If you would page through the articles that I have posted on this blog over the past year, two things would probably be very apparent: one, I love games, and two, I love self-improvement. I could easily go off the deep-end talking about why I find each of these topics so fascinating (and perhaps I will in the future), but that is not my main focus for this post. What I do want to talk about, is what results when those two topics collide and begin working in my life in tandem. This is certainly the most personal post I have written thus far, and I hope it can provide a window into how I have experimented in my own life, and lessons I have learned that may be applicable to your own.
A little over two years ago, for reasons I don’t exactly remember, I started brainstorming the idea of a point system to evaluate how well I was doing in different areas of my life. I am not the first person to have these kinds of ideas (Demetri Martin certainly has, and discusses it in part of his “If I” routine which I highly recommend), nor was it even the first time I myself had explored that realm, but for whatever reason I acted on it this time and put a system into place. The original system was modest: six different categories, each of which had rules for how I could score points over the course of a week. At the end of the week, I would have a final score that represented how well I lived out the criteria in those categories. After my first week with the new system, I had my first score: 10. Which sounds great if you are talking about a ten point scale, but I can assure you, this was a terrible, terrible score. But the system didn’t let me hide from my low performance, and it left me wanting to make an effort to do much better during the next week. My second score came out to 41, much better! Little did I know at the time how integral this system would become to my life. A little over two years later, the system has grown to thirteen categories, and I have detailed statistics and graphs around my scoring in each of the last 109 weeks of my life (at the time of writing this). I will be the first to admit that this is not normal behavior, but hopefully in this post I can give insight into why this arbitrary points system has stuck around for so long, and why I now can’t imagine my life without it.
Early on in this process, I gave the point system a name: my “Manifesto.” Again, I don’t really remember the thought process around the original naming decision, but I have found that it remains a very accurate description of what the system aims to do. Let’s embrace cliché and take a look at the dictionary definition:
- a public declaration of policy and aims, especially one issued before an election by a political party or candidate.
Ignoring the word’s common link to politics, I’ll focus simply on “a public declaration of policy and aims.” In my Manifesto (which is how I will refer to the point system for the remainder of this post), I explicitly (publicly) state behaviors that I have deemed of such importance, that I should expect them to be a part of every single week of my life. In essence, the Manifesto is an objectively measurable representation of who I want to be as a person. In a perfect implementation (which, unfortunately, is not possible), the scores produced by the Manifesto would directly correlate to me living up to my goals and desires for my ideal self. In this way, the system is more than just an algorithm for spitting out meaningless and arbitrary numbers, but rather a mirror that tells me if I am being the person that I say I want to be. It is designed to bring personal accountability. If I have a week that I completely ignore areas of my life that I have predetermined to be important, the Manifesto will show me. And not only will it make my shortcomings visible, but it will immortalize that result in the history of scores, unable to be changed. All of this provides the theoretical birds-eye view of why such a system would even be desirable, but let’s shift gears and start digging into exactly what the Manifesto looks like, and how it works.
The Manifesto in Action
There are several driving principles that guided the construction of the Manifesto.
- A category or “pillar” of the Manifesto is something that, without exception, I believe should be part of every single week of my life. Therefore, the system should penalize a lack of weekly activity in one of these categories.
- The criteria for gaining points should always correlate to real-world value in that particular category. Any loop-holes that allow exploitation of the system to gain points without providing real-world value should be eliminated.
- The Manifesto should encourage a well-rounded approach. There should be strong incentive to be active in all categories, as opposed to ignoring a few and excelling disproportionately in others.
With these goals in mind, the simple formula for the Manifesto is as follows. Each category or “pillar” has rules for how to score points in that area. Ignoring or performing poorly in a particular category will always result in negative points. Eliminating these negative points already provides some incentive to be well-rounded, but it is magnified by the lowest scoring category of the week being counted twice. This means that scoring negative in a category has double the negative effect on the total score. On the other hand, bringing every category up evenly into the positives results in a higher bonus, taking a page out of Reiner Knizia‘s game design notebook (see scoring in Tigris & Euphrates or Ingenious). Additionally, many categories have “bonus thresholds” where additional points are awarded for reaching cumulative levels of performance.
