The Gamification of Good Habits

After wrapping up undergrad, the excitement and thrill of my new life as a young professional faded fast. As it turns out, scheduling time between classes for naps and taking zero classes on Fridays is not a great way to spend the second semester of your senior year if you’re trying to prepare yourself for life after college. It only took a couple of weeks of the “9-5 grind” for my day-to-day life to begin feeling like a train wreck transpiring in slow motion.

Basically, everyday would unfold just like this:

  1. Snooze my alarm clock too many times
  2. Rush and skip packing a lunch for myself
  3. Navigate traffic like a crazy person to minimize lateness
  4. Skip the gym during lunch break to catch up on work
  5. Spend money on cafeteria food that I had budgeted to save
  6. Commute home in exhausting amounts of traffic
  7. Feel too tired to prepare the food I bought at the grocery store
  8. Spend more money on fast food
  9. Watch TV to procrastinate going to the gym
  10. Go to bed far later than I should and repeat this same fun process all over again :)

I felt stuck and I was unable to make progress toward any of my goals outside of work. I wanted to see if I could crack the code and figure out what was holding me in place so I started wading through the oceans of self-help books that exist. Eventually, I established a daily routine that was designed to ensure that I honored the true priorities in my life every day. It was at this point that I realized how truly difficult it is to achieve goals. Even with this routine in place, I felt like I was accomplishing about half of the things I wanted to each week. While I knew what I wanted to be doing with my time, and I was definitely doing it when I was able, it was tough to know how much time I was actually putting in and whether or not I was actually making meaningful progress.

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

JameS Clear, Atomic Habits

In “Atomic Habits,” one of the best self-improvement books I’ve read so far, James Clear says, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” When I read this, I realized that the biggest obstacle for me achieving my goals was an incomplete system. I had a plan but no feedback loop. This is where technology has made my dreams come true.

Sleep Watch on iOS

How Technology Enables Advanced Habit Tracking Systems

With the help of my phone and my watch, I’ve established a system that regularly tracks and guides me toward gradual improvement in areas of life that are important to me, including sleep, diet, physical activity, personal finance, and time management. While tracking metrics in these areas of life has been huge, the real secret behind the system that my phone and watch enables is the gamification of everything.

Every day, I get a dashboard view of what I’ve accomplished in these areas, and it makes it easy to act accordingly. For me, the biggest barrier to making progress was actually recording it in a way that was easy to reference. With my phone and watch taking care of that, I feel liberated to focus on the fun part, which is trying to win the game, and in turn, getting my priorities done every day without having to think about it.

In this post, I wanted to share the apps that drive my system:

Sleep Watch

Sleep Watch is a relatively new addition to my system, but it is definitely the app on my phone that I am most excited about right now. Finding a good sleep app has been a challenge because collecting accurate and relevant info about sleep can be challenge, but Sleep Watch provides the greatest level of insight into what is happening while you are asleep while also coaching you to make better sleep decisions while you are awake.

Lose It! on iOS

You do need an Apple Watch or any another compatible wearable device to get the greatest level of benefit from this app, as it tracks your heart rate and movement throughout the night to measure phases of restful vs. light sleep along with your overall heart rate dip. With this info, along with other data points, the app produces a score for your night’s sleep as well as a running sleep score over time.  

Lose It!

While the name makes this app sounds like it is strictly geared toward dieters, I would recommend this app to anyone who is looking for more transparency into daily calorie intake vs. expenditures.

By logging your meals into the food diary portion of the app and integrating it with a fitness tracker, you can see your calorie surplus or deficit at any time throughout the day, which makes decisions around what you should make for dinner or whether or not it would be wise to big with dessert a lot easier.

Fitness

There are a lot of fitness tracking apps, but as an Apple Watch owner, I prefer the app that is native to watchOS. It offers the greatest level of flexibility in how the data is displayed on your watch face and phone screen, and has the classic “Close Your Rings” promptings throughout the day to keep you on track for hitting your goals. This app will sift through your data over time and present “Trends” to offer more transparency into patterns that are forming in your activity levels.

Mint

aTracker on iOS

Mint is one of the oldest personal finance apps out there at this point. Even though there are newer alternatives out there like YNAB and Dave Ramsey’s EveryDollar, I’ve found Mint to be perfect for my system, as it is excellent at tracking and organizing my spending and saving activity.

The app integrates with my banking, credit card, investing, and loan accounts to present all of my personal finance info into one aggregated dashboard view. As different transactions are recorded across my different accounts, they are fed into Mint for me to review and if necessary, recategorize to ensure it is counted accurately in my budget.

