Hey, it’s Sean McCabe with a mini sabbatical episode. Long-time listeners know I take Seventh Week Sabbaticals, and have since 2014. When I take off that seventh week, I could just take a break from the podcast and have no episode go out on the feed. But the reason I do these mini sabbatical episodes is to remind you of the importance of rest. My hope is that when you hear me talk about being on sabbatical, you think about the importance of rest.
Now, I don’t always talk about sabbaticals on these mini sabbatical episodes. Often, I’ll talk about a random topic that may touch on rest in some way. But I’ve wanted to share more on the topic of sabbaticals. That is what my next book is going to be about. So I’m excited to share a new place I’ll be doing just that, and I’ll tell you where to go at the end of today’s episode.
I’m actually recording today’s mini sabbatical episode on the day it publishes. I’m in the middle of a 30-day challenge, and I wanted to wait until I had a few days under my belt so I could share that experience.
30 Days Without Video Games
This may come as some surprise, but I play video games. Now, that’s not such a strange thing, exactly. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any male anywhere in their 20s who doesn’t these days. It’s a very popular activity.
But Sean? Sean McCabe plays video games?
Yeah, I know. It’s not exactly the first time I’ve admitted to it (I’ve mentioned it on the show many times in passing), but it’s still kind of strange, isn’t it?
For most of my 20s, and the first decade of running a business, I hardly played any games at all. I mostly just worked.
Two years ago, my brother bought me a game for Christmas. All of my other brothers were really into playing it. We had fun playing together when I visited them for Christmas, and we continued playing together for many months that followed.
Let me be the first to say I have absolutely nothing against video games. All things in moderation.
But what started as a social activity with my brothers gradually morphed into something I did primarily on my own.
Later that year, I was in a pretty rough place mentally. At some point, I’ll go into all the details and record an entire show dedicated to explaining what happened over the course of two years. But that’s outside the scope of what I want to talk about today.
What’s relevant to today’s story is I was very stressed. To escape that stress, I would play video games in the evening.
Because I’m pretty religious about tracking my time, I can tell you exactly how much I’ve played in the past two years. 750 hours.
I have two initial reactions to that number.
Reaction #1: Wow, that’s a LOT of hours. Imagine all the things I could have done with those hours.
Reaction #2: 750 hours over two years is about an hour a day. If people actually tracked their time, they’d be shocked to find they spend many times that amount just on Instagram, let alone watching TV shows.
I think both reactions are valid. On the one hand, it is objectively a lot of time. There’s no mincing words. On the other hand, everyone has their escapism, so what’s the big deal?
All of these thoughts were running through my head. Part of me has this idea for a challenge: go 30 Days Without Video Games. The other part of me is resisting.
So what do I do? I do what I always do. I do what I tell you to do. I do what everyone should do every day no matter what but especially if you’re feeling inner conflict:
I wrote several thousand words, just brain dumping all of my thoughts. I wrote from the perspective of these two selves battling it out through my inner dialogue.
(Spoiler: as I record this, I’m on Day 10 of no video games.)
But I want to share what I wrote with you so you can hear the inner dialogue that went on.
Over the next few minutes, I’m going to talk about my goals, how I’ve observed that video games simulate meaning (but a false meaning), why I was drawn to video games when everything else in my life felt like losing, what I’m replacing my gaming time with, and finally a secret sabbatical project I’ve been able to finish thanks to investing all the extra time I have (it’s a new website—I’ll tell you where to find it).
Okay, so now we’re going to dive into my journal on August 6th, 2018. This was before I came up with and committed to the 30 Days Without Video Games challenge.
Sean McCabe, Journal, August 6th, 2018.
If I could wave a magic wand right now and replace the time I spend playing video games with reading books, would I do it? Yes.
Now, I actually really enjoy playing video games and, in the moment, I enjoy it a lot more than reading a book. However, I know that one is taking away from my future and the other is contributing to my future.
It’s not that playing video games is inherently bad. There’s nothing “wrong” about it—any more than there’s something “wrong” with watching Netflix or browsing social media.
