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author: @aestranger

Reading time: 8 minutes

How the methods of First Principles thinking can gamify your life

A few weeks ago, I came across an interview with Elon Musk, where he discussed how he used First Principles thinking to arrive at the answers and ideas for his innovative practices. I had come across First Principles thinking before, from Richard Feynman, Aristotle, Edison, and Tesla (to name a few).

But Elon Musk’s explanation of it got me thinking about how we could use that methodology of thinking as a gamifying mechanic/element in our daily lives.

So many of us overcomplicate our lives unnecessarily with our daily activities, simplifying it will save you time and stress. And games are designed to be simplified versions of the real world. Why can’t we use a method to break down and simply our lives to better realize our aspirations?

In our day to day undertakings we tend to use what is known as Comparison Thinking, this is when we do what comes naturally and normally to us and reason through analogy. What this means is that we make decisions and judgment calls based on what we’ve seen, heard or done from our experiences or from others. Knowing the outcome due to past experiences, we either repeat or iterate slightly to suit the current situation. This is an easy mode of thinking, and for the most part effective, but also offers no innovation or large changes.

The other mode of thinking is First Principles Thinking. In this, you take a problem and break it down into its fundamental parts and truths, until you get to the bare bones as it were. Once you’ve eliminated everything down to its constituent parts then you start reasoning up from there. Figuring out how the parts of the whole can solve the problem in a new and innovative way. This is a harder mode of thinking, but does offer better results, is far more effective and creates recognizable change.

Using First Principles Thinking in your daily life can give you a new perspective on habits you’ve wanted to change, or needed to change. Or an activity you’ve been meaning to take on can be aided in this mode of thinking. As you break down the problem it allows for a unique viewpoint you can develop forwards, rather than simply fall back into the old, lazy status quo that you’ve been stuck in for so long.

Limitations, Customizations & Gamifying Life

Thinking by analogy in today’s world will limit you in far too many ways. You will simply be going along with the herd, making decisions based on comparisons of yourself with what you’ve done or what others have done.

Often you will be making choices based on old or false information. In our current volatile and disruptive world, historical data and experience may not always work. Frequently this kind of experience leads to a standardization of expectations and practices and therefore ignores the individual and possible tailored solutions. It’s a space of assumptions and not questions anymore.

To open that space to more creative solutions you need to use First Principles Thinking, to allow for a more personal, customized mode of thinking and application.

According to three innovators in their own rights, this mode of thinking takes effort, for Descartes, it was to doubt everything until only the very fundamental truths remain. Cartesian doubt asks why and eliminates that which is unnecessary. According to Aristotle, it was the key to doing any sort of systemic inquiry, and Elon Musk admits that it does take far more mental energy to work in this mode, but as we have seen from Elon, the results can be quite staggering.

To achieve results in our own lives, we could use this method of thinking to create a framework in which would in effect gamify our lives. Not by adding point or achievement unlocks, but by giving you to the tools and opportunity to put together your own epic hero’s journey to your personal ambitions.

First off, you need to determine what the problems are in your life that you wish to solve. This may take some self-awareness or develop some, but once you have located the trouble areas, you need to break them down into their constituent, fundamental parts.

Once you know the fundamental parts, you can start developing a plan/journey/path around your personal motivations and core drives. From there you will create effective methods with more enjoyment in them, rather than what would otherwise be seemingly difficult life decisions, choices, and boring paths.

So, what is your personal problem?

So, what problem do you have that you want to solve? If you’re lucky enough to know already, then that’s great. But if you only know something is off in your life but are unsure what the problem is that needs to be solved, then you’ll need to some work to figure that out.

Usually, the common problems are the following, or are part of a larger issue that needs solving:

  • Healthy Eating
  • Effective Exercise
  • Work-Life Balance

Using these as examples and starting points, let’s see what these usual problems consist of.

If you use traditional thinking by analogy we walk straight into a general problem. Diets, exercise regimes, and balance indicators are generally not personalized. You will immediately start seeing obstacles, maybe because you don’t enjoy cooking the food in that diet, or because that exercise is too advanced and not worth starting, or you simply don’t like those hours and life seems insurmountable if you tried any change.

Once those hindrances are seen your motivation is instantly lowered. You’d rather avoid what you think is going to be a disappointment (your assumptions from experience and collective knowledge) than try and probably fail or maybe succeed.

