How I Gamified the Google Interview (And How You Can Too)


Those of you who saw me speak on goals and gamification in June know that I’m a big fan of using gamification for projects requiring large bursts of motivation that one might’ve had trouble finding otherwise. Since that talk back in June, I’ve been refining this gamification system with every use (mostly on smaller projects related to health). But then one day in September, a much bigger project fell into my lap: an opportunity to interview with Google. Working for Google has long been a dream of mine, so I immediately jumped on it.

This was an unbelievably great opportunity, but it was awful timing. I was in the middle of multiple projects, both at work and in my spare time. I had so much to do and so little time to do it. The thought of adding intense interview preparation on top of everything else was a recipe for an instant panic attack. But rather than curling up in a ball and freaking out, I thought, perhaps gamification might come in handy here? In retrospect, I can confidently say that yes, it did. In fact, I believe gamification was one of the main reasons I was able to secure the job – I wouldn’t have been nearly as well prepared without it. You see, the gamified system I set up for myself hit every motivational trigger to keep me practicing and preparing for my interview long into the night – long after I wanted to stop and go to bed.

So while I don’t want to divulge any information about the actual interview, since that’s probably sensitive information, I can tell you about the gamified systems I set up for myself to be insanely prepared on the day of the interview. And of course, my goal for today’s post is for you to be able to adopt this system for yourself when a great opportunity comes knocking on your door with incredibly short notice.


The Tracking Dashboard

This is how my gamified interview prep system started (click the image to view it in full size):

As you can see, it started with the milestone/reward combo I’m so fond of – on post-it notes, of course – along with time tracking, streak bonuses, and variable rewards. Allow me to break this down into each of its components:

a) Milestone/reward combo

If you look at the first post-it note in the image above (the one on the left), you’ll notice three milestones and one bonus on the bottom. Each milestone corresponds to how many hours I’ve dedicated towards interview practice. In parenthesis next to each milestone is the reward I unlock when I reach the milestone. As you can see, after one hour of practice, I earn two Rockstar energy drinks (energy drinks are one of my guilty pleasures). After five hours, I can buy a case of Sencha shots (strong green tea in a shot-sized can). After ten hours, I can treat myself to a trip to the mall to buy some new clothes. And the bonus, unlocked if I am able to make progress for 10 days in a row, allows me to buy one item on ThinkGeek, up to $100 in value.

Learnings: The key takeaway here is that pairing the ability to quantify and measure your progress with periodic rewards earned along the way is a fantastic method for tackling larger projects and maintaining your momentum. However, something new that I learned during this experiment is something I like to call the reward feint.

A reward feint is a tactic in which you choose a reward that you’re able and willing to reward yourself with once you achieve your goal, but it loses it’s appeal upon completing your goal. For me, brand new devices (like the iPad Mini, new as of this writing) are fantastic reward feints. I may really want it initially, so I’ll set it as the ultimate reward for completing a big project. As I work every day, I’m driven forward by the thought of buying the iPad Mini, guilt-free. But by the time the project is completed, time has passed and I realize I no longer desire it as much as I thought I did (especially once the hype dies down). Plus, I usually feel so good about having completed this massive project, that I feel satisfied and content without needing to cash in on the reward I set. Isn’t it funny how our minds work? Ultimately, this tactic allows me to add compelling rewards to my goals without having to cash in on all of them, saving me money. And who doesn’t like to save money?

b) Tracking

The two tracking elements in play here are time tracking and streak tracking. Every time I’d start practicing for the interview, I’d turn on a stopwatch in my browser (as shown below).



At the end of each practice session, I’d record my time on the second post it note from the left (again, referencing that first image of the post-it notes on my desk). The number in parenthesis on that post-it note indicates my streak (how many days in a row I’ve practiced for the interview). If that number reached 10 at any point, I’d unlock the bonus reward on the first post-it note.

c) Variable rewards

Based on the writings of Nir Eyal, I’ve become very fond of variable rewards for influencing my own behavior. This was my first time experimenting with variable rewards for my personal goals, and I loved it. You can see the variable reward structure I used on the third post-it note above. Here’s the breakdown: whenever I would log an additional hour of interview preparation, I would be allowed to flip two coins. If they both landed heads, I would earn the reward (in this case, those oh-so-caffeinated energy drinks I long for).

