How to Gamify Those Pesky New Year’s Resolutions
The Following is a Guest Post by Jon Guerrera
When I started gamifying my goals last year, I didn’t think it would become something worth sharing. I simply wanted to create an effective system for tracking and achieving my goals – especially the ones that were in dire need of motivation. Despite its humble beginnings, this gamified system has far exceeded my expectations, and has even helped me acquire a dream job of sorts. It’s done a great deal of good for me, so I’d like to pass it along to you (in excruciating detail, of course).
This article contains the nitty-gritty details on the process of gamifying goals, along with a set of techniques that will help you get the most out of the system you ultimately create for yourself. So if you have (or intend to soon have) a challenging goal that would benefit from higher levels of motivation, it may be worth your while to read on.
Before we get started, who is this not good for?
Before we begin, a brief disclaimer is in order. This system relies heavily on rewards which are of an extrinsic nature, and there is research out there that demonstrates that the use of extrinsic rewards can potentially stifle your creativity and curiosity towards the tasks linked to those rewards.
So if you’re incredibly passionate about writing, and have a goal to write a book, I would recommend using another goal system – the last thing you need is less of that intrinsic drive and curiosity to write. Rather, the system I will discuss is designed for the goals we know are good for us, but consistently avoid doing (i.e. exercising, eating right, quitting smoking, writing that business plan, and so on).
So if you need to lose weight, but hate exercise with all of your being, this system is for you. Why? Because extrinsic rewards are helpful in incentivizing us to do things we would prefer not to do. And as we do things more and more, they become familiar and habitual, making them easier to perform. As an example, I know a handful of health enthusiasts who run every day, yet still dislike running. They do it out of habit (which they developed over time) because running is a healthy activity – not because they love doing it.
In summary, use this system to power through those goals that involve work you find yourself resisting. Don’t use this system for goals involving work you’re already passionate and curious about.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on.
Setting up your goal gamification system
1) Define and quantify your goal
The goal aficionados in the audience may find this step obvious, but it often goes ignored. Simply put, your goal should be quantifiable. For example, don’t set a goal to become thin. What does “thin” even mean? Set a goal to lose X pounds or aim for a specific body fat percentage. Having a clear target that you can measure, you’ll be in much better shape to evaluate your success. In the words of Peter Drucker, “What gets measured gets managed.”
Next, if your goal relies significantly on any forces outside of your control – for example, getting hired at Facebook – your goal should reflect only what’s controllable on your end. So your goal shouldn’t be defined as ‘get hired at Facebook.’ It should sound something like, ‘invest 40 hours towards getting a job at Facebook.’
Why do I recommend setting goals this way? Simple. You don’t fully control your ability to get a job at Facebook. You can certainly develop your skills, get your foot in the door through proactive networking, and prepare for the interview. But everything else is up to the hiring manager. It can be very discouraging when you invest dozens of hours towards something you really want, only to receive absolutely nothing in return. When you quantify your goal based on things you control – hours of interview prep, number of applications submitted, etc. – you get the satisfaction of seeing your progress rise, even in the face of failure, which is paramount for keeping you motivated and ready for the next attempt.
Remember, the goal here is for your gamified system to keep your motivation high, not to be 100% results driven. Sure, to be fully results driven about your success you might only track true accomplishments: getting an interview, getting a job offer, successfully negotiating salary, etc. But to stay motivated in a world where you aren’t guaranteed anything, I’ve found that it’s more effective to track your effort, which is within your control. Of course, you’re more than welcome to keep note of your results over time too – this can help identify weaknesses in your overall strategy for reaching your goal – but your main focus should be on expending effort towards your goal as often as you can. This is simply what I’ve found to work best. However, I’m sure many will disagree with my outlook, so try it out and see what works best for you.
Caveat: Tracking your effort is great for keeping motivation high, but it won’t get you anywhere unless you concurrently focus on working as intelligently as possible (also known as sharpening the saw). Working long, but inefficient hours is a surefire way to achieve mediocre results. Don’t just work hard. Work smart.
So you have your goal, and you quantified it in a way that allows you to track your effort. Awesome. Let’s start chopping that goal into tiny pieces.
Why are we breaking the goal down, you ask? If you’re a gamer, you’re probably aware that a well designed roleplaying game will usually ease you into the experience by giving you small challenges at first. These small challenges allow you to adjust to the controls and routines of the game before the first real quest. Allow yourself the same courtesy when setting a goal for yourself. The way you can ease yourself into your new goal is through easy milestones that progressively become more difficult.
