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!

Orb of Rebirth: A New Year’s Tale

A new year, the traditional time for new beginnings, new endeavors, new attempts at bettering oneself. In the last year, I proposed to my girlfriend, all but conquered some nervous tics, began a new and healthier sleep schedule, made huge strides in learning to code, lapsed into and re-bested an Internet addiction. What goals then to turn to next?

In a cloistered alchemy lab, a magus lifts up a crystal ball in one hand. Red and orange light like flame swirls within it. He speaks a word, and the flames burst forth in shapes like wings, without heat, but their light filling the room around him. The wings grow until their span reaches from wall to wall, the height of them from tip to crest as tall as the magus himself. Then they close around him, enfolding him in a brilliant embrace, and in no more than a moment flames, magus, and crystal alike are gone, the room empty.

I have a tendency to over-plan and under-execute. I have no shortage of ideas, aspirations, hobbies, projects, skills in various stages of development. I ride the enthusiasm into a grand design and complete the first exciting moves. But my life is littered with such half-formed creations: novels with only three chapters written, books half-read, games designed but not edited.

A traveler stumbles out of the forest into the town. He wears a simple tunic and carries a squire’s practice sword at his waist. He has a dazed expression on his face, and though he looks familiar to the townsfolk, he does not greet or even seem to recognize them. He wanders through the market, his puzzled eyes sweeping from side to side, then stops in front of a haberdasher’s stall. He picks up a curious pointed cap, travel wear for a village magician. His eyes light up: he must have this. But he has no coin.

Everyone seems to have a trick they recommend, each a contradictory strategy, or in the best of cases pieces of a larger puzzle. Focus on one habit at a time. Break things down into small steps. Set up trigger conditions to take desired actions, and be on guard for the triggers that tend to lead you in the wrong direction. Don’t rest until you stay on track for 21 days… or is it 66?

The hero-to-be hires himself out. He does odd jobs around the town: hauls firewood, hunts game and vermin, fights and chases off more dangerous creatures. He grows stronger, more confident. He keeps himself fed and lodged, and puts away a bit of his earnings to purchase better equipment: a proper sword, a shield, a helmet, a sturdy suit of armor. When he falters–neglecting his training, or failing in a commitment to one of the townsfolk–he grows ill. On a few occasions he finds himself staring down Death itself, and trudges shaking to the apothecary with a handful of coin or gems to purchase a curative. When the dawn comes and he awakens still among the living, he sighs with relief.

The base stock of the magic mixture, it turns out, comes not from my books on productivity and focus, but from my love of games. Games are by definition behavior-modifiers: “Game design is mind control,” as Luke Crane put it. When we play a game, we do things that we’d never bother with or think to do in any other context, learn strategies and strive for reward with an intensity seldom seen elsewhere in life.

In time, the aptitudes the young warrior had before that momentous night in the alchemy lab return to him. At first simple cantrips, mere tricks, then mighty¬† spells of stone and flame, power and brilliance. He sets aside sword and shield in favor of a staff. He buys that magician’s cap, then later trades up to a true cornuthaum, “horn of magic”, a hat woven with enchanted threads, its tapered shape designed to channel the energies of the stars above into the growing arcane reservoir of his mind. He attracts the notice of other adventurous souls, who join forces with him to quest for fabled treasures and slay mighty beasts.

Enter HabitRPG, a Web site with accompanying mobile applications and a diverse community of coders, gamers, and self-improvement enthusiasts. It turns your life into a game of the most iconic Dungeons and Dragons and Final Fantasy traditions, to astounding effect. Your successes mean gold and experience for your hero; setbacks, injury or even death. I credit it for the majority of my memorable successes over the last year. Without it I would likely never have learned JavaScript and Git, cured my afternoon Circadian crashes, or curbed my tendency to spiral into self-deprecating reminiscences.

If you want 2014 to be a year of success, you owe it to yourself to check this site out. You will be amazed. It is a marvel.

Battered and shivering on a snowy mountainside, four questers of varying professions stand breathless before a gaping cave mouth. The Healer attempts an incantation of health and shelter, but his voice falters. Our hero, now the party’s Mage, sets a grim smile and lays a hand on the Healer’s shoulder. The wind lashing the stony slope suddenly carries an intangible strength, and with the next breath each of the adventurers take, they feel more ready. The Healer completes his blessing, and all four of them stand straighter. The Warrior thumps the haft of her axe upon her shield, and the Rogue spins her twin blades into a reversed grip, ready to drive them deep.

A rumble, then a roar emanates from the cave mouth. Vice, the Shadow Wyrm, awaits.

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?

New Year, New Habits

Kithia Verdon:

Ah, January. Lots of folks reject the tradition of “New Year’s Resolutions,” and for good reason: they rarely work. You need to get good at changing up your behavior and forming new habits, to make such things stick. There’s nothing magical about the first of the year on that count!

Being a self-improvement nut, though, I love the practice. Here are things on my mind to shoot for this year.

Big life things:

Live slower. Be more focused, less distracted.
Reduce my debts.
Write more.

Small life things:

Get to bed earlier and wake up earlier, preferably with a net gain of sleepytime between.
Meditate more.
Reduce my backlog of unfinished/unplayed games.
Find some ways to throw out old crap and simplify my environment.

Notably not included:

Lose weight. My low-carb eating habits, though not by any means perfect or rigorous, have fixed this just fine. Since last March when I started, I’ve lost some 15-20 pounds and have kept it off. It even drew comment on my last visit to my doctor!
Exercise more. Would do me some good, I’m sure, but it’s not a priority for me right now.

The temptation I need to stave off is trying too much at once. A more successful strategy would be to focus on one, relatively small change at a time, and really get into it. Luddite Saturdays for my distraction one are a good example. (Progress report on that one: I haven’t done it every Saturday; disruptions to my routine have tended to make me lapse or forget. But I’m enjoying it when I do it, and think it’s doing me some good.) Maybe I’ll try a tiny 15-30 minute nudge of sleep schedule first. If it works out like I hope, it might lead to more writing/meditation/slow-living as a natural effect without much special additional effort on my part!