating the whole G+ fire hose. If I can pull that off, I feel I might manage a good equilibrium, getting the principal benefits of social-network avoidance while mitigating the notable downsides.

HabitRPG Techniques

Kithia Verdon:

The hit productivity website HabitRPG has been a huge positive influence on my life over the last few months. Here are some of the self-improvements I credit the site with helping me achieve:

  • Stopped using electronics in bed, leading to earlier and better sleep
  • Stopped logging on to the computer in the morning before work, leading to a less distracted morning routine and making it to work at a more consistent time
  • Daily flossing. A classic!
  • Dramatically reduced how often I indulge anxious self-critical thoughts
  • Dramatically reduced the amount of time I spend playing video games and tooling about on social media sites like Facebook
  • Increased the number of Pomodoros of focused work I achieve each day
  • Via the site’s active and friendly community of developers, started learning Web development and contributing to the site’s open-source code

If you have any interest in forming better habits and getting things done, I encourage you to check out this site, especially if you also have a love of classic console RPGs! If you’re already using the site, here are a few techniques I’ve been using to make my use of the site even more effective.

Timed Rewards. I found that for things I’d like to spend less time on, but which aren’t intrinsically bad (Facebook surfing, video gaming), setting them up as negative Habits didn’t work very well. Instead, I build them out as Rewards with a gold:time exchange rate. When I want to spend some time shooting zombies or being a social-media zombie myself, I buy the Reward and queue up the corresponding amount of time as a repeating countdown timer. When the bell rings, I decide whether I’d like to keep going, in which case I purchase the Reward anew, or I close things down and move on elsewhere. Just putting the item on my Rewards list is sufficient to really cut down my reflexive use of those distractions!

Big, long-term Rewards. I’ve got some Rewards in mind that represent major purchases: I’ve been drooling over the idea of getting a fancy solid state hard drive for my PC, for instance. I want myself to work hard to earn something like that! So I build it with a really large gold price: 750, in this case. Then I set up another Reward with a lesser cost, 1 or 5 or 10, and whenever I buy that Reward, I reduce the cost of the major Reward accordingly. It helps with the discipline needed to bank toward a long-term goal! I’m thinking of also having these Rewards represent a gold:dollars exchange rate, such that when I do that incremental purchase, I move the corresponding amount of money to a savings account.

Due dates with bite. Currently, the Due Date feature on Habit’s Todos is informational, without any effect on how the task functions. But when I assign a due date to something, that means I’ve made a commitment to someone to get a thing done on a particular timeline, so I’d like it to sting when I miss a due date. If I miss a due date for a task, I add that task to my list of Dailies, so I take damage every day overdue it gets. When I get my act together and accomplish the thing, I check off the Daily for gold and XP, then delete it.

Jubilee days. Constant self-improvement can be draining! It helps to take a break sometimes, to kick back and not care for a while. So I’ve set up Sundays to be as consequence-free as possible! I don’t ding myself for negative Habits. I don’t spend gold on Rewards of the timed variety; I get to spend however much time doing them as I like. Most of my Dailies are inactive; the only ones left running are those with substantial real-life consequences for missing a day (like medications) or which are only relevant on Sundays to begin with. It’s a great breather to take, letting me redouble my efforts come Monday.

To-dos as Habits. HabitRPG focuses on habit formation, not task management, so its to-do functionality tends to fall short of what you can do with a more task-focused app like Toodledo or Remember the Milk. I use The Secret Weapon, an implementation of Getting Things Done in Evernote, for my task-management needs. Plus, I tend to use to-dos of any sort as reminders of very tiny next actions to get me rolling on a project, like “take a trash bag out to the car” as an easy start to actually cleaning out my cluttered vehicle. It feels like cheating to get a pile of Habit gold and XP for something minor like that! But getting rewarded for accomplishing those things is still important. So I use Habits instead, “Home to-do” and “Work to-do”, that I score 1/task when I empty out my “completed” list. The diminishing returns of Habits keep the score from getting excessive, but I still feel accomplished and make levelup progress for successful completions.

Have you tried HabitRPG? What cool poweruser tricks have you come up with for it?