Take a look at the image above. It shows three post-it notes on my desk as I was preparing for a recent job interview. Notice the post-it note on the left, which contains three milestones. One hour of interview prep, five hours of interview prep, and ten hours of interview prep. Notice how the first milestone is relatively easy. Only one hour? Why did I want the first milestone to be so easy to hit? Because the hardest part of any goal is getting started, so your first milestone should encourage, rather than challenge.
Once you hit that first milestone, you’ll likely be more comfortable with the activity (the first few sessions are always the worst), so you can begin ramping up the difficulty of subsequent milestones. The point here is to keep your goal in what I like to call the “Goldilocks zone.” Not too easy, but not too difficult. While you’re struggling to adjust to the work involved in a new goal, give yourself some easier targets to hit. As you get more comfortable, ratchet up the difficulty. For more on how important it is to keep the difficulty of your goal (and subsequent milestones) properly calibrated, read up on flow.
3) Attach rewards to your milestones
Congrats! You’re already much farther along than many people would be with setting up a goal structure. You’ve defined, quantified, and broken down your goal into progressively more difficult milestones. Let’s take it to the next level by attaching some rewards.
If you refer back to that post-it note image we discussed in step 2, you’ll notice some scribbling next to each milestone. Those are the rewards I earned once I reached each milestone. For my first milestone, I earned the right to two energy drinks that week (a guilty pleasure of mine that I normally restrict from my diet). After the second milestone – which was significantly more difficult than the first milestone – I earned a full case of Sencha shots, my favorite beverage of all time, and a much more compelling reward for me than a couple of energy drinks. So as each progressively more difficult milestone is reached, a better reward is earned.
Remember, many goals require intense, oftentimes repetitive work that people would rather not do (otherwise, why would it be so hard to achieve our goals?). This is where rewards excel in keeping you working through the grueling stuff until a habit is built. Once you build a solid habit (it can take anywhere from 3 weeks to over a year), I’ve found that you can cut back on rewards with no problem.
One thing to keep in mind is that you should always keep the size of the rewards equal to the amount of effort expended on each milestone. So your initial, easy-to-reach milestone should have a small reward attached to it. If you give yourself an awesome reward for an easy milestone, it may satiate you too much, leaving you with less motivation to continue onward (especially if the next reward is not nearly as compelling).
Here are a few examples of rewards I’ve used in the past:
- Book on music theory
- Moleskine notebook
- Red Bull
- Coffee beans from Ritual Coffee Roasters
- New headphones
None of these rewards are excessively expensive (I think the Kindle was the most expensive at $80 or so), and have been immensely useful in helping me power through certain milestones.
4) Track simply
We’ve quantified your goal, we’ve broken it down, and we’ve attached some compelling rewards. But it will all be for naught unless you can find a way to keep track of it with minimal effort. I’ve experienced my fair share of bulky tracking systems, and they make it that much more annoying to get things done – so much so, it can cause you to not even take action in the first place. Therefore, I have three simple tracking tools I’d like to recommend for you today, all of which I’ve used and enjoyed.
- Trello– The self described “whiteboard with superpowers,” Trello is great for tracking your milestones (for example, travelling to different countries and each milestone is a new country), and it’s free to use.All on one screen you can see what needs to be done, what’s in progress, and what’s been completed. Here is a great example of someone using it to track venues they want to play at. I personally used Trello to organize my goal of finding an apartment in San Francisco when I was moving from New York. It worked like a charm, especially with it’s mobile features for when I was out visiting apartments.
- Streaks for iPhone / Wall Calendar – If you’re tracking the number of days you exercise per week – or anything dependent on taking action daily/weekly/monthly – Streaks for iPhone (or a giant wall calendar) is fantastic for keeping you on track. I’ve used a wall calendar for tracking how often I go to the gym, how often I cook during the week, and much more. See how long you can go without breaking your streak! Jerry Seinfeld is a big fan of this technique.
- Post-it notes! My all time favorite tool for sheer versatility and ease-of-use.
Looking at the image above, notice how I’ve used post-it notes to create a 1) progress bar, 2) list of milestones, 3) time tracker, and 4) variable reward bonus system (discussed later in this post).
There are so many ways to use post-it notes, it’s too much for today’s post. However, if you’ve got some spare time and are curious as to exactly how the post-it note setup above works, check out this post, which includes a case study on how I used this system to gamify a recent job interview.
