In the first part of this two-part series on gamification and flow, we discussed how games foster the seven elements of flow in the acronym ACTIONS. In this part, we are going to discuss how we can gamify our real lives to enter flow more consistently.
Many students and young adults are following the standard path of life: going to school, getting good grades, getting a 9 to 5, and retiring around 60. But they have no autonomy. No control over the game themselves. They feel they are being played rather than playing the game.
At this point in our history, it should be possible for an individual to build a self that is not simply the outcome of biological drives and cultural habits, but a conscious, personal creation. And one of the most important aspects of building autonomy is coming in control of your skill at entering flow.
Let's go through each of the seven elements of flow in ACTIONS and discuss how we can gamify our real lives to enter flow more consistently.
Attend To Your Activities
One of the reasons games are so flow-inducing is because they fulfill the first element of ACTIONS A, for provide a ready structure to hone your attention around with a hierarchy of goals, rules, and feedback to show progress toward your goals.
In real life, there are two ways you can increase attentiveness toward your activities:
- Reduce distractions and increase tractions
- Build your focusing muscle
Let’s discuss each.
Reduce Distractions and Increase Tractions
Firstly, you can reduce distractions and increase tractions. Distractions are things that pull you from your intended activity, whereas tractions are things that pull you toward your intended activity. Notice the use of intended activity. The activity you intend to do at the moment determines whether something is a distraction or a traction.
This means things that are commonly deemed distractions, like your phone, video games, and Cleopatra's Character Model in Civ 6, aren't distractions if they are a part of your intended activity. Similarly, things commonly deemed as productive, like writing, working out, and studying, can be distractions if they cause you to neglect your relationships and self-care.
So ask yourself what distractions would be common to the intended activity you want to do before engaging in it. Then like a good game, create an environment in which most information that could enter consciousness are tractions, not distractions.
Here are some common distractions and their possible solutions (The second sentence is the serious one):
- Your phone (throw it on the ground and finally get that warranty you never use. Put it on airplane mode.)
- Inconsistent noise (make yourself deaf. Don't work in that environment.)
- People (Kill them. Explain you are doing deep work and would appreciate no interruption.)
- Music with lyrics (Listen, but only if it sounds good. Music without lyrics is better as it requires less attention.)
- Social Media (Turn off notifications. Your friends won't die from a meteor.)
- The internet (Become a caveman. Install Freedom to block internet use)
- Mobile games (Play but only if it's Candy Crush. Move them as many tabs away from your phone home screen as possible)
- Email (Filter every email not from professors into the Archive. Set defined times to check it, so you don't randomly check it throughout the day)
- Games (Blow up your gaming devices. Set defined times to play, so you don't constantly feel the nudge)
Build Your Focusing Muscle
Secondly, to reduce distractions and increase tractions you need to build your focusing muscle. Flow state entrance often requires a sustained period of focused attention. And the worse your ability to focus, the worse your ability to control your attention because everything distracts you.
Luckily, focusing isn't some God-given talent. It's like a muscle. The more you use it in one activity, the stronger it gets. Just think about the length of time you can spend focusing on playing a good game. It likely takes hours at a time. And you have felt the same with a good book.
Now think about an agonizing school assignment like writing an essay about how Vasco da Gama's famous trade explorations in India opened up Portugal to the East. You likely spent more time researching how to gorge your eyes out than writing the essay. All of five minutes. Then you probably went on your phone or started playing a game.
The secret is to slowly train yourself to focus for longer and longer periods on the same activity. One of the best books on this subject is Deep Work by Cal Newport. In it, he explains the power of gradually increasing from 15 to 30 to even upwards of 90 minutes of sustained, focused attention on a high cognitive task.
There's another thing that destroys your ability to focus. Fluffy animals.
By multitasking, I mean attempting to do two or more highly cognitive tasks at once. Doing homework while watching YouTube would count. But doing the dishes while listening to an audible book wouldn't. I mean, unless you have some terrible dish-cleaning skills. But in that case, you likely have bigger problems.
Multitasking over long periods severely inhibits your ability to focus attention and thus enter flow. This is because the brain actually can't multitask. While "multitasking" the brain switches between tasks intermittently at super fast intervals. This creates the feeling of doing two things at once and makes the multitasker feel like a productivity god.
But the feeling is a lie. In the multitasking process, the multitasker's poor brain takes an incredible amount of cognitive load from rampant task switching. In turn, the multitaskers focus muscle atrophies like a sloth who only uses machines at the gym.
So if you want to build your focusing muscle, you need to do two things:
- Build your ability to enter a long period of focused attention
- Stop multitasking
Define Clear Goals and Rules
The second element of flow in ACTIONS is C for Clarity; create clear completable goals and rules. Games foster this because, by definition, they must have clear hierarchies of goal(s) that are non-trivial and achievable. This allows the players to align their goals with the games, bringing order to consciousness.
