Habitica’s Game and Social Mechanics

The other day, we were talking about the game-based productivity system Habitica from the productivity aspect. Today, let’s look at how Habitica’s developers brought gaming into the mix to make a fun little productivity app. Keep in mind as you read this that I’ve long looked at gamification funny, both as a teacher and as a gaming enthusiast, because it’s so often implemented in a terribly shallow way.

Because Habitica is based on game mechanics, there’s a lot going on. The Dashboard is laid out to really help you make sense of most of it, though, so even as a low-level player, it’s not too hard to manage. The mechanic surrounding completing tasks is probably the most familiar to gamers. When you complete a Habit, Daily, or To-Do, you receive XP (experience points) and gold appropriate to that task (determined by how strong or weak that task is). You can also receive drops. In Habitica, that pretty much amounts to eggs and potions you can combine to create Pets, and food to feed those Pets so they’ll grow into Mounts. If you’re in a party and they’re doing a quest, you may also receive a drop related to your quest. Little notifications will pop up to tell you what you’ve gained when you complete a task.

On the Dashboard, you have a Rewards column (that fourth column I mentioned in the other post). You’re working hard. You can choose to reward yourself. (I used to keep a list of things I could watch when I completed the right task or set of tasks.) As you’re developing your list of rewards, keep in mind what your tasks are worth to you, and think about our recent discussions on external and internal motivation. Some of your rewards will cost you to take advantage of (I have a couple that allow me to blow off a Daily so i won’t take damage when it doesn’t get completed.); others might be free.

At the beginning of the game, you’re a Warrior. But when you reach Level 10, you’ll be invited to select a class. You can remain a Warrior, or choose from Mage, Rogue, or Healer. Each class has its own gear (which will be available for purchase in the Rewards column) and its own class abilities (which are also available in the Rewards column). Choose your class carefully; it’s expensive to switch.

Being a good little online roleplaying game, Habitica has its own social structures that you can join straight off, great for finding like minded people who will help keep you accountable. Guilds are chat areas where you can hang out with other people with similar interests. You can generally find these through the Tavern Chat (also where you go if you need to pause your character for a bit because Real Life got in the way). Guild leaders can create Challenges to help their members develop skills and habits. These are just added to your Dashboard if you accept one. You can join as many Guilds as you can manage.

Parties are much smaller groups with their own chat area, their own ability to create Challenges for members, and the ability to do quests. Quest scrolls (what you need to launch a quest) are earned through events and major activities (like beating an earlier Quest in the sequence), but you can also buy them from the Market. The party will then work together to collect the items or beat the boss by completing their own tasks. When a parry member fails to complete all their Dailies, the entire party takes damage from whatever you’re fighting. You can only join one party at a time.

So, there you have it. A somewhat brief overview of the game-based productivity system Habitica. If you like gaming and need a little fun push to get yourself motivated or just want to meet other people working toward similar goals, definitely check it out.


An Introduction to Habitica – Gamified Productivity

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to a game-based productivity system called HabitRPG. Given how much I enjoy gaming and playing with to-do list systems, I jumped in and gave it a try. While it was fairly charming, it did not work well with how I run my own to-do list, and I ended up abandoning the system before I hit Level 3.

A couple of months ago, Mary Robinette Kowal wrote a blog post on how she had been using a game-based productivity system called Habitica, and had created a writer’s guild. So, I followed the link, only to find HabitRPG all grown up, renamed, and well-developed into a robust system marrying game elements and to-do lists. I reactivated my account, found myself suddenly at Level 7 (which was weird), and now use it as part of my daily task management.

So, let’s get into this. What is Habitica? It is, as suggested above, a gamified productivity system. You add in tasks you need to get done. You earn XP (experience points) and gold for completing them. You fight monsters and collect dropped items. You even get a cool little avatar you can dress up in class or special gear that you earn as you go. It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, so I thought we’d look at the productivity side today, and then we’ll look at the game elements another day.

