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“If only I could read through all the books I own.”
“If only I could get more work done in less time.”
“If only I could lose weight.”

Yup, those sound familiar. Sometimes it feels impossible to make a change. The good news is that I’ve done the research on how it can be easier. By understanding a few things about how you tick and what to add into the mix, a better you is just around the corner.

The ruts we find ourselves in can be changed by identifying the bad habit that got us there – and cultivating the positive habits to change for good.

Gamers are experts at making and breaking habits

Clock gears
Photo Credit: Treefiddy via Compfight cc
You enjoy playing games, right? It can be effortless to pick up a game and get addicted. If you play games, you’re already good at what it takes to change a habit.

Think about what makes you keep returning to a game. Game designers use a number of techniques to keep you entertained and coming back for more – these are called game mechanics. They are what drive you to solve puzzles, destroy enemies, and hit random brick blocks to see what might pop out.

We gamers can accomplish great things anywhere by using what we’ve learned from gaming.

Let’s look at game mechanics, understand what drives habits, and then mash them together to create a better world (or at least a better us).

Crash course on game mechanics

Chris Bennett, an accomplished game designer and expert on game mechanics, clued me in on what makes a game tick.

“Tapping basic desires can keep someone engaged,” says Bennett. “These are called compulsion loops. They keep us doing something over and over again.”

He uses Angry Birds as an example. The game’s designers want players to win the game by destroying the pigs (the enemy, naturally). You destroy the pigs by bowling over their structures with birds you launch into the air.

Here’s where the magic of game mechanics happen and why you just can’t stop throwing those birds into the air.

Angry Birds’ designers motivate the players to keep launching birds at the structures by knowing some of our pre-programmed desires:

  • Social cues – The pigs taunt you when you wait too long to slingshot a bird or when you lose.
  • Close call – You launch the bird into the air and it’s a direct hit! One of the pigs roll conspicuously close to the ledge before rocking back to safety.
  • Rewards – So you beat a round and you’ve been graced with a new weapon in your arsenal: a bird that explodes!
  • And you keep slinging birds at structures filled with rolling pigs. Over. And over. And over….

    Crazy habit you’ve developed there, huh? ;) This is what game designers refer to as a Feedback Loop, the science that makes you do things over and over:

    1)    Player action (launches bird)
    2)    Game rules and state change (bird trajectory may damage structure and defeat enemy)
    3)    Feedback – communicates change to player (player sees structure crumble, pig roll to its death)
    4)    Synthesis and filtering – player learns which actions affect change (slingshot bird at structure to topple and defeat pigs)
    5)    Return to player action (slingshot another bird)

    Think about your favorite game. What keeps you going back? Which game mechanics are at play to keep you returning?

    You’ll see these everywhere as you play games. Bennett gives other examples: social pressure in multiplayer games keeps you moving to be a team contributor. Random rewards keep you overturning rocks for treasure. Risk / reward keep you moving along more challenging paths.

    How habits are formed

    Photo Credit: Emily Barney via Compfight cc
    We’ve seen how game mechanics can create habits we form in-game. Now let’s talk about how these principles apply to everyday habits.

    Habits – both good and bad – are the product of repetition and reinforcement. We do something, we see and like the results (a rush of dopamine), and we do it again. We do this over and over, forming deep pathways in our brain that become harder to change as time goes on.

    Over time, habits become unconscious to help reduce the burden of brain processing. You don’t think of all the little processes to eat food with utensils. Oh my God, what a chore. Our brains simply have us pick up the fork, brink the food to our mouth, and chew. It’s automatic. It’s a habit.

    Deep neural pathways is why changing habits can be so dang tough but not impossible.

    Remember the Feedback Loop we discussed above? Yes, this is the same feedback loop – only the game designer is your brain! Well, it’s more complicated because we’re taking into account your environment, years of conditioning, your unique genetic makeup, and more.

    Changing habits is a game

    Chris Bennett says habits are easier to change by breaking them down into smaller parts. He shared a magic formula called the Fogg Model that will help you make or break any habit. Ready?

    Behavior = Motivation + Trigger + Ability

    Behavior is what you actually do. “Motivation” is the desire to do the behavior. “Trigger” is the thing that prompts you to do the behavior. “Ability” is if you have the means to follow through with the behavior.

    Here’s the key:

    Create good habits by making it easy to have all three variables – motivation, trigger, and ability.

