Using RPG Tactics

to Increase Productivity


XKCD Working Out and Leveling Up

It's very hard to hold yourself accountable. Being human means our brains are always trying to cut-corners and find the way of least resistance. Biologically speaking, our bodies are constantly trying to minimize effort and maximize results. As much as we might consciously know the steps we have to take to be productive and successful in life, our brain has a tendency to conspire against us behind the scenes.

The key to beating your natural human tendency towards laziness is to use brain hacks and systems to make productivity easy, fun and self re-enforcing. An easy way to do this is to design your work systems to be more game-like.

Enter Role Playing Games

I grew up playing a lot of role playing games. My first RPG (hack ‘n’ slash?) was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64. My older brother poured countless hours into beating that game and its various sidequests. I was only 5 years old when we first got our N64 with Ocarina of Time, so (unsurprisingly) I was pretty horrible at the game. My brother had to constantly help me finish quests and even bought me a guide book so I could get through it.

As I grew up, I started playing all the “essential” RPGs on my consoles and PC. Some of my favorites include:

  • Final Fantasy 6 - 10
  • Pokémon
  • Chrono Trigger
  • Secret of Mana
  • Early Legend of Zelda (Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time)

I have a lot of great memories staying up late and finishing quests or power-leveling my characters. I also constantly find myself drawing parallels to RPGs in my daily life.

Simultaneously, as much as I love RPGs and all the great nostalgia I get remembering my favorite games, I don’t play video games much anymore. There are a bunch of reasons for this, but mostly, I’ve just found that work has taken the place of strategy and role playing games in my life.

Lord of the Rings Map

Most people treat their work strictly as work (ie something serious that’s detached from regular life), but you’ll probably have a lot more fun working if you draw parallels between your favorite games, books, or movies and treat the work as play and just have fun with it.

I think that the early exposure to video games for a lot of Generations X and Y has given us a unique perspective on life. I’ve always had a natural inclination to gamify things and look at life as if it were a puzzle or a challenge; I sometimes treat difficult tasks as if they were boss battles!

RPG Metaphors as a Productivity Hack


One of the reasons I love to use RPG metaphors in my real life is because role playing games lend themselves very well to metric-driven progress. Most RPGs make use of a statistical system for measuring progress. Every time you fight a battle, your character(s) get experience points and become more skilled in a given trait (strength, dexterity, stamina, etc.)

This sort of statistical outlook is great for measured improvement in work and life. It provides a sort of virtuous cycle out-of-the-box: you work on a project or do a workout in the gym and you see some sort of measured improvement week-to-week; because you see that measured improvement, you continue to work hard to see further improvements the next week (and so on).

Of course, just try not to get too addicted to the stats alone :)

As Patrick Mackenzie of Kalzumeus says:

I have a confession to make: I’m something of a metrics junkie. I have lost entire days of my life just staring at Google Analytics reports. Metrics have always activated that same part of my brain that WoW did: ooh, a page view, ooh, a sale


Going hand-in-hand with the metrics stuff, there’s also a big focus on optimization in role playing games; as you progress through the game, you want to equip your characters with the optimal weapons and armor and train them to have optimal performance in battle.

The same thing applies to work: you want to constantly be working to optimize your skillsets and workflows in order to increase general productivity and output.


Games are fun. If you’ve ever applied a game metaphor to a task, you’ll probably find that even just a simple switch of perception allows you to see the task in a totally different light. In cognitive psychology, this use of metaphor and perception switching is known as Reframing and it is a very powerful psychological hack. It allows you to take things that are inherently unpleasant and flip them around into something positive (hint: your brain doesn’t know you’re doing this, so it’s very effective!)

If you work a lot, applying these sorts of metaphors even allows you to do a bit of subtle “gaming” while you’re at the office. And your boss or clients will never even know, unless you teach them about how awesome RPG metaphors are ;)

Build a "Pause Menu" to Check Your Progress

RPG Pause Menu Screenshot

A staple of the video game RPG genre is the “pause menu” where you can usually check all of your stats, change equipment, save the game and lots of other neat stuff (like the Sky Pirate’s Den in Final Fantasy 12, which lets you see in-game achievements).

