Habitica has changed my life.

I am pretty fascinated with productivity, data analysis, and habit building. That puts me in very good company.  In fact, I’m feeling like I should be more successful, what with all my habits.  Original post:

It makes no sense.

Habitica is a productivity website/app for organizing based on role playing game software.  Instead of a paper list of things to do which you cross off, with Habitica you create your to-do lists online, and when you click to check items off, you are rewarded with “points”.  These points build up until you achieve the next “level”.  Also, as you meet your real-life goals, you collect “money”, “pets”, and “food” to feed your pets.  Feeding the pets is not mandatory, like a Tamagotchi (thankfully).  The money buys accessories to jazz up your avatar.

My first mount, back when I was just a level 23Let me be clear – the points, levels, pets, and food are all completely virtual.  Imaginary.  Very low-fi pixellated graphics, at that.  The to-do lists you create are real – your own real life.

Totally meaningless “points” and pixellated tiny “pets”, yet somehow this is meaningful enough affirmative feedback to make a difference?  Yes. Yes it is.

It makes no sense, but it works.

I got into Habitica hesitantly; an Icelandic blogger mentioned it, and I thought “why not”.  Coincidentally, I then read the popular and amazing book by Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit.  The insights about how our brains, memory, and reward mechanisms function explain to me why Habitica works, so damn well.

The Power of Habit explains why Habitica works

There’s limited satisfaction in checking off or crossing off a to-do list item on paper.  One “should” feel satisfaction and accomplishment for having moved one step further towards the life one wants to live, right?  Our brains don’t work like that though.  The future big payoff is meaningless.  The very small incremental difference of checking off the same thing on Habitica, for an imaginary and slightly ludicrous reward? Well, that makes the brain sing.  Sometimes you’re tired, and you just can’t summon up the big picture in the context of which your tiny accomplishment today is in service of.  Click for points?  Satisfaction.  I’ll do it again tomorrow, and all the other tomorrows, until it’s a habit.  Automatic.

The key is there is a reward. Something just external enough to go beyond your own mental pat on the back, and it doesn’t matter that the “reward” is completely imaginary.

There is so much in The Powscreen-shot-2016-12-31-at-1-01-04-pmer of Habit, possibly the best book I read in 2016, that if you care about self-improvement and want to become more effective, just read it.  Forming habits takes work, willpower, and requires reward.  The brain wants to form habits all the time, because once an act is habitual, it takes less mental effort.  The hard part is directing the show, to form the habits that you want to have, that will lead to a more successful, fulfilling life.  The point is to automate the actions that you wish to repeat.  Habits that you want to have won’t form without intentionality.  Enter Habitica, intentionality in three columns.

Habitica’s basic format (the Tasks page) is well-designed and adaptable.  The three columns are: Habits (that you wish to build to increase points, or bad habits that will reduce your points- who would put those?), Dailies (if you fail to complete, your “life force” suffers), and To-Dos (projects and one-offs to tick off).  You can organize your lists with tags and headers, indicate the difficulty of each item, and set schedules or deadlines.  You can break tasks down to checklists, fiddle with the font size and categories (tags).

There is slightly more to Habitica than this.  In addition to leveling up, you can do “quests” and get some pimpin’ backdrops for your pixel Habatar.  It all revolves around accomplishing real-life goals.
The book tells how the power of community is essential to successful habit change and building.  Habitica is built by and on community.  The whole thing is based on MPRPG, with the genius of integrating your real life.  There is a thriving forum of Habitica users who can “quest” together, form teams, and communicate.  Habitica users overwhelmingly have an interest in personal growth and self-improvement.  They are there to improve themselves and their lives, to get better in all kinds of ways.  What a community!  One aspect that is super cool that I’m just dipping a toe in is “Challenges”.  Habbers can create and join Challenges, which have their own rewards.  These challenges are generally based on the desire to improve oneself, and I’ve encountered books, theories, and TED talks through the Challenges I would not have otherwise.

Harnessing reward is designed into Habitica.  Instead of crossing off an item, there is a gain (points).  Measurable, trackable feedback, that you are gaining.  Not just shortening the list.  Speaking of list-shortening, though, when you check off a to-do item, it vanishes.  The list literally gets shorter, cleaner.  But you’ve gained the points as evidence of continued, growing accomplishment.   It is known to take a certain amount of continuous implementation to truly form a habit.  Approximately three weeks of daily practice.  On Habitica, 21 straight days of checking off a task is a “streak”, and earns a bonus.

