Flappy Bird is the deceivably easy yet hard game you just can't stop playing. In fact, it is so hard that the developer recently pulled it away from Apple Store, because he couldn't take the hate mail and hundreds of death threats he got. Before that, however, the game topped iStore free game category and became an international phenomenon that CNET called "the worst smartphone game ever created."
But how to succeed in it?
Essentially, there are only two things you need to thrive in Flappy Bird:
1) A simple strategy, where you always tap the screen when the bird is just above the height of the next bottom pipe.
2) Absolute concentration, so that you are able to tap the screen just at the right moment.
My problem was with the latter. Even though I could eliminate external disturbances by playing it when others in my family were sleeping, there was one clear distractor: The scoreboard at the top of the screen.
I noticed that every time I came close to my high score, I started to glimpse at the score too often. I became nervous - and bang! I hit the pipe.
But alas, I haven't written a book about willpower for nothing. I knew that to fight off this kind of distraction, there are two options:
1) A regular daily practice of meditation that would enable me - in a few years - to achieve total mind control and an ability to ignore the scoreboard at will.
2) Alternatively, I could use a piece of paper attached with duct tape to cover the area of my iPad, where the counter was.
I chose the latter approach, because I knew that "the best way to use your willpower is to make sure you don't have to use it". In other words, most often the smartest thing to do is to tweak your environment so that you no longer face the temptation.
Besides, if duct tape saved the lives of Astronauts aboard Apollo 13, it would be good enough for my noble purpose of improving my Flappy Bird high score.
At the moment I put the piece of paper in place, my record was 44. Five minutes later, it was 89. I took a break for ten minutes to relax and then tried again. And now, in the consummate flow of utter concentration that the game offers, I was able to soar over the landmark score of one hundred.
Before smashing head first into the pipe number 112.
Frank Martela, PhD, is the author of the highly-rated book Willpower: The Owner's Manual - 12 Tools for Doing the Right Thing. He is currently a visiting scholar in the Human Motivations Research Group at the University of Rochester, NY. Last spring, in lieu of a poster, he used duct tape to attach his laptop to a wall in a scientific conference at the University of Michigan (see the picture here).