The Habitica developers are clever folks who understand that most people have different types of tasks they’re trying to keep track of at any given point in time – habits, regular tasks, and project-specific or one-shot tasks – and so your Habitica dashboard is designed to facilitate that. There are four columns on your dashboard; we’ll cover three of them in this post.

The first column is dedicated to Habits, those actions you’re either trying to build into or beat out of your subconscious routine. You add the habit to this column, and then tick it off every time you do it. If you’re looking to replace a bad habit with a good habit, you can set up the task so that you toggle the positive habit or the negative habit. Every time you complete the good habit, it increases the value of the habit, making you stronger. Every time you complete the bad habit, it decreases the value of the habit, weakening you. (As this affects your progress and your ability to complete quests, it really encourages you to work toward those positive habits.) Habitica includes tools that allow you to see how you’re doing on your habits, so you can literally watch yourself struggle and see where you could focus your efforts a bit more.

The second column is dedicated to Dailies, which are really just those tasks that repeat on a regular schedule. You can actually schedule a task to only show up on your dashboard on certain days of the week every week. It’s a great way to keep focused on what needs to be done today, without being distracted by what will need to be done tomorrow. What’s really cool about Dailies is that you can add checklists. So, if you have a regular task that has multiples parts to it, you can create a checklist within the task of those components. For example, my voiceover practice task has a checklist that includes study time (reading or watching training materials, listening to audiobook clips and audio dramas, etc.), basic skills practice (breathing, articulation, etc), and then practical practice (reading out loud, working on voice modifictation, etc.) Once I’ve checked off everything, I can check off the Daily itself. (Because i’m mean, I don’t let myself check it off if I don’t complete every single part.)

How do you decide what is a Habit and what is a Daily? Well, start with asking yourself if the task has to be completed only on certain, predictable days. That’s a pretty good sign it should be in the Daily list. But you can also look to Habitica’s game nature. While Habits can strengthen or weaken your character, unfinished Dailies can deal your character direct damage at the end of the day. In my own use, I set up my Tiny Habits as Dailies, because not doing those hurts me in real life and therefore should hurt my character in game. It’s more effective than you realize, especially because your character only has 50 HP (hit points) and doesn’t gain more as you level.

The third column is dedicated to To-Dos, those tasks that are either a one-shot (email a client) or a small project (like writing a short story). Like Dailies, To-Dos can have checklists. So, a small project might have an embedded checklist to help you make sure you complete each part. (My short story checklist most often includes prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, publishing. It helps keep me from trying to move back a phase, which is a huge problem for me sometimes.)

Large projects can be completed using Habitica, too, but for reasons that will become clear below, I handle it a bit differently. Most large projects can be broken out across stages, which can then be treated as smaller projects, loaded only as each stage is reached. For example, when I’m working on an audiobook, there are three stages – prep, record, post-production. Each of those stages has its own tasks that have to be completed. The prep stage might have a checklist that includes reading the book, making notes about characters, digging up old reference files if it’s a book in a series, and creating the book’s cover. The post-production stage’s checklist includes editing, mastering, and submitting the files to the publisher. It’s kind of a combination of systems, but it keeps the overall project from becoming really menacing in the dashboard.

Like Habits, incomplete To-Dos do not deal direct damage. (They might if you set a deadline and then don’t meet it. I haven’t tested that yet.) While To-Dos don’t damage you as they sit there, they grow in strength. When you finally complete them, they can grant a lot of XP, gold, and really good drop items.

All right, so that’s the productivity side of Habitica. Next time, we’ll look at how the developers included game mechanics to make reaching your goals more interesting.

The Power of Tiny Habits

We all know developing good habits is a happy thing, so much so that we make promises to ourselves at New Year’s and at our birthdays that we’re going to develop habits…only to break them days, weeks, or maybe even months later. Not because we consciously decide to break them, but because we lose track of them, or we don’t feel like it one day, or life happens and throws off our schedule.

However, there’s a growing trend of making and keeping tiny habits. A tiny habit is that one singular thing you can do daily that will benefit you in the long run. If you’ve set a goal for yourself of running a marathon, and you know your most common excuse for not getting out and running is wardrobe-related, you might set a tiny habit of putting on your running shoes before breakfast. If you’ve set a goal of writing a blog post every single day, you might set the tiny habit of reading your news feed the moment you sit down at your desk. If you’re looking to grow your audience or network, you might set the goal of responding to one social media post every morning.

