Level-up your productivity by thinking like a game designer

Dr Jason Fox

Dr Jason Fox is a motivation strategy and design expert who works with senior executives and boards to make clever things happen. He is also the author of The Game Changer. www.drjasonfox.com

William Shakespeare once said ‘All the world’s a stage’. If he were around today, I'm sure he’d probably call it a game: A massive, multiplayer, real-world, role-playing game.

The three things that make up all games – sports, board games, video games, you name it – are goals, rules and feedback. A good game is a goal-driven, challenging and intense, and gives you a feedback-rich experience geared towards progress.

Goals, rules and feedback also correlate with our modern pillars of motivation: Purpose, mastery and autonomy. And yet while most organisations are fixated on goals, they fail to get the other elements right.

So let's unpack how you can unlock motivation, productivity and progress in your work by thinking like a game designer.

Get your head into the game

It is already a game: Most work has a goal or an objective (or else, why are you doing it?). There are rules to follow, such as deadlines, resource limitations and conventions, and there is always some way of finding out if you're making progress (feedback). It's not about turning work into a game, it's about looking at the work you've got and making that game work better.

When studying what gets people most enthusiastic about doing work, researchers found that a clear sense of progress was more effective than clear goals, incentives or rewards. This ‘progress principle’ was recognised as Harvard Business Review's number one breakthrough idea in 2010.

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 we are more inclined to invest it towards 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 lunch time 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 number one element missing in most work. Progress is what underpins everything.

The simplest 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, then sequence those bits into contextual lists. Work up a simple roadmap 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 have short circuit feedback loops wherever possible. With this in play, we can then refine our game even further.

Calibrate challenge

If I were a proponent of gamification, I'd probably be talking about points, badges and leaderboards at this point. But games aren’t about incentivising effort - they are about making challenges inherently motivating.

We start with the challenge first, because rewards are meaningless in the absence of any real challenge.

At work, we mismanage this all the time. Some challenges get too big that we feel anxious and avoid them, which then makes us more anxious. And some challenges are so mundanely boring 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. But lean into it.

In some video games, you gain 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 that there is an inherent bias to action outside your comfort zone by the very fact you get a clear sense of progress.

With the 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'. That state of 'optimal experience' where time seems to slow, and we are completely immersed in the challenge at hand.

Stay curious

Conventional motivation approaches often over-emphasise the importance of attitude and belief. And when that doesn't work, we usually default to incentives and rewards. But by thinking like a game designer, you'll have a third option: Changing the game at play. You can tweak the goals, rules and feedback to make your team work better.

There are no right answers here, and no secret three-step solution you can implement to magically fix motivation forever. But, with relentless curiosity, we can liberate ourselves (and the world) from poorly designed work.

Tags: staff management, marketing careers

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