I’ve been messing around with Habitica for a while. It’s a website that allows you to “gamify” your life, enabling you to reward yourself for maintaining good habits, and punish yourself for continuing bad habits. It essentially changes your life into a game (hence: gamification), in an attempt to inject fun into the mundane task of maintaining your own body.
The more I’ve used the site, the more I keep giving up on it. It almost feels like it doesn’t work. Yet I keep coming back to it. It’s as if my subconscious mind is telling me that this can work if I just apply it right. The more I’ve used the site, the more I’ve used it wrong. And in doing so I’ve developed a few methods to make better use of the site.
I’m going to throw in a caveat here: this is what seems to work for me. And I still don’t think I’ve got it 100% right. If you want to get into gamification, or are looking for ways to improve your use of gamification, don’t consider this article a list of hard and fast rules. Consider it more, “hey this worked for me, it might work for you too.” At the end of the day we are all unique, and the same techniques won’t work for everyone.
Anyway, onto the things that work for me.
Thing 1: Use Difficulty Effectively
Difficulty in Habitica is really important and should be thought about for every Habit, Daily and To Do. There are four difficulties in Habitica, and this is how I use them:
- Trivial: I use this for tasks that I think will take less than a minute or two. I generally don’t use this, unless I have a To Do that is more like a reminder to do something, well, trivial.
- Easy: I use this for tasks that will take a short amount of time (around a half hour or less). Tasks like these I’ll tend to be motivated towards doing anyway.
- Medium: Tasks like these will usually take around an hour or longer. Most tasks should be set to this difficulty.
- Hard: These tasks are more involved, taking a long time and may even take multiple days. I also use this difficulty for tasks I find it hard to get motivated for.
Applying this idea to my tasks has allowed me to find a good balance between rewards and productivity.
Thing 2: Keep Rewards Simple
Rewards should be very simple.
They should be things you generally procrastinate with. Good examples are playing video games, or watching a TV series or a movie.
They should all cost the same. I set mine at 10 gold and just leave it at that. This way you don’t feel like one reward costs more than the other – when you want or need a break you can choose anything you want, not just the things you can afford. It also means you don’t feel like you have to miss out on one thing in order to do another.
They should never involve your social life at all. If they might, your social life should be an exception. As an example, one of my rewards is to watch a movie. I don’t count watching a movie with my girlfriend as one of those rewards. If you end up neglecting social engagements with friends and loved ones to focus on gamification, not only is it a bit weird, it also means your life will get worse as you start to miss out on your social life. It completely defeats the entire purpose, so don’t put “Go to pub with mates” as one of your rewards.
Don’t time your rewards. Don’t have “1 hour video games” as a reward. Just have “Play a video game”. The point of this is that a reward isn’t fun if you are constantly clock watching. If you need a break, take the break and pay for it. A break needs to be relaxing, and forcing you to do everything within an exact amount of time adds stress because you keep focusing on when the break will end. On the flipside don’t be too lax – I generally play a level, watch a movie, whatever and after what I feel is about an hour or so I’ll check the time again. If I feel I’m ready to be productive again, I’ll jump back in.
Actual Tip: Balancing Rewards vs Productivity
The reason I’ve put these two at the top here is because this is the number one thing that has caused me to fail when using Habitica: balancing productivity and rewards.
On one end of the scale you have tasks that don’t reward enough, and rewards that cost too much. You end up realising you have to complete several habits just to be able to watch that one Youtube video you really want to watch, and you’ve already done so much today. It starts to feel too hard and you end up giving up on the whole thing and going back to the loop you were trying to break out of.
On the other end of the scale tasks reward too much, and the rewards are too cheap. You end up thinking you can just procrastinate because you’ve done enough, and when that happens it’s too easy to fall back into an unproductive loop.
The trick is to find a balance between the two. It’s not an exact science and each person will find their own way to achieve this, but you need to both avoid becoming too overwhelmed, and becoming too lazy. It’s a tough one to break, and while I don’t believe gamification can solve this problem, it can at least give you a tool to manage and monitor these things.
And if I’m completely honest – this is much easier to preach. I still don’t think I’ve got it right myself yet.
Thing 3: Don’t Punish Yourself
I don’t like negative feedback. The more I get, the close I get into a negative feedback loop. Let’s say I’m in a rush one day, need a quick meal, so I grab a burger. I already feel bad about eating the burger, but now I have to also remind myself to punish myself on Habitica. It seems small, but it’s still a little extra on top of what you already have. When those ‘little extras’ start piling up it can weigh you down. So for me personally, I don’t have any negative habits.
