A few months ago, I noticed someone in one of my Facebook groups posting about an interesting app called Habitica. It’s one of a host of time-management and productivity-increasing applications, both web- and mobile-based. What sets it apart, however, is that it turns your efforts at organizing your life into a game. Specifically, it turns your life into something reminiscent of a classic, pixelated, 8-bit RPG.
So no, the title of this post is not a metaphor. You literally get XP (and gold) for doing your tasks in real life.
I’ve only been using Habitica for about two weeks now; I kept putting it off because my life was so hectic when I discovered it that I thought it couldn’t possibly adapt to it. That’s right; I was having so much trouble with time-management that I thought that a time-management aide couldn’t possibly help, without even trying it in the first place. After all, how could the programmers write something for my crazy life?
In my defense, I was quite frazzled, very exhausted, and I like researching things before I dive into them.
I should have just started it up. I finally installed it on my phone right before my trip to MantiCon at the end of May, because my friend Liz (who found it through my share of it on Facebook) was after me to join her. It turns out that it is very adaptable, precisely because the programmers can’t predict what your life is like. You define your own goals in the game; you can set one of four difficulties (Trivial, Easy, Medium, and Hard), and doing more or less of it over time will affect your rewards (tasks that you consistently complete become worth less over time), but you define what those tasks are and what constitutes completion. As a result, you’re still the one keeping yourself honest; the app just gives you structure for it.
There are three types of tasks: Habits, Dailies, and Todos. Each one shows up in the app as a different color, depending on how often you’ve managed to complete it. They start off as yellow, but if you complete it a lot it gradually moves to green; if you aren’t completing the tasks often, then they move to red.
And in case it’s not obvious, the fact that you set your own goals means you can name them whatever you want. As long as you remember what each task means, it doesn’t matter what name you use. So in my case, several of my tasks have RPG-sounding terms to help the immersion effect, which is apparently something a lot of Habitica users do. For example, instead of saying “Laundry,” you could call it “Maintain Armor.” Taking your pills could be a daily checklist labeled “Healing Potions.” Mowing the lawn could be “Hack a Path Through Jungle.” A daily family Rosary might become “Spiritual Warfare.” If the app turns your life into a game, then run with that as far as you like.
Habits are things you want to either increase (positive habits) or decrease (negative) in your life. Each time you perform that task, you press the button next to it; if it’s positive, you get XP and gold, the amount of both depending on the base difficulty and how often you’ve pressed that button. Tasks you are able to complete a lot have reduced rewards over time, and those which you’re not able to do a lot can get larger rewards (even if at the same base difficulty) as a mild incentive for doing the stuff you’ve been putting off. Negative habits will deal hit point damage to you.
Some tasks can be both positive and negative. For example, a default suggestion is “Eat Healthy/Junk Food.” When you eat something particularly good for you, you hit the + button; when you eat something bad for you, you press -. In my case, though, as you can see in the screenshot, I just have “Get Poisoned” as a single negative habit, standing for my sugar intake (though I was very tempted to call it “Iocaine Powder”). If I indulge in something sugary, then I hit that button and I take damage.
My other tasks shown in this screenshot refer to, in order: making certain I drink a certain amount of water (every time I refill my bottle, I hit the button), get basic exercise (walk a certain distance without my cane), do laundry, or tackle my huge backlog of book reviews I’ve been meaning to get to. I’ve got more, but the list extends below the screen.
Dailies are tasks you must complete within a given 24-hour period. You can set these up to happen every day, on certain days of the week, or once every X number of days. You can only complete these once per day, receiving XP and gold, and if you don’t do so by the time your day ends, you take damage. Once you complete the task, or if the task is not due today, it turns grey.
You can also create a checklist for your dailies, such as on my first daily shown here. Say you want to go through a routine, and count the routine as one task rather than several. For example, you tend to go out the door and back in several times because you keep forgetting things as you’re rushing off to work. Well, you can create a checklist in your daily for items you have to remember: a packed lunch, your subway card, your reading glasses, your medication, your laptop charger, and so on. Your task is not complete unless you’ve checked everything off on your list.
