Perhaps you want to know what makes this new personal development / productivity blog different from other blogs in the same niche. After all, there are lots of them, and there are surely very good ones out there. So, what’s this blog good for? Does it just add more shallow noise to the web?
Life Gamification Is The Unique Key Approach To Become Unrestricted!
For most of my life I have been a passionate computer gamer. Whereas I could play computer games for whole days easily, I found it rather difficult to motivate myself to learn or work for more than a few hours – especially if there was no external pressure and I really didn’t have to do it. Although I really wanted to do more, I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t get things done to improve my life in a proactive fashion. Even though I thought there’s nothing that could stop me from learning more and do more creative work, in reality it looked like was trying to do something that was just impossible to me.
After years of rather mediocre studying efforts, this failure to control my life even pulled me into a depressive crises – and then another one! What really rescued me from my last depression was reading self-help books – the right ones! I started with books like these:
- Feeling Good by David D. Burns.
- Getting Things Done by David Allen.
- The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris.
While reading those books helped me a lot and dissolved my crisis, I went further and adapted their systems to my own purposes. As relatively creative person I didn’t implement those systems exactly as they were described in the books, but took those ideas and created a rather fancy productivity system around them.
Game Mechanics in Kongregate and Chore Wars
To understand what I’ve done, you need to know that I was inspired by the flash game platform Kongregate and the browser game Chore Wars. On Kongregate you earn badges and points for completing certain achievements in games.
In Chore Wars you can define your own adventures or use predefined ones, like seen below. You can join a party or create one yourself. Within a party you can compete with other players. Chore Wars uses some game mechanics like experience points, character levels, player status, random events and random rewards to turn boring everyday activities into fun.
Bringing It Down To The Achievement Point System
My system I devised out of all these inspirational sources was relatively simple: I simply granted myself 1 or 2 achievement points for every 15 minutes of doing productive activities. Then I just tried to increase my weekly achievement point scores over time. To get a better picture of my progress, I entered my data into a spreadsheet and created a graph from it:
As you can see, my scores were fluctuating a lot, but there was a clear upwards trend. Averaging over a period of 4 weeks each made this trend much better visible:
Not all of this increase in achievement points was due to increased activity. Later on, I’ve also given myself additional points for completing daily challenges and sticking to schedule. These bonus points made up between 10% and 50% of my whole weekly score. So, I use the achievement point system both as measure of my performance, as well as means to motivate myself.
Introducing: Life Gamification
One example for life gamification is my achievement point system. I use it to focus on that what is important to me, by attaching points to that what is important to me. This additional “game layer” works as a motivation hack, so that I feel driven to do even the hardest and most unpleasant tasks, instead of procrastinating until I go mad.
As seen above, my achievement point system is not the only way to add a game layer to life. Chore Wars does this, too. Life can be gamified in many different ways, so let’s take a look on what gamification actually is.
What Is Gamification?
Where do you look for when you want to learn about a new word? Google and Wikipedia are the canonical places to look for in our current age. Wikipedia writes this about gamification (emphasis by me):
Gamification is the use of game play mechanics for non-game applications (also known as “funware”), particularly consumer-oriented web and mobile sites, in order to encourage people to adopt the applications. It also strives to encourage users to engage in desired behaviors in connection with the applications. Gamification works by making technology more engaging, and by encouraging desired behaviors, taking advantage of humans’ psychological predisposition to engage in gaming. The technique can encourage people to perform chores that they ordinarily consider boring, such as completing surveys, shopping, or reading web sites.
That’s a very abstract definition of what is meant by gamification. The term gets clearer if we take a look at some of the techniques for gamification that Wikipedia mentions (again emphasis by me):
- achievement “badges”
- achievement levels
- “leader boards”
- a progress bar or other visual meter to indicate how close people are to completing a task a company is trying to encourage, such as completing a social networking profile or earning a frequent shopper loyalty award.
- virtual currency
- systems for awarding, redeeming, trading, gifting, and otherwise exchanging points
- challenges between users
- embedding small casual games within other activities.
Gamification mainly seems to come down to implementing a system based on points given to players for clearly defined actions. Once you have that system, you can calculate a score for each player and compare those scores. Most of the rest is just additional motivational candy.
Take the bookmarking service Licorize, which I really recommend by the way, as example. Licorize rewards its users for all kinds of activity by increasing their score. There are two high score lists: A global one and one for the last 7 days. In theory, this setup grants additional motivation to use Licorize every day. At the very least, it shows that the makers of Licorize really appreciate users who use their service very actively.