Without clear goals and rules, you are an NPC. In gamer terms, NPC stands for nonplayer character. NPC game interactions are pretty bare bones. Their movements and sentences are pre-coded, meaning there isn't a wide range of things they can say or do.
Unfortunately, NPCs exist in the real world as well. They are the people in life who never change, always responding to when they will start pursuing their hopes and dreams with "someday, someday.
That’s not you. The fact that you have made it to the second part of this series means you want to be a hero. The hero never, stagnates. Like me, you probably value living autonomously, building your own thing, literally breaking free from the Matrix. This doesn’t mean your goals and rules can’t be aligned with traditional societal paths like becoming a doctor or lawyer. It means you have to do so autonomously rather than because it’s the default path.
So this is what you should do: lock yourself in your room, fast for 14 days, and see what inspiring revelations come up. That's what the Budda did, but under a tree.
In all seriousness, the best way to do this is to do some serious Journaling and reflection. This is because journaling allows you to uncover your values, emotional and thinking tendencies, and how certain activities and people make you feel. Then, you can use this knowledge to design the best life for you by coming up with epic goals and rules to live by and creating a life that allows you to exemplify those goals and rules. By rules, I mean the values and virtues you show in your daily activities. For example, my values and hence rules for myself right now are:
And my virtues are:
I explain how I did this myself in the third part of my three-part series of How I Gamified My Life To Enjoy Learning and Studying Part 3. I went through the journaling exercises in Yu-Kai Chou's 10,000 hours of play article to literally make my life into a game by uncovering the things mentioned before. Through creating these goals and rules, you give yourself a foundation to structure your attention around.
But coming up with goals and rules isn't enough. Without clarity on how to pursue these goals, you will never make progress. This is why games have a hierarchy of explicit or implicit subgoals to work towards, like collecting acorns in Animal Crossing, building libraries in Civ 6, or collecting all of the secret rubber ducks in some platformer.
In real life, we can do the same by creating specific and actionable subgoals as extensions of our high-order epic goals. For example, I broke down my epic goal of one day creating an online live cohort course around helping people leverage the power of gamification to make their real lives more enjoyable. YouTube videos, blog posts like this one, and further down into doing research by reading a specific book, article, or podcast, and inside of that, reading a specific chapter. This level of specificity gives me immense clarity on how to structure my attention while pursuing my goals, facilitating flow.
Structure Activities to Fall Into Your Goldilocks Zone
As discussed earlier, games fulfill the third element of flow in ACTIONS, T for Tao; an activity must fall inside of our Goldilocks zone, the zone in which the challenge of an activity and the relevant skills you bring to it are in balance.
This is for two main reasons:
- They naturally balance challenge and a players' relevant skills
- They shift challenge in response to a players' relevant skills
In real life, however, many of the activities we do are either too easy they are boring, or so hard they are frustrating. So we should take insight from games and ask two questions to enter the goldilocks zone more often:
- Is the challenge of this activity and my relevant skill balanced?
- If not, how can I shift the challenge to be more balanced to my relevant skill?
For the first question, you can use the flow chart as a foundation. Ask yourself what feeling an activity gives you. This will give you clarity on how to shift the activity more toward flow.
Shift Challenge in Response to Relevant Skill
If you're not in the Goldilocks zone, you can shift the challenge in response in two ways:
- Increasing difficulty
- Increasing complexity
Firstly, you can increase the difficulty of the activity.
For example, take a feeling of intense boredom you have while sitting in your room on a Summers Day. According to the flow chart, you must increase the challenge to enter flow. You could increase the difficulty by doing another more difficult activity entirely or increasing the difficulty of your boring activity by making a game out of it. For example, you might play one of my favorite games "what stupid thoughts is the hunk of organic matter having today?" This is a game where you bring awareness towards the thoughts going through your head and try and figure out what tendencies of thought you are having that day. In my case, it often has something to do with world domination or peanut butter.
Secondly, you can add challenge by increasing complexity.
Take writing, for example. As a beginner writer, creating a rough draft while focusing on communicating your main argument will likely be enough to get you in the Goldilocks zone. But as you become more and more skilled, you could start focusing on fleshing out the connections between your sub-arguments and your main argument, fostering a writer's voice, or adding humor.
All of these things will shift the level of challenge required in the activity in response to your new Goldilocks zone by adding complexity.
Shorten and Define Your Feedback Loops
As discussed earlier, games fulfill the fourth element of flow in ACTIONS, I for Iterate; immediate unambiguous feedback on how a person is progressing toward their goals allows them to iterate. They give players a foundation for structuring their attention through iterating on their actions to progress toward their goals. In real life, however, feedback loops can be agonizingly long without intervention.