Solving those problems by analogy isn’t necessarily wrong though, but it excludes too many innovative solutions and assumes that collective correctness supersedes individual needs. Examples of certain considered truths could be:

– Healthy eating: superfoods are the mainstay — ignores that not everyone lives in walking distance of a superfood shop, certain cooks and nutritionists are international and ignore local variations or restraints.

– Exercise: All exercise should be done before breakfast or 8 am — ignores that some people are not morning people, therefore low motivation, certain diets do not benefit from anaerobic exercise in the morning due to specific metabolic states.

– Work-life: 9–5 work and then evening/weekend relaxing — Some people work longer hours have different shifts, how do they figure out their balance?

But what if we personalize and break down each area into their fundamental truths? Now we’re creating smaller, easier to achieve goals. We can have a segmented plan, we can now make a serialized quest system that creates a lasting change at each step, pushing us further and closer to our final goal.

So, how do you solve your problem?

To solve your unique problem and get you on your way to creating a framework that incorporates useable elements and mechanics, we need to start with the three basic questions that any First Principles Thinker needs to ask:

  • What am I trying to accomplish?
  • What is the fundamental problem?
  • What really matters?

As your problems are unique to you, you’ll, unfortunately, have to do most of the work of breaking them down into their fundamentals. But once you have the basic building blocks of what your problem consists of then you can start your journey in moving forward.

To get you started, with the above-named examples, let’s think of some questions within exercise; what is the end goal? Is it to lose weight? Is your daily life affected by your lack of physical movement? Does it matter for you in terms of appearance, overall wellbeing or something else? From there start researching and breaking down what your daily habits are, when do you have time to exercise, what type of exercise excites you the most, and so forth.

If you need more questions then ask yourself what would Aristotle, Plato or Socrates ask themselves when they were using First Principles Thinking?

Once you’ve broken the problem down and have the basic building blocks, you will be ready to create your new framework. This will give you the room for greater creativity and hopefully offer you multiple paths to travel to achieve your goal. How many paths is up to you.

And because you’ve broken it down into smaller segments you receive quick feedback. Rather than a long journey where the feedback is only gained at the very end.

It will require some determination from you, but because it is something that you’ve willingly chosen to do and have figured out how it fits in your life, you’ll have more motivation to do it. You will have a strong sense of autonomy and self-empowerment, walking your own personalized path.

To ensure you remain on the path you’ve chosen, bring in companions. Explain what you’re doing to friends and family members. This offers you a level of relatedness and a sense of community, they can ask you about your progress and you can relay your achievements and setbacks. Doing something completely alone is possible, but often feels empty unless someone is coming along with you for the ride. Shared memories and experiences are far stronger motivating factors.

The final few motivating factors that are created when you have smaller goals that affect real and direct change are impatience, curiosity, and avoidance (a good kind of avoidance).

Impatience because you want to achieve your goal as quickly as you can, to reap the full benefits. This will spur you on each day. Curiosity, because you want to see the benefits, not just dream about them. And avoidance, because if you don’t achieve each easier, smaller goal, then you’ll lose out on the final pay off and you’ll have wasted your own time. Which something you really don’t want as an end result.

In breaking something down removes the chance of paralysis by complexity. The task isn’t too overwhelming that you don’t start with it. You know each step is worthwhile and not a waste of time.

Moving away from analogy means that iterative steps based on other or older experiences are removed, and biases and prejudices are removed as well. This systematic process allows you to move towards a whole new world of fresh perspectives, without any baggage to drag you down.


The process that you will follow if you adopt First Principles thinking, to add new mechanics into your life, is in effect like peeling an onion. You are stripping away each layer to get to the core of your problem. This is your call to adventure, figure what your fundamental problem is. From there plot your journey, select your quests, overcome your challenges, and make sure they lead to an end goal that you truly want to reach.

Don’t be defeated by Analogy, and its evil minions, along with the way to your final objective. Perhaps choose more apt names for your specific issue, rivals, enemies and its pitfalls. Make sure the road you follow on your quest avoids those pitfalls. Having the knowledge and tools of the fundamental truths to your conundrum, create “support stations” that lift you up on difficult days. Ensure that the framework is holistic.

In the end, though, the work must come from you. You need to break down to the fundamentals, you need to be the hero and plan your own journey. Only you can win each small battle on the road to your epic win!

If you’re interested in other articles and pieces around gamifying life or how aspects of life are gamified then head over our Blogs section. One article of interest is how games can improve education by allowing you to fail more often and learn, rather than be punished for failing.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

Please do Share if you found it helpful and know of someone who would it find it helpful as well.



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