Why Gamify Life?
Now, normally the term gamification refers to services that are used my many different persons. But it’s also possible to apply gamification to a “single-player” setting. Gamifying your own life is possible, if you introduce a point system in which you grant yourself points for doing various activities you want or need to do. My achievement point system is one example for this.
But what’s the purpose of this form of life gamification? Well, the main purpose is to provide an external motivational framework that adds up to your usual motivation (if it already exists, that is). If you don’t have a sufficient level of motivation to do a task, you are likely to procrastinate. In that light, life gamification is an antidote to procrastination. Adding an extra layer of fun to something you don’t really like, turns it into an enjoyable action.
The key to gamifying life is to turn all your disliked activities into games. Once you have done that, it gets likely that you spend almost the whole day in a state of flow. Your productivity will increase dramatically as a result of doing the things that really move your forward in life, while living in the current moment.
So far, we could say that ideally life is a game. Why didn’t I use that as title for this post? Well, experimenting is a crucial aspect of personal development. This blog isn’t just about fun, but rather about personal development, spiced up with an additional layer of fun. But how does experimenting and life gamification fit together? Let me first show you how experimenting can help you to improve yourself.
The Experimental Method Applied To Personal Development
Suppose you want to be happier, more productive, or just want to get out of bed earlier. How would you try to reach your goal? This is an important question, as there are different methods for reaching your objective. First of all, let’s assume that you really want to change and also already have an idea about what to do get closer to your goal. Let’s call the technique, which you think might help, T. Now, you can formulate the following hypothesis: “If I do T, I will finally reach my goal.”
Starting from this point, there are basically two different methods to go on: There’s the experimental method, and there is another approach which I call the try harder method.
The Try Harder Method
No matter what you want to do, be it dieting, getting rid of addictions, exercising, or just trying to work harder; we all have to deal with the problem that it costs a lot of effort to reach those goals. Often, we simply fail, which shows that reaching our goals is really a difficult task. Too often, we might catch ourselves being just too lazy and not sticking to our strict self-chosen regimes. In those cases we are likely to attribute our failure to our “insufficient effort”. We think we will be more successful, if we just try harder.
Essentially, the result of this approach is the following method of trying to fix the problem:
- According to your hypothesis, if you did T, you would have been successful. You also believe in your hypothesis for now.
- You have tried T and failed. You have not been successful, so, according to your hypothesis, you didn’t really do T (but just attempted to do T). Otherwise you would have been successful after all, right?
- The next conclusion is clear: You must try harder to do T!
- You try harder to do T and possibly are really successful. But it’s very likely that you will fail again. In that case, go back to step 1.
As a result, you may try harder and harder, but not reach your goal regardless. During the whole process you never question your initial hypothesis. And exactly that’s the problem! Now, let’s see how the experimental method would work.
The Experimental Method
Characteristic for the experimental method is that you test your hypothesis! Classically, you would set up an experiment to see whether doing T is effective for reaching your goal, or not. If you want to be rigorous, you repeat the experiment many times to be on the safe side. If you even want to be scientific you make a study in which you select a group of people who are all supposed to try T to reach the same goal, measure their success, and check their compliance to doing T. Finally, you would do a statistic analysis of the data to make a statement like “with more than 95% probability the hypothesis is true”.
Studies are difficult and expensive, so most of us need to do single-person experiments. Quantified Self is a blog which is dedicated to such self-experiments. If you want to do your experiments the right way, check out that blog!
In the area of personal development, things may be especially difficult, because you might fail due to not doing T the way you intended to do it, mostly because of procrastination or general distractions. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to modify the initial hypothesis “If I do T, I will finally reach my goal.” It is replaced by “If I try to do T, I will finally reach my goal.” The new version of the hypothesis has the advantage that is can be tested reliably, and is not prone to what I call the try harder fallacy, which could leave you in the vicious cycle of the ineffective try harder method.
Here’s how this experimental method could look like in practice:
- You start with the hypothesis “If I try to do T, I will finally reach my goal.” Good periods for testing this hypothesis are one week or 30 days, for example.
- In case of success, you are happy. But if you fail, you need to admit that your hypothesis has been falsified. So, it’s time to come up with a different hypothesis.
- You look for an alternative way to reach your goal. Say, you name your new technique T2, then you set up the hypothesis “If I try to do T2, I will finally reach my goal.”
