The ephemeral pleasure of consistency

Among the many pearls we received from the mountains of Davos, this list of things successful people do in the morning is probably the best one.

Leaving the ridiculous aside, the list points to a growing phenomenon: being it meditation, the five-minute workout, or writing (like in my case), daily rituals are becoming synonymous with living an efficient and successful life.

Since beginning blogging regularly I have struggled with balancing between the painful pleasure of embarking in long posts and the satisfaction in the discipline of daily writing. A couple of months ago I have started my own small ritual: I wake up at 6 am, prepare coffee and start writing. By 6:45, when it is time to wake up the kids, I have to hit "publish". Considering travel, weekends (where I try to focus on longer posts) and the occasional oversleeping, I have done quite well, 32 posts in 60 days.

The original idea was to compartmentalise my writing, short in the morning and long, well, some other time. What seemed to have happened instead is an increase in complacency and a decrease in writing quality. Beyond the natural constraints of time-boxing, imposing a daily habit has given room to a certain complacency that is impacting negatively my ability to embark on longer, more ambitious projects. Is my writing habit - along with all other habits - just another form of instant gratification?

Treacherous pleasure

Daily rituals appeal to our desire to be disciplined and consistent. They also allow us to turn ambitious long-term goals, like getting into better physical shape, into manageable bites. Getting something done every day is a real booster for self-confidence, but the main question remains whether they actually work.

When I started my (semi-)daily writing habit I did it for two reasons. I wanted a place to capture my thoughts and, in turn, develop a better noticing muscle. Twitter is quite good at that but its mechanics make it little rewarding if you don't have a lot of followers. The alternative would be to work through that first, but that's a bigger goal and it will eliminate the purpose of a manageable daily activity. Writing in short form - around 500 words per post - offered me a sweet spot. It is something I can manage do achieve almost every day (discipline) and gives me a strong sense of accomplishment, way more than a tweet. It felt good, for the first few weeks.

Athletes know though that muscles become lazy when you keep repeating the same workout. It is an inevitable drawback of being an amazing learning machine. Every time an exercise is repeated, our body learns how to go through it in a more efficient way. The intensity of the effort diminishes and while the mental benefits persist (you keep patting yourself on then back just for showing up). Progress reaches a plateau.

Writing differs from exercising in that the aim is to create something finite and not "simply" keep the brain active. Sticking to a daily routine is even more treacherous, there is a wide gap between our long-term goals - which might be to use writing for insight generation or more mundanely to create an audience - and the short-term pleasure of hitting "publish" every day. No sequence of short posts can deliver the sort of "insight porn" both readers and writers can attain when pushing the limits of quantity in a non-mechanical way (listicles not allowed).

Ultimately, it is a matter of patience and deferred pleasure. The more we train our brain to its daily shot of accomplishment-induce endorphin, the more we become addicted to it. Daily habits are popular because they deliver on their promise: they make life look simple and us look good, a seven minutes workout is all we need to be in shape. Deeper down, they give us the illusion that we can avoid schlep.

Schlepping through time

All important endeavours have something in common: they involve a lot of schlep. The issue is that most of us (all probably) have an innate tendency to avoid it, to live in the hope that something beautiful can come out by sole act of conceptualising it.

"No one likes schleps, but hackers especially dislike them. Most hackers who start startups wish they could do it by just writing some clever software, putting it on a server somewhere, and watching the money roll in—without ever having to talk to users, or negotiate with other companies, or deal with other people's broken code. Maybe that's possible, but I haven't seen it." Paul Graham

The sad reality is one where no shortcuts exist. You cannot think of a decent long from post by planning it, just in the same way no truly successful startup can be "designed" at the drawing board before actually starting. It is this inevitable uncertainty that blocks us from embarking on long projects. The inability to clearly see the end and defer gratification. It doesn't matter that we have memory of accomplishing something before (although it helps), the fear of wasting time is too strong.

The same is true, in particular, for a lot of complex skills where the learning curve is flat, long and painful. My personal weakness is thinking that I can learn myself out of rookie status, that reading up will make me a better writer, developer (that I have barely started), etc. It is probably an inherited theory-fetish I got from school. "Deliberate practice", the only way to get there, is a much harder and schleppy activity. It's the tedious repetition of sub-skills until you have mastered them and then move to a new one.

How do we then accept "schleppy work"? How do we "defer gratification and accept, even seek out, a degree of pain based on the no-pain-no-gain heuristic."

A random walk in Melee Island

In my case, the answer came from a surprising place: the (almost) forgotten world of adventure games. Adventure games were a big thing in the late 80's and in the 90's but they slowly lost appeal among gratification-starving gamers. Why did it happen?

One school of thought tends to blame the invincible trend of shortening attention spans. Why should we spend hours wandering through an imagined world with basically no direction, poking around, asking questions and trying to solve puzzles just to get ahead in the game? You can find scores of adventure games fans ranting about this online.

"Today all the games act like you have the attention span of a hamster and if shit isn't shooting and you or exploding for longer than 20 seconds you'll fall asleep".

A better explanation blames adventure games themselves (or better designers of adventure games). Many of them simply took the exercise too far, making a fetish out of the complexity of solving puzzles, forgetting that the actual value for the player is in going through a journey, following the plot to the end.

Great adventure games are open-ended and challenging without being frustrating. In its 1989 manifesto, Ron Gilbert (the mind behind Monkey Island and many other memorable adventure games) listed the principles to make adventures games that don't suck. In the opening paragraph he defines the type of games he set out to make:

"I enjoy games in which the pace is slow and the reward is for thinking and figuring, rather than quick reflexes."

A key aspect of that is keeping the user in a state of suspension of disbelief:

"As designers, our job is to keep people in this state for as long as possible. Every time the player has to restore a saved game, or pound his head on the desk in frustration, the suspension of disbelief is gone. At this time he is most likely to shut off the computer and go watch TV, at which point we all have lost."

When you wander through the street of Melee Island, you have an overall awareness of your goals but the rest you discover by poking around, talking to the different characters, picking up stuff. It is fun to watch someone trying playing the game today (I recently introduced it to my 11 years old daughter), the first reaction is to ask "what am I supposed to do?".

Initially, it will be difficult to measure your progress. You visit the SCUMM bar and notice that the cook often comes out from the kitchen and walks into the main room (leaving the door open behind him), the prisoner at the local jail has a terrible breath and a weird looking individual is trying to sell you obviously fake maps. As you play along, some people will help you (let's call it, the muse). You will learn that you need to distract the dogs guarding the governor house, and you will remember about the piece of meat you have seen in the kitchen. You'll be told that one of your trial consists of digging up the famous treasure of Melee Island(TM) and you'll realise that map wasn't so bad after all. The shopkeeper will offer you some mints, and when you give that to the prisoner you'll make a useful friend for later stages in the game.

In a well-made adventure game, progress is the sum of small, apparently meaningless, discoveries. In Steve Jobs' style, connecting the dots can only happen in hindsight. The key is embracing curiosity, let go of short-term rewards and start exploring. Do it every day, that's the antidote for our daily habit mania.

"You're going to get stuck. You're going to be frustrated. Some puzzles will be hard, but all the puzzles will be fair."