An important aspect of the Manifesto is that it is not static. Just as the it is designed to constantly work self-improvement in my life, I am also constantly evaluating whether there are improvements that could be made to make the system itself more effective. Perhaps I feel like the scoring rules encouraged me to “game the system” with irrational behavior leading to more points. I immediately brainstorm how the Manifesto could be updated to prevent it from happening again. Or maybe I realized that there is another area of my life that is important in the context of my weekly routine, but not currently represented by the system. I begin considering whether a new category is warranted. Introducing a new pillar is not something that is taken lightly (it needs to pass the “should be part of my weekly routine every week for the rest of my life” test); that said, it has happened seven times since the inception of the system. Changes to the Manifesto have become more and more rare as time has progressed, slowly and asymptotically approaching the theoretical ideal that I described earlier. But any change that I am convinced will make the system more effective while maintaining its current integrity will always be a welcome addition.
The 13 Pillars of the Manifesto
What began with six categories has grown to thirteen. In this section I will detail exactly what those categories are (in the order that they were introduced into the Manifesto), and how each of them are scored. I also include a quote that I feel is representative of that pillar, as well as the raw data of my performance in that pillar over the last two years. In a way, this list represents the things I feel are most critical for me to do consistently in order to reach my goals in life (this gets a little messy, which I’ll explain a bit later). I have started to feel like the Manifesto has reached its final size at 13 pillars, but considering that I never imagined it would reach this quantity, who knows!
Pillar #1: Sleep
“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”
Here, at the beginning and core of the entire system, is sleep. At the time that I constructed the original six pillars of the system, I was about to start my last semester of college, finishing up my Master’s thesis in Computer Science. In that phase of life, I had certainly been reminded on many occasions of the value of sleep! For me, being well-rested is the key to being able to perform well in any of the other categories. Everything starts to fall apart when sleep is neglected, and it seems appropriate that it is the first category to be addressed. Each week scores as follows:
- 1 point for each night of 8 hours of sleep. A half hour buffer is allowed.
- 0.25 points for each day without snoozing my alarm. Bonus 0.25 if all 7 days.
- -1 point for each day more than one without 8 hours of sleep.
This pillar is a good example of one that has an explicit ceiling: the most I will ever score for Sleep in a week is 9 points (7 points for 8 hours of sleep each day, and 2 points total for no snoozing). Extra emphasis is also put on this category by directly penalizing not getting enough sleep for multiple days, as subsequent infractions past the first one not only miss out on the positive point, but incur a negative point. The snoozing piece was actually added much later, and is a good example of how the Manifesto is adapted to be more effective in incentivizing positive behavior. One key thing to note here, is that the rule is not at least 8 hours of sleep, but rather it must be within a half hour in either direction. So while this pillar is primarily intended to ensure that I am getting enough sleep, it also makes sure that I don’t waste time sleeping in, as I have found that there are sharply diminishing returns for getting more than 8 hours of sleep. This means that if I am exhausted on a Friday night and decided to head to bed at 10:00pm, I will be setting my alarm for 6:00am the next morning even if I have nothing on my schedule to get up for. The result is that I get enough sleep to feel completely well-rested, but maximize the time where I am awake and can commit effort towards the other twelve pillars of the Manifesto.
Pillar #2: Reading
“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”
It was not until fairly recently that I began to truly understand the value of reading. I enjoyed reading when I was younger, but as I grew up, I began to feel that it was more time consuming than it was worth. This all changed when I started taking public transportation to work, affording me five hours a week to read on my commute. After two years and many, many books later, reading has become a fundamental part of my routine, to the point that it is one of the core pillars of my Manifesto. I particularly gravitate towards non-fiction; I see it as an opportunity to learn from the distilled analysis and research of experts and thought leaders, and really expand my perspectives, skills, and overall body of knowledge (check out some of my favorite books from a year ago). All of the books I’ve had the opportunity to read so far have collectively had a major impact on me, and I consider it truly invaluable in my personal development. Here is how the weekly scoring breaks down:
- 0.25 points per fifteen minutes of reading (minimum 0.5 hour).
- 1/2 point(s) if at least 3/5 hours in a week.
- -2 points if 0 hours for the week.
