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An App to Make Campaign Workers Act Normal

The grassroots component of a political campaign runs on a special kind of insanity. 

Sure, there’s a lot to do. Canvassing, house parties, data entry, phone banking, and planting yard signs pack the daylight hours, and prep for the next day can go late into the night. Food is whatever’s cheap and fast—usually pizza and donuts—and normal exercise routines go out the window.

But beyond the infinite checklists, there’s also the kind of masochism that comes with ideological work environments: Everybody wants to be that staffer who’s so critical to the campaign that she doesn’t leave the office before midnight, and comes back before the sun rises in the morning. People will even watch YouTube videos or play Facebook games to stick around longer, instead of going home to do their laundry, and just end up more tired in the morning. 

“There's this culture of, if i'm the first person out, I'm a slacker,” says Evan Sutton, a veteran of several campaigns. It’s an attitude that explains why so many people gain weight, lose friends, and otherwise damage themselves while working on campaigns. Now Sutton and a few hundred other campaign workers have embraced a program designed to impose some basic normality on the campaigning life.

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As with all fixes in the modern age, it comes in app form. Sutton works for the New Organizing Institute, a lefty group that started in 2004 to improve campaigning with technological tools for tasks like voter contact and data management. Their techniques—and those of others popping up this campaign cycle, like a program for coordinating canvassers on their smartphones—often involve automating grunt labor. But so far, such innovations haven’t made the last ten weeks before an election any less intense.

Enter the Healthy Campaigners Challenge, an app designed to flip the “first-person-out” mentality on its head. Naturally, it does so by creating another way for campaigners to compete: Racking up points for doing things that regular people do all the time, like “eating dinner,” “getting 6-8 hours of sleep,” and “taking three deep breaths.” So far, about 700 people have signed up for the Healthy Campaigners Challenge, operating in teams. A sidebar on the website features a live scroll of actions taken: “Gmasterslice is sitting in the sun for 10 minutes on Sun.”

“On campaigns, you don't have time to do any of those things that people expect in a civilized society,” Sutton explains. “We just thought we'll run a little thing just to say if you take ten extra minutes, or make ten extra minutes, you can live something close to a normal life.” 

The approach is an example of something that’s very popular in Silicon Valley these days. Beyond making everything social, you can also make everything into a competition, encouraging users to run up their scores. It’s called “gamification,” and it applies everywhere from classrooms to call centers

The way NOI has set up its challenge, the winners will be the ones who behave in the most normal way possible under the circumstances. But the idea is that campaigns won’t actually lose any of their productivity. Most points are awarded for completing tasks in a more healthy way, like “working from home (when sick)” and “offering to help a coworker.” The message: Take care of yourself, as long as you’re not working any less than you were before. Oh, and there’s no prize for coming out on top. 

“Just the glory of winning,” Sutton says.