Reverse gamification?
July 30, 2014 2:14 AM   Subscribe

The recent general knowledge says you can use gamification to instill new habits, rewarding yourself for actions taken. But are there any strategies for instilling habits of *not doing* something? How can you reward something you haven't done?

In my case, this would be NOT eating everything in sight when I'm bored or stressed out. I've tried giving myself points/rewards for days when I only eat what I've planned beforehand or when I only eat proper meals without any snacks, but the day is so long and I am so often bored or tired or stressed. I think something more immediate would work better. But I am interested in any thoughts you have on this subject!
posted by gakiko to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'd try being creative in identifying positive actions that might replace or prevent the behavior you don't want.

For example:

- Making a shopping list before shopping, if this means you don't buy snacks or that you buy more healthy snacks.
- Getting more exercise, if this replaces or prevents being bored or stressed. While you're exercising you're probably not eating all the snacks!
- Doing some particular activity that you find less compatible with snacking. If the snacking is always while watching TV, but you want to learn to draw and you find you don't snack while drawing, reward the drawing!
posted by emilyw at 2:49 AM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can't directly reinforce not doing something, because the absence of a behavior isn't a behavior. I'm a fan of Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot The Dog. A rule of thumb she mentions is that anything your pet rock can do is not a behavior that you can reinforce. Her chapter on "untraining" undesired habits breaks this down into a handful of possible ways of changing unwanted behaviors, including ones that don't really work or are themselves problematic, like punishment and negative reinforcement.

Of the approaches that are actually reasonably effective, the most likely in your case might be to train an incompatible behavior, i.e. train yourself to do something else not compatible with eating when you are bored, tired or stressed. For example, when you realize you're bored, lace up your running shoes and go for a jog, and reward/reinforce that. If you hate jogging, pick something else.

I've tried giving myself points/rewards for days when I ... I think something more immediate would work better.

Yep, immediate is much better. You could try rewarding yourself for much shorter periods of the behavior you want, starting out with quite small durations (minutes) and building up from there. Points can be tied to some more tangible reward, so that the behavior you want is reinforced in real time by anticipation of that reward and seeing it come closer.

You can also look for ways to change your typical circumstances to reduce boredom, exhaustion and stress.
posted by jon1270 at 2:54 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I found the free course on to be surprisingly useful for modifying habits. Part of his advice is that rewards only really work if they're immediate, so you're right about that aspect. He also says that it's much easier to change a habitual response than to stop it dead. Instead, pick an alternative action, and reward yourself every time you catch yourself about to eat but divert yourself into the new habit.

So, pick something quick, immediately available to you when stressed, and harmless, e.g. drink a glass of water, bounce a ball off the wall, pet your cat. Then, every time you catch yourself just before stress eating, do the alternative action instead and reward yourself for that. With attention and repetition, the new habit should begin to displace the old one. Oh, and forgive yourself for occasional slips!

If this sounds useful, I do recommend checking out that site. (I know I sound like I'm plugging it, but I don't have any connection to it; I found it via metafilter, and found the free course very useful. I've never tried the paid-for courses he offers, so can't vouch for those).
posted by metaBugs at 3:06 AM on July 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I cut out booze (I binge on sobriety several of times of year), I keep a whiteboard calendar in the kitchen (near the liquor) and at the end of each day that I don't drink any alcohol I mark it up with a big fat red X. As the run of Xs gets longer, there's more incremental pressure to keep the dry spell going longer. It's not precisely a reward, but it's gamifying the absence of booze all the same.
posted by Joeruckus at 4:11 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One method is to award yourself 100 points to start with. Then, every time you perform the behaviour you want to extinguish you lose at point. This is reverse incentive.

Nthing having an alternative behaviour to perform when you find yourself tempted to succumb to your bad habit.

Also important is doing a volte-face the moment you realise you have done the unwanted thing, especially if it was not entirely under your conscious control. So let's say the bad habit is snacking. The moment you realise you are snacking stop and perform you substitute behaviour. Ideally you will go from realising it when you notice the wrappers on your desk, to realising it mid-bite, to realising it as you reach for the snack food. This is to train you to be aware of your habit.

Suppressive behaviour includes being very positive. Your self talk should not be "I failed" but "I am learning to stop doing it." You need to be supportive to your subconscious that is often doing the bad thing to lessen anxiety and make sure you don't raise your anxiety level by fearing failure. You want success to be easily reachable. So if you eat a Little Debbie Cake you didn't fail. You noticed the wrapper on your desk and threw it out and ate an orange, so you succeeded.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:20 AM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I discovered Habit RPG recently if you like that sort of gamification. There's the option in Habits to add positive and negative habits so you can punish yourself for a bad habit and reward for not doing the bad habit!
posted by Wysawyg at 5:12 AM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

There's a radiolab segment about a woman who finally quits smoking by making a public commitment to her friends - something like "if I ever pick up a cigarette again, I'm donating $500 to the KKK!"