I started using tiny habits last year, and have now amassed a small army (two or three for each key area of my life). My inner writer responds to a writing prompt every morning and listens to writing podcasts every other morning. My inner voice actor listens to voiceover podcasts every other morning, and either narration clips or audio drama episodes every morning. They’re small. They get me moving and thinking. And they give me something I can take with me as I work through the day. (Days when I don’t get to listen to my podcasts in the morning are easily my least productive.)

The point is to choose tiny habits to will help you move closer to a goal in some way. They can help you build skills, get in some practice time, connect with others working toward the same goal. Whatever you choose, it has to benefit you. When it stops benefiting you, drop it and move on to a tiny habit that will.

If you find it easier to complete a tiny habit when you’re accountable, there are many ways to go. There’s the tried-and-true calendar method, where you mark off each day you complete your tiny habit. (Markers and stickers are delightful tools.) If you like the idea of a calendar, but haven’t thought about paper in forever, set up a specific calendar on your digital calendar and record every day you accomplish your habit. Some sites, like Sparkpeople and Joe’s Goals, have a simple tick system to help you track when you complete a task. When you want to see how you’re doing, you can focus the calendar to see what days are marked, or use built-in streak tools to monitor your progress.

You can even choose to monitor your success in implementing your tiny habit just by monitoring how much easier you’re moving toward your goal. If you’re diligently practicing your tiny habit, you should be seeing steady progress toward your goal. If not, you should probably keep a closer eye on your tiny habit.

Give it a try. Select one small, singular thing you could do to move yourself closer to a goal, and then make it a tiny habit. See if it doesn’t help you keep your toes pointed forward.

Revisiting Internal Motivation

We’ve previously looked at external motivation. Today, we’re going to shift gears and look at its companion – internal motivation. Where external motivation derives from tangible or experience rewards you receive or give yourself for your work, internal motivation is being motivated by your own emotions and goals.

Internal motivation is a powerful driver. When you experience that deep sense of satisfaction from facing and defeating a challenge, it gives you a little boost of self-confidence and enables you to face the next challenge, and the next challenge, and the next challenge. Knowing that you’ve done one thing encourages you to try the next thing because you can probably do it, too. Having this collection of successful attempts behind you helps you become more confident in your ability, and emboldens you to take future risks, to push yourself.

Internal motivation can also help you become less competitive, because you know what you can do and feel less driven to prove yourself to someone else’s standard. This in turn allows you to spend more time working toward your own goals and through your own challenges rather than get lost in someone else’s need to decide if you’re “worthy”.

While all of that sounds pretty good, internal motivation can come with a pretty hefty downside. When you’ve built your self-confidence up through this hard work and the satisfaction that comes with it, it can sometimes lead to thinking you can do anything without actually considering what that “anything” might be. This can manifest as arrogance or extreme risk taking, which can endanger your life. So, while you’re working and gaining skills and confidence in your skills, you also have to develop a bit of modesty – You know what you can do, and you allow that there are things you may not be able or willing to do.

The important thing to remember as you’re looking at external and internal motivation is that neither is better than the other, and we really do best when we have a mix of both in our lives. If it’s helping to move you forward without getting lost, it’s a good thing.


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Revisiting External Motivation

If you set up some goals (or resolutions) for yourself at the beginning of the year, you may have also set up some sort of reward. After all, if you put in all that work, shouldn’t you get something out of it?

This kind of reward system is referred to as “external motivation”, meaning you’re relying on something beyond yourself to motivate yourself to do something. We’re all pretty familiar with this form of motivation, and we’ve all engaged in it to some degree throughout our lives.

Most commonly, we remember it from our school days, when a teacher might give us a sticker or other small reward for a job well done on a paper or extra minutes at recess as a class reward for engaging in a certain behavior or participating together in an activity. But we also encounter it at work when we receive gift certificates or T-shirts for reaching certain goals. It’s a tangible reminder that we did something right.