This scoring structure used here is found in several pillars of the Manifesto. It consists of scoring points for dedicating time to the task, bonuses for reaching certain thresholds, and a negative penalty if it is neglected for the week. Unlike the Sleep Pillar that was capped at 9 points, the Reading Pillar is only theoretically bounded by the total amount of time in a week. This has been a fairly consistent category for me, as my commute to work provides a reliable, dedicated time to read.
Pillar #3: Exercise
“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.”
-John F. Kennedy
I don’t think anyone is going to argue with me about exercise being an important part of living a healthy and productive life. That said, it is one of those things that can so easily fall by the wayside if you don’t make intentional choices to make it part of your routine. As a kid and through high school, I played sports year-round, which meant that getting adequate exercise was never something I really needed to worry about. But now as an adult, I don’t have any organized functions that keep me accountable in exercising regularly. That is, until I introduced the Manifesto. Not only do I believe exercise is important for my general well-being, but I also am a firm believer in exercise being one of the best way to stimulate the mind and spark creativity. I think a lot of more “intellectual” people underestimate the tool that physical exercise can be in helping your mind work through a difficult problem, or to generate new ideas and perspectives. This combination of health and mental benefits make exercise an indispensable part of my weekly routine. Here is how I score exercise each week:
- 1 point per day with exercise. 1.5 points if the exercise is particularly strenuous.
- 1/2 point(s) if at least 3/5 days of exercise for the week.
- -2 points if no exercise for the week.
In an ideal weekly schedule, I would exercise every day (currently, reality tends to be closer to once a week). The system does not reward multiple workouts within a day, as exercise is not an area where I have goals I am trying to achieve (not looking to run a marathon or anything), but rather is something I just want to be engaging in consistently. The larger point value for “strenuous” exercise was a recent addition as I felt that doing something more intensive like a 5+ mile hike should warrant an extra bonus compared to just going for a run. The rest of the scoring follows a similar “bonus threshold” and negative penalty structure that I use for Reading, and as will be found in many of the other categories as well.
Pillar #4: Development
“When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.”
This blog is certainly evidence of the interest that I have in games, and I particularly enjoy developing video games; something I have done as a hobby for over a decade now. I have realized that creating games is something that I am passionate about, and I always want to be working on a project. Additionally, I feel well-equipped to push myself with some more “serious” projects, which ends up being more rewarding in the final results. This category is an example of something that is very much catered to me, as opposed to being generally applicable to anyone looking to improve their routines. But at this point, there is no doubt that games are the creative medium where my passions lie, and my Manifesto should measure how well I am living out things that I claim to be passionate about. Here is how I score Development:
- 0.5 points for each Git commit to personal projects.
- 1 point for every 5 Git commits for the week.
- 0.5 points for each half hour spent board game prototyping/testing.
- -2 points if no positive points earned for the week.
For those that aren’t familiar with Git, you can think of it kind of like “save points” in a programming project, and as a result they (when averaged out) work well for measuring my progress. A key thing to note here is that there is no theoretical limit to the amount I can score in this pillar. If I spend a lot of time on one of my game projects and rack up the Git commits, I can end up getting a much larger score than what is possible in categories like Sleep or Exercise. This aligns with my intentions though, as the Development pillar is what I would consider a “long-term goal category.” What I mean by that, is there are some categories that are simply a consistent part up my routine, but don’t have a big goal that I am working towards. As forementioned, I want to exercise regularly, but it is not important to me to achieve loftier goals of physical endurance. Developing games on the other hand, is an area where I endlessly want to improve and create more and more things that I am proud of. Therefore, the system is designed to reward “infinite” Development progress in a single week.
Pillar #5: Prayer
“I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”
The Prayer pillar is one that is getting a little more personal. How much it resonates with you, the reader, will vary based on your background. But as the Manifesto is a reflection of who I am and what I value, this aspect of my faith is an obvious inclusion in the system. This category is really about backing up my words with my actions: if I truly believe what I say I believe about prayer, than it would absolutely be a part of not only my weekly, but my daily routine. It’s one of those things that can easily drop off when life gets busy, which is exactly what the Manifesto is designed to help prevent. Here is how I score this pillar:
- 1 point for each day with intentional time spent in prayer.
