Have you ever stayed up way past your bedtime because you just have to finish your chapter, or get one more level up, or get through this one part of your latest project? Wouldn’t it be great to have the same kind of drive to stick to healthy food and get up for your workouts in the morning?
That’s the idea behind gamification: it’s all about tapping into psychology to make it fun and motivating to stay on track. Human beings are naturally motivated by seeing our progress towards our goals, earning rewards for hitting milestones, and the thrill of competition (even if we’re only competing with ourselves). That’s what makes games so much fun to play – so why not apply that same structure to the rest of your life to make it easier to stay on track?
How Can Gamification Help You?
In the context of Paleo, gamification means finding some way to translate healthy choices and habits into a game structure, so you can experience the same motivation that keeps people up until 2:30 playing World of Warcraft. Gamifying your health goals gives you:
- A constant sense of progress.
- Rewards for smaller milestones. This breaks down big goals down into smaller, less overwhelming chunks, and gives you a constant stream of recognition for your hard work.
- A way to track your behavior to keep yourself honest.
- The psychological power of competition (even if you’re only competing with yourself).
Tracking weight loss progress is already doing this. You’ve got the sense of progress, because the number on the scale is always going down. Most people also set smaller milestone goal weights that they celebrate in different ways. And the pattern of your weight is a brutally honest way to track how well you’re doing: you might lie to yourself, but your body never will.
The obvious extreme example is The Biggest Loser, where the game aspect is very literal and the participants are incredibly motivated to lose massive amounts of weight – except for the part where the “game” ends with the show and most of the contestants gain all the weight back. If you’re setting up your own “game,” it might be less dramatic, but it’ll also be more sustainable in the long run.
But what if you’re not trying to lose weight? What if you’re trying to maintain weight loss for the long term – or what if you have a goal completely unrelated to weight? This is how so many people fail: they get to a maintenance-type goal and lose motivation, and the weight creeps back on.
That’s where gamification comes in. Gamification can give you something else to track, see progress from, and get competitive with yourself about, so you can still have the same kind of motivation. And better yet, while you're doing all that, you're forming habits that will stick with you in the long run, even after the game is done.
So How do I Do It?
To make healthy living into a game, you will need 3 things:
1. A behavior goal.
Start with one – don’t try to gamify everything at once. It’s OK to be vague at this stage: “eat more vegetables” or “run more” are fine for now.
Choose a behavior goal, not a result goal. The difference is that a behavior goal is something you can control. A result goal (like “I will lose 1 dress size” or “I will deadlift 250 pounds”) is not something directly under your control. Instead of result goals, pick a behavior that will lead to the result you want.
2. Scoring and tracking systems.
Now you have your behavior goal; you need a way to give yourself points for following through, and a tracking method to keep track of how many points you have. This is where you have to get specific about the goal: how many “more” vegetables count as “more”? Specifically what is your target, and how can you arrange your scoring system to reflect that? Some examples:
- You want to “eat more vegetables.” You decide that 10 servings of vegetables per week is a reasonable goal. You’ll give yourself 1 point per serving, with 10 points per week being perfect.
- You want to start working out for the first time. You wisely decide that the most important thing is to make exercise a habit, not to worry about getting super intense with it right now. So you give yourself 1 point for every day you do anything, plus an additional 1 point per 20 minutes of exercise.
Obviously, the precise system of points will depend on what the behavior is. Some people go for one point per successful day; other people have a sliding scale of points (e.g. 10 minutes of exercise = 1 point, 20 minutes = 2 points, 30 minutes = 3 points) so they can get partial credit.
Do not make tracking your points complicated. If it’s a pain in the neck, or if it’s easy to overlook, you won’t do it. Make it so easy you can get the energy to do it even on a horrible day.
- There are plenty of fitness trackers and apps with pre-existing game elements built in. Health Month or Zombies, Run! are good examples.
- If you have a game goal that isn’t covered in someone else’s system, don’t break the chain is a dead simple tool for getting you to do something every single day.
- Failing any of that, or if you’re just the low-tech type, an old-fashioned chart with stickers or a Post-it on your desktop is often the best of all. Just make sure it’s somewhere easy to see; put it right in front of yourself so you won’t forget it.
3. A reward.
What do you do when you've reached your goal for four weeks in a row and want to celebrate? How about eight weeks? Six months? Time for a reward! This shouldn’t be a reward that runs counter to all your goals in the first place. “I’ve done so well eating healthy this week; I’m going to reward myself with a cupcake” makes no sense.
Some examples of better rewards:
- New workout clothes or equipment
- A healthy luxury, like a new spice or a really good brand of tea.
- A massage.
- A pass to go rock climbing or do some other fun activity.
Decide how many points you’ll have to earn to get a reward, and then post a reminder somewhere constantly visible, so the reward works as a motivational tool.
3 Paleo Games to Try
Want to start using gamification but not quite sure how to do it? Or wavering about what to do first? Here are three games to try:
Vegetable Monopoly: every day, award yourself one point for eating each of the following:
- A serving of brassica vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale)
- A serving of aliums (e.g. onions, leeks, and garlic)
- A serving of leafy green vegetables
- A serving of red-orange vegetables (e.g. carrots, winter squash, and sweet potatoes)
- A serving of fermented vegetables (e.g. sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles)
No vegetable gets to count twice in the same category (for example, kale can count for crucifers or leafy greens, but not both).
A weekly score of 35 is perfect, 30+ is excellent, and 20+ is well on your way to greatness. Track your progress by just writing down all five types of vegetables and checking each one off every day as you go (it helps to stick your tracking sheet to the fridge so you remember).
Sitting Elimination: Start each day with 16 points (one for every hour you’re awake – because you are getting 8 hours of sleep, right?). You lose 1 point for every unbroken hour of sitting. Every time you sit down, the clock starts ticking. If you get up again within the next hour, even just to stretch or go to the bathroom, you don’t lose any points and the clock re-sets.
If you finish the day with 10 points or more remaining, you win that day. Track your progress by making a sticky note on your desktop (physical or computer) and putting one tick mark for every hour of sitting.
Paleo Superstar: You know all those unusual foods you should be eating? Here’s a game to help you make it happen. You get 1 point for every day you…
- Eat a sea vegetable
- Eat an organ or other odd bit (skin, hocks, oxtail, etc. all count)
- Drink bone broth (using it in soup counts).
- Eat a fermented food that still has active cultures in it (pasteurized sauerkraut or pickles don’t count, but if you make them at home they do).
A weekly score of 28 is perfect; 21 is pretty darn good, and 14 is still way above average. Track your progress by writing out all four categories and giving yourself a check for each day you eat them.
On all of these games, you can compete with a friend for extra motivation. But you can also play just by yourself: compete against your score from last week and see how much better you can do!
It Doesn't Have to Be Forever
Most of us wouldn't want to track how many vegetables we're eating every day for the rest of our lives. But that's OK. The magic of gamification is that once you've used the motivation of the game to get into your behaviors, they become habits, and they get self-perpetuating even without the game. The game helps you establish the habits you need to stay on track for your long-term goals (like weight maintenance, managing a chronic condition, or anything else), but after a while a lot of people find they don't even need the game any longer: they can drop the points and the tracking, but the habits stay.