How Important is Growth?

There’s two common ways you can approach working on your goals and habits:

The first is progressive. This is where you start off easy, but make it a little bit harder each time, until you can eventually do very difficult things, with a lot less effort.

The second is consistent. Do the same thing, with the same expectations, each time. You don’t aim for growth, but maintaining the same, solid baseline.

A progressive plan for getting in shape might have you start by jogging one mile, then two, three, until you’re eventually running marathons. A consistent habit might pick a reasonable goal—say jogging two miles, and sticking to it without change for a long time.

Which is Better: Progressive or Consistent?

I have to admit, I’ve long favored progressive habits for many of my goals. For one, if you aren’t satisfied what you’re capable of right now, progressive is the only way to go. If you’re only lifting a five pound dumbbell at the gym, it’s unlikely you’ll work up to fifty without some progressive training.

Second, plateaus and stagnation is common. In both physical and mental challenges, complacency means we often settle into a routine and give up pushing to our full potential.

However, recently, I’ve started to adjust that view. I now think that a consistent habit can often outdo a progressive one, even if growth is your ultimate goal.

Managing Growth or Decline?

One way of looking at the difference between progressive and consistent habits is that the former are about managing growth, while the latter are about managing decline.

When you set up a progressive habit, you’re putting yourself on a path to improvement. Small, incremental adjustments in difficulty are almost certain to push your level up.

The downside with progressive habits is that they are harder to sustain. Difficulty may not increase linearly with progress, so you may start with a habit which is quite easy, and end up with it being extremely (or impossibly) difficult.

I had this experience personally a few years ago when I was working with a fitness program that had the basic strategy of starting with a low amount of weight, and every time you successfully completed the workout, you increased the weight by five pounds.

Although I did make progress with this approach, it quickly became unsustainable for me. While the workout schedule was manageable in the beginning, it was quickly becoming the case that my body hadn’t recovered from the last workout before the next one was set to begin. Eventually, I was forced to depart from the progressive training schedule it had established.

The reason for this, which I understand better now, is that strength improvements are closer to logarithmic than linear growth. That means that, although the weight is increasing by a constant factor, the difficulty is getting harder and harder.

Progressive training habits, therefore, often end up looking like sharp up-ticks, followed by some kind of failure/adjustment, with a variable amount of decline before another progressive increase can occur.

Consistent habits, on the other hand, are more about managing the decline phase. They don’t increase the difficulty, so progress doesn’t happen at the optimal rate. On the other hand, because difficulty is constant or declining, there’s less falling back to a lower level of difficulty after a failure, because you fail less.

Six months ago, I decided to try a different approach to fitness. Instead of an intensive, progressive schedule, I wanted to try an easy, lightweight one. Just fifty push-ups every day.

This was easy enough for me at the time. Plus, push-ups can be done anywhere. If I were traveling or sick, I could still do the workout. The goal was to engineer a habit that could be sustained regardless of how busy I was getting, rather than trying to push myself.

The result of this experiment has been that over the last six months, I’ve only missed it once. While I haven’t gained as much strength as I did during the progressive workouts years before, the results have been better than I had expected. It turns out, in my case, preventing decline was more important than trying to optimize for growth.

Which Should You Pick?

Progressive habits are less stable, but offer higher growth. Consistent habits offer lower growth, but are more stable.

A progressive habit can be better if you either expect low decline or a continued, long-term focus on growth. If this area of life is going to remain under the spotlight for you for years in the future, and if atrophy is slowed, you can probably keep pushing progressive training habits, despite the occasional need to restart and adjust.

Consistent habits are better when the domain of life you’re trying to improve rarely is your biggest priority. It also works better when decline becomes a bigger concern than progress.

For me, fitness works better as a consistent, than progressive, habit, because it’s not usually the main focus for my life, and getting weaker and fatter is a bigger concern of mine than becoming extremely fit.

On the other hand, things central to my career tend to look more like progressive habits. I usually can’t sustain them forever, but because my work is always a major part of my life, the progress made more than justifies the need to adapt them more frequently.

What about you? What are you working on right now? Would it be better suited to progressive or consistent scheduling?

Games Worth Playing

The most important choice you can make in life is deciding which games you’re going to play.

Life is full of games. There’s the getting-in-shape game, the climbing-the-corporate-ladder game, the saving-enough-for-retirement game and the get-married-and-have-kids game.

Like all games, these all have objectives, rules and players. Sometimes the games are strictly well-defined, like the becoming-an-Olympic-athlete game. In others, the rules are mostly implicit, but most the players still understand what they’re playing for and why.

Most people spend their lives playing games and trying to win at them.

Far fewer think deeply about which games they want to play in the first place.

Why We Play Games

Games are just a metaphor, of course. But something like this is happening in most of our minds. It’s hard to think about life in the big picture. It’s too big, fuzzy and important to think clearly about.

As a result of this, we tend to break apart the big puzzle into smaller and smaller games, so we can understand them better. The games we play just for fun, are formed on this idea: break off some section of reality and give it strict rules, boundaries and choices.

Life, as an ambiguous, grand thing, therefore tends to get spliced down to smaller games which can actually be won.

Games Within Games

Sometimes the first efforts to cleave apart the messiness of life into tidy little games still leaves quite a bit of confusion. Therefore, we tend to break those bigger games into smaller ones.

The career game, for many people who start working in a large company, often gets replaced with the earning-pay-raises-and-promotions game. For other people, the career game gets reduced to the becoming-a-prestigious-expert game or the earning-more-money game.

The more complex of the games we play for fun show the same pattern. Chess masters often talk about playing the King’s Indian or Spanish game, as if it were a separate, sub-game within chess. The game of chess is so complex that we need to further tighten the boundaries to think clearly about it.

As a result, life is not just playing games, but playing games within games within games. Each level inherits the assumptions and boundaries of the one above it, but adds new constraints and rules, while narrowing the scope of the objective.

How We Choose What to Play

Most people choose what games to play by following a simple heuristic: look around them to see what others are playing and join in.

On the whole, this isn’t such a bad idea. Games are more fun with other people. Plus, the bigger, higher-order games tend to value social perception as a partial objective, so more popular games are often intrinsically more valuable to play.

However, this copycat approach suffers from a few key flaws.

First, when everyone copycats, this can result in people too many people playing the same game. The game becomes so competitive and cutthroat that winning the larger game which contains it becomes harder and harder to do.

Second, this limits the invention of new games. Most people are so busy playing the games they see everyone else playing, that they don’t recognize that there is even a choice involved in picking which game to play.

Most people think the objective of the career game is earn more money, gain a higher rank or increase your professional stature. Then, along comes someone who decides that a game involving living on a low-income and retiring exceptionally young sounds like a lot more fun.

Most people think the consumer game is about having the most and best stuff. Then, along comes people who decide having fewer things is the way to win.

Most people think being rich is the way to win. While others compete to give things away.

Picking the Games Worth Playing

The first step is to realize that you have a choice. That you’ve always had a choice about which games you want to play.

The second step is to see what games you’re playing already. Everyone is playing games. Human nature is to play games. Those who claim to not be playing games are usually just so deep inside their own game that they fail to see it as one anymore.

The third step is to ask yourself if you’d like to play a different game. Maybe you’re playing one game and you realize some people are playing a different one and you’d like to join them. Maybe you want to invent your own game to play and see if other people join you.

Finally, the most important thing to realize is that play is voluntary. Games have consequences, of course, but as long as you accept the price of losing, nothing can force you to participate.

 It’s this choice of which games not to play, that is ultimately the most valuable. Only by giving up on some games, can you win the ones that matter to you.