Ratcheting, Part II

Some kind of game

A few weeks ago I became interested in gamifying my work process, so that I could be more productive and then feel more productive.

I learned about the Pomodoro Technique(R), and bought the book. It is a short book, and I’m stalled halfway through it anyhow. I should apply the Pomodoro Technique to reading the book about the Pomodoro Technique.

The game pictured above is not about tomatoes, however – it is my own version of the technique, with a bunch of gamer-nerd extras thrown in.

I’ll explain the rules, as they currently stand (I am still monkeying with them):


  • There are Blocks. The Blocks are made of wood and have colours: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and… Purple. Or Indigo or Violet if you prefer.
    > Fun Fact: Yellow blocks are the most common (2/3-ish). Orange blocks are the next-most-common (1/4-ish). The remainder are divided roughly evenly among the other colours.
  • There are Stickers. The Stickers come in Big and Small sizes, and come in four colours: Yellow, Red, Blue, and Green.
  • There are Pins. The Pins also come in six colours: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Indigo (I’d call it pink-ish).
  • There are assorted cans, bottles, and boards to store / put / place these in/on.


At the beginning of the work week:

  • Put all of the blocks in a can / bag, and shake them up well.


  • Get work done better
  • Score 42 points (thanks, Douglas Adams!) to prove you really did the work to get work done better
  • Become more productive
  • Feel more productive


  • When working at job: set a timer for 25 minutes. During this timeslice, DO NOT GET DISTRACTED BY NON-JOB-RELATED THINGS. If you do, reset the timer. Seriously – the Pomodoro (timeBlock, in my game’s parlance) is Indivisible. Adding nine minutes and five minutes and two minutes and eight minutes and then adding an extra minute of work doesn’t all count as 25 minutes of focused, productive work – it counts as ADHD.
  • When the timer goes off, grab a wooden block from a tin AT RANDOM, and put it on the desk (I use the mason jar’s lid as the “recently earned blocks” receptacle). Then take a 5 minute break. TAKE THE BREAK.
  • Repeat several times each day. Every four blocks or so, take a longer break. Don’t get crazy with the precision of your breaks- you’re only going to count the blocks worked at the end of the day, so if you need a ninety-three-minute errand run between blocks 6 and 7, just do that. You’re off the clock.

BILLING (this is a work game, after all)

  • At the end of the day, count up all the blocks. For each block earned that day, add 30 minutes to your billable hours timesheet (I work on a contract basis so this pretty much works exactly well for my purposes).
  • Note, you get to bill 30 minutes for every 25-minute chunk of focused work. That’s cheating, right? No. It’s recognizing that the human body and brain needs to take a break now and then, or its actual productivity goes down. Also, interrupted blocks are NOT BILLABLE (Pomodoros are indivisible, according to the inventor of Pomodoro), so over the course of the day, you’ll do bits of work anyway that you won’t be billing for; it all works out for everybody.


This is where the block colours come in, and things get (depending on who you are) needlessly complicated. I happen to enjoy some types of needless complication, being a gamer.

The colour of your day’s accumulated blocks determines what you do with them:

  • Yellow blocks: Straight into the Jar – no added effect. Pat yourself on the back for doing a handful of focused work!
  • Orange blocks: You must do one thing you might normally procrastinate on or not do enough of, for each orange block you’ve accumulated. Only then can you drop these into the jar. Think of Orange blocks as mini side quests. You can shelve them to finish earning them later in the week, or do them immediately. Get them done by week’s end though.
  • Red blocks: similar to Orange blocks, but the side quest must involve benefitting another living creature. Pat the dog an extra few times; call your mother; Apologize for that cranky remark you made to your best friend yesterday. Get creative- you want to be a better Human, so now’s your chance to score an arbitrary game achievement for doing what you want to do anyway, if you’re being honest with yourself.
  • Green, Blue, and Purple blocks: A set of three colours earns you a sticker! (See Stickers)


Each time you earn a set of B/G/P blocks, you can turn them in (drop them in the jar) to get a LARGE STICKER:

  • The first LARGE STICKER earned during a workweek is YELLOW.
  • The second LARGE STICKER earned during a workweek is GREEN.
  • All LARGE STICKERS past the first two earned in a workweek are BLUE.
  • If you are a gamer, you will note this becomes a kind of combo bonus (once you understand SCORING, but I am getting ahead of things)

Make yourself a scorecard to put your stickers on in sequence. I like left-to-right, top-to-bottom, but you can choose whatever works.


Use the PINS to keep score. I use a rainbow of pin colours to make this more enjoyable and visually appealing than just keeping a number written on a sheet, but a number written on a sheet will do just fine. You might choose to use an abacus (and good on you for having one of those around), or some other “progress bar” mechanism.

You score points thusly:

  • Yellow sticker: 1 point
  • Green sticker: 2 points
  • Blue sticker: 3 points
  • See where the combo bonus comes in?


You win the game when you reach 42 points. You already know why.


How many victories can you score in a year? Can you stick with this game until you’ve scored 3 victories? What about 7?


The above rules define the basic game. The following are extra rules I’ve tacked on to add additional unneeded complexity to my own work/life game.

Sometimes I forget to phone my parents. Sometimes I say something unprofessional in a business meeting. Sometimes I get cranky and act like a jerk to a friend. Sometimes I brush the cat aside and I could just swear it now seems offended, and then I feel remorse. Sometimes I carelessly kill a spider in the door jam, and wish that I could turn back time – because that spider did nothing to me to earn getting squashed in a door jam.

These “failings” are entirely personal and are of the standard human-nature sort. I am not a bad person – I am a normal person. But I can be hard on myself, because one thing I feel I should be doing in this life is raising that bar a little higher for myself. I am imperfect, but that does not mean I have to settle into a moderate level of “good enough”, and then just hang out there until I die. I’m here to grow, right?

