Concept: Gamified Time Management

Time management is an important skill--one that I have never been very good at it. At its core, I believe time management boils down to finishing those tasks that you really wanted to get done. As each day ends, you should not feel that the day was wasted or that it simply slipped by you. You should be able to attend to the tasks that are important to you, and you should minimize unnecessary distractions from your goals.

I have three gamification ideas related to building better time management habits.

Three Ideas

Taoist Priorities

I recently read a book that fit well with my own time management preferences: The Tao of Time by Diana Hunt and Pam Hait (1991). It argues that the modern approach to time management is unnatural. We use calendars, clocks, and schedulers to divide our days up into artificial little time boxes. We then force ourselves to work at specific times, rather than working within our own natural rhythms or those of the world around us. We spend our time scheduling and checking what we're "supposed" to be doing at this moment in time, instead of reflecting on what is important to us and acting with full attention in the current moment. Hunt and Hait argue that if we are centered and focused, we can move naturally, still meeting our deadlines and obligations, but without the artficial stresses that modern scheduling engenders. They suggest a program of thoughtful visualization in which you select the single task you most want to get done in the day to come and then maintain a focus on getting that done.

There are two additional inspirations for this gamification concept. The first is my current technique of laying out my to-do list in different groups in order to track what I need to get done. The second is a talk I attended by Dr. Ray Panko where he described arranging tasks into quadrants defined by two axes: urgency and importance. He warned that those tasks that are both urgent and important tend to get done without attention, and those that are neither important nor urgent don't really need any attention either. The trick is to balance the remaining two quadrants: urgent but not important, and important but not urgent

Based on these inspirations, my first gamification concept is a new kind of to-do list. Users would lay out their entries in terms of urgency and importance. They would be able to assign elements to different domains of their own design, represented by different colors, such as Work, School, Home, Health, etc. They could then filter the view to include only some of these at a time.

Sketch of urgency vs importance view.

Ideally, a user would then log in each day to consider their tasks, possibly adjust their layout, and then decide on which single task they want to commit to doing that day. This task might be neither the most important nor most urgent task. Other items would then fade out slightly for the rest of that day. Doing this every day would earn the user a single point each time. If they complete the chosen task by the end of the day, they would earn 3 additional points. Completing additional tasks would also earn 1 point each.

Habit Master

Most of the gamification of the Taoist Priorities concept revolves around making a habit of its use. This leads to a related gamification concept: Habit Master. This is inspired by an earlier pen-and-paper habit-forming game I developed. It also builds on the idea, attributed in one form to Jerry Seinfeld, of using streaks as motivation. Habit Master could be combined with Taoist Priorities by making a daily task selection the first habit that users form; or it could be its own stand-alone application.

The goal of Habit Master is to help the user develop (or end) a daily (or near-daily) habit. The user enters what the habit is, such as "Go running", "Write for 20 minutes", "Don't smoke", or "Eat a salad". They then specify how often they want to do this activity: daily, every week day, Mon/Wed/Fri, etc. These desired habits are listed in a "Potential Habits" area.

The user can then select up to two of these potential habits to focus on. Limiting the number of new habits being worked on means the user is more likely to maintain focus. Lasting change is hard enough without moving in multiple directions at once. Habits activated in this way become Bronze habits.

Each day that the user successfully meets an active habit's requirements, she gets 1 point. After a 2-week streak of practicing the habit on every required day, the habit becomes Silver. After 2 more weeks, it becomes Gold. If the user breaks a streak by missing a required day, the habit drops back down one level, from Gold to Silver or from Silver to Bronze. The user cannot start work on a new habit if she has more than 2 Bronze or Silver habits. Each maintained Gold habit increases the player's level.

Sketch of habits view.

Additional motivational badges can be earned along the way, such as "Three-in-a-Row", "One Week Down", or "Year-Long". (Badges and level not shown in mock-up above.)

Narrative Rewards

This last concept is more of a mechanic than a system. Many gamification efforts use the idea of leveling up or rising stats of some avatar. The idea here is to take this one step further by then using that avatar in an ongoing simple RPG or narrative.

As an example, suppose that Habit Master offered narrative rewards. The points earned would refresh your hero's stamina. Badges and levels would improve your hero's attributes, opening new levels of play. Each day that the user logs in, they would be able to play a short RPG encounter. This could be text description (rather like Kingdom of Loathing) or another encounter in a rogue-like dungeon crawl. These daily combats would wear down the user's hero, but a regular stream of habit points would keep the hero in good health.

Similar Existing Systems

Gamification of habit-tracking or to-do lists is certainly not a new idea. Here are a few existing systems:

An iPhone with cute graphics, this to-do list lets you earn XP for your avatar and gradually earn loot and rewards for yourself.
Task Hammer
The same basic idea as EpicWin, but for Android and not as slick.
MindBloom's Life Game
A life manager concept similar to Taoist Priorities + Habit Master. It uses a tree metaphor. As a user, you define what branches (domains) of your life to track. You upload pictures and other motivations to act as "sunlight" and commit to activites to act as "water" for your growing tree.


In the current context of ICS691, any implementation needs to be Django-based and implemented within about 1 month.


Since the Taoist Priorities interface would require some sort of graphics canvas, it would be simpler to start with Habit Master. Give the time constraints, it may not be possible to include narrative rewards, though this would be a nice direction to explore if there is time.