Self Improvement: The Most Important Skill in the Next Decade
In my third year of college, I saw many of my friends and classmates getting kicked out of school.
If you don’t maintain a certain Grade Point Average, the school decides they don’t want you as a student anymore.
Georgia Tech IS a difficult school, but I don’t think that was the problem. These students were intelligent or else they wouldn’t have gotten accepted in the first place.
Looking back, I think the problem is that the students weren’t prepared to handle an environment of unlimited abundance. There were distractions everywhere and they couldn’t stop indulging in them.
Think back on what life was like for your first eighteen years. For most of us, our parents told us what to do and we had to obey.
- You’re not allowed to date.
- You can’t wear makeup.
- You have to go to school every day.
- You can’t play video games on a weekday.
- You have to be home by a certain time each Saturday.
Life was simple because you were a soldier following their orders.
And then you enter University – it’s your first exposure to freedom.
What happens once you’re at university?
- Don’t feel like going to class? Then skip it. You’re not going to get in trouble.
- You can go partying and drinking every single night if you want to.
- Want to stay in and play video games all day? No one’s stopping you.
- Got a girlfriend? You can spend all day with her if you want.
Some people couldn’t handle this level of abundance – their grades suffered, and they were no longer students.
The ones who survived were the ones who maintained some discipline.
It’s easy to blame the students and their lack of willpower, but some of them just weren’t prepared for that environment.
What if I told you that we’re all going through the same problem right now?
We’re living in an age where we have unlimited choices, and we’re all slowly losing control.
Some of the biggest companies in the world have an attention-based business model – the more time their users spend on their products, the more money they make.
My hypothesis is simple: Technology has made it easier than ever for companies to get you addicted to their using products. It’s more important than ever to understand how they’re doing it, and to modify your own behavior so that you can live more intentionally. The more you can control your usage of modern products, then the more successful you’ll be.
I don’t feel like I’m being overdramatic.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, doctors were recommending that people smoke cigarettes.
Think about that.
For several decades, people were smoking cigarettes without realizing how dangerous they were.
It makes me wonder…what behaviors are we doing today that’s considered completely normal, but we don’t realize how dangerous they really are yet? How much long term research can there be if some of these technologies just came out.
We’re becoming more and more connected. You can hop on a FaceTime call with someone anytime you want. But the more connected we are, the less connected we are to ourselves.
We’re all addicted to stimulation. When the entire world is constantly shouting their thoughts at you, you lose the ability to understand your own mind.
I’m not writing this post as some enlightened monk that has figured it all out – whatever I know is a result of fucking up and experimenting.
- In high school, I was addicted to EverQuest.
- When Prosper202 first came out, I couldn’t stop refreshing my stats every 5 minutes.
- When I moved to Bangkok in 2013, I spent way too much time and energy dating.
I think that I’m the most disciplined I’ve ever been, but I could probably spend a lot less time browsing YouTube and Reddit.
I’m going to share some areas for you to watch out for, and some strategies that I’ve used myself to nudge my own behaviors.
The Dark Sides of Modern Technology
I’m not going to deny the positive impacts that technology has had on our lives. I have no interest in going back to a time when Amazon 2 day shipping wasn’t a thing.
Public companies are pressured by their shareholders to keep increasing their revenues. And some of them are willing to play dirty.
Remember how simple video games were in our childhood? You buy a game, beat it, and then you are done with it.
But now gaming companies are experimenting with different ways to get you more addicted to their products.
Overwatch is one of my favorite video games.
The item system used to be so simple in gaming. You want an item? Well you have to collect coins, save them, and then you “purchase” the item. Done.
Now, many games feature loot boxes. It’s a treasure chest that gives you four randomized prizes.
Want a particular item? You’re going to have to keep grinding those loot boxes and rely on luck to get that custom skin that you want.
Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like slot machines?
Well, it pretty much is according to Senator Josh Hawley. Right now there is legislation around lootboxes because it exposes children to gambling mechanics.
I’m sure you’ve heard of food addictions before. It’s easy to look at someone fat and make a judgement call that they have no discipline or self control.
Well…companies are using technology to get you more addicted to food.
We’re biologically predisposed to enjoying fats and sugars.
The food companies are engineering their products to have far higher sugar and fat in them than what can occur naturally.
When I was experimenting with Keto, I was surprised to see how many products unnecessarily contain high fructose corn syrup and other forms of sugar.
Here are some other ways in which technology has evolved products to become more addicting:
- Entertainment. We’re in the streaming wars right now. It’s an arms race among HBO, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Disney, and other companies to create as much original content as possible so we can give them our $20 a month.
Holy shit look at all these shows I can watch. But then I look at the backlog of show that I want to watch.
I think it would take me eight hours a day, for 6 months straight if I were to ever finish my backlog, and that’s not counting all the new shows that keep coming out.
