If you want to carry a brimming cup of coffee without spilling it, you may want to "change" your goal to instead primarily concentrate on humming. This is an example of a general pattern. It sometimes helps to focus on a nearby artificial goal rather than your actual goal. Let me call that strategy "gamification". There is a business strategy, also named "gamification", of adding game mechanics to a website in order to achieve various business goals. This is related but different. Here I'm referring to a strategy for problem solvers.

We sometimes fail, and sometimes one failure is very similar to another failure. That is, there are characteristic ways that we fail. One of the primary ways that we can improve is to learn our failure modes and create external structures (pieces of paper, software tools) that check, protect against, or head off those forms of failure.

For example, imagine this plan of checklist improvement:

  1. Change your normal way of working to include an explicit checklist (that starts empty).
  2. When you make a mistake:
    1. Analyze what went wrong
    2. Try to generalize the particular incident to a category
    3. Add an item to your checklist.

This is very simple and generic, but it is reasonable to believe that if you carefully and diligently followed this plan, your reliability would go up (with diminishing returns because your errors are also your opportunities for improvement).  I have not read Mayo, but her "error-theoretic" philosophy of science might be applicable here.

We can try to build a correspondence between failure modes, and game mechanics that attempt to cope for that failure mode.

Failure modes and their corresponding game mechanics

  • Overwhelmedness and Boredom/Apathy

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's flow diagram with axes of challenge versus mastery, flow appears when both the task challenge (or difficulty) and the individual's mastery of (or skill in) the task is high. If challenge is too high, you may feel overwhelmed and fail to make progress. An artificial, very easy goal may help. If the challenge is too low, you may feel bored or apathetic, and fail to make progress. An artificial, more difficult goal may help. Quests (see WorldOfWarcraft or almost any fantasy RPG) and Achievements  are game mechanics that fit this general pattern of GoalSetting; easy achievements (see AchievementUnlocked) correspond to the overwhelmedness failure mode, and difficult achievements (see Nethack conducts) correspond to the boredom/apathy failure mode. 

  • Failures of balance.

Sometimes it can be hard to maintain a good balance among multiple activities. For example, it is important to notice new good ideas. However, I tend to spend too much time pursuing novelty, and not enough time working on the best idea that I've found so far.  There is a tradition of browser games (see KingdomOfLoathing) that enforce a kind of balance using a virtual currency of 'turns'. You accumulate turns slowly in real time, and essentially every action within the game uses up turns. This enforces not spending too much time playing the game (and increases the percieved value of the game via forced artificial scarcity, of course). If I gave myself 'explore dollars' for doing non-exploration (so-called exploit) tasks, and charged myself for doing exploration tasks (like reading arXiv or wikipedia), I could enforce a balance. If I were also prone to the opposite problem ("A few months in the lab can often save whole hours in the library."), then I might use two currencies; exploring costs explore points but rewards with exploit points, and exploiting costs exploit points but rewards with explore ponts. (Virtual currencies are ubiquitous in games, and they can be used for many purposes; I expect to find them able to be placed accross from many different failure modes.)

  • Lapsing from a habit

I might fail by lapsing from a good habit, of exercise, practice or measurement. A chaining appointment mechanic might help prevent that. For example, Farmville has a mechanic where players plant crops, but cannot harvest them until a longish real-time interval later (e.g. 24 hours), and ripe crops rot if they are not harvested. DontBreakTheChain is  (see http://dontbreakthechain.com/) might be an even better correspondence. Sometimes people refine the chain mechanic with a Mario-style "two hit point" mechanic. (Mario is either big or small. If he is damaged while big, he becomes small. If he is damaged while small, he loses.) That is, a one-day break in the chain is recoverable, so long as it is only one day, and followed by "sufficiently many" consecutive successful days.

  • DistractedByContextSwitch and YakShaving

There are various failure modes regarding the subgoal stack. On the one hand, there is a distraction failure mode when I switch contexts to achieve some subgoal, but become distracted, and forget, at least for a while, to pop the stack and return to my original goal. On the other hand, YakShaving is following your goal/subgoal stack too rigidly and too deeply. In either case, it may be valuable to keep your entire current goal/subgoal stack in a nearby external memory device (for example index cards or a todolist tool). Many games have a UI component that displays the next step of the the current quest. I don't know of a game with a UI component intended to prevent YakShaving, but it is comprehensible - simply display the top of the stack as well as the bottom.

  • Deadline-sensitive work style

There are failure modes associated with deadline-sensitive rates of working. People tend to work differently when they percieve time pressure than when they do not percieve time pressure. You might call this failure mode Parkinson's Law when you're thinking of the pressured work as more efficient, HalfAssedCompletion when you're thinking of the pressured work as lowered quality, or DeadlineBrinksmanship when you're thinking of the tendency for all tasks, no matter how much slack they have, to have the same risk of crossing the deadline. 

This can make scheduling and planning (which are already difficult) even more difficult. For example, a planner may prefer announcing an optimistic schedule, because they think that even with inevitable slippage, the optimistic schedule will be completed faster than a schedule conservative enough to avoid slippage.

Of course many games have timed goals, and the pomodoro technique and other forms of timeboxing are standard productivity concepts. The only refinement that this "game mechanic" suggests is making the countdown more visible and salient.