ATracker

ATracker is a perfect app for time-based goals. In my previous system, I would simply check the box if I was able to honor the habits I was trying to cultivate each day, but ATracker adds an extra dimension by allowing you to record how much time is spent on each activity.

I record the amount time spent in focused concentration at work, reading fiction and non-fiction books, listening to self-improvement podcasts, practicing self reflection, and studying Cantonese. I have specific time goals I hope to hit for these activities each day, and at the end of each week/month/year I’m able to check in and see how successful I’ve been at executing and following through on goals to cultivate new habits.

Are there any habit tracking apps that you use? Do you see opportunities in the future for business leaders to leverage habit tracking apps like these to improve workforce performance?

20 comments

  1. abigailholler1 · ·

    It’s wild to see just how much of our behavior can be tracked in phone applications – virtually every part of our lives while awake or sleeping can be tracked in a meaningful way! I’ve had an apple watch for about a year ago, so I track my workouts and activity using that. I do think there are incentives that employers can use to incentivize better performance of employees both in and out of the (home) office. For example, activity tracking could be used to promote health and wellness, which can in turn lead to lower healthcare costs for employers. Secondly, tracking employee working hours and sleep habits can help identify which teams might be higher utilized and require more headcount support. Although, turning over all of this data will of course ignite the typical question on privacy as it will give employers the ability to see more deeply into their employee’s personal lives!

  2. Jie Zhao · ·

    I personally just started using Mint and I love it so far! I like how I can review all my accounts, including monthly payments, 401K, etc. in one app! As for fitness, I used to use the FitBit app – I liked how creates communities and encourages users to join different challenges to meet their fitness goals. My employer also gives incentives when we meet certain steps each day, so that was nice to earn little rewards for something I was doing already! I definitely am a little concerned about privacy issues, it seems like these apps will track every single detail of our lives without knowing exactly what they might potentially use the data for in the future.

  3. ritellryan · ·

    I really enjoyed reading this. While I used to use an app called sleep cycle to track sleep and see how well I was sleeping, I don’t think it would have changed any of my behaviors per se (although it tried to wake you +-15 mins from your desired time based on your REM cycle which was cool). That said the concept of an immediate feedback loop is what is valuable. I do have a diet app that tracks what I eat to lose weight (and it worked exceptionally well), but it took several months to see a change. I think the apps, like you mentioned get us into those good habits, and then it is up to us to see if we are happy at that state or if you need to then use a specialist to take it to the next level (e.g. a trainer, nutritionist, financial advisor, etc.) It goes back to the concept that technology won’t necessarily take away jobs from people, but it allows us to better ourselves on our own. With regards to work, a company I use to work for is now tracking how long people take to do retirement calculation packages using a timer to determine efficiency and determine what characteristics make a calculation hard or not so they know whether they can send it to our off shore team or send it to the US for special care. While many people don’t like the feeling of being watched, the concept behind giving the more value add work to the thought leaders does make some sense and should increase efficiency.

  4. marissaspletter · ·

    I enjoyed the examples and review of the platforms you shared. I also integrate these apps into my daily life, so it was interesting to see other apps that could work for me. I have been using Mint for the past couple of years and I can support the easy-to-use features. For sleeping and health, it can be very difficult to find the right fit. I’ve used Fitbit and Garmin dashboards to track my health, which gives me unbelievable insights into my fitness levels, nutrition, health, and impact on sleep. I will have to check out these other examples!

  5. conoreiremba · ·

    Scott, I love the level of accountability that you have brought to your life by effectively using these apps. James Clear’s book is great and his weekly 30-second newsletter is even better (https://jamesclear.com/3-2-1). People say that the hardest thing to do is to establish a routine, but as you show, the hardest thing to do is break a routine once it has been embedded in your daily life. For me right now I use something as simple as the Apple Fitness+ app through my phone and watch and I use the weekly report sent on a Sunday to reflect on my progress. I had previously used more primitive and less user-friendly versions of nutrition and sleeping apps which really put me off given how much effort was involved in staying on top of it, but given your suggestions, I think I need to ditch that old tired excuse and get some accountability of my own.
    As our classmates have alluded to, getting employee buy-in might be the difficult part, but I believe leaders can only benefit from these types of apps in the workplace by having a means of aggregation that tracks the kind of things that their employees/teams did on those particular days that they achieved great results, which can only help their chances of replicating that behavior on a consistent basis as well as having employees learn from each other’s habits. And that’s really what these apps allow us to do, rather than just track activity to check off boxes, they track activity and habits so that we can improve for the next challenge. Great post.

