Gamify Your Life: A Guide To Incentivising Everything

Going to the gym for an hour is two red points. Calling my mum is one blue point while calling Aunt Deborah is five blue points, because, honestly, Aunt Deb is sort of a pain to talk to and sometimes she says crazy things. Cleaning the bathroom is 15 red points, otherwise I would never do it. This is the plan to gamify my life, to relate everything I do to a point-based game.

Image remixed from grafvision, Ispace (Shutterstock) and psdGraphics.

It’s a self-designed system that operates along a daily exchange of productivity and reward. The basic idea is that I fill my life with incentives to make me do the crap I usually don’t want to do. So far it’s working out splendidly.

A draft beer costs three red points. A new shirt varies, but is generally about 20 red points, 25 blue points and 15 green points. The goal is to make gamification fun! And to help me overcome an at times crippling predilection for procrastination, something that I’ve tried to solve by reading millions of self-help books and creating endless to-do lists, all to no use. Now with gamification, if I want to do something indulgent, I need to do something sucky first. I’m still fine tuning the process. Here’s how it works:

1. Identify all the tasks you don’t like doing. Identify all the stuff you enjoy doing. For instance, I hate ironing my dress shirts while I love drinking fancy coffee.

2. Assign these various tasks and stuff point values. To better organise this system, I’ve created three separate point categories. Red for “general health and life”, blue for “tedious obligations” and green for “job-related responsibilities”.

I’ve tried to be inventive in how this works. For instance, taking a short shower is eight red points minus the number of minutes I’m in the shower. If my shower lasts more than eight minutes, I start losing points I’ve already accrued. This is necessary because I’m the kind of person who will stay in the shower for a lifetime, forever lathering, rinsing and repeating. I double my points for exercise if I do it as soon as I wake up since generally I think this makes me more productive for the rest of the day. And so on.

3. Base the rewards, like drinking a beer or dining at a restaurant, on what you think is reasonable. The rewards should be easy to earn to keep you on the rove and accruing points.

4. Track everything. This is easier and more fun than you’d think. While there’s not yet a gamified iPhone app, it’s easy to do with any kind of spreadsheet setup, especially if you use colour coding.

5. Modify the point values as needed. Operate out of necessity. We’ve all got that one chore we really hate doing, so it’s helpful to supercharge this chore with reward points. The key is to having a practical balance between the psychological effort required to do a task and the resultant incentive. In the past, I’ve never cleaned my bathroom. I’ve always thought “I’ll clean the bathroom next time.” Therefore, cleaning the bathroom is 15 red points. That’s five beers, a totally worthwhile exchange.

6. Have success weeks and milestone prizes. Like any game, you need zesty goals. These are long-term benchmarks that keep me engaged in gamification. While a lot of my gamified life happens at the daily point level, in the long run I want to develop habits, so I’ll clean my bathroom once a week and actually floss my teeth. I use long-term benchmarks — such as exercising at least three times a week for three months — to build on. These benchmarks get bigger rewards, like a weekend trip or grandiose piece of outerwear.

Eventually, I want these daily positive behaviours to be ingrained and to only pursue important benchmark goals. I got the idea for all this from Gabe Zichermann, one of the world’s top gamification experts. When I first heard about Zichermann I assumed he was a foppish shill. But he seems pretty cordial and has produced a bunch of engaging web videos about gamification, which has its origins in marketing. The basic idea behind gamification is that games are inherently more engaging, rewarding, and fun. The gamification system encourages positive behaviour and constant involvement through winning incentives. And I like winning. I want my life to be more like Mario’s in Super Mario Bros 3.

Recently, I challenged friends to a Gamified Week, where we use the same scale to see who can get the most points. There would be a trophy-ish prize for whoever won, a prize along the lines of many beers. So far my friends have dismissed this challenge because they say gamification is silly. Really, they are fearful of getting wrecked.

Gamification isn’t for everyone. If you’re already one of those Type A personalities, someone who flosses regularly and sticks to your P-90X schedule and doesn’t let the dirty dishes grow mountainously in your sink, then there’s no need. But if you’re like me, if at times you procrastinate, if at times you set simple goals that you fail to achieve, then give gamification a try. You’ll be winning in no time.

Alex Kalamaroff is 25 years old and lives in Boston. He works for Boston Public Schools. If you shoot him an email, he’ll probably respond.

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