Whenever there’s a task you don’t want to do, there’s a guaranteed way to feel worse about it: Just add a whole layer of guilt and disappointment on top. Streaks that you’ll inevitably break, badges you don’t care about, check-in notifications that bug you when you were just trying to relax. Ahh, gamification.
Before we talk about all the reasons gamification is bullshit, let’s talk about why games work the way they do. In a roleplaying game, you earn “experience points” as a metaphor for real-life experience. You earn fake money because it’s meant to mimic the concept of real-life money. You’re given a quest because, in real life, people work hard in pursuit of goals. Games have these metrics and structures because the game is trying to imitate real life.
Real life doesn’t require fake metrics. You don’t need to rack up XP, because you’re gaining actual experience. You don’t need a fake quest, because you’re on a real quest. Whether that’s deadlifting 500 pounds or seeing better cholesterol numbers the next time you go to the doctor, your health habits have real-world rewards and consequences.
So let’s look at some of the ways gamification of health habits can backfire. Lifehacker staff writer Stephen Johnson explains the most common game tactics here, and that’s worth a read if you haven’t checked it out yet. Gamification is usually just manipulation, and it often has more downsides than benefits.
Instead of chasing game metrics, what if you put your attention on real life outcomes of your habits? Here’s what I mean.
Aim for consistency, not streaks
Streaks entertain you during good times with the explicit goal of heaping disappointment on you when you slip up. And they’re a particularly harmful type of misdirection, because people easily become more focused on the streak than on whatever reason they were doing the streak in the first place.
I argue here that, should you ever find yourself suckered into chasing a streak, you should break your streak before the streak breaks you. No health habit needs to be done every day without fail. Even aside from the fact that rest days are good and often needed for physical and mental reasons, do you think your body can tell the difference between 9,999 steps and 10,000?
Consistency in the long term is what matters to your body. Streaks only matter to app developers. Why do you think the Apple Watch wants you standing for 12 hours each day? It’s so you wear their watch during all your waking hours. The “stand” goal is programmed into the app because it benefits Apple, not you.
So how do you build consistency? Well, you can keep track of your workouts or habits on a calendar or in a training journal. No, I’m not just reinventing the streak. If you did your habit seven times the first week, six times the next week, and then four to five times every week for the rest of the year minus vacations, you were extremely consistent. (Shout-out to the Peloton app, which counts streak weeks instead of days.)
In that case, a streak-keeping app would think you’re a failure. But if those were workouts, you’ll finish the year a lot more fit, strong, and flexible than you started. If those were days you flossed your teeth, you’ll finish the year with a much lower dental bill. You get the idea.
I like to think of habits not as streaks on a calendar but as coins in a jar. Every day you eat a vegetable or go out for a run, think of yourself as dropping in another coin. Some days it’s a penny, some days it’s a quarter, some days it’s nothing, but no matter what, that jar is filling up.
Compete in real competitions, not fake competitions
Some apps try to leverage the power of community by having you join a group of people you barely know, either to give each other emoji encouragement or to battle each other on a leaderboard (or both).
But…who cares about the people on that leaderboard? If they’re not well-matched, you won’t care about beating them. And if they’re not your real friends, you won’t care about their high-fives.
Now, here’s another idea. What if you had real teammates and gym buddies? What if you signed up for a real competition? This can take many forms, but here are some examples:
- Running a local 5K, and trying to finish in the top X percent of your age group.
- Competing in something like a powerlifting meet, where you try to put up the best possible total on meet day.
- Joining a recreational sports league, and getting to know the members of your softball/soccer/pickleball team while either crushing the competition or commiserating about your inability to do so.
Go after goals, not quests
Gamification, like the overrated S.M.A.R.T goal framework, is what you end up with when you let somebody else tell you what your goals are. Nobody is born with a deep, heartfelt desire to earn a digital badge.
So why did you join a gym, if not for the digital badges? Probably because you wanted to get fit. Well, what does fit mean to you? Squatting a certain weight? Hiking without needing to stop and rest? Shoveling your driveway without spending the whole next day on the couch?
Whatever it is, that’s your Big Goal. Next, you need some little process goals. Ones that mean something. You have to squat 200 pounds before you squat 500. You have to follow a good training program to bring your squat up at all. So your process goals might be (1) finding a good training program, (2) following said program, (3) finishing the program on schedule, and (4) testing your squat max again.
You don’t need streaks or badges or check-ins to do any of that. You don’t need to chase a fake goal to be able to chase the real goal. Just go after the real thing, and cut out the digital middleman.