Gamification, e.g. adding point scoring, competition with others, rules of play, etc. is a popular way of adding “fun” to productivity and work tools in the hopes of boosting user engagement. In some instances this is done to increase the user, and team’s, productivity by rewarding “good” behaviour. But with so many to-do list and workflow applications competing for all important users, many have turned to gamification as a way of hooking us in.
And hook us in it does.
I’ve been using Todoist for almost a year and I’ve amassed a score of over 12,000 “karma” points. It can be addictive and whilst ensuring that you tick off a configurable number of tasks each day is a decent enough way of ensuring you have an eye on how much you’re getting done each day, there are some flaws in the system.
Not all tasks are created equal
“Buy the milk” and “Write up year end status” are both tasks that don’t necessary need to be broken down into individual sub-tasks, but that in terms of the time required to complete them and their value in terms of productivity are very different. Equally “Chair team meeting” is a one-line task that could easily take up several hours, but still only exists as a single line on your task sheet.
Whilst there is the ability to prioritise tasks, this doesn’t have significantly noticeable affect on karma scoring.
The net result is that big tasks, difficult tasks, and important tasks, do not necessarily increase your karma any more than buying that milk. Whilst I didn’t fall into the trap of completely gaming my karma score, it’s often the case that you “fail” to meet your self-assigned goals on a day when you’ve actually been very productive whilst a less productive day can qualify as an easy pass.
The net effect of this is worsened when the karma score is high; one bad day may not affect your score that much but it can break your “streak” – the number of days and weeks that you’ve met or exceeded your goals. I realised there was a problem with the system when I caught myself entering things I had done already and then ticking them off not because I wanted to have a record of my activity, but because I didn’t want to break my streak.
You get points for using, not for doing
Using Todoist’s advanced features – dates, priorities, etc. garners you extra points.
I see this as quite a glaring example of where the gamification is not being used to enhance the productivity of the user, but the increase their engagement with the application. Using these features is not a guarantee of me being more productive, but if I use them my karma score will go up.
It’s the gamification equivalent of free sandwiches and drinks whilst you lose your shirt at the blackjack table.
The Bottom Line on Gamification
The bottom line is that if you are using a gamified system to track your productivity and performance, make sure you understand how the scoring system works so that you can make sure that it is working in your favour.
Lifehacker has a good list of gamification options for adding games to most aspects of your life
How to fix gamification in to-do list applications
Gamification can be an immensely powerful tool for encouraging and maintain good habits but for it to work it has to be user-centric, rewarding the user when they do things that are in their best interest as opposed to the best interests of the application.
Here are the things that I’d change in Todoist’s karma calculation:
- Give the importance of a task more weight so that completing high priority tasks rewards you more.
- Weight scoring so that completing a task ahead of time garners bonus points.
- Remove bonuses for using certain product features – if you don’t need them to be productive then you shouldn’t be penalised for this
- Add the ability to enter the duration of a task, or characterise a tasks as “quick/small/slow/long” etc. Completing longer, more complex tasks should out-weigh small and simple tasks.