  • accumulating an explicit repository of failure modes can be valuable
  • game mechanics often correspond to failure modes
  • explicitly structuring your work habits with game mechanics can be fun, and perhaps productive.

Future work

There is an indecisiveness failure mode that I think of as "BuridansAss". The parable is that the ass is as hungry is it is thirsty and is exactly positioned between water and food, and so dies without choosing. In my case, it is more cyclical - when I am trying to work on one thing, working on some other thing seems more valuable or more enjoyable. I don't know of a game mechanic corresponding to this failure mode.

Another failure mode I've noticed is "Blub" (see Paul Graham's essay). This is when I see something I don't understand at all, and instead of paying it closer attention and/or storing it away carefully, I ignore it.

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16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:47 AM

If you want to carry a brimming cup of coffee without spilling it, you may want to "change" your goal to instead primarily concentrate on humming.

I find I'm more successful when focusing on the brimming cup of coffee. Especially when I climb my stairs. Paying attention to the brimming cup of coffee also allows me to walk faster around sharp corners. This either indicates that my coffee focused carrying is superior to yours or I have a relative weakness humming-based Newtonian physics.

Can you suggest a better example of replacing an ultimate goal by a proximate one?

"Keep your eye on the ball!" (Note, it is the trying to keep your eye on the ball that seems to provide the benefit. If you study the actual motion of the eyes the last instants of motion basically don't get tracked anyway.)


Perhaps the demonstration used in martial arts classes where you put your extended arm on someone else's shoulder, elbow upward, and try to lock it in place while they pull downward on it; then you experience much more success by trying to point at the wall behind them?

But that's longer and more awkward, both verbally and conceptually; and could be less widespread than trying to carry a full cup.

If you're going to refer to Paul Graham's essay, you should link to it.

I actually assumed (from links to don't break the chain / no links to games) that the lack of linkage was to avoid making timesinks easily available to the readers.

Nothing so deliberate; I was putting off posting this until I had 'cleaned it up properly', and realized I was never going to clean it up properly - don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

If you want to carry a brimming cup of coffee without spilling it, you may want to "change" your goal to instead primarily concentrate on humming.

I keep reading this over and over, trying to figure out what it means. What does humming have to do with not spilling a cup of coffee?

One way people spill drinks is by overcorrecting for waves. That only happens if you're looking at the drink and trying not to spill it, so focusing on something else avoids that failure mode.

Thanks! I've been looking into gamification recently, with Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, and this post seems to be very much in the same lines.

I'm also testing a variant of the Habit Judo system from MetaFilter. Instead of trying to install specific habits like the habit judo thing does, I'm just assigning scoring criteria to everyday activities (1 point for every 25 minutes of uninterrupted, focused work, 1 point for getting up before 7, 1 point for every kilometer run and so on), and summing daily scores with a pseudorandom randint [1, 6] for each point for the day. So far I've only done this a couple of days, so no proper idea if it'll keep working in long term. Seems like an interesting idea so far.

This is just doing the artificial task thing so far, will need to see if it could be made to address the balancing failure modes you describe as well.

Why the random aspect? The "Habit Judo" link includes this as well, but didn't seem to offer an explanation either.

Personally, I've just kept a calendar on my wall, with check boxes for each habit. Looking at it and seeing a string of failures or half-completes is usually enough motivation, without needing to bribe myself. I tend to do horrible with self-bribes, though :)

Why the random aspect? The "Habit Judo" link includes this as well, but didn't seem to offer an explanation either.

Intermittent reinforcement. Brains seem to get hooked on that better than to deterministic rewards.

The calendar chain sounds like it does most of the same stuff as this one does, and is a lot simpler. I'll keep that one in mind too.


I'd be interested to know how well this works, especially if you get more than short-term success (say, more than 4 uninterrupted weeks) for a non-trivial habit.

As I previously mentioned in a comment to a different post, my gamification experiments all backfired horribly. One of my own systems looked pretty similar to Habit Judo (using little buckets and marbles instead) and accomplished nothing. Maybe I was too greedy or my rewards were flawed, so if it works for you, I might experiment some more.

I kinda worry about the extrinsic motivation snuffing out the intrinsic one too. I haven't really figured out a good reward mechanic yet, I'm kinda hard-pressed on finding stuff outside things I'd do anyway, things I shouldn't do in any case and things that'd probably mess me up if I'd try to turn them into rewards.

The more interesting thing in the system is just the plain keeping track of stuff aspect. I get to codify the things I want to accomplish into easily chunkable bits (current rule of thumb seems to be that the stuff that earns one point is achievable in under half an hour), and I get an accumulating log of how I've been doing. So there's a combination of setting up chains I don't want to break and starting to pay more attention to things I'm explicitly measuring.

I'd like to have some kind of leveling up mechanic that'd bring extra capabilities, like the Habit Judo thing has, but haven't figured out what that'd be. Habit Judo only lets you add an extra habit after leveling up, so a somewhat similar thing would be to actually have a daily point cap and expanding on that. So you could only have, say, 6 points that count each day at level 1, and then it'd go up to 8 at level 2 and so on. And you'd also be expected to max things out each day in order to get the score for the level up in a week or two. The other thing is to add more scoring criteria.

As for habits, anyone used Rescue time robot? More importantly, used the produced stats to play a game as mentioned above? I'm going to try this as soon as the damn thing decides to tell me what I've been doing.