- What It Takes To Be Great
- What It Takes To Be Great 2: AJATT and Malcolm McDowell’s Outliers…wait…
- What It Takes to Be Great 3: Follow-Up
- What It Takes to Be Great 4: Capablanca
- Aim to Fail
- You can have do or be ANYthing, but you can’t have do or be EVERYthing
- Why Do People Who Have All the Time in the World Get Nothing Done?
- How To Accomplish Great Things: Small Victories, Winnable Games
Don’t Believe the Hype
A lot of people say a lot of nice things about me on this site. I’ve been called “insane” (I consider this a compliment), strong-willed, full of “willpower”, “obsessed”, determined, “Naruto-like”, even a “genius”. Sometimes it goes to my head and I start to believe that I might actually be a special person. But I know it’s not true.
Don’t believe the hype. I am none of these things. I’m just as unique as all the other n billion people in the world, which is to say not at all . For starters, did you know I wear dark boxers so the pooh stains don’t stand out? Where’s the genius in that? I’m writing this on a massive 8-foot-long beanbag lying almost vertical (look who can’t even get “vertical” and “horizontal” right!) because I’m too much of a bum to sit up. Where’s the determination in that? I have a really, really, really, hardcore peanut-eating habit — “just one mo’, baby!” Where’s the willpower in that? This isn’t me in my “off time”; this is me all the time. Forgetting to pay his power bill, wanting-to-write-more-manga, trying to train his cats in Confucian values, peanut-eating, pooh-stain Khatzumoto. This is the real freakin’ deal, and it’s neither smart, nor pretty, nor goal-oriented. I tell people “I have a lot of the same clothes”, but the fact is, I just don’t shower or change that often.
Pooh stains. No showers. Smells like victory.
So, why did I put together a method of learning Japanese that’s so…hardcore? So, extreme and “all the way”? So, willpowery-sounding?
Because it didn’t take any willpower.
What? WTF? Yeah. Permit me to elaborate.
Lately, I’ve been doing some listening to David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I actually read the book in college, and tried to apply the method, but it didn’t really work for me. The reason, as it turns out, wasn’t the GTD wasn’t a good fit for me; my hunch tells me that virtually anyone who lives in a text-based society could benefit from GTD; the problem was that I had let some crucial, qualifying sections of GTD slip in my reading. I had seen the forest but missed some really important trees. This time around, I just listened to the audio in snippets (generally, not even in order), and applied as I went along. This, by the way, was one of the few times in my daily life where I was listening to recorded audio that wasn’t Cantonese or Japanese. But I digress. Anyway, David Allen said something really interesting in describing his method, something that really stuck with me. I can’t be bothered to go find the audio and transcribe it, so I’m going to phrase the para phrase the para paraphrase.
Basically, it goes like this. The world has gotten a bit complicated; lots of people no longer do manual/physical labor. Their work is mental. It is also — typically — large, fuzzy and unclear in scope. They don’t have the simple satisfaction of “making widgets”. They aren’t getting the “win” that comes built into the completion of a small physical task. Think about it — you put food in the microwave, you input the cooking time, you start the cooking, DONE — you win! Boom, boom, boom, boom, WIN!
And this doesn’t just apply to jobs, it applies to daily life. How do you win out of “Get taxes done”? “Learn Japanese”? “Finish manual translation”? “Write dissertation”.
The answer is you don’t. And this is why so many people procrastinate on these things and never get them done — or only get them done at the last minute, with lots of pain, weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth and oaths to self of “never again!”, or “but I only work well under pressure!”.
It’s not that they suck; it’s not that the majority of humans are unfit to “think” and “ponder” and “lead” and be “masters of their own affairs”. It’s that they can’t win, or they can’t win soon, at “Get taxes done”? “Learn Japanese”? “Finish manual translation”? “Write dissertation”. Not being able to win soon is the same as not being able to win at all. And if human beings hate anything, it’s un-winnable games. Or, to phrase it more positively — humans love short, tangible, winnable games. If you give them these, you can get them to do anything. And I mean anything. Let’s take some examples (or, maybe just one):
Case Study: Custodial — Cleaning Everyone’s House But My Own
I worked as a custodian in college. “Custodian” was the nice word for “janitor”, which was the nice word for “cleaning boy”, which was the nice word for “filthy peasant”, which was the nice word for filthy peasants. I think the nice word for “custodian” these days is “facilities management engineer”. But I digress. My first custodial job was cleaning the university bookstore. I vacuumed that sucker nice and clean. The bookstore was friggin’ beaurifoo.
