My brain is stupid. It thinks I can get done tomorrow what I need to do today, and that I can do this afternoon what I need to do this morning. It puts everything off. It’s why present me always resents past me – even as present me dumps work on future me.
Like I said: stupid. But motivation is a curious thing. Some days I’m perfectly willing to spend hours pursuing virtual treasure in a game, but can’t seem to motivate myself to write an article. Why are video games so good at keeping me captivated? Part of the reason is that video games offer achievable goals, and show me how to reach them. Even more importantly: there’s usually some kind of reward, intangible as it may be. My stupid brain reacts to that – which is why I’ll take Link across Hyrule Field 20 times to deliver masks but won’t want to take out the garbage.
Harnessing that power to train my brain outside of a video game is called gamification, but will it work for a mind as distractible as mine? It’s something I’ve been wondering since I discovered HabitRPG, which aims to make improving yourself addictive. I’ve been using HabitRPG as my primary to-do list since January. Does it work? Here’s what I discovered.
HabitRPG: A Primer
HabitRPG, at first glance, doesn’t look different from your standard to-do list. And it really isn’t, except for the pixelated character and the HP (health) and XP (experience) bars:
The four columns below this – Habits, Dailies, Todos and Rewards – are the heart of the gameplay. The first three help or hinder my character – bad habits reduce my HP, good habits increase my XP. In-game currency can be used to purchase in-game rewards (like a shiny new sword) or out-of-game rewards (like a half hour of TV during a workday).
How did these various features help me? Let’s go over them, and how they fit in my workflow.
Dailies: The Killer Feature
There are certain things I need to do, every day – like watering the plants, or cleaning out my inbox. And there are other things I want to do, every day – like working out, or responding to at least 10 comments on this site. HabitRPG provides a column called “Dailies” for this – and it’s probably my favorite part of the service. In one place, I can mark all of the things I want to accomplish every day, and HabitRPG motivates me to actually follow-through. Here’s my personal list:
You’ll notice the different colors – these reflect how I’ve been keeping up with that particular daily task. I want to write a personal journal entry every day, for example, because I know doing so would improve my writing. Yet I’ve rarely made the time recently – so the task turns orange.
This means I’ll lose more HP every day I miss the daily, which in turn encourages me to do things I’ve been neglecting. Such dailies also reward me more: I get extra XP and gold when I fulfill them. The idea is to encourage me to prioritize the things I’m currently ignoring, and I find it’s been working. Some daily tasks have become such a habit for me I’ve removed them from the app altogether, while others remain a struggle. Knowing I’ll get a big XP boost from those dailies gives me a little bit of extra push, and I’m fairly certain I’d have given up on my journal entirely without that push. Some dailies, like my word count goal of 1500, make it more likely that I’ll also completely my todo list – more on that later.
Another powerful feature is Streaks. Every consecutive day I complete a daily this counter goes up, giving me incentive to keep up good habits. Knowing I’ve done something for 20 straight days, without fail, gives me incentive to keep doing it.
How has it worked? Some things I never did before, like exercise, have simply become part of my day. Others, like writing a journal entry, I’ve gotten much better at – or at the very least feel guilty about. So I’d call this column a win.
The Gamification-Style Todo List
I learned one thing quickly after using HabitRPG for a while: it’s not an ideal app for storing every single tasks you hope to accomplish someday. The reason for this is simple: your character will die. A lot. The longer you put off a task the more HP it costs you every day you don’t fulfill it, meaning having a lot of long-neglected tasks isn’t really an option.
It sounds annoying, sure, but for me it’s become a feature: I only put tasks on the list if I expect to accomplish them that day. Tasks I don’t get around to quickly linger, slowly turning red – and hurting my character every day.
So I begin each day by figuring out what I want to accomplish, thinking about whether I actually can accomplish them. Then I get to work. The simple act of working out what it is I want to do helps immensely – and the lingering tasks hurting my character means I rarely put something off indefinitely. I’ve routinely written more than is required of me since adapting this system, and have managed to get MakeUseOf’s manual project under control (something I’ve struggled with for a long time).
