I admit it: I'm a planner, not a doer. Consistency is not one of my strengths.
Now, I love everything about the process of figuring out how I'm going to do something. After unraveling that mystery, however, I rarely find myself taking the steps I've painstakingly decided that I should be taking. The thrill seems to disappear alongside the mystery. I've simply accepted this as being my nature, and many of my productivity decisions boil down to working around this nature.
Then I amassed a 317-day streak on Wordle, and that got me thinking: What was going on here, exactly?
Wordle is a vocabulary mind teaser in which you're given six chances to guess a five-letter word. With each guess, the game gives you feedback: grey letters aren't in the word, yellow letters are in the word somewhere, and green letters are in the word and are placed correctly. With each guess you get slightly more information and your options narrow. Eventually, the answer becomes apparent.
Here's the thing: you only get to do one puzzle per day.
You struggle for a bit, lightbulbs turns on, you make progress, you feel like a detective, you get frustrated (ample.........), then bam! A rush of endorphins. You got it. You're feeling good... and now you have to wait 24 hours to play again.
I'm convinced that this time limitation is a key reason that Wordle was able to take the world by storm.
At the very least, figuring out how Wordle worked was enough to let me consistently beat procrastination.
Why we procrastinate
In a meta-analysis entitled The Nature of Procrastination, psychologist Piers Steel defines procrastination as voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay. Framed this way, it seems very irrational: why would we choose to make ourselves worse off?
There doesn't seem to be a simple answer. Here's just a few of the factors that Steel brings up:
- Temporal discounting (Grüne-Yanoff; 2015): People consistently choose immediate payoffs over delayed payoffs, even if the delayed payoff is greater. These delayed payoffs are "discounted" in that they literally seem less valuable than the more immediate ones.
- Deadlines (Gersick, 1989): People indeed do kick things into gear as a deadline is approaching—which is to say that we dally until a deadline comes close enough for us to see its teeth.
- Task aversiveness (Milgram, Sroloff, and Rosenbaum; 1988): As you might imagine, tasks we regard as being unpleasant or feel we're being forced to do are more likely be avoided.
- Anxiety (Aitkin; 1982): Thinking about a project may lead to feelings of anxiety, such as a fear of failure, fear of rejection, and a general doubting one's abilities.
- Impulsiveness (Blatt and Quinlan; 1967): If you feel pushed to pursue gratification or find many tasks competing for your attention, this chips away at your effectiveness.
These factors come together to form what Steven Pressfield dubs The Resistance in his book The War of Art: a self-sabotaging force that, unless overcome, will prevent us from closing the gap between who we are and who we hope to become.
Somehow, Wordle beat right through The Resistance in my own life.
I think I've figured out how.
How motivation works (and why Wordle is so addictive)
In his article entitled Integrating Theories of Motivation, Piers Steel introduces what he calls temporal motivation theory (TMT). TMT is a formula that claims to depict how motivated we are (or aren't) to do something. It looks like this:
To break these factors down:
- Motivation: Given many options, we end up doing the thing for which the motivation score is highest
- Expectancy: How confident we are that we can complete a task
- Value: How important/desirable we think [task] is
- Impulsiveness: Anything that might distract you from this task
- Delay: I prefer deadline; how long you have to complete the task
Increasing E and V increases the likelihood that you'll do something; increasing I and D decreases the likelihood that you'll do something.
Here's what happens when I plug Wordle into that formula:
- Expectancy: High! I have a 317-day streak. I'm 100% confident that I'll get the word.
- Value: High! This is pure fun; there's no cost and no strings attached. How many things in life can you say that about?
- Impulsiveness: Low! On average, it only take some 2–3 minutes to solve the daily Wordle... and if I get distracted, my wife will win. My day pauses for Wordle.
- Delay: Low! As soon as I load Wordle, I know that I'll be getting my kick of dopamine in about three minutes.
This combination of factors yields a high motivation score. The formula suggests that my urge to play Wordle should be strong, and, indeed, it is.
Extrapolating a bit led me to the most important/effective productivity lesson I've ever encountered:
To increase motivation, reduce your time commitment
Time seems to be the most important part of this formula. Chew on this for a bit.