- Now, you need to test the new hypothesis. Go back to step one and replace T with T2.
In the end, the experimental method is much more likely to lead to final success than the try harder method. You might even need to go to T10000 before you finally reach your goal, but if you do it right, you will find something that works fine. Here, “doing it right” refers to the experimental method itself, rather than applying any kind of special technique. Keep in mind the famous words of Thomas Edison:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
But how to combine this form of experimentation with life gamification? Well, that’s not so easy. First of all, the above process of the experimental method is a bit simplified. So, let’s go more into depth here.
The Experimental Method For Personal Development Done Right
For applying the experimental method, your goals need to be measurable. You need to be able to tell whether you have already achieved your goal or not. If you want to become rich, define what you need in order to be rich. Do you need 100,000$ or 500,000$ to call yourself rich? Or do you rather want to be able to travel the world and own a yacht and a house with 7 bedrooms? Be specific about what you want exactly! Otherwise you will never know whether you have arrived at your destination, or not.
Ideally, you would be able to quantify what you want. If you want to lose weight, you can specify how much you want to lose, or what your desired target weight is. Happiness is harder to quantify. You would need to introduce a subjective happiness score. Even if it might seem strange, a happiness score is much better than nothing. And it’s usually more reliable than outward signs of happiness, like income, social status, number of friends, and so on.
For example, you can start with a very unspecific goal like “I want to be happy.” Then you need to think about what that actually means to you, so that you can set up a score, which you track daily or weekly. Every day I write down my achievement points, which are a rough measure of my personal performance. But the really relevant periods of time are weeks or months, because daily fluctuations are just too extreme, and can be quite distressing if taken too seriously.
2. Research How To Reach Your Goals
What can you do to reach your goals? First of all, you need to find out about methods which are likely to work. A first approach would be to use methods which have worked for others. There has been some research about how to reach your goals the best way. As starting point I would suggest reading the Less Wrong article Scientific Self-Help: The State of Our Knowledge and the book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson – it’s seriously one of the very best books out there.
Depending on your goal, it is advisable to learn more about subjects that are related to your goal. If you want to be healthy and lose some weight, you could learn more about nutrition. A must-read book about nutrition is The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II. Reading it could save your life!
In general, it is a very good idea to read the very best books about your topic of interest. It’s not an easy task to identify those. If you have no clue which books could be the best ones, just check out the most popular ones. Other sources of information, though usually not as comprehensive and well presented as books, are Wikipedia, Google, and topic oriented blogs.
3. Write Down Your Experiment
Finally, you need to decide on your own which methods you want to try. Pick a popular method, or invent your own one. Now, you need to write down how that method works. Take a sheet of paper or a digital document, and write down what you want to do exactly. Also, it would be helpful to think about what you will do, if you run into specific problems. Will you adhere to your regime no matter what, or do you want to be flexible? If you decide to be flexible, in which way will you be flexible?
When will you end your experiment? Do you try it for a fixed period of time? Will you abort it, if you reach your goal before the end of that time? Or will you abort it, if something really nasty happens? These are important questions. Thinking about them in-depth could increase your chances of success.
Also, you need to decide what you want to measure exactly. If you want to gain more insights into yourself, you could measure several variables at once. For example, you could measure your income and your subjective happiness to find out whether there’s a relation between both. Once both values are quantified, you can calculate their correlation – for example with this online correlation calculator.
The correlation between two variables, say X and Y, is a number between -1 and 1 which may indicate that there’s some kind of relation between those variables. Expressed very sloppily, a positive correlation means the two variables “like” each other, while a negative correlation mean they “dislike” each other. A simple example for positive correlation is net income and gross income (if one of them is high, the other if probably high, too). The speed of your internet connection and the time your browser takes to load an average website are negatively correlated (a low loading time obviously means you have a fast connection).
By computing the correlation between my unhappiness (as measured with the Burns Depression Checklist) and the number of hours I used for productive activities, I found out that they are weakly negatively correlated, with a correlation of about -0.2. This result may indicate that being productive makes me feel less bad, but only a little bit. It definitely means that I can be productive, even if I feel unhappy and unmotivated.
4. Focus On Your Experiment
Do not try to do many experiments at once. And do not make your experiments complicated. Stick to your initial experimental layout and do not try to change anything until the experiment is over. Of course, if you fail terribly and very soon, you may abort your current experiment and try a different one. The purpose of experimenting is to gain knowledge. But you really need to stick to a systematic approach to gain reliable knowledge.
