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Friday, April 8, 2016

Developing Good Habits for Chess and Life

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” 
― Jim Ryun

Often, we know what we need to do to improve ourselves in chess and in life. Of course, this site is focused on helping you to maximize your training and improvement, but in general, the types of activities are widely known. 

I think most intermediate players if not beginners know that you should study your mistakes, study the games of the masters, and work on solving tactical problems among other things (and you can read my article on these three specific activities if you want). Similarly, we know that proper sleep, fruit and vegetables, and exercise is good for our bodies.

However, knowing what to do though is not the same as doing! What keeps us from doing what we know is good for us? Well, the answer is perhaps more complex than I intend to get into today, but the basic answer is that we have not developed the habit of doing these activities.

In this article, I will give you some simple steps to develop new habits. These steps were adapted from author James Clear's excellent (and free) e-book Transform Your Habits

Step #1: Pick the Habit You Want to Develop

The first step is knowing what habit or behavior you want to increase. Since we are talking about chess training, here are a few examples of habits you may want to develop (or increase):
  • Looking up the openings to my games.
  • Studying annotated master games.
  • Analyzing my games without a computer engine.
  • Doing tactical problems.
  • Studying endgame positions.
These are just a few. I suggest you start with the one that will make the most impact on your skills (and you can add more later). For example, if you feel you are not very good with positional chess, then you may want to develop the habit of studying the games of positional masters such as Karpov or Capablanca. If you blunder often, you may want to do more tactical problems. Analyzing your games (perhaps with the help of a coach) and being honest with yourself will help you decide what to do next.

Step #2: Break Down the Habit

After you know what habit you want to develop, the next step is to break down the habit into a form that's very easy to do. James Clear says to make it "so easy you can't say no." Here's an example from my own study program. I have the wonderful book 100 Endgames You Must Know by Jesus de la Villa. However, I've started and stopped studying this book many times in the two years I've owned it. So I started a new habit:

Every three days, I study one endgame position.

Some of these positions are very easy, sometimes only taking 5 minutes to study. However, when I see this come up on my to-do list (I have it as an action item on my planner), it is so easy that I can't say no. I grab my book, set up the board, and work on it.

Here are some other examples of breaking down a habit so that's it's "too easy to say no."
  • Study 1 tactical problem daily (assuming you don't do any currently)
  • Spend 10 studying openings
  • Study 1 annotated master game daily
  • Spend 10 minutes analyzing my game with no chess engine assistance
Now, you may say this is too easy and I won't make progress this way. Well, first remember that we are talking about developing a habit that you have not done yet! The idea here is that we take "willpower" and "discipline" out of the equation by making our starting point very easy.

During this step, we develop consistency and confidence as we make progress day by day.

Step #3: Progress Slowly

Once you've developed consistency...once you've become the type of player who does your habit regularly without question...then it's time to increase the difficulty. However, do so gradually. As James Clear has written, it should feel easy.

For example, if you are developing a habit of doing tactical problems, maybe you started with doing 1 a day (or 5...it doesn't matter where you start as long as you're doing it regularly). Increase it by 1 for a while! Don't make the mistake of increasing too quickly. In your enthusiasm to improve, you may want to jump to extreme levels of training - I know I've done it! 

Imagine lifting weights. Let's say you bench press 100 pounds for 10 reps. It would be foolish to try to increase your bench press by 100 pounds (to 200) in your next workout. However, if you could increase your bench press by 1 pound every week, in about two years you will have increased your bench press by 100 pounds!

Here is an example of how I plan on increasing my endgame study.
  • Currently doing one position every three days.
  • In a couple weeks, I plan to do one position every two days.
  • If I am successful with that, I plan to do one position every day until I finish the book.

Step #4: Keep It Easy

So you've built up a habit or two to improve your chess. In this next step, you want to keep things easy. For example, let's use our tactical problems example. Let's say you've built up to doing 15 problems a day. If time is an issue or you are tired, maybe break them up into three sets of 5 done over several sessions during the day. 

When you're developing a new habit, you are not trying to beat yourself up. There are chess improvement "programs" out there like Michael de la Maza's Rapid Chess Improvement. It caused a stir for a while and many people began doing the program. Like anything else, a ton of people dropped off because they did not have the willpower, discipline, or time to implement the rigorous program that de la Maza proposed in his book. Incidently, I am not recommending that particular book although certain people may find it beneficial, particularly if they are weak on tactics. International Master Jeremy Silman gives a thoughtful review of it here.

Now, I am not saying that getting better at chess is going to be easy and you will never have to work hard. However, if you want to make long lasting changes in your routines and habits, following these steps will help you to avoid burnout and frustration.

Final Thoughts

Follow these four steps when you are trying to develop a new habit and you will find it easier than ever to create consistency and steady improvement. Here are a couple more things that will help.
  • Set up your environment for success. If you are trying to finish a certain chess book, leave it out by your chess board or computer.
  • Tell your chess buddies about your goals and habits. Ask them to check up on you occasionally. Help them out too!
  • Set up a tracking system for your progress. For example, you can set up a spreadsheet to record your Standard rating on Internet Chess Club or Chess.com weekly (this is what I do). After a few months, you'll see steady progress which is always motivating!
I hope you found this article helpful. When you develop good habits, chess training becomes less daunting and just "something you do." Please let me know what habits you are working on and any other comments you might have. Have fun and best of luck!


James Clear's Blog: He is not a chess player, but his articles on habits and achievement are very good. His advice and research helps me in all parts of my life.

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