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High Pressure and Losing Streaks

Handling negative emotions

A friend of mine, writer John Murphy, pointed me to this discussion, in which devotees of the computer game Starcraft talk about how they recover after a losing streak. My first thought was that the topic wouldn’t be of much use in terms of looking at how we motivate ourselves in general, because computer games are hardly the same thing as cleaning out the garage or succeeding at our chosen career, right? Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to set myself straight on that count: after all, when we are focused on a goal and are facing obstacles and frustrations, the emotional situation is very similar regardless of whether the obstacles are gaming opponents, inefficient coworkers, or unmarked boxes full of bicycle parts. (See “A Surprising Source of Insight into Self-Motivation: Video Games“)

That’s not to say that I think that all goals are equally praiseworthy. I wouldn’t expect to impress anyone with my skilled movie watching or badminton playing, and while computer games are much like anything else in terms of how motivation works, that doesn’t mean I’d especially recommend that people direct their energies there. Engrossing is not necessarily the same thing as meaningful. With that said, every healthy life has leisure activities, so let’s learn from this one.

A warning: if you do read the discussion I linked to on your own, there may be parts that are completely foreign to you. For instance, in the following passage, I had no idea whatsoever what the author was talking about (although I enjoyed the sense of disorientation that came with that):

When I lost to broods, I checked the rep and knew I needed an observer in his main to see what the hive timing was, when hive was started I threw down a stargate. If I couldnt get an obs in his base, I told myself to start a stargate at the 12 minute mark, and to try to get a third faster.

But enough jargon: to the interesting parts. Many of the suggestions and ideas in the discussion touched on meaningful self-motivation strategies that are supported by research. For example, the gamers in this discussion were very sensitive to losing streaks, as most people tend to be. Streaks can become a burden, or can be used to create more motivation (see “Harnessing a Winning Streak” and “How to Stop Having a Bad Day“).

A couple of things to know about Starcraft (although everything I know about the game I learned from that discussion thread): first, there are different kinds of games, and the highest-pressure option seems to be “Ladder,” which I gather is a highly competitive fight to move up in the rankings. Also, unlike many video games, Starcraft seems to have limited social aspects. A user called Stereo (all participants in the discussion went by user names like this) said

Yea in wc3 if you had a losing streak it didn’t seem to matter at all ’cause I could just go talk to people and jump back into a game and have some laughs …. Here it’s like a ghost town where the only thought is the last game and why you lost.

Some of the insights in the thread (and there were a number of insights from gamers paying attention to their own thoughts and feelings) touched on taking ownership of success, failure, and the emotions that result from those experiences. Qriator said

When I’m losing it’s not because the other guy’s trolling or just way better – it’s because I’m messing up my own build.

This point is a key one: our mood, effectiveness, and resilience are affected enormously by whether we assign blame for a failure to someone else or take responsibility for it ourselves. It’s not intuitive, but taking responsibility for a failure can actually be much less stressful than blaming it on another person or outside forces, because it suggests that we have some control over the situation and might be able to handle it better next time. Focusing on others’ actions is demoralizing and stressful because by and large we have no power to make people act as we think they should. RipeBanana (I know, the names are a little strange for a conversation like this, but bear with me) commented in a similar vein:

I used to get really angry when I lost a game, then get a ton more angry if I lost 2-3 (or 9) games in a row. Then one day, and I am completely serious, I told myself I wouldn’t get mad anymore.

As simple as that – and I no longer rage.

It’s interesting how emotions work. We may have little control over our immediate, initial reaction to an experience, but our emotional state from there on is powerfully influenced by our own thoughts. (See “How emotions work” and “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“).

Several participants in the discussion emphasized the importance of going back to figure out what went wrong, and of concentrating not on winning, but on improving. Terminus said

… by analyze I mean going to the point in the replay that made you lose the game, and remembering to not commit that same mistake again.

You have to get into the mindset that games are no big deal. Points aren’t important, ranking isn’t important, what matters is improving …. once you improve, your ranking will naturally rise.