- 1/2 point(s) for at least 3/5 days with intentional time spent in prayer.
- -2 points if no days with intentional time spent in prayer.
The format here is nearly identical to exercise, with the emphasis being on consistency each day. Whereas something like Development can score high by simply putting in an 8 hour session on a Saturday, Prayer is a category where I only measure up well when it is really integrated into my daily routine.
Pillar #6: Social Media
“Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.”
This category may seem odd; wouldn’t a system based around productive use of time encourage not using social media? Yes, it is certainly true that humans waste more time on these websites than just about anything else, but my motivations in this category are grounded in a different perspective. It really boils down to this: it isn’t enough to just work on cool creative projects, you need to share your work and connect with other people. It is amazing the people that you can meet and the relationships that you can develop when you are open to sharing your passions and interests with others. It can be fear-inducing for sure, especially with precious creative projects that are ripe for criticism, but it is ultimately very rewarding. Not to mention, the Internet has made the world a small place, and you are no longer limited by geography to find friends with similar interests. This pillar is the reminder to make awesome things, but don’t do it in a vacuum. Here is how I score my social media usage:
- 0.5 points for each “productive” post to social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube)
- -2 points if no post for the week.
This may appear to be a glaring opportunity for exploiting the system. Couldn’t I just spam my social media accounts and rack up all the points I want in a week? Sure, but there is an overriding rule that governs all of my social media accounts: “No Fluff.” Basically, I maintain an unwritten standard for what I feel are quality posts, and any sharing must pass through that filter before it has the opportunity to score me points. It can get a little gray, but I have a pretty good feel for my discretionary process. For example, commenting on a friend’s post on Facebook may not qualify for points, but commenting on creative work that someone posted to Twitter would count. Twitter definitely is my main target social media platform for this pillar of the Manifesto, but certain Facebook posts and the occasional YouTube upload have the potential to contribute to this score as well.
Pillar #7: Thinking
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
This category might be the most humorous sounding; nothing like telling my wife Mary that “I need to make sure I think for a half hour tomorrow.” This was the first pillar that was added to the Manifesto after it was created, and it emerged from the realization that I often sit down to work on creative projects, but rarely do I dedicate time to just think about those projects, whether by brainstorming or just fleshing out the next steps. It is amazing how much clarity can be gained on a project by just sitting down for a half hour to think through different aspects of the project and take notes (I have a small physical journal that I use for this as well as my Planning). Often times I will choose to think about a topic that I really don’t have any direction or answers around, but I come out of the session with everything sorted out in my mind. I often will use my “thinking time” to brainstorm an idea that I had earlier (and likely noted in my digital notebook), which allows me to quickly iterate on ideas and help determine which ones are worth pursuing. Here’s how this category generates points:
- 0.25 points for every fifteen minutes spent brainstorming or developing an idea (minimum 0.5 hour).
- 1/2 point(s) if at least 2/4 hours spent during a week.
- -2 points if 0 hours for the week.
The bonuses for this category are lower at 2 and 4 hours, as this isn’t a category that I am looking to spend too much time on in any given week. It is extremely valuable, but at a certain point I need to focus more on actually taking action on my projects (a.k.a. Development). But often when I sit down to make progress, it is very clear to me what steps are next due to a previous session of Thinking.
Pillar #8: Planning
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Planning is the other category that makes use of my small journal. It is one of my most consistent pillars as the aim is simple: before I go to bed each night, I write down a checklist in my journal of things I plan to accomplish the next day. It is amazing how much a simple checklist can guide your actions and prevent you from stumbling through a day on accident. I can look at my schedule for the next day and try to identify what kind of free time I will have, and then determine which activities would make the best use of that time. And let’s face it, it is hard-wired into human nature to gain satisfaction from checking items off of a to-do list. I may or may not actually follow through on the planned list for a variety of reasons, but the act of consciously planning is a quick and very high-leverage activity. Here is how Planning scores:
- 1 point for each night spent creating a to-do list for the following day in my journal.
- 1 point for an end-of-the-week review of my active working set.
- -1 point for each night more than one without a to-do list.