You should work on building your own pause menu in real life to act as a sort of progress tracker, todo list and/or OODA system. Whiteboards are a great tool to use for setting something like this up. Moot, founder of 4chan and Canvas, shared his whiteboard on his blog. It includes:

  • Today’s activities
  • A “what are you doing?” flowchart to keep you on track
  • “Days kept” counter (to measure how many days you’ve adhered to your program)
  • A list of emotions to evaluate if whatever you’re currently doing is actually worth your time.

I love this idea and highly recommend building your own productivity “pause menu”. I think whiteboards are a lot of fun, but you could also use an Excel sheet or set it up to display on your desktop using GeekTool for Mac OS X or Rainmeter for Windows (if you’re on Linux, you can probably hack something together quickly with a combination of shell scripts :D)

Moot's Productivity Whiteboard

At the bare-minimum, you could just write down your daily tasks on an index card and set it on your desk while you work. Easy!

Automation and Systems are Magic!

Cast a Spell

Magic is a fundamental part of high fantasy and all kinds of role playing games. It enables the weak to become powerful and helps to boost strength during battle.

Just as you would use magic to augment your character’s existing traits in a role playing game, you can use automation and systems to augment your skills during work.

If you use gmail as your main email provider, one system you can start using right now to make your workflow more efficient is to start using gmail filters.

Gmail's filtering function offers a lot of awesome functionality and it’s super easy to get a working system in place. You can open a specific kind of email (for example, a message from your boss about work) and create a filter to “filter messages like these”.

Gmail Filtering

You can then specify how gmail should automatically handle a message that matches the criteria you entered (categorize, label, mark-as-read, etc.)

This is a very powerful system you can put in place to save you hours every single day.

Shortcut Foo

Another way to shave off a lot of time in gmail is to enable keyboard shortcuts to make navigating the gmail interface much simpler (example: instead of using your mouse to click each checkbox next to a message for bulk delete or labeling, you can use a few keystrokes to select your messages and move them around).

Enabling keyboard shortcuts is easy:

Gmail Keyboard Shortcuts

  1. Click on the gear icon in the top right corner in gmail
  2. Select settings
  3. Scroll down in the General tab
  4. Enable keyboard shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts in general are an excellent way to increase efficiency and productivity. I recommend drilling your keyboard shortcuts a little bit every day. A great website to help you do this is Shortcut Foo. They offer tons of shortcut training exercises for all sorts of applications including Excel, Gmail, Photoshop and many others.

Keyboard shortcuts might sound like such a small thing to improve on to most people, saving only a couple seconds here and there. However, if you stick with it, all of those seconds add up and you’ll start feeling a bit like Superman as you become faster and faster with shortcuts.

Todo Lists

I briefly mentioned todo lists earlier as something you can integrate into your “pause menu” to help you keep track of tasks and get a good big-picture overview of your current projects.

There are tons of different todo list and task-management applications. For the minimalists, Todo.txt is a good one (and even has a smartphone app)

Teux Deux is another great one with a really sleek design. I used this one quite often a couple years ago. Great choice for someone who wants a simple, clean todo list open in their browser while they work.

Excel and Google Spreadsheets are other great choices because of how insanely customizable they can be. Right now, I currently track most of my tasks in a Google Docs Spreadsheet and use conditional formatting to show me when a task is nearing a deadline or is very urgent.

Omnifocus is a great choice for people who are into the Getting Things Done productivity system. While it’s not a free option like the others on the list, Omnifocus is a very powerful application and has a great iOS app you can use on your iPhone. The only drawback of Omnifocus is that it has a fairly steep learning curve, but once you figure out how to effectively use it, it’s a very powerful application.

Habit RPG

Habit RPG Screenshots

If you really want to go all-out and turn your life into a role-playing game (complete with graphics, items, stats, HP and monsters!) you can start playing Habit RPG!

The goal of Habit RPG is to “gamify your entire life”. The nice thing about playing Habit RPG is that you can either choose to play solo and keep your tasks / habits to yourself, or you can play with friends and recreate the “party” feeling of role playing games.

Habit RPG Inventory

Playing with friends is a great way to hold everyone accountable and create a bit of social encouragement for people to stick to their habits and complete all of their tasks. There’s also a ton of great apps (Chrome extension, iOS app, Android app, normal web app), so you can play Habit RPG just about anywhere; it’s really easy to integrate into your daily life.

Habit RPG is fairly complex, with lots of neat features. It can be kind of confusing for beginners; fortunately, there’s also a great wiki site dedicated entirely to learning how to play the game!