How to game (motivate) yourself

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on how to ‘game’ your PhD in order to produce more and higher quality work. This got me thinking about some of the even more subtle ways that I game myself. Some people call these ‘life hacks’ because they are almost like cheating. I’m going to take you through some of my own life hacks, with a brief discussion of psychology along the way.

1. Motivation charities

In the past, I’ve struggled a lot with video game addiction. At one point, I was playing for over 10 hours a day, and going to bed after 4 to wake up at 7 in time for university. My grades and my life suffered. For the most part, I was able to overcome this by setting and committing to some lofty life goals, but I still played games from time to time, and felt terribly guilty about it after. Recently, a friend told me about his own motivation technique, whereby he commits to making a modest donation to a charity every time he does something he wants to stop doing. But he didn’t just pick any charity. If you’re like me, and love donating, giving some money to a great charity won’t be much of a deterrence, because you’d probably do it anyway. So he picked a charity that he thinks does more harm than good, so that donating to them not only costs money, but actually does damage. (How can a charity cause harm? See this presentation I gave to find out.)

As my ‘motivation charity’, I chose The Heartland Foundation, a climate denier organisation that, put simply, acts to block climate policy. I have pledged to donate $10 to them every time I play a game. A few weeks ago, I caved and played a few games, and so donated $30 to them. It was hard, but I forced myself to make the donation. I now have no desire to play games any more, and can easily focus on doing the important things.

2. Tossing your cap

Irish writer Frank O’Connor tells a story about how, when he was a school boy, he and his friends came across a wall that they wanted to climb to see what was on the other side, but were too afraid. Eventually, they decided to toss their school caps over the wall. They would get in a lot of trouble if they lost their caps, so they had no choice but to climb over and retrieve the caps.

There are a lot of ways to emulate ‘tossing your cap’ in every day life. One that I frequently use is to sign up and commit to doing things that I know will be difficult or time consuming, but useful in the future. By publicly committing to something, I am setting myself up for embarrassment if I don’t follow through, so I have no choice but to do what I said I would, because the discomfort of doing so is outweighed by the discomfort of letting people down.

I have used this to sign up for committee roles and give presentations that I don’t think I have the time or expertise to do, but by signing up I have forced myself to get good at that role, and do it well. This same principle can be used to overcome anxiety about something that you may really want to do, but struggle to actually follow through with at the time.

I can’t remember the exact quote or the woman who said it, but I’ve read that one secret to being successful is to take on so many responsibilities that you force yourself to work and keep a busy schedule.

3. Pomodoros

Pomodoros, or pomos, are a motivation technique that I have trialled myself with some success, but some people swear by them. Essentially, you set a timer, usually to 25 minutes, and work consistently through that time. Then you set a timer for 5 minutes and take a break, or stop thinking about work, and do something else. After 5 minutes, you get back to work, and repeat. If you think of something else you need to do during the 25 minutes, like reply to an email, you write a note on a pad to do that later, and continue focussing on the task at hand. As stated on the Wiki page, pomos are based on the idea that frequent breaks improve mental agility.

4. Improving rationality

Everyone can get irrational from time to time, unfortunately that’s human nature. But there are steps we can take to adjust or be aware of our way of thinking.

Being aware of bias is a key first step. There are many forms of bias that affect how humans think. There are a lot, so I will just discuss a few here. For a complete list, see the Wiki page here.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to only remember information that confirms your pre-existing beliefs. This means that, when researching a particular topic that you already have an opinion on, such as whether a vegan diet is healthy or not, you will click on the links that support what you think. You are less likely to read and/or remember articles and pages that disagree with what you think. In fact, even the way you phrase the search engine term will affect your results. If you search ‘health benefits of veganism’, you will largely get pro-vegan articles, while searching ‘health benefits of eating meat’, you will largely get anti-vegan articles. If you want to be intellectually honest, you should always structure your searches in a way that is as neutral as possible. In the example above, this might look like ‘health effects of a vegan diet’.

The Dunning-Kruger effect refers to the tendency for unskilled or unknowledgeable people to overestimate their skill in an area, and for skilled people to underestimate their skill. On a related note, think of something you’re an expert in, but a lot of people get wrong, either in the media or in conversation. This frustrates you, right? How can everyone be so ignorant? Well, that’s you for almost everything else. It’s important to be able to recognise what you’re an expert in, and what you’re not.

Negativity bias is the tendency to remember bad things more easily than good things. This is a hard one to account for yourself, but as with all biases, it is important to at least be aware of them so that when you find yourself coming to a conclusion, you can ask yourself why you think that way. Is it possible that you are under the influence of some bias?

The Centre For Applied Rationality provides advice and training for countering the many cognitive biases and improving rationality, and are worth a look.

5. Write it out

It turns out that the simple act of writing out your goals makes you more likely to achieve them. I’ve written a list of both short and long term goals, and keep it on my wall in my room. Some of the goals, which looked crazy when I first wrote them, have already been achieved. I review and update this list once a year (which reminds me, I’m almost due for an update!).

6. Set the bar high – real high

Related to setting goals, I follow a philosophy of setting the bar really high for myself. A lot of people say it’s too high. I thought I made up this quote, but it turns out it’s already a thing. Oh well.

Reach for the stars, and if you don’t quite make it, at least you might reach the Moon.

I am confident that if you strive to reach a very high goal incrementally, even if you don’t quite make it, you will get so much further than you otherwise would have with smaller goals.

That’s all I have time for. I hope these tips are as useful for your life as they have been for mine.

Until next time.

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