Perhaps it's a common quality of only children, but I've long had a habit of turning little things into games. To this day, I'm always setting myself unnecessary but useful obstacles like, "New rule: Every time I enter a room for the next hour I have to do one thing to make it nicer." or "Challenge round! How many pieces of laundry can I fold and put away before this song ends?" And you know what? It works. It keeps me motivated and cheerful as I get more done than I otherwise would.
There are a variety of to-do list trackers which take a playful approach to productivity, but I found I did not stick with them after the initial charm wore off. I'd enjoy using them and would indeed find myself doing "just one more task" in the evening in order to score those few more points. Then I'd travel or get sick and once my schedule was disrupted, I would not return to them.
Over the past couple months, though, I seem to have found the one that has enough allure to get me back in the game even after a few days distraction. The key for me came in two parts: supporting habit-building and character advancement. HabitRPG, as the name suggests, is centered on building and maintaining habits defined by you. The core are your "Dailies" (though you can set some to occur only on certain days of the week). If you don't mark them off, your little character will lose life points that night. If you do, you'll gain experience and treasure, which increases as your streak of successful days grows. You also can list behaviors you want to reward yourself for engaging in or negative ones for which you want to penalize yourself. And HabitRPG also supports jotting down To-Do's, which bring a reward when checked off.
You set up the appearance of a cute little character and as you go about your day, marking things off your list, your character grows more skillful and, importantly for those of us who adore the character creation part of games, you can customize its appearance and powers. Those powers, for example, include its defenses against lost life points for missed Dailies and indulgence in bad habits, or its ability to extract greater rewards from completed tasks. My little rogue character is focused on that latter path, using ninja skills to glean a few more gold pieces from each task I ambush.
All good so far, but perhaps not compelling enough to keep me coming back, were it not for the sneaky inclusion of varying rewards and frequent, but not constant, extra treasure. These treasures take the form of eggs, hatching potions, food, and saddles. There are nine different kinds of pets that can be hatched from those eggs and ten different hatching potions creating their variations. This leads to a total of 90 pets to be collected, each of which can be fed its special variant food to grow into a mount. Sure, it's silly, but when making my bed and tidying the bedroom only takes a couple minutes and it has the potential for a treasure I haven't collected yet, I'm just more likely to do it.
HabitRPG gives me the pleasure of a microbreak playing a game (when I get a reward and take a minute to spend it), without actually leaving the context of my goals for the day or risking getting caught up for a long time in playing. It gives me a place to jot down trivial To-Do items (e.g., 'empty the paper shredder') where they won't clog up my main project planner. And it keeps the background hum of daily and weekly personal tasks from creating a sense of overwhelm when I'm looking at all my longer-term projects.
It's enjoyable and it really is succeeding in helping me shift my behavior in the direction I want to go. When games work better than more boring methods, it's a double win. Try out some fun and see if it turns out to be most functional too!
Want to learn more about the science behind gamification and its great potential? Check out Jane McGonigal's 2012 book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. It's available in print and as an audiobook. I listened to the version from Audible while getting things done around the house and working out; isn't that just like a sneaky little rogue?