Jazzman takes a similar approach:

… then I watch the replays of my last couple of losses, pinpoint the earliest possible fix I can make, and proceed to go crush 3 or 4 people in a row.

Both of these players have a good chance of doing better through this process–that is, their loss may mean that they’ll actually win more in the future–because they’re pushing themselves to consciously work in a different way. (See “Practice versus Deliberate Practice“)

The last idea I’ll quote from the thread–although far from the last idea that was suggested there–is from piCKles:

There’s actually a little trick that I learned from a quarterback that I’m going to start using. You wear a rubber band around your wrist and every time you get into a new game, you snap the rubber band. This helps create a trigger in your mind … that every time you snap the rubber band you forget about everything that went wrong with any of the previous games, and that this game is fresh start and a new chance to pull off the winning play or game in this instance.

I’ve never tried this, but it makes perfect sense: any simple reminder to clear our minds and shed any lingering anxieties or anger about previous problems is likely to help us do better at the next thing. For instance, if a person has two job interviews in a row and the first one is a disaster, the ability to “snap back” and approach the second job interview fresh is likely to make a big difference for the better.

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Why New Year’s Is Such a Good Time to Make a Resolution

Strategies and goals

In an article last week (“Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?“) I talked about New Year’s Resolutions and how to tell whether or not it’s worth it for you to make one. In this post I’d like to touch on a related subject, which is the value of New Year’s as a time to commit to a goal–that is, to make a resolution.

I’ll say first that the New Year certainly isn’t the only good time to commit to a goal. Almost any time, even when things are at their worst, can be a good time to change things for the better (see “Why the Worst Time to Change Things Can Be the Best Time to Change Things“).

Even so, the New Year offers some special advantages:

  • With the winter holidays over, for many of us the New Year is a great chance to incorporate something different into our normal routine without having to worry about the interruptions of vacations, holidays, or most other unusual circumstances. While it’s essential to find ways to continue to pursue our goals even when we’re pulled out of our routine, it’s easiest to get a habit rolling when things are at their most normal
  • There’s an emotional advantage to getting a new start, and even though on some level a new year is just a change in numbers, it does a real feeling of something new beginning that we can harness to our advantage.
  • Maintaining a winning streak can give extra durability to habits we’re trying to build (see “Harnessing a Winning Streak“), and January 1st is a convenient and effective date on which to start a new winning streak.
  • In a very real sense, it’s never a bad time to improve our lives. Even without its special advantages, January 1 is still a good date to start something positive.

I would offer a few cautions about starting a new goal, though:

  • Don’t start something new that will disrupt a good habit you’re already working on or that will sap too much time or attention from other priorities.
  • As tempting as it may sometimes be to try to remake our entire lives, choose only one goal to work on energetically at a time: choosing two or more almost always results in overstretching our time and attention, leading to failure. And be sure to choose the one thing that’s really most important to you.
  • Choose a set of behaviors (something you can control) and not an outcome (something you can’t control). For example, you might resolve to eat healthily and exercise (two ways to pursue a single fitness goal), not to get skinny; resolve to adopt good task management practices, not to “be more organized”; or resolve to work on your business idea, not to “get rich.”
  • Prepare first. It’s often hard to give proper support to a spur-of-the-moment resolution. By planning in advance you can make schedules, enlist help, read books, join groups, or do whatever else you need to give yourself the best chance of success.
  • Don’t give yourself a “bad habit bachelor party”: that is, don’t behave badly as a last gasp, as this will make it harder and more jarring to behave well. Making good choices is a reward to yourself, not a punishment, something that it will make you happy to embrace, not avoid.

This series will continue next time with a suggestion of a good way to review an entire life and take stock of what one goal is most worth pursuing for a particular person.

Photo by legalnonresident

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Harnessing a Winning Streak

Strategies and goals

Katherine Hepburn's Oscars

In gambling, winning streaks are a sucker’s bet, but with willpower, projects, and good habit formation, winning streaks are not only possible: they can be a highly effective tool for making on-and-off success into consistent success.

Why Winning Streaks Help
In matters of willpower, our tendency to see patterns and to get invested in scores and numbers can work in our favor. A winning streak is the kind of system that tends to attract our attention. It’s also a way of harnessing the power of rules.

