How to Gamify Your Productivity

UPDATED: October 13, 2015
PUBLISHED: June 4, 2015

Let’s face it: Regardless of how much you love what you do, or how much you love improving yourself, much of your time is going to be spent grinding it out. Doing what you don’t necessarily feel like doing. Going to the gym when you don’t feel like it. Getting up really early to put in a couple of extra hours working on an important project. Not watching the movie on the plane so you can grind out a few extra hours on your laptop. Skipping Sunday football so you can do some head-down work to get a jump-start on the week. I call these little moments the big separators between success and average.

What do successful people and unsuccessful people have in common? They both hate to do what it takes to be successful; successful people just do it anyway. When others are watching American Idol, they grind. When others are meeting for happy hour, they stay at the office grinding. When others are sleeping in, they get up to grind. When others get tired, they grind out a few more reps, a few more phone calls, a few more pages of writing, a few more practice sessions…. They just OUT-GRIND everyone around them.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell concluded that the people at the top don’t just work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder. They what? Yeah, they grind!

The problem is, the grind is tedious, mundane, arduous and boring. And when our attention and interest wane because we’re, well, less than excited, we suffer our greatest threat to achievement—it’s called drift. You don’t fall off-course, you drift, ever so slightly, until you look up days, weeks or even years later and realize that, oh crud, you are WAY off your intended direction. And now it’s too late, you are too far behind to catch up—you have a heart attack, get a divorce or have to file for bankruptcy.

This drift tendency is a natural and normal human condition. It happens to all of us, all the time. It’s the No. 1 reason people don’t achieve their resolutions or the goals they set. It’s not for lack of intention; it is also not for lack of starting. Everyone starts. Everyone makes resolutions, signs up for gym memberships, starts new prospecting routines, begins a weekly date night ritual, starts eating healthy, and then what? Yeah, they drift.

Thus, to prevent it, you have to learn to master the mundane. And to master the mundane, you have to make it stimulating and fun.

How? Drugs. Well, one drug, in particular. I’m going to show you how to use the greatest performance-enhancing drug ever discovered. It will give you a radical, unfair personal achievement advantage.

What’s the drug? Anabolic steroids? HGH? Andro? EPO? Nah, way more powerful than all those is… dopamine.

Dopamine is the ultimate pleasure and motivation drug. And good news! You don’t have to travel to the seedy part of town to get your drug from some trigger-happy drug dealer. No, your drug dealer is God. You have a pantry full of dopamine, bottled up and just waiting to be pulled off the shelves for your enhanced performance use.

So how do you break into your dopamine drug closet? GAMES!

Nothing captivates the human attention and engagement like a game. It activates all sorts of human faculties: competition, reward, incentive, real-time evidence of progress, recognition, etc. All these pump the mojo drug into our system. We love our dopamine. It has a totally engrossing and intoxicating effect on us. That’s why kids, and adults, can spend countless hours—losing all sense of time—playing with their Xbox, PlayStation or Wii. It’s also why we love sports, board games, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, Angry Birds and the like. All these games give us big hits on the dopamine pipe.

Gaming stimulates all your emotional and psychological motivations. You can use that fact to your productive advantage.

This is not a new idea; organizations like Weight Watchers, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and military organizations have been using this approach to motivate people for years. But now we want to apply game mechanics to your day-to-day key performance behaviors—to help you overcome crippling procrastination, creative avoidance and sheer boredom. So here’s what you need to do.

Let’s use the simple, three-step formula from my book The Compound Effect.

One, decide what your BIG 3 goals are. Not 50, 10 or five goals, but the BIG 3 goals that if you achieved them would make this year the best year of your life to date. That’s Step 1.

Step 2: Identify the one to two key behaviors that are most important to accomplishing each of your BIG 3 goals. There are only one or two behaviors that, if you did them day in and day out, day after day, would totally transform your results. This is true of your diet, fitness, leadership, sales, marriage, parenting… any area. So it’s critically important to identify those one or two key behaviors and then focus on performing them day in and day out. Oh, but there’s the trouble. These behaviors become laborious, tedious and boring. Thus you start to drift right back into mediocrity. But not you, not now.

Step 3 of what I call my “massive transformation formula” is to track your performance. This is where we apply game mechanics to break open the medicine cabinet and pour dopamine—the true performance-enhancing drug—into our system.