One day, I go home, to my college apartment, which was a messy heckhole. There, my earthy, rustic, country-music luhvin’ Texan roommate C-star (contemporaneous with The Other Other White Meat, by the way), who was not a clean-freak by any stretch of the imagination, but who was definitely a man of order, asked me this question: “you clean the bookstore, but you don’t clean your own house?”
Those words have haunted me to this day. I would clean the bookstore but I would not even clean my own home. What kind of human being was I? Was I just unfit to control my own destiny, doomed to be someone’s stooge? Is that the kind of human being I was? Is that the kind of human being most of us are?
My answer to that is an emphatic “no”.
OK, fine — but why didn’t I clean my apartment? I mean, I didn’t even like cleaning the bookstore. I mean, for crying out loud, I was waking up at 4:30 in the ante meridian marnin’ on a day other than Non-Denominational Winter Solstice Festival Day (you know that sleepless, childhood adrenaline rush that comes with NDWSF…yeah, I didn’t have that) to wear a stupid blue vest and clean my overpriced college bookstore, all for money which I would promptly use to buy overpriced textbooks — that I was never even going to read — from said store. Or pay rent for conveniently-close-to-the-bookstore lodgings. Talk about cyclical. And I couldn’t even clean my apartment? Why?
Because I couldn’t win at cleaning my apartment. There was no starting time; there was no ending time; there was no goal state. When would my apartment be clean? What would constitute “clean”liness? What conditions would need to be fulfilled such that I could say “we’re done”. Well, it would have to perfect, wouldn’t it, because the opposite of dirty is perfectly clean, right? Which parts of my apartment? Were my roommates’ bedrooms in the deal? What about the fridge? The toilet? The back of the couch where all the clutter collected? The couch itself, under the cushion, where the remote and the Nintendo controllers liked to hide? What about my homework? And even if, by some act of Gates, I managed to get the apartment clean after hours, no, days, no, years, of work, how would I keep it clean? What if my roommates just messed it up in 5 minutes? How would I get it clean when I felt so bad for letting it get dirty? Did I mention homework? And classes? And flirting — I had flirting to do. And Ultimate Frisbee…In fact, screw cleaning the freaking apartment — let’s go flick some disc.
And so the apartment remained dirty. That and every other apartment I lived in thereafter. Oh, I wanted perfection; I wanted cleanliness; I wanted it baaaad, baby. But…I simply couldn’t see a path to it. However (and, while it seems obvious now, I never made the connection at the time), I always managed to at least get the place in shape for cleaning inspections. The cleaning inspections split the entire apartment into smallish jobs (sucky, but smallish), assigned each job to a roommate, and had a hard deadline. Cleaning inspection would end at the deadline. After inspection, enjoying a clean apartment, with no microwave grime, no table rings, and (most of all) no rancid, “there be cholera here” air about the toilet, I often found myself wishing cleaning inspections were conducted more often. But at the same time, I found myself worried at what this meant for me and many other people, because that wish of mine implied that I needed management and supervision. That I could not be master of my own affairs (do you get the feeling I’m in love with this phrase? Well, I am. IS THAT SO WRONG???)
Anyway, so my apartment never got clean except for inspection. But I continued to do my custodial work quite loyally. As obvious as it seems now, it never fully dawned on me that the fact that the custodial job had fixed, guaranteed start time, end time, tons of winnable subtasks, fun (I got to laugh and hang out with coworker-friends) and rewards ($$$!!) might have some motivational effect. It didn’t occur to me that my whole “let me just do my best in the time available, and if time runs out, well, screw it, it’s not like I won’t be cleaning again tomorrow” attitude had anything to do with it. It never occurred to me that the fact that I treated cleaning my house like some massive, Picasso’s-got-nothing-on-me, OCD-fuelled, lifelong magnum opus instead of just a job to be done piecemeal, quickly, painlessly and repeatedly, might be the issue here.