You can set up your own personal external motivators, too. If you’re working toward a healthier lifestyle, you might reward yourself with a small dessert for eating healthy or new music for completing your exercise routine for a certain number of days in a row. You give yourself a small, tangible present related to the goal you’re working on. Or, more commonly in this day and age, you might give yourself permission to binge watch a show to celebrate completing a project you’d been avoiding.  Whatever you choose, you’re still giving yourself a reward for working hard.

When we start talking about external motivators, people feel awkward because it seems silly to keep rewarding yourself with these things past school. But some of us work better if we have something to aim for. The real problem with external motivation is that it can build a kind of dependency. If the reward comes from someone else, we run the risk of changing our goals to meet what the other person wants in order to keep getting the rewards. If the reward is something we’re giving ourselves, we can start making excuses for why we should be rewarded more often for work that we initially would never have considered rewardable.

It’s a fine line, and definitely something to keep in mind. But if you can keep everything in perspective, external motivation can be a great way to push yourself through a tough project or help keep you on track to a major goal.

The Hindrance of “Aspiring”

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the need for new practitioners of any craft to stop calling themselves “aspiring”. In a world that only a few years ago actively tried to beat down pro-am and DIY types in various athletic and artistic fields, this change is amazing and welcome.

So, let’s start by talking about getting started in a new craft. Because everyone has to start somewhere. Maybe you saw someone else doing something and thought, How cool would it be if I could do that? Or maybe it’s on your bucket list, something you wanted to do as a child but couldn’t for whatever reason. The inspiration is there. For some people, that’s where it stops. They get inspired. Maybe they do a little research. Maybe they start telling people they want to do something. For others, that inspiration is the spark that that pushes them into looking into how to get started, how to take first steps, finding learning resources and materials. And they take that momentum and start becoming more and more involved. I’m writing this for that second group, because you’re the ones who encounter this.

Something happens when you’re developing a skill on your own or in a small community of practice. You start building momentum in your work, and you call yourself a practitioner. And then it happens. Maybe someone says you can’t call yourself a whatever because you aren’t getting paid for it, or because no one knows who you are. Maybe you get a compliment from someone who is a professional or a big deal in the field, and it kind of freaks you out as you start trying to process the thought: Maybe I really am doing all right at this. And so to soften the blow or make it less scary or because you got bullied into it, you start calling yourself “aspiring”.

Here’s the thing, though. The reason you got that attention to begin with is because you did something. You started learning about that skill you wanted to have, and you used it to make a first project. You have tangible proof that you have started on a path to learn and use that skill. You’re no longer “aspiring” because you’re doing. Aspiring practitioners don’t do. They…well, aspire. And if you start calling yourself “aspiring” when you’ve really moved beyond that, you risk sliding backwards into “aspiring” territory.

What I’m really saying here…what anyone campaigning for newer practitioners to drop the word “aspiring” from their self-definition is really saying…is that once you’ve done, once you’ve taken that first tangible, time consuming step on your journey, you’re not aspiring. You’re a new practitioner. Own that. Hold your head up high, and drop the word aspiring from your vocabulary.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

Motivation is a bit of a hot-button issue for both teachers and game designers, mainly because it’s so necessary for continued success but so difficult to design for.  There are two types of education – extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation, like it sounds, is a motivating force that comes from outside of the person. Stickers, gold stars, and grades are great examples of this from teaching. Game design has really embraced badges, achievements, and gear to motivate players to continue the game. Generally speaking, extrinsic motivation is showy, but otherwise useless, and when the goodies stop coming, whatever behavior was being motivated by the goodies trickles off to a stop. Think about the misbehaving child who cleans up his act once he’s promised some sort of treat. More often than not, once the treat has been acquired, the bad behavior is back because the child has no reason or desire to continue being good. (The savvier misbehaving child also quickly figures out that bad behavior will get him more treats than good behavior if the situation isn’t handled correctly…which makes things fun when different people are handling the child.) It’s the same with gamers. If the gamer has become attached to the achievements, once they’re done earning them they’re also done with the game.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within the person. It’s the child who persistently practices cartwheels until she gets them right because she wants to be able to do them. It’s the gamer who makes a point of exploring a game map from one end of the other because they’re having fun exploring new places. The intrinsically motivated person is more likely to become engaged and to return to an activity because they enjoy it or it fulfills a goal they personally set for themselves. It’s also harder to design for because it’s dependent on the person herself rather than any reward the teacher or game designer can set out.