Let’s say I’m trying to develop a habit of getting to work half an hour early every day. If I’ve been managing to arrive at that time a few times a week, I’ll probably be encouraged, because arriving early on some days is clearly an improvement over arriving early on no days. However, doing something 3 or 4 times out of 5 isn’t a good way to develop a habit: the habit will develop more quickly if I show up at the new time I’ve chosen every single day.

This is where a winning streak comes in: if I have been in at the new time 3 out of the last 3 days, and if I’ve started to keep track, I’m likely to care more about being in at the new time on the 4th day, and then on the 5th. Every time I show up early, my count goes up, and I establish a new record–my “score” gets higher. If I don’t get in early, it ruins my winning streak, and my count is back down to 0.

Small, But Easy to Focus On
If you’re thinking that these kinds of scores are trivial, in some ways you’re right. Yet winning streaks are useful because our brains don’t always pick out the most important information: they like patterns. They also like clear, simple, short-term goals. This is why video games, soap operas, and sports events can be so engrossing to so many people: it’s not because these things are important for themselves as that they offer simple, immediate problems that are either going to be solved or not solved in the short term, along with a structure we recognize and can judge.

A winning streak means we’re not overwhelming ourselves with the requirement to become fluent in Korean or lose 40 pounds or organize the entire house. Instead, we focus on the current day and the current task: learn 10 more Korean flash cards; track all of what I eat for the day, exercise for at least 20 minutes, and stay under my calorie limit; do the next item on the house organization list. If we do the little bit that needs to be done every day, the winning streak is maintained and the days mount up. And if on one particular day things go awry, that’s disappointing, but the new goal is pretty obvious: start over and try to “beat” the old score, the longest previous streak.

My Experience
I’ve been experimenting with winning streaks in my own life lately, and so far the results have been strong, and I’ll be trying them out in other areas.

I’ve have been losing weight and getting more fit for years: I’m down 60 pounds so far, and I’ve become stronger, fitter, and more energetic than I’ve ever been in my life. My eating habits have been good, but typically I’d eat well on average maybe 5 to 10 days in a row, then have one or more days when I got just far enough off track to temporarily stop my weight loss.

Applying the winning streak approach, I started by writing “Day 1” on the pad of paper where I keep track of what I eat, what exercise I do, and what I weigh. My task was to keep my food intake within 1700 calories each day (a level at which I know from experience I lose weight at a healthy rate) and to exercise on every day it was feasible. Each day do these things this counts as a “win.” So far, every single day has been successful. Today is day 24, and not only is this probably a record for me in terms of consecutive “perfect” days for weight loss, but I weigh 7 pounds less than I did on day 1. That breaks out to about 2 pounds a week, the highest weight loss rate that is probably healthy for me. I’ve even been through a number of disruptions during this time–illness, Thanksgiving, a trip out of town, eating out, and so on–but because I was on a winning streak, my attention remained focused on how I could keep on track for each of those days. For Thanksgiving I planned ahead with my family and brought some healthy foods along to the meal myself. On my trip I packed healthy food before I left and chose a restaurant to have lunch in with care. I have no doubt that I would have felt much less motivation to make things work in those particular, difficult situations if I hadn’t been trying to protect my winning streak–and getting motivation during those trickiest times is exactly where willpower needs to shine.

Want to Try It?
If you want to try using a winning streak yourself, you’ll need to know two things first: what your requirements are (exactly what do you have to do to “win” each day?) and what you need to have or know to be able to meet those requirements. For instance, you can’t plan to study Korean every day if you don’t yet have materials to study.

Most habits will benefit most if you do them every day, but if that’s not practical, you’ll want to establish an exact schedule, for instance “every business day” (which would be suitable for a job-related goal) or “every Monday, Thursday and Saturday except when ill.” Write down all the allowable exceptions at the beginning–it’s too easy to change the rules and wiggle out of things if you change the rules in the middle of the game.

Then just write “Day 1” … and start your winning streak.

Photo by cliff1066


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