for the right reasons

Decades ago, my mom found me sobbing in the bath. I said, “Here I am getting clean, but I’m just gonna play and get dirty again tomorrow and have to do this all over again. And same thing for every little kid and their parents everywhere.”

Since then, I’ve come to understand these routines aren’t actually needless wastes of time or distractions. Life itself is the repetition of mundane bits that accumulate into something worth loving. 

These routines fall under the category of atelic activities: anything where output is not measurable or beside the point—things like spending time in nature or with your loved ones. I keep reading glowing reviews about the value of atelic activities and how they can lead to greater happiness and life satisfaction (most recently in Four Thousand Weeks). 

If atelic activities are so wonderful, how can I arrange my life to invite more in?

Normally, I’d look to gamification to help me build new habits.

These days, the sun has already started setting noticeably early. I watch it disappear and think, “Yeah, there’s no way I’m exercising today.” But I have clear rules—7000 steps or 25 mins of exercise a day—and a clear referee in my fitness watch. I check the day’s measly progress and sigh, then set out, soon growing absorbed in the sounds and sights of my neighborhood.

The same goes with getting to bed on time (Rise tracks my sleep debt). I write daily: I have a streak on 750 Words to maintain! I love racking up miles on Citibike and collecting new stations. Each of these show me that day by day, my activities add up, helping me cement the habits that I care about. 

But can you successfully introduce gamification to atelic activities without destroying their atelic essence?

When I go backpacking with friends for a weekend, I feel totally giddy. Nothing to monitor, no likes to accumulate. It feels like we’re getting to slip away from humanity altogether. Then, a friend pulls out Strava and starts recording. Who can blame them? They want to log their mileage, see their average speed. Suddenly, we are far from escaping humanity. We become just another dataset to be collected and analyzed.

Another example I’ve noticed is meditation. Tracking this habit has been helpful in getting me to actually sit daily. But the internet is full of people totally losing it when they finally break an extended daily streak. They feel a surge of despondency at losing their digital badge signifying their progress toward nonattachment. Funny, and extremely relatable.

Perhaps it’s possible to rely on gamification to establish the habit of doing atelic activities until you can’t imagine not doing them? Just the same way I don’t need to track brushing my teeth or eating. Or maybe you can get most of the value of tracking whether you’ve done something or not, without also tracking metrics like length or social approval. There are plenty of tools for daily habits, though I haven’t seen this done well for less frequent activities like having friends over for dinner.

I’m keeping my eyes peeled for any tools that approach this well (encouraging atelic habits without making the tracking the point). Something that helps us be our best selves without slowly activating our worst selves. If you think of or see something that does this well, I’d love to hear.