Once you have your quantified goal, your milestones, your rewards, and a simple method to track it all, you’re ready to go! And when you’re ready to take your system to the next level, read the next step, which contains strategies for supercharging your system.
5) Optional: Add in rewards feints, variable rewards, LEPE, and social norms as needed
Perhaps you’ve given the system above a shot, but it’s not quite giving you the results you need. Or maybe your system is working fine, but you’ve grown weary and are in need of a short term boost. Here are a few techniques and hacks that can supercharge your system.
- Reward feints– From one of my recent blog posts on gamifying a job interview:“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.”Caveat: It can be difficult to identify compelling rewards that meet the criteria of a) affordable and within your budget, and b) loses appeal over time. Therefore, there’s always the chance that your reward feint will backfire and you’ll still strongly desire the reward by the time your goal/milestone is reached. Therefore, I’d recommend using this strategy sparingly. I personally use it only for very challenging goals.
- Variable rewards– A variable reward can be thought of as any reward that you earn the chance to receive from taking an action. For example, I insert a quarter and pull the lever on a slot machine. However, I’m only given the chance to win. I’m not guaranteed it. That’s what make slot machines so addictive – we get a thrill from playing the odds to earn a big payout. Why not borrow a page from Vegas and put some of these kinds of rewards into our personal goals?Here’s how I used variable rewards for gamifying my interview preparation: whenever I’d log an additional hour of interview prep, I would be allowed to flip two coins. If they both landed heads, I would earn the reward (in this case, a caffeinated beverage).Just like spending a day in Atlantic City, I enjoyed the brief thrill of playing the odds to win something I desired. Especially after four hours of intense work, having four coin flips was something I looked forward to at the end of the work session.As an example, someone who is trying to exercise more might use the following as a variable reward: for every 5 miles ran, draw a card from a shuffled deck. If you draw a spade, you can have one cheat meal at your favorite restaurant. This adds a fun twist to your gamified system because the more you work on your goal, the more chances you have to win something you really want.Caveat: I would avoid using anything that you don’t have the willpower to resist when you don’t win. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, using cigarettes as a variable reward will likely just reignite the addiction you’re trying to remove, and therefore is unacceptable to use.For more on variable rewards, this article by Nir Eyal is a fantastic introduction to how powerful they can be.
- Low-energy progress enabling (LEPE)– If the work you need to reach your goal is too intense to be doing as often as you’d like, is there any way to make progress through a lower-energy process?As an example, interview practice is mentally draining, and I found myself unable to do mock interviews when I was feeling tired and low on energy. But I wanted to keep making progress somehow. The solution? I recorded myself doing a mock interview, and I would listen to that series of recordings whenever I was too tired to do the real thing. Below is a screenshot of me reviewing this recording on my way to the interview.
- Are you trying to learn to play an instrument? When you’re exhausted, simply listen to music and see if you can identify certain notes and chords.Are you training for a marathon? When you’re recovering from your last run, do some research on optimal nutrition programs and best practices for endurance running.There’s always some way to keep moving forward – all you need is some creativity to make it happen when your energy is low.
- Social Norms– If you can find a group of people who are already doing what you’re striving to do, spend some time with them. Trust me when I say their habits and work ethic will begin to rub off on you.A good friend of mine is a computer engineer who invests a lot of time in building interesting products. When I was living on his couch for two weeks in October, I felt a much stronger drive to learn to code. Now that I’m no longer on his couch, most of that drive has vanished, simply because I’m not exposed to his awesome projects and coding ability on a daily basis.If you don’t have any friends, family, or colleagues who do/have done what you’re striving to do, Meetup.com is your best bet. More often than not, you will find an interest group for whatever it is you’re doing. And if there isn’t, create one! I couldn’t find a Meetup group for EDM enthusiasts in the Bay area, so I made one.
Putting it all together
If you’ve made it this far through this article, my hat’s off to you – it’s certainly not a short read. If you choose to follow the steps above for a particular goal, it may take you a few attempts before you craft a system that works for you.
Think of your first gamified goal system as an MVP. Build quickly, launch early, and work diligently to refine and optimize based on real world results. Those who quit after the first try will never see how useful gamification can be for pushing you to new levels.
Want help with your new system? Simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (my personal inbox). My goal is to make you more effective at achieving your goals, so any and all feedback is welcome.
Jon Guerrera blogs about the unique intersection of goals, games and technology, and how they apply to personal development. You can reach him on his blog, Living For Improvement, or on Twitter (@jonguerrera).