Last week, I tried using gamer-style achievements to motivate me on an otherwise difficult working day. My hypothesis was that since games are often more addictive/motivating than "real life" tasks, I'd be able to get myself into an ambitious groove and finish my day productively.
I created ten achievements of varying levels of hardness, some of them attainable deliberately (edit six hours of space opera) and some attained more or less accidentally (fail in an attempt to kiss your spouse because of two children interfering). After blogging about it, I set to my tasks.
As in games, I went right for the easiest achievements first. Writing contracts, reading specific amounts, etc. This, I realized part of the way through, was a poor work habit: the most important and difficult tasks should be done first. But since I was having a bad day anyway, I decided to continue with the experiment.
The things I went to next were achievements that didn't require a specific block of time. I figured if I got them done quickly, I'd get more achievements with less effort. I played chess with lightning speed and wrote the shortest, sloppiest letter to a friend I've ever written. Again, going the easiest path.
By the end of the day, I had three achievements to go: two specifying a block of time, and one I knew would take a long time, specified or not. By this point, I had gotten enough achievements that my motivation was diminishing. Who cared if one of my achievements was for talking about a calendar for twenty minutes? I had awards!
I was also left with the least motivation for the largest tasks.
I tried to keep the experiment going. Hey! I thought, what if the reason it seems overwhelming now is that achievements aren't all supposed to be obtained in one day? What if I made a week's worth of achievements, broken down into smaller bits, and worked on them over the course of a week?
But I knew that the same thing would happen: without priorities, either explicit (gold award!) or community-based (rare award!), I'd end the week looking at the hardest achievements and deciding whether I could expand the experiment for a month. I terminated it.
There were positive results, mind you. Achievements were interesting and motivating for a day of work in which I would have accomplished little. And I can see how, in a classroom or work community, as in a game, social recognition of your awards would have positive motivational effects.
But let's not forget that those games I mentioned earlier--Civilization, SimCity, and World of Warcraft--all use achievements as a supplemental motivation. Most of us don't purchase and buy a game in order to get achievements, though some of us may continue to play for them. The same goes for achievements in real life situations: a gamer-style achievement won't substitute for a paycheck, a promotion, or a grade.
One day, when I'm tired and unmotivated, I may choose to do another round of achievements. Coming up with geektastic names for mundane tasks is a great tweak for an underused creativity complex. Until then, however, I'll follow the advice I've been given, and the advice I give to my clients.
Prioritize: hardest first.