Dr. Piers Steel

Piers Steel Ph.D.

The Procrastination Equation

Games People Play... at Work

How do you make your work fun?

Posted Jan 10, 2011

But if you're like most of us, getting the entire staff involved without the boss noticing won't really be doable. So why not just enter the digital age and do some serious surfing? It's not like anyone can stop you.

There are dozens of step-by-step sites detailing how to circumvent those office firewalls, with tricks like leapfrogging to the rest of the Internet by connecting first to a specially configured home computer. Add a "boss key" that hides your application when the wrong person steps into your cubicle and your downtime becomes pretty much invisible.

Unless you overdo it, that is. People will still notice that you haven't produced anything in weeks and that aside from using your keyboard to log on, you favor your mouse for the entire day. But do you really need this advice? A quarter of workers are already playing games at work and most entertainment and even adult websites get their heaviest traffic during those nine-to-five office hours. You are probably an expert on how to procrastinate already, which is a good thing too, because that really isn't what we are here to talk about.

Instead of sneaking games into work, I want to focus on making work a game. Let's take a page from Mary Poppins, the magical British nanny who counseled us about how a spoonful of sugar can make the medicine go down. "In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun," she sang. "You find the fun and snap! The job's a game."

The scientific term for Ms Poppins' sugar-coating method is interest enhancement, a legitimate technique that is very helpful for overcoming procrastination (it affects the value part of The Procrastination Equation). It works because one big reason people put off tasks is because they find them especially boring or unpleasant. In 2008, Peter Gröpel and I conducted a study on this aspect of task-avoidance, entitled "A mega-trial investigation of goal setting, interest enhancement, and energy on procrastination." A mega-trial involves an unusually large sample of participants, in this case almost ten thousand of them.

What we found is that people who say "Yes!" to questions like "I am capable of finding the pleasant aspects of an initially unpleasant activity" or "If an activity gets boring, I can usually find a way to make it fun again" don't tend to procrastinate. People capable of interest enhancement, of finding the joy in work, were rewarded with an increase in energy that enabled them to get stuff done. It follows that if you can do this yourself, you won't need too much else to reduce your own procrastination. When work is fun, it doesn't even feel like work, and you'll find yourself doing it for pleasure, in a happy reverie.

To make this technique work, an arbitrary goal, a stop watch or some competition is sometimes all you need. You could challenge a co-worker to see who can do the most filing by lunch hour, or challenge yourself to see if you can write that report without using the letter "u." Find a way to keep score and off you go.

To see this technique in action, I tracked down a few examples. There is the movie Super Troopers, by the comedy group Broken Lizard, where five Vermont state troopers weave shenanigans into their work lives; I like their cat game quite a bit. In the show "Kitchen Nightmares," celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey creates a restaurant bingo game for waiters, with the winner being the first person to get their tables to order every single item on the menu. And Olympic swimmers will occasionally imagine a shark on their tail to make their practice more exciting.

Personally, I get a kick out of zombie shows, particularly the new hit series "The Walking Dead." It parallels my line of work in that it features people with severe motivational problems who are walking around but not yet fully alive. While grocery shopping, I sometimes imagine that I have to stock up on food and get home before the imminent zombie apocalypse. I find it adds some interest and urgency in choosing coffee filters and papers towels.

So here's the problem, and I need your help: we need more examples. A lot more. For people to benefit from this technique, we all need to see it in action and be inspired by some positive results. So how do you make your workday passable while still working? Do you imagine some fantastical world? Are you trying to beat the clock or do you have some sort of informal competition with colleagues?

How do you make your work fun?

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