We don’t have to drive to blockbuster anymore – any movie or show you want is on your phone 24/7.
Want to watch something on YouTube? Their recommended videos, algorithms, and automatically playing the next video means you’re going to spend more time than you anticipated.
- Porn. I remember when me and my friends once found a porn magazine in the woods when we were ten years old.
This was our “Holy Grail.” Wow, so that’s what women look like underneath their shirts.
How is porn these days? Insane.
You can watch porn anytime you want. The average guy probably gets bored of “normal” porn and they start watching weirder and weirder stuff.
The problem is that it creates unrealistic expectations of sex and intimacy.
- Social media. I wrote about my experiences quitting Facebook several years ago. Excessive use of social media has been linked to depression.
- Dating and Sex. I haven’t used Tinder since the app blew up after I entered a relationship. However, I watched my friend use Tinder once.
I started swiping for him, and felt the nuclear dopamine rushes.
Back in my day we had to approach women. It was do or die. Now it’s just thumb exercise.
- Video Games. Video games don’t end – companies are always updating and patching them. I was addicted to it few years ago to Clash Royale for two weeks.
I HAD to stop because it was on my phone – that means I had access to it whenever I want.
- Food. I wrote earlier about how companies are engineering their foods to be overloaded with fats and sugars. This is why I’ve started cooking more and more. I have control over what I put in it.
- Shopping and Consumption. You don’t need to put on clothes and drive to the mall to indulge in shipping. 1-click purchasing and 2-day shipping has eliminated the friction.
- Gambling. This one is scary to me because I’ve known many guys personally who lost everything due to gambling. I knew a guy who loved going to the Casinos.
There was “friction” for him to go to the Casino because he’d have to fly to Las Vegas or Biloxi to get his fix. Well, he downloaded a Casino program which allowed him to gamble anytime he wanted to. You can guess how the ending goes 🙁
- The list goes on and on. Smartphones, notifications are everywhere, checking your business statistics, etc.
Now, none of these are horrible in and of themselves.
I played some Tekken 7 yesterday on my PS4, and watched some Netflix. I checked Snapchat. I’m not pretending to be some enlightened monk.
I know what you’re thinking – everything’s ok in moderation. That’s true in theory, but most of us are not moderating our usage.
And it’s not completely our fault because each year, these companies keep innovating ways to get you hooked.
We’re all complaining that we’re exhausted. We’re all complaining that there’s not enough time in the day.
It’s a big reason why we’re not as intentional with our behaviors as we think.
Let’s talk about how to take back some control.
Overcoming Addictions and Gaining Control of Your Life
First of all, I’m not a clinical psychologist.
There are levels to habits and addictions, and sometimes a blog post isn’t what you need right now. If you are truly addicted to something, then please seek some professional help.
The following is just some things that I’ve implemented in my own life.
1. Develop Self Awareness and Don’t Bullshit Yourself
Ask anyone how much time they spend on Facebook. Their answer’s going to be “Oh, I barely check it once a day.”
Facebook announced that the average person spends 50 minutes a day on Facebook.
That’s JUST Facebook.
How much time are we wasting when we add in Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Youtube, Snapchat, and more?
The first step towards improvement is to understand your own behaviors and not bullshit yourself about them.
I love tracking data whenever I can.
- For iPhone, I love using the ScreenTime feature. It’ll tell you how much time you’re spending on your phone.
- You can use RescueTime to see how you’re browsing the web during “work”
- I shared my personal KPI dashboard. If you’re trying to quit drinking soda, keep track of how much you’re drinking each day.
Most people don’t want to track their data.
Back in college I hated logging into my bank account.
It’s because I didn’t want to know the truth. If I had an overdraft fee, I didn’t want to see it and ruin my day. I preferred to bury my head in the sand.
But facing my fears is what allowed me to improve.
Learn to be kind to yourself.
When Screentime first came out, I was horrified to see that I spend 3 hours a day on my iPhone. I started berating and judging myself, but then I realized that doesn’t help.
Here’s my language instead.
“Ok you’re spending 3 hours a day on your Phone. No big deal, that’s the starting point. The goal is to use the phone for an hour a day. Lets see what apps you’re using on a daily basis, and see what kind of fat we can cut.”
Awareness is the first step towards progress.
2. My Most Important Weapon is Structure.
I was trying to lose weight several years ago, and it was so tough to cut out some junk food. I had to use so much willpower.
I learned a technique where you focus on adding instead of subtracting.
Instead of cutting out junk food, I made a mental shift towards eating healthier foods. By being focused on eating healthier foods, there just wasn’t as much room for junk food.
You can start by figuring out what the ideal day for you would look like, and reverse engineer your way from there.
I call this structure. You’re being intentional about how you spend your time.
I’m ok with watching Netflix an hour a day, so I schedule it at 6pm on the days I don’t go to Jiu Jitsu class.
Each day is consistent. I wake up at a certain time. I eat at the same times. I work at the same times.
