When I first heard about the Habitica app, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. The app claims to use a video game style XP system to encourage users to check things off their to-do list. I worried (to paraphrase Hank Hill) that it wouldn’t make productivity better, it’d just make video games worse.
Now that I’ve been using the app for a couple months, I’ve determined that the free app has made more productive (thanks, Saving the Game for telling me about it). Every time you complete a task, your avatar earns gold and XP. I’ll be honest, I haven’t really figured out what the XP does, but the gold allows you to buy new stuff. Occasionally, when you finish a task, random eggs or hatching potions drop that allow you to raise mighty steeds like a skeleton wolf or cotton-candy pink dragon. My interest might wane as I run out of new animals and gear to level up, but right now I’m pretty happy with it.
I think the reason Habitica (and other products like it) work is because they take the elements of video games that allow us to escape from the real world and use them to help you get things done in the real world.
The problem with daily tasks (brushing your teeth, answering email, cleaning the bathroom) is that they’ll never really be done. Sure, you cleaned the bathroom and it looks fine now, but in a week or two, you’ll be back in square one. With a level of gamification, there’s always progress. Sure, you’ll need to brush your teeth again tomorrow night, but at least brushing your teeth means you got some milk to feed to your sick zombie tiger that leveled it up from a baby to a giant menacing mount for your avatar.
The other thing that’s great about video games is that they somehow convince us that doing stupid useless things are worthwhile. Sure, you might not want to spend hours scrubbing every stupid spot off your counter top, but you would gladly spend hours finding Gold Skulltulas, gathering wolf pelts, or catching ‘em all. For some reason, arbitrary tasks are much easier to swallow when they come with pixels. By putting your tasks into a list in a game and then breaking them up into a number of smaller subtasks, it somehow makes them as compulsively completable as a list of side quests.
Video games also do a good job of making individual tasks social. Sitting in your living room shooting things suddenly becomes a social outlet when you join a team online. Productivity apps can do the same thing. You’re not just getting groceries because you need food or something lame like that, you’re getting groceries because your party is fighting the insidious dish monster, and by finishing tasks, your team earns more soap to fight it. You’re helping them out.
Productivity apps have convinced me that the gamification of tasks is a useful brain hack. It’s a pretty easy translation: Grocery shopping is a fetch quest. Your big work project? A mini boss. And your life? It just got a little more productive.
Have you ever used gamification to get stuff done? Did it work? Did it fail misearbly? Share your experience with us in the comments.