The Coin Game

The Coin Game is one of the tools I’ve come up with to help myself recognize when I do accomplish something of value. It also helps motivate me to do more.

Boring tasks are hard, especially for ADHD brains. On top of this, when we do actually manage to accomplish something, we don’t give ourselves credit for it. Sometimes it feels like it shouldn’t count because of how long it takes. Sometimes getting it done involved lots of irrelevant tangents, and we “yeah but” all the value away. At the same time, most of us do actually contribute enough value to our employers that they keep us on staff.

The Coin Game: a picture of the Bank and Booty

The short short version is that you earn a coin every time you deliver a unit of value. Each coin can be cashed in for 10 minutes of 100% guilt-free time spent anything you want. This is probably best spent on an activity from your Dopa-menu.

The coins you earn are based on things that you consider valuable about what you do. Working towards these intrinsic (not extrinsic) goals makes all the difference. Every time I earn a coin, I do a happy dance, and get a real sense of accomplishment. “I earned a coin!”

How it works

Prerequisites:

  • an idea of what your valuable contributions are
  • a small stack of coins
  • 2 Post-It™️ note sized pieces of paper.

The key to this is coming up with a list of things you do for your job that constitute “delivering value”. How long it takes you to do the thing is irrelevant. What matters is if it’s actually providing notable value to you and/or your coworkers. This is important because we can’t reward ourselves for doing something valuable if we don’t know what value we provide. This is also going to help us set realistic expectations for ourselves.

My advice is to ignore the question of “is this thing worth 10 minutes of screwing around doing whatever?”. Instead think about the value you’ve been hired to deliver. Also, think about the actions you take that improve life/work for your coworkers or company in notable ways. Those are the things to reward yourself for.

Here are some of my “valuable” things (I’m a programmer):

  • creating a “Pull Request” for some new functionality or bug fix (a code deliverable)
  • carefully reviewing and testing a coworker’s Pull Request
  • implementing non-trivial changes requested by a coworker’s review.
  • representing our team in some politically important meeting
  • spending 15 minutes researching, and making a decision that will save us hours / days of frustration going forward.

Once you’ve got an initial list, you’ll need some “coins”. You can use “normal” coins like quarters, but I think it’s better if you can use something “novel”. I 3D printed some “Pirates of the Caribbean” coins. You could grab some tokens from a board game, use foreign currency, or whatever. Most days I deliver 1-3 units of value. I have actually had a 5 coin day and it was kinda mind-blowing.

Next, you’ll need 2 Post-It™️ note size pieces of paper. The first one is “The Bank”. The other one is “Booty!”

Take both of these pieces of paper and place them on your desk. They should be in your normal line of sight, but where they’re not in the way.

At the start of each day you take all your booty and move it back to the Bank. Every time you deliver something of value, you earn a coin and move it from The Bank, to your Booty!.

Obviously, you’re going to be taking small breaks throughout the day, but when you feel you really need to do something completely different for a while, spend a coin.

What if you haven’t earned any yet?! Personally, I give myself permission to spend one unused coin from the prior day if I really need it. Most days though, I’m able to deliver at least 1 unit of value before my brain completely wanders off.

Spending a coin should always be guilt-free. That coin is a physical representation your accomplishments. It’s proof that you delivered value. You’ve done your job. Go off and replenish your dopamine levels. Doing it without thinking about how you “should be working” is going to help you come back more refreshed, and more capable of earning more coins… er… delivering more value. ;)


Some followup thoughts:

Most days I earn 1-3 coins. That’s 1-3 things units of real value to the company. One coin sounds like very little, but sometimes it just takes a day to get a thing done, and that’s ok. I’ve worked on tasks where I haven’t “delivered” anything for a month, but along the way I finished off a number of sub-tasks. If that happens again, I’ll reward myself for the accomplishments along the way. It’s important to recognize that we are accomplishing things even if they’re not ready to hand off to others.

And as far as the 10 minutes go, that’s just a number I chose for myself, and i don’t enforce it strictly. If you need 15 or 20 minutes to really recharge then that’s what a coin should be worth for you.