Learnings: I actually underestimated how effective this variable reward would be on my desire to log additional hours of interview preparation. Similar to someone playing the slot machines, I enjoyed the brief thrill of playing the odds to win something. Especially after four hours of intense practice, having four coin flips was something I looked forward to at the end of the work session. Based on the success of this addition, I plan on adding variable rewards to all projects I work on that I feel warrant gamification.


Getting More Intense

Upon reaching the 16-hour mark of interview prep in under a week, I was feeling weary. I needed to throw all of my heavy artillery into the mix to keep me motivated. So I decided to add one more game mechanic into the mix to give me further incentive to keep working: the progress bar, which is the left-most post-it note below.



I love progress bars with a fiery passion. So does LinkedIn – have you ever been bugged to death by the incomplete progress bar in your LinkedIn account? I’m incredibly susceptible to this, so I embrace visible progress bars in any goal that I can. When I felt my motivation levels dropping, I brought it out more prominently. In this case, I had a massive list of interview questions I needed to practice answering. I decided to tackle them in batches, and once I rehearsed them at least five times, I’d mark this as complete on the progress bar.

As I worked, it started to fill up.

And it continued to do so, until I reached 100%. (Notice how the milestones are being reached over time as well.)

One other tactic I developed is something I like to call low energy progress enabling. In order to explain this unnecessarily-fancy-sounding technique, let me start by clarifying that interview prep is mentally taxing work. Rehearsing interview questions and answers out loud to yourself can get very tiring, as can reviewing large amounts of information related to your potential role, the company, your work experience, and everything in between. I had learned from past experience that when I’m feeling tired and low on energy, it’s very difficult to muster the strength to do a productive interview prep session. Surely, I thought, there must be a way to stay productive even when I’m feeling low on energy.

And then, it hit me. What if I recorded myself rehearsing the answers right off of the Q&A document I had created? That way, when I was feeling low on energy, I could listen to myself going through the interview process. Surely, listening to the Q&A and mentally following along would be more productive than sitting around debating whether or not I had the energy for yet another round of rehearsing out loud. Below you can see me on the J train, listening to myself rehearsing interview questions and answers. (Please ignore the caffeine-laden Sencha Shot also in my hand.)


Results and Conclusion

The results, you ask? To keep things short, I arrived at the interview nervous as hell, but I was incredibly well prepared. And I never would’ve been so thoroughly prepared without the system I’ve described above – every spare moment of my days leading up to the interview were filled with preparation and practice, which paid off in spades. Eight weeks later, I’m sitting in my San Francisco apartment, currently employed by my dream company. I’m so glad I was able to use gamification to help me capitalize on this once in a lifetime opportunity that presented itself to me.

Nobody likes to have to hustle at a frenzied pace at a moment’s notice, but there will always be times when it’s required to take advantage of opportunities. That’s where gamification really shines – it makes channeling every ounce of motivation you’ve got stored inside you much easier. And as I stated earlier, the main goal of this blog post is to inspire you to try a similar system to improve your work ethic and better capitalize on the opportunities that present themselves to you as you move through life. Any questions or feedback? Leave them in the comments below.

Happy gamifying!


About Jon Guerrera

I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, and lessons learned as I experiment with finding happiness and fulfillment. I also wrote an e-book. If you like what I write on the blog, you can grab a free copy by subscribing.
  • Thanks for sharing.  Love that post it notes were your system.  Super simple. Super awesome. 

  • Thanks, Joshua! Post-it notes are definitely the way to go if you want to add/modify things on the fly. Plus, no need to recharge any devices. 🙂

  • James

    This system sounds awesome, but one of the biggest problems I had when I was interviewing wasn’t so much the process as it was finding the details of everything I wanted to study.  How did you figure out everything you needed for your interview?