Similar to Sleep, this category is strict in that it penalizes multiple missed nights with negative points, in addition to missing out on positive points. The point awarded for reviewing my “active working set” was also a later addition. Essentially, this is my “high-level planning” as opposed to just thinking about the next day. I keep a Trello board that tracks what initiatives I am currently working on, and once a week I review this board to see where I stand on them. It gives me the opportunity to ask myself, “did I actually make progress on all my active initiatives this week? If not, why not? Do I need to put any initiatives on hold to make better progress? Having completed an initiative, what makes the most sense to pull in next?” It is a great way for me to “see the forest for the trees” and make sure I am on the right track for my goals that span multiple weeks.
Pillar #9: Scripture
“Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
In a lot of ways, this is a “ditto” to the Prayer pillar. My claimed importance of my faith demands a constant thirst to learn and grow in that area of my life, and this pillar addresses that notion by assessing my “study” of Scripture in tandem with the Prayer specified in Pillar #5. As is a theme throughout the Manifesto, these categories hold me accountable by showing if my actions back up what I say is most important in my life. Here is how I score this category:
- 1 point for each day reading Scripture or a devotional.
- 1/2 point(s) for at least 3/5 days reading Scripture or a devotional.
- -2 points if no day spent reading Scripture or a devotional.
This scoring format should be fairly familiar by this point. It is another one of those categories that is all about consistent daily involvement, and can have a huge impact on my weekly scores if I actively make it a priority.
Pillar #10: Eating
“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”
I am actually surprised that it took me so long to add this pillar to the Manifesto. Just as Sleeping has such a huge impact on how I feel and my ability to excel in the other categories, Eating also directly dictates how well my body works. Everything else becomes easier when I am feeling good, and there is no denying that I feel better when I am eating well. It was a little tricky to come up with a good scoring system for this pillar, but here is what I landed on:
- 1 point each day, minus 0.5 for violations of each of the following:
- Didn’t miss a meal.
- Ate at least 2 servings of fruits/vegetables.
- No more than one portion of dessert at a given opportunity.
This rubric is a bit unique, in that it defaults to a positive point, but then can be reduced by breaking various rules. Missing a meal may seem odd, but it addresses those scenarios where I am home all day working on things and might gravitate towards just snacking instead of sitting down for a proper meal. The second rule simply encourages at least two of the three daily meals to include a “healthy” component. The last rule is to combat my sweet tooth. It is okay to partake in sweets when the opportunity presents itself, I just need to do it in moderation. This category ends up capping at 7 points, though it has more negative potential than most other categories if I really eat poorly throughout the week.
Pillar #11: Music
“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Music has been a big part of my life for a long time as I took piano lessons for about a decade when I was younger and picked up guitar and bass as well in my teenage years. While I was always involved playing, I never really had any big, specific goals in my musical life. As I have really dedicated more time to piano again in recent years, it has become clear to me that music is something I always want to be actively pursing. What exactly that looks like my change depending on my season of life, so I have kept the criteria for points fairly generic to account for that. Here is how I have it defined:
- 0.25 points for each fifteen minutes spent purposefully practicing or composing music (min 0.5 hour).
- 1 point if at least 2 hours spent during a week.
- -2 points if 0 hours for the week.
Right now, the bulk of my activity in this area comes in practicing piano and learning new music. But I am definitely interested in spending more time doing music composition in the future, and I also want to leave it open that a different instrument may be where I want to focus more for a period of time. Consistently practicing piano over the last two years has been very rewarding (started challenging myself to record my learned pieces), and I am looking forward to seeing where that consistency can take me in the future.
Pillar #12: Blog
“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
It was around this time last year that I really decided to pursue blogging more seriously and intentionally. I felt that I had enough things that I would enjoy writing about, and had come to realize that expressing my thoughts in writing is very helpful for my own development and improving my ability to analyze things and express my conclusions. And so, just like all the prior realizations that gave birth to new Manifesto categories, a new pillar was formed. Starting this blog was something I really pondered over carefully, because it wasn’t something I wanted to approach half-heartedly or have die out after the initial interest faded away. By putting it in the Manifesto, I am saying that I believe that I should be doing blog-related work every single week for the rest of my life! It is less about the format of a blog specifically, but more about spending time putting my thoughts into writing and sharing it. I have been happy with how the inaugural year has turned out, and it is fun to see the posts add up and look back on different things that I have shared. Here is how I score for the Blog pillar:
- 1 point for starting a blog post.