    Kick bad habits by removing just one of the three variables.

    Looking to Angry Birds again:

    Catapulting a bird = Want to catapult + Pigs heckling + Extra birds left

    Removing one of these elements (don’t want to throw a bird, pigs going silent, no birds left) will prevent you from playing the game.

    One tooth a night

    Let’s apply this to forming a new habit – flossing your teeth.

    First, you need to have the desire to create the habit. If you don’t have it yet, this should motivate you: My dental hygienist sister-in-law says missing one night of flossing before bed is like skipping one week of brushing your teeth. EWWW.

    Do we have the motivation now? Good.

    Then set an attainable goal. Bennett says renown Stanford Persuasive Technologist BJ Fogg suggests making habits easier to form by simplifying them.

    Objective: Floss ONE TOOTH before bed. If you do this, you win!

    “Wow, simple! ONE tooth! That’s easy enough. I can rise to the challenge.”

    Next, think of a trigger that you see every night before bed: put your floss on top of your alarm clock, put a sticky note on your sink mirror, or set your cell phone alarm to ring.

    Finally, you can’t do it without the ability. Make sure you have floss on hand and a minute to spare.

    Here’s the trick: it’s easy to think about flossing one tooth. But you can’t floss just one tooth when you start!

    Changing the worst habits

    It’s harder to change a bad habit than create a good habit – let’s talk about making it easier. How about eating within two hours of bedtime. (Snacking on unhealthy food right before bed is a big contributor to obesity.)

    Remember Behavior = Motivation + Trigger + Ability? Start by removing at least one of the variables. For example

  • Motivation: Think about how good you want to look in that bathing suit this summer or read more on the health risks of eating late.
  • Trigger: Hide junk food so you don’t wander across them. Avoid TV shows focused on food, such as cooking shows.
  • Ability: Make sure you have no unhealthy food in the house, or more realistically, ask a loved one to hide or lock away the junk food so you can’t access it.
  • These are examples of removing elements  – how about adding elements that will reward you?

    Let’s go on a quest: Random Rewards

    Game Quest
    Photo Credit: Jonathan_W via Compfight cc
    According to Bennett, one of the most motivating game mechanics is random rewards: you don’t know when it’s coming – all you know is if you keep doing something, eventually you’ll get a reward.

    What you’ll need: Something to replace food before dinner as a reward, someone who lives with you and can keep you honest, and someplace to store cash.

    How it works:

    1)   You’ll be dropping a set amount of cash into a jar in the kitchen every time you grab junk food within a few hours before bed. This is the money your partner will be pulling from to randomly reward you.

    2)   Determine random rewards: your friend takes you to see a movie of your choice, buys you a new video game, or even cooks an early dinner for you the next night.

    3)   Get your roommate or significant other up to date on breaking your bad habit. Tell them how long you will be trying to break the habit, what the rules are, and how you’d like to be randomly rewarded.

    4)   Let your friend pick when to surprise you, but make sure it’s not weeks before you see a reward. You want to be encouraged, not discouraged.

    Set reasonable goals: start with three nights in a row, then build up to seven, then see if you can go a full month without snacking before bed.

    Some say all you need is 21 days to make or break a habit, but this is only a rumor. Truthfully, it depends on your personal chemistry. The longer and more frequently you’ve been running a behavior, the longer it will take to kick it. And when you do, be careful to avoid triggers that will send you spiraling back to the habit at a moment’s notice.

    More ways to break a bad habit

    Substitution: Switch out the behavior you’re addicted to. For example, walk up and down the stairwell instead of surfing the web at work. Return to your seat ready to focus again.

    Visualization: Picture how you will look and feel after you kick a bad habit. Set up triggers to remind yourself to think about it. You can’t be what you can’t see.

    Invest in the outcome: Players are more likely to play through a game the more time they invest in it. Make an action that commits you, such as telling your family and friends.

    Change your environment: It’s hard to create new (good) habits when you change your surroundings. Likewise, it’s easier to kick bad habits when you’re distracted with a new locale, spending time with new people, or rearranging your furniture.

    What methods have worked for you when changing bad habits?

    Big thanks to the busy Chris Bennett for sharing his knowledge. If you’d like to see him in action, he’ll be speaking on May 15th in Palo Alto, California about persuasive game technology.

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