The more consistent my days are then the more ingrained positive habits become.
3. Take the Lesser Drug
My friend smokes a lot of weed.
I remember he once told me, “I’m going to do drugs no matter what. It’s better for me to be addicted to weed than Heroin or something worse”
He meant it as a joke, but it’s a concept that I’ve applied to my life.
I’m always going to play video games. It satisfies something in me. I just love leveling up, being competitive, and learning how to improve my skills.
But there are certain video games that I view like crack or cocaine. I can’t handle a MOBA like DOTA 2 or League of Legends. They’re way too addicting for me, so I’ve vowed never to touch them for the rest of my life.
So I play single player games instead. I can play it for 30 minutes, get my “fix”, and move on with my life.
I’m not interested in ever having an Instagram account.
I don’t want to reply to random comments, worry about how many “likes” or “followers” I have, or worry about painting a picture perfect version of my life.
So my lesser drug is Snapchat. I don’t follow anyone there. There aren’t any likes or comments. It’s not addictive at all to me, but I get a lot of benefits.
One of my friends gave up cigarettes by switching over to Vaping. The triggers are the reward are the same, but the routine is less dangerous.
If you’re indulging in a behavior, try switching to something else that’s less harmful.
4. Modify Your Environment
I used to eat out a TON living in New York City.
I couldn’t help myself – there were restaurants everywhere. I couldn’t walk to the gym without walking past five pizza places.
Now that I’m living in Atlanta, I barely eat out. I live out in the suburbs and I have to drive if I want to go to a decent restaurant.
It’s not like my willpower is any different – I’m just in a different environment.
How can you modify your environment to encourage or discourage different behaviors?
Are you playing your PS4 too much? How can you add in some FRICTION so that it’s harder to play whenever you want?
- If your wife goes to work, give her your PS4 controllers to put in her purse. That way you’ll only play at night.
- After you’re done playing, unplug the power cord and put it in the attic. The next time you want a “quick game” you have to go to the attic.
People count as your environment too
Do you surround yourself with people who are living a life that you want to emulate? Because if not, they’re going to drag you down.
5. What’s the Root Cause?
Whenever you’re problem-solving, it’s important to separate the symptom from the root cause.
Let’s say that you had to write a book. You decide that Laptops are full of distractions and you switch over to a 1990’s style word processor that can’t connect to the internet.
Is that going to change everything? Probably not. You’ll probably find other ways to distract yourself. You’ll stare outside the window or go read a book on your bookshelf.
There’s something internal and deeper going on here. Something that I’ve noticed in my own life is that I’m more prone to addicting and distracting behavior when I’m stressed out.
A few years ago I went through a two-month campaign drought where it felt like nothing was working. My top offers went down. Nothing was hitting and it started affecting me mentally.
How did I cope with it? I started really getting more into Starcraft 2. It felt good that I could play the game for 8 hours, and see myself making progress. There was instant feedback. There was a positive affirmation that me putting in work = results.
Video games and Netflix became a form of escapism for a few weeks. I didn’t have to confront some uncomfortable feelings that I was having.
I was having fun, but I wasn’t being fulfilled.
I had to snap out of it. Is this why I was being put on Earth? To be entertained all day? No.
I uninstalled my games and canceled my entertainment subscriptions. I made a pact with myself that I’d focus on my campaigns until they’d hit. It only took a few days of intense work to get back in the black.
Sometimes we’re prone to addicting behaviors as a means of coping with pain, stress, or to avoid feelings of discomfort. It’s only a temporary mask.
The only way to address your pain is to directly confront it head-on.
The Struggles of Man
Why should you give a shit about what I just wrote?
Because the world is not going to reward average anymore.
Automation and artificial intelligence are going to taking away jobs. Not in the future – NOW.
Average workers are being replaced by someone in Asia that can do a better job, for $7 an hour with no benefits.
When I think about the “average” person, I think of the person who can’t get a grip on their vices. Spending 3 hours a day on Facebook is considered normal. SPending the weekend binge-watching the Office / Game of Thrones is considered normal.
The world is becoming more competitive and you need to bring your A-game – having complete, mindful control over your own behavior is a superpower.
And finally, happiness doesn’t come from doing easy things. You don’t get any fulfillment from doing what everyone else does.
True happiness comes when you challenge yourself and crush your own self imposed limitations.
When you’re on your deathbed, are you going to regret that you didn’t surf Instagram more? Are you going to look back and wish you leveled up your video game character more?
Inside each of us is the potential for greatness. I don’t care if you’re already great – there’s always another level.
Some of the smartest people in the fucking world are trying to figure out how to turn you in a mindless zombie. You spend 50 minutes a day on Facebook? They’re trying to figure out how to get you to spend 2 hours a day scrolling.
To conquer the world you need to start with conquering yourself.
Featured Image by AndrewLozovyi