Learn how to use productive gamification to power through your obligations
Gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. -A simply definition courtesy of Wikipedia
Productive gamification is an innovative way to approach your obligations, keeping you engaged by blending play with work. Gamification turns your to-do list into a game, using traits like competition and challenges to stimulate your desire to achieve something with the incentive of winning. By deconstructing your responsibilities into an actions and rewards system, you facilitate a psychological hack that keeps you mentally motivated and engaged.
You know that liberating feeling you get from checking off a task? It’s like you’ve unlocked an achievement or leveled up. The pursuit to repeat this euphoria can keep you absorbed in your productivity in the same way that you might in a video game or a sporting event.
The traits your gamified to-do list needs
In order to turn your to-do list into a productive game, you need a challenge to overcome and a measurement system that recognizes the accomplishment (or lack thereof.)
First, you’ll turn the activity into a challenge. When your brain feels like it is playing, it becomes actively interested in the circumstance at hand. When your brain feels challenged, it prioritizes energy towards completing that challenge.
Your brain also craves a sense of completion, so you need to have a system that visually measures your progress. You may use points or checkboxes or a progress status bar.
If your brain can’t tangibly detect something being complete or incomplete, it is easier for it to get sidetracked. Sure we probably know that our homework was not complete, but there is a massive difference between passively recognizing the incompletion of your homework and seeing an empty box that cannot be checked off until it is done. Your brain craves filling that empty box or clearing that reminder.
We crave resolve and conclusion. They yield rewarding feelings of fulfillment. When you get stuck on a level on a video game, it consumes you. And once you break through to the next stage, you feel an immense sense of satisfaction.
Gamification can function extremely well with long-term goals, like managing your cash flow or practicing random acts of kindness, learning a new trade or networking.
Tangible cues keep you on track
This is why it is difficult for us to make mental lists. Your brain will simply begin to ignore them in exchange for opting for its defaults. I may know that I need to write an article, but without a clear sense of incompletion, I may instead opt for reading all of my emails.
My email mission may be noble, making me feel productive even, but it is likely not urgent. This is where we can end up busy but not productive. We do things that make us feel like we’ve done something effective, that way we don’t feel too guilty when we come up short of our responsibilities.
But when you have a measurement for completion, there is nearly no worse feeling than having filled a day with busywork that did not move the needle one ounce towards your goal. You feel like you’ve wasted time and energy on nothing. And when you allow your brain to detect this lack of progress, it begins to prioritize the right things.
Progress bars can be enticing to fill by any means necessary. Point systems incentivize us to get more points.
When I was in elementary school, we earned points for books completed, increasing in quantity based on the difficulty of the read. Not only did we want to read more, harder books, but we also enjoyed the leaderboard our teachers would post so that we could see how we compared to our classmates.
Below are 10 ways that you can use productive gamification
1. Reward checkpoints
Set checkpoints.Checkpoints help identify a threshold for accomplishment. Once you have your checkpoint system, you can reward yourself each you reach them. Will you treat yourself to a milkshake after you have made it to the gym three times in one week? Perhaps you may try treating yourself to a movie when you’ve gone a week without watching TV.
Break the checkpoint down to specific pitstops along a journey. For instance, if you want to teach yourself how to code, come up with a series of levels that you must reach in order to qualify for the next round. This checkpoint should not be considered achieved until everything behind it is satisfied. And before you embark on the next round, give yourself some sort of accolade. Whether it is your favorite snack or a lunch with a friend, try to give yourself something to look forward to.
Rewards incentivize you to continue to do the thing that earned you the reward. With this incentive to repeat tasks, you can better remain engaged. A point guard does not tire of shooting the ball into the hoop because he’s done it too many times.
Decide on a reasonable reward- make sure it’s something that you will respond to.
2. Create a system to monitor your achievements
Measuring your progress is a key to momentum. If you can see how far you’ve come, you can push even further. You can monitor your skill level, identify areas to improve and employ self-accountability and self-awareness.
It can be a source of improvement where your greatest competition is who you were versus who you are versus who you want to become. Something as simple as a progress bar can help measure your achievements. You can post something on the wall that congratulates your effort.
Growth can be difficult to measure. You know that aunt that you’d only see once a year? Each time she’d see you again, she’d marvel at how much you’ve grown since the last time she saw you. But you hardly noticed the difference because it was a slow accumulation of change.