Like the time it takes for a professor to grade an assignment. I have seen snails finish races with sloths faster than they grade. But it's not in school. In real life, there are very few times when people reflect and iterate on the progress toward their goals. The only natural time points are at the New Year and your Birthday.
That's two points of natural reflection.
In 365 days of existence.
The solution I have found is to shorten feedback loops by setting your own system of reflection and iteration. I do this through a process I call Lifestyle Design, the art of crafting the best possible life for you. It requires you to learn about yourself and use this information to create the best consistent average day.
There are many ways to learn more about yourself, but one of the most effective is through regular Journaling and periodic reviews like weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly.
During these reviews, I review my journals and reflect on the activities I enjoyed most, my biggest wins, my best learnings, and more. Then, I plan my next week using everything I have learned from the reviews.
The things I have learned during these reviews have been absolutely life-changing. I uncover what I value, my thinking and emotional tendencies, the experiences I reflect on positively and negatively, and finally the people I feel best surrounding myself.
If you would like to see a blog post that goes more into depth on what I learned from this type of reflection check out Aidan's Infinite Play 16 Reflecting On 2022. If you want more advice on implementation, check out Creating My Best Average Day With Obsidian Periodic Notes.
Foster a Sense of Control Over One's Actions
As discussed earlier games fulfill the fifth element of flow in ACTIONS, O for Operate, like an operator you feel in control of your actions in an activity. Most of the time, we play games because we are intrinsically motivated to. This gives us a sense of control over our actions.
If we want to foster this same sense of control outside of games, we once again need to go back to making the goals and rules of our game clearer. We can only feel a sense of control over our actions when they align with our goals and rules. In other words by ascending past biological and social controls and becoming autonomous individuals.
Separate Your Attachment With Time
As discussed earlier games fulfill the sixth element of flow in ACTIONS, N for Nonattachment with time, detaching from time and becomes fully immersed in the present moment. flow by making you lose attachment with time. But I think it's safe to say almost no one has ever sat down to do a homework assignment and "accidently" worked for 5 hours straight. I have done a couple of things to promote detachment from time in real life.
First, I often set timers for an activity to determine how long I should work. Usually, this is 90 minutes because Andrew Huberman, Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford, 90 minutes is the longest we can focus on a highly cognitive task at one time. Timing myself in this way allows me to focus on the work itself rather than attending to when I should transition to another activity.
Second, I relax my clinging to the passing of time in the first place. Usually, people are hyper-attentive to what time it is because it reminds them of the ever-fleeting nature of their time on this planet and the infinite cosmic doom that awaits them in death's grasp.........
"Wahoo!" - Mario
Every cynical undertone is made better with Mario.
Third, I try and find enjoyment in doing the activity itself. When you enjoy an activity intrinsically, you don't need to attend to time passing. You are in the moment with the activity itself. This leads us to build an autotelic personality for our life activities.
Foster An Autotelic Personality
As discussed earlier, games fulfill the seventh and last element of flow in ACTIONS, S for Self-goal, coming at activities with more intrinsic motivation by fostering an autotelic personality. Games facilitate an Autotelic personality because most of the time, people play them as an end in themselves. You can use four science-based methods to build an autotelic personality outside of games:
- Adopt a gameful mindset
- Adopt a playful mindset
- Learn to love activities as ends in themselves
- Stop overly attending to the self
First and most cliche, adopt the Gameful mindset mentioned earlier. Don't shudder from failure. Rather see it as an opportunity for improvement and self-growth.
Secondly, adopt a Playful mindset. A playful mindset involves pursuing your goals without a need for rigid rules and alongside a wanting for spontaneity.
In modern society, we tend to think of play as something confined only to childhood. Well, I say that's crem. Play is something we should be doing at all ages. In a playful mindset, you tend to see things as an end in themselves as you don't play for some extrinsic reward. You play for the sake of play in itself.
Thirdly, don't take yourself too seriously.
I mean, who can take themselves seriously when you realize you're a semblance of organic matter floating on a rock in the middle of outer space?
It's important to mention that not every activity you do in life can be predominantly for intrinsic reasons. You will come to most activities with a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
Just like killing the cows in the Witcher 3. In a sick, sick way, some activities must be done.
But that doesn't mean the activity can't become autotelic over time. The more skillful you become at an activity, the more passionate you become about it over time. People often mistake passions as innate when in reality, they often build over time. Many of the games you play became more enjoyable as you got better and better at them. So don't push off an activity immediately because you don't show innate "passion." If it still aligns with your goals and rules for life, give it a chance to develop.