Remind yourself every day that you are doing an experiment. Take a look at the document you have written down in the last step to see what you need to do. Feel like a scientist, if it helps you. In fact, you do personal science. Read the article Personal Development, Self-Experiments, and the Future of Search on Quantified Self for getting some inspiration about how personal science could improve our lives.
5. Track Your Progress
Actually, the most important step in this whole process is to track your progress during the experiment. Measure all the variables you decided to capture. Ideally, do that daily, or even more often, if you wish to. Enter your data into a spreadsheet, for example in Google Docs. That way, you can also create diagrams of your own progress easily.
Using spreadsheets also has the advantage of making it easy to compute correlation coefficients quickly. The usual command for computing correlations in a data set in a spreadsheet is CORREL. For example, if you measure your coffee consumption in column B and the number of words you have written for your blog or book in column C, and have data in rows 2 to 31, then CORREL(B2:B31,C2:C31) will compute the correlation between your coffee consumption and your word count.
Again, I recommend tracking your data daily. Reconstructing your data from memory doesn’t work nearly as well as writing down your data as soon as possible.
6. Review And Analyze Your Results
Once you have finished your experiment, you need to do something with all that data you have collected. Create graphs, compute all interesting correlations, and interpret them. Graphs are easy to interpret. If they move into the desired direction, your approach seems to help. If not, you need to try something else.
Correlations are more difficult to interpret. They can only hint at causation, but there’s no clear way of telling whether your interpretation is right. Just because rain and clouds are correlated doesn’t mean that rain causes clouds (except if you reverse the direction of time). Often correlations occur, because there is a common cause for both measured variables. For example, if you measure your weight and your happiness and they are negatively correlated, that doesn’t have to mean that happiness causes weight loss, or weight loss causes happiness. You could very well have just done a lot of exercise which made you both happy and slim.
Be aware that big correlations also can occur for variables which don’t have any meaningful relation with each other. Such a correlation would just be the result of pure chance. So, use some common sense to interpret your results. If you get weird and intriguing results, repeat the experiment to see whether your results can be reproduced.
7. Tweak Your Methods
If your experiment turned out to be a failure, just try something else. Don’t try to try harder! Read more about alternative methods to reach your goal, or modify your own approach.
I tweak my schedule on a weekly basis to find out how that affects my performance. That has been one of the main drivers which have facilitated the increase in my achievement point scores.
How different your next approach is to your last approach may depend on the success of the approach you have just tested. If it turned out to be complete junk, try something radically different – you may even try to do the exact opposite, even if it sounds crazy! For example, deliberately spending more time on rather useless activities could increase my overall productivity a lot, even if that sounds counter-intuitive.
Once you have found a method that works reasonably well, stick to it and only test small modifications of it to improve it further.
Life Is An Experimental Game
How can gamification and experimentation be combined harmonically? You could say that doing experiments can be so much fun that you see them as games in themselves. On the other hand, you could gamify the experimentation procedure and collect points for doing experiments correctly. There are many ways to combine both paradigms synergistically, but it’s a good idea to consider the different purposes of both general ideas first.
Different Paradigms, Different Purposes
Creating additional motivation is the main purpose of gamification. Scientific rigor is not necessary there. Experimentation however aims to increase your knowledge about yourself and the world and requires at least a mildly systematic approach. Both paradigms are compatible in principle, even though they can clash with each other sometimes.
Problems can occur if you use a score both for motivational purposes and as variable you want to optimize and experiment with. For giving optimal motivation, you could implement all kinds of bonuses that increase your score. One example for this is the XP system in Task XP, a gamification app for task management apps on Android.
Increasing your “Efficiency” skill in that game helps you to gain more experience points (XPs) for finishing a single task. So, taking your XP score as a measure for your productivity wouldn’t be a good idea. When using game mechanics for increasing your motivation, be careful not to distort the measurements you are making in your experiments.
My achievement point system is an example of a system with dual use. It can help me to get focused and motivated, and I also use it to measure my performance. Therefore, I need to take care that what I give myself points for does really count to my performance in some meaningful sense.
Directing Your Own Behavior With Game Mechanics
In principle, I could use ridiculously high bonus scores to boost my motivation for doing any action I can think of. Unfortunately, it would distort my scores terribly, so I don’t do that. What I actually do is to set a daily challenge for every day. Finishing a daily challenge is worth as much as 6 hours of usual work, so most of the time I’m sufficiently motivated to work on them. These challenges actually are productive, difficult, and important tasks; so it’s a meaningful measure of my performance whether I can finish them or not.
