Chess improvement is hard. Like anything worth achieving in life, it requires time and energy. However, our natural laziness often leads us to choose the easy way, which can hinder long-term growth.
Naval once said
“All self-help boils down to ‘choose long-term over short-term.'”Naval
So, the main question is: how can you bring yourself to do the hard work that brings results in the long run? In this article, I will focus on three main ideas that I use for myself and with students:
- Set challenges (with rewards and punishments)
- Hold yourself accountable
- Build your self-confidence
By implementing these three ideas, you can start to build a foundation of discipline and motivation that will help you in your chess journey. Remember, that the journey will be difficult at times, and you will face setbacks and challenges. But by committing to the process and focusing on the long term, you can achieve your goals and become a better chess player.
Set Yourself a Challenge
For a long time, I knew I spent more time on screens than I would like to. The quick access to information or ease of watching another video was so seductive that I did it much more than I knew I should. But I struggled for a long time to change my behavior. Until, I finally accepted a tough but very helpful challenge:
30-Day Digital Detox
Following Cal Newport‘s great book “Digital Minimalism,” I did a 30-day digital detox challenge. Radical results need radical changes. So, I deleted all apps from my phone (only normal texts and calls were possible), and was not allowed to consume any digital content for 30 days straight.
What seemed impossible before, became reality with one tough but rather simple decision. To stay true to my word, I set clear rules with rewards for following them and punishments for any missteps. Working magic, I reduced my phone & TV usage by 90% and got rid of basically all my bad habits. Even more, I felt more happy, relaxed, and much less stressed during the challenge.
I knew I should reduce my screen time for a long time, but I only managed to do it once I decided to take this 30-day digital detox. So no matter what activity you want to cut back (silly blitz or bullet marathons…) or increase (solving puzzles!), setting a challenge with rewards & punishments can help you.
Hold Yourself Accountable
Doing hard things is easier when you are not alone. That is why I like to share things I want to do (but am currently failing to do). And as most articles I write are at least half self-therapy, let’s do this right away:
Recently, I have been playing senseless blitz games on Lichess whenever I felt bad because of my brain injury. These are not fun games, nor do I learn anything. So it is only a waste of time.
As this falls into the bracket “at work” it wasn’t specified in my 30-day detox. So I’m publicly announcing that I don’t want to play any chess game on Lichess for the next 30 days (starting on the 24th of February 2023).
You can very easily verify if I managed to keep my word by checking my profile. For every game I play in these 30 days, I will donate $50 to charity. If I set this challenge and keep it only to myself it would be easy to fall for the temptation and still play some games. Nobody will remind me and it isn’t really going to hurt.
Now, if I play an hour of mindless blitz games I will not only let down my readers, but also pay around $500 “fine”. Not really an optimal outcome. So I’m pretty confident I will be able to report back in 30 days that I stopped this silly habit.
Want to hold yourself accountable? You can join a Chess Training accountability group led by Martin Justesen aka ‘Saychess’ here.
Avoid Quick Draws
A student of mine usually agrees to a draw way too quickly. In the heat of the moment, he fears losing control over the game and just offers a draw. This is obviously very bad for his chess improvement, and thus we came up with a simple trick:
As he nearly only plays team events, he communicated to his teammates that he will invite everyone (7 other players) to dinner if he makes a quick draw. Accepting or offering a draw is now not so tempting anymore: it will result in a $300+ dinner bill!
Build Your Self-Confidence
Doing hard things is… hard! So don’t expect to become the perfect human being just after reading these paragraphs. You need to build your skills up like a muscle. Every time you do the hard but right thing your muscle gets a little stronger.
At some distant point in the future, I hope it will be easy for both me and you to go to the gym, solve tough exercises, have difficult talks. For now, step by step, my goal is to gain confidence that I can actually do the hard thing. I do that by starting small and increasing the difficulty slowly.
You might have heard many “achievers” talk about how meditation helps them. I 100% agree. In the period I felt most happy & relaxed, I had a 300-day meditation streak. On average, I meditated 20 Minutes per day.
Recently, I lost the habit and now finally want to get back on track. It would be tempting to start immediately with 20-minute sessions. But the likelihood of failing is just too high. What I did last week was to set myself the challenge to meditate once a day, be it only 10 seconds. Just the act of sitting down, shortly closing my eyes, and focusing on my breath was counting.
By doing this for a week, I built my muscle for meditation before starting longer sessions. Now, I am slowly increasing the time span I meditate every morning. I highly recommend you do the same.
Creating A New Habit
Let’s finish with a chess example. Do you want to start a tactic-solving habit? This is pretty similar to meditation: most people know it helps, yet it is not so fun and easy to miss out on.
So start small. For the next week, just solve 1 puzzle per day with good focus. Write down your solution before you execute the move (or check the book solution). Then, compare your solution with the puzzle solution and understand the mistake (if you made any).
That’s it. This will take between 2-3 Minutes if done right. After a week, increase this to 5 puzzles every day. Make sure to stick with the right process. Soon you’ll build your “tactic muscle” enough to do a daily tactic-solving session of around 30 Minutes. Done right and consistently, this habit is enough to improve your chess results.
Chess improvement is hard. The key to improvement is to get yourself to do the things that are beneficial in the long run. Such as solving difficult positions or analyzing your lost games.
There are three methods that help me do the hard but right things:
- Setting Challenges
- Holding myself accountable
- Building my self-confidence
If you only use one of these methods you will see a big increase in the likelihood to do the hard but right things. Combining all three will be the cherry on the cake. You will prioritize long-term growth and thus see your rating increase drastically in not too distant future.
Soon, your friends will ask you “how did you manage to get so strong?” and you will answer with a smile “I tricked myself into doing the hard but right things”. Hard decisions, easy life. Easy decisions, hard life.