The comments on that link mention a web service that formalizes that idea: if you don't make your goal each week (or whatever), they automatically charge your credit card for a donation to a charity you like - or hate. They recommend appointing friends to be referees and supporters, to get that public peer commitment thing going.

(I'm not recommending that particular web site, and I'm sure that others on the same idea must exist. The other one mentioned on the radiolab link, goalfinch, seems to be defunct and replaced by a domain squatter, so don't click that link.)
posted by moonmilk at 5:51 AM on July 30, 2014

Seconding Habit RPG here. I have been using it for about 6 months. Not a gamer. Weirdly fun.
posted by tingting at 7:04 AM on July 30, 2014

Seconding the recommendation of Don't Shoot the Dog. It will help you understand behavior modification techniques across the board.
posted by alms at 7:20 AM on July 30, 2014

I also use Habit RPG. It allows you to have behaviors be positive or negative. I put a really high penalty on things I don't want to do. One of those behaviors I needed to eliminate was eating the free snack bag they give out on the train which comes at the worst possible time of day for me - long past lunch and not yet dinner. That is when my willpower craters.

I also gave myself additional points for using good coping behaviors (bringing a healthy snack for the train and remembering to eat a bit at 3:30 so I wasn't OMGHUNGRY!!!! when the train attendant was handing chips and cookies).

By manipulating the rewards/penalties I'm better able to resist that calorie bomb.
posted by 26.2 at 8:18 AM on July 30, 2014

Buddy system. If you have a friend, roommate, or SO, tell them "give me [reward] at the end of the day if I haven't done [badthing].

I've got a friend who's used something similar to the approach moonmilk mentioned. You need to be honest, though.

I can imagine setting up some kind of elaborate system where you can dispense either the reward or the badthing, but not both. Way too much effort though.
posted by adamrice at 8:29 AM on July 30, 2014

I think about this when I'm in the junk food aisle, look at a package of chips, experience the Pavlovian response to the packaging (oh that picture makes the chips look so good), but then resist the temptation. I give myself a little pat on the back for resisting or refraining. It is an action - the marketers are working hard to get me to cave in, and I am actively resisting. Once I walk away from that aisle, the temptation is gone, so the act of resisting is accomplished.

So I think if you can identify the discrete moments/situations of temptation you face, then you can award yourself points (or whatever) based on resisting/refraining in the moment.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:04 AM on July 30, 2014

I use a thin rubber band around my wrist. When I notice that I'm doing something I want to avoid (e.g., chewing on my tongue) or wanting a chocolate chip cookie, I snap the band to get myself off the track.

After one sharp snap and half a dozen light ones each time the urge came back, my brain associated the slight pain with the action I wanted to avoid.
posted by KRS at 1:09 PM on July 30, 2014

Response by poster: Ok, you convinced me, I finally signed up for Habit RPG.

Any more ideas for substitute behaviours?
posted by gakiko at 11:35 PM on July 30, 2014

If you're lucky, your substitute behaviour could be almost anything. Like, just sit on a different chair or in a different room or without a coffee table, or go out for an evening walk instead of watching tv, or go potter around the garden.

If you change the context enough, the cues for snacking may disappear, or at least change enough to help your conscious brain to say "No! I will not snack while sitting on this new No Snacking chair".

Changing the context is a powerful tool for changing behaviour; just ask anyone who's had to deal with misbehaving children.
posted by emilyw at 6:27 AM on July 31, 2014

Health Month (Previously) has both "do" and "do not" rules.

You can have up to two custom “do not” rules (either days per week or times per week), and/or choose to limit any of the following: alcohol, caffeine, dairy, farm-raised fish, white flour, food coloring, fried food, gluten, high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oil, recreational drug use, internet usage, fruit, seconds, snacking, red meat, pasta, preservatives, processed food, white rice, salt, saturated fat, soda, soy, sugar, sweeteners, tobacco, television, or video games.
posted by editorgrrl at 11:18 AM on July 31, 2014

Incompatible behaviors for snacking:

Exercise, as mentioned above--just going for a walk.

Something that uses both hands. Solving a Rubik's cube (not really that hard once you learn how) or flipping a hexaflexagon.

Cleaning--sealing up all the containers of food and putting the snack-y ones away at the very back of the most inaccessible shelf in your fridge/cupboard/freezer, then washing all the dishes and cleaning all the surfaces. (Goals: "keep kitchen clean", "always eat with dishes and utensils", "always eat measured-with-a-measuring-cup proportions".)

Eating a low-cal snack instead--like ice water or celery. Make a goal to drink x glasses of water and eat y (say, 5) stalks of celery every day.

Always brush your teeth after eating anything.
posted by anaelith at 5:01 AM on August 1, 2014

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