- 1 point for fleshing out a blog post.
- 1 points for finishing a blog post.
- 0.5 points for development (Git commit equivalent) on site.
- 0.25 points for generating a blog post idea.
- -2 points if no points scored by the above methods.
Getting the points template for this was a little tricky. I felt good about a full blog post equating to 3 points, but assigning all 3 points when a post was finished wasn’t granular enough to represent the work that I put in. What I mean, is that I could write the majority of a blog post one week, and finish it early the next week, and if finishing was the only part that scored, the second week would get all the points despite containing a small portion of the work. I ultimately have settled on splitting the process into three phases: picking a topic for my next post and starting the draft, working on writing up the rough draft, and actually finishing and making it public. So no post will ever earn me more than 3 points in total, but work on a post can span multiple weeks while still contributing to each week’s score. I also count points similar to the Development pillar for any work I do on the programming and upkeep of the site itself, and also reward coming up with new ideas for posts. This makes sure that I have a healthy backlog of ideas to choose from whenever I am looking for a topic for my next post.
Pillar #13: Learning
“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”
Finally, the most recent addition to the Manifesto. I know what you might be thinking: “Isn’t learning already covered by several of the previous pillars you described?” I thought the same thing for a while, which is why it didn’t get added until more recently. The reason I came to believe it warranted its own category, is because the best way to learn something is to actively practice it in a “hands on” context. For example, I can read all I want about something such as utilizing the animation system in Unity, but that pales in comparison to me sitting down at my computer, opening up Unity, and spending an hour playing around with it and creating a little sample project that shows how it works. I realized that I spend so much time “doing,” that I rarely dedicate time to just learn and develop new skills, with no additional goals for the work. My Unity example is actually very representative of my recent activity in this category, as Unity has become my Development tool of choice over the last two years. There are many times that I think, “it would really be nice if I was more familiar with this feature of the software,” and now my Manifesto encourages me to set aside time to specifically explore learning that area. This kind of Learning isn’t limited to my programming endeavors though. For example, I have always (okay, more like over the last 8 years) been interested in learning how to solve cryptic crosswords, and setting aside time to specifically learn and practice them has helped me to quickly make progress in that goal. The points for Learning follow a familiar format:
- 0.25 points for each fifteen minutes spent actively learning something from my learning list.
- 1/2 point(s) if at least 2/4 hours spent during a week.
- 0.25 points for adding a learning item to my learning list.
- -2 points if no points scored by the above methods.
Similar to keeping a list of topics for future blog posts, I keep a list (Trello again) of things that I would like to dedicate some Learning time to at some point. It is nice to be working and think of something I’d like to learn, and rather than forgetting about it or pausing my progress, I can just quickly add it to my list, knowing that I will address it at a later date.
Meaning in The Manifesto
Having detailed the inner workings of the Manifesto, I now want to take some time to just discuss some of the impact that it has on my life. Every week, I update my spreadsheet to track my progress in all of the thirteen pillars that I discussed above. At the end of the week, a final score gets locked in, and everything gets reset for the next week. I might get to the end of the week and score a “39”. What does that mean? Why should I care about this arbitrary point value? Say, for example, I get home at 10:30pm on a Saturday after a busy day, and I haven’t exercised at all that week. How are these “meaningless” points going to compel me to get a workout in, when I am exhausted and just want to go to bed? It would be so easy for me to say, “I don’t feel like it, and I don’t care that I would get a 42 instead of a 46.” But here is the truth of it: that point value is so much more than just a number. It sounds kind of funny, but a low Manifesto score makes me feel inconsistent as a person, like a hypocrite of sorts. But think about it; the whole point system has been constructed to represent what I value and the person that I want to be. When I score poorly, it is like looking in the mirror and realizing that I am not who I thought I was. There is no one else involved in this accountability. I could easily make changes to boost my scores or let little things slide, but having put so much thought into the Manifesto, any internal dishonesty is nothing short of a state of denial over my own personal values.
