Gamifying Life – Simple Can Be Good Too

I love gamification when it’s done well. Games can be so motivating, so encouraging, and yes, sometimes so addicting, that harnessing that for good – whether to lose weight, learn a new skill, or finish a project – seems like a great idea.

Ok… so it’s not always done well, or with the best intentions. Farmville is ridiculously addicting, and even with it’s basic premise has some clever methods for sucking us in (NSFW). Other places slap arbitrary levels and badges on a page and call it good.

We can do so much better than this. Gamification has so many exciting possibilities, and as someone in education I love all of the ways we can use it to incentivize positive behaviors; in a classroom example, it could be used to make it worth the time of people who finish work early to help others who are struggling.

Honestly, a large chunk of what I do with my clients is gamification in disguise: kids earn tokens for correct responses (either to questions or for appropriate behavior, i.e. a kid that has problems with tantrums having a calm body) to fill up a token board and earn a reward. As they master skills, they’re faced with more advanced skills to learn to get tokens, and tokens are given less and less frequently.

Granted, all of this happens over a long period of time, but this sounds suspiciously like the level curve for RPG and MMORPG games, where it takes more and more time and/or experience points to reach the next benchmark.

As much as I love all of this, sometimes I forget that we don’t need to add complex leveling and experience systems to everything to help with motivation. Sometimes it’s a simple as pen and paper.

I’ve heard of the Don’t Break the Chain idea many times before, and it was initially popularized by  Jerry Seinfield. The premise is simple: pick a goal, get a calendar and a marker, and put a big X over every day you work toward that goal. You can even use an online tool like this one, though having the physical calendar up and always in view is a strong motivator.

This is all so… simple. With all of our apps and technology, that can’t really be that motivating. I mean, it’s just marks on a piece of paper? But out of curiosity, I gave it a shot.

Maybe it’s just my personality – I hate letting people down or causing disappointment, and it feels like if I didn’t do it for the day I’d be… disappointing someone? There’s no parent or teacher watching over my progress, but somehow these simple X’s seem like so much more.

Here’s what I’ve noticed works well for me:

  • Be Specific: Instead of just “stay organized” I have “clean for 15 minutes”, and then wrote a list of all the cleaning tasks things I could think of so I wouldn’t have the excuse of my room already being clean or the dishes done.
  • Quantify an Amount of Time (and keep it short): When I’ve already done a habit for a week straight, even if it’s 11 pm and I would normally just give myself a pass for the day, it’s easy to remember that it’s only 15 minutes. I mean, I’ve done this so many days in a row and it’s only a few minutes, it’s not worth having to start the chain all over again.
  • Have Choices: Just make sure both are good ones! I want to write a bit everyday, so I gave myself the option to work on a blog for 15 minutes, or practice my atrocious handwriting for the same amount of time. Either way I’m writing down thoughts and thinking about my life or other projects, but this way I get to feel like I have some options.
  • Finish Some Early in the Day: I try to get at least my workout and some of my cleaning one finished early in the day. Then, when it’s late and I’m considering blowing off one of my tasks, the reminder that I’ve already finished most of them keeps me going.
  • Have Some Sick/Excused Days: Early on in my chain, I wasn’t able to complete one of my tasks because the webapp that was required was down. I put in the effort, but wasn’t able to complete the task due to things outside of my control, so I wrote an E over the day and moved on. Similarly for my workout goal, working out hard 7 days a week is a quick way to get an injury, so I’ve given myself several break days throughout the week – I can choose when to use them, but once they’re gone I need to finish out the rest of the week.

Have you tried Don’t Break the Chain? What have you found that helps motivate you to get things done or form new habits?


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