How to Gamify Your Life

To make work and education more entertaining

Jonathan Adrian, MD
5 min readAug 11, 2021

The entertainment industry is one of the most rapidly evolving industries of the last decade. Think about the variety of recreational activities we have today, from social media and on-demand film streaming to music, video games, to gaming consoles built into cars. Big bucks and plenty of science have gone into figuring out how to keep human beings constantly engaged and entertained, resulting in spectacles of entertainment unparalleled in human history. And herein lies the rub.

A large percentage of economic growth is rooted in optimising for entertainment. Other valuable aspects of our lives, mostly in areas of non-entertainment, are more difficult to monetarily exploit. This makes the prospect less appealing for entrepreneurs and investors, and are therefore neglected and often left on the sidelines. Our education system has barely progressed beyond 19th-century Prussian model roots and many jobs are no more enjoyable today than they were for our ancient fore-bearers thousands of years ago.

We’ve become so used to so many engagements per second, the exact variable that modern entertainment industries optimise for, that everything else feels dull and unworthy of our attention. Workplace effectivity and productivity are at an all-time low for corporate America, and our conservative educational system is not doing any better. If refreshing your Tiktok feed is more exciting than school or work, then surely something’s wrong. Which means there has to be something we can do. Enter: gamification.

Gamification as a concept is pretty simple, referring to the use of game design elements in non-game contexts. Or to rephrase it in a more practical way, the use of game-based mechanics, aesthetics, and thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems.

Gamification takes all the basic elements from the skinner box techniques we all know so well from games, such as levelling systems, achievement, quests, checklists, and rewards, and layers them on top of existing activities.

In his book Actionable Gamification, Yu-kai Chou highlights why it’s a natural human tendency to appreciate game mechanics. For one, games tap into our visceral desire for possession and social influence, reflected in the many ways games incorporate virtual tokens to accumulate wealth and providence of social in-game activities. Games also take advantage of our tendency to desire things that are difficult to attain and our avoidance of loss, which makes us intuitively seek things that are fading in availability and uphold defensive strategies to mitigate death, for example.

But the most important explanation for our affinity towards games is that we are wired to love a challenge, especially if the challenge is followed by a reward. This dynamic generates a sense of accomplishment and ownership that is often missing in many “real-life” tasks. Integrated with the right context, it can even make you believe that you’re taking part in something bigger than yourself — such as saving the world. The productivity app Forest does this brilliantly, where you grow virtual trees and earn by leaving your phone alone. Exiting the application causes your tree to wither, and earned coins can be used to plant real trees around the world.

Scanning barcodes and doing inventory becomes a lot more engaging when there is a progress bar on the barcode scanner, showing you how much closer you are to levelling up each time you scan an item. Finishing 30 math problems in a single night or getting an achievement for practising 15 minutes of French each day becomes a gamified experience that injects fun into the equation. It practically ensures that no one quits after problem #25 or drops the ball after 12 minutes of French practice. It deploys the same psychological trigger that pushes you to finish a game’s level before calling it a day.

Other industries, such as healthcare and habit-setting can similarly be optimised by gamification. Physical fitness trackers often employ challenge-based mechanics to encourage people to become more active. Mango Health incentivises users to consistently take their medications on time and other applications like SuperBetter can help people quit their bad habits.

The possibilities of gamification go so far and wide that individual books have been written on the concept. As institutes, there are thousands of vectors we can tweak and adjust to optimise the skinner box core. One area of focus is the integration of education and work experience to gamification principles we experience in our leisure, such as the ones mentioned above. Even simpler, the aesthetics of certain things, such as textbooks and online educational modules, can be designed in ways that make the activity psychologically conducive and entertaining.

Duolingo is a prime example of the successful adoption of gamification. If you don’t already know what it is, Duolingo is a language learning platform that revolves around the core concepts of gamification. They incorporate level systems, rewards, achievements, rankings, leagues, streaks, learner communities, and variegated game formats — packed in a vibrant and aesthetically pleasing app design — which altogether create the perfect environment for fun and active learning.

As a consumer, you can personalise your own game design by tweaking the rules and fine-tuning the progress-reward symbiosis yourself. Create checkpoints in your workflow, set up checklists prior to starting work, and surprise yourself with rewards for completing bonus assignments.

There are hundreds of online software built exactly to fit this niche. Habitica, for example, is a to-do tool that turns completing tasks into a game. When you check off a task, you’re rewarded with experience points and gold, which you can spend on equipment and abilities to battle monsters with your friends. But miss a task and your health and statistics will take a hit. Whole Life Challenge helps you develop daily habits, Waterlogged helps you stay hydrated, and Long Game makes saving fun.

Gamification essentially turns the unexciting into fun and boasts limitless potential. Without having to change the intrinsic content or amount of assignments, work and life can become more enjoyable with the integration of mindful gamification. While a complete structural makeover is required to improve things on a grander scale, we can maximise the fun factor of conventionally boring work by utilising the principles of gamification and leveraging existing technology.



Jonathan Adrian, MD

Doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist.