How to Gamify Your Life: The 4 Must-Dos

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" by Eric Barker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is disappointment or boredom getting you off track in life? What does it mean to “gamify your life,” and how can it motivate you toward your goals?

You might have experienced how gamification can help you stick to an exercise plan or a project at work. You can apply the same model to your life. Peak performance expert Eric Barker shows you how, discussing four features that your game must have if you want to stay motivated in life.

Keep reading to learn how to gamify your life’s journey.

Gamify Your Life’s Journey

Barker recommends turning your life’s journey into a game, which involves reframing reality. Gamifying your life’s journey makes it more enjoyable and thus motivates you to push through setbacks and stick to your plan even when you get bored. 

(Shortform note: Why does gamifying your life’s journey make it more fun? In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, game designer Raph Kosta contends that learning in games is fun because games have no real consequences and let players exist in unpredictable environments without causing anxiety. But gamifying something you do in real life does have real consequences—so why is it still fun? As Barker states, the key may lie in the story you tell yourself: By acting as if something serious is a game, you reduce your anxiety around it and thus increase your enjoyment—which in turn motivates you to stick to the right things.)

So, what’s Barker’s guidance on how to gamify your life? He contends that you must include four features to stay motivated and stick to your goals:

  1. Make sure it’s possible to win your game. In other words, pick realistic end goals. Trying to defeat a game you can’t win is demotivating and thus won’t help.
  2. Regularly increase the difficulty. Otherwise, the game will get too easy and you’ll grow bored.
  3. Clarify your lower-level goals. When you know exactly what you’re trying to do at each step of the journey, you make the best possible choices to help you reach lower-level goals and ultimately your end goal.
  4. Incorporate regular feedback. Like in games, you stay motivated in real life when you know if you’re making good choices—and you can only know that if you have feedback on the impact of those choices. 

For example, say you’d like to develop your piano skills. First, your realistic end goal might be to win a local piano competition instead of to become the next Mozart. Second, you might regularly increase the difficulty by choosing progressively harder pieces to play. Third, you might clarify your lower-level goals by deciding to master a specific section of a piece so that you can boost your chances of winning the competition. Fourth, you might incorporate regular feedback by performing for a piano teacher. By incorporating all four features, you’ll be able to enjoy the learning process and stick with it even when you hit a slump.  

How the Gamification Model Relates to Habit Formation Models

Barker recommends that you gamify your life so you stay motivated even when you hit setbacks. But, interestingly, the steps that he recommends for doing so are also essential to creating habits—which, once developed, drive you to automatically perform specific behaviors without requiring any motivation.  

So, how do you create habits? In Tiny Habits, behavioral expert BJ Fogg recommends the following process: Pinpoint your exact aspiration, brainstorm several behaviors that would achieve that outcome, repeat the tiniest version of one of those behaviors, celebrate when you succeed, then progressively upgrade that behavior. Each of these steps reflects a feature of gamifying your life’s journey that Barker emphasizes.

For example, say you wanted to be less tired during the day—but after further reflection, you realize you actually want to get better sleep. This is a more specific and thus more realistic goal. During the brainstorming process, you discover that taking a lavender-scented bath before bed would help you reach your end goal—you now have a clear lower-level goal. You decide that the tiniest version of that behavior is taking out the lavender oil and unscrewing the cap. Each time you do this, you celebrate your success by, for example, pumping your fist—this is a form of feedback: You make yourself feel happy by succeeding. Once you habitually take out the lavender oil, you then upgrade the behavior by unscrewing the lavender oil and running hot water. In this way, you’re progressively increasing the difficulty on your way to developing a nighttime bath habit.
How to Gamify Your Life: The 4 Must-Dos

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Here's what you'll find in our full Barking Up the Wrong Tree summary :

  • How you can achieve the ideal balance of work and play
  • The importance of kindness, networks, and your attitude towards success
  • Why you should gamify your life journey

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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