Sometimes your hard work isn’t enough. And sometimes your hard work is actually what's keeping you stuck. Turn your work into a game and you’ll see results you could never achieve by keeping your nose to the grindstone.
We’ve all been there. We try and try and try. And yet we don’t achieve the results we hoped for. We’ve been told from the time we could talk that if we want to succeed, we need to work hard. And so we try harder. We redouble our efforts. We spend more time. If only we put in more effort, so we think, we’ll see light at the end of the tunnel.
And that’s exactly the problem.
Hard work often is essential to accomplish and to improve. But it’s not enough simply to work hard. You also need to do the right kind of work. And that’s where using a game approach comes in.
When you “try” by muscling through your work, you create tension. And tension is the enemy of productivity and creativity. Any writer, any athlete, any musician, any anything – if they’re at the top of their game, you’ll notice that they are fully immersed in what they are doing but don’t look like they are pushing the ball uphill. Typically, there’s a sense of playfulness to what they are doing.
Star performers devote untold hours and years to perfecting their craft, and expend what seems like superhuman energy to get to the top. But truth be told, they don’t waste a lot of energy “working hard” like the rest of us. They work differently, utilizing their energy in the most focused way possible.
Can you replicate the star performers' approach and also see outsized results? Yes – by treating your work as a game.
How to Reach the Top by Turning Your Life into a Game
Our minds are wired to play games. According to Andreas Lieberoth, an applied game psychology researcher at Aarhus University’s Interacting Minds Centre, all of us have an intrinsic “play mode” that is hardwired into our brains from birth.
A study conducted by Lieberoth and his colleagues showed that approaching a task as a game, regardless of the specific rules of the game, results in substantially increased motivation, interest and enjoyment.
When you treat an activity as a game, your relationship to the activity transforms in (at least) four ways:
You take the pressure off. You no longer view the activity as “work” that needs to get done. Instead, you can just have fun with it. And when you are having fun with your task rather than “working” at it, you create a space for experimentation, creativity and new and better solutions.
You reduce or eliminate fear of failure. Have you ever been petrified of losing at Monopoly? Did you ever worry that not answering a question correctly in Trivial Pursuit meant that you had failed and would never get a second chance at life? Likely not. When you play your task as a game, you stop taking yourself so seriously. In a game, there’s always another chance, another way to find a solution. Until the game is over – in which case, you always get to start a new game if you want to.
You clarify your goals. When you play a game, you have a specific objective and you devote your energies to finding ways to meet that objective – whether that means getting to the next level, getting a reward provided by the game or winning the game. Real life tasks also have objectives. But in real life, we tend to get sidetracked. We start working on a project and can’t quite remember how we wound up on Facebook an hour later. But if we are approaching our task like a game, we focus on accomplishing our objective and are far less likely to start doing something else.
You become more engaged and productive. When you play a game, you’re fully immersed in getting to the next level or planning your strategy or whatever it takes to move forward in the game. When you approach your work the same way, you also become far more immersed in your task. This naturally results in greater focus, greater productivity and better performance. You’re also far less likely to procrastinate. You don’t procrastinate when you’re playing a game. Paradoxically, you’ll be working harder than when you “work” at your tasks, yet it will feel easier and you’ll accomplish more.
So how do you do this in real time? Simply put, you can turn your work into a game by replicating game-like conditions. The more you make a game of your work, the more it becomes a game, and the easier your work becomes, which in turn enables you to do it better and more quickly. And most important, you’ll be enjoying yourself a lot more.
Here are three ways you can turn your work into a game:
1. Set intermediate goals. Most games have intermediate steps and milestones that keep you engaged. In Monopoly, you roll dice, get money, buy houses and then hotels. Any game, hard copy or virtual, has some version of these intermediate steps. You can do the same thing with your real-life tasks and goals.
Let’s say you are going to play the “Write End-of-Year Report” game (yes, I know, it doesn’t sound as interesting as Monopoly, but it may be your present reality). You could break it down, for example, into research, tracking down unknown but needed information, and writing each section. In the research section of your game, you could give yourself time limits and see if you can meet them (just as happens in some real games). When tracking down unknown information, you can treat it just as if you were tracking down clues in a real game that will open up new levels of the game.
Literally let your imagination run wild. The act of doing so will unleash energy and motivation you didn’t know you had. And it will take you out of the unpleasant and not so productive grind of “work” mode.
2. Ask yourself questions. This is one of the best ways to create a sense of playfulness. If I were to do this in just 20 minutes instead of 30, how could I make that happen? What if I did this task while standing up? What are three new ways I could attempt this that I haven’t tried yet?
3. Give yourself rewards. Half the fun of games are the rewards for accomplishment. We all know these awards are made up, and yet we work pretty intensely to get them. You can use this same principle in your real work. Once you have divided your task into sections or stages, you can determine rewards for your accomplishments. It can be as simple as a five-minute break or a cup of coffee once you have worked for 20 minutes or finished a certain section of your project. You can really have fun with it and create badges or some other kind of reward system where each stage of your project becomes a new level of the game. Yes, of course it sounds silly and it’s completely made up. That doesn’t matter. The houses in Monopoly aren’t real either.
4. Above all, be playful. The most critical part to making the game approach work is to really get into it as a game. Look at your task or goal as a game, get into game mode and act accordingly. It may seem strange at first because you’re not used to it. But once you start playing your work as a game, you won’t want to go back.
No, you don’t need to tell your friends and co-workers that you’re making a game of seemingly mundane tasks. This can be your little secret. Of course, they’ll wonder why you’re suddenly getting so much more done, yet seem happier and have more time on your hands.