So, in review: I only add tasks I think I can accomplish the day I add them, and I do all I can every day to follow through. The threat of my character dying has made me think realistically about what I can accomplish in a day, which ultimately leads to me setting and following through on realistic goals. This is far more than I can say about my experiences with Remember The Milk or Wunderlist – some tasks would linger in that app for months unfulfilled. With HabitRPG, I usually accomplish everything on my list every day.
(Except fixing that damn SSD. There’s a firmware update I need in order to upgrade OS X, and there’s no way to apply it on my Mac – oh how I’ve tried. So I need to pull the thing out and plug it into my PC and I just can’t be bothered so I can’t update OS X until I do and that’s why that task is red, argh!).
Habits: Still Not Sure How to Use This…
The first column, Habits, is what I’m mentioning third. The idea behind it is simple – pick a habit for yourself, and reward yourself for staying true and punish yourself for not. The default example, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, is clear enough – but I’ve had trouble thinking of uses for this column.
I’ve ended up using this column for things I wish I did, but I find that I rarely actually get around to clicking either way. I’m not sure this is the fault of HabitRPG – I just don’t get around to actually using this. Maybe I should set a habit for actually marking my habits… wait, that wouldn’t work…
I find myself wishing this column was more automated. And part of it is: there’s a Chrome extension for HabitRPG [No Longer Available]. This punishes me for lingering on sites like Facebook and Reddit, and rewards me for hanging out in productive places like MakeUseOf. Let me tell you: the threat of character death keeps me off Reddit like no other force I’ve known. Sure, I could buy a potion to delay deathy, but I want to keep that in-game money for other things.
This part is just cool. As I accomplish dailies, establish good habits and complete tasks, I earn coins. These can be use to purchase in-game items, such as potions and armor:
I can set up rewards that are outside the game as well – a half hour of TV during a work day, for example. The idea is that I’m rewarding myself for hard work, though I’ll admit I’ve mostly stuck to the in-game rewards (love my golden sword).
On top of this, I sometimes win an Egg or a Potion after completing a task. These are randomly dropped when I do something good, and I’m always thrilled when they do. I combing an egg and a potion hatch creatures. These pets don’t actually do anything (yet), but it’s been so much fun collecting them:
Anyone who’s spent time playing an MMRPG knows how powerful random drops can be for motivation, and this clever function harnesses that. I’ll admit it – sometimes I’ll work a little longer in the hopes of getting a fox egg.
I love the foxes, you guys. Love.
Conclusion: Tricking My Stupid Brain
Is it dumb that my brain can be motivated with just the promise of virtual points, pets, and products? Yes.
Is that how my brain works? Apparently.
Integrating HabitRPG into my work life allowed me to get far ahead enough with my writing to take 4 weeks off, which I used to travel Singapore, Malaysia and The Netherlands. I didn’t miss one deadline, and a month after those trips I’m now one week ahead of my deadlines all over again. Looking back, I’m not sure I could have done that without the structure HabitRPG provided.
But it’s not just that – I’ve been writing journal entires with some consistency. Kathy (my wife) needs to remind me less of things I need to do, because I’ve got a system. I’m becoming more of the person I want to be, and HabitRPG has helped me to do that. It feels great.
It’s not magic: HabitRPG only really works if you apply yourself to it. It only works if you adapt yourself to its way of thinking, and are actually honest about the things you’ve accomplished. For me, however, it’s worth doing – and I’m not going to stop using the service.
Of course, HabitRPG isn’t the only system out there: James outlined 3 gamification tools to make your life better. Check those out if HabitRPG isn’t right for you, or leave any other recommendations in the comments below.
Do you think gamification will work for you? Let me know in the comments below, and feel free to ask me anything you want about my experience. I’m looking forward to it.