[Sidenote: I also did the "accidental cleaning" that David Allen talks about. This is where you don't intend to do a big cleaning job, but you end up doing it unintentionally; he used the fridge as his example, and I've definitely accidentally cleaned the fridge more than once in my life].
The Magic Equation aka Temporal Motivation Theory aka TMT: The Grand Unifiying Theory of Getting Stuff Done
I’ve been thinking and talking about bits and pieces of this article for quite a long time, with anyone who’ll listen, in any language I can explain it in. One of those pieces dropped out in the form of this article about keeping SRS items short, and a comment I added to said article. That comment led a reader named munashi to point out this newspaper piece summarizing a young chap named Piers “Brosnan Remington” Steel‘s research. This, I might as well tell you, led me to wet my panties rather profusely. Quite simply, this guy’s research is the shizzle in the fizzle within and beyond the dizzle, with a cherry on top.
Because it deserves repeating, here’s the deal:
U = EV / ΓD
- U = Utility. How much ya wanna do it. How much fun it is.
- E = Expectancy. How much confidence you have you can get it done.
- V = Value. How important (and/or how sucky) it is.
- Γ = (Proneness to) distractions, based on environment, habits or whatever. Uppercase gamma, just to be cool.
- D = Delay. Deadline. Due date. How long you have to do it.
Get it? Are you excited as I am? Do you see why this Piers’ research is the shizzle in the fizzle within and beyond the dizzle, with a cherry on top? Dude, this is moè; this Akihabara maid café level excitement! No? OK, permit me to elaborate.
The higher U is (Khatzumoto! Stop perpetuating ethnic stereotypes of English usage!), the more likely you is (no, really, stop it!) to get the job done. So, the key here comes in getting that numerator (Expectancy x Value) high and keeping that denominator (Distraction x Delay) low.
In my not so humble opinion, just about all of personal development can be explained by this equation. That doesn’t mean that the PD industry is a waste of time; I happen to think it’s totally cool and useful. It just means that it all boils down to tweaking these parameters.
Things like The Secret (yes, I know it features that charlatan obaasan who thinks she has visions; and I know that the probability she’s for real is slightly less than…the probability that Julia Roberts will invite me to her house this weekend to lick her armpit hair — but don’t let that get in the way of this discussion!) are trying to get you to focus on doing stuff you want — this is tweaking the U directly.
Tony Robbins most frequently wants to get your confidence up; he wants to take your E parameter sky-high.
Decreasing Γ is where stuff like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s (yeah, I don’t know how to pronounce it either…freaking East Europeans bringing their names into my country…oh, wait, I’m foreign and long-named, too — never mind!) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience excels.
Timeboxing, a technique that Brian Tracy and his disciple Steve of the Pavlina discuss, is one of the most powerful tools for minimizing the D component, which, of course, drives up the power of the numerator, and by extension U. Other D-minimizing techniques include “salami-slicing”, “swiss-cheesing” and “oil-barrelling”, all of which are explained in Tracy’s Frog book up there.
You might say that AJATT works by increasing U (doing fun stuff in Japanese), by increasing E (confidence), by decreasing Γ (Japanese-only environment), and by decreasing D — reducing the process to a short, winnable game by way of SRS.
Environment + SRSing = Game
A while back, a reader named quendidil, whom many of you will know, talked about learning Japanese in general, and SRSing in particular, being addictive — especially when he had big, looming projects like final exams going on. Truth be told, I have experienced the exact same phenomenon.
And I totally don’t think that’s a bad thing. It is the potential “addictive” quality of the method of learning language that you’ll find on this site, that led me to learn Japanese to such a high level in such a relatively short amount of time.
Using an SRS reduces Japanese to a game: a very short, very winnable game. You are constantly winning. The reward isn’t months away — it’s right here and now. It’s practically a slot machine experience. Find kanji/sentence: win. Enter it into the SRS: win. “Bet” on your ability to remember it through a spaced, somewhat randomized repetition: win. Click, win, click, win, click win. No worrying about your memory because the SRS has got it all taken care of, scheduling things for you like a personal secretary.
