Addicted to Progress

Yesterday on Facebook, plant-powered athlete/author Rich Roll asked:

What are your best thoughts & ideas on how to set and achieve a goal? Curious about new ideas for a new project I am working on. Let me know what has and hasn’t worked for you.

Eerily, I was mulling over a variation of that question during my swim yesterday morning (which, admittedly, may have contributed to some slower-than-usual pace times), so I had some ideas ready:

There are two ways to get to a big goal, and the method that works depends on the person and where they are in their journey. Some people need a big, crazy goal to get them motivated, while others find something so big to be daunting and need to take smaller steps towards their goal. 8 years ago I started with the goal of running 1km, and this year I’m doing my first Ironman.

I’d like to expand a little more on that answer, and talk about how I’ve used the concept of big and small goals to transform my lifestyle.

ORTA Trail Race

So how do you know whether to set a small, achievable goal or a big, crazy goal?

Well, let’s assume that making constant progress will eventually get you there no matter what.  If goals can be broken down into a series of sub-goals to achieve, then we just need to figure out how to make sure you’ll keep playing long enough to make it to the end-game

Who are the experts in making sure people keep playing? Video game designers and casinos.

In 2001, John Hopson wrote an article called Behavioral Game Design, in which he explained how game designers use psychology to get people addicted to their games.  He specifically discussed reward schedules, concluding that variable reward schedules – in which rewards are given after a variable or random amount of activity, such as winning at a slot machine – are the most addictive:

In general, variable ratio schedules produce the highest overall rates of activity of all the schedules that I’ll discuss here. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best, but if what you’re looking for is a high and constant rate of play, you want a variable ratio contingency.

A more recent article by Chris Bateman expands on the variable ratio contingency to describe the highly-addictive strategy used by subscription-based games like World of Warcraft: escalating ratio contingency.

It seems as if the merit of the escalating schedule is that in the early stages, the rewards come regularly, which helps the habit set in, while later on the rewards come further apart which gives more time to focus on the nature of the activity rather than having the activity overshadowed by the reward.

If you read the preceding quote from the perspective of setting a goal, you can see how it’s initially advantageous to set smaller, easily achievable goals in order to reward progress.  As the activity itself becomes enjoyable, the rewards are no longer required as frequently and those big, crazy goals don’t look quite so daunting.

So get yourself addicted to progress by learning from the experts. Start small, and escalate as you progress.


The escalating schedule mirrors my journey over the last eight years as I went from literally wondering how anyone could  run 10km without stopping, to training for my first Ironman.

Initially, my goals were achievable within a month or two – I think it took me two months to progress from jogging my first 1km to finishing my first 5k in 32 minutes (yes, I still remember my time).

A few years later, my goal to finish a half marathon took over four months of training (and yes, I remember that time too – 2:03:59), reducing the frequency of the reward as my fitness and enjoyment increased.

It’s been over 8 years since my first run, and now I’m spending 8 months focused on a single goal: Ironman Canada 2014.  I can honestly say that it’s no longer just about the goal – although trust me, I’m still going to be celebrating when I finish – but the journey itself has become the reward.

And that’s how you become addicted to progress.

So now that you know the psychology behind making goals achievable, what goal are you going to get addicted to?


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