(Let me interrupt this thought process to say I’m extremely productive during the day. I actually track my time—which I find almost no one else does—and I get a LOT done. Studies show most people work only 3 productive hours a day. If you don’t believe me, just track your time.)
Lately, I’ve been optimizing my day to the point of peaking at just over 6 hours of tracked focused, productive time. That’s very, very high. I could easily justify the hour or two of video game time in the evening—and I’ve done so for a long time.
But what are video games doing to help me achieve my goals?
Is it bringing me closer to reaching my goals or taking me farther away? There is no in-between. Nothing in life is neutral. It’s either bringing you closer to reaching your goals or taking you farther away.
I think the reason I (and anyone else) enjoys playing video games is that it simulates meaning. There’s also an element of risk and uncertainty, which feeds the addictive nature of it. The outcome is not fully guaranteed, and the chance of winning makes it addictive (see also slot machines). The layers of gamification hook you. There’s rank, levels, achievements, items, skins, endorsements, medals, experience points… you’re always progressing in some way—even if you’re “losing”.
Real life is much the same, except… it’s real. Even when you’re “losing” you’re always progressing in some way. You’re getting better. You’re gaining experience points and achievements.
You can run a marathon and, if it’s your first time, whatever time you run it is your best time. The next time, you run it a little faster—you’ve achieved a new personal best. In both instances, you “lost” in the sense that you weren’t even close to coming in first place, but you still progressed. Maybe one day you could train hard enough for long enough that you do come in first place.
In real life, when you play the game, you progress even if you aren’t winning. It’s the same as it is in the video game—only the video game is fake. It’s simulated. It’s not real and it doesn’t matter. The pinnacle of achievement is a mirage. If you’re one of the best players, it doesn’t really matter.
I was reading the bio of some random guy the other month. He had a website and his about page talked about the video game Call of Duty. Remember Call of Duty? Yeah, me too. Well, he was one of the top players in Europe at that game. I’m sure a decade ago, when that game was a big deal and he was in it, that felt like it meant something—at least to the other people he knew who played the game it probably did. But what does it mean in the grand scheme of things? What does it mean now? Where is he now? How does it contribute to his life and livelihood now? It doesn’t. He starts over. He starts from zero—like everyone else in the real world—and he has to build up a life and career for himself. He pushed forward in the desert—he was grinding away—and he reached the oasis to find that it was merely a mirage.
(I’m going to interject another side note here: Since I’ve ended up sharing this personal journal entry publicly, I feel like I need to put a disclaimer since I know someone’s going to mention that being a “pro gamer” is a legitimate career now. Yes, I understand that. I also understand that it’s A) such a tiny percentage of the population that makes it, and B) not a career that lasts far beyond your 20s. So I’m okay making a generalization.)
Video games simulate meaning. Meaning comes from doing the hard work of pursuing your purpose. You stumble forward. What purpose? What calling? How do you know? These are all good questions—and ones worth pursuing, thinking about, and giving time to. But they don’t resolve or answer themselves.
Because video games simulate meaning, we give our lives to them because they offer in return what feels like purpose and progress—a tasty morsel, especially to people who feel like they have neither of those things in their real life.
I know for me, it felt like real life was nothing but losing. It felt good to play games as a way of escaping because even when I lost, the progression was visible. Then, when I actually got good at the game, I literally progressed. I don’t just mean the faux symbols of progression baked into the game to keep you playing—I was really traveling up in the ranks. I was in the top 5–10% of players of this particular game.
I sought after video games because I could feel like I was winning, when everything else in my life felt like losing.
I was tired of losing. I felt beat down and burned out. I was exhausted. I’d given my all—and then some—to the game of business and got what felt like nothing in return. Nothing but defeat, and debt, and exhaustion, and loss (again, a story for another time).
It’s no wonder I turned to something else. I can sit here talk about how grateful I am that it wasn’t something more destructive that I turned to, but that would take away from the negative effects video games have had.
I say “negative”, but that’s probably a bit strong. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say negative. It really hasn’t been bad at all. I think social media addiction is probably worse. I at least broke that habit off cold turkey last year. People have all kinds of jealously, envy, and self esteem issues that are compounded with social media. There aren’t so many destructive elements to video games, at least in my experience; the biggest problem is really just the time suck.