Building a game framework around your tasks is a tricky way to direct your behavior towards valuable activities you find rather uninspiring. You could start with calling your tasks adventures or missions. Think about all the experience points you will gain on your dangerous adventure! Level up your character skills by defeating your fears!
Warning: Game Mechanics Modify Your Motivation
Using game mechanics for increasing your motivation can have undesired effects. Actions which aren’t supported by game mechanics can lose their appeal to you, because they don’t have the extra motivation boost attached to them. You can either accept that, or you can build game mechanics around all activities you are interested in. Doing the latter is a bit extreme, but it’s well possible to do so, if you create sufficiently general categories of actions you give yourself points for.
Doesn’t Gamification Decrease Intrinsic Motivation?
From the definition of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on Wikipedia it is not perfectly clear whether life gamification counts as intrinsic or extrinsic motivation:
Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on any external pressure. [...] Explanations of intrinsic motivation have been given in the context of Fritz Heider’s attribution theory, Bandura’s work on self-efficacy, and Deci and Ryan’s cognitive evaluation theory (see self-determination theory). Students are likely to be intrinsically motivated if they:
- attribute their educational results to internal factors that they can control (e.g. the amount of effort they put in),
- believe they can be effective agents in reaching desired goals (i.e. the results are not determined by luck),
- are interested in mastering a topic, rather than just rote-learning to achieve good grades.
Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of the individual. Common extrinsic motivations are rewards like money and grades, coercion and threat of punishment. Competition is in general extrinsic because it encourages the performer to win and beat others, not to enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the activity. A crowd cheering on the individual and trophies are also extrinsic incentives.
Social psychological research has indicated that extrinsic rewards can lead to overjustification and a subsequent reduction in intrinsic motivation. In one study demonstrating this effect, children who expected to be (and were) rewarded with a ribbon and a gold star for drawing pictures spent less time playing with the drawing materials in subsequent observations than children who were assigned to an unexpected reward condition and to children who received no extrinsic reward.
Self-determination theory proposes that extrinsic motivation can be internalised by the individual if the task fits with their values and beliefs and therefore helps to fulfill their basic psychological needs.
How do self-defined game mechanics fit into this scheme if they are used to generate motivation towards an action that you aren’t intrinsically motivated to do at all? They neither fit the classical descriptions of intrinsic nor extrinsic motivation. Nevertheless, they may be closer to intrinsic motivation, because they are self-chosen, and do not restrict your autonomy. You are free to decide to stop playing your own game. Nobody else has control over you in this setup.
In this light, it would be a wrong conclusion to predict that life gamification will decrease your intrinsic motivation for those activities you apply game mechanics to. Only certain kinds of extrinsic motivation have been shown to have adverse effects on long-term motivation. For an overview over some arguments against classical gamification see the post Gamification Backlash Roundup on The Ludologist.
These results and arguments can’t simply be transferred to the new concept of life gamification. On the contrary, life gamification can be used to train yourself on activities you aren’t really in the mood to do. In due time, this will increase your skill and competence levels for those activities. In general, doing things you are good at is more fun than doing things you are bad at; so, in the end, life gamification can be used to create authentic intrinsic motivation.
In the case that you want to play a DIY scientist, you could start your own experiments on the question whether life gamification can decrease long-term motivation or not.
The Big Picture Of Life
Turning your life into a kind of game is well possible. However, you need to be clear about whether you just want to have a good time with that game, or whether you want to win at it. For the former, you just need to apply some gamification techniques to your own life. Make it an adventure! Define your main mission objective and rock the house! But if you desire the latter, you would profit from spicing up your life with some experiments, and from reading The Science of Winning at Life on LessWrong.
Don’t think this is an either or choice. You can as well be successful and have a lot of fun at the same time! And doing experiments can be great fun and very exciting.
But that’s actually not what I mean when I write that life is an experimental game. What this means, is that life isn’t a completely finished game with fixed goals and rules. You can change the goals and rules of your own life! Even better: You can use the experimental method to do so in the best way possible. Try out different goals and find out which ones suit you best. Be flexible and test different hypotheses!
Life is quite an open-ended game. There’s no definite thing in life which you have to do and then you stop. You can always set new goals, test new methods, try different activities. Do experiment a lot to get the most out of life! That is the meaning of life – as an experimental game!
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