In my case, these mean, in order: Go through my three work-related email addresses (yes, I have three, because I’m stupid like that and take on extra work), answer an exam question for the Royal Manticoran Navy (mentioned in this article from Lori and again in my interview with Christa Brolley; but it really deserves its own post), and two separate cleaning dailies (one for actual cleaning anywhere in the house, and one for tidying my workspace). Again, I have more that just aren’t visible in this screenshot.
It’s possible to pause your dailies, or even change when your 24-hour period starts. For example, if you work nights or are regularly up at midnight (the default time when a “day” begins), you might want to adjust when dailies come due. Pausing lets you go on vacation, so to speak; if I’d known that was a feature, I’d have downloaded Habitica sooner, because then I would know that if it didn’t work as well for me personally, I could set myself to “rest in the inn” and not have to worry about getting tasks done by a certain time.
Once again, how much of a reward and how much damage depends on both the base difficulty and how often you’ve managed to complete it. However, you can gain streaks, which indicate how often you’ve managed to complete that task when it was due. So the entry that I have above labeled “Garbage” has a streak of 1, but that’s because I only added it last week, and it refers to remembering to put my garbage cans out on the curb on collection day (something I sometimes have trouble remembering to do in time). Since it only applies once per week, and I only created that task after getting back from my trip (kind of hard to put out your garbage when you’re half a continent away), I’ve only had an opportunity to fulfill it once.
The longer a streak you can build, the better a reward you can get. This ranges from achievements to benefits for your party. Oh, I didn’t mention parties? Well, this is an RPG! Of course there are parties! But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Todos are the third and final type of task. This is literally a to-do list. Like with habits and dailies, you gain more XP and gold for doing tasks you’ve been putting off. However, the increase is capped after a month, and there are no penalties for not checking something off the list.
Because of this, creating to-dos that you know will take a while to get to (such as a doctor’s appointment, remembering to check stores for a particular item not currently in stock, or anything where the time until completion is not solely a factor of you getting off the couch and doing it) will get a higher reward than you might feel you “deserve.” To fix this, you can use a lower base difficulty than you might assign if it was something you needed to do immediately; or you might delete the task without completing it, add it back in, and then complete it. How you handle this sort of thing is up to you. (Personally, I go with “lower base difficulty,” but that’s mainly because I enjoy the feeling of checking off the same task I wrote down earlier.)
Like dailies, you can create checklists for everything that constitutes one task. For example, say I have to contact multiple people about a single work project. I would put down their names in the checklist, along with their function in the project at hand, and as I speak with each of them I can check them off the list. After the list is completed, I get my XP and gold.
Unlike my Habits and Dailies, I don’t tend to give my Todos fanciful names. The reason for that is they’re one-time deals; I can remember what the first two are, but the whole point of a to-do list is so that you don’t forget to do something. Changing the name and then forgetting what it means would be rather counterproductive.
My biggest problem with the to-do list is that I will put several on there, and while it’s the first to-do list that I can remember to check daily, scrolling through it gets increasingly hard. That’s why the checklist feature is so useful. I’ve got one set of tasks that are difficult, and so I’ve separated them even though they’re all part of the same goal, but otherwise I highly recommend using the checklist feature here even if you don’t do it with your dailies.
Rewards start out as part of the conceit of the RPG format. You can increase the effectiveness of your equipment as you go, gaining more Strength and Constitution. Constitution is immediately useful; it can reduce the amount of damage you take from bad habits and missed dailies. Strength is useful a little later.
You start out as a Warrior, and so you can only buy Warrior gear. However, you can pick a different class by Level 10: Rogue, Healer, or Mage. Each one has different advantages, but they’re primarily useful in a party. Yes, we’re getting to that.
