It's 5:30 am, and I'm determined to stay awake. The morning birds begin their chirp chirps, and the sky transitions from dead black to deep purple. I have a seven o'clock class, and I'm already low on sleep this week. Didn't I mean to go to bed early? "Just gotta get a few more orbs," I tell myself. I pause my game of Crackdown to continue the YouTube walkthrough. "Why am I doing this?" I ask myself. The question is quickly forgotten as I watch someone else getting my next orb.
Hi. I'm Andrew, and I'm an achievement whore. Or if you want to be politically correct, a completionist. It started with Final Fantasy VII. I got Yuffie and Vincent on my team. I bred a golden chocobo and obtained the Knights of the Round summon. I acquired all the master materia. I beat Emerald WEAPON and Ruby WEAPON and Ultimate WEAPON. I unlocked all the secrets and side quests available. It took me ages, but I did it. And at the time, it felt incredible. It felt like an amazing achievement. Little did I know, this feeling would become an addiction for the next fifteen years of my life.
At first, it wasn't a huge deal. I enjoyed completing the side quests, but I never felt completely compelled to do so. It wasn't quite an obsession yet. Then, it happened. Microsoft introduced Achievements on the Xbox 360, and it hit hard. Achievements are public, permanent, and oh so satisfying. Bleep bloop! Suddenly, I needed to acquire every single Achievement in every single game I touched. I had to boost my Gamerscore as much as possible to show everyone how great I was. I couldn't live with myself if I failed to get all 1,000G in a game.
That last one became especially problematic for practically impossible achievements (like "Seriously..." in Gears of War). For achievement whores, the road to Achievement Bliss is paved with many controller-through-the-TV rage moments, but at least most Achievements are still achievable. The ones you couldn't quite finish though -- like a parent's disappointment -- they leave you feeling an emptiness that never truly heals. Scrolling through your past games is a roller coaster of thrilled accomplishment and vomit-inducing regret. Sometimes I avoided playing a game simply because I knew it had unattainable Achievements. This is around the time I bottomed out.
I've always had a problem with staying focused. Projects are frequently started and never finished. Homework is a mind-numbing chore of staring at a wall and remembering every five minutes that I'm supposed to be working. It took me twenty minutes to write this sentence while getting distracted by music, messages, the clutter on my desk, daydreams, the texture of my shirt fabric, and several other inane and useless thoughts and activities. When it comes to Achievements though, I will acquire a laser focus that allows me to shut out all external stimulii. Food? Sleep? Social interaction? Bills? A flailing and nearly ruined college career? Gimme a break! I'm getting internet points over here! Well that's a slight exaggeration. I still occasionally get up to snack on "food" and empty the remains of that food into a toilet.
I don't really know why this happens to me, but it applies in the real world, too. If you want to keep me busy for a while, give me a checklist to complete. It could be anything from collecting a variety of leaves to eating a bag of every flavor of Doritos. "Challenge accepted, sir or madam! I will dutifully check every box! Are we talking fun size or family trough bags?" Thankfully, this has had some benefits for me. I have tried a lot of flavors of Doritos. But more importantly, I learned that those unfinished projects littering my past are single, unobtainable goals. They are the impossible achievements that disappoint me when I look back on them. And then the eureka moment: Why not break those goals down into smaller ones? Ah! I can complete a bigger list of smaller tasks!
So here's where you get P.O.'ed at me for wasting your five minutes to tell you, essentially, to break big tasks down into smaller ones. No duh! But this has been the single most helpful piece of advice to me in getting stuff done. I am no longer so intimidated by big projects, and I'm less prone to procrastination now. I can get that sense of accomplishment without entirely finishing a weeks-long task. I break it up and knock it out bit by bit. It's a tremendously useful approach, and you can do it with just about anything.
You aren't "learning photography," for example. That's a useless goal with no meaningful success criteria. It's ominous and ambiguous. Instead, you are 1) researching good cameras for beginners, 2) going outside on a photo walk every Tuesday and Saturday, 3) experimenting with lighting techniques every day, and 4) submitting your photos for critique on your favorite photo website. See how much more approachable that list is? It's achievable even for a total beginner. Then, as you progress on the project, you can add more tasks as necessary. If you are having trouble with a certain step, break it down further!
This also helps if, like me, you believe that greater risks reap greater rewards. Now that I can wrangle my tasks better, I am more comfortable with projects that have a higher risk of failure. Starting a blog. Building a website. Writing a book. Creating a business. Completing a degree. Traveling overseas. Designing a robot. You can do all of these things! This is great for mastery, too. Becoming a master of anything is hard, but taking the time to outline your path to mastery will give you a major boost and help keep you on track. And that's really the best way to think about it. Writer's don't sit down and write a book out of nothing. Outlining is the first step!
Outlining leads to another firmly entrenched tenet of getting crap done: regular progress. The idea is that you work a little bit on a project every day, and even if it seems like you aren't making a lot of progress, you will eventually look back and see that you are way ahead of your past self. Practice the violin for ten minutes a day. Write 5000 words a week. Skype chat with someone in another language every weekend. Before you know it, you'll be a lot closer to your goal than you realized.
If you want even more motivation, make yourself accountable for your tasks. Treat your goals like Achievements. Make them public to your friends or family, and enjoy the moments when you succeed. Keep a public record of your accomplishments. Use a web page to track them, or just post regularly on Facebook about your progress. This will give you momentum to follow through where many people working solo tend to fail.
As for my crippling addiction to Achievements, I've started to outgrow them. Maybe it's just because I'm getting older, but really, I think it's because I'm spending more time on real, creative projects that are more of a priority to me than video game points. I had fun with them, but their greatest value was in teaching me to get off my ass and start creating more than I consume. The irony is that Achievements are designed to do the opposite, so try not to get hooked on them like I did. Learn from me, and start your path to success now!