Gamification Psychology: Accelerate Your Entrepreneurial Success

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Peter Shallard
CEO | Commit Action |

Ever wonder if you’re working on the right stuff?

Do you wonder if what you’re doing will actually work out and create the big profits and growth you’re hoping for?

A weird thing happens when humans work on big, long term projects. Our brain plays tricks on us when we ask ourselves if we’re doing the right things.

Entrepreneurs – especially – get caught up in this weirdness every single day. And it’s the single biggest cause of self sabotage: Of entrepreneurs screwing up ideas and giving up on them prematurely.

If you want to make sure you actually execute – all the way to finish – on the best ideas you have, you need to decrypt this part of your psychology. Here’s what you’ve got to understand:

Humans are really good at taking action when feedback is immediate.

It can be positive or negative, so long there’s some sort of visceral, experience-able result.

This is why video games are so compelling: Candy Crush (or Dark Souls) is stimulating because you immediately know when you’re winning or when you’re losing.

The same thing occurs when you eat a donut: Your brain instantly benefits from a caloric hit of fat and sugar.

Eat a donut and millions of years of evolutionary conditioning kick in. All designed to make you prioritize energy dense food sources. Your blood sugar spikes. You get a hit of serotonin and dopamine. You feel good. You’re getting “feedback” that what you did – the thing you just ate – is a very good thing.

These feedback loops are the secret to motivation

It’s effortless to take action when you have clear, present-moment indicators telling you that you’re winning at the game of life.

When you do something – like eating that donut – and you immediately feel good (via your taste buds, blood sugar etc) it is the easiest thing to take more and more of that “action”. It’s the most natural motivation in the world.

But what about when that immediate feedback is not present?

Measuring your efficacy as an entrepreneur

The game of business building is an exercise in delayed gratification. It takes a long time for the actions you take today – as a business owner – to pan out and create the big results you’re ultimately hoping for.

  • Designing and developing a new product.

  • Building out a new marketing funnel.

  • Implementing systems and processes to increase efficiency or margins.

These are all examples of games entrepreneurs play to get what they want. They all contain inherent risk: You might win. And you might lose.

Most importantly, these three examples all tend to have enormously long “feedback loops”. That simple means that it can take months to learn if the actions you carried out were indeed the correct, “winning” ones.

Every entrepreneur ends up deep in the trenches of their business, working on this stuff, wondering if they’re doing the right things or if they’re even winning at all.

In every meaningful opportunity or long term project you work on, you enter a sort of valley of ambiguity (and often despair!) where you’re in the thick of execution and you have no idea if it’ll all work out. You can’t see your way out of the valley – you don’t know what’s on the other side – but you have to keep on trudging to get out anyway.

When you’re an entrepreneur working on some new marketing idea… there isn’t something feeding you mini hits of serotonin like when you eat donuts or play Candy Crush. Instead, you have to execute despite the fact that nothing in the moment will tell you if you’re doing it right.

The Gamification of Entrepreneurship

The solution to getting lost in this valley of execution ambiguity is to make a game out of your projects.

The idea here is to leverage a well researched principle of psychology called Proximal Goal Setting. A proximal goal is simply a bite-sized implementation step of a larger, bigger picture goal you’ve set for yourself.

They work so powerfully for entrepreneurs because instead of sitting down at your desk each day to “make a million bucks”, you get to set micro-objectives that are actually doable in a day.

Proximal goals are the video games of personal growth. They break big, long term, complex and ambiguous goals into short term winnable challenges.

What’s essential about proximal goals is the proactive decision you make when you set them:

You’re deciding to quit asking deep questions about your big far-away goals, and to focus instead on the game you’ve created for yourself in the present moment.

Here’s how it works:

As a blogger and writer, my big and ambiguous goal is to drive traffic to my website, increase trust, convert sales and cement my position as a thought leader. (This is technically called a “Distal Goal”).

My proximal goal – when I sit down at my desk on any weekday morning – is to draft five hundred words of brand new material.

The proximal goal is game-ified with meta-measurement: I keep a tracker that I check off for accomplishing that daily, micro-action of writing. I build streaks. I’m vastly more likely to write on a Friday if I also wrote every day Monday through Thursday.

Most important of all, checking off my “Draft five hundred words” proximal goal feels good.

Psychologists have shown that accomplishing proximal goals – even when they’re just a drop in the bucket of our bigger distal goal – does the same thing as the donut and the video games: It activates the brain’s reward centers.

