How to Make Learning Addictive

I’m about the ten-millionth person to make this point, but wouldn’t it be great if we could learn everything as fast and efficiently as we learn video games? If we could learn to play violin or write computer code as quickly as we learn Madden or Halo?

With that in mind, here’s a video-game term that might apply: replay value. It refers to how much a user wants to play a game over and over. You know the feeling — the irresistible itch to repeat a game just one more time, and just one more time after that (Angry Birds, anybody?).

Though the motivation feels internal, in fact replay value doesn’t come from the user; it comes from the design of the game itself. Games that provide lots of roles, lots of paths, lots of possible outcomes have high replay value — people love to play them, and get addicted. Games with few roles, few paths, few outcomes have low replay value; people play them once and then quit.

If you look at the practice routines of high performers, you’ll find they have high replay value. They are designed in such a way that you naturally want to do them again, and again, and again. For example:

  • Bubba Watson, who won Sunday’s Masters golf tournament with an “impossible” curving shot from the woods, learned to control the ball by hitting a small plastic ball in his yard when he was a small boy. The game young Bubba invented was to see if he could go around his house clockwise, then turn around and do it counterclockwise.
  • Earl Scruggs, the greatest banjo player who ever lived, practiced his sense of timing by playing with his brothers. The game went like this: the brothers would all start a song, then walk off in different directions, still playing. At the end of the song they’d come together to see if they’d stayed on time. Then do it again. And again.
  • Pretty much any skateboarding or snowboarding practice has a high replay value: think of how the sides of a half-pipe or ramp literally funnel the athlete into the next move. No wonder they learn so fast: the replay value in most gravity sports is off the charts.

The larger pattern here is that practices with high replay value tend to be practices the learners design themselves. One of the reason the learners can’t help but repeat them over and over is that they have a sense of ownership and investment — they’re not robots executing someone else’s drill; they’re players immersed in their own fun, addictive game.

Which leads to an interesting question: how else can we raise the replay value of our practice? Here are a few ideas.

  • 1. Keep score — and I’m not talking about on the scoreboard. Pick exactly what you want to learn, and count it, or time it. Musicians could count the number of times they play a passage perfectly; soccer players could count number of perfect passes; math students could count the time it takes to do the multiplication table — just as they do in addictive math-learning apps like Math Racer and Kid Calc.
  • 2. Provide multiple roles. Basically, switch places a lot. Everybody should periodically trade positions, to experience it from a new angle and come to a deeper (and more addictive) understanding. Batter becomes pitcher; salesperson becomes client; musician becomes listener.
  • 3. Set near/far goals. The most effective goals have two levels, one near and one far. The near goal is today’s immediate goal; the far goal is an ideal performance far in the future which serves as a north star. Putting both goals out there (as video games do so well) add a dose of sugar to the practice process, and keeps people coming back for more.

How else can you make your practice more addictive?