One of the hardest parts about self-improvement is sticking with good habits. While it’s easy to commit to all sorts of dramatic improvements in a rash moment of enthusiasm, the reality is that you probably won’t stick with them. Every year, we hear about people giving up their New Years resolutions and other goals within a couple of weeks. Why is it so hard to keep our good habit momentum going?

In truth, there are a variety of reasons. While the start and end points of achieving a goal are very exciting, it’s easy to get bogged down in the mire in between. You might get frustrated if you aren’t seeing measurable progress, or your goal might be too ambitious for your desired time frame. To combat against these difficulties, it’s worth using a technique called gamification to break down and organize your goals. Gamification involves turning your overall goal into a series of smaller, more achievable goals and rewarding yourself for each one. The technique was inspired by video games, which give players very obvious markers of progress through XP, levels, achievements, and other indicators. In this article, we’ll discuss gamification as it specifically refers to exercise; next time, we’ll take a look using gamification for healthy eating and mindfulness.

Tiny goals, big difference

One of the easiest ways you can gamify your workout goals is to break them down into smaller, measurable goals. For example, if your goal is to be able to do 30 squats in a row, separate that into smaller goals of 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 squats, particularly if you’ve never done a squat in your life (like me). 30 squats in a row might look unachievable from your starting point, but 5 isn’t nearly as bad. You can adjust this to fit any kind of exercise: a certain time or distance for running, pounds of weight for lifting and strength training, and number of reps for just about anything. Write your smaller goals down in a safe place on your phone (or in a notebook, if you’re old-fashioned) and check them off as you achieve them. This gives you a tangible sense of progress as you work toward your big goal, even if you’re not seeing much physical progress yet.

When you reach your smaller goals, celebrate! Create small, healthy, meaningful rewards for each tier. When you gain enough XP or reach a new level in a game, you’re typically rewarded with new gear, items, or other goodies. You can match this momentum in real life by choosing your rewards ahead of time. Not only will having smaller goals give you something to look forward to at each goal, it’ll make you more excited to reach the next one. Just make sure you’re not erasing your progress by, say, spending an entire week on the sofa after achieving 30 squats.

Keep track of your rep counts

This is something I didn’t do until I started playing Ring Fit Adventure. Over the course of the game, you complete a ton of different exercises multiple times. The game tracks your reps automatically and tells you how many you’ve done at the end of each workout. On days when I was feeling particularly tired, sore, or unmotivated, I found it to be very reinvigorating to see that I’d done over 400 squats since I started. Who wants to stop when they’ve already gotten that far?

You can gamify your reps by keeping track of them and adding them together at the end of each workout, like Ring Fit. The auto-sum feature on Microsoft Excel will do this automatically if you put in the numbers, but you can also just keep a note on your phone or near your exercise equipment. You can even go further by assigning experience points to each exercise or rep. Harder or more strenuous activities should grant more points. Choose a number at which you “level up”, then make that one of your smaller goals. Exercise is a lot easier when you feel like you’re playing a game!

Make some achievements

Another great way to see how far you’ve come is to keep an exercise journal. Each day, week, or month, count your reps and take some time to reflect on where you were in the beginning and where you are now. If you’re ever feeling unmotivated, you can flip back through previous entries and see how far you’ve come since your very first day. Your journal doesn’t have to be anything fancy, complicated, or pretty; it should work for you, first and foremost, and be an easy way for you to keep track of your progress.

You can also turn some of your biggest goals into achievements and note them in your journal. As you progress through smaller goals, every once in a while you’ll hit an achievement – a big, cornerstone moment. Maybe you were finally able to do 3 squats in a row, or maybe you successfully ran a 5k. Celebrate it! Give yourself a bigger reward and write down how you feel, both physically and mentally. You can even share these achievements with family and friends: a little encouragement from loved ones goes a long way in providing motivation.

Find your community

While some people prefer exercising alone, it can also help to “party up” and find other people who like working out the same way you do. Whether it’s a recreational sports team, an informal club, or just a friend who goes to the gym with you, having someone else with you can do a lot to encourage you. If you’re competitive, having workout buddies can keep you on your toes as you all strive for “high scores” – rep counts, distances, and times. Even if you’re not the competitive type, working out with someone who can encourage, support, and spot you is always a good idea.

If you want, you can even make your high scores public. Keep a “board” going in a chat platform like Discord and record the best times and rep counts. Having that information be easily available can motivate you to seek new, greater heights and propel you toward your goals. (Remember to rest, too!) There’s a lot of ways to make your exercise experience a multiplayer event, and who knows: maybe the people you work out with in real life will become your gaming buddies, too!

Use an app

If you don’t want to set all these things up yourself, there are quite a few habit-tracking apps out there that can help. One of my favorites is Habitica, an app specifically designed around gamification. The app allows you to track your habits and goals and get XP for marking them off, which in turn encourages you to get more done. You can use Habitica to track your reps, workout times, and more. The app lets you tweak how much XP you get from checking off different tasks, so you can have it grant more XP for harder activities. You can also fight monsters, party up with friends, and do more, all virtually. (In the COVID-19 era, it really helps you stay in touch with your friends while keeping you productive!)

There are tons of other apps out there like Habitica, many of which use the streak method. These apps encourage you to complete an activity (in this case, exercising) every day in order to not break a streak that you’ve built up. Like workout journals and rep counts, streaks help you see how far you’ve come and encourage you to keep going. What I don’t like about these apps is that they’re generally very unforgiving if you have a big life event come up – for example, a vacation or a work project that prevents you from working out for a few days – but on the whole, they’re also good ways to keep your habits up.

That’s about it for gamification and working out. If you’re really invested in meeting your goals, taking the time to design a plan and write out your steps beforehand does wonders in helping you get there. Next time, we’ll go over gamification as it applies to healthy eating and mental health. The techniques are similar, but there are a few differences that you can use to maximize your good habit potential. Stay tuned!