2. The Story Behind

Gamification is the craft of deriving all the fun and addicting elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities. Yu-kai Chou

The very first part of my life that I gamified – even before I knew what gamification meant – was writing.

Being an avid reader, I started to wonder if I could write something interesting too. I started diving into books and blogs about the craft of writing, and I found out what many aspiring writers hear when they begin their adventure: that writing is a difficult job. I would certainly agree with that. Undoubtedly, writing a book is not a one-day assignment. It takes weeks, months, or even years.

That is why at first I decided to write short pieces and share them on my blog.

But there was a story inside me that wanted to be told. One that couldn’t be told in just a short blog post. It needed an entire book. And being dear to my heart – it was the story of my late father trying to locate the family he lost during World War II – the story kept reminding me that I needed to tell it.

So, like many people before me, I realized I wanted to write that book with my whole heart. And like so many others too, I felt I didn’t have the time to do it.

What was I to do?

I started writing my very first book – the novel based on my father’s story – in June 2013. I decided I would start writing it without putting any pressure on myself to finish it. I would just test out how it felt to write, and see where it might lead.

I wrote a few chapters, then shared them with a friend and my niece. They loved what they read. But then I stopped writing the story. Reasons for it were plenty, and all the typical culprits. Full-time job, a family with a small child, voluntary work, the story being too sad, and my telling of the story too slow, thinking it wasn’t good enough, etc., etc.

Joining a writing course with my dear friend and best-selling author Menna van Praag helped to boost my energy for writing again. Every month for about a year I sent her three pages of the story and then got her feedback both in written form and on the phone during a one-hour telephone seminar, together with her other students.

Just a few months into the course, and particularly in between the monthly phone calls, my writing energy would ebb again. Myself and my fellow students complained to Menna that we just couldn’t find the time to write, so Menna suggested playing a game. She proposed that each of us write for just five minutes a day for a month, and share our experiences in the Facebook group created by one of the students.

It was a fantastic experience. We cheered each other through the process, and my writing just flew. Yes, sometimes I only wrote for five minutes or less, but still, it was progressing. In the subsequent months, I forgot about the game, but I continued to write.

In 2015, even with two small children, I managed to finish my first book: revising it, having it professionally edited, and then publishing it. Doing all of it in small steps between taking care of my family, maintaining a household, and blogging.

At the end of that year, I published another book. Shortly before that, I joined a writers’ club in Aalborg, Denmark, where I live. At that time I was already working on several writing projects in parallel, continuing the voluntary work in a technical community, and had started a business. My fellow writers in the writers’ club asked me how I managed to pursue so many projects in parallel, along with taking care of a business and a family with two small children.

As I was contemplating how to summarize and explain how I did it, I recalled the game introduced to me by Menna. I suggested that my friends give it a go. I organized a Facebook group called “Procrastination Breakers Club” where we would play the game with rounds going for one month.

The rules of the game were straightforward. We had to introduce the project we wanted to take into the game (it didn’t have to be writing – it could be learning a language, renovating a house, or anything else that we wanted to do but didn’t think we had time for). Then we had to pursue the project for at least five minutes a day. If we did it, we earned a point. If we didn’t, then we lost the point to our procrastinating selves. And if we persevered for less than five minutes, we got half a point.

At the end of the month we counted up our points, and if it was a writing project we also counted the words we had written.

That first round of the game I moderated was one of the most significant revelations in my life as a writer. In that month I wrote more than six thousand words, by writing for five minutes a day, sometimes more (but never longer than twenty minutes) and sometimes less. Six thousand! If I continued to write the book at the same pace, I would have a full manuscript within a year. By writing for only five minutes a day!

That was one of the most beautiful discoveries for me as a writer.

And another marvelous thing happened. During one of the rounds of our game, a writer friend wrote me a personal message on Facebook. She told me that a sentence I often like quoting and which I mentioned at the writers’ panel we both attended helped her to break her writer’s block. She was late with sending a book manuscript to her publisher, and it seemed unlikely that she would manage to get it done. The sentence she referred to was: “You can’t edit an empty page.”

I was delighted when she shared this experience with me, and I invited her to play the game with us. She accepted the invitation.

She commented on the page of our group that the game was helping her, and she expressed her surprise with much color and enthusiasm. Sometime later she posted a message with multiple exclamation marks announcing that she had finished the manuscript and sent it to her publisher.

This author’s name is Sasha Christensen, and she is an award-winning Young Adult fantasy author in Denmark. She allowed me to quote her and even suggested that I put the cover of her book (the one she’d been struggling to finish) on my website. Before sending the picture, she wrote, “This [book] is the one you helped break my block on, btw ;).”

Seeing the effect the game could have, and how much fun could come of it, I decided to dedicate a little book to it, which I named 5 Minute Perseverance Game: Play Daily for a Month and Become the Ultimate Procrastination Breaker. I structured the book as if it were the description for a board game.

Sometime after publishing this book and while sharing the game with other people, a friend told me, “Oh, there is a well-known term for what you do. It’s called gamification. We learned about it in college.”

Gamification? Immediately I started researching it. Apparently, this is the method of bringing games and a game-design approach into other areas of our lives, for example, work.

After this, I read about kaizen – the technique by which large goals are achieved through the taking of smaller steps and solving more minor problems. Or in other words by breaking down substantial challenges into smaller ones without obstacles for our brains to overcome.

So, this is what I was doing with my 5 Minute Perseverance Game: I had gamified my life, and I had applied kaizen. In other words, I had made progress in my projects by taking tiny steps and by gathering points.

I designed my game anew at the beginning of every month, varying the number of points, adding a bonus system and taking various projects and activities into the game.

And then I discovered something else: this project game design I was doing once a month and enjoying so much was nothing other than project management, and… it was fun!

I’d always thought that I hated project management, jotting down to-do lists, making priority lists, and recording progress. Now I was measuring progress in points and was eager to score more. If the steps were too big or overwhelming, I made them smaller, and I caught myself smiling broadly whenever I recorded a score for each of them.

My life had become a fun game. And I didn’t want to stop playing it.

I also realized that I didn’t have to invent anything new. I could tap into great self-help and self-improvement approaches (including gamification and game-design principles) and bring them together.

Just like any passionate gamer, I would like to share my favorite game with others. Especially after seeing how it can improve not only my life but those of my family and friends too.

I would like to invite you to design your project games and to gamify your life.

In this book, I will share everything I discovered during over two years of continuous gamification of my life.

Next Chapter: Preface