If you’ve browsed my blog, you likely know that I’m frequently obsessed with goals, goal-setting, performance metrics, and the all ubiquitous “tracker”. Almost all of them are in some form of paper or digital form for most people. They use bullet journals, Daytimer style tools, Gantt charts, to do lists, lists of other lists, trackers of trackers, dashboards, etc. But rarely is there a “physical” version of the tracker or success.
One idea I saw mentioned in a business article was that of someone who had created a Gantt chart out of Lego. For those who know how to use digital Gantt charts, the idea is relatively simple at first blush but can get really complicated really fast.
Let’s say you have the task of publishing a small booklet to hand out at a conference. And let’s say that you divide it into three main tasks — writing the content, designing the layout and physical printing of the booklet. For writing, you might set up some interrelated tasks, like brainstorming ideas, tasking, receiving, and editing. To keep it simple, let’s also say that you have three months and divide that time equally into the three areas, and similarly for writing, so you have a week for brainstorming, tasking, receiving and editing. All really simple. So much so that most people just use a list of dates to track that type of project.
Where Gantt charts come in handy is that you frequently have three other complications. First, suppose that one of the writers is sick and is 3 days late providing their material. That just ate into your editing time. Will you still finish editing on time? What if you can’t? A proper Gantt chart will allow you to simulate what happens if you have to slide editing back 3 days and everything in layout and printing slides three days. Easy peasy, likely no big deal. But what if you have a hard date that the printer absolutely has to have it at the start of the third month, they’re running so many copies and there are lots of other things to print, they absolutely cannot slip three days. If it is late, you won’t have it for the conference.
So, enter the second complication. What if one of the later dates CANNOT shift? You can set it in the software that the printing date stays the same and now everything else gets compressed. In your layout options, maybe your proposals from a consultant was slotted for 2 weeks, and now you’re down to 1.5 weeks. Or your approval time by managers drops from 1 week to 3 days. Something — or several things — has/have to be crunched to make up for the initial slippage in receiving the content. The Gantt chart will let you figure out where to adjust in order to still meet your deadline.
The third complication doesn’t necessarily apply in this simplistic situation, but what if in addition to the writing, you also had some graphics design to be done based on the content. If the article slips in the receiving stage, then perhaps some of the graphics design work which was supposed to be in Week 1 of layout has to move to Week 2. In other words, suppose you have an interdependency between overall content and layout but you have a sub-interdependency between one of the articles and some graphic design work. Maybe the work is early and graphics can start early; maybe it’s late, and graphics design has to start late. What do those changes of sub-elements across stages do to the overall timelines? A Gantt chart allows you to connect pieces so that say three “sub-elements” can be done simultaneously i.e., A, B, and C stages BUT A1 (content) has to be totally done before B2 (graphics) can start.
If something changes, a Gantt chart will let you tweak the timelines and see it visually.
But to go back to the example, someone did one in Lego. It is in theory the complete OPPOSITE of what a Gantt chart is supposed to do. While the chart process allows you to establish interdependencies and monitor what happens if something changes, you need to be able to update quickly to see what happens. A physical chart made of Lego? Updating it would take a lot of time and effort. Which in the example in the article was half the point. The guy who did it wanted people to see what happens when you change the schedule. A simple change of one day shifted EVERYTHING back. The update wasn’t simply tweaking a single line in the chart and everything was adjusted as no big deal. People could see the Lego Gantt chart being physically updated in the room and it taking time to actually process the change because one person was late. A little draconian, perhaps, but it was a physical manifestation of their progress. They could see it, even touch it. Sometimes they had people do the update together to get tactile feedback from making the changes.
In some ways, rosary beads serve a similar function. Working your way through the beads as you do the stations of the cross allow you to “track” where you are and what you still have to do.