Generally, it’s agreed, both in education and game design, that intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic motivation because those who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to return, to push themselves to accomplish more.

Gold Stars vs Curiosity

I’d been playing Kinect Adventures for a couple of levels when I decided to get a little crazy during one of my videos. I started jumping around, causing my shark in the video to jump, thereby unlocking an achievement for jumping the shark. Heh. I was so amused that I tried to do other “weird” things during later videos to see if I could unlock anything else. Sadly, the most I accomplished was confusing my dancing queens when I twirled. The funny thing is, I’d been earning more fully stitched badges after every mini-game, but I barely noticed them. I was far more interested in trying to find achievements tucked away in the videos.

That’s the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. When we are rewarded for doing the minimum, then we only do the minimum. And if we aren’t rewarded for doing that minimum, then we complain about how lame the activity is for not giving us that expected gold star. Needing that outside reward is being extrinsically motivated, and that mechanism is starting to show up in more games and marketing campaigns. Companies have decided that we’re more likely to be loyal and persistent if we’re given government positions and badges, even when working to acquire those rewards ultimately causes the game or campaign to become less fun.

When we do something because we’re working toward a personal goal, we’re intrinsically motivated. Working toward a personal goal covers a lot of ground. The student who researches a favorite topic or one that’s recently piqued her curiosity is intrinsically motivated. The student who’s trying to fill in an entire scorecard of skills because she wants to rather than doing just what’s assigned is intrinsically motivated. The person who wants to learn a specific cooking style and makes a variety of dishes to learn the techniques is intrinsically motivated.

The real difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is the difference between “I’ll only do this weird, random task if you give me something I only sort of want” and “That was interesting. Can we do it again?” It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that intrinsic motivation is more successful at keeping people interested because it’s genuinely engaging them.

Think Like a Student

I’m starting to think that perhaps the most important lessons one should be learning in college include time management, prioritizing, and how to self-motivate.

I also think I want to start a project notebook, and structure it around this awesome motivation guide! What I like most about this idea is that you have a constant, tangible reminder of what you’re working toward and why. That, in and of itself, is pretty motivating.

It’s just one more tool to add to my Get Motivated file!


One of the topics often debated in teacher preparation programs is extrinsic motivation versus intrinsic motivation. Getting a handle on what extrinsically motivates a student is theoretically what keeps them moving forward. Extrinsic motivators are fine, but the result of any extrinsic motivation program should be the development of an intrinsic motivation program. As a result, pre-professional teachers are taught that using extrinsic motivation judiciously and purposefully helps a person develop their sense of intrinsic motivation so that extrinsic motivation is not needed as much.

For a nice brief example of this, please look at this article and the comments on this post.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation work on adults, too. I’ve read a few pieces recently on various recruiting and business blogs on employee retention. Most retention programs make the mistake of dealing solely with extrinsic rewards. This is something akin to teaching a rat to play basketball. You got the ball through the basket, have a treat. The rat eventually learns that putting the rolly thing through the weird hole in the air will get him a treat. So the rat will do this for a bit until he decides he’s bored with the treat, so he just stops performing until he is rewarded with a better treat, or even two treats. The rat is not motivated out of his sense of self to make the basket.

It’s not much different for employees. There are only so many times that appreciation snacks, branded toys, and gift certificates will work in motivating employees whose main motivation is these tangible rewards. When they can no longer get the outside motivator, they either become bitter about how the company doesn’t even know they exist or they simply move on to a perceived better reward system.

Being appreciated is motivating, but being able to motivate oneself leads to far better results.