Gamifying the Job Search @ GSummit 2013


As many of you know, one of the most popular blog posts I’ve written on this site discusses how I used gamification principles to help me get a job at Google.

This blog post quickly spread to Hacker News, Business Insider, and gave me another opportunity to speak about gamification at GSummit!

(Note: None of my other blog posts haven’t been remotely close to this level of success. This was definitely a black swan event!)

Check out the video above if you’d be interested in seeing the talk, which discusses the gamified framework I used to prepare for my interview.

Would love to hear what you think!

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!


Slow and Steady: Using Kaizen for Your Personal Goals


Introducing Kaizen

If there is one concept that I feel embodies everything I’ve learned about personal development and effective change, it’s the Japanese concept of Kaizen. Taken from Wikipedia:

Kaizen, Japanese for “improvement”, or “change for the better” refers to a philosophy that focuses on continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing, engineering, game development, and business management.

Although most frequently used in the business world to describe a process for eliminating waste and increasing efficiency, the concept has immense value for people who want to build better habits and reach their goals. I’m certainly not the first to recognize Kaizen’s relevance to personal development: Lifehacker featured an article on Kaizen and productivity long before I was even aware of the concept.

Kaizen deserves this popularity  decades of research on motivation are very clear on one point: People resist extreme change.

It’s hard-wired into our brains. If something changes too rapidly, it’s threatening. Our bodies resist, our minds seek ways to fight or flee and we desire to return to the comfort of what we’re familiar with.

Although there are methods to make extreme change work, it requires incredibly high amounts of support and discipline, otherwise the changes won’t be permanent (as an example, the failure rate amongst those who attempt strict, extreme diets for weight loss is around 97%, as reported by the CDC).

That’s why Kaizen is so effective. It acknowledges that people, business and processes that can make intelligent, gradual changes often end up better off in the long-run than those who attempt a series of extreme changes.


Kaizen is not quite perfect

Although Kaizen makes a lot of sense, there’s a distinction that needs to be made when adopting kaizen for personal development: Unlike business processes, human beings are driven by emotions. 

It’s natural for us to backtrack, revert to old habits and cave in under stress. There are periods when we can handle changes very well because we feel optimistic, energetic and ambitious. But just as there are times when we’re at our best, there are times when we’re at our worst. We could get sick, experience a traumatic event, go through a bout of depression or lethargy (especially in winter), or just succumb to destructive habits. Just as with night and day, both versions of ourselves are inevitable (although, we have some control over the intensity and duration of each version, but that’s a story for a different day).

It’s important to accept that even though we can be making negative progress in the short term, we can still be making positive progress in the long term as long as we’re able to bounce back quickly. How do I know this? I experienced it first hand.

As some of my readers will know, I conducted an experiment in which I gamified my life over the course of a few months. What I like about gamification is that it makes tough goals more enjoyable. And enjoying the pursuit of my goals allows me to pursue them without burning out from excessive effort.

The gamified system I developed worked wonderfully for me during the course of the experiment. I even had a chance to speak about it earlier this summer. But before I reached a point where I understood how effective gamification could be for my goals, I hit a major roadblock. I started working 60 hours weeks in the heart of winter, my energy levels plummeted and I backtracked on a great deal of the progress I had made. The entire experiment came to a screeching halt.

I panicked.

Where did my discipline and ambition go? Was gamification not as effective as I thought it would be? What happened to all of the progress I was making?

But I hung in there. Once my work load settled down a few weeks later, I had a chance to catch up on sleep and resume my social life. I felt imbued with newfound energy, and my gamification system began improving my motivation as it had been doing previously. The steady lifestyle changes I had made through my gamification experiment (prior to my insane work schedule) had given me habits that kicked back in once my stress levels dropped back down to normal. And over time, I’ve felt those habits growing stronger. For example, when I don’t adhere to my healthy diet or I neglect to go to the gym, I feel strange. I can feel my carefully-cultivated habits gnawing at me to exercise and eat right.

A great analogy is that of muscle memory. If a bodybuilder stops lifting weights because of a temporary injury, and loses most of his muscle, he will regain it very quickly when he resumes weightlifting again. Why? Because his muscles, which were primed for years through diligent weight training, remain well adapted to the specific weightlifting movements, allowing him to gain back strength and muscle quickly. Our habits work the same way. Old habits die hard, whether they’re the positive or negative kind.

And there lies one of the secrets as to why Kaizen is so effective: Kaizen is excellent at building good habits and removing negative ones. Habits must be developed or broken over time (the established norm is 21 days at the minimum), and the steady, gradual approach of Kaizen is very well suited for this, whereas extreme change is not.