I don’t want a Gantt chart made of Lego
But that’s just an example, it’s not really what I’m thinking about. Another example people use is one of those thermometers for fundraising. Often they’re digital, but in previous years, to save money, they were just printed and somebody would go colour in the next inch of fundraising to show progress towards the upper goal. A physical representation of progress.
Others use countdown timers. Like a stack of blocks with numbers that you remove as you get closer to a launch date, for example. Much like the classic drinking song of “100 bottles of beer on the wall”. Take a block down, pass it around, 7 more days to the app hits the ground.
I just bought a 3D printer, and I like this idea a bit, although more like some sort of symbol with numbers on it to show progress. I’m thinking perhaps 15 ducks to represent the 15 chapters of a guide that I’m writing. Each duck will represent progress towards the goal. How many ducks to go?
This is hardly new though, just a variation on lots of other progress markers. The biggest and most well-known of all are Alcoholic Anonymous chips. While I understand there are variations amongst chapters, most seem to give out a 30 day chip, and then annual chips. One day at a time, and when you get to 30 days, you get a chip to commemorate your string of days. Same again at a year. Research on this on the net is a bit chaotic as lots of people post stuff about AA-like meetings or stuff they heard from others at AA-meetings, not always a true “this is the one true way for AA to monitor progress”. It shows up in pop culture often enough though for most people to get the picture. Progress marked with a memento.
Lots of people set “rewards” for when they accomplish a large task as a way to motivate themselves. Lose 20 pounds, buy yourself that nice dress or suit you’ve been wanting. Run a marathon, take a trip. Give up smoking for a year, buy yourself a new car. It can work well if the reward is not too distant AND you choose the right reward AND you are motivated by extrinsic rewards. But some people fail because they set this impossible goal — they want to give up smoking cold turkey, no patches or help, totally self-will, and if they even have one cigarette in the next 3 years, they fail. If the goal is not something you can see immediate results towards, and have sub-rewards of some kind, the big reward is too far away.
Or perhaps you only think a good goal might be to buy a new car. But you don’t really want a new car, you just think it would be a good goal that someone suggested or you read about. Something big and dramatic. Yet if there is no resonance with you personally, if it isn’t something that will motivate you to change behaviours, it could be ten times as large and it still wouldn’t matter. Suppose instead that you are a gardener and have a small garden with this big rocky area in the backyard that you can’t do anything with at the moment. What if your goal was to quit smoking for a year and reward yourself by paying a landscaper to remove all the rocks and leave you a nicely tilled soil patch to plant vegetables? Then, over the next year, you might spend a lot of nights dreaming and designing and researching what to plant. Or finding the right landscaper. Maybe even, gasp, booking them in advance and giving a deposit. 🙂
A lot of people looking at that example would see it as just saving for something. But that isn’t the same at all. It isn’t that you are cutting back expenses in a number of areas to use the money for something else. It is stopping doing something that you want to stop, or maybe doing something that you want to start (like walking or running), and when you achieve some arbitrary goal, you’re going to reward yourself with something. The fact that money might be saved by stopping smoking is irrelevant to the goal-setting if the person just wants to stop. They may not even save the money, they might spend it on coffee or a daily salad, or sugar free lollipops. The money is irrelevant, the two variables are “stopping smoking” and “hiring a landscaper to make a garden”.
Equally, people can say, “Well, yeah, but you could just hire the landscaper”. Sure, you could. But by tying it to your goal, you are saying “I won’t just do that on its own…I want to, but now I’m going to use it as the motivation to accomplish that goal.” Forcing yourself, holding yourself accountable, tied to your personal goals.
Of course, the reward works better if the goal itself and the reward are mutually reinforcing. For example, suppose you always wanted to go to Europe and wander around. But you feel out of shape. So you tell yourself that you need to be able to walk 5km without stopping or getting out of breath before you go, and if you can do that in 6 months of walking, you will then take a trip that involves…wait for it…walking. The goal and the progress and the reward all mutually reinforce each other.
However, one of the most prevalent examples of reward markers has very little to do with the actual activity.
Boy and Girl Scouts, Cubs and Brownies, and all the other variations have something they do to encourage kids to engage in new activities: merit badges! If you go to the Scouting website, click on merit badges and peruse the current list, you’ll find 140 separate topics for earning badges. Originally, many were very physical badges. Backpacking, camping, canoeing, fire safety, first aid, hiking, lifesaving, orienteering, signs / signals / codes, swimming, and weather-related badges were quite common. I won’t comment on the history of Boy Scouts’ theology and the working premise of turning boys into men who could survive in the wilderness or grow up to be better soldiers or Christians. Or both.
In recent years, they have modernized. There are still lots of sports-related ones, expanding to include a lot of ones that you see at summer camps like archery. But they also have veterinary medicine, cultures, heritage, chess, coin or stamp collecting, etc. Even … wait for it … dentistry? Huh?
But the methodology for earning a badge has been relatively consistent over the years:
- Pick a badge to work towards
- Work with a mentor / counsellor in the club who knows all the requirements
- Complete the tasks required to earn the badge
- Demonstrate your proof of completion of the tasks to the mentor / counsellor
- Get the badge.
In almost all cases, every single one of the first four elements must be present and satisfied.
Which is a bit different from what I discussed above. The first element is the same (picking a goal) as is the third (doing the tasks) and the fifth (getting the reward).
But the second and fourth are unique. For the second element, instead of you choosing what the sub-tasks and requirements are, someone else has set the benchmark that you have to meet. All the pieces that go together to meet that element. And it’s standardized. Everyone has to do the same tasks.
And then the fourth is much harder-edged. Someone has to review your work and agree that you have demonstrated all of the work. Not just confirming that you said that you did it, not that you just claimed it, but that you actually demonstrated / proved that you did what was required. And then they approve you to get your reward.
For kids, those badges work almost like magic. Many kids are motivated to earn them, they like being awarded the badges, and lots of kids would get their uniforms for boy scouts and attach the badges literally as badges of honour.
I wasn’t a Boy Scout, but even I thought some of the badges looked interesting. For me, it was school badges. I always got one for academics and citizenship (the one they give to kids who are nice but don’t get qualify for much else). I got a softball one year for going to a tournament. A few others. But the one that I treasured the most was the one I got in Grade 7 for writing the Waterloo Math Contest. I can’t even remember if I wrote the Grade 7 one that year or the Grade 8 one with the other 20 kids (I was in a mixed Grade 7/8 class and did both math classes for mine and theirs, although I was only supposed to be doing mine). Anyway, we wrote, I never heard the results, forgot about it, and then come the end of the year, they were giving out badges and announced there was a special one for someone who scored first in the school and in the top 10% of Canada. I didn’t even know there WAS a math badge, and I had no idea who would have won it among the Grade 8s. Then they announced MY name. I couldn’t believe it. 40+ years later, I still remember winning and seeing the badge with Mathematics on it, the only person in the school to “earn” it.
As a small aside, I had a similar experience in Grade 11. We had two accounting classes, Grade 11 and Grade 12, and I was in the first class. There was an accounting contest across the city, we went to another school to write, and there was a really bright Grade 12 student who was planning to be an accountant like his father who was expected to do well. I was sent along for the experience so that I would have a leg up if I took the class in Grade 12 too. Fast-forward to the end of the day, they’re announcing winners, and the Grade 12 kid is in the bathroom being sick. Nerves got the best of him. Anyway, they announce third place, not him. Second place, also not him. I’m freaking out because I figure they’re about to announce he won, and he’s not there. Nope, our school won, but not him. I came in first. How? I’m not really sure. I didn’t feel I was on fire or anything. But they gave me this cheap little trophy, the only trophy I ever won in my life. Sure I came in first in math contests for the school, lots of stuff like that, but I never WON anything extrinsic as a reward marker. And somewhere in one of my little boxes of crap, I still have the badges and the trophy. I’ll take pictures of them later this year and toss them, but I held on to them for 40 years as rewards of something I earned against a formal benchmark that someone else set.