Thirdly, learn to enjoy activities as ends in themselves. So many of the activities we do are driven by extrinsic rewards and motivation. We can ruin activities we love intrinsically because of the over justification effect. You need to learn to love activities as an end in themselves, like with playing games, hanging out with friends, exercising, writing, and more.
I never give myself rewards for finishing a 90-minute block of writing. Partly because I'm a terrible masochist (not really) and partly because I want the reward to be the act of writing in itself. If I gave myself rewards my lizard brain would tell me to just skip out on the act of writing and take the reward at no charge instead.
Fourth and finally, stop overly attending to the self. When you are overly attentive to your looks, your negative feelings, and thoughts, you leave little room in consciousness for the activity itself. To enter flow you need to lose consciousness of the self. I’m not saying you should never attend to the self again. You should just attend less to it than you are now.
And of course, we can’t forget the secret eighth element to entering flow, your unique KSAOs.
Understand Your Unique Playstyle
Not only are there many types of games, but there are many unique playstyles that will cause you to gravitate toward one or the other.
Similarly, in real life, people have different playstyles as well. As mentioned before every person in life has different KSAOs, knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs), where "other" typically includes traits like personality, attitudes, and interests. Understanding yours can help you get into the flow state more consistently as you can set yourself up for situations that aid your unique playstyle.
You might get flow from reading a good book in front of the fireplace, and I might get flow asphyxiating my citizens in Oxygen Not Included. I think one of the best ways to uncover your playstyle is to ask yourself what activities tend to leave you energized and fulfilled and, contrastingly what activities tend to make you want to die inside.
If you are extraverted, you might get intense energy and joy from being with others compared to someone introverted. Similarly, if you're someone that has high openness to experience you might get lots of joy from experiencing new things, like butter churning.
We have gone through a lot of advice on how to gamify our lives to enter flow more consistently. But all of these tips in isolation will only help you reach flow in some of your activities for some parts of the day. This is because they don't guarantee that you cultivate meaning in your experiences.
What if I told you it's possible to be in flow for almost all of your activities?
Creating a Universal State of Flow Through Cultivating Meaning in One's Experience
To achieve a universal state of flow you have to cultivate meaning in your experiences. Without cultivating meaning, the flow state can be a vessel of incredible evil or meaninglessness. Consider the Romans who entered flow regularly while watching brutal battles in the Roman Colosseum. Or a modern-day store owner that gets into flow while tricking their shoppers into a good price. Or us using video games as a way to escape from real life.
While these people can reach flow in these morally questionable activities, they struggle to reach flow outside of them. This is because they don't have a unifying goal to structure their attention around, breaking element 1 and 2.
To create a universal state of flow, you need to cultivate meaning in all of your experiences. This requires setting goals and rules with a purpose in mind and then acting on them. For me, some of my highest-order goals right now are to help people use gamification to live more enjoyable, passionate, and productive lives and to help people reignite their curiosity and joy for learning through Obsidian notetaking. I do this through creating content on my YouTube channel, blog, newsletter, podcast, and through physical teaching. In addition, I'm currently studying at Cornell University to pursue a PhD in Human Development. These two high order goals help me create unity in my experience by giving me a structure for my attention.
At first, the goals you set to do this justify the efforts, but soon enough, the efforts begin to justify the goals. This creates a beautiful scenario in which you don't have to succeed to feel Meaning; you just have to feel you gave your best effort at reaching the goal.
But goals aren't the only way you can cultivate meaning in experience. Creating a moral framework and expressing it through your daily actions is another way you can create meaning. For example, one of my biggest values is playfulness.
A couple of days ago, I cooked dinner for my family by blowtorching a duck with my only clothes being a kitchen apron. Why? Because according to me, "cooking with no shirt increases the taste of the food by 51% and increases gains." Even though this didn't align with my goals from earlier just expressing my playful value gave the activity meaning.
By structuring your attention around high-order goals and rules, you can reach a beautiful state in which every one of your activities is a bringer of optimal experiences. Your consciousness stops being constantly filled with negative thoughts and ruminations. You drift throughout your day in a beautiful flow state of flow. Your whole life starts to feel like one big game.
And it all comes back to the question we started this video with. If there is one question you take away from this script it’s “how can I make this into a game.
You can implement the ideas from this video by downloading the Notion exercise sheet in the description. It will take you through guiding questions to help you gamify your life in all nine areas of flow, as well as cultivate meaning in your experience.
In part 1 I go through why games are so engaging, in part 2 I explain the differences between games and real life and how we can gamify our own life to be more engaging, and in part 3 I literally make my life into a game by going through Yu Kai Chou's 10,000 hours of play article.