The things every high-achiever should know
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
-Leonardo da Vinci
At the start of this gamification experiment, I had a detailed system of time-tracking, progress standardization, a full list of “activated abilities”, and more. The system was fun at first, but quickly became difficult to track and manage. In it’s current form, my gamification set-up is much simpler, and I think I will leave it this way. In Part 4, I will conclude this experiment with my final recommendations on how to go about gamifying your own life. I’ll also answer the questions I asked in Part 1 regarding happiness, motivation and procrastination.
If you’re at all interested in gamifying certain parts of your life, what follows in the next few paragraphs is a comprehensive overview of the system I’ve found to work best.
As the foundation to my gamification set-up (and what I’d recommend as the foundation of yours), all short-term goals are converted into “quests.” Each quest requires at least four components:
a) A set of conditions that will signify when the quest has been completed (preferably with milestones along the way)
b) A reward (or set of rewards) that you receive for completing the quest (ideally, a reward properly matched to the difficulty of the quest)
c) Special “activated abilities” and/or tools to help you complete the quest (for example, if your quest involves a diet plan, your “activated ability” could be a “cheat day” that can be activated three times during the one-month quest)
d) A sense of purpose, either through an epic story (see Part 1 for an example of my personal Statement of Epic Meaning) or through strong social fabric, to drive you forward
In my opinion, the ideal length of a quest is 2-3 weeks. This is long enough to be challenging, but short enough that you can vividly imagine the reward you will earn upon completion. For all mid- to long-term quests that could take months, or even years, I recommend breaking them down into a series of these 2-3 week quests, similar to how one might break down a big project into multiple steps.
One particular quest that I find unique amongst my set-up is my revamped “Weekend Warrior”, which is an ongoing time-driven quest.
On the weekends, I’ve found that I procrastinate heavily. To gamify my weekend, I create a list numbered 1-13. I then write my reward on the bottom of the page. I then use the stopwatch on my phone to record how much time I spend working on any goals during the weekend. Once I hit the one hour mark, I cross off the number 1 on the list. Once I hit hour two, I cross off “2″, and so on. Once I hit 13 hours, I earn the reward. This simple incentive system has been a sure-fire procrastination buster on most weekends. To gamify this idea further, I plan to add Epic Meaning and Social Fabric aspects to it by including friends in my weekend work sessions and finding quotes, sayings and images that inspire me to work diligently on the weekends (for those curious, Ben Franklin is my main source of inspiration for summoning the energy to work hard).
Since the biggest issue with my original gamification set-up was the difficulty and hassle of time-tracking (especially for eight hours a day, seven days a week), I want to emphasize that you should track your progress in the way that makes the most sense for you. Here are my recommended methods for tracking your progress as you battle your way through your active quests:
a) Streaks – Simply stated, keep track of how consistently you take an action and take note of how long you’ve gone without messing up or skipping out.
Tools that help: Seinfeld Calendar (Android), Habit Streak (Android), Streaks (iPhone), Goalscape, a giant wall calendar that you can mark off
b) Time tracking – Appropriate in small doses, and is a great tool for objective measurement of the work you’ve applied towards something.
Tools that help: Any sort of stopwatch, Level Me Up! (iPhone), Goalscape
c) Outcomes – Sometimes it’s easiest to track by an outcome, such as articles written, recipes learned, business proposals reviewed, etc.
Tools that help: Goalscape, post-it notes
If you had to choose one all-encompassing tool for simplicity, go with Goalscape. It is by far the best investment I’ve ever made in a piece of software (as a student, I think I paid $60 or so). It calculates and quantifies your progress for you in a really cool visual display. Below is a screenshot.
In upcoming months, I’ll be dedicating multiple posts to how I use Goalscape because of how effective it has been in helping me track my goals for over a year now. I consider it the swiss-army knife of goal tracking – it’s incredibly versatile and I try not to be anywhere without it. So I highly recommend it for gamifying your life because it functions as your “stats dashboard” to see how you’re developing and growing.
However, if you had to choose the least-expensive route, I’d recommend exploring the smartphone apps, post-it notes, a wall calendar, and an online stopwatch timer, all of which should cost you less than $15.
Pitfalls and Challenges
This experiment has taught me that, as with any significant behavioral change, gamification must be as seamless as possible for it to be sustainable. Therefore, here are a few pitfalls and challenges you may encounter that could prevent this seamless transition from happening.
1) While streaks can be an excellent way to track your consistency with building new habits, my experience has shown that using ONLY streaks alone as a motivational tool doesn’t work. On one hand, when you have a long streak going, it’s very motivating in its own right to keep the streak going. But when the inevitable time comes that the streak breaks, motivation essentially vanishes until the streak is built back up. The solution here: you need a compelling reward in place for when the streak resets. When I broke my healthy-diet streak, I was floundering for over a week until I put in place a more compelling reward, which solved the problem pretty quickly. You’d be surprised how effective visualizing a desired reward can be.
2) I’ve said it many times throughout this series, but I’ll say it once more: beware of using time tracking excessively. It will cause tracking fatigue and you will lose enthusiasm for your gamification set-up. Use a good mix of streaks and outcomes tracking along with it.