Habitica provides an external celebration.  Hurrah, you leveled up!  Well done, you earned a streak!  On first glance, silly, on second, vital!  Celebration is an essential reward for shifting or redirecting habits, say, a pattern of thought.  If you have a habit of thinking along a certain line (a neural highway) that isn’t benefiting you, then the first step to changing that is recognizing that you’ve turned onto the highway.  Then you have a moment of objectivity, and choice (Is this a true and valid line of thinking?).  To reward that moment of bringing attention to your unwanted habit, a celebration is in order.  Yay for me!  I noticed I was sliding along unconsciously and interrupted my bad pattern!  Both of these things take a pop of energy- the noticing intervention, and then remembering to celebrate.  But guess what.  If you add “Noticing when I automatically think I’m not good enough” to your Habitica habit list (because you can, if that’s the type of habit you wish to change or build), then Habitica will celebrate for you.  +18 Experience.  You have found a Golden Hatching Potion!

My Habitica story

When I was thirteen, I read a book about anti-procrastination called Just Do It!  This was a slightly dangerous fleet of skills to give to an already manically overachieving kid.  I covered surfaces everywhere in post-it notes and became frighteningly effective.  My mom suggested that I tone it down.  I remember that because it was my first introduction to the idea that our behaviour is something that can be bent, adapted, changed, by intentionality and knowledge.  If you know how, you can change your self.  It’s just technique.  There have been several books since then that were aha! moments, offering methods for redirecting one’s life.  I’ve tried all kinds of analog habit-building software, such as the more accurately named “staving off depression” project.  For me, using Habitica is a game-changer up there with all of these, and a culmination of so much that I’ve learned about how and why we think and are motivated.

I’m always searching for ways to organize time better.  How to squeeze more out of the day.  And not just external accomplishments, but all of the important things.  How to work, and rest, and maintain, and progress, and not lose dreams due to inattention.  Scheduling to make sure I get uI’m constantly on the prowl for better systems.screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-12-51-33-pm

I’ve been using Habitica for about three months.  In that time I have accomplished things that I’ve failed to for years previous.

Here are my examples, big and small.

Small:  I have a beehive.  It’s about thirty feet off a path I walk without fail a few times a day to care for my chickens.  I should visit my beehive every day.  Nine out of ten days I won’t have to visit the beehive.  There won’t be snow blocking their door, or ants staging a raid.  Almost all the time the bees will be totally fine and need nothing, but still, I should visit and check on them every single day.  But I don’t.  I might almost every day, or get really busy and tired and lose track of how many days – I can see right away if something major happens, after all, and there is low risk to motivate a visit.  Then I put Visit the Hive on my Habitica Daily checklist.  I’ll be outside, tired and ready to come in by the fire, and it will occur to me I haven’t visited the bees.  I can’t get a perfect day today if I don’t (extra points for all the daily things done).  Off I’ll trot to visit the hive.  Note that knowing that I should wasn’t enough.  Knowing that I will be happier with myself for having a positive habit, that I will be more responsive to my bees’ needs if they have any, that doing it every day will lead to an automatic, effortless habit?  Garbage.  None of that was enough!   (This is probably because I was tired, and willpower is a finite, consumable resource, best employed in the morning – see book).  Also no immediate reward (abstracts don’t work).  Knowing that I couldn’t get a perfect day on Habitica if I didn’t was enough.  Visiting the hive is a two minute event.  But it’s a habit I didn’t build before Habitica.  I’m sure I could have, but I didn’t.  After a while, I combined the bee visit with the chicken visit, so it’s more automated, and I do it every day, easily.

Big:  Since 2010 I’ve been madly in love with Iceland, soul-mate style.  I’ve been “learning the language”.  Here’s how that goes.  I declare the beginning of a habit.  I dive in.  I hit challenges (declension- OMG the Nordic languages!!?!).  I persevere.  I even binge.  “I spent 5 hours today on Icelandic!”,  I wearily announce.

I care about this.  It’s something I really want to do, although it’s hard (very, very, hard).  Then summer comes, I get too much work, I get too busy, and Icelandic gets set aside.  Three to six months later, I declare the beginning of a habit, I dive in, I have to start over at the beginning (to “review”), I catch up to where I was, do a few more chapters, and by then it’s the next season and there’s something else I have to do.  SIX YEARS!  I am aware that a tiny bit of daily practice is better than binging, that I need to prioritize the things that I wish so strongly to do, but knowing is not enough.  In six years! I did and redid the beginner level of Icelandic Online I don’t know how many times (to review).  Lots.  In two months using Habitica, I completed the first level of Icelandic Online (Náttúra) in 5-10 minutes a day.  Something I couldn’t do in six years.  I know that a tiny bit of daily practice is best, but now I know that from experience (the vocabulary doesn’t melt out of your brain when you revisit that patch of neurons every day).  I’ve automated my daily language learning and now not only is doing the whole program a reasonable certainty for me, I can even project when I’ll finish (ten months).  That’s a dazzling difference from the previously obvious “never”.

The sense of empowerment is crazy.  It’s like there’s nothing I can’t accomplish, since every big project is just one bite of the elephant at a time.  Understanding how your brain works is a key (see book).  Having a device to administer reward and motivation is the other key (see Habitica).