And it’s not just the SRSing, the environment is a win, too. Put music/anime/video game/whatever on = win. You just have to plug in, turn on, and plug yourself in. Rake up your “flight hours” until they get into five figures. Every moment literally brings you closer. Every moment is its own victory. You get so busy winning you might forget that you’re getting more and more comfortable with real Japanese. Suddenly you can read huge tracts of real text without any trouble. Suddenly you can say stuff. Suddenly your Japanese friends of the opposite gender ask you to leave the room because they want to talk about their periods (this actually happened to me), and they know you’ll understand.
Keeping the Game Alive: Playing with Equation Parameters
But just because SRSing/AJATTing is intended to be fun and short, that doesn’t mean that, left untouched, it can’t get long and boring. It totally can. Just like playing even the funnest video game made by Funnites from the Planet Fun, while eating Fun-Flakes and drinking milk laced with fun nanomachines.
So, you need to help things along — to help keep U high.
Like I said, timeboxing has been my favorite tool for pumping up utility. I have two identical egg-timers in my household — one for the kitchen, and one at my desk. I use them all the time.
SRSing feels like a burden? Timebox it! Don’t wanna wash the dishes? Timebox it! 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, whatever you’re comfortable with. So, keeping it short, mimimzing D, is our secret weapon here. This is what cults and crappy jobs do — they give you tasks that are short, simple and rewarding, even if the only reward is that they end.
What should you do if you still feel like going on after the time limit is reached? Well, a well-chosen timeboxing time should, of course, make you feel like starting at the front end, and feel like continuing at the back end. My old answer to this would be “keep going!”, but now I’ m not so sure. Now I say “stop anyway, take a break, then do another short session”. Pushing yourself too hard, even with timeboxing, risks killing the golden-egg-laying goose. There are almost always more SRS reps to do and dishes to wash, so keep it to “many small sprints”. Keep starting many, many, times. And savor the “enjoyment dividend” — that “I could have gone on for more” feeling. Don’t use it up by continuing — that dividend is what’ll keep you coming back for more…Then again, I do sometimes continue (but still with a timer). Like many things, this is something you’ll just need to judge and tweak for yourself.
So, timeboxing keeps the game short and gives you a win. It teaches you to enjoy the journey — to enjoy the small, partial victory. And, in that way, it teaches you to enjoy life itself. Reaching major goals — finishing RTK1, getting a PhD, getting fluent in Japanese — these are few. But the small, simple, widget-making tasks that get us to those goals, are many. Enjoy the small tasks, and let the big things take care of themselves. Pick the game to play, then focus only on enjoying the game; forget the result; it’ll come when it comes.
Some people don’t like seemingly mindless factory metaphors. But I love them. Yeah, factory workers get pwned; yeah, you don’t like flipping burgers. But something about burger-flipping and widget-making is obviously effective, otherwise you and I simply would not be caught doing them for so long. I’m shooting in the dark here, but I think the developers of these undesirable jobs must have recognized that virtually all work can be divided into (or is naturally made up of) almost meaninglessly small tasks that are distant from the whole (and can even be split between people). This is how you get people to burn other human beings alive — a bomber pilot isn’t thinking “little Ahmed there is going to watch and hear his mother scream in pain as she is immolated”, no, to the pilot it’s “fly to target coordinates, match crosshairs, push button, confirm change”. There’s no meaning, no ethics, at that level of perspective. To see the meaning, the value and the ethics of an action, you have to go ask about the intentions and consequences of an action. You have to ask: “why are we doing this?”, and “what happened because we did it?” But at the action level, there is only now; there is no intention — it’s in the past; there are no consequences — they are in the future; there is just the action. This is why a lot of propaganda and misinformation work to prevent people from accurately considering intention before action, and consequences thereafter. Scary, huh? So use your powers for good, OK?