I spent 750+ hours in about 2 years playing video games.
It’s an average of a little over an hour a day. It’s not the end of the world. Again, most people spend that (and then some) on Netflix and Instagram. But still, it’s a lot of time. Imagine the progress I could have made on literally anything with that time.
I was reflecting on this during my run today. The trouble is belief. The first step is changing your belief. My belief currently (I’ll admit) is that I couldn’t just simply “transfer” the video game time to some other kind of hard and meaningful work. By that point in the day, I’ve already worked 10 or more hours. The belief is that I need some “escape”, or “decompression activity”, or “wind down time” and that time cannot be synonymous with work.
Well, what is work, really? Why do I believe I couldn’t write a book in my evening time? Is that because my day-time work looks like writing 2,000–5,000 words already? Because writing isn’t exactly hauling around rocks in a wheelbarrow (I should know—I’ve done it). If I worked a different day job, could I not come home and write my book in the evening? Yes, I could. It’s not easy work, but it is meaningful work.
In a sense, grinding away at a video game can sometimes feel like a drudge too. It’s sad to say it out loud, but it’s true. That’s the vernacular too: “grinding”. Grinding hours to get achievements, credits, or whatever. You get to a point where you don’t even want to play the game but you play it anyway to reach some achievement. Does that sound familiar? It sounds suspiciously similar to meaning to me.
Meaning isn’t when you do something only on the days where you feel like doing it. Meaning is when you do the hard thing, long after you feel like continuing to do it, because you feel called to a higher purpose. There’s a greater mission and vision. It’s not about it being easy or fun, it’s about it being meaningful.
That’s the first shift that needs to occur: believe that another activity can replace video games even if, right now, it sounds like hard work. It will be worth it because it will be meaningful.
This is what running teaches you. I hate waking up early to run. I like the person I am when I do though. That’s why I do it. I don’t like running, I the like the feeling of having run. So I run.
Running as the first thing I do in the morning sets the tone for the day. I’ve done a hard thing I didn’t want to do because it will produce the desired results over time. It’s not about easy, it’s about meaningful.
So the first step is belief that something else can replace video games and that it’s okay for that thing to not be an “escape” or some junk food, social media, short term equivalent to video games.
The best thing I can think to replace video games with—and yes, I have to intentionally replace video games rather than simply try to “quit” cold turkey—is books. Books are the epitome of meaningful. They are also easy and accessible. It’s easier to read than to write. But besides writing, the second best way to improve as a writer is to read.
(Update: When I started writing this journal entry, the title I had at the top read “Replacing Video Games With Books”. It was just a thought experiment, and I set out to write about that thought. Later, I decided to go all in and create a “30-Day No Video Game” challenge for myself.)
I’m scared to stop playing video games though.
I start thinking about the weekends, and the sabbaticals, and the times where I’ll have, well… time. I will WANT to play video games during those opportunities. I already know myself. So my future self… well hang on. Before I tell you what my future self wants to say, I need to explain exactly which future self (there are two):
Future Self #1
If I change nothing and continue down this path of daily playing video games, my future self will be one of a video game addict. This version of my future self will want to play video games. This version will also want to convince the past version of myself to not do something that would sabotage the opportunities my future self has to play video games. Naturally. Self preservation.
Future Self #2
If I make a commitment now to not play video games for 30 days (and replace video game time with book reading time), then my future self will be different. Who knows whether or not I will stick with it, or if I will completely stop playing video games, but at least for those 30 days, my future self will be one at least without the option of playing video games.
Future Self #1 is trying to keep me from from committing to this challenge. It’s too scary.
Here’s what Future Self #1 is saying to me along with my responses nested below:
Future Self #1: “What about the times I play with my friends? Those are fun times.”
Me: Yeah, but…
I’m setting an example.
I’m potentially contributing to their demise (who knows what state they’re in with their lives)—or at the very least, avoidance of meaningful work.
If I’m really honest 90%+ of my gaming time is done alone anyway. It’s just an excuse to act like I’m “losing friend time”. Even then, it’s not really quality friend time during that <10% of the time.
