“Working on your goals” is usually not fun. It’s way too formal and serious. And that’s one of the reasons we quit.
So how can you build good habits, improve yourself and have a great life — while still having a blast?
I decided to call an expert on the subject. Steve Kamb is the bestselling author of Level Up Your Life: How to Unlock Adventure and Happiness by Becoming the Hero of Your Own Story.
Steve meshes psychology with video games, movies and pop culture to make achieving goals enjoyable. He’s also the “Rebel Leader” at Nerd Fitness where he’s helped nearly 300,000 people achieve their fitness goals.
What’s his secret? Steve says you need to turn your life into a game. Sound silly? It is. But it works. Steve’s ideas can help you get the life you want — and they’re spectacular for motivating kids as well.
When I hear something over and over from very different sources, I take notice. And “make it a game” is one of those things:
Warning: There is much silly ahead. But silly is fun. And this is the kind that can help you achieve your dreams and live a better life.
Let the games begin…
What’s Your “Next Level”?
We all know we’re supposed to set goals for ourselves and… Sorry, I’m already yawning. “Goals” are so formal and stuffy.
So let’s look at life like a video game. What are your levels? What do you need to accomplish to unlock that next reward?
You need to get to 100 points to unlock the ability to buy that shiny new thing you’ve been wanting. Every hour you spend working on that awful project for work gets you 10 points.
Or every time you visit the gym gets you 10 points. Want to be a better parent? 20 points for every hug you give your child. Here’s Steve:
As I was contemplating this idea of improving myself, I thought back to why all these games were so addicting to me. I wasn’t aware at the time, but behavioral psychology and game mechanics often go hand in hand. Specifically this idea of the “Progress Principle” — that progress is the most motivating thing. I started to apply these ideas to my life, and thought, “Instead of getting addicted to another video game, why don’t I apply those game mechanics to my life and get addicted to improving myself?” I took the goals I wanted to achieve and created “levels” so that I could see consistent progress and feel good everyday.
And Steve’s right about the research. Harvard’s Teresa Amabile found that nothing is more motivating than progress.
This pattern is what we call the progress principle: of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work.
“Scoring points” of any kind has an interesting effect. As business guru Pete Drucker is famous for saying, “What gets measured gets managed.”
Mike Norton, professor at Harvard Business School, says that we always look for a metric to show whether our life is getting better and whether we’re keeping up with the Joneses. But usually the only number we have is dollars.
What’s the best metric for your goals? What will help you achieve your “next level”? If you take a second to answer those questions you get 10 points.
(To learn the four rituals that neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
Okay, so you know the next level you need to reach and the score you need to get there. What’s the best way to reward yourself?
Reward Yourself With Things That Reward You Back
Research shows that rewards are responsible for three-quarters of why you do things.
Researchers find that perceived self-interest, the rewards one believes are at stake, is the most significant factor in predicting dedication and satisfaction toward work. It accounts for about 75 percent of personal motivation toward accomplishment. – Dickinson 1999
But the problem is you often reward yourself with stuff that actually sets you back. “I ran three miles… so now I get to eat an entire chocolate cake.” No good.
In video games the reward you get (like a magic sword) helps you achieve the goals you want to accomplish in the next level. And Steve says that’s exactly how you should reward yourself.
Did you study that language you want to learn every day this month? Reward yourself with a vacation to that country so you can practice even more. Here’s Steve:
The thing I love about “Legend of Zelda” is that every time you go to a new dungeon or a new level, there is a new item that you earn. That item allows you then to progress further in the game and go explore the next dungeon. So why don’t we reward ourselves with things that reward us back? If you could run for just ten minutes every day for five days a week, for three weeks, you earn a new pair of running shoes. Because I completed this mission that I had tasked myself with, I’ve been able to earn something that further encourages me, helps me build momentum and pushes me further down the path of the habit I’m trying to build, the new version of myself I’m trying to create.
How do Navy SEALs get through their difficult training? They make it a game. Navy SEAL platoon commander James Waters explains:
Many people don’t recognize that what they’re doing at BUD/S is assessing your ability to handle a difficult circumstance and keep going. It’s a game. If you want to be a Navy SEAL, you’ve got to play that game. You’ve got to have fun with it and you’ve got to keep your eye on the bigger picture.
(To learn the toughness secrets of Navy SEALs, click here.)
Progress is great and rewards are great… but where’s the fun? Here it is…
Get A Secret Identity
This is going to sound very silly. But it works. (And nobody has to know you’re acting silly.)
