Productivity

Flow Traps

One of the more popular psychological ideas in the public sphere is that of “flow.” The idea, originated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is that we’ll get more done and enjoy it more when we’re given a level of challenge to keep us engaged and exercising a sense of mastery. One shouldn’t have to look very hard at their life to find times when work has been easy, fun, and “flow”ing.

What I struggle to buy into is the rather popular correlate that these flow states are good and worth seeking and preserving. That they make us better at our tasks and thus make us better in life. I’d make no quarrel with the idea that they can do those things, but I’d strongly dissent from the idea that they consistently do those things.

To pick a common example, you’re a programmer. You’re a pretty good programmer, and you’re currently working hard on a project that’s offering opportunities to learn new things from time to time, but generally you’re just enjoying using your tools in slightly different ways than you have in the past. Here flow is clearly a useful thing. When you can get into that groove, you’ll probably be faster and more accurate than you would outside of it. And it feels great too, just being there pounding and creating and getting toward the goal.

But here’s how flow has you trapped: you don’t really want to be  a programmer your whole life. You’d really like to be the kind of person who hires and helps programmers to create projects far bigger and more ambitious than you’d ever manage yourself. You know this, but every day you arrive at work and you just plod until you flow and you stay that way (with a few breaks) until quitting time. You’re never making any progress on this big long-term goal because you’re stuck in a flow trap.

Flow traps aren’t inherently as pernicious as they may sound. (Though they can be: video games, I’m looking at you.) You’re still doing good things while you’re writing code, you’re just not getting any vision of the new vistas of possibility that you think you’d really enjoy. The problem with a flow trap is that it makes you think you can just keep coding your way out of writing so much code, and you can’t. There’s a drastically different skill-set you need if you want to go from the kind of person who writes code well to the kind of person that helps people to write code well.

Real tangible progress in your life, real growth in your skill-set, requires you to step out of the flow and take on things you don’t even have an inkling of how to take on. It requires you to be uncomfortable and for things to be hard. Because that’s where you really learn new things, see new vistas, and gain mastery of the world you’d never thought possible.

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Technofuturism

Why Gamification Excites Me

It’s worth establishing right off the bat that (A) gamification is a stupid ugly word; that it (B) is misused and abused to mean shallow vague things of very limited value; and (C) neither of those things diminish the power of that idea.

Before I explain to you the immense power behind the incorporation of game-like mechanics into your life, it would help if you were more immediately aware of your life’s perfectibility. So, a few things to consider:

  • Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but have never done?
  • What are the things you consider most important for a person to accomplish in their life? Are you doing them?
  • Is there one giant important goal that you’d love to accomplish in your life but have no idea how you would even begin to do it?
  • Do you find yourself spending your time doing neutral to harmful activities in your life, even when you know there are positive things you could be doing?

OK, enough making you aware of your failings. Now, I want you to suspend for a second all attachment you have to plausibility, practicality, and propriety and just go on an imagination trip with me. Let’s go.


You just got back from work–a place you spend your time in exchange for currency, but don’t feel a strong affection for or sense of purpose in–rather than flipping on the television and tuning out, you decide to investigate this new thing you heard about. Your friend swears that it’s changed her life and you’re curious to know if it’s for real.

You load up this new thing and it faces you with this question: What are three things you’d most like to accomplish in the next 24 hours? After thinking for a few minutes, you tell it that you’d like to do the dishes that have been languishing in your sink, read a chapter of that book you never get around to spending time on, and get to bed before 10PM. It returns you a challenge: “Right now, go spend 10 minutes working on the dishes.  It’s worth 50 points.”

You don’t really know what these points are, but you’re intrigued enough to take it up on the offer. You acknowledge that you’ve accepted the challenge and it offers you a start button, you tap it and start to work on getting the dishwasher loaded. You do, and are considering if it’s worth trying to do some hand-washing. “4:53 remaining,” it tells you. “Do it,” you think. In five minutes, it dings. “Mission accomplished?” it asks. “Yes, but keep going ’til it’s done.” It’ll take just four more minutes. “When you finish, you’ll have earned 120 points,” it tells you.

“120. Huh.” You finish up the dishes, leaving them to air dry. “All done?” it asks. After you tell it so, it asks “What next?” It offers you the option of taking a break, earning more points, or defining some more goal. Feeling on a roll with 120, you tell it you’d like to go read some of that book you never get to. “9 points a page,” it tells you.

You start to read it, but your intransigence in picking up the book was justified. The book is dense and requires more concentration than you can muster right now. You return to your new friend and tell it you only managed to read two pages. “How about a break?” it says. “You can come back whenever you’re ready for more.”

After you’ve eaten and watched your favorite television program, you return. “Did you miss me?” it asks. “You have an hour left before your bedtime, do you want to try to read more?” You respond negatively, to which it offers to ask you a few more questions. You answer a number of questions, like what your favorite kinds of rewards are, what led you to start using it, and what the single most important thing you keep failing at is. “Tired?” it asks.

You’re in bed at 9:47, and it says you’ve just earned 70 points. Over the next few weeks, you use the thing off and on. You notice that when you’ve been away for a while, it offers you’ve more points for short-term goals. You’ve noticed that sometimes if offers you activities that you’ve never told it you’d like to do, but you enjoy. You kinda wonder why it’s offering them, but they keep giving you points for them, so why not?

After a few months, you’re confronted with the 23,430 points you’ve earned. It asks what you think a good reward would be for 20,000 points. You say that a new shirt would be nice. It asks if you want to pick it out yourself? You do, it offers congratulations on the redemption and it hopes it’s something you’ll enjoy.

A few more months pass, you use it off-and-on, letting it dictate your not-working time pretty fully some days, barely thinking about it on others. You’ve begun to notice, though, that you feel better when you use it more. That it’s got you exercising twice a week, that you’ve already read two books, more than you did all last year. You’ve been thinking more about what you really value, and you’re starting to think that you should find a new job. It asks you some thought-provoking questions when you tell it about this, but it doesn’t solve it for you.


OK, we’re back. I could continue this narrative forever. Out until the point where you have a body like Adonis, the job of your dreams, more money saved than you’ve ever had, reined in your temper, and finally banked a few chapters of what could be the next Great American Novel. That potential exists, I’m sure of it. And if you followed me down that rabbit hole, I think you may have glimpsed it as well.

The potential I see in gamification isn’t that I use StackExchange a little more because I get a few thousands points when I offer an answer the hive-mind likes. That’s the incredibly small-bore version of gamification. That’s not exciting. What’s exciting is an entire new economy when people earn “money” by doing things they have never managed to accomplish in 20 years of “trying to lose weight.” (Speaking of, the alt-text on this XKCD (hover with a mouse) is a great TL;DR version of this post.)

What I envision is not unlike a massively juiced version of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. David Allen’s book had helped thousands of people to be more productive and creative by getting them to a more easeful productivity. What I’m talking about is a way to incorporate prompting, play, and points into an agnostic system that’ll make your life better, and help you to accomplish goals that were never even on your radar without the help of our “game.”

I wouldn’t deny that this isn’t a simple thing I’m proposing, but it’s a thing whose value is abundantly clear to me. Even if we built a system that did only a tenth of the potential the exists within this idea, we’d have a world that was manifestly better in a million little ways. And that, quite simply, is why gamification excites me.

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