Habitica: a self-improvement app that sticks

OCTOBER 22ND, 2016 — POST 292

I’ve come to admit that I’ll probably never a find a to-do list app that works for me. Using voice with Siri to add reminders is easy, but Apple’s Reminders app is disgustingly basic. Todoist is cross-platform and super powerful. The ability for tasks to be nested within projects is great but with this granularity comes friction in capture: I just find it takes too long to get a task into the app when you have to nominate “kind” or “project” it’s too belong to. Whilst to-do list apps are one of the “must have” categories of productivity apps — with calendar, email, browser, note-taking — there are a bunch that I’ve tried and which have invariably failed me.

As with most loci of technological pain points, these app failures probably have little to do with the product and more to do with me. With to-do list apps in particular, I find that, really, I don’t have a whole lot to do. And yet I’ve consistently felt myself overwhelmed with things that I think I need to do, or things that I’ve told myself I ought to do. There are any range of activities on a spectrum from “buy toothpaste” to “read some of this book” to “write 10 pages” that could conceivably serve as entrants into any to-do list app. Even though I don’t want to forget to buy toothpaste, it’s the stuff on the meatier end of the spectrum I know I can’t let drown in the tide of every day. I don’t have much I need to be doing but a whole bunch I should be doing.

Over the last week and a bit, I’ve been trying an app that already feels like it’s making me a different person. Habitica is essentially a habit tracker with three panes: Habits, Dailies, and To-Dos. It can serve as a rudimentary to-do list app for the “buy toothpaste”s of your week but it is both the Habits and Dailies tabs that for those like me living an unstructured life have been a godsend. I have a limited set of dailies — things I absolutely have to get done each day. “Write Medium”, “Screenwrite”, “Push ups”. With previous habit tracking apps, the notion of dailiness is privileged at the exclusion of all else: I’ve been discouraged from adding things like “Polish shoes” to other habit tracking apps because I’m not exactly interested in doing them everyday, but they have to get done all the same.

As such, I’ve ended up filling the Habits tab with a bunch of stuff I could be doing: “Read one long read”, “Watch a movie”, “Polish shoes”. But where Dailies get checked or don’t each day, Habits are given a “+” and/or “-“ icon according to how you want to set them up. For example, I’ve a “Smoking” habit that has a “+” and “-“. Every time I smoke, I hit “-“, and every time I make a point to resist a craving, I hit “+”. This attribution might seem trivial until you realise that Habitica is set up like an RPG — hitting minus reduces the health bar of my avatar, hitting plus rewards me with experience and in-game gold (to spend on gear for my avatar). I know that I’m being conditioned with one of the most basic of conditioning techniques and yet I can’t help it: it just feels so good to check off my Dailies and Habits when I see my experience meter and gold fill up.

Both the to-do list apps and habit-tracking apps I’ve tried rely on the doing of the task or completing the habit as reward in and of itself. But that reward often feels weak against the pure dopamine reward of cruising YouTube endlessly for 3 hours or just taking a nap. In compounding the reward of achievement with a satisfaction of the dumb part of my brain raised on video games, Habitica has helped to give me one of the more productive phases I’ve felt in a long while.

Part of this has just been having a place to log and reflect on even the most menial of tasks. In the situation I’m currently in — that is, in a country in which I’m not a native and daily trying to hustle work to get a visa and stay — it’s easy to lose motivation, and this can often be expressed in as trivial a way as saying “Why bother shaving today?” With a Habit in Habitica that is simply “Shave” (admittedly ascribed an “Easy” difficulty where as something like “Read a script” is ascribed a “Hard” difficulty), shaving now not only ups my willingness to face the day but also gives me a meaningless shot of experience points in a dumb little app that just might be changing my life.

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