Anyhow, when I say or do something that I realize I could have said or done better, I give myself a RED DOT sticker. When I look at my scorecard, I see both progress at work, and also some moments where I stumbled as a Human, while trying to get that work done. I don’t go overboard with the RED DOTs, but I try to be honest with myself.

I review this card during the week, and I look at each red sticker and remind myself who or what I owe something to: who needs me to step up? Who deserves an apology, or some extra help? Who or what is important in my life, that I can sometimes take for granted?

  • Red Sticker: -1 point


When I feel I’ve done something to make up for a RED DOT, I put a wee yellow dot on it. This is a highly subjective rule, which is why it’s in the ADVANCED and OPTIONAL RULES section.

  • Reminder: a Yellow sticker is worth 1 point (even a small one)
  • Making amends therefore turns -1 point into net-zero. It also marks an important event.


To motivate myself to get through my week’s work before the weekend – so that I might occasionally feel like taking a guilt-free Sunday off… or (gasp!) Saturday AND Sunday off – I grant myself bonus stickers according to when in the workweek I’ve managed to fill the jar to the “complete” level with blocks:

  • If the jar was NOT filled by the end of SUNDAY, I put a SMALL RED (-1pt) sticker to mark the end of the week.
  • If the jar WAS filled by the end of SUNDAY, I put a SMALL YELLOW (+1pt) sticker to mark the end of the week.
  • If the jar WAS filled by the end of SATURDAY, I put a SMALL GREEN (+2pts) sticker to mark the end of the week.
  • If the jar WAS filled by the end of FRIDAY, I put a SMALL BLUE (+3pts) sticker to mark the end of the week(I have yet to earn one of those, as you can see from my current score card, circa mid-June 2021)


To assist myself in cutting back on indulgences like potato chips, chocolate bars, beer/cider, smoking, etc., I have attached a block cost to these things. I WILL NOT CONSUME THESE RESTRICTED SNACK ITEMS WITHOUT PAYING THE BLOCK COST.

Although Beer and cigarettes are not really snacks by most people’s accounts, I put them all in this category. You could also include watching an episode of Jersey Shore in this category. Anything really that’s bad for your mind / body in excessive quantity.

In order to permit myself to consume any of the above, I MUST spend a Blue, Green, or Purple cube. If I have a willpower fail while out and have potato chips, beer, etc., I will then inevitably spend a cube when I get home, once I realize the game expects it.

Obviously then, potato chips and whatnot have two additional costs in this game (aside from being a general health hazard, which one would think should be enough to make be not eat them, but here we are):

  1. They require that I work to earn the block to pay for them (which restricts when and how often I can have them, since B/G/P blocks are somewhat rare), and
  2. They get in the way of earning the stickers, which in turn delays the VICTORY condition. This is an apt metaphor, when talking about junk food (and Jersey Shore), I think.


To add some additional mystery and variety to the whole affair, during GAME SETUP, I randomly draw six blocks from the can, and without looking at them, drop them in a Darth Vader mug, removed from the game for that week. I chose a Darth Vader mug, because, while it is too awkward to actually drink from, it is too cool not to use for something.

This removal of a small, mysterious array of blocks makes the mechanics a bit less deterministic, since I can’t really know if I’ve slightly increased my chances of getting stickers, or reduced the maximum number that can be earned for that week entirely. For some reason, the increased uncertainty makes the game more fun. I have no idea why.

You could say this is version 1.0 of the Rainbow Work Block Game (working title), since this is the first time I’ve written down the rules.

This game is of course based on The Pomodoro Technique in the vaguest possible way: the creator of that trademarked system was not recommending any gamification, but had the very valuable insight that uninterrupted blocks of work are a fundamental requirement to getting work done well. I owe this general gamification to his insight.

Customizing this game

I am unsure if the particulars of this game would be of much benefit to others, but some of the principles might be:

  • Find a mechanism for keeping track of focused time chunks that works for you
  • Assign meaning to the mechanism that makes sense to you, in your life
  • Find ways to associate work done for survival with work needed in your personal life
  • Be honest with yourself about what you’d like to improve
  • Acknowledge your accomplishments
  • Be kind and creative, and have fun

What do you mean, Ratcheting?

I once wrote a blog post about finding mechanisms to improve my general function as a human being. I feel this game is a kind of ratchet: it has allowed me to up my game at work, and also in my personal life. It occupies a physical place in my workspace and living space and provides a ruleset (however seemingly arbitrary) for demanding a bit more of myself.

I have raised the bar, using arts & crafts. I can report that it has had objective benefit. It’s also kind of fun to play, and I look forward to “winning” my first game, hopefully this weekend (I’m at 38 points and am hoping for a blue block before midnight!)

I will continue to iterate on this idea. I invite you to consider what your version of this game might look like!

4 thoughts on “Ratcheting, Part II

  1. Dang, Mike. Despite the gameifying, you’re not playing around! What does the “billable hours” mean?

    The only flaw I see for myself is that if I have to do more tasks when I collect blocks, I might not be motivated to earn them. It looks like your rewards are very intrinsic to the game, i.e getting the work actually done. I am quite impressed. I however will need to modify the game so as to reward myself constantly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I mean hours worked that I bill the client for… so if I accumulate 12 blocks, that’s 6 hours @ my hourly rate I’ll add to my invoice. I tend to round down billable hours a bit, so bits of work here and there don’t resolve into blocks (pomodoros) and so are not billed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 😀 no it’s a fair interpretation. Your reactions to this actually made me think about following up with a revised ruleset; I’ve been tinkering with the scoring rules – it’s kind of fun. Takes a while to figure out what works best. Will post more at some point


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