Gamifying Self-Improvement

Friends and long time readers know that I’m happiest when I’m working on a project and often these projects include some form of self-improvement. Whether I’m learning a new language, being more creative or just getting things done, I benefit so much from the feedback loop of getting things done, being happy as a result, and letting that happiness fuel my productivity. It’s the ultimate perpetual motion machine. Until, of course it isn’t.

A common pattern I fall in to is to religiously follow a set routine that keeps me productive until the devil on my shoulder says: “Hey, all this productivity stuff is hard. You should take a break.” and a short break turns in to a new habit of laziness and, quite often, increased unproductive screen time. Which would be fine if it brought me joy but it doesn’t. It generally leaves me feeling crummy and wondering how an hour could possibly have passed in what felt like the space of ten minutes. Another pattern is to think “I don’t need this system to keep me on track, I will just do it naturally.” And it works, for a little while. But then I forget to do something, or I feel like “Nah, I don’t really need to do that.”

Travel and related “big projects” are notorious for bringing this house of cards down. Take my latest trip to India, for example. I took a month off of work, left all my home routines at home and instead of getting joy and happiness from living my daily life, I had a huge ton of happiness come to my life from cycling around Rajasthan and exploring Chhattisgarh and Gujarat with my sister. It was fantastic. Then I got home and the huge infusion of externally-driven happiness dried up. It was back to work and back to cold, dark winter for me. I went down in to a deep funk the likes of which I have rarely experienced.

In January my routine was to wake up, check email and social media and fall in to that for an hour or more. Then I’d remember that I had to get to work and would need breakfast so I would rush around like crazy, shower, cook, eat, and run out the door. Then I’d get on the bus and get back on my phone. Back at home in the evening it would go similarly. I’d make dinner but also check my phone frequently. I would try my best to fit in exercise but wasn’t always successful. Looking at it written down now it’s unsurprising I wasn’t feeling great.

What brought me out of it? Routines, productivity, and mindfulness of my time. At the suggestion of Sage and Daegan I started building new routines. My morning was the first to be changed. I would get out of bed, do sitting meditation then when that’s finished I shower, brush my teeth, make and eat breakfast and then start my day. Before the pandemic I removed time-eating apps from my phone and replaced them with reading on transit. I was horrified to see how much more I would read.

As time went on I added more items to my routine. My bedtime routine included setting up the coffee maker and brushing my teeth before reading in bed. As you know I added daily exercise sometime in April, making that a priority that I would deal with immediately after work.

Soon after that I added a to-do list that tracked not only the things I need to get done for work and in my personal life (with reminders) but also my habits, letting me know how many consecutive days I’ve been successful. Tracking software followed and so now whatever I do on my personal computer or phone is logged and categorized. How much screen time am I spending per day? How much of that is productive? How many minutes did I watch ridiculous YouTube videos last night? All of that information is available to me and I review it daily to see how I’m doing. (The tracking software is RescueTime for the curious)

It still is a bit of a battle but in the past week it got a bit easier with a few new tools. The first is Habitica, a to-do list and habit tracker that works like a role playing game. Completing tasks and keeping up with habits give us experience, gold, and cool items. Failing to do an important daily task, or indulging a bad habit causes damage. Take enough damage and you die. You come back to life immediately but with less experience, no gold and less stuff. Joining a party lets you “battle monsters” together. While they add a story to make it fun, the reality behind the scenes is this: When I’m in a battle, now I’m connected with the other 30 or so people in my party. If I complete a task the monster is damaged, if I fail or do a bad habit, not only do I take damage, so do the others battling with me. Now my bad habits affect others measurably and can result in ill will. For me that’s just enough motivation to push ahead and do what is needed.

As you can see it’s divided in to a few different parts:

Habits are things (good/bad) you can do multiple times. If I do a pomodoro (25 min work sprint), good things happen. If I eat dairy (it gives me headaches and digestive troubles but it’s also delicious so hard to avoid), I take damage.

“Dailies” are things you do every day. Among them I have Exercise, tracking things like mood, productivity, sleep and productivity on a spreadsheet, daily writing and Hindi revision. Do those daily and you get rewarded. Fail and you take damage.

To do’s are one-off things. I have to return library books this week, I’m part of a reading challenge so I will be reviewing my book when done. I also added a weekly review of my habits. One size does not fit all and as time passes some habits are more useful than others. So I prune and add.

Finally the part that makes it all fit together for me, and the part that is vastly more important than the role playing aspect for me, is the Rewards section. This can be configured as you like with rewards that motivate you. So as you can see, when I earn 200 Gold, I can use it to buy a trip to Starbucks for a coffee. For 60 Gold I can go get samosas at the local sweet shop. And there’s one more thing I’ve added thanks to the Chrome Plugin “Habitica Pomodoro SiteKeeper”. All those sites I can fall into? Social media, Reddit, news sites, or any site I feel has the potential to distort time and make me spend an hour when I think “I’ll just stop by for a minute” can go here and I can set a price for visiting.

A bunch of different things happen with this approach.

First, I no longer just mindlessly go somewhere. Sure, I can type the URL in or click a bookmark but this guy is waiting for me. That extra second or two makes me hesitate and maybe just turn back.

I have to think “Is it worth it?” Would I rather spend that 200 Gold on just five minutes of checking Facebook notifications and scrolling is as satisfying as a treat at Starbucks or three trips to the sweet shop for samosas?

Do I even have 200 gold? If I don’t, am I willing to do things on my to-do list to earn enough?

Finally, there’s a timer. After five minutes the guy is back asking for more money and I evaluate it again. Is it worth it? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but I’m forced to make that consideration.

Like any system, it’s not perfect. As I gain earning potential in the game, I have been increasing costs for various rewards, keeping them appropriate. If they’re too cheap they lose their value. Too expensive and they’ll feel unattainable.

And of course as time goes on I will tweak my habits, adding things that keep me engaged and growing. The Habitica site has a facility for building challenges and there are all sorts from exercise to eating, language study to house cleaning and decluttering to reading and beyond.

But the most important question to answer is this: Is it actually working? How do I feel?

Whether it’s the habits themselves or the fact that I’m working on them regularly and feel good that I’m succeeding, the answer is a solid “Yes”. I feel great – the best I’ve felt in years.

How are your habits? Do you get energy and satisfaction from maintaining them? How are you maintaining them? Let me know in the comments.

Also: Woo-hoo! I just finished my “Write for at least fifteen minutes daily task!”

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