Use your powers — these tools — to fulfill your dreams and make happy smilies. Want to write that book? Break it down into pieces (“widgets”) so small that you don’t even realize you’re writing it until it’s too late and the book is written! That kind of happened with me and this site. If I’d set out to write it all nice and in order and crap, it never would have gotten done. But just one itty bitty post at a time, as it came to me, as I felt like it, and before I knew it I had, like, stuff written. The same thing goes for daily repetitions, or for the acquisition of any detailed skill or knowledge (language being but one example), or for the accomplishment of any large thing. It all comes down to little moments.
You can play with the other parameters, too. It’s just a matter of figuring out stuff for yourself, or looking at tweaks that other people have come up with.
Keeping the Game Alive: Self-Abuse Ruins Everything, So Be Nice To You
Hmm…somehow I got sidetracked into ethics and employment. That’s not really the point of this post. What I’m trying to say is: “use that equation to help you figure out ways to get stuff done”.
There is one other thing I’d like to share, still on the subject of “keeping the game alive”. It is this: stop berating yourself for not being done yet. Stop berating yourself for not have started sooner. Stop worrying about finishing. Stop trying to finish. The truth is, you CAN’T “finish” a task; it is physically impossible to do so… You can START a task. You can START a task many times. That you can do. But “finishing” isn’t something you do, it’s something you experience — it’s a result, an effect caused only by starting so many times that one of those starts happpens to be the “last start”.
I don’t think this is quite covered in TMT, but it’s crucial if you want to avoid negating TMT benefits. And it is part of the reason that doing Mandarin became a chore for me — and why I switched to doing Cantonese. Of course I actively like Cantonese, but there were other issues involved, to. When doing Mandarin, I kept telling myself things like “if only you’d known X before”, “if only you’d done Y before”, “wow, you suck, you can’t even follow the news yet?”, “why aren’t you fluent YET?”. My whole deal was about what I couldn’t do. Every time I learned something new, I didn’t congratulate myself for making progress, I put myself down for having made progress so “late”. All the TMT application in the world can’t save someone who’s doing this to themselves. So, learn from my mistakes: don’t do that. Just focus on doing and enjoying what you’re doing right now. The 10,000 sentences, the n000 kanji, they’ll all come, but you can’t force them. So fuhgeddabout it — you don’t need to worry about them. Just focus on the one you’re one now. Just focus on this step, here, now. You’re exactly where you need to be.
Why I bring this up now is because, for a while there, I started doing this with Cantonese, too. “Dude, you’ve been doing Cantonese since November 15, 2007, and you STILL don’t X?”. I stopped just enjoying “being” and started freaking out about missing fake goals — goals that I had never actually set.
Realizing that I was repeating an error, I quit the mental self-flagellation and now I’m back to just enjoying myself. I think of what I can do, what I have achieved and what I am doing. For one thing, it occurred to me that I watch Stephen Chow movies and GET JOKES — verbal jokes! Dude, methinks that’s a big freaking deal. Treat yourself like a baby — always looking out for the tiniest achievements to praise. You’ll be surprised by how far you’ve come, if you actually take a look back and start to give yourself some credit.
So, remember: just do your part here and now. You did all the worrying and planning back when you decided to get your equipment, buy movies, buy music, get an SRS, get RTK, get sentences and use this method. Now you’re executing. And that’s all that matters, you don’t need to do anything but focus on execution. All you care about is how to make this widget that’s right in front of you. Maybe you’ll figure out some tweaks to the process, but that will come to you naturally, with time, as you get used to widget-making; you don’t need to pay it any active thought or concern. You’re just doing this one thing. One kanji in. One sentence in. One page in. One definition in. One repetition in. Repeat…
Remember, these are all just tools. Not philosophies, not ideologies. Even the philosophies are just mental tools. Use them as long as they are both fun and effective. They’re your toys, you play with them; they serve you — not the other way around. So try it, use it, keep it lose it, whatever. Remember, you’re always supposed to be having fun, and you’re always supposed to be in control. So, in truth there’s nothing you’re supposed to do: there’s just what you want and ways to get it.
Anyway, this article is getting far to long and probably should be split up, but I wanted to try my hand at throwing a long ball. Maybe I’ll write more about this stuff another time.