People have gotten into the habit of wanting habits.
Everyday there's a new application or piece of hardware that helps gamify our daily routines to make us better. One of my favorite recent examples was an app called Zombies Run!, an audio-based game that synchs up an oral story with the time and distance of your running. The more (and faster) you run, the less you get eaten by Zombies.
I loved this app... for about two weeks. Then I stopped running again.
There are tons of gamification tools out there that exist on your digital devices and, yes, there are plenty of studies showing that quantifying your progress tends to improve results. But sometimes technology is a big distraction. Often it's part of the reason we're not doing the good things we should be. When we rely on devices that can easily distract us from the things they are intended to help with, we can get off course.
With that in mind, here are some sample ideas on how to game yourself and your habits without relying on apps.
1. Only use cash.
Many bad habits are a result of credit cards. More specifically, not directly seeing your money being spent. Try to think through some of your bad habits that involve plastic and start paying for them with cash. Let's say you want to eat out less each week and cook more? Take the average last few months of spending on food (including restaurants and groceries) and take half of that amount in cash out of the bank. Start paying for every food purchase that way and see if your behavior shifts.
2. Temporarily ban yourself from technology.
Pick one hour each day to unplug your wireless internet and hide your phone (no, this can't be while you're sleeping). The "Fear of Missing Out" epidemic has particularly affected those of the Millennial Generation and, unfortunately, humans are simply not built to multi-task. Whatever it is you're trying to accomplish, technology has the potential of being your biggest enemy. Yes apps can help you improve your habits more efficiently, but they also trigger you to look at your phone or computer… which leads to many other distractions like email/Twitter/Facebooking. This teacher really nailed down the process with her students.
3. Pavlov yourself with guilty pleasures.
The experiments of Pavlov involved conditioning a creature (famously, dogs) to associate certain behaviors with things that gave them pleasure. We all have guilty pleasures (mine are manly TV shows like The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy). Force yourself to take the positive new action you want before you allow yourself to get your treat. So, no Real Housewives or Fashion Police until you run five miles. This works great when it comes to work as well. A great little technique called "Pomodoro" helps reward you by just focusing your time in different ways. For many of us, checking our email or Twitter has become a reward. Use this feeling of relief in short bursts while you focus on the more important stuff the majority of the time.
4. Make yourself accountable online (eventually).
A great example of this is 40 Days of Dating. A pair of friends with pretty awful past dating experiences decided to date each other and document the whole thing (through a friend). While this lives on the web, it's really less about apps and more about exposing themselves to thousands of people and feeling pressured to better themselves. They're making themselves accountable online, (thus propelling the experiment forward), but they're not actively managing it or allowing it to get in the way.
5. Create your own game.
Most gamification apps use the same types of tactics focused on rewards. Buddy up with a friend or loved one and establish these types of offline rewards for yourselves. Whether it's weight loss, keeping up with a productive hobby, or reading more, you can have some fun and create your own tangible reward system with your friends. Have a $5 secret prize you hide and then reveal to each other when the first goal is complete. Then one for $7, then for $10—you get the picture. And if you don't want to spend a bunch of money, just make each other stuff or seek out trinkets at thrift shops that you can give each other. The surprise and thoughtfulness of the rewards is enough to keep you motivated.
Ultimately, all the examples above are just thought-starters. The overarching point is that you don't necessarily need an app or a piece of technology to make you a "better you." They are fun and they can help, but don't let them act as a placebo for getting you closer to the problem you're trying to solve.
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