You may know me as Geneva, but within the small online realm of Habitica, they call me Genleevia.

Genleevia is a Level 97 Warrior. She rides proudly atop a golden gryphon and wields her morning star against foes like the Wind-Worker and Vice the Shadow Wyrm. Genleevia has a stable bursting with more than a hundred wolves, bears, tigers, and other creatures. She pulls weapons from her fully equipped arsenal and splurges from her weighty purse of gold.

I spend time as Genleevia every single day. I check on her each evening before I go to bed. I step into her pixelated shoes while I’m at work. My boss knows. He even encourages it—because unlike most online avatars, Genleevia owes every inch of her success to my own productivity.

On the advice of a friend, I joined Habitica about a year ago, and it’s not an exaggeration to claim that this site has changed my life. Habitica is a unique online community dedicated to transforming self-discipline and willpower into a colorful, engaging role-playing game. Every day, I log into the site (or accompanying mobile app) and see a series of lists: my habits, daily tasks, and things-to-do. I’ve honed and customized these lists over the months until they reflect a vision of my best self. Here are some current examples from my dashboard:

       Habits: Use a cloth bag at the store. Avoid reading the comment section on an online article. Smile at a stranger.

       Daily tasks: Get up without hitting snooze or going back to bed. Read the post calvin. Tidy desk before leaving work. Eat a second serving of vegetables.

       To-dos: Write a letter to Grandpa. Take boots to shoe repair shop. Watch microplastics webinar on Wednesday. Email Liz re: case study.

Every time I check something off one of these lists, Genleevia and I both reap a reward. Ate a serving of fruit. My body thanks me, and Genleevia gets a piece of gold. Submitted my performance evaluation to my boss. I get the satisfaction of meeting a deadline, and Genleevia finds a dragon egg. Went an hour without checking my phone. I spend a productive hour at work, and Genleevia deals 2.4 hit points against the latest quest boss.  

With the spoils of my productivity, Genleevia can buy winged armor or a cute new robe. She can hatch the dragon egg with a colorful potion and add it to her stable. She can team up with her questing party to defeat the boss and earn in-game accolades.

Importantly, if I skip a daily task, ignore a to-do, or indulge in a bad habit, she and I both suffer. Neglected dailies and bad habits chip away at Genleevia’s health overnight; lose enough health points, and she’ll get knocked down to Level 1.

This is vital. Because there are days when I’m out of fruit, or the soft embrace of my mattress calls me back for just ten more minutes of sleep. But then I think of my dashboard, where those unchecked boxes promise to drain Genleevia’s health the following morning. Some days, the resulting flare of guilt is the only thing dragging me toward the grocery store to pick up a bag of apples or convincing me to make my bed instead of crawling back into it.

It’s a strange thing, being so beholden to this tiny pixelated warrior for the positive changes in my life. But thanks to Habitica, I’ve walked away from the temptation to wade into the morass of comments at the end of every online article. I’ve completely revamped my morning routine. I’ve put the brakes on countless would-be Netflix binges. I’ve stretched myself to add more fruits and veggies into my day. I reward myself for resisting impulse buys, for going a whole day without using my car, for keeping a consistent weeknight bedtime, for remembering to water my African violet at work.

Of course, Habitica only works for me because I let it. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and step into a world where Genleevia’s wellbeing matters more than my craving for the snooze button. It’d be easy to cheat. Nobody would know if I snuck back under the covers. I could check off the task later that morning, and Genleevia would collect her gold as usual, undamaged by my lapse of willpower. There are definitely days when I purposely or accidentally ignore a task and leave her to absorb the damage. But most days, somehow, the tenuous agreement between me and Genleevia—that I’ll be honest, stick to the spirit of the game, and do whatever I can to fulfill my tasks—is enough.

Habitica has another rewarding facet that I haven’t mentioned yet: the community. Every time I log on, I’m joining two million other users from around the world who are dedicated to improving their real-world lives through their Habitican avatars. As Genleevia, I fight bosses and complete quests next to my buddy Vegandaniel (Ann Arbor Avengers unite!). And all two million of us get to interact through a dizzying array of interest-specific chat rooms, or guilds.

These guilds are full of people recovering from addictions, learning languages, baking sourdough bread, coming out of the closet, crocheting, listening to jazz, watching Game of Thrones, training for marathons, discussing books, praying for each other. Through self-selection and gentle intervention from moderators, these guilds have consistently proven to be inclusive, uplifting, and empowering places.

If you’re curious about Habitica, give it a shot! It’s completely free, though you have the option to kick some real-world funds toward the developers to help keep the lights on. The community has created a robust Wiki site full of instructions, tutorials, and inspiration. And, of course, I’m more than happy to answer any questions you might have!

Finally, for an accessible, enjoyable pop-psychology read about habit formation and self-discipline, check out Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. Along with Habitica, this book completely reshaped the way I think about willpower and self-control, and it went a long way toward helping me understand why Habitica works so well for my brain. What do you think—would it work for yours?

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