  • Remi Carton

    There are books about tech company interviews, some of them have details about the interview processes in big tech firms (google, microsoft, and amazon notably). It’s mostly a rehearsal of fundamentals of compsci and some tips for solving brain teasers. Look up things like cracking the coding interview.

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  • Shane Hudson

    Do you suggest really revising each programming technique/language or focus more on how you would solve it theoretically?

  • Thanks for this post. I am currently a grad student, I will be using your system to study for classes. I always start out great, and lose motivation and get tired. I will definitely use it and see how it works. I hope it does, then it will be a great system when I start preparing for interviews.

  • Well done sir!

  • Preston Law

    That progress bar is my favorite.

  • Anthony

    Really enjoyed this post, thanks for the insight. Definitely going to give it a shot.

  • Eric

    Very well done, and congratulations on your new awesome job!

  • lexein

    Get rid of the inShare/g+/Tweet/flike floating like-count. It blocks text and images, and can’t be  moved or dismissed.

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  • Hi James,

    A few pieces of information I gather are:

    1) Current events related to the company
    2) How each of my attributes maps to the requirements of the role I’m interviewing for
    3) Generic behavioral interview questions you’re likely to encounter (i.e. “Tell me about a weakness and how you’re working to improve it.”)
    4) Any technical/product knowledge related to the role that may need to be reviewed
    5) Any advice from people I may know at the company

    From there, I just reviewed everything until I knew it inside and out. You come off sounding more natural and confident in an interview when you feel good about how well you know your information.

    Hope that helps!

  • Hi lexein,

    Thank you for bringing that to my attention. It had been working fine on Chrome and Firefox, but you’re the third person to mention that it’s actually a nuisance. I’ll be disabling it and looking for a better alternative that you can dismiss (or use to downvote me, if you’d like :)).


  • Thanks, Eric!

  • Hi Sona,

    This system focuses very heavily on extrinsic rewards, so it can definitely be helpful for short term bursts of motivation to get things done quickly. Let me know how it works for you!


  • Glad you enjoyed it, Anthony! Let me know if you have any questions on implementing it for yourself. 

  • Rick

    Jonathan, thanks so much for sharing. I’m going to start using your system right now for an interview I have coming up with Google (also a long-time dream) – perfect timing!
    Stupid question – in order to ensure that the rewards stayed sufficiently motivating, did you feel it was important that you could have an energy drink ONLY when you completed those milestones and force yourself to not drink them unless you earned them? Or were you drinking them throughout your normal day anyway, and your reward drinks were in addition to what you were normally drinking?

    Want to make sure I set up my system so it sufficiently motivates me… Thanks!

  • Google , making it tough to “work” with Google by having these elaborate tests DISRUPTS NOTHING. You know who else has difficult to enter institutions ?( ironically called Universities?) Harvard /Stanford and about 99% of the other expensive  learning clubs where enormous effort is made to keep the “standards” up to yesterdays model of education. Look for Khan Academy and Facebook and the tsumami of new Tablet / Smartphone users who instinctively are drawn to, and  demand a better value for their time in education and leave elitist Universities and Corporations behind …If Google and most Universities  continue to hold onto the Gatekeeper model of value dissemination…they will find themselves as irrelevant as a white male candidate attempting to get votes from African American’s , Hispanics, Women, and LGBT constituents. Why does Khan Academy gain so many new users?
    An elaborate quiz? Get a clue Google/ Major Universities. It’s refreshing to see African illiterate kids figure out Tablets on their own , without having to go to MIT first. Will Google and most Universities see and capitalize on the truly universal open door policy that Smartphones and Tablets provide? Or will Universities and Google continue to paint themselves in a smaller and smaller corner by restricting access to good paying jobs and valuable education. My vote is to stay with the “Trend is your Friend” and look for Khan Academy and the like…to turn the gatekeeper model on it’s ear, finally ….burying the overpriced model . Your private school , club, will hate this reality , because it means the beginning of the end for price gouging.       

