Habitual Discipline

This is continued from the previous post on writing in pen…

As a childhood lover of strategic games, like Risk and tower defense stuff, I did well not by calculating the probability tables and planning, but rather by jumping in and iterating. You lose Bloons Tower Defense for the first couple times, but then you learn to never buy the needle towers until much later and to put all the monkeys at the entrance area for maximal damage over time.

After playing many games decently well, you get the hang of picking up new ones. But it always takes some time to ramp up. Something we can forget quite easily in the busy busy adult world with many concerns, is how painful this ramp-up period is when we have competition for our attention, urgent notifications.

And so, it’s intrinsically hard to plan real priorities and it’s situationally hard to act on any priorities we happen to have planned. What could possibly help in this dire circumstance?

Patience to the rescue! Simply recognizing what we already know to be true, living with the challenge, and facing up to it every day. It’s obvious that we have stuff we want. Instead of over-analyzing and creating plans which never work, and instead of acting blindly, we need a blend of on-the-fly action combined with reflection and tracking and course-correction. We can do this in our heads, but it doesn’t seem to have worked so well thus far, has it?

This morning, I spent about a half hour creating a discipline journal. It’s 4 sheets of paper, cut in half then folded and stapled into a 32-page booklet, perfect for a month. The cover says the month, and the pages are each labelled in the bottom corner with the number of the day.

I’ve determined a few important goals to focus on, like becoming a substantially better chess player. I know how to do this, but it’s easy to distract myself with semi-related or completely useless tasks, for example watching grandmaster tournaments or playing mindlessly online.

The idea is to carry the little booklet around and studiously write each day what I did towards my goal. Not to record plans, but to record completed actions. Then at the end of the day, to review, and reflect for a bit on the goal itself. Is it still worthwhile to me? What can I do better tomorrow or next week? Am I making progress?

Having an aide like this physical journal is helpful because it’s a visible reminder whether or not I’m following through on the promises I make to myself. If I can really commit to using it, then I have to do so, otherwise I will look really dumb to myself! Just like mental planning, I could let myself off the hook for being dumb, but this time it’s pretty serious. The journal is going to get filled, for better or worse.

Previously, I’ve used spreadsheets, apps, to-do lists, and other tracking devices…but none of them have been very successful. I think the problem lies not in the tool, but in my goal-setting process. It’s not easy to set appropriate goals, tracking progress consistently and usefully.

One way to assess progress is to have a very clear indicator metric. In chess, this would be your Elo rating. But there’s a problem. Chess ratings measure your chess strength, the output of your training and study and effort. And sometimes your results plateau even as your performance is shifting to take a big leap due to the hours of hard work and study you’ve been putting in.

If you know what inputs will help improve things, for example rigorously completing three challenging chess tactics puzzles each day or reading a difficult book on strategy, then those may be more helpful to measure, record and seek to increase. These lead indicators like daily study effort are the things to aim for on a daily basis, as opposed to the lag indicator—overall rating—which isn’t as actionable.

For a long time, I’ve tried doing the reverse, staring at the results and not really being carefully disciplined with study. And it’s good to fail like this, as long as someday (today), I can accept this folly and move on with committal, useful, compounding habits.

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