By making yourself feel good at a chemical level, it becomes easier and easier to train your brain to build a terrific habit of executing on your proximal goal steps.

So, instead of beating myself up about the enormity of my huge ultimate objective as a blogger, which some days I really don’t progress on in any measurable way… I simply narrow my focus to the ritual of writing five hundred words.

Entrepreneurs are chronically bad at proximal goal setting

As business owners, we love to dream big and execute on bold plans. We get excited about big projects because distal, long term goals ARE super motivating. For a second. Distal goals fire us up by activating our imagination of future reward.

We deeply desire those big long term transformational objectives like becoming rich, famous and totally free. That’s why it’s easy to come up with some distal goal and jump straight into working on it.

The problem is, all that motivation tends to run out after a day or so.

For many entrepreneurs, the initial thrill of an exciting distal goal is enough to get a whiteboard planning session done… and very little else.

This is because the entrepreneurial psychology that makes you so good at seeing big opportunities, crafting compelling visions – being an “ideas person” in other words – is pretty much the opposite of the mindset needed to execute on an idea.

After the initial big picture planning session, most entrepreneurs really need a hard worker – who doesn’t ask too many questions – to take over.

This article and the idea of gamification and proximal goals… is telling you how to become that person.

It’s your job to become the kind of person you’d hire to take action your best ideas, if you could.

If an entrepreneur sets a big vision and constantly keeps revisiting that far-away goal – re-thinking and tweaking it – they’re never going to get anything done.

No matter how high level and strategic you think you are, you’ve got to get down to work and make the thing happen. You have to stop white-boarding your ideas, and start doing the heavy lifting.

Setting proximal goals that game-ify your big vision works, because just by setting those micro-steps you are presupposing that the big distal goal is fixed. By definition, when you’re working on your proximal goal you cannot be questioning and over-analyzing the big picture.

It’s kinda like your “CEO self” has set a specific project and given it to your “Worker self”.

When I’m drafting my five hundred words of new content, I’m not simultaneously asking myself if writing is really the thing that’s going to get me to where I want to go.

I’m not researching other mediums for thought leadership. I’m not thinking:

“Should I maybe be trying to get more speaking gigs instead of writing this article?”

I’m not gazing into any of those existential voids.

I’m not thinking about anything except what to write. And that’s the only reason I ever get anything written.

The problem is that most entrepreneurs want to spend all their time in “CEO” mode.

It’s understandable. That’s the fun place to be. You get to sit around and have ideas.

But that, and five bucks, will buy you a sandwich.

There’s no value in ideas without action. Execution is everything.

Setting up clear games for yourself, where you’re measuring your personal effectiveness on individual tasks that will add up to something greater… is treating yourself exactly like the employee you need.

You would never hire someone and start them on a project, then stop them a day later because you’ve had a different idea. You’d have them consistently execute and then a month later, you’d sit down and evaluate the efficacy of what they did.

This is a segmentation of the psyche that acknowledges that there is a time and a place for strategic “big picture” CEO thinking… but that day to day, you also need to measure and reward your actual output without connecting it to the big picture.

It’s that output and the concrete results your worker-self creates… that your CEO-self will be actually strategically analyzing anyway.

And I’m not saying strategic thinking is bad. There’s a time and a place for it. If I wrote articles for years and never actually checked to see what kind of results they were creating, I’d be an idiot.

It’s important to acknowledge, however, that all your business elephants are eaten one bite at a time. Putting in consistent effort on things you think will probably add up… tends to add up.

Patient, relentless execution… Works.

People who never measure their output get stuck in a kind of analysis paralysis where they’re thinking like a big bad CEO, but there’s no actual business for them to strategize or analyze.

Nothing is going on. They’re frozen, faking it but never making it. They’re constantly switching strategies, re-inventing their “business” and shifting the bar on their big goals.

They’re all ideas and excitement, but zero results… because they can’t execute.

Mental games of self-measurement – on the other hand – are a structure that will set you free.

They’ll take you out of your head, and get you actually moving. And actually producing. When you do flip back into strategic thinking mode, you’ll learn more from your hard won, real-world experience than you ever could’ve imagined.

Here at Commit Action, our Commit Action Coaches are experts in constructing meta-measurement on behalf of our clients – whose high-leverage productivity they support as white-glove "execution concierges".

Being an execution powerhouse is one helluva drug. And Measurement is the key.

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