  • Hi Rick,

    Great question! Energy drinks were something I was in the process of giving up anyways (I had slowly been replacing them with green tea), so I wasn’t including them in my daily routine outside of the gamification system. That’s why  energy drinks and a giant case of Sencha Shots were compelling rewards for me. 

    My logic was this: as long as you aren’t at risk of accidentally triggering a binge or re-igniting an addiction, adding some guilty pleasures into a gamified system designed for very short term use can be a quick and dirty way to motivate you to log those extra hours.

    Hope that helps!

  • Zmt98

    Congratulations, you’ve re-invented the carrot and stick methodology and are now living a life based off checklists and tick-lists!  Life is not a giant bucket list.

    Com’on, this idea that you can gamify life is garbage. It’s self-forfilling prophecy garbage!

    All you’ve done is simply set the rules, the “goals” and the rewards; you set arbitrary rewards; and was able to achieve them — isn’t any wonder that most of the stuff ends up being self-forfilling?

    The problem I have with your carrot and stick method is not the carrot, not the stick; but the person who is wielding both! That is you!

    Why bother going through all your silly steps when you can get the reward you’ve assigned yourself without doing anything?  This is the fatal flaw in what I’ve seen in your pictures.

    Give me one good reason why I should jump through all the hoops that you’ve formally created for yourself? 

    The better answer is to do the work.

    I mean, isn’t that what all the self-help books, all the gurus and all the experts come down to?  I mean, when you go through all their lists, all their proverbs, sayings and all the tasks what it really comes down to do is – DO THE WORK.

    Do I need gamification? Nope. Its a con to make you think your achieving something when you know you’re not, the rewards are meaningless as the actions themselves.

    The only solice I get from your post is that your good with time-keeping and were to establish solid timeblocks for yourself to do the job.

    Gamify life?  How about living life?

  • Shat2

    who stuck a carrot up this guys ass?

  • Tom

    Great article.  I really enjoyed reading it and plan to use some of these ideas myself for my next need of motivation.  And congratulations on the new job

  • Chrisvallejos

    woah this is aweseome, congrats!

  • Michael Hwan

    You should check out a book called For The Win by Kevin Werbach from UPenn and I think you’ll enjoy it. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Thanks for the recommendation!

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  • I forget how I landed on this article (possibly with Google + gamification search) but I’m glad I did. 🙂 Congratulations on your new job!

  • Also, an article I read last night talked about Habit RPG which is essentially a digital version of your post-it notes progress complete with a pixel character 🙂 Maybe that can be an alternative!

  • I’ve been hearing a bit of buzz around HabitRPG lately. I’ll definitely be checking it out real soon. Thanks for passing it along!

  • Vu

    Love it! Thanks a lot!

  • I Blubb

    Thanks for this post – I am definitely going to try gamification since I am kinda stuck with my interview preparation. How much time did you spend in total?

  • Hi there I Blubb, glad to hear you’re willing to give this a try! I spent around 20 hours in total preparing for the interview. Lots of research and mock interviews.

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  • OlgaBudieri

    Great Post, will try this with my diet! 🙂

  • AnonymousPerson

    Hey man, Congrats! It’s Awesome that your hard work paid off. Could you please share the material you used? It’s hard to find good material. At least we’ll know your material worked! Or share how you found it? Thanks.

  • Thank you! I’m having trouble locating my materials, but I basically scanned the web for all current events related to Google, studied their business model, learned the product I’d be working with (AdWords), and did a TON of mock interviews. That did the trick!

  • AnonymousPerson


  • Great article. Very interesting to me personally and professionally re: changing eating habits. Thanks so much for sharing.

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  • Irina P

    That incomplete progress bar on LinkedIn bugs the hell out of me too. Great advise!

  • Sam

    Good work on getting the job 🙂 You might be interested in the app ‘The Game of Your Life’ which lets you set up quests and uses gamification to motivate you to complete them..

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