Overcoming laziness, apathy; point and reward system to help motivate and reward productivity

I’m terrible with checklists or task lists — in fact I hate them. My wife, on the other hand, loves them and is constantly making to-do lists for nearly every day of the week.  I am pretty confident that she even gets a slight dopamine hit when she’s completed nearly every task on her list for that day, feeling accomplished and productive.  But I’m not wired in that way at all — I don’t get as much satisfaction just from the act of completing something or ticking something off my to-do list.  I just see the list as this obligation that I don’t even want to start at.  I’m quite content to just sit on the couch, watch a little Netflix, or blow a couple hours on a video game or two.  It takes a lot of motivation to change my mind about how I am going to spend the next few hours.

So I’m going to try and do something a little different with my goals and tasks for the week — I’m going to try and gamify things a little.  Organizations and software companies do this all the time, adding a game-like element to whatever it is they want you to do — we see this in the form of achievement points, badges, rewards, and progress trackers.  Video games do this all the time — adding in the element of achievement points and rewards for completing certain tasks over the long haul to keep you in the game.

What is my goal and what do I want to achieve?

My ultimate goal is simply to achieve more of my smaller goals and tasks. Some sample goals that support a larger overarching goal:  practice the piano more, or go running three to four days a week, working on that creative project I’ve been putting off. Some example tasks or busy work: fix that nagging leak in the sink, organize all the kids’ art supplies, clean up my office or work space.  When I’ve identified those goals and tasks, track them throughout the week, and reward myself for my accomplishments.

Because my job takes up a good percentage of my time, I also need to apply this to my job as well.  I should track and reward myself for progress at work for completing project goals, and for completing the tasks I’ve been putting off.

So the first step is to set up two main categories:

  • work goals/tasks, and
  • personal goals/tasks.

For me, I have a digital journal that I keep — I will probably use that for tracking my progress during the week for both work-related things and for personal goals/tasks.  You might want to use a spreadsheet if that’s more your flavor (I like spreadsheets, and might even go that route).  But thinking out loud here, you want to make tracking this stuff as easy and quick as possible.  I could see the benefit of having an app that assists with this kind of thing — perhaps something I can think about building later.

The point system

In the interest of keeping things simple, 1 point = 1 hour — to start, if a task takes me anywhere between 1 minute to 1 hour 59 minutes, then I get one point.  If it takes me a little over two hours, I get two points.

Why am I essentially making the first two hours (0 – 1:59) only one point?

I thought about this for awhile — you need a way to incentivize completing something in short order and not just taking your sweet old time completing a task.  If you can complete what should have been a 2-hour task in 45 minutes and be onto the next task and complete that within say 15 minutes, you can get 2 points for an hour’s worth of work.  The incentive is then to try and complete a task that is over an hour (but under two) in under one hour — if you can complete two of those one+ hour tasks within one hour, you have two points in one hour and an hour free to do whatever you please.

The commodity that you’re earning here is time — time to spend doing something else while also seeing your goals become realized.  Incentivized to work smart and complete things in short order.

Setting a daily point goal

From here-on it will invariably become deeply personal from one person to the next.  If you’re a parent with a busy job and busy home life, your daily point goals might look a little like mine.  But if you’re single, few obligations, and a job that gives you some flexibility, your point goals will look entirely different.

For me, I’m lucky to have time to myself in the evenings — typically three to four hours of potential time that is divided up among time with my kids, getting stuff done around the house, dinner, dishes, or whatever.  So my weeknights are inherently limited.  Weekends are a mixed bag, but if I don’t have a lot of social obligations, I might have more time and can shoot for a higher point day.  My personal goals and points might look like this:

Weekly personal goals:  15 points

  • Monday – Friday:  1 point each night
  • Saturday and Sunday:  5 points each day

Points are accumulated when working on smaller goals that help fulfill larger overarching goals (e.g. practice the piano or guitar for 1 hour, working towards the larger goal of becoming a better musician; or go running or workout for 45 minutes, working toward the larger goal of being healthy and fit).

