Reading, drumming and Rubik's cubes

book thumbnail

November 16, 2022 8 min read

Reading, drumming and Rubik's cubes

Towards the tail-end of 2021, I set the arbitrary goal of reading 50 books in 2022, in an attempt to establish a reading habit (I've always been told successful people read a lot). I've always been the occasional reader, enjoying the odd fictional series (shoutout to The Stormlight Archive), but never really an avid reader. I decided to buy myself a Kindle, believing I'll dupe myself into reading more if I spent the money on a Kindle. To further bolster my chances of success I read Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit and James Clear's Atomic Habits. I also decided I would follow Ali Abdaal's approach for recording what I read, jotting down notes and summaries on for each book I read.

As the year marched on, I felt my progress was incredibly slow. I read fairly quickly but the mammoth task of 50 books seemed insurmountable. Nonetheless, I persisted - adhering to the advice provided in the aforementioned books. Most notably, persisting even if it was just a few pages a day. Reading something meant progress.

Along with my desire to read more, I also wanted to improve my drumming ability and learn how to solve a Rubik's cube. To improve my drumming, I bought a drumming practice pad, placed it at my desk, and did some drills on it between tasks or during my lunch break. For Rubik's cube I found a YouTube video which goes over solving one and did chunks of the video a few times a week.

At the time of writing this, it is nearly the end of 2022 and:

  • I've read 46 books and even if I don't get to 50, I've developed a rock solid reading habit,
  • While not easily measurable, both my rhythm and speed in drumming have skyrocketed,
    • Songs I previously really struggled to drum along to are a breeze now and
  • I am able to solve a Rubik's cube in under a minute

Now, I know there's nothing novel to be learnt from the above, we have all heard the power of incremental efforts and how they compound. It is just my own testimony to its efficacy.

Some reflection

By chance, a few nights ago I found myself reflecting a bit on my childhood and the things I spent my time on. Growing up I used to spend countless hours playing computer games. One game I especially enjoyed was Warcraft® III. For the uninitiated, Warcraft requires players to create armies and battle against opponents (either real people or AI players). The game allows for a plethora of possible strategies and there are countless considerations one must be cognisant of when playing. Anyway, I loved it.

When I first dipped my toe in, given the complicated and intricate nature of the game, I absolutely, undeniably, sucked. However, I didn’t care. Playing the game itself was fun - winner or loser. When I lost (aka got absolutely smeared) I was fired up to improve and when I won the dopamine kick left me feeling euphoric. I played the game for many, many hours over several years. During this time, at no point did I think of playing as a form of practising, nor did I have any sort of secret ​​pedagogical approach to improving. I just played, tried my best to win, lost, noted what my opponent did better than me and played again with this new wisdom. Side note: I miss the neural plasticity of youth. Over time, with enough games under my belt I got really good, even winning a few tournaments. It was borderline whacko that I kept coming back to the game, despite getting thoroughly flattened countless times but I really just enjoyed playing it, that it didn't matter if I lost.

If I didn't enjoy playing, I doubt I would ever have gotten as good as I did (or continued playing the game after my first humiliating defeat).

There was another part to Warcraft that I also dabbled with: World Editor, the games built in map editor/custom game maker.

World Editor was like a blank canvas that allowed you to craft your own worlds with its own characters, rules and story and play them in Warcraft (together with other players, if you desired). To use an analogy, Warcraft was like the instructions that come with a Lego® box. You could use the Lego 'as intended', following the instructions or build whatever you felt like with the pieces (World Editor).

Having a pretty rowdy imagination, I would often concoct these epic worlds and ideas in my mind that I wanted to create in World Editor. And no matter how quixotic my ideas were, I would open up World Editor and start work on converting my ideas into a playable game. I would come up with some clever name for the game, spend hours deciding on the aesthetic direction of the game and conceptualising how all it'd all be pieced together. Then when it came to actually 'coding' the game (the hard part; wiring up the logic and behaviour of everything) I nearly immediately lost interest. A few days would pass, I would come up with a new idea and repeat the process above (never returning to an old project).

I never completed any custom games that I started in World Editor. I found the coding component difficult/confusing and there was too much effort required before seeing any results.

I loved the thrill of starting a new project but the novelty wore off very quickly when I had to code and put in some hard hours. By contrast, in regular Warcraft I could jump into a game and it all felt effortless (even the hard parts).

There were a few pieces at play that created the dichotomy between Warcraft and World Editor (dopamine release from Warcraft's reward cycle, mental effort required, learning paths, etc), but there was one key takeaway that really sat with me when I reflected on all of this.

Looking purely at my improvement in playing Warcraft, it's clear that even back in my younger days I was improving through incremental efforts. And what about World Editor? Well, my takeaway is that with activities that are fundamentally difficult to perform (or not enjoyable), with less visible or less frequent markers for improvement we give up sooner. We don't feel we are progressing and we aren't getting rewarded for our efforts so finding the discipline to continue is notably more challenging.

Wrapping up

Going back to my reading habit, after reading each book, I could tell myself I was making progress towards my goal and toward building a reading habit. Whilst I had to engage my mind actively with the content I was reading, the activity was still pleasurable as I felt like I was improving myself by doing so.

When it came to drumming, it would've been foolish of me to have expected improvement after a few days. However, I inherently enjoyed the activity itself which kept me engaged long enough to improve. After a few months when I did reflect it was very clear I had improved.

And the Rubik's cube? I found the activity itself demanding and initially not remotely enjoyable. However, The video I used as a guide for solving them did so in levels/layers of the cube. I could see measurable progress as I learnt how to solve each layer. This motivated me to persist until I could do all the layers by memory and quickly.

The key takeaways from this whole experience were:

  • incremental efforts work (most of the time, there may be cases where they don't),
    • understand how to improve, persist and with enough time you will see progress,
    • it's worth noting that there is immense value in measuring progress and reflecting on how you can improve even further along the way. Anders Ericsson's Peak is a great read on the subject of improving at the things we do.
  • Difficult activities or things that have long lagging indicators for improvement require extra discipline and motivation
    • when working on something particularly challenging, persistence is all the more important,
    • try find ways to measure improvement outside of the obvious and use that as that to fuel your motivation,

I recognise that a lot of what I've said above is pretty derivative, but hopefully my experience helps motivate some of you in your pursuit improvement.