As the time required to complete a task goes down, several things happen:
- Expectancy goes up. You feel more confident. I can't do 100 pushups, but I can do five each time I step on or off my balcony (where I do most of my writing.)
- Task aversion goes down. I dislike vacuuming, but if I'm only going to vacuum for 3 minutes, I can put up with that.
- Distractions become limited. Plus, the closer our deadline is (three minutes from now!), the more likely we are to concentrate and get things done—a la Gersick, 1989.
In other words: reducing the amount of time you have to do something makes you more likely to actually do it.
Wordle takes this one step further by massively limiting the amount of time we can spend on it—you only get to play one game per day—and I think this contributed significantly to the game's ability to hook people.
I've dubbed this design choice enforced scarcity, and here's why it's so powerful. It:
- Eliminates opportunity cost: Wordle only takes 3 minutes, so I know it's not going to suck up my entire evening. I can enjoy it with no inhibitions or guilt.
- Eliminates startup anxiety: I can't and won't accomplish much in three minutes. The stakes are super low. Because I know that Wordle isn't going to balloon into a massive endeavor, it's very easy to just get started and get the game over with.
- Eliminates burnout: When we like something and do it a lot, we eventually get sick of it. Wordle kicks you out before that happens. You're constantly in a state of wanting to play Wordle and having to wait to do so.
"Enforced" scarcity in action
As I reflected on TMT and enforced scarcity, I began seeing it everywhere:
- Netflix: My wife and I recently watched the anime Chainsaw Man, and that bit of together time quickly found its way into our routine. Netflix forced us to spend all week waiting to watch the new episode on Wednesday nights.
- Chess.com: Free users at Chess.com are limited to solving three puzzles per day, and you better believe I do my daily puzzles.
- Naver & Kakao: Comics are my guilty pleasure. Naver Webtoon and Kakao Webtoon operate on the same freemium model as Chess.com: you can read their comics entirely free at a rate of one episode per week... or pay to binge. As a result, I literally have alarms set to remind me when my series get updated.
- Drops: Free users are limited to 5 minutes of access per 12 hour period. I initially downloaded Drops for marketing research purposes, but was surrpised to find myself continuing with it, despite the fact that I don't think memorizing individual vocabulary words is very effective.
Here's where things get really interesting:
As I got more into chess, I eventually purchased a premium subscription to Chess.com. My puzzle streak ended within a week. One evening I binged about 200 puzzles, then didn't touch the application for several days.
Now, just think about that:
- I still had the same goal (hit 2000 puzzle rating)
- I hadn't became less interested in chess
- I literally had data showing me that my consistent practice had led to a respectable increase in my rating
Nevertheless, my motivation to play disappeared almost overnight. The only change that had occurred was that I was no longer limited to 3 puzzles per day.
In short, scarcity was no longer being enforced.
To me, this seems like the last piece of the puzzle. All of these companies kick you out before you've gotten your fill. You're always left a little hungry: happily strung along, anxiously waiting for your next session of consumption.
You'd binge and spend all evening doing these things if you could—but, fortunately, you can't.
And that's the key.
How to apply Wordle's lessons to language learning
Now that you've got the principles down—just shrink your tasks down and then remove the ability to "binge" them—we can think about how to mobilize these principles.
So far, I've found two things that have been winners for me:
- Enforced Scarcity → use this principle to build desirable habits
- Temporal Motivation Theory → use this principle to overcome procrastination
Application #1: establishing good habits
The very first hurdle on the way to fluency is consistency. The best routines and resources in the world won't do you any good if you never end up making use of them. Unfortunately, making habits is hard.
Here's what we can learn from Wordle and Enforced Scarcity:
- Shrink your goal until it's pushover easy. (The definition of pushover easy is that you can still achieve it even if you've caught the black plague and aliens are invading.)
- Attach that goal to an inevitable "habit trigger". (It might be a time, like the start of your lunch break; a location, like getting home from work; or a "response" to something else, like going to the bathroom.)
- No binging: you can't work toward your goal unless it's in response to your habit trigger.
- Expand later on. After you've achieved your goal without fail for a month, (a) add another habit, or (b) give yourself permission to over-achieve when you feel like it.