Reward markers for adults
Of course, as adults, we’re conditioned to think that doing something is reward enough. We might watch people win medals at Olympics, or compete in contests for ribbons, but generally, we all know they’re fun and frivolous (ribbons, not the Olympics). As adults, anyone can pretty much walk into any trophy shop and order ribbons or trophies or medals or whatever to say whatever they want on them. If all you wanted was a pretty ribbon that says first place, you could just buy one. The ribbon itself is obviously not the goal then, it is the process of earning it. It’s a symbol, a marker of your reward, not the reward itself.
It is rare therefore to have merit badges for adults. And yet, there’s a reason they do it for kids. It CAN serve as motivation or reward. A symbol of having achieved something.
If you’re on FaceBook, you’ve likely seen the ads for “The Conqueror Challenge”. The idea is, at its heart, a walking challenge.
And if all you wanted to do was walk a certain distance, you wouldn’t be interested. Do you want to walk 5K in an outing? MapMyWalk or MapMyRun or a host of Apple / Garmin / Fitbit apps can tell you how far you go.
But suppose instead you want to track a cumulative total over time. That’s a slightly different beast. Most of the apps and tools out there are designed to help you with single outings and they tell you how far you went THAT day. 3K. 4K. 25K. 10,000 steps. But few give you a tool to accumulate. They WILL often include some stats functions though that will tell you how far you have gone that week, month or year. In other words, tied to dates. It rarely lets you say, “start today and keep track until I tell you to stop”. More and more WILL let you add some sort of tracking “category”, so you can “hack” it a bit to get a sub-total, but rarely do they say “Okay, let’s set a distance of 100km and I’ll let you know when you reach it over several days”. I’m not saying NONE of them do it, I’m saying that’s more of an add-on feature from tools that were designed to track daily totals, not cumulative ones.
The Conqueror Challenge tried to disrupt that simple idea. From a “goal perspective”, it is totally a countdown accumulator. You set your distance, it tells you how far you have gone to achieve it and how far you have to go. But rather than you just randomly choosing distances, it created a bunch of set distances for you. For example, 46 miles or 75 km is the distance from Cairo to the pyramids at Giza. So, you can “walk” to the pyramids and it will tell you how far you have progressed. And while Giza isn’t a great example, which I’ll come to in a minute, the app also integrates with Google Maps. In theory, you can switch to Street View and it will show you where you would be if you were actually walking that route. A virtual simulation, or at least a poor man’s version of it.
I’m sure you’ve seen the various exercise bikes and higher-end fitness equipment that do it with a video screen. Sort of like a virtual golf room, you walk / run / bike / row on treadmills, exercise bikes, and rowing machines and the computer shows you a video on a computer monitor in front of you to simulate different routes and rates of progress. The faster you go, the faster the video goes. The slower you go, the slower the video. It keeps pace with you to simulate you actually going through that route. We don’t have a holodeck, and most people wouldn’t wear VR goggles while actively working out, but at some point, someone is going to have it miniaturized down to a simple pair of sunglasses. And then you can run on a treadmill and feel like you’re running through New York City or the Scottish Highlands or the Grand Canyon, without the heat.
For the Conqueror Challenge, Google Maps’ Street View shows you some of the scenes that you would see along the way if you were travelling that segment for real. At least, in theory. As I mentioned above, the Giza Challenge isn’t a great example as for the first 20% of the route, there is NO Street View. Google just doesn’t have it mapped that way. You can see a map, or a satellite image, or even terrain, but not a Street View. There are spots along the routes where people have tagged images on Google and you can see images at certain points near the route, but not the full route itself. Apparently later, as you get closer and leave Cairo, there ARE more Street View images.
