Gaming Your Practices

One of the ways to change your habits – whether to remove or add them – is to trick yourself into doing it by connecting it to some other abstract ritual. It feeds into our natural human tendency for pattern recognition – for example, the famous self-help guru Jerry Seinfeld recommends “chaining”, which is simply to put an “X” on a calendar everytime you do a particular habit that you want to continue. Did you exercise today? X on the date! After a while, you begin to see a chain of X’s for each day that goes by…and you feel a visceral desire to keep the string going. “Breaks” in the chain feel terrible.

It’s purely psychological – there’s not a physical connection between the X’s and the action you took, aside from the fact that you put it down. It’s the action of putting it down that reinforces the habit change, the satisfaction both of adding to the “chain” and then seeing the results of your actions. You can also see the results in a mirror, or in the way that you feel after working out…but those are less immediately rewarding as a big black “X” filling a square.

Thanks to our Amazing Electronic Devices there are also apps that “gamify” this kind of technique. They vary so much that you really can just pick the one that suits you. Are you very into the woo-woo style of daily affirmation? The friendly style of “” might appeal to you, and they do have all the right buzzwords: Productive, challenge, skill, relationships, get fit. I confess to being a little skeptical in their recommendations of diets such as Bulletproof (which has been pretty thoroughly debunked) but they also recommend the Mediterranean diet, which my nutritionist recommends, so…

You see? How easily it happens? That digression into the rules, into the ephemera of the game. I remember arguing about interpretations of the rules of Dungeons & Dragons or the merits of the Smith & Wesson .45 vs. Beretta 9mm or whether Graham technique was superior to Cunningham. The only thing people like better than patterns, it seems, is arguing about what those patterns mean.

Role Playing, Old & New

Courtesy ABMann via Flickr; used by permission
I have a +2 Wallet of Cheapness, but I have to make a saving throw against industry because Netflix.

Of course, it’s not as if the iPhone invented this kind of idea. Before that there was Getting Things Done, and before that there was…well, let’s just skip all the way back to Franklin’s Virtues, why don’t we? My friend and prolific photographer/blogger ABMann is currently tackling his own version of living up to that list of attributes and is documenting his successes and failures over on his blog. Not because he’s being paid to, or because at the end of the book he’ll get a prize. No, because it’s fun.

Because that little book that Franklin kept, where he put in dots on the days that he did something right (or was it when something was wrong?), that’s just another version of creating a game out of your life, of trying to manufacture a “score” by which to measure life. I am pretty sure that if you handed Benjamin Franklin a mouse and showed him “HabitRPG” – a D&D-style habit journal – he’d be right at home.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that – really, it’s just trying to live up to your idealized version of yourself. For some it’s a Virtuous Man. For others it’s an 8th level wizard. For others it’s Jason Bourne. For the most part, I think it’s great to continually be improving yourself – why else would I be writing this blog?

But. There are two problems that I’ve found that happen when I’ve tried to gamify my goals:

  1. Guilt: Unless I’m really into the system, I start to feel added pressure during my time. I’ve had a very busy day, for example, and then suddenly my phone pings me saying that I need to workout. Or reminds me that I set a goal to learn to how to code. Or MyFitnessPal reminds me that I’m 37 calories over my goal. It’s not that these are bad things – that’s what they’re designed to do. But for whatever reason I internalize them as stress, as failures, and that’s not a positive thing. I do a good enough job with my monkey mind yelling at me not to need another reminder.
  2. Layering: On the converse side, as I mentioned in my podcast with Elyria Little of Home Harmonizers, I tend to look at various kinds of organizers and motivational systems like some people look at porn – as an idealized version of something I will never have, where everything is perfect and shining. This can lead to kind of absurd layerings of organizational systems, like setting a goal in to update my which has the task of doing my 5 minute Journal as a daily task. At a certain point, instead of doing life you are simply keeping track of it, and you end up with a recursive loop and the imminent collapse of the universe upon itself.

Or, maybe not. What it comes down to in the end is that you should use the practices that work for you and discard the ones that don’t. As I’ve mentioned before, the 5 Minute Journal? Rocks. For me. On the other hand, HabitRPG just seems too convoluted – while my friend Koe uses it with her sister and has a great time leveling up as she builds her own business.

It’s an ongoing exploration. I know that when I first found TheBrain (as recommended by the great Demigod of Organization, David Allen himself) I thought I’d found the holy grail. Then I saw the price tag, and thought “Well, nope!” OmniFocus for Mac didn’t work so well for me, but on the iPad, for a while, it was a godsend. And currently Trello has my attention for managing projects.

What tools have you used? What tools do you wish you could use?

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