Several months ago, I put out a call for time logs for a time makeover project I was doing for the paperback version of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (out August 27!) Mario Friedmann was one of the people who responded. Friedmann was in college, and working full-time as a trainee at a petrochemical company in Bogata, Columbia.
He told me that he’d been tracking his hours for about 12 weeks, and was getting pretty good at recording everything. He identified various goals he wanted to achieve, such as exercising and eventually starting his own business. And perhaps most important? “I want to get the whole college business off of my plate. My only remaining hurdle in this respect is graduation, which depends only on writing my thesis. You will notice that said thesis is notoriously absent from the time spent during my last few months.”
He’d sent several weeks worth of logs, so I opened them and had a look. And what did I see? Vast, vast quantities of StarCraft and similar such games. As he put it, “Usually, as I arrive home after a full day of work, my brain locks into a Rest and Relax routine.” This routine went on for a while — some nights he played until 4:30 a.m., which meant that his intention to get up and do anything before work (a la What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast — which he’d recently read in ebook form) didn’t happen.
I figure he’d asked for my advice, so why not give it? I pointed out that StarCraft is a fun way to spend your time. “If it wasn’t interfering with your other priorities, that wouldn’t be a problem, but since you’ve identified a few other things you think should be a priority (graduating, exercising, starting a business) then this is where you’re going to have to change your routine.” I gave him some ideas, but “spend less time playing video games” was a big chunk of it.
Perhaps it was a bit brusque, which is why I wasn’t terribly surprised that I didn’t hear from Friedmann for a great many months. But then, in late June, I finally got an email. “All these weeks later, all thoughts about a thesis are behind me, new projects are up and running at work and in the middle of a Friday afternoon while reading a book about what certain people do on weekends I’ve realized I haven’t given myself the chance to thank you for your thoughtful feedback on my time logs.”
Well, that was nice! I read on. “I remember I cringed for days at the subvocalized sound of ‘StarCraft is a fun way to spend your time. If only it weren’t interfering with your other priorities, which you’ve identified all by yourself,’ but I eventually swallowed my resistance, recognized the truth behind my guilt and tore a chunk of time away from my games and turned it into head-down research time. I can’t say the morning makeover was entirely successful (AKA ‘It wasn’t successful at all’); I still woke up pretty much as late as possible before heading off to work until I actually turned the thing in. Still, after all’s been said and done I managed to make it happen; wrote a research-based project for my manager to back at the company, got a glowing review from my director and am pending only the library’s all-clear for graduation (they’re on vacation till mid-July so no rush there).”
This was a rather exciting development. But I was really curious how he’d managed to go from not working on his thesis and playing StarCraft from 10-4:30 to actually finishing his thesis. Was it just sheer willpower? What happened?
“I basically decided that I wanted to do a great job on the project, and I know that game time is like the proverbial rabbit-hole, so I created something I continue to call pre-game time and dedicated it to research. Then, after an hour or so on most weekdays, I felt free to play all I wanted. ….
“In short, I decided to succeed in the project and chose a time to work towards it that wouldn’t be setting myself up for failure (Rising early was, I knew, going to be difficult). Then I didn’t even need to grit my teeth, work like a robot, or bid adieu to my hobbies and social life. From the moment I budgeted the project into my routine, it flowed pretty smoothly.”
This struck me as a very wise way to handle this. Part of adulthood is learning to eat our vegetables before dessert, even if no one is making us eat our vegetables. Friedmann realized that he did want to graduate, and that he didn’t have to give up StarCraft. He just had to budget in an hour a day. If he did this consistently — and took it as seriously as going to work — before he turned on the video games, he’d make progress. The hard stuff became his pre-game ritual, and the hard stuff got done.
What’s your pre-game ritual? What do you make yourself do before you can rest and relax?
Photo courtesy flickr user jimsheaffer
8 thoughts on “The pre-game ritual (a time makeover)”
When I’m in the drafting stage of writing an academic article or book chapter, I make myself write 300 words (about one page) before doing anything else that day. I try to budget about 2-3 hours for this. When things are going really well, I might write 500-600 words in 2 hours, or it might take me 4-5 hours* to meet my quota when I’m tired or working with an especially tricky section. It’s possible for me to write more quickly and for much longer stretches under pressure–which is the only way I used to do things–but I’ve discovered that good work can also be completed at a less frenetic pace. The rest of my work day (involving other projects at different stages, etc.) feels like a breeze after this.
*Getting such a chunk of time is possible now because I’m a postdoc and teach only one course/semester. As I said, these longer chunks are necessary when for whatever reason the budgeted time for reaching my quota has proven insufficient–these are not my most productive days.
@sara – I did something like this with my novel. I had to write a certain number of words. Eventually, the project develops its own motivation. It’s just the initial part that’s hard.
Exercise. I tried exercising in the morning, and it didn’t work for me. What *does* work for me is going right after work. I get home, change clothes, and go work out. Then I get on with the rest of my evening – shower, dinner, chores, relaxing, whatever. I’ve found that if I sit down after getting home from work, I won’t make it to the gym. It helps that our apartment complex has a small but adequate gym a very short walk from my front door. I’m usually successful 3-4 nights out of 5; I admit that it’s kind of hard to get myself there on Friday nights!
@Pamela – you’re disciplined in that you actually cross the threshold of your home before going to the gym. Some people know they won’t make it if they even do that — and go straight there.
OMG, this is BRILLIANT. Simple, but so effective. My mind is kind of blown right now. (Says the woman who often falls into the Internet rabbit-hole…)
Thanks again. I love this series. So much to learn, even from people whose lives are totally different from mine.
@ARC – yes, most of us aren’t playing Starcraft, but we probably have our own rabbit holes. Sometimes my rabbit hole is even a work project I’m really getting into. I have to make myself do other assignments before I dive in!
This is touching on a lot of the different productivity theories again. There’s some Willpower, some Boice, some Habit…
Love the time logs. This post made me realize that I have lots of vegetables, but they fit into general time buckets. It’s been a while since I have had something large, not necessarily defined, and with a long lead time, and not preordained time to do it (e.g., a thesis) to worry about. I haven’t put much (or energy) into personal projects like that. Turns out, they are just not a priority right now.