How to use achievements to break bad habits

If well-crafted video game achievements can motivate or prod you into doing things just to mark them off, you can do the same thing on your quest to break bad habits.

Learn some basic types (from my Steam library) and how to use them for good in this article.

achievements Pinterest Pin

Got a bad habit you want to break? One thing you’ll need to do is set a motivating goal. (Not just “stop doing X.”)

In my ebook Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors, I teach the SMARTY method.

SMARTY is based on Dr. Russ Harris’s goal-setting research from his book ACT Made Simple: An Easy-to-read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. According to him, good goals (Quests!) are:

  • Specific: do you know exactly what you need to do, every step of the way, to turn in the Quest?
  • Meaningful: Does this fit into your heroic Avatar’s purpose? Does it motivate you to be better?
  • Adaptive: Does this teach you an important skill or help you practice becoming stronger so that in the future you’ll be prepared for tougher challenges? (They’ll show up.)
  • Realistic: Does it SEEM achievable (chapter 3), given your current skills, resources, and track record? Is it simple?
  • Time-framed: Do you have a specific time of day or week when you’ll do this? How about a time limit or finish date?

And my sixth:

  • Yes!: Is it fun? If you don’t immediately think “yes,” revise it.

You earn well-designed achievements through challenging quests.

So let’s apply this logic to achievements from my Steam library and see how they align. (And more importantly, how you can make your own.)

man sword-fights a snake with arms

Rare achievements

Something like this is valuable because it’s rare:

Seething Agility: Parry 100 attacks with the Exemplar guardian. (0.4% of players have this achievement.)

Even when you don’t care about showing them off, rare achievements act like a bucket list, or a “we climb mountains because they’re there” sort of thing.

By necessity, they’re Specific, Adapative, and Yes! The fun in them is that most people think they’re unrealistic, and they think that because they don’t know the steps involved to get there.

The further you break down the steps into mini challenges, the less impressive rare achievements become. But the more motivating they become, according to psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy.

…however, self-efficacy is an enormous topic with lots of variables that determine success or failure, so it’s beyond the scope of this article. Still, it’s part of chapter 3 in Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors!

Make your own rare achievement even just to prove to yourself how strong you are.

In Quests, I call these “Epic Wins.” Pride– in yourself– is the main attraction. (Pride at overcoming some personal unfairness is a huge motivator.)

Heck, I made my own at the end of the article, and one of ’em’s so rare I’m the only one to ever do it.

Difficulty achievements

This is unrealistic, of course.

Olympian: earn triple a gold medal requirement.
Difficulty: IMPOSSIBLE

But a good achievement designer makes sure “impossible” is more so “extremely hard.”

“…if you had to ask people as they’re playing a game like Super Mario or Tetris how difficult is the game in this minute… people will say, ‘This is just slightly more difficult than I’m comfortable with.’ That is the sweet spot. That’s the golden spot that you’re trying to hit. It’s always a matter of trying to create an experience that is just a little bit challenging, not so much so that you disengage, you get demotivated, and not so easy that you’re bored.”

– Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked

Let’s use a fitness example. Say you’re an underweight twig like I used to be and you want the stereotypical attractive body. If your exercise routine leaves you almost passing out, you’re not going to want to grind (repeat that routine) until you earn the “hot bod” achievement.

Instead, take the game developer Plarium’s advice. They reviewed grinding mechanics in several video games and found the most satisfying ones contained:

  • rare rewards (that don’t derail your recovery), like a $5 chocolate bar
  • unlocks, from an area of the map to alternate outfits
    • (it helps if that area if off-limits but you catch glimpses of it; the forbidden fruit appeal)
  • customization, with no need to follow a strict guide

Also, keep the difficulty in this channel:

Between anxiety and boredom lies the flow channel, which increases as time goes on.
© “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses” by Jesse Schell (I claim fair use)

Do these and you’ll want to grind!

Background achievements

Chores fall into this category, or good habits that you hardly notice, like brushing your teeth twice a day.

For example…

Death Metal: pick up 10,000 waste metal from pieces of destroyed buildings.

…this one encourages you to make a habit of collecting waste metal, which makes you more skilled at playing the engineer class. It’s similar to how making your bed every day increases your discipline in other areas of life. (Adaptive, Specific, Time-framed)

This works best with a calendar and markers, or some software, or a Notepad document (as long as you don’t forget).