The Manifesto doesn’t take a week off. I have detailed data collection for every single week over the last two years, and that highlights an important side effect: I can’t get away with anything! There is no “I am just going to slack a little while the Manifesto isn’t looking.” Every action or in-action is ultimately contributing to that score that is stamped onto the end of my week. This leads to probably the most profound effect of this whole system: Over the last two years, I have, literally thousands of times, chosen positive, productive behavior that I would have never chosen if not for the Manifesto. Really think about that. This simple act of tracking what I do has had absolutely profound effects on my life. Consider just some of the following examples of the Manifesto pushing me into borderline irrational behavior with regard to what I “felt like doing” at the time:
- Hundreds of times, it has been late at night and I realize that I have only had one fruit/vegetable that day for my Eating pillar. I don’t at all feel like eating a banana, but then I think, “am I really going to give up half a point just because I don’t want to eat a stinkin’ banana?” And I force down that stinkin’ banana (or whatever other fruit/vegetable is convenient at the time).
- Many times I find myself at 4.75 hours of reading (it is just how my work commute adds up for the week), leaving me with a measly 15 minutes of reading that would not only get me 0.25 points, but also help me reach 5 hours which is the threshold for another bonus point. I think to myself, “it would be silly to lose 1.25 points just because I didn’t read for 15 minutes,” so I find a way to make it happen, for example, by rushing to get ready so I can get that bit of reading in before I have to leave for what I have scheduled that day.
- I remember one very specific scenario where Exercise was the only negative remaining on my scorecard for the week. I got home around 8:00pm on Saturday, and a blizzard was in full force outside with temperatures far below freezing. Without the Manifesto, I can guarantee you there is no way I would have bundled up and gone for a run that evening. But that is exactly what happened, and it wouldn’t be the last time I went for a freezing run.
These are just a few specific examples, but there is no shortage of similar scenarios. As the Manifesto has become such a fundamental part of my life, it is amazing to see how it affects how I think about my week. I will look at my calendar and see that the upcoming week is particularly busy, and I will find myself identifying the different time slots that I will have the opportunity to “get rid of negatives” for that week by scoring in each of the thirteen pillars. This is not because I really “feel” like doing any of those things, but because I know I feel really crappy when I end the week with negatives and I want to proactively prevent that from happening. Whether or not you are convinced of its value, it is clear to me that the Manifesto is so much more than a little game, but rather it is the most powerful catalyst of consistent positive behavior in my life.
Emergent Gamification Metrics
As I have collected data week after week, I have noticed some interesting trends that end up providing an extra level of motivation. I have already touched on how it is extremely motivating to try to eliminate negatives; the structure of the Manifesto puts a lot of weight on doing at least a little bit in each category every week. Additionally, the “bonuses” that some categories have provide some extra incentive to “round up” in a way, making it feel wasteful to miss out on easy points. For example, if I ever find myself at 4 Git commits in my Development pillar towards the end of the week, you better believe I am going to make an effort to knock out one more thing on a project to take advantage of the bonus point awarded for every 5 commits.
But what has been even more interesting, is some of the metrics that span multiple weeks that end up providing extra motivation. For example, I track statistics around my average scores. Naturally, I want to see that average score go up. As I collect more data, it becomes harder and harder for a single week to impact the average, but there is still a feeling of, “I better at least get to the average so I don’t affect it negatively.” I may not be on pace to have a great week, but I definitely don’t feel like having a “below average” week, and that simple fact can push me to go the extra mile. Another interesting trend is what I call my “50 streaks.” Over time, I have gotten a pretty good feel for what a “good” score is, and the general correlation between points and how well I lived out the values of the system. The score 50 has emerged as being the threshold for what I consider a “good week.” This has a similar effect as the averages, where I make an extra effort to reach 50 if I am anywhere close. Consider the case that I have three weeks with scores of 50 or higher. This is encouraging, as it shows that I did well “three weeks in a row.” Now, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, the motivation becomes, “don’t break the chain.” The more weeks that I string together with a score of 50 or higher, the more strongly I feel about not wanting to break that streak. Even though each week is independently scored, the streak becomes this transcendent accomplishment that I want to keep going. So far, my best “50 streak” is fourteen consecutive weeks. That is nearly four months of continuous good scores!
Similarly, another streak that I start to notice is how many consecutive weeks I can go without a negative in any of the thirteen pillars. Over the last year, there was a stretch of 43 weeks where I avoided any negatives! That’s nearly an entire year of meeting the minimum criteria in each category every week. So while tracking and scoring individual weeks provides positive motivation by itself, starting to analyze long term averages, streaks, records, etc. adds a whole extra layer of incentives that are driven by basic human instincts around performance.
Um… Isn’t Something Missing?
You may be wondering: “What about relationships? Ryan, you are married… this sounds like a sure-fire way to put a bunch of priorities over your wife!” Indeed, my Manifesto does not contain anything about my relationship with my wife, nor any other personal relationships. This is not because they fall outside of the things I value most and feel I should be doing every week. Rather, it is because I believe that relationships simply are not a good fit for the format of the Manifesto. Think about it: say I had a “Marriage” pillar that scored points for doing nice things for my wife. Immediately those actions would feel inauthentic! Any time I would do something nice, my wife would feel like it was motivated more out of points in the Manifesto than out of love for her. This is not the kind of dynamic that I have any desire to create. Instead, I recognize that the Manifesto is not the authority on what is “right” for me to do at any point in time. This is a crucial point. I am not just blindly pursuing points above all else, but rather I am able to make decisions outside of the system, which many times means putting behavior (such as investing in relationships) above the Manifesto altogether. It is certainly a valid danger that I need to keep in mind though. Just as I constantly re-evaluate the rules of the Manifesto, I must also be very aware of how I view my prioritization of the Manifesto as a whole and be prepared to adjust if I notice any negative patterns.
I’m Not Some Perfect Machine
It is worth noting that just because I have this productivity-inducing life system, does not necessarily mean that I always do well at it! You might be forming this mental image that I have mastered the art of using my free time wisely, effortlessly converting small blocks of time into points for the Manifesto. While there are times where this has been true, there are just as many times where I do a fairly awful job and the Manifesto shows it. While some of my lowest scores are justified by life events (getting married and going on my honeymoon, for example), there are others like the week of November 6th, 2016, where I did not have any good reason to neglect the Manifesto, and scored a whopping… 13.25 points. Considering my all-time average of 46 (and record of 76.75), what the heck was I doing that week? A large portion of the points each week are really “gimmes,” so it takes a special kind of ignorant laziness to manage to avoid getting past 20 points. Yet that is just one of five weeks where a sub-twenty total is where I ended up. The key is that the Manifesto very clearly communicated these shortcomings to me, and the next week I started with a blank slate and an opportunity to bounce back. I feel as much resistance to these positive behaviors as any human would, but the Manifesto is a tool that helps prevent my decision-making from being dictated by how I “feel” in the moment. Sometimes it is successful, and sometimes I manage to avoid the positive decisions anyway. But in either case, the Manifesto is there to document the results and give me objective feedback.
It is a little weird to put all these thoughts down in writing, as this whole endeavor was never something I intended to publicly share. But as it has come up in various conversations, people tend to be very interested in this process that has become such an integral part of my life. It is at a point where I have a hard time seeing any reason why I wouldn’t do it for the rest of my life. It sounds kind of crazy (the thought of having 50 years of detailed statistics…), but at the same time, I can’t imagine what would cause me to suddenly go, “nah, I think I’m not going to track anything for this week. Or ever again.” With they heavy lifting of creating the system and making it a habit behind me, it takes almost no effort to keep the Manifesto going. Excelling within the system, however, is where that effort is a little more necessary.
Obviously, I don’t think that a meticulous life point system like this is for everyone, or even most people. That said, I think there are some core pieces that I believe every person could benefit from thinking about:
- What areas of your life are important enough to you, that you feel they should always be a part of your weekly routine?
- Do you have any way of measuring how well you are living out those areas?
At the end of the day, that is all this boils down to. I went through an iterative process of identifying the things that I most valued as being consistent in my life, and then I provided myself with visibility into how well my actions matched those values. Bad scores remind me that I need to focus on improving some things, and great scores show me that I am objectively living out my passions. Who knows how the Manifesto will evolve in the years to come, but it is a powerful tool and I am excited to see where it can help me go in the future. I hope this post maybe got you thinking about ideas for possible self-improvement in your own life, and if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!