  6. I personally do not use any apps to track my day to day routine but it is something I have begun to consider. The biggest obstacle for me to this point is that I generally don’t like wearing a watch so the wearable tech that is available right now is a little too bulky for what I would want to use. As we know with technology, everything gets smaller and more powerful over time. I could imagine a piece of wearable technology that is small enough to be barely noticeable for someone like me. In the meantime, I will have to check out the Mint app because I would like to have something that accurately tracks spending. I used an app (which I can’t remember its name) many years ago and it did a poor job of categorizing each item, maybe Mint would work better.

  7. therealerindee · ·

    Scott, kudos to you for establishing new routines and leveraging technology and wearables to help you accomplish goals. You are the poster child for what these apps are intending. I, on the other hand, am not. The problem I have with all these apps is that for the most part (excluding Apple Watch) you have to enter all of the data on your own. I always start strong with the best intentions and then drop off over time. I suppose I am not getting enough out of the gamification of things. Going off of Abigail’s comment above, these apps and wearables are beginning to be used by businesses like health insurers and larger employers to incentivize “good” behavior. I see this as taking the gamification of things a few steps further, and I could see businesses beginning to use task oriented trackers to help push productivity. I see that working in a similar fashion, perhaps better, than how lawyers track billable hours.

  8. olivia_levy8 · ·

    This is a great blog and something I think everyone understands or can relate to. It is awesome to hear how technology has helped you create healthy habits. My take on gamification, especially of health and fitness, is not as positive. I think that the gamification, especially the Apple Watch and diet trackers, are dangerous in the detriment they can bring to health if a user is not in the proper mindset. I have always been into fitness and working out is one of my favorite things to do, and I put off buying an Apple Watch for years out of the fear of gamification of fitness. The gamification in fitness, especially seen in younger females can lead to obsession over “closing rings” and burning calories that is extremely unhealthy. For me, living a healthy lifestyle means listening to your body, and when your body says it needs a rest, not feeling a need to give into this gamification and still workout or be active to close the rings. Society, especially with the increase in social media, can be harmful to self image, leading to these trackers becoming obsessive for some.

    Diet trackers as well can be detrimental if not used properly, if someone realizes if they eat they have to enter it and their calorie consumption goes up, this could lead to a bad relationship with food and be harmful even possibly leading to eating disorders. Once again, these are specific circumstances and these apps that work for a 60-year-old who needs to diet for their health, may have a totally different affect on a high school student who thinks they need to fit an image of health and fitness that society praises.

    Overall, I love my Apple Watch and don’t really check my rings often because for me health is more of a holistic lifestyle. I also love the app Strava, which is more of a running app that gives statistics on your pace, route, etc, but can also be used to enter workouts and links to the Peloton app that I use often. I think that there are many great applications, these apps show promise but also perils, in the obsession they can lead to. I think some of this gamification leads to people taking life too seriously and being over meticulous, just another example of everything in moderation.

  9. sayoyamusa · ·

    I really enjoyed your post! I didn’t know James Clear, but his saying is spotted on and totally agree with you that technology can help us build a good habitual system. I’m using Asics Runkeeper when I jog, and there are two reasons I like it: 1) It shows my track records with maps and photos. I think the visualization of data is a key for gamification. 2) I do not need to enter any data because it automatically records my activity. My company used to encourage the employees to use the app that records the daily meals like “Lose it!” but the biggest barrier was I had to input the data by myself and soon I gave it up…The point here might be to make sure the technology could help eliminate such bothersome things.
    You raised a great point about leveraging technology for employee engagement, which is becoming critical for all companies, especially in the current remote working environment. It should not be utilized to monitor or micromanage employees but there must be opportunities to boost team communication and productivity. I want to think about it for my company. Thanks for the great insight!

  10. Chuyong Liu · ·

    Thank you for sharing all these good technologies! I totally feel that it is especially important to keep track of the most important things in life at times that we are too busy to look beyond our current day to day events. There is a popular joke that gaining weight is actually a work-related injury that is happening to many people! Busy working tend to harm our health and make us forget about taking care of many important things.

    I recall last semester when I had six classes and job searching going on, I feel stuck with catching all the deadlines and live my life like a mess. Gladly I found a journal book invented by psychologist to help people focus on the most important thing in a day, a week and a month. The journal is called “a day well spend” and I still have it with me all the time. Simply have a reminder to help me look beyond the current moment has been so helpful. All the phone apps are so easy to use and to carry around which is even greater than a journal book!