3) Don’t underestimate the social fabric, urgent optimism and epic meaning portions of the experiment. It can be easy to shrug off one or more of these elements, since you don’t need to them to incentivize and track your goals in a gamified style. But while quantifying your goals and setting up fun incentives are the foundation of the experiment, there is no magic without the other three elements. Without them, you would simply be adding incentives to your goals for the sake of earning a reward — not too dissimilar from a frequent flyer program or a shoppers rewards program. A strong social fabric motivates you on a whole new level. Urgent optimism gives you the persistence and desire to succeed found in the most enthusiastic of gamers. Epic meaning infuses your goals with a deeper purpose, leading to more satisfaction as you pursue and achieve them. The spice and flavor of this experiment is gone without these three elements, so incorporate them thoroughly. In the next section, I describe how to optimize these areas in more detail.
4) Don’t use social events as rewards. As a recent college grad with a small bank account, I was tempted to use rewards that wouldn’t cost any money. Such as: I can attend my friend’s party if I maintain my clean-diet streak through to 21 days. In retrospect, this is a horrible idea. Having a strong social life is intimately tied to overall happiness and wellbeing (the research is pretty clear on this one). Failing at your goals should never actively make you miserable by depriving you of something so core to your well-being.
Optimizing Social Fabric, Urgent Optimism and Epic Meaning
As I just described above, social fabric, urgent optimism and epic meaning are the elements of gamification that add the magic and excitement. When incorporated properly, your results can easily skyrocket from the interplay of these elements. Here’s how I’ve found it best to build them into your gamification setup:
Social Fabric - Including your friends and loved ones into your gamification experiment is ideal, assuming they’ll take it seriously. If not, find another source of social fabric through online communities (Fitocracy, Bodybuilding.com, Reddit, online forums, etc.) or in person (Meetup.com is great for this). Even if people don’t want to adopt your gamification system, as long as there is a shared goal, you can learn from and motivate each other.
Urgent Optimism - I rarely spoke about Urgent Optimism in this series because maintaining a positive outlook on life, and never doubting your ability to be successful, is the crux of almost every book on personal development in existence. Therefore, to maintain Urgent Optimism, read books that you find most inspirational. I personally read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey as my go-to source for Urgent Optimism.
Epic Meaning - As I’ve mentioned previously, Epic Meaning is a very personal thing. What infuses your life with purpose and meaning may not resonate with others. To develop purpose and understand what drives you, I highly recommend reading Life on Purpose: Six Passages to an Inspired Life by Brad Swift. I’m usually not a fan of spirituality-based personal development books, but this one is quite exceptional.
Am I Happier? More Motivated? More Successful?
Now that I’ve passed along the essentials behind gamifying your life, let me briefly discuss my results from this experiment. The three questions I asked were:
Would gamifying my life make me happier on a day-to-day basis?
Would it make me more motivated (and procrastinate less)?
Would gamifying my life make me more successful?
The answer: Yes, on all three counts.
I’m finding myself more motivated to stick to my toughest goals, especially when all four elements of gamification are working in tandem. I’m more successful in sticking to these goals because of the reward at the end of the tunnel and the constant exposure to positive attitudes and how my goals tie into my purpose and values. And in an interesting twist, because I can’t afford to offer more than 1 or 2 rewards per month, I find myself more focused on the key quests and goals that matter most to me. Linking a limited resource (money) to my goals has actually forced me to prioritize, which has aided my success rate.
With this spike in motivation and success, I cannot help but feel happier. Sure, I feel more pain from the increased discipline and restraint (no more sleeping in, no more skimping on my pledge to eat healthier, no more excessive TV indulgence, etc.), but the overall result is increased happiness and contentedness with life. I finish each week knowing that I gave it my all, and fought hard to see each quest through to the end. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to know that I’m inching closer and closer to a reward I really want with each passing day.
At the start of this experiment, I was worried that my intrinsic motivation to pursue my goals would decline because of all of the linking I did to external rewards. I was afraid that once I stopped giving myself rewards, I would lose all desire to continue the habits that have brought me success. Thankfully, I have not found this to be the case. Seeing my success rate rise has only made me MORE intrinsically motivated. At this point, I will still keep using external rewards to keep me moving forward, but I can already begin to feel new habits solidifying. I’m also a strong believer that passion can grow from competence, so I’ll eventually phase out rewards for certain ongoing, long-term quests because the habits and newfound passion will replace the need for those rewards.
And it’s worth noting that I’ve found the Weekend Warrior quest (the time-tracked, ongoing quest described earlier in this post) to be among the best procrastination-busting tool I’ve ever created for myself. The only thing that has proven to be more effective in the past is joining a group of friends who regularly meet to work on projects and goals (a great example of social fabric).
So there you have it. A successful lifestyle experiment. In the past, I’ve tried a few lifestyle experiments that either failed or had no long-term impact (removing Internet from my dorm room for three days, to name one), but this is the first that I foresee having immensely positive implications for the rest of my life. I’ve learned a great deal about how my mind responds to incentives, how social influences impact me and how an infusion of purpose motivates me.
I sincerely hope that you benefited from reading the entirety of my experiment, and wholeheartedly encourage you to take on this experiment to see how it affects your motivation, happiness, and engagement with life.
Adios for now,
P.S. – Below are a few additional sources of gamification that I didn’t have time to fully explore for this series.
Additional Sources of Gamification
Biofeedback - Biofeedback is the gamification of meditation and relaxation exercises. It gives you immediate feedback on how your stress levels are decreasing.
Gym-Pact - An interesting website that allows you to make a monetary pact with yourself, and actually earn extra money if you stick to your workout schedule. But beware, you lose money if you don’t stick to your schedule.
Mindbloom - A website that caught my eye as an interesting way to visualize and track goals, but I’ve yet to have time to explore it fully.
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 hack my way to happiness and fulfillment.
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