Over time, you’ll max out the equipment you can buy, which is why you can create custom rewards. This is a feature that will let you spend gold not for in-game benefits, but rather as a way to see whether you’ve actually “earned” something in real life. For example, if you’ve had a rough day and feel you deserve a break to watch TV, play a video game, or have a slice of cake, you can “buy” that reward. The game recommends looking at how much gold you get rewarded with in a given day, and then figuring out the cost of your activity based on that: that is, if an hour of playing a video game is worth a quarter-day’s effort, then you divide your expected GP intake by 4 and price it accordingly. If you start running low, then you know you need to focus on other tasks and avoid procrastination.
This also means that you actually can justify things based on how bad a day you’ve had. For example, if you have a particularly aggravating event happen on a regular basis, create a positive habit representing dealing with that event with good grace. As an example, over six years ago I was working part-time as a tour guide, and we would often get school groups. I actually enjoyed the kids, but my fellow guides usually had problems controlling the groups and getting them to focus. If they’d had Habitica back then, they could have created a positive habit to represent dealing with that, and then built up gold for a custom reward. They could then refine that, such as the threshold for completion being an easy “Got through it without losing my temper” or a difficult “Managed to keep their attention.” Similarly, you could do the same for “Weathered a bad rush hour,” “Didn’t get into an argument with my teacher,” or “didn’t complain about the food in the cafeteria/mess hall” and use that to justify a reward like “One episode of my latest Netflix show.”
It wouldn’t be an RPG without an adventuring party, and Habitica delivers on this part too. You can link up with friends and form parties to take down quests and bosses. These function by you dealing damage through completing your dailies, to-dos, and positive habits; the boss deals damage if you missed any of your dailies, but with a bit of a twist: boss damage affects everyone, not just you.
That one feature turns the party system from just a fun little addition to an actual incentive. It’s one thing to look at a daily list and think “Okay, I can absorb that damage, so I’m going to be lazy.” It’s quite another to realize that your friends are going to know you missed something, even if they can’t actually see your dailies and know what you missed. Effectively, it adds in a layer of peer pressure and social performance without actually exposing what you’re working on. Your party isn’t just an extra mini-game; it’s your support group, and you’re all there to help each other out.
Of course, the fact that it isn’t just an extra mini-game doesn’t mean it isn’t an extra mini-game. You can get special rewards for completing quests, including fluff items like pets (which can grow into mounts if you feed them) that give no game benefits beyond showing up on your profile. You can gain pets for doing your normal tasks, but some only drop from quests. For collectors like my friend Liz, this is a huge incentive; less so for me, but it’s still a nice little addition.
Habitica is free, but as an encouragement to support the project, they offer a few cosmetic features for real money. You can purchase gems at a rate of one for a hair under twenty-five cents (21 gems for $5, as you see above), letting you trade them for custom profile features. It’s actually a nice way of asking for donations.
As I said, I’ve been using the app for just a little over two weeks. As my friends have started using it, they’ve noticed a marked increase in their productivity; I haven’t had the same dramatic change they reported, but I’m already very busy and have a huge number of tasks at hand. What it has helped me out with is memory and organization. Instead of writing something down and forgetting to look at the to-do list for a month, I’m checking the app at least once per day to go over all my tasks and determining what I can do when, and how long it will take. So while I’m not noticeably getting things done faster, I’m less scatterbrained about it and much more aware of which task should have a higher priority.
But the most important thing, actually, is that it’s made my tasks fun. There’s just something about completing a task and hitting the button to watch my XP and gold go up. It’s something that most of the people I’m around on a daily basis just wouldn’t get, but that’s because they don’t already joke about how screwing up on a task means “rolling a natural 1,” or describing how getting better at something means “leveling up.”
This is a productivity tool designed especially for geeks, and I’m certain there are many people in the Catholic Geeks audience who would want to try it out . . . just as I’m certain many of you have been using Habitica for years, while I’m just discovering it now.