Pretend to be your favorite hero. James Bond, Jason Bourne, Batman, Wonder Woman. You did it when you were five but it will make things just as exciting now as it did then. I promise. Here’s Steve:
I thought to myself, “Well, if these things make me feel excited and alive, and I’m living vicariously through characters, what if I reframed how I look at my day-to-day existence too?” Who’s your alter-ego? Jason Bourne, James Bond, or Lara Croft from Tomb Raider? I think something interesting happens within us when we start to reframe our existence and say, “What would so-and-so character do, if they were in this situation?” When I’m imagining I’m Jason Bourne, it makes my workouts even better.
Sound crazy? Research really does show that thinking about fictional characters we love can help us make better decisions.
In fact, thinking about superheroes can even make you physically stronger.
Ellen Langer did research where she told elderly people to act like they were younger. What happened? They walked faster, felt better, got smarter — even their eyesight and hearing improved:
…Prof Langer took physiological measurements both before and after the week and found the men improved across the board. Their gait, dexterity, arthritis, speed of movement, cognitive abilities and their memory was all measurably improved. Their blood pressure dropped and, even more surprisingly, their eyesight and hearing got better.
So just call me Alfred. And this should get you amped up, Master Wayne:
(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)
Okay, you’re a superhero. (No need to wear tights. In fact, please, do not put on tights.) How can you make sure you stick with the program and achieve your goals faster?
Games are more fun with friends. And achieving goals is easier with supportive pals.
No, you don’t have to tell them you’re pretending to be Jason Bourne, but involving friends in your exercise, work or personal goals creates a supportive environment that will keep you going and make the process more engaging. Here’s Steve:
You’re the average of the 5 people you associate with the most. In a video game, picking team members is easy; you want to group up with the most talented players that support you. In life, we should be thinking about things the same way. Who we spend time with can have such a powerful impact on who we are. When you surround yourself with people doing the things that you want to do, you have people to get guidance from, support from, and people that will keep you on target.
And the research backs Steve up here, too. People who dramatically changed their lives “were embedded in social groups that made change easier.”
From Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:
In a 1994 Harvard study that examined people who had radically changed their lives, for instance, researchers found that some people had remade their habits after a personal tragedy, such as a divorce or a life-threatening illness… Just as frequently, however, there was no tragedy that preceded people’s transformations. Rather, they changed because they were embedded in social groups that made change easier…
(To learn how to get people to like you — from an FBI behavior expert, click here.)
All this stuff about accomplishing goals is great but what if you just want to be happy? That’s another achievement you can unlock…
The Hero Must Sacrifice Something To Achieve Happiness
The danger in a video game mindset is that you’re always focused on getting the next thing — that you’re never satisfied.
Here Steve says we should look to great movies where the hero needs to sacrifice something to win in the end. How does Steve do it?
He volunteers. Steve sacrifices his time every week to help kids at the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. And this doesn’t just make their lives better, it makes his life better too. Here’s Steve:
In my two and a half years living in Nashville, I volunteered every Thursday at the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital to remind me just how amazing my life was, and how insignificant my problems were compared to the things these kids were going through. Not only that, but these kids had giant smiles on their faces, when I could just come and play games for an hour. Any problem I had or anything I was dealing with at work just instantly vanished and I could be a kid for an hour.
Studies show volunteering makes you happy. And that’s not correlation, it’s causation.
I know, “you don’t have time.” Guess what? Research shows the best way to feel less time-constrained is to spend your time helping others.
Help a kid. What’s more heroic than that?
(To learn more about how to use gratitude rituals to make yourself happier, click here.)
Okay, superhero, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and get Steve’s suggestion on the best way to get started on your adventure…
Here are Steve’s tips on the fun way to make your life awesome:
- What’s your “next level”?: I’m giving you 10 points just for reading this far.
- Reward yourself with things that reward you back: Play that guitar every day and you get to buy a new guitar.
- Get a secret identity: Boring stuff is more fun when you’re a superhero. (Your secret is safe with me.)
- Play multiplayer: Everything is better with the support of friends — especially saving the world.
- The hero must sacrifice something to achieve happiness: Making others happy makes you happy.
What’s the best way to get started? Stop reading and start doing. Set aside just 15 minutes every day. And don’t be afraid to look silly. Here’s Steve:
Whatever it is that you’re working on, spend 15 minutes today doing something concrete towards the goal that you’re working on. Don’t be afraid of being terrible at it. If you want to speak a new language, go ahead and butcher the pronunciation of “hello” in that language. Regardless of how much you read about something, it pales in comparison to taking action. Start today, spend 15 minutes. Then repeat that process tomorrow and just get a teenie tiny bit better.
No longer afraid of a little silliness? Good. Because I have news for you…
You are no longer you. You are a secret agent. You are talented, supercool and oh so amazingly good looking.
And you are not reading a blog post. You are preparing for a secret mission that will test your abilities to the max. Should you succeed in your quest, you will come out stronger, faster, better and happier.
Only you can achieve this mission. We need your incredible skills. The world is counting on you.
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.