  11. alexcarey94 · ·

    This is a great post- I am very much obsessed with my apple watch also and love seeing the stats on my health and fitness. As many people mentioned above it is often hard to keep track of apps you need to manually input data- and seeing how many apps you are using to stay on track probably also to keep track of! I think it would be cool if there was an app that kept all of this data in one spot so you could easily access a dashboard of sorts with all this data. This would give you an overall holistic view of your goals- where you are being successful and what areas may be lacking (though this may be a lot of data for one company to have on you!).

  12. Phenomenal post Scott. I am a big fan of Atomic Habits, one of my favorite examples James Clear used about processes was the person who would take the cab to they gym every morning. She said something to the effect of “As soon as I am in the cab, I have completed my whole process.” Implying that once she was in the cab on her way to the gym there was no turning back and the rest of the process would fall into place. I appreciate the list of apps you listed I am excited to try Sleepwatch and ATracker.

  13. williammooremba · ·

    Really excellent post. This blog post reminded me of the health fitness incentive I had at my previous job. Simply put if you filled a certain number of health-related requirements you got a yearly discount on health insurance premiums. The amount really added up and while I forget specifics it was around a few thousand dollars per year. The requirements ranged from simple things like filing in basic health info and getting a yearly physical to more advanced health goals. One example health goal was to achieve 10,000 daily steps for a month. I kind of simply didn’t bother with it while I was getting used to post college life, but eventually I gave it a shot. It was a mess. The system had a challenging user interface which relied pretty much entirely on manually inputting data. Progress was confusing and requirements and methodologies to submitting everything was all over the place. I did half of the required activities before giving up out of frustration. I think these kinds of programs can be useful, but I think they need to be done with good applications. Creating too many barriers can make the whole process more trouble than it is worth.

  14. Just finished Atomic Habits. Ready to get out of the Pandemic, so I can start putting things into practice a bit better than in lockdown.

  15. changliu0601 · ·

    I found that I had covered all the ten things you mentioned.I definitely need to read the Atomic Habits. The interesting thing is today my friend just recommended me a finance apps.He said after he linked all the credit cards, stock accounts etc, he found himself 20000 dollars in debt.Stressful!!I’ve tried some sleep tracking apps.That was the first time i found i could snore so many times a night.And i really rely on the task apps to reminds me of things.I totally agree that these apps are influencing our daily life.

  16. I tried a couple of times before with various apps. One of the biggest challenges I had was keeping the momentum. The first few weeks when I decided to adopt ” Atomic Habits” with these apps, I was so energetic and can keep my daily routines and activities healthy. However, after several weeks, I walked back to my comfort zone and never opened these apps after. I’ll be much appreciated it if some apps can solve such problems and help me keep my momentum going. Thanks for sharing the apps, and I will definitely try them out!

  17. courtneymba · ·

    This post was so inspiring, Scott! I love the quote from Atomic Habits and how you’ve used it to build a supportive system to keep you on track. It also looks like you’ve developed really kind habits for yourself like the podcast, reading various genres, learning Cantonese, and reflection. As Olivia pointed out and we discussed in class, there can be a dark side to habit tracking but it really looks like it’s productive, balanced, and transparent for you. I’ll have to look into the time management one myself. My self-help podcasts would be through the roof lol!

  18. AndraeAllen · ·

    Gamifying anything usually results in a positive response. I think it has something to do with the feeling of winning, even if the win was barely noticeable by the people around you. Then there are people who are heavily geared towards metrics, for them assigning a metric to a task also assigns more value. In the end it comes down to accountability and motivation its great how a 5 second download can put both of these tools directly into your pocket. Great post and thanks for sharing that amazing quote!

  19. Divya Jha · ·

    I really enjoyed reading your post, Scott. So relatable and motivating! I think you’ve done a fine job expanding on some of the ways we can use these apps to our advantage. Honestly, there are just so many apps that preach self-help that it can get overwhelming! Gamifying good habits certainly increases the fun and accountability element in our daily lives. To answer your question, yes, I see a future where companies not only have such systems in place for their employees but also business leaders who share personal insights like these to inspire the workforce to do the same!

  20. kellywwbcedu · ·

    I agree with this article in that cell phones/technology have allowed people to create better habits through the many applications available (such as Lose It!, Fitness, Sleep Watch, and others mentioned in the article); however, something I kept thinking about whole reading this was how these habit fixing apps simultaneously fuel an unhealthy habit: increased screen time. I think the main idea this article is trying to get across is that we have access to many healthy habit trackers right at our fingertips which may allow us to achieve our goals, but I think they failed to address this counter-argument of technology sometimes being a bad habit in itself. I think we all should take the time to step back from our screens, because the technology era we’re living in can keep us from being present, and maybe being fully present should be a goal to achieve.

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