You also accumulate points on working on busy tasks that tend to get put off — namely spending your evening fixing that small leak in the kitchen sink or do that other home improvement thing that can be put off for another day (again… and again). Well I need to reward myself for those tasks, too, which also helps towards the larger goal of helping maintain my home or other things around the house.  I might even consider adding a bonus point if the task is especially gross, cumbersome, or an all-around pain in the ass.

But in addition to setting goals and points for my personal life, I need to set them for work, too.  While I generally feel reasonably productive at work, I think I could strive to be more fruitful with my time.  It’s easy to get caught up in busy work that has little value, or reading industry news or papers that may be relevant and informative, but maybe not as fruitful as time spent doing other things.  So I feel that shooting for a percentage of meeting goals is something to strive for — your percentage level will vary from mine.  I’ve set a goal of fulfilling project-related goals and arduous tasks at 75% of my work day, leaving the remaining 25% for fulfilling ordinary work tasks, administrative crap, etc.  My work points looks something like this:

Weekly work goals:  30 points

  • Monday – Friday: 6 points each day

Why do I need a point system for work?  I thought a paycheck is supposed to be your reward for working?  True.  I’m not sure about you, but it’s easy to get sidetracked into busy work that is related to your job but doesn’t really help accomplish larger long-term goals.

So for work — at least for me — I can acquire points for completing smaller project goals (like finishing up that template for one of our clients or taking care of UI bugs we discover along the way).  But there are also those tasks that you just put off time and time again, the things that you have to get done, but have been dreading.  Like that documentation you’ve been meaning to write about some functionality changes — point.  Or going through your files and archiving all the things that you don’t need anymore — point.  Invest time on learning a new skill or improving your value to your employer?  Point.

The more I think about this, the more I see it being important to reward yourself for achieving goals and completing tasks for both your work and personal life.

So… what’s the prize?  What do I get for all this hard work?

Here’s where you need to spend some time reflecting on what it is that motivates you — your reward system will likely be completely different from mine, unique to who you are and what makes you tick.  Whatever it is, it has to be something that will feel like an extra treat for you, a healthy reward for working hard and seeing results.  But you also don’t want it to be a reward that works against some of your goals or defeats the purpose of some of your disciplines.  Like for me, I want to spend more of my time invested into gratifying things, things that actually matter and have a bit more value to them in the long-run.  Personally, I want to try and dramatically reduce the time wasted on video games and Netflix when I’m sitting around the house at home — I end up squandering away hours and hours of my week on screen time that I’ll never get back.  It feels good at the time, sure, but when I look back it doesn’t feel so good having wasted all that time.

The reward has to be balanced and in moderation — maybe even something that you can enjoy while working on your goals or at a task.  For me, beer is a pretty decent motivator — I love good beer. Now that I’ve set constraints for myself to achieve my overarching goal of living a more healthy life (1 beer a night instead of however many I want), adding a reward system that would allow me to have one extra beer becomes huge.  By manufacturing scarcity or setting limits on something, it becomes a bit more valuable.  You can bet that for my one-beer-limit, I’m choosing my one beer wisely for that evening. But if I work hard and have earned another bonus beer for that evening? Wow, now I have options.

There’s other things that are highly motivating for me, like having lunch at a favorite brewpub or an apple fritter to go with my morning coffee, or that little thing I’ve been wanting on Amazon.  Whatever it is, figure out a reasonable reward system that requires some effort but is both reasonably attainable but not too easy to attain.

What my rewards look like:

Personal rewards for achieving personal goals and completing personal tasks:

  • Reaching my minimum point goal for the entire week (Monday to Sunday):  1 extra beer on the weekend (in addition to my self-imposed one beer limit)
  • For each additional 5 points beyond my minimum quota = 1 additional beer that I can enjoy that following week

But how do I keep that in check?