TL;DR  To sum up this section, using Kaizen  a steady, gradual approach to achieving your goals  is an effective way to achieve goals through the creation of new habits. But you must remember that backtracking and failure will happen along the way – be ready for this. Thankfully, the deep habits you cultivate through these steady, gradual changes will be there to get you back on track after going through difficult times. You just need to hang in there and consistently embrace the steady improvements that Kaizen promotes.


Using Kaizen to help you through the rough patches

So we’ve acknowledged that Kaizen is a great strategy for long-term success. But we’ve also discussed the inevitability of negative progress, at least in the short-term. If this negative progress is inevitable, how can we best handle it to prevent ourselves from losing all of our progress, or giving up from frustration? One strategy I’ve found that works well is the use of short-term crutches. A good example of using short-term crutches can be found in my epic quest to give up sugar, which has long been an addiction of mine.

As much as I hate chemically-sweetened diet sodas, they were very useful in helping me kick sugar out of my diet (as was just mentioned, I’m a sugarholic in every sense of the word). Whenever I had a craving for sugar, I would crack open a diet coke instead (this would happen a few times a week). After a few weeks, the sugar cravings began to die down. With the habitual sugar consumption habit fading, I moved off of diet sodas to stevia-sweetened sodas, black coffee and tea. And this is where I am currently. At the moment, I’m making the move towards more green tea and water, with the occasional unsweetened, black coffee and stevia-sweetened drink.

On one hand, this is a great example of Kaizen as demonstrated through the use of steady, gradual changes, rather than a grandiose removal of every gram of sugar from my diet in one fell swoop (which would have most likely backfired a week later with an epic sugar binge). But here’s what may bother some people: notice how I had to use a somewhat unhealthy crutch in the beginning (the artificially sweetened drinks). Although those artificial sweeteners are far from healthy, it’s important to be realistic about your discipline and will power  I knew deep down that I couldn’t summon the willpower to avoid all sugar-laden drinks and foods for more than a few days without a crutch of some sort. I had been failing at removing sugar from my diet for years at this point, and diet sodas were one of the few things that were able to keep me sugar free long enough for the habit to be broken.

The lesson to take away from this example is that short-term crutches (even slightly unhealthy ones) should be considered in tough times for the sake of  building better habits in the long run.



Kaizen is an incredible tool for effective long-term change. It doesn’t quite work as perfectly as it does within a corporate context since we’re emotional beings that are prone to backtracking in our goals during times of high stress. Therefore, the use of short-term crutches and the understanding that it’s perfectly normal to backtrack are key to keeping us in the game long enough for habits to build and become strong enough to pull us forward with minimal effort.

If you’re the type that likes to make massive changes all at once (such as you New Year’s Resolutions junkies), I highly recommend trying a Kaizen approach just once over the course of a few months and see how you like it. You might just be surprised at how effective it is.

Experiencing GSummit 2012 in San Francisco

Jon Guerrera speaking at GSummit

Photo/Image By: GSummit 2012

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at GSummit, a conference on gamification and loyalty, which took place in SF. While there, I met a variety of inspiring entrepreneurs, accomplished executives, and unique companies (and the food was fantastic, no joke).

Although the conference had a strong focus on applying gamification to business, I had the privilege of talking about gamifying your personal goals (based on an experiment I conducted earlier this year). I brought new content that I had never blogged about, and I received a lot of great positive feedback. Below is a preview clip of my talk (the full version costs money, unfortunately).

Forget the Apps, Gamifying with Post-It Notes from on

This event was like a dream come true for me. The chairman of the conference happened to stumble upon my blog through a re-tweet of a tweet I randomly sent out on a Thursday night to someone I thought would never even see it. In other words, it was pure, dumb luck that I was given the opportunity to speak at this event. But nevertheless, it was like a dream come true. For those who have seen my public bucket list, it’s a dream of mine to get up on a stage and have something valuable to share to an audience of people. And I did … to an audience of 250+ people. Needless to say, this was an epic win in my life.

I might post a slightly modified version of my talk for you to enjoy, but in the meanwhile, here the main topics covered in the talk (some of which I’ve discussed on the blog, some of which I haven’t).

a) Habits (discussed in Unlimited Drive)

b) Kaizen (currently writing a post on this)

c) Apps & post-it notes (discussed in this post)

d) People and purpose (lightly discussed here)

e) How to use rewards correctly (post to come soon)

Thanks to everyone to helped me prepare for this moment! And although that week was amazing, I’m back to reality now and have a ton of work I still need to catch up on. But stay tuned for more great things in July!