To Maximize Improvement, Figure Out the Challenge Level


When you play a video game, there’s usually an option you can set right at the beginning, which lets you adjust the difficulty level. The idea is that everyone’s initial skill level may vary, and you don’t want to alienate either hardcore gamers or total newbies at the other’s expense.

However, from a video game designer’s point of view, giving players the ability to set the difficulty level detracts from their fun, immersion, and engagement. Players are supposed to learn within the game and strike their balance of risks versus rewards, interest versus stress, tension versus tedium.

Life doesn’t let us change the difficulty setting. And if you want to pursue self-improvement, video games can be instructive. How do you pick an approach that suits the situation and allows you to make progress?

Ease builds habits

Let’s say you wanted to improve your fitness. It’s an excellent area to target for beginners on the self-improvement journey. For a lot of people, it can prove to be a keystone habit that gets many other dominoes to start falling into place.

But anyone who’s fallen into a sedentary lifestyle can find it challenging to increase their physical activity. Even the exercises that fitness buffs consider basic or easy to perform can prove too challenging. It discourages them from sticking with the program. That may be one reason why so many people make fitness resolutions for the New Year, but don’t make use of their gym membership past January.

Lowering the difficulty level can make a huge difference. Any exercise is better than no activity; you may not have the strength or endurance to hit the gym regularly, but you can walk around the block every day.

You can get creative as well when it comes to making things easy for yourself. Don’t just get a good deal on your home loan; make sure you find a property in a clean, safe neighborhood. It will be more pleasant and conducive to getting out and about daily.

This approach is an excellent way of building and reinforcing good habits. And if you can integrate the practice into your routines, you’ll inevitably raise your competency level in whatever skill you focus on.

Difficulty brings learning from failure

Breaking things down and making them easy is a concrete way to earn your first few levels, so to speak. But the flip side of this approach is that you may never tackle something bigger than bite-size.

For instance, a standard tip for aspiring writers is to write one page each day. After a year, you’ll have 365 pages: enough for a novel. But how many published books are made just by following this method?

The truth is, writing a novel isn’t a simple matter of aggregating a certain number of pages. You have to tell a cohesive story. You need to edit the raw draft, which is a skill unto itself, and probably not one you’ve been practicing daily compared to writing. And you’ll have to convince a publisher, or else be prepared to take on their function; it’s another new set of skills to acquire.

Sometimes you have to take on the big, scary challenges. It may not always be advisable, depending on the activity involved. Falling flat on your face can lead to actual injury if you’re trying to run a race with zero training and preparation.

But if you’re attempting a personal creative project? The risk of failing may only hurt your ego. The benefits of trying are far more valuable. Fail, and you’ll not only have made partial progress, but you’ll have learned how to do better next time.

Finding the zone of stretch

It’s possible to alternate between these two approaches, not only across different skills but sometimes within the same skill. If you’re starting from scratch, you may not benefit a lot from going hard on the difficulty. Failure is predictable; any lessons learned won’t be that useful relative to the potential for discouragement.

On the other hand, once you’ve built up a certain level of competency through incremental practice, you may be ready to attempt something more complex. Occasionally, you can do this right away if you have transferable skills from other areas of expertise.

This balance follows the model of Rohnke’s Comfort, Stretch, and Panic zones. Learn to recognize the signs of panic, such as procrastination, as well as those of comfort, such as complacency. Like a video game player, you want to stay in that productive stretch zone to maximize your learning and improvement.