Even without the Street View being available for every Conqueror Challenge, it does send you “post cards” along your route. Specific scenic spots along the virtual route where CC has sent you a picture and information about the area. Culture, heritage, etc. Not badly done. I don’t feel like I’m “there” per se, but it’s okay.
So let’s go back to the Boy Scout example for a moment and compare CC against it’s model:
- Pick a badge to work towards — YES, you choose something like The Giza Pyramids.
- Work with a mentor / counsellor in the club who knows all the requirements — Not really, the task is just the overall distance. There is a specific route simulated along the way but nothing much that you have to do.
- Complete the tasks required to earn the badge — The only task is distance, and you can pretty much do it anyway you want. If you want to do separate walking and count that? Great. If you want to count walking around your house or work, all the steps you were already doing anyway? Also great. Want to report 1 km for every book you read? Totally up to you. Want to “guess” that you walked 20 miles in under an hour of exercise? Up to you.
- Demonstrate your proof of completion of the tasks to the mentor / counsellor — Nope, no “proof” required. It is entirely the honour system. You “record” the distance but there’s no verification process. To use the vernacular from Scouting, while it is not sufficient in Scouting badges to simply “say” you did it, in the Conqueror Challenge, it is totally self-reporting of progress.
- Get the badge — even this isn’t entirely “true” because you don’t exactly earn it. You pay for it, they send it to you when you say “I’m done, send it to me”.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing them. I’m just pointing out that there is virtually NO standard other than distance and NO verification other than you saying “Yep, I did it”. Some people count steps, others biking, others rowing. Heck one woman counts knitting. There’s no benchmark, no “tasks” to complete. How you figure out your total to enter is entirely up to you. Oddly enough, you can order a souvenir shirt, which you pay for and they ship immediately. But they hold back the medal until you record that you’re done.
I wanted to try one, mostly to see if the app or the process or the standards would somehow motivate me. Now that I see the variety of everything people do that they count, I realized that it is almost the opposite of a Boy Scout badge. There is no “standard” other than distance. And so loose on everything else that it may not even feel like others are really “earning” it. And if they aren’t earning it, is there anything TO earn?
As I said, I’m trying it and I’ve modified the way it works a bit. First and foremost, I chose the Giza Pyramids challenge (badge chosen). 75 km for distance (benchmark set). I’m only counting NEW separate walking (standardized house rules). And I’m publicly sharing my distance through the app and in the community (public accountability). I paid for the medal (and a t-shirt) so that I’ll get something when I’m done. Will I do other challenges? I am not sure. Hard to say.
But I do like the premise of a visual reward marker.
If you Google “Adult Merit Badges”, there are LOTS of humourous ones:
- Netflix badge for only watching one episode and not staying up all night;
- A piggy bank badge for having “saved some money”;
- A cash symbol badge for having “paid with cash”;
- Pants for having “put pants on”;
- A dollar sign for having “paid bills on time”.
The dark side of “adulting”, not real badges.
Lots of service clubs have pseudo merit badges. Take, for example, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. While many clubs do virtual certificates, I’m only interested in physical rewards, and RASC has a pin for Explore the Universe, Explore the Moon, Messier Catalogue, Finest NGC Objects, and the Isabel Williamson Lunar Observing Program. Three others include no pin. They do however have the same requirements as a Boy Scout badge — pick a goal, review the benchmark, do the work, demonstrate proof to a certified Member/Coordinator, and get the pin.
Why do I care?
At first, I was interested in the idea of virtual badges. Things I could do to create a bit of gamification for my Reading Challenge. But due to some personal complications, I had to exit the RC. Before I left, I had designed virtual badges for monthly “rewards and recognition” as well as cumulative totals for reading. It was okay, but hardly “motivating”. I mean, really? Who would be “motivated” by a cheap virtual badge? It’s more “cute” than “motivating”.