So I’ll give you some examples. I’m not a big fan of all the phone apps and other complicated games people have created for this purpose. I like super-simple and physically visible systems.

Game On!

Let’s look at how well games work to track your progress. We start with:

• A goal, your mission, your crusade. For Candy Land, the goal is reaching Candy Castle. In Monopoly, it is bankrupting your competitors and ending up with all the cash. In Angry Birds, it is getting rid of the pesky pigs. For your productivity, that is achieving one of your BIG 3.

• Your task lies in the how of accomplishing your goal. In Candy Land, it is progressing through Candy Land and avoiding obstacles. In Monopoly, it is buying property and charging rent. In Angry Birds, it is attacking the pigs. For you, it is the key behavior you need to perform to achieve one of your BIG 3.

• To track your progress, games come with a board, console, app or storyline plot to progress through. This is where you need to get inventive. How will you track progress in your epic mission to achieve your BIG goal?

I have used many different devices. When it is something I need to track throughout the day and not just at the end of the day, I use devices like a stopwatch. If I am tracking the amount of time I am engaged in my No. 1 behavior, timing it to win points on my game board actually helps me succeed.

Another is a big calendar that I post up on my wall. Again, I like very physical and visual devices. If it is in an app buried in my phone, it is easily forgotten, avoided or made secret, which doesn’t help me or leverage public accountability. Maybe I’d track the number of days I do my stretch routine, or my core exercises, or I  get in at least one 90-minute work session. When I complete it, I love to put a big fat red X up in victory, where I can see it all day. Not doing it, on the other hand, will haunt me all day. And once I have a string of big, fat red X’s going, I won’t want to break the chain. You will be way more motivated to do what you need to do and way more satisfied with yourself when you do. Every time you scratch one of those big fat X’s on your “game board,” you’ll get a big toke on the dopamine pipe.

Another device I have used is a pocketful of pennies. Let’s say my goal, my mission, my great crusade, is trying to improve the intimacy in my marriage. Maybe my bride feels loved when I express my appreciation for her, and doing so progresses me through the game toward the goal. To track my performance, I start the day with 10 pennies in my left pocket. The goal is to move them all to the right pocket. Every time I say or do something to express my sincere, heartfelt appreciation, I move one penny from the left pocket to the right one. Now, like any game, I have to avoid obstacles. The obstacles are if I say anything negative, sarcastic or critical. If I slip up, I have to take a penny from the right pocket and put it back in the left. At the end of the day, I will know if I’ve won or lost the daily battle in increasing the intimacy in my marriage by whether I have 10 pennies in my right pocket, or not.

Here is a game I helped a single dad friend of mine create. He was complaining that he couldn’t get one of his daughters to clean her room or his son to do his assigned reading. He tried every threat and pressure tactic he could muster. Nothing worked. And his household was one of constant lecturing and aggravation. So I helped him make a game of it. We took an old Candy Land board and gave each of them three ways they could get daily points—points associated with the key behaviors… including chores that dad wanted them to perform, but couldn’t get them to do. If they did all three, they got to move one space on the board. We also created some extra-credit ways they could move two spaces, even three spaces in a day. Well, let me tell you, the attitude, motivation and performance did a dramatic 180. Now they were excited, fired-up and fully focused on doing their three things to get their points. The entire previous experience of drudgery and threat and anger and complaining turned into fun, excitement and full-throttle engagement.

The last few parts of constructing your game:

Create a reward if you achieve your goal, your mission. I’ve used a special bottle of wine I would not normally allow myself, all the way up to a new watch I would not normally justify spending money on. By the way, my improved performance, the achievement of my big goal, always paid for the reward by a factor of 10 or more. It just provides a little something to look forward to at the end of the epic battle… if I win.

I’m often asked how I keep myself motivated. I do everything I can to keep everything I have to do to be productive as fun, stimulating and gamified as possible. Hey, life is a game, like it or not. You have two choices: You can either sit in the bleachers eating hot dogs and Cracker Jacks or take the field, stretch your skills, display your honed abilities and live out your potential. Which will you choose?

This article appears in the July 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Are you a procrastinator? Here’s how to “do it tomorrow” the right (aka productive) way.

Darren Hardy is the former publisher of SUCCESS magazine, an entrepreneur and New York Times best-selling author of The Compound Effect and Living Your Best Year Ever: A Proven Formula for Achieving Big Goals.