In an old episode the Bread Time podcast, the hosts bring up the notion of ‘gaming’ life — constantly having goals set up that you can ‘level’ towards over time. The power of adapting principles from games in our work lives is not a new concept. Games are designed to reward and keep attention for hours, days, and even decades.

In any role-playing game, there’s a system to track tasks, or “quests”, and assign them hierarchical value. The quest system dictates how you play. Do you relentlessly focus on the main quest, driving the primary plot forward? Do you take time to explore the many threads of side quests – self contained narratives with multiple steps? Or do you make progress on one-off tasks or long-running background processes that build up over time?

Every play session, there’s a whole list of things to do and the choice of what to do is yours. Every choice creates progress in the game and rewards for the player. Could we apply this well-trodden quest system to our working lives?

As a serial to-do-app-abandoner, I’ve been consistently frustrated by the lack of narrative and hierarchy. In Things or Todoist, you can set up a ‘project’ that is complete when its child tasks are complete. But there’s no sense of priority for these projects. No indication that one is driving the narrative right now. They’re all at the same level of hierarchy. The closest we get is to either (a) assign a project a due date or (b) manually place a little red flag on it.

Narrative and progression are the reasons games keep us engaged and moving towards our goals. What if we borrowed that learning and applied it to software? What would a system for personal productivity look like that worked like a RPG’s quest log? In this post I’ll take a look at the system as it exists in games today, and in the future try to map the concepts onto productivity apps.

Main Quests

Main quests drive the narrative forward. They contain tens of hours of in-game content and are broken up into lots of steps. These steps can be mandatory or not, presented one at a time or in a batch.

The gaming metaphor for this is worth a detour. In an RPG’s main quest, there are a few ways any given step can be handled:

  1. The task is mandatory and must be completed before you can proceed.
  2. The task is one of several in the current phase the story that all must be completed, but it’s up to you what order you do them in. These may or may not have dependencies on each other, where doing one task fails another.
  3. The task is optional. Failure will not prevent the story from advancing but completion will augment or enhance your experience.

A quest-based productivity system would need to provide an easy way to tell the system the “rules” for each task. In games, players don’t have to think about this because the tasks are created and assigned by the game designers, not the end user.

Side Quests

Side quests have the same form and rules as a main quests, but advance self-contained narratives. There are many side quests to manage at once, and games differ on how to handle tracking them.

Sometimes ‘tracking’ a side quest replaces the main quest. Other times the player can track multiple quests simultaneously.

Games must make the tradeoff between clutter on the game map and more options for the player in any given part of the world. Likewise in a productivity system, tracking many “side quests” at once would replicate the current status quo of flat hierarchy. If everything is a priority, nothing is.

Errands and Completionism Quests

There is a third type of in-game task that follows different rules – the long-running errand.

These are persistent over time, establishing a long term goal that rewards the player for dedication or deep exploration. You might be asked to find 50 hidden objects scattered around the world, or complete a series of optional and difficult puzzles. The rewards range from powerful, high-value items to the simple satisfaction of completion.

But it’s their failure modes that are interesting:

  1. Some tasks must be completed before the player leaves an area.
  2. Some tasks must be completed under specific conditions, like in the rain, or at night.
  3. Some tasks are “gated” — they require the player to return to a known area once the story has progressed further.

In a productivity system, the analog of completionism quests might be goals or OKRs, or personal habit building.

Building a personal quest log

The combination of narrative motivation, clear hierarchy, and a focused system of “tracking” sounds like a powerful combination applied to personal productivity, and I’m excited to explore the possibilities further.

More to come in part 2…