While preparing for the JLPT N1, I decided that I wanted to listen to more Japanese. I had struggled during my first attempt with the test because my mind often wandered when I should have been listening. To that end:
- I set my "pushover" goal as simply turning on an easy and fun podcast (Nihongo con Teppei)
- I defined my habit trigger as being my morning commute
Before long, my work commute became synonymous with Japanese listening time. I didn't beat myself up over all the time throughout the day that I wasn't listening to Japanese: so long as I clicked start on a podcast at the start of my commute, that was enough. I even gave myself permission to imediately close the podcast if I really wasn't feeling it on a particular day.
It wasn't a ton, but that ~15 minutes a day 5 times a week added up to several dozen hours of extra practice over the course of the year. Eventually I began following a second podcast (4989 American Life), and I listened to this podcast during the commute home. Then I began listening for about an hour on Sundays as I biked to/from the gym. Two years in and I'm now approaching 250 hours of listening practice, basically for zero effort.
Application #2: getting through boring/challenging work
While deciding to do just one pushup a day makes it easy to establish a habit of exercising, sometimes you can't afford to wait a month to do 30 pushups. You need to get something done now. Thankfully, TMT proves useful here.
As a student I hated writing essays: I almost always ended up staying up all night long to write them. I wasn't trying to procrastinate, but the thought of all the mental work ahead of me would leave me sort of paralyzed. I'd just sit there tweaking a single paragraph forever, trying to get the words just right.
A modified pomodoro timer helped me get over my writer's block, and it proved so effective that now I take the same approach whenever I have any serious work to do:
- I use FocusMate to block my day into 30 minute sessions (25 minutes with an accountability buddy, 5 minutes of break).
- I configure Focus ToDo's pomodoro timer to give me rotating 5-minute and 1-minute timers— during the 5-minutes blocks of time I work, during the 1-minute blocks I rest (flashcards, chess puzzles, stretching, etc). The remaining minute is used to greet my accountability buddy.
- I use the 5 minutes between sessions to assess where I'm at and decide what I need to accomplish during the next session.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, I actually end up writing significantly more words per hour when I approach writing like this, despite the fact that I'm only writing for 40 minutes out of 60.
I think this helps for a few reasons:
- I pace myself much better. I know that I can't accomplish much in 5 minutes, so I shrink my expectations accordingly. This is super important! Whereas finish this paper is a terrifying thought, bullet this paragraph out seems pretty easy. That shift in perspective is like magic. Instead of a steep mountain, you see a series of wins.
- My deadline becomes 5 minutes from now, as opposed to 9:oo tomorrow morning or next Wednesday, which spurs me to motion. Perhaps more importantly, it's no longer me who has to enforce that deadline: I just respond to the bell ringing.
- I no longer waste time trying to get started. Even on my laziest days, I can focus for 5 minutes. Then the bell rings and I get to relax. Before long, I fall into a rhythm: the bell rings and I work, the next bell rings and I rest. No thought necessary. I often find my flow state before the first 30-minute session ends.
- Writer's block gets limited to 5 minutes. I can't tell you how many hours I wasted as a student puzzling over a tricky sentence, trying to figure out how to connect two sections of a paper, or simply staring at an empty document. No longer. If a 5-minute session goes by and I'm still stuck, I just type NEED EXAMPLE or CONNECT [A] AND [B] or something like that and move on. Oftentimes, what seems like a headache now won't seem like a problem tomorrow. I just need to put a bit of spcae between myself and the problem.
This isn't just for writing. I use the same timer (with different intervals) to play piano, exercise, read, study, do chores, and pretty much anything that comes up in a day.
If you only remember one thing from this article
Make that thing be boundaries.
Whether you're seeking to build a new habit or simply need to get something done, the answer might be as simple as placing artificial limitations on how long you have to do that thing. Doing so minimizes the anxiety associated with getting started, forces you to pick actually-manageable goals (thus feeding you a string of wins), and all but eliminates the risk of burnout.
To close with a quote from one of my favorite books on meditation:
A tangerine has sections. If you can eat just one section, you can probably eat the entire tangerine. But if you can't eat a single section, you cannot eat the tangerine.