The same goes for productive progress. If we don’t monitor the change that is occurring it is easy for us to feel like we have accomplished nothing. This is detrimental to your momentum.
It is likely that you have in fact made more progress than is evident to the naked eye. Adding that progress into a quantifiable system helps to not only expose the fruits of your labor but also encourages you to continue to build on those results.
3. Identify your rewards/demerit mechanism.
In football, if the defensive team gets a penalty, the offensive team is automatically rewarded with forward movement. Conversely, if the offensive team gets a penalty, they lose yards, giving the defensive team an advantage.
When working, I try to use a similar merit/demerit system. I treat the achievement of my tasks as the tangible accumulation of leisure time. Each task is worth 20 minutes of leisure time. The completion of a task earns me 20 minutes of leisure time and the incompletion of a task loses me 20 minutes of leisure time. (Sometimes for especially large tasks, I will give myself a little extra, like 30-45 minutes.)
So at the end of the day, if I’ve completed 6 tasks and missed 2, I have earned 80 minutes of free time. This race to accumulate free time overrides my apprehension to obligations.
4. Master the fundamentals
Most athletes know the power of practicing the same actions and motions over and over. When you learn how to play basketball, you may dribble a million times before mastering your shot.
That is because the details are so important. The details build towards the big finish. You can be a great shooter but if you can’t dribble, the ball will be stolen before you make it close enough to the basket.
Repetitive practice makes the fundamentals easier so that you don’t have to spend as much energy on them. Then you can redirect your energy to the more complex items.
5. Create a strategy
If you are playing a video game and you keep dying at the same place, your brain begins to learn your point of failure and strategize its way around it. Your button combinations and timing are revised until you power through.
In sports, you study your opponents best moves so that you know which weakness to penetrate and hopefully capitalize on. When you don’t have a strategy for your opponent, your opponent will overtake you every time.
If you know you get lost in your inbox, turn off your notifications. If you know that, without distractions, your morning time is peak productive, place your phone on do not disturb until lunchtime. The trick to strategy is thinking a few moves ahead of your obstacle so that you can outmaneuver it.
6. Choose a competitor
Is it Facebook, naps, phone notifications? Give your competitor a point when it wins over you. You will obsess over beating your enemy.
7. Envision the finish line
Understanding the feeling you will get when you cross the finish line, when you’re holding that trophy, when you see “level cleared,” may be just the energy shot you needed to carry you through the mental cramp screaming at you to quit.
8. Get in your element
When a basketball player is shooting free throws, you may notice that they often have the same pre-shot sequence. They may dribble twice and spin the ball before taking their shot. They may point their finger, take a step forward and one step back and then shoot. These patterns may seem like weird ticks, but really they are instrumental in placing your mind in a tried and true position for success.
Before you sit down to work, perhaps you need to place your pencil to your right and your coffee to your left. I personally like to write in the morning. I sit in the same chair facing towards the sunrise with my coffee next to me. This environment signals to my brain that it is time to write.
It may seem quirky at first, but your brain benefits from familiar triggers.
9. Make it tangible
There is a story of a new stockbroker who, because of his inexperience, no one expected much of. But his quick success despite the odds garnered him a lot of attention. Within 18 months, the young broker had grown his business to $5 million in assets. His success was garnering him the attention from outside firms and in 2 years time, he went from a rookie no one took seriously to a cushy $200,000 job.
The young stockbroker attributed his success to a jar of paper clips.
“Every morning I would start with 120 paper clips in one jar and I would keep dialing the phone until I had moved them all to the second jar.”—Trent Dyrsmid
This visual accumulation of progress helps to keep you focused and your goals clear. It is a subtle reward to literally watch your “to-do pile” decrease as your “done pile” increases.
10. Time yourself
In most sports, you are more competing against the clock than the other team. Games are pretty much who gets the most points by the time the clock says zero.
Working within the constraint of time can give yourself concrete parameters within which to employ a strategy. This is not to advocate rushing through your work. Simply be conscious of how much time you’re dedicating towards a task. This keeps time on your side.
Strategized energy wins the race. You don’t want to burn out too fast or waste an inordinate amount of time on a task that gets you no closer to your finish line.
You can certainly come up with your own gamification methods, but below are some apps and extensions to help get you started:
*Many of the below options are actually really fun ways to accomplish goals, but remember, productive gamification can be as subtle as filling a progress bar or winning a point.