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Resolution Assistance


Autostraddle has “banged the drum on Habitica so many times,” and it reminded me that I should, too.

Habitica is a site that gamifies your to-do list and habits. Put another way, it’s a token economy, but one you administer yourself. It has changed my life. If you, like me, have trouble getting things done, like being on the computer, are highly sensitive to rewards, and find it easy to see symbolic systems as real, I could not recommend it more highly. It’s mildly embarrassing to be writing in public under my real name about the things Habitica has helped me get under control, since it reveals I didn’t have them under control until a couple months ago. But nevertheless, I will do it for you, dear reader, so that you start using Habitica forthwith.

A partial list:

I went to the dentist for the first time in ten years.
I got a maintenance haircut, three months after the last one, for the first time in my life.
I’ve been regularly checking and opening my mail. Today I mailed a form to get reimbursed for vision expenses. I put it in an envelope, bought stamps, put the stamps on the envelope, and put it in the mail. Nearly unthinkable before Habitica.
My room has been cleaner for longer than it has ever been.
I have a new system for being on time: Every day in the morning I make a list of all my commitments (this is a “daily” on Habitica). I also write out a budget for when I have to leave the previous place to get to the next one, and what time I have to start getting ready in the morning. I separately reward (or on failure, punish) starting to get ready when I said I would, leaving the last place when I said I would, and on-time arrival. Since starting to use that system, I have been late twice. Once four minutes, and once 10.
Even now, I’m writing this post during a designated writing Pomodoro, and I’m going to reward myself for that in Habitica, too.

I could go on and on.

I wondered whether self-administration of rewards in token economy might attenuate the problem of reducing intrinsic motivation, but in googling “self-administered token economy,” I found one paper that suggests: perhaps not. However, reading further, I also found this interesting review (link goes to full text, not just the abstract), which offers a critique, new to me, of that literature. The review argues that rewards only decrease motivation under a very specific set of circumstances: when the reward is tangible, expected, and performance-independent (it cites an earlier meta-analysis by the authors to support this claim). This makes sense to me. The effect goes in the other direction for verbal rewards and for rewards that are tangible, expected, and dependent on the quality of the work: those improve people’s attitude toward the task. Reading this article made me curious about the current vogue in education regarding behavioral reinforcers. It would be a shame if they were abandoned in the belief that they were counterproductive and that belief turned out to be false.

And in any case, my previous intrinsic motivation to deal with my mail was very low. In fact, I was anxiously avoiding it. So it’s not like rewarding myself for doing it is sapping some preexisting passion I had for opening letters from insurance companies. I even hope that in exercising more control over a lot of these administrative elements of my life, I’ll build associative links between the work I do and the relative calm I get to enjoy as a result, and then I will be more intrinsically motivated to open my mail. But evidently I needed a nudge to get to the point where I had that experience of exercising control. A nudge in the form of the occasional dragon egg to hatch.

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