I wondered though about taking the Conqueror Challenge idea — slick completion medals — and applying it to other areas. I actively follow online learning platforms, discussions of certification or micro-credentials, etc., and there are lots of forces at work arguing for disruption of the industry. And some people on the CC FB page talk about using the idea for other things. Like a medal for reading a certain number of pages or books. Could I do a Reading Challenge with ACTUAL medals instead of virtual ones? Monthly would be too much but I wondered about a year-end medal, or even a participation one.
The more I thought about it, the more options I saw. I recently bought a 3D printer and am just starting on that journey. But I got to wondering even more. How hard would it be to create some simple medals? The Conqueror Challenge ones are pretty slick, from all appearances, but is there something I could do to create a medal for some sort of series of steps? Maybe astronomy-related, maybe not. Maybe some sort of crafting challenge. I don’t know exactly what. I need some good narrow niches to actually work through what such a challenge and medal would look like.
Astronomy is a good candidate. There are lots of astro challenges out there, many of which seemed to have been developed by people wearing pocket-protectors, not comms-friendly outreach types. Not all, but many. What if I were to set up an alternative-style astronomy-like medal? If I printed it at my expense, but someone had to “send” me proof of their completion (i.e. against my benchmark) and they paid for postage, would I be willing to try sending them out as rewards to people? Not tied to an astronomy club. Not tied to being a Boy Scout. Not tied to age. Not tied to any other requirement. Just that if you do the work, send me the proof of learning, and cover the postage, maybe I could cover the cost of the medal. Of course, I don’t want it to look like crap, it would have to be worthwhile that someone would LIKE getting it. That might drive up the cost but I love the idea of an astronomy guide or series of guides for learning. Would it be worthwhile?
I’m going to do the guides anyway. I’m just wondering what I could offer for a reward to generate some online interaction WITHOUT breaking the bank.
I’ve also wondered if I could hack my own goal-setting. Would a medal be something I would like if I had to design and print it myself? That doesn’t seem likely. I think there would need to be some “surprise” factor so that I would “welcome” getting the medal as opposed to just printing one. Heck, I could print it WITHOUT even doing the task.
So, then I’m back to some other sort of reward. Like, for example, a Jiminy Cricket statue. I have one done in ceramic, painted by a friend long ago, and it is reminiscent of my youth. We used to play a card game called Pinocchio where you got cards with letters on them and you had to spell one of various words on a down pile to “collect” a card. The longer the word, the more points you got. Jiminy Cricket was pictured on the wild card, and my brother and I used to joke in other games about wild cards, or getting a good card that it was like getting Jiminy. It was an “in-joke”. Which brings me back to 3D printing. I’d like to print Jiminy sometime. But maybe I could “hold” back on printing Jiminy until I earn a reward for something. Same with Marvin the Martian. Certain models that I can only print as rewards if/when I accomplish some other goal.
For the actual medals themselves, there are LOTS of models out there. And by this I mean the actual physical choices and layouts, not the benchmark that goes with it. Sites like TrophyDepot, TrophyDen and Crown Trophy all have sample medals on them that they can make. Some are diecast, acrylic, glow in the dark, wood, customized (often for logos or special designs), or even ovals with medals that are “inserted” in the circle. The diecast ones are pretty simple designs, and might show up decent with the right filament in 3D, could even have some metal weights/fasteners embedded underneath to add some weight if necessary. The acrylic designs are really sharp, but they might be hard to replicate in a 3D environment. Some good examples for astronomy or reading though. And some other “insert medals” do an outside “container” and then insert a flashier centre piece, kind of like a plate/bowl as a container and then the real flashy part as the meal in the centre.
Pins get a lot more creative, and if I had a way to do multi colours, it might be a good option too. But I need to keep the colours a bit more mono- or duo-chromatic. At least to start. But it gives me some ideas to play with at least.
If people have other ideas, or suggestions, they’re all welcome!