Open Thinkering


Tag: habits

Gamify or be gamified

Seven years ago, I wrote a post entitled Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society. I come back to it often, as it was a bit of a warning that, if we all outsource our news-reading and information-gathering to algorithms, then we’re in trouble.

I wrote that post at a time when Twitter was proposing to turn its previously “raw” feed into an algorithmically-curated one. It completely spoiled the social network for me, and my use of it has dwindled since 2014. It’s also had nefarious effects, amplifying hate and disinformation — as we’ve seen with countless examples around the world. Our democratic institutions are at stake.

Listening to the latest episode of It’s Not Just In Your Head, a podcast from two mental health professionals exploring how capitalism, I was fascinated by their most recent guest’s insights. Dr. Alfie Bown, a lecturer in Digital Media Culture and Technology at Royal Holloway in London, and author of a number of books, spoke eloquently about gamification in our everyday lives.

Gamification is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organizations, and activities in order to create similar experiences to those experienced when playing games in order to motivate and engage users This is generally accomplished through the application of game-design elements and game principles (dynamics and mechanics) in non-game contexts. (Wikipedia)

What I found particularly interesting was Bown’s inclusion of social media in his tallying-up of everyone who plays “video games” around the world. As he points out, the feedback loops and rewards for certain types of behaviour on social networks certainly mesh with what we’d consider to be video game mechanics.

I’m a gamer, and have been most of my 41 years on this earth. The games I see my kids playing, though, are quite different to the ones I used to play at their age. There’s a very positive angle to this, as they’re a lot more positive and social than many of the ones I played when I was younger. But there’s downsides as well, and that’s what I want to talk about here.

As an example, I’ve played the FIFA football (soccer) game series ever since the very first one came out over 25 years ago. Over the last few iterations, instead of just being a particular team and playing against another player or the computer, it’s possible to create your own ‘Ultimate Team’. Having experimented with this again recently, I was shocked at how little time I ended up actually playing a football game, and how much time I was spending ‘grinding’ — i.e. doing things to unlock or upgrade things.

As Dr. Alfie Bown pointed out in the podcast episode, everything is gamified these days, from work to dating to shopping. It’s like everyone’s competing in a slightly-different ARG. So this post is a marker and a reminder for me that I can choose to gamify my own life, or have it gamified for me.

There are multiple ways to do this. One very simple one that I’ve found to be unreasonably effective is to use Loop Habit Tracker to define habits that I want to build over time. They could be exercise or nutrition-related, or something else entirely. Right now, I’m trying to do each of the following at least twice a week:

  • Go to the gym
  • Go for a run
  • Go on the exercise bike

Each time I succeed, I put a tick in the box under that day and activity, and it strengthens the habit.

Gamification is not something that is good or bad, in and of itself. For me, it’s all to do with whether you’re being controlled or manipulated into acting in a way which is in alignment with your values and goals in life. For example, I’ve found Duolingo useful for language-learning, and it includes a lot of gamification techniques.

As we enter a new year, I’m on a bit of a mission to remove unhelpful gamified elements from my life, and to add in ones which will help me flourish as the human being I want to be.

New habits die easily

If “old habits die hard” then it would appear uncontroversial to state the obvious, that new habits die easily.

There’s different views on how long it takes to form a new habit, but, for some reason, 21 days seems to be a popular opinion. The trouble is, that it’s based on theory 1950s plastic surgeon who noticed that it took at least 21 days for a patient to get used to the result of their new post-surgery look.

It makes sense why the “21 Days” Myth would spread. It’s easy to understand. The time frame is short enough to be inspiring, but long enough to be believable. And who wouldn’t like the idea of changing your life in just three weeks?

James Clear, How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)

Proper scientific research, carried out by Phillippa Lally and her team at UCL has shown that it can take a good deal longer than 21 days to form a new habit:

In my own life, I’ve found habit formation to be very easy for some things and very difficult for others. If we step back a bit and think about things, that’s exactly what we would expect. It’s easier to engrain a habit based on something positive that I’m doing and that I enjoy (e.g. going for a run) versus something negative that I feel I’m giving up (e.g. eating less ice-cream).

On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. 

In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life — not 21 days.

James Clear, How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)

The other thing to point out here is the specificity of the habit being mentioned. For example, I use Loop Habit Tracker to keep track of a bunch of things from doing press-ups and sit-ups every morning through to not eating sugar on weekdays. It’s easy for me to give myself the weekend off doing my press-ups, or not counting certain types of sugar (e.g. fructose).

The thing is not to give up and to get yourself back on track. For example, this morning, I went on the exercise bike, did my press-ups and sit-ups properly and used a 24kg kettlebell to do some weights. I’m also about to go for a long walk so I get my 10,000 steps in for the day (although that’s also a problematic number).

Motivation around my physical health is high today, mainly because I took it easy at the end of last week as I felt a cold coming on. Tomorrow, who knows? The trick is to keep on the upward trajectory.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.

James Clear, How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)

This post is Day 46 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at

What I talk about when I talk about user outcomes (2)

“Do you have a method of working?” the journalist Jean-Louis de Rambures asked Barthes in a 1973 interview for Le Monde. “It all depends on what you mean by method,” Barthes replied. “As far as methodology is concerned, I have no opinion. But if you’re talking about work habits . . . ” As he recounts his routines, we discover that the openness of his intellectual style is predicated on the exactness of his procedure. After describing in detail his preference for fountain pens over felt-tip or ballpoint, after recounting his experiments with the electric typewriter at the suggestion of Philippe Sollers, after detailing how he organizes his workplace and schedule in Paris and in the provinces, Barthes tells Rambures about his index-card system, which is based on slips of paper precisely one-quarter the size of a usual page: “At least that’s how they were until the day standards were readjusted within the framework of European unification (in my opinion, one of the cruelest blows of the Common Market).” We get the sense that he’s joking, but only sort of. Knowledge emerges out of arrangements and rearrangements of paper. Formats and protocols matter. Matter matters. “Insignificance is the locus of true significance. This should never be forgotten,” Barthes tells Rambures. “That is why it seems so important to me to ask a writer about his writing habits, putting things on the most material level, I would even say the most minimal level possible. This is an anti-mythological action.”

As regular readers are aware I suffer from migraines and so have been a looking at ways to reduce my amount of prolonged screen time. All screens area not equal, of course, and it’s mainly the length of time rather the number of ‘looks’ that makes the difference.

That’s why I’m always fascinated to find out the methods of working for people, both past and present, who were not only fantastically productive, but influential as well. In the above quotation from Barthes it’s evident that the physicality of his system made a difference in a way allied to embodied cognition.