More gamifying exercise—and life

Via an Art of Manliness podcast interview with Steve Kamb, I just learned about his new book Level Up Your Life. The book is just out, so it’s not so surprising that I hadn’t been aware of it before, but I’m a bit surprised that I hadn’t been more aware of the author’s website Nerd Fitness, which has been around for a while.

The site can’t be completely new to me: my browser remembers that I previously visited the definitive guide to parkour for beginners page, but I must have been totally focused on parkour that day, because I didn’t notice that the site is also full of other stuff that is very much my sort of thing: gamifying exercise (and life).

I haven’t read the book, but the interview laid out the case for how gamification can help you succeed, and not just at exercise. Kamb described how to use the motivational tricks of video games—that ones that keep you playing for one more minute, and then one more level, and then one more quest—and apply them to real life. Figure out what you want to do, and then divide those big goals into quests. Just like in a game, design a series of sub-quests, each one designed to give you the skills and experience to accomplish the next sub-quest, until finally you’re ready for the final level, where you face the biggest challenges, and overcome them.

It works great for fitness, where you can set a whole series of fitness goals, but the author was clear that it worked just as well for non-fitness goals. He talked in particular about international travel—that he wanted to do, but found intimidating, and that he approached by designing a series of trips that let him overcome one daunting aspect at a time (distance, foreign language, traveling alone, etc.). He also talked about learning to play a musical instrument, and then leveling up to where he could perform for an audience.

As someone who does just a little gamification of his own life, I got a bunch of useful ideas from the interview.

One I liked was a way to help you divide your attention among the inevitably many high-priority items in your life: the classic comic book trick of a secret identity. By day, a mild-mannered cubicle worker; by night, a secret agent honing his parkour skills for when he’ll need them to complete his mission (and survive the aftermath). Just like any superhero, you need to give both parts of your life the full attention they’re due.

Another was to use a trick nabbed from games for designing rewards for successfully leveling up: Instead of rewarding yourself with a taste of failure (such as rewarding yourself for losing weight with a supersized fast-food meal), do what video games do: give yourself a reward that improves your chance of success with the next quest. If your quest was to learn how to cook, reward yourself at level 5 by buying a really good chef’s knife, and then at level 20 by traveling to France for a workshop at a world-class cooking school. If you pay careful attention to this as you design your series of sub-quests—instead of just making it up as you go along—I can see you drastically increasing your chance of success at many of the harder sub-quests (because you have provided yourself with the right tool), while simultaneously saving a bunch of money.

Another is to gather allies for your quest. It is very hard to succeed in any area of your life unless the people around you are also successes in their lives. There is a certain temptation to be a big fish in a small pond—to gather people around you that you’re superior to—but then you don’t have people you can rely on when you face problems you can’t handle. There is also the temptation to let people who are better than you do for you what you can’t do yourself—but what would their motivation be? Just as in a multi-player video game, in real life you’re better off (and have more fun) if you have a team of people at about your level. If you’re a beginner, you certainly want a few higher-level players to help, and it’s always okay to have a few lower-level players that you can mentor. Ideally—and it often works out this way in practice—everyone will be better than you at some things and not as good at others. Then you can both help one another out; both learn from one another.

Those are just the things I remember from the interview, there’s more to it than that.

It sounds like a great book. I’ll have to get a copy, and I’ll also have to take a closer look at both Nerd Fitness and the book’s companion site Level Up Your Life.

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