  • I must also maintain my daily discipline of walking a minimum of 30-45 minutes or more, and
  • I cannot exceed two beers on a weeknight and three on a weekend day.

Work rewards for achieving project goals and completing arduous or tedious tasks:

  • If I meet my weekly goal/quota:
    • one extra beer on Friday evening (my personal reward cannot apply to Friday, two beer limit including my nightly personal limit)
  • For each additional five points I earn:
    • an apple fritter from Caribou to go with my morning coffee, or
    • a snack to enjoy at my desk
  • If I meet my goal minimum for four weeks (not necessarily in a row):
    • Lunch at one of my favorite brewpubs

And how do I keep my work achievements and rewards in check?

  • Like my personal rewards, I must maintain my daily discipline of walking a minimum of 30-45 minutes or more,
  • I am limited to two apple fritters during the week or two snacks at my desk for each week.

A few additional rules

I think it’s safe to say that you have to put some rules around this to make it work and to keep yourself honest.  Knowing me, it would be pretty easy to liberally grant myself points and abuse the system if I didn’t put some reasonable constraints around it.  A few rules that I think I need to include:

  • I must meet the minimum goal threshold to collect a reward.
    For example, if I do not meet my minimum work-related goal, no extra beer for me on Friday evening.
  • Points are not transferable to the next week.
    I cannot apply points from one week to the next.  Points expire Sunday evening and do not carry over.
  • Work points do not apply to personal rewards/goals/points, and vice versa.
    Work points only apply to work goals and rewards.  Personal points only apply to personal goals and rewards.
  • Work points only accumulated at work, and personal points only accumulated at home/outside work.
    To prevent one area of life from bleeding into the other, you only accumulate work points at work, and personal points at home (or outside of work).  This will go towards helping keep work at work and personal stuff at home.

Evolve, tweak, grow, learn

So that’s what I’ve come up with for trying to help motivate myself to work towards personal and work-related goals and completing those tasks that I’ve been putting off.  It’s a decent plan, I think — but like all plans, you need to work it to be successful.  I’m not sure if it’ll work or not, but it will be worth it to give it a try in the coming weeks and see how things play out.  If I feel that things need to be refined or tweaked, then I’ll adjust them as I go.

I think the biggest thing to keep my eye on is the reward system and the point requirement to receiving an award.  I don’t want the rewards to be too easy to achieve, that they require little effort to fulfill — but I also don’t want it to become burdensome that I no longer want to keep at this.  There are some video games that I’ve played in the past, where the rewards were far too difficult to acquire — it’s those games that I gave up on pretty quickly.   I think about the game No Man’s Sky — it’s far too difficult even at the lowest level difficulty and the reward system isn’t that great, I don’t feel incentivized enough to keep plugging away at it.

Held in tight balance, there are also games or apps that reward you too frequently and achievements are no longer special, they’re just expected.  I think of the beer tracking app called Untappd.  Badges used to be a thing of honor and a certain level of prowess — drink X number of unique beers in a specific style, get a badge for fulfilling those requirements.  But when Untappd was acquired, they started giving badges out for nearly everything you do — you’re getting badges for local bars or breweries, badges for beer brands, badges for events or “special days” — you’re getting badges all the time.  It no longer feels special and becomes expected.

If I carry this mindset over into the gamification of my weekly goals and tasks, finding balance in my reward system, it might have longer lasting value and I just might keep at it in the long haul.

If this seems like something up your alley, give it a try for a few weeks and let me know how it works out for you and what you did differently.  And if this system doesn’t work for you, that’s fine — and I don’t need to hear about it either, simply because we’re all wired differently.  Different strokes for different folks.  But if you have suggestions for how you think this system could be further improved or optimized, post them in the comments.

I’ll post my own feedback in a few weeks after I’ve tried out this process and see how it works for me.

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