But what if I want to stop eating fast food? Instead I have a positive task for cooking/preparing food at home, and/or a task for choosing a healthy place to eat. When I do these things I am not eating fast food and I am getting positive feedback for doing so.
Some things can be trickier. What about smoking? One thing is encouraging yourself to do more cardio workouts. You’ll quickly notice an improvement when you don’t smoke. Another way is to reward the positive behaviour: create a habit for not smoking each day. It’s subtle, but losing out on a reward is better than receiving an extra punishment.
Thing 4: Lists in Descriptions are Fine
It’s perfectly fine to have lists of things that count in a task. I have a cleaning rota which I keep in my Daily so I know to do at least one thing every day. Having a huge list of habits can be exhausting to maintain – sometimes habits should be generalised. A habit that says “Clean/Tidy Something” with a list of examples in the description is much better than having 20 tasks for each thing you could clean/tidy.
Another advantage of thinking of this as examples is that if you do something that isn’t listed, you can still count it as a completed task. Remember, positive feedback is what we are after here, as this will encourage you to keep going.
Thing 5: Break everything into Spheres
The previous things are really there to lay the groundwork. Now we are finally getting into the meat of the thing: How I actually use Habitica.
When I was at Burning Man I attended a great presentation on how one person managed to improve her life. Part of her technique was to do four things a day based on four aspects of her life. This would be something I would eventually apply to Habitica’s gamification.
The root of my technique is to break down everything into spheres. These spheres should be as generic as possible, and there should be around 4 or 5 of them. Too few and it’s either too generic or won’t cover anything, too many and you will end up being bogged down in details. One thing to remember is that gamification should be an aid to your normal life, not something that consumes it.
To demonstrate, here are the 5 spheres I decided to apply:
- Body – Anything to do with physical health such as exercise or diet.
- Environment – Anything to do with maintaining my living space. Mostly a cleaning rota
- Creativity – Anything to do with making something new – art, blogging, new games, music
- Learning – Anything to do with learning new skills, or learning in general
- Productivity – Anything to do with work or side projects (such as Dragon Burn)
Keeping things categorised like this help to plan out the rest of your tasks, as we’ll see below.
Thing 6: Have One Daily For Each Sphere
You don’t want to have too many dailies. This is why we limit the number of spheres – this way you can create one daily for each sphere. Dailies should be fairly generic. For example a “Work Out” daily doesn’t specify the type of workout. It could be a bike ride, a dance class, lifting weights at the gym, or anything involving a workout.
By keeping it generic you keep things a little interesting because you don’t have to do the same thing each day, while still maintaining a routing of getting things done.
Thing 7: Create One To Do Each Day For Each Sphere
At the start of each day you should add one thing to your To-Do list for each sphere. If there is already a To Do for a specific sphere, don’t add another one. It’s okay to use a To Do as a long term goal, but generally you should be able to finish a To Do in at most a week.
In this way you can set specific goals for each day, and it gets you into the habit of thinking about what it is you would like to achieve on any given day.
Thing 8: Categorise Habits By Spheres
Try to divide your habits based on the spheres you created. Habits can be more specific than dailies (e.g. “Go for a run” is a good habit, “Do some exercise” is a good daily). You should aim to have an almost equal number of habits for each sphere, and have no more than 4-5 within each sphere.
This allows you to ensure you can focus on all areas you want to improve, without spreading yourself too thin. If you have 100 habits you end up having to check Habitica after doing anything even remotely productive. Then it starts to take over your life until eventually you get sick of it and give up.
TL; DR: These are the steps I apply when using Habitica. I’ve found that doing this helps me use the tool to become more productive, without pushing me into burning out.
- Use difficulty effectively
- Base rewards on how you procrastinate; rewards should not involve your social life
- Don’t punish yourself: no negative habits
- Lists in descriptions are fine
- Break everything into 4-5 spheres
- Have one daily for each sphere
- At the start of each day create a To Do for each sphere
- Break down habits into spheres and have no more than 4-5 for each sphere
Again, these are the things that work for me right now. They may work for you, they may inspire you to think different about how you approach gamification, they may do absolutely nothing for you. Whatever the case, I hope it helps you to think a little more about how you use gamification (or not), and remember it is not a panacea. It’s just one tool that can help some people manage their goals.