Plus what other task list allows you to ride a skeleton bear? 


To Skinner Box Myself In: Task List Gamification

A month ago I was playing a video game and realized what I was doing was incredibly repetitive. I've been playing Pokemon on and off since 1998, when the first game was released in America. Since then some game mechanics of this role-playing game (RPG) have changed a lot, but overall there is a ton of what RPG-players call "grinding." Repetitive actions engaged in because you need to access something in the game. In this case I was trying to get an specific type of egg and I had probably "biked" across this one "road" at least 1000 times, getting hundreds of eggs, hatching them, "flying" to another "city" and then checking them one by one to see if the hatched Pokemon had the stats I wanted. 

And yet I was completely engrossed in it. The same way I was engrossed in doing the same things over and over again in Harvest Moon or Dragon Quest or any of the other RPGs I've been addicted to over the years.

Why couldn't I be so engaged in stuff I actually needed to do? On a whim I googled "task list RPG." And I found something: HabitRPG. I've been using it for a month and I love it so far. I think it's really interesting how it harnesses aspects that video game designers use in order to make their games "fun." The main one is not only should there be rewards, but they should be random. Like the famous Skinner Box:

At the heart of this response is a powerful cognitive quirk described by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s, called a intermittent reinforcement. Skinner observed that lab mice responded most voraciously to random rewards. The mice would press a lever and sometimes they’d get a small treat, other times a large treat, and other times nothing at all. Unlike the mice that received the same treat every time, the mice that received variable rewards seemed to press the lever compulsively.

If you’ve ever asked someone a question while he or she was engrossed in a video game, only to receive a mumbled “sure, ok, whatever,” you’ve seen this mental state. Players will agree to almost anything to get rid of distraction and keep playing.

What HabitRPG does is give you a little character and every time you complete a task you may receive an item. Or you may not. You never know. But however silly or trivial it seems, pressing that lever really is engrossing, at least to me. I've used it along with a Pomodoro application that runs an Applescript (which seems to be abandonware sadly- you have to edit the code to make it work in Mavericks and then build it in Xcode, but it's not really required to use Pomodoro with HabitRPG, it just makes it a little easier).

I've tried a ton of task list applications over the years and had mostly little success with using them. One of the problems is that my work is sadly infinite, or at least it often seems that way to me. It's been impossible to get all my work done by the end of the day for years now and it doesn't seem to be getting better. Having a task list that has "progress" in terms of leveling up might be an illusion, but it's certainly a more comfortable and less Sisyphean-feeling than most similar software.

My patient “treated” his A.D.H.D simply by changing the conditions of his work environment from one that was highly routine to one that was varied and unpredictable. All of a sudden, his greatest liabilities — his impatience, short attention span and restlessness — became assets. And this, I think, gets to the heart of what is happening in A.D.H.D.

Another nice thing about HabitRPG is it's open-source and is easy to get running on your own local development environment. So if you do want to dive into a programming project to get more experience and also to work on features you might care about. 

Plus what other task list allows you to ride a skeleton bear? 

so metal