What Addiction Can Teach about Writing

Have you ever been hooked on a game? Years ago, I would have hesitated to pose this question to a mainstream audience, but these days, with the large game offerings on phones, tablets, and computers, most people have been obsessed with a game at some point in time. Titles like Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and Pokemon Go have been played voraciously by millions of people in the past few years alone. 

Lately, I’ve been considering how these games influence players. If you’ve tried one of them, you know how engaging—even addicting—they can be. There’s a lesson to be had for writers who are working on their routine. 

 

The impact of addicting design

Addicting games lure players with a sense of accomplishment. Just this past weekend, I downloaded a new game to my phone. It quickly sucked me in with a string of achievements. I was hooked, and I kept playing throughout the weekend, trying to push the level of achievement higher and higher. Eventually, I realized that the game was distracting me from things I needed to be doing, so I deleted it. Later, I reinstalled it. After diving deep into the game a second time, I knew I’d become addicted. I stopped and asked myself, “What’s going on here?” I knew that games like this were tapping into something powerful, and I was convinced that it should be used for my writing habit.

 

What I’ve learned

Popular games achieve their influence by giving players a sense of accomplishment. Look at any contemporary game played by a large number of people, and you’ll probably see a game mechanic based on leveling up, earning achievements, or unlocking some other game-based reward. 

This idea of achievements or progress is the heart of what makes most games attractive. It’s the reason I keep going back to games, even when I’ve decided I should avoid them. The lure of those achievements, even if they’re artificial, is hard to resist. Something about making progress or building something deeply appeals to humans.

 

How gaming addiction relates to writing

We need to capitalize on this lure of achievement when building a habit such as writing. The same fascination that keeps us coming back to a game can also keep us returning to our writing projects. 

The key is to set up a feedback loop. With a well-designed game, the loop has already been painstakingly created. This is why we get sucked into something like a game, even if we know we should be doing something else. 

Now setting up and committing to the feedback loop in our personal routines takes forethought and commitment. Essentially, it takes a lot of front loading. When we buy a game, we’re paying for the work that someone else put into setting up the feedback loop. The benefits are short-lived, but it feels like we’ve cheated life somehow. We’re getting a sense of accomplishment without having done anything of real-life significance. 

 

The habit loop

Knowing what’s going on with artificial achievement can help us to set up authentic achievements. As you design your writing routine, focus on three elements. I first encountered these elements in Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit. These elements are used in game design, but form the basis of any habit creation. They’re as follows:

1. Prompt

2. Routine

3. Reward

Prompt is the reminder or urge to do the habit. With gaming, this sometimes takes the form of a notification or a status update from a friend. With writing, it can take the form of accountability software, accountability partners, journaling, or related routines. For example, my related routines take the form of making coffee and listening to a focusing app with music. I find that these two activities—because I’ve connected them repeatedly with writing—get me quickly into the routine. Often, a prompt reminds us of the reward that we are looking forward to if we complete the routine. In gaming, for example, we are reminded of in-game achievements that await us if we complete certain levels of actions. In writing, we may need to be reminded of a monetary or social reward that awaits. Experiment to find your ideal prompt or prompts. 

Routine is the habit itself. It’s playing the game or doing the writing. This action is the whole point of the process. The elements of prompt and reward exist to reinforce the engaging of the habit. This routine gets bookended by the other two elements to spark and reinforce the behavior.

Reward is some kind of perk that we give ourselves when we’ve completed the routine. This is built into games inherently. Things like badges, leveling up, and social sharing are all designed to keep gamers playing. In writing, we should find achievements that spur us on, similar to what happens in gaming. Oftentimes, the writing is its own reward, once we do it. Just finishing a draft can give a writer a huge boost of energy and encouragement. Many writers experience reward when they share what they’ve written with others. Sometimes, the reward is less connected to the task of writing. So if you need something completely separate, like going somewhere or buying yourself something, give that a shot.

 

Harness the power of writing routine

Adding each of these elements helps us to build a solid feedback loop. The cyclical, repetitive nature of the process grows the habit. If we combine these three elements in the establishment of a writing routine, we have a winning recipe. Game developers have long understood this, and they’ve baked these elements into their design. As I continue to refine my writing habit, I’m thinking about these characteristics. 

Whether you have experience with games or not, consider how these elements of habit creation can inform your routine. Make a deliberate effort to incorporate all three: prompt, routine, and reward. As with all personal development, be sure to continue experimenting. If you find yourself in a rut, try something different. Iterate. Once you’ve found your ideal mix, the routine will run itself.