Right now, this very minute, millions of intelligent adults are playing video games with a level of focus and engagement we just do not see at work. Some would dismiss this as simply an indulgence in an escapist form of entertainment: they’re ‘avoiding work’.
But when you look at what makes up all games – goals, rules and feedback – you’ll find that the best games are goal-driven, challenge-intense and feedback-rich experiences, geared towards progress. In effect, people aren’t avoiding work: they are simply engaging in well-designed work. And that’s the opportunity game design provides: a new lens to redesign work to make work work. Here are a few tips to get you started.
1. MAKE PROGRESS VISIBLE
When asking the question “What gets people most enthusiastic about doing work?” researchers found that “a clear sense of progress” was more effective than clear goals, incentives, rewards or any other factor. This “progress principle” was recognized as Harvard Business Review’s number one breakthrough idea in 2010. And it makes a heap of sense. We have a finite amount of energy, time and attention available to us each day, so it’s obvious that we are more inclined to invest it in things that contribute to progress.
Think about how you procrastinate: often your efforts will default to activities that provide the richest sense of progress. Checking email is a prime example: you start the day with one important project and 74 emails. By lunchtime you’ve made no progress on the important project, but hey, your emails are down to 22. Winning! It’s also common practice to write lists, including things you’ve already completed (just so you can tick it off!).
We love a clear sense progress – and it’s the most significant element missing in most work. Progress is what underpins everything. Game designers know this. The feedback loops in all good games are tight; you can see how your effort is contributing to progress.
The simplest motivational hack you can employ to enhance the inherent motivation of any activity is to make progress visible. Reduce the latency between effort and meaningful feedback. Chunk your work into bits, and then sequence those bits into contextual lists. Work up a simple road map of tasks, and work your way through them.
If working in a team, develop a shared structure and ritual around progress. This could be a high level Gantt Chart and a daily team huddle. Or it could be simple collaborative software and a weekly team check-in. Either way, make progress visible, and short-circuit feedback loops wherever possible. With this in play, we can then refine our game even further.
2. CALIBRATE CHALLENGE
We mismanage challenges daily. Some challenges get so big that we feel anxious and avoid them, which makes us feel more anxious. And some challenges are so mundanely boring and inane to us that we avoid them, or drag them out for far too long.
The key to getting our game right here is to calibrate and compress challenges appropriately. Dial super-intense challenges back to a level of discomfort you are comfortable with. Don’t make it easy, though – we grow through challenge. Lean into it.
In some video games, you get experience points for engaging in challenges. This is what your character needs in order to ‘level up’ and develop mastery. In fact, one could say there is an inherent bias to action outside your comfort zone in the very fact that you get a clear sense of progress. And for super-boring tasks: compress the time you invest in them. Organise a ‘productivity blitz’ to smash through email, or see how quickly you can get your pipeline up to date.
Through compression or calibration, we are working our way back into what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “flow” – the state of “optimal experience” in which time seems to slow, and we are completely immersed in the challenge at hand.
The key for busy brokers to unlock the productivity puzzle and progress in their business could come from a surprising source: game design. Motivational scientist Dr Jason Fox explains.