Game on: 7 keys to increase productivity

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Academics have various theories on what makes an activity ‘fun’. Broadly speaking, there’s ‘soft fun’ – passive activities such as watching a movie, or catching up with friends. And then there’s ‘hard fun’ – active activities, in which most of the time is spent in frustration or concentrated effort. Think sports, board games, hack-days. It’s this type of ‘fun’ that is ultimately most satisfying. A big reason ‘hard fun’ works is because it is usually time-bracketed. There’s tension, followed by release. We see this in sports matches, where various quarters allow for strategic reflection and a clear sense of progress.

We need to see this more in our work. Hard work cannot be infinite. The more we can work in short sprints, within the context of progress, the more opportunities we will have to recharge our motivation. It’s the accumulation of small wins that leads to victory.


When the path to progress is unclear or our goals are seemingly unachievable, many of us will conjure up self-sabotaging stories to excuse our lack of progress and performance. Without necessarily intending to, we’ll invent alibis that excuse ourselves from poorer performance. “I work better when under pressure,” says the procrastinator, leaving an important project to the last minute. Then, when the disc corrupts or the migraine sets in at the last minute, the procrastinator is able to say, “Well, if it weren’t for that, of course I’d have done a better job.”

The perfectionist never has enough time, because they spent the first 80% of the time micro-managing unimportant details. And the overcommitted executive remains faultless – with all of those projects they’ve taken on board, what can one expect if some of them aren’t done well?

These self-sabotaging stories thrive on vagueness and an unclear game. They fall apart when we create real visibility of progress. To combat self-sabotage, we need to get clear on the game we are playing and draw a clear line between story and reality.


On any given day, you are playing multiple roles. You may start the day as a parent and family person, then shift to strategic adviser, then to negotiator, then to manager, then to mentor, then to mate.

Sometimes you can bring the mindset from one context into another one, essentially contaminating it. We’ve all been in that situation where, after an incredibly busy and stressful day, we’ve brought ‘boss mode’ back home.

One thing you can do here is remember that everything is a game. There are always goals, rules and feedback within any given context. Philosopher James Carse, author of Finite and Infinite Games, says there are at least two kinds of game: those that are played to win, and those that are played for the sake of continuing the play.

“Finite players play within boundaries, infinite players play with boundaries.” Knowing games are at play will help you to pause, shift and adapt your mindset between them.


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