There are two ways games can help you get through your day. The first is simply to stay in bed and play Fez Pocket Edition under the sheets until your boss stops trying to call you. The second way is to set up a game to reward yourself for the hard things you want to be better at, which I would argue is going to have more positive results for you in the long run.
An engineer I worked with years ago told me, today’s young workers take pay for granted, but being raised on videogames, they expect points and rewards for everything they do. "How pathetic and weak," I thought, and then a moment later realized, "that is precisely what I need in my work." As much as my manager resembled a level-boss, I also realized nobody was going to give me points but me.
I decided to draw a game, to provide myself satisfying, visual progress on my to-do list. It may sound overly simple, but it has been unbelievably effective. What I started with was a rough sketch of a game screen. I would scatter a dozen circles on it, representing the accomplishments in the game. For example, this rendition of a popular arcade game involving invaders that happen to come from space:
Whenever I cross something off my list:
Here's how the game looks after finishing a few things:
You might have noticed the extra circles at the top right. (Well, now you did!) I realized one day the news was a particular distraction for me, the way some people are constantly tempted to check Facebook. So I added those circles as a bonus. It takes a tiny amount of self awareness, but whenever I noticed the urge to read the news, I would stop, and put a dot in one of those top circles. Then I'd get back to my work, knowing that the next thing I finished would be worth double points. This is actually really important to understand. You can give yourself points in any amount for anything you need. If something on my list was really daunting, I could just write "+1000" on one of my main circles, and cash it in a couple hours later when I got done. It is useful to be consistent with your rules, but also useful to make meaningful exceptions.
As an aside, that urge to escape into the news and other people's problems was itself and important signal that my mental energy was spent. I learned along the way to start tougher work when I had more energy, and save chores and busy work for low points, caffeinating as necessary of course.
Another note on points. I don't adjust points for how long something takes. Signing off on a five minute review of a feature update: 100 points. A two hour update to a sales report: 100 points. The exceptions are for overcoming the mental and emotional barriers to starting something, even if the actual work doesn't take that long.
Later, when I realized I had ingrained the habit, I just started keeping a running total of each day's points. The game drawing wasn't necessary anymore to remind me that this was fun. What I learned both from my experience and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhig was that naturally, habits develop from a feeling of satisfaction upon completing a task and getting a reward, to satisfaction upon the first signal that the reward will be possible, even before you start the task. So certainly at that point, just keeping score invoked the rest of the game experience for me.
The daily games also gave me a record over time of how I was doing, so I know it worked. When I started, I was getting two to three important things done each day. By the time I left work to start my own company, I was ordinarily killing off 10-15 things a day. I believe this practice helped me spend less time in email, agree only to valuable meetings, and shove aside many of the distractions of the office, because they got in the way of what I really wanted: a high score on the leaderboard. And of course, now that I'm my own level-boss, you can bet I'm still doing this every day of the week.
If you got this far, you either find gamification useful too, or are transfixed by the convoluted workings of a game designer's mind. Either way, keep informed by subscribing!
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