Refer to the above SMARTY method. These achievements check everything except the Yes!, so they’re easy to maintain.

Progress achievements

Each character in my favorite fighting game has four achievements you earn just for playing well.

  • Novice
  • Apprentice
  • Master
  • Chosen One

You’re likely not yet a Master. But if you’re a Novice, you’re better than a Nobody, and if you keep practicing, you can be an Apprentice. Decide what these milestones mean for you and get busy crafting some stairs.

Progress-based ones are similar to the above type because they can look like this, too:

Prolific: successfully complete 150 missions.

Once you “complete 150 missions,” you’re not a Nobody anymore. Wear that badge with pride. Everyone starts somewhere, and you’ve at least made it this far. (Make a countable, trackable goal.)

Specific, very Meaningful, very Adaptive, Realistic, but not an exciting Yes!

Questline achievements

Group your smaller tasks into one big achievement and call it a questline. That’s “The Path of Knowledge,” a multi-quest story thread in the picture below.

The Path of Knowledge: complete "The Path of Knowledge" questline.

Again, these are Epic Wins, and when well-designed, they come with more Loot than just pride.

Questline achievements are most relevant to overcoming multiple bad habits on your way to understanding the root cause.

In my second ebook, Monstercrafting, I use a Mega Man analogy. Your final boss (the root cause), Dr. Wily, invented lots of intimidating, skilled robot Bosses to take you down. When you defeat one, you gain some wisdom or weapon that makes the next Bosses easier to fight/overcome, and eventually Dr. Wily himself.

For instance, my Dr. Wily is low self-worth. I have several Monsters, from Apathy to Not Good Enough. etc.

But if you want to read the strategy guide for applying this to your own life, you’ll have to wait until I finish Monstercrafting. (I’m still on Quests!)

Very Meaningful, very Adaptive, very Yes!

Wacky achievements

Ever wanted to try something just for the heck of it?

I once harvested a chicken-of-the-woods, a wild mushroom growing in shelves off the side of a tree, and cooked it. It was soggy, but it did taste like chicken. And now I can say I’ve done that.

Wacky achievements like this…

Frenetic Player: click on a police building 100 times in a row.

…evoke your curiosity. They’re “what-if” statements. They’re question marks. You don’t know how they’re going to go, so they’re more exciting.

Whether it turns out well or not, this is something that, the more you see it, the more you have to do it or you’ll regret it.

Very Specific, Meaningful, hopefully Realistic.

“Perfect” achievements

Two caveats: progress, not perfection. And progress isn’t a straight line.

Success is not a straight line.

It’s satisfying to hit the pillow at night having done nothing but good habits and work that I enjoyed, with the occasional chore. No emotional strain either. So an achievement like this…

Perfect Day: achieve a perfect day.

…I think is laudable. But I’d say keep it to a day, or an event like a performance or game. Just don’t become neurotic over your “perfect” definition. It needs to be Realistic, remember?

Very Specific, Adaptive.

“Every” achievements

Similar to the above are achievements with “every” in the title, like this one:

Gourmet Chef: cook every recipe.

Just be careful with this one: you’re unlikely to throw away every video game you own or avoid every piece of sensational news, but you are able to read every article on this blog.

The threshold will depend on what you’re doing, but my general estimate is a hundred. Anything beyond that and you’re not likely to do them all.

This has a collector-type appeal. You could be satisfied with a novelette’s worth of recipes, but you could buy a cookbook. You can always learn and do and be more. Only you can decide when you have, made, or are, enough.

Specific, Meaningful, Time-framed.

My examples

My custom achievements with fun titles, rarity, and visuals

The more you look at achievements in progress, the more you want to do them. (Remember Your Why)

Heck, I taped a picture of a bonsai to my wall beside the door because it’s a metaphor for personal growth (see my first Instagram post).

Takeaways: achievements

  • Motivating work (SMARTY) steers us away from addiction. (scientific proof of this in Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors)
  • Achievements motivate via pride, Loot, or weapons to beat upcoming bosses.
  • You break habits by making habits. Good habits replace bad habits, but a void inevitably leads to bad habits (so don’t just stop doing the bad ones).

Recovery is about replacing your bad habits with healthy alternatives until you desire the alternatives more.

And remember, these are starting points. Go through your own Steam library, Xbox achievements, etc. and see how can use their motivating power to crush bad habits.

It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.

Sir Edmund Hillary

How to use achievements to break bad habits

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