Forming a habit using gamification

Photo by Clayton Robbins on Unsplash

At the beginning of the year 2021, I have enlisted some personal goals: obtain a couple of Cloud certifications, read 12 books, post 12 blogs, etc. Eight months into the year, I am embarrassed to say that I am nowhere near the fulfilment of my goals. I haven’t done any certification yet and only managed to finish 1 book and have written 1 blog so far. As disappointed as I am about my progress, I never ran out of alibis to justify my procrastination. It is always about stress. “I am too stressed enough to do anything else” unknowingly, just became my mantra. But is it really about stress or I am just merely unmotivated? The truth is — I don’t know. All I know is I’ve just been living day after day doing the things expected of me and been consciously ignoring the expectations I’ve set for myself.

Last week, I picked up my son from school. We headed to the local library afterwards to pass time before picking up my husband, who is arriving from work, at the train station just next to the library. I happened to pick this book entitled “Atomic habits” by James Clear and read the first few pages. I got hooked on his story involving a horrible baseball accident and decided to borrow the book so that I can continue reading at home. Just a week ago, I have borrowed a number of random books as well but haven’t read a single one.

This particular book, however, is a special one. I have been miraculously reading one chapter each day. I resonated with what the author is talking about that on the fourth day, I already found myself in front of my laptop writing this blog. And I am not even finished with the book yet!

I am not going to summarise this book in this blog. But I am going to share my realisation. I have finally understood what is wrong. The system that I follow on a daily basis is not helping me achieve my goals. I cannot say I have bad habits entirely but my current habits are certainly not helping me make any progress.

Atomic habits are all about taking one tiny step, and then another tiny step, and another, and another. If I keep on taking easy tiny steps consistently, not only will I make progress but I’ll also get better at that specific activity the more I do it. Achieving the actual goal becomes a byproduct. I have never posted another blog because I haven’t actually sat down and started writing. Spending countless hours thinking and researching about a good topic to write about does not translate to desired results. I have this habit of overthinking. I refuse to start writing if I feel like I don’t have sufficient information or I haven’t done extensive research, blah blah blah. And then there’s my impostor syndrome that gets in the way too. Today, I am making a conscious decision to just start doing it no matter what. It doesn’t have to be perfect. As James wrote in his book, “Standardize before you optimize. You can’t improve a habit that doesn’t exist”. What matters is to make it simple to be able to start immediately and maintain consistency.

Consistency. This is another tricky part. I once started intermittent fasting; after a week, I stopped. I once devoted Tuesdays to studying for AWS certification but after a few weeks, I stopped. I once started exercising in the morning… I think you get the gist. When I think about getting back at it again, I can’t help but think I have to start from square one. And that puts me off.

I realised that there is something missing in my system. In the book, James talked about how dopamine plays a big part in inducing motivation. Experiencing pleasure, and at the same time, when anticipating it, releases dopamine. Dopamine increases one’s cravings and motivation to act. I paused and asked myself, “What triggers my dopamine spike?”. I reflected upon the activities I’ve been doing recently.

A few weeks ago, my husband sneakily installed the game “Pokemon Go” on my mobile phone. I ended up playing it on a daily basis. Even though I only play a few minutes in a day, a day never goes by without me playing it. One time, I even convinced my husband to go outside by car at 9pm just to find a pokestop so that I can get some items I need to finish some tasks in the game. Even the children came along. Ridiculous right? But I am not ashamed that I play this little game and am addicted to it. It makes me happy and I need this simple source of happiness in my life. Now, I am faced with a boggling question — what made me do whatever it takes just to accomplish a task in a game but don’t get enough motivation to achieve my life goals? In the game, there is a reward system. You get rewarded with items when you complete a task and more rewards if you complete a set of tasks. It also shows you your streak. If you complete a streak, you also get gifts! The gifts are of course meaningless to me but it still somehow challenges me to keep on completing tasks until I get the reward.

The system works. So I thought what if I apply this system to my own goals? I came up with a plan.

Task 1: Write a blog once per week — 5 weeks in a row. This blog count!

1/5 streak

I was tempted to add more tasks like write 2 blogs about Technology or personal finance but I reminded myself about making things easy. If it is not easy, then there’s a chance I won’t do it. The objective is to get into the habit first and take it up a notch once the habit is steady.

When I complete the task, I’ll get to celebrate. Maybe treat my family to a nice meal that I’ve been craving. Who’s not going to be satisfied when eating something that they like and what more if they get to share it with their loved ones? I’ll let my family know so they’ll also be anticipating it and maybe give me some support and encouragement.

If I break the streak, let’s say I’ve only managed to do 3 in a row. It resets to zero. But even if I break it, I’m still making progress with my goal which is to write 12 blogs this year. I’m still winning. I can look forward to celebrating at the end of the year if I accomplish my yearly goal.

I’ll conduct this experiment and see how this goes. Once I formed the habit of writing like how I formed the habit of playing “Pokemon Go”, I’ll move on to my other goals.

Data and cloud engineer. Also interested in blockchain and personal finance. Senior Consultant @ Servian.