Play the Game

Your job is not a game. But when you approach it like a game, you’ll enjoy it more and you’re more likely to be successful at it.

Research at the University of Chicago shows that games produce a condition called flow, characterized by absorption in the activity (a lack of thoughts about anything else), a feeling of control, and enjoyment. And one of the most common characteristics of flow is that time seems to fly.

According to the principle researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the reasons games produce flow is that the outcome of the game is not important. We may really get into a game and the outcome may seem very important at the time, but we know nothing is really at stake. We won’t lose the mortgage, nobody will die, the college scholarship for our kids won’t be jeopardized.

But at work, there is something at stake. That means when we’re working, we tend to pay attention to where the work is getting us. What this means is that work becomes a means to an end and that means the end of flow because a requirement of the experience of flow is an involvement in the activity itself — a lack of thoughts about anything else. When a person is looking at the clock or thinking about her position or promotion in the company, it’s enough of a distraction to prevent flow. Even wondering if you’re enjoying yourself is a distraction. Absorption produces flow.

Of course, when most people are working, they are working for money. So the work is done as a means to an end. Does that mean we can’t experience flow at work? Luckily, no. Even when you do something as a means to an end, you can learn to become absorbed in the work and forget about where it is getting you while you’re doing it.

If you want to experience more flow on the job, then, simply learn to become more engrossed in your work. Learn to “get into it.”

If your job is stressful or boring, however, becoming absorbed is difficult. If what you’ve got is stress, that means the challenge of your job, either physically or psychologically, is greater than your skills. The answer is to find out what skill you need to improve and work on that. Increase your skill. That’s the answer to stress.

At the other end of the spectrum is boredom. If your job is boring, you’ll have to find a way to make the work more challenging, interesting, or creative. It may take you a lot of thinking to figure out how to do that, but keep at it and you can find a way.

For example, during his research, Csikszentmihalyi found a man working on an assembly line, doing the same thing over and over every day, who had found a way to experience flow in a potentially boring job. He approached the task like an Olympic athlete, carefully working out ways to trim the time it took him to complete each task. By timing himself and shaving off seconds, he had become the most competent man on the line, but more important for our discussion here, he enjoyed his work more than anyone on the line. And he wasn’t focusing on trying to get a raise or gaining the approval of his supervisor. He was engrossed in beating his personal best.

Find a way to become absorbed. You’ll enjoy your work more. Get so engrossed in your work that you forget about everything else, like where it’s getting you. It’ll get you a lot further that way.

This article was excerpted from the book, Principles For Personal Growth by Adam Khan. Buy it now here.

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