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In 2017, I’ve turned basic mental health into a competitive game

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Photo illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

Like apparently everyone on the planet, I find it hard to keep up with New Year’s resolutions long-term. Psychology tells us that making idealistic plans for the future is easy, but in the present, we’re still stuck with the conditions that helped build all the bad habits we’re trying to overcome. So this year, instead of making sprawling, abstract resolutions, I’m focusing on something much more manageable: I’m assigning myself one useful, measurable goal a day. And I’ve turned the process into a co-op game, with my sister as Player 2.

Yes, I know it’s dorky. Bear with me. My sister and I both tend toward low-key depression and anxiety, especially in winter. It’s easy for us to get bogged down when we’re contemplating all the petty tasks in our lives. It’s tempting to procrastinate on mildly unpleasant chores like going to the dentist or properly scrubbing the bathtub. It’s particularly easy to endlessly put off minor jobs, like sorting through that pile of papers building up on the desk, or repotting the houseplant that’s outgrown its old home. So we’ve broken some of those things down into manageable individual steps, and listed them out on a shared Google Docs spreadsheet. Each day is a new goal, some of which, when taken together, add up to a larger project. But for now, we’re focusing on the small and attainable daily work, thinking of each finished task as an achievement, the kind of pop-up badge you get in a video game for some ridiculously specific behavior.

We’re calling it Achievement Club.

Achievement Club isn’t great for ongoing resolutions, like “eat more kale” or “learn to speak Spanish.” It won’t help us with abstract life-improvement plans like “travel more” or “make new friends.” But it’s been great for helping us overcome inertia and facing the irritating tasks we’d prefer to postpone. And it’s been interesting how every day, considering one daily task serves as a mindful moment. The endless parade of chores that make up a life can feel like grinding for experience points without actually improving any skills. By looping in someone to monitor our progress, we’re making chores into shared achievements.

I fully acknowledge that this whole process is a little childish. We are literally contacting each other every day to congratulate each other on taking the minimal time and effort to, say, write a thank-you letter, or finally sew up that unraveling cardigan, or finish cleaning the kitchen. We’re sharing pictures of completed projects as if they make us heroes. Even though neither of us are millennials, it’d be understandable if outsiders see this as some kind of Everyone Gets A Trophy Day exercise in self-congratulation. It’s also arguably pretty anal, organizing our minor accomplishments into columns and tracking them like ledger entries.

But it works. We started Achievement Club the week before Christmas, and we haven’t missed a day since. And over the past three weeks, we’ve each gotten through a lot of stupid little tasks we’d been ignoring for months.

It’s working for three reasons:

Photo illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

Simplification

By breaking down big projects (like “reorganize my office”) into little ones (“clean out the closet,” “sort through that stack of books,” “file or recycle everything in that pile of papers”) we’ve made projects more manageable and approachable. It’s so easy to turn basic tasks into complicated chains of connected things that seemingly all have to get done at once, at which point it becomes apparent that it’d be a lot less effort to just watch the next episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix. Reducing large plans to one required task a day lets us feel accomplished when we finish Thing One, instead of stressing over Things Two Through Nineteen. It also lets us schedule Things Two Through Nineteen in advance, so instead of getting depressed because we haven’t done them yet, we can see that they’re on the roster, and look forward to getting them out of the way as well.

Competition

For the same reasons gym buddies work, having another player in the Get Things Done game has helped us both stay accountable. The daily encouragement we give each other is nice, but there’s a sense of competition, too. Neither of us wants to be the slacker who gives up first, or drops behind. We’re competing with ourselves, but also with each other. I have literally gotten up and vacuumed the stairs at 11:45PM in order to not “lose” Achievement Club by skipping a day and looking lazier than my sister, who had already checked off her accomplishment for that day.

Accumulation

“Today I made time to take all the plastic bags in the kitchen closet and car trunk to the recycling center” doesn’t sound like much. But at this point, I’m looking back on a to-do list with dozens of items crossed off of it, and we’re only in the second week of January. And it’s starting to feel like leveling up. We’ve gotten through some of the easiest stuff (writing Christmas thank-you letters, hanging pictures, cleaning mirrors) and are looking at bigger-picture things we’ve been putting off even longer. A daily accomplishment is no big deal. A month of logged accomplishments is looking pretty good.

But really, the point of Achievement Club is that it’s literally about creating a tiny mental rewards system for normally unrewarding jobs, the same kind of little dopamine spike that video games give the brain, the progression-pleasure that comes when you beat a boss or finish a level. I mean, a clean mirror is supposedly its own incentive, but we’re talking about hundreds of little things like this throughout the year. The abstract desire to have them done doesn’t necessarily live up to the specific effort expended — until you turn it into a game.

The rewards in this case are no more physical or meaningful than video-game achievement badges, but they’re minorly addictive in the same way. I can be a bit of an achievement junkie in the games I play — I’m the kind of person who ran through four stages of Left 4 Dead 2 using a garden gnome as an improvised weapon to get the “Guardin’ Gnome” achievement, because I thought it was funny and I wanted to see if I could do it.

Achievement Club is a nerdy way of turning the same quest for game-validation into a quest to declutter our lives. And as a bonus, it’s brought me into closer contact with my sister, and given me an excuse to praise her for doing things I know are hard for her, without sounding condescending. In an era where positive reinforcement and supportive contact are key to surviving the barrage of negative messaging in the air, Achievement Club is a genuinely pleasant antidote.

I could see getting really serious about gamifying basic life skills. We could assign point values to the assignments we’re giving ourselves. Vacuuming the whole house should be worth more points than sewing a button back on a shirt, even if I’ve been putting off the shirt thing a lot longer. Maybe cleaning the basement should be a double-achievement that should buy me a free day. Maybe my sister and I should be competing to rack up points. Maybe we should be awarding each other periodic prizes for monthly point totals — the loser sending the winner achievement presents so we’re getting actual physical rewards. But that starts to sound like work itself. Some truly competitive gamers love grindy, exhausting video-game achievements as a way of proving they’re hardcore. And for those hardcore types, a much more heavily gamified version of Achievement Club, with leagues and trash talk and real stakes and one-upsmanship, might work a lot better.

But for us, the casual setting is getting it done. Either way, it’s useful to recognize all these little steps toward being better organized and mentally healthier. Somewhere down the line, we might think about assigning ourselves boss-monster tasks, the kind of long-term projects that really feel like achievements. But for the moment, we’re pretty happy with giving ourselves added incentives to work through the detritus of daily life. If nothing else, it lets us play actual video games in the evenings without feeling guilty.