Gamification might be bad, actually?
So something I’ve been thinking about lately is gamification, and whether it’s actually a good idea. Streaks and Daily Habits and the habit tracker in one’s bullet journal and all the various fads of running one’s life by checkboxes and metrics rather than what one feels and what one’s body needs.
The crushing anxiety of not losing one’s Wordle streak! Or feeding that damn little green owl every day so it doesn’t send you guilt-trippy notifications!
It turns out that a lot of the stuff we’re told we need to do every day to be healthy is not well-sourced in science. For example, drinking 8 glasses of water a day? That’s pushed by diet companies and bottled-water companies and water-bottle companies, but has no foundation in science. It turns out you’re getting enough sleep if you’re not tired, not if your Fitbit tells you so! (I know, radical, right?) That 10,000 steps a day thing? Marketing copy from a pedometer company in Japan.
(I mean it probably doesn’t hurt to move around a little more and climb a few flights of stairs, if your body is up to it. But not every body is, and the last time I had the flu it was really depressing when my activity tracker yelled at me for not getting off the couch. Thing needs a Bitch I’m Sick button.)
I am such a gamification struggler, too. I had the complete collection of pets and mounts in Habitica. I keep a little habit tracker in my daily planner and enjoy giving myself stickers and filling in boxes for playing my guitar and riding my horse and doing yoga and sitting down to write. Stickers are a great motivator.
But there’s a problem with all those metrics. Not only does it turn your entire life into filling out timesheets, as if everything we do needs to be self-improvement or a billable hour (#hustleculture) but it also changes the goal, right? So the goal stops being “I want to play guitar because I enjoy playing guitar. I want to go for a run because I enjoy feeling energetic and healthy. I want to write my book because I want to finish this book and send it out into the world where people can enjoy it and I, incidentally, can get paid!” And instead, the goal becomes “I should play guitar because I am supposed to play guitar so I get to fill in the little box on my habit tracker.”
Reader, I am here to tell you, all this productivity tracking might be bad for us. It might be the opposite of motivational, in the long run. It might contribute to the sense of exhaustion, overwhelm, and burnout that literally everybody I know is walking around with.
One thing I learned in my twenties, which I am trying to relearn now, is that there are only two reasons to do things: because you want to, or because you have to. You have to pay your taxes, clean up after you pets, get your kid bathed and to bed at a reasonable hour. You want to see friends, play music, build a brilliant career, make good art.
Sometimes you have to to certain things to accomplish other things you want to do. If you want to run a marathon, you need to do the training. If you want to get a Ph.D., you need to write your dissertation. If you want to be a novelist, you have to sit down on a regular basis and grind some words out. If you want to feel okay in the morning, you have to go to bed at a reasonable hour.
You have to floss, because you want to keep your teeth. (I mean, maybe you don’t, but one root canal was enough to convince me.)
Should, though. Should is a terrible word. Should is a word that makes people feel bad and makes them avoidant. In should, the reward is avoiding the consequence, and take it from somebody who has had a lot of pets, you definitely get better results training with positive reinforcement. Punishing people for not getting things perfect just makes them avoidant and neurotic.
Streaks are a great motivator, but what happens when you forget and lose one? If you’re me, you get pissed off and start avoiding the thing you were doing consistently before hand. Whups, so much for that habit… because it wasn’t a real habit. Or a real practice. It was a ticky box.
Also, not everything needs to be done every day to be effective. If you exercise regularly, it’s important to take rest days to let your body recover. If you are engaged in a creative pursuit, it’s often necessary to take time off and think about what you’re going to do next. Practicing music or mindfulness or yoga every day can be beneficial to your progress… but it can also get you stuck in a rut where you don’t advance, because you’re not allowing yourself time to integrate.
Anyway, I lost my fitbit a couple of weeks ago. It was found and returned to me after a week off, but I’ve discovered that I feel… kind of freed by having been parted from it for a while. I still like it for the heartrate monitoring and some other stuff… but I’ve decided to ignore a good deal of its functionality. Especially when it tells me my stress management is low, or whatever.
Screw you, tiny computer, I’m getting out of bed in the morning and eating several vegetables in any given day. Considering the world, that’s as managed as I need to be right now.
Anyway, if all the metrics in the world work for you, strength to your arm. If they seem to be turning your life into an endless series of ticky boxes and anxiety about ticky boxes, remember that you don’t have to be a member of the productivity cult.
Just do what you have to do, and do what you want to do. And if anybody tells you you should take up yoga or you have to Write Every Day or whatever and the idea fills you with horror, it’s okay to ignore them.