Future Self #1:“What about the times where you really just don’t want to read a book? What if you just really want a break and want to play video games?”
Me: Okay, fair. I hear you. How about this: I’m not saying you have to stop playing video games forever. This is just a 30-day CHALLENGE. That’s why it’s called a challenge. It’s not going to be easy, but you can do it. You know how people say, “I can stop any time I want to?” Well, this is the proof. The resistance you’re feeling is the addiction speaking. Saying you can stop anytime you want to and actually doing it are two very different things.
Sure, in the future, if you really just don’t want to read a book, and you want to take a break and play video games, go for it. You can play video games. Just NOT during this 30-day challenge.
You already know you can complete a 30-day challenge. Look at what you’re doing right now—you’re on Day 6 of writing for 30 Days to Better Writing along with everyone in the Community. That’s why you even wrote this. That’s not something you necessarily want to do. It’s certainly not something you want to do on the weekends. But you did it, and you have done it. You’ve proved to yourself that it’s possible. So just do this 30-day challenge.
Secondarily, if you don’t want to read a book, there are many other things you could do. Here, I’ll just start a brainstorm list of all the possibilities…
Contribute to a conversation in the Community
Watch an educational video or documentary
Go through a course you paid for
Outline a new course you want to make
Write an idea list of 10 things for yourself
Write an idea list of 10 things for a friend
Make social media quote graphics
Work on your new website project
Plan out your Life Calendar color key and fill out the calendar
Write out some podcast topics
Research video equipment
Make some money
Brainstorm product ideas or presentations
Work on writing the next book
Write about the process, feelings, struggles, and reason for the “30 Days Without Video Games” challenge
If I do this, and document the process, it can also be something I share with people in the future. I could essentially create a guide to doing a 30-day video game hiatus. Make challenges, gamify it, etc.
I continue playing games and don’t do this 30-day challenge.
Maybe things are fine and not bad.
Definitely things don’t get even better.
I take this 30-day no gaming challenge.
I write about the process.
I create a guide.
Thousands of addicts in the future are helped.
The prospect of Reality #2 alone gives me meaning and purpose—which is exactly what I need to replace the faux meaning video games provide.
I can and should track my time and use RescueTime’s offline time feature to prove to myself what I’m able to accomplish with this extra time.
I know I need to seriously commit and just not say “maybe” or “try” if this is going to happen. Accountability would be really helpful. I don’t know if I can convince [my three gaming friends]. I suppose I can send them what I wrote today and see what they think.
I don’t want to do this challenge. I want to think about working hard today and earning some game tonight.
But I think I need to prove to myself that I can pull away. Again, it’s the “I can quit anytime I want to” cliché. Well, I think what I’ve written here proves that some part of me wants to. If I can’t do this, then it really just emphasizes that it’s addiction.
I don’t think I will follow through with doing this (or at least succeed in refraining for 30 days) unless there is some accountability. I’m going to compile what I’ve written here and send it to the three guys I mentioned. I realize that’s kind of unfair to put that pressure on them (they now know that I probably won’t succeed at this without their participation), but I’m going to do it anyway. No judgement if they don’t want to do it. In fact, if all three people I send this to say no, well hey, I get to play more games, haha.
This concludes my original journal entry.
Update: All three guys of the I sent my journal entry to said yes. They’re in and they’re doing the “30 Days Without Video Games” challenge with me. We created a video chat group to hold each other accountable. It’s great.
What I’ve accomplished
I’m on Day 10 of “30 Days Without Video Games”.
I’ve read a LOT every day and it feels great!
I’ve also written nearly 30,000 words in the past two weeks. I’ve just been laser focused. I didn’t realize how much of my mental focus was taken up with looking forward to video games at the end of the day.
It feels like I have all of this bonus time every evening.
What I’m most proud of though, is I created a new personal website:
So that’s my update! Day 10 of “30 Days Without Video Games” and going strong. I do miss it, but it feels great to spend my extra time productively. It was especially hard going into the first weekend and sabbatical without playing games, but it has also been rewarding. 20 days to go!
Let me know if you want to hear an update after I finish the challenge and if you would like me to make a formal 30 Days Without Video Games guide. Tweet me @seanwes.