Here are my suggestions for using Habitica.

Start with a few Daily habits, and include some that no matter what, you’re going to do (not just ones you want to add), to set yourself up for immediate success.  For me, it was feeding the chickens.  I’m never not going to feed my chickens, so I put it on the list and even if I have a hopeless disaster of a day, I know I will be getting at least one checkmark, yay!

Habits are incremental.  You can’t design a totally different life, write a list, and start living it tomorrow.  Changing habits takes physical energy, attention, and willpower (see book).  It has a cost.  So in a way, you have to know your limits, and focus on a small number of changes that is reasonable.  As you automate (habitify) those tasks, then you can add some more to work on.  And it takes at least three weeks to automate and reduce that investment of energy (Habitica will track for you).  I’ve found that it’s about two months for me to truly automate something to degree that I can add on something else.   Be very careful with what you put in Dailies column, in order to nurture your success, but in the Habits column, have a group of Wannabe Dailies, or Ideal Dailies, that you would like to work up to doing daily.  Then you can celebrate when you do them, and aren’t “punished” for not doing them every day.  Once fairly successful with them, and you can see a place to slot the activity, you can commit to doing it every day.

Habits are very social.  They like to travel in packs.  If you can associate two or more actions, and/or do them in the same sequence, they will amplify each other’s success.   I have a whole evening series now of unrelated things, but I’ve built them in an order that makes it easy now for me to flow through the series even at the time of day mental acuity and willpower is lowest.  I can do it without thinking, but I’m still doing what matters to me.  I think a lot about grouping actions.  They get more efficient that way, and it’s easier to tack one on to an established group of habits, like a tagalong friend.

At first I did not collect pets.  There are 90 possibles (starter pets), and they are strange (Zombie cactus? Skeleton Lion?).  But then the Cotton Candy Blue Wolf puppy was so cute I sort of got into it, and now I’m pleased to get eggs for a pet I don’t have yet (the pets hatch from “eggs”).  Don’t be like me and cash in your eggs for “money” at the start – you will want your eggs and hatching potions later!  Seriously, you will.  I know, it’s crazy.  I have almost all of them now, just saying:)  If you feed your pets, they will “grow”, and become rideable “mounts”.

You can feed your bad habits to Habitica and click when you do said bad habit, and suffer point loss. Don’t!  Bad idea.  This is the one design thing I disagree with Habitica on.  Positive feedback works, negative never does.  So word your habits to what you wish for, and set them for only the plus sign (it’s an easy setting to choose positive-only clicks).

Have fun!



My other favourite life hacks: passwords that have a positive sentiment (since you think them thousands of times), and setting the bookmarks on your browser toolbar to all the websites I have to/want to check in on every day, in order!  Automation = efficiency!
Oh, and ClipMenu.

6 thoughts on “Habitica has changed my life.”

  1. I’m curious because I use habitica and have negative habits. What are your sources that negative feedback never works? Would like to know before I take my negative habits off

    1. Great question! I’m not sure if I can pin down “a source” from various reading on positive psychology and law of attraction. Oh, well start with the Power of Habit – half the book is about habit replacement and how deciding “not to do the thing” isn’t effective,and why. I think of it as a basic principle, like “Don’t think of a snowman” – Our brains don’t register the “do not”, they still pay attention to the thing in question. I have negative habits in my life to work on, but none on Habitica, as I’ve set my habits to positive wording – what DO I want? To make healthy eating choices, to use a certain amount of time efficiently on the internet? We are reward motivated much more than penalty deterred. If you edit your existing Hbta habits to only be +, and rephrase the goal as “I recognized and/or redirected my tendency to X”, then you can keep your streak data.

  2. Sounds like something that might benefit me. I am such a procrastinator. I know that awards work for me – real ones, anyway. When I am really trying to lose weight and get in shape, I will pay myself (real money) $5 for each pound lost and $2 for each day I exercise (It was $10 for exercising 5 days in a week, but I found if it was Saturday and I had only exercised twice that week, I wouldn’t be motivated to exercise because, after all, I would get nothing for the week whether I did or didn’t.) I try to pick something that I really want to buy, but don’t need, and work toward that. Is habitica, hard to set up? What if you are on vacation or have a weird day and know you won’t do your daily things?

    1. It took me a little bit to get used to, I guess, having never been a gamer the gaming lingo is foreign. But it’s easy to set up. Sign up and start a list. Explore the rest later.

      Two things: if you don’t log on at all in a day, it doesn’t ding you for your dailies, and also if you go on vacation or are caught up in something, you can “Rest in the Inn”. Then you can sign in and click off some things, but whatever you don’t do doesn’t ding you. Those days happen, for sure.

      1. Oh and it’s free. Did I mention that? Free.

        Optional subscription to support development.

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