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Angry Birds: Dishes Edition
Over the last several months I’ve been having a recurring dream: I’m back in high school—more than a decade ago—and I’m working at my very first job. Before my productivity project, internships, and business school, my first job was washing dishes for a Canadian Italian fast food joint named East Side Mario’s. (If you’re from the U.S., East Side Mario’s is kind of like the Olive Garden, only the breadsticks aren’t as good.)
Out of all of the real jobs I’ve had, that job was by far my favorite. It was my first job—which made earning that sweet, sweet dough feel even more amazing. But what I loved most, surprisingly, was the job itself.
Washing dishes at East Side Mario’s involved doing four things that were simple, but for me, incredibly addictive:
- Hosing down the dishes to rinse off the remaining food particles
- Neatly organizing the dishes onto a tray
- Running that tray through the dishwasher, which rinsed, polished, and dried them off
- Giving those clean dishes back to the kitchen to be used again
To me, washing dishes felt like an addictive video game, like Temple Run, Tetris, or Angry Birds. It was repetitive, but the job was always just challenging enough. On slow nights I did all the dishes myself, and when we had dozens of dishes coming in every minute on fast nights, I did them with a partner. I always washed. I loved the challenge—the dishes always came in incredibly fast—and I looked forward to it for most of the day. If you asked what job I felt the most productive in, I would immediately say washing dishes.
In my view, productivity isn’t about how much you produce, it’s about how much you accomplish. And by this definition, since I accomplished the least washing dishes compared to my other jobs, I was the least productive. But even though my other jobs were more productive, washing dishes still felt the most productive in the moment. It’s entirely counterintuitive, but when you look at washing dishes, the job has all of the traits to be more motivating than an office job. The job has a ton of structure, challenge, and a never-ending stream of rewards and feedback.
If you want to make your work more motivating, one of the best places to turn to for inspiration, curiously enough, is video games. A video gamer is never not motivated to play a video game. If she has some minutes to spare, she’ll almost instinctually pull out her smartphone or controller to start playing. Unlike work, there’s no hurdle she has to overcome to begin playing video games. Positive psychologists have looked into why playing video games makes you feel more productive than doing actual work.
Video games are designed, from the bottom up, to simulate productivity. Virtually every video game gives you:
- Structure. Video games are incredibly structured—they’re comprised of concrete rules, incremental levels, and evolving goals. This structure has been shown to channel our attention toward the game’s greater goals to make our experience more rewarding. Video games are a welcome reprieve from work that feels ambiguous, unstructured, and chaotic.
- Rewards and feedback. The rewards in video games are successive and immediate. While at work we receive the odd compliment and a performance review every quarter, in a video game, rewards are plentiful. As Jane McGonigal suggests in her book Reality is Broken, the feedback systems in video games—progress bars, points, levels, and coins collected—are inescapable, and always guiding us toward our goal. As she writes, “[r]eal-time feedback serves as a promise to the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep playing.”
- Challenge. Unlike work, which becomes more or less challenging depending on what your boss throws at you, video games are usually just challenging enough. You become more skilled as you progress through the levels of a game, and the challenge of each level usually rises to match your skill. This also makes you more likely to achieve “flow,” that magical state where you become so engrossed in your work that time doesn’t seem to exist at all.
If you were to take these characteristics, and design an ideal job around them, you’d come up with something like washing dishes at East Side Mario’s. In that job you have an incredible amount of structure: the four stages of washing dishes. The feedback is immediate: when you slow down, you immediately see the dishes pile up, and when you work more efficiently, the pile shrinks. And much like a video game, even the challenge of the work changes in real-time: you wash dishes alone when things are slow, and you have a partner to share the work with if the restaurant is full.
Hacking Your Job
One sacrifice of doing work that requires mental lifting is that it’s harder to engage with it, even though you accomplish more than you would washing dishes. This is what, to me, makes some skilled trade professions—like plumbing, electrical work, or construction—more attractive than knowledge work. You feel more productive in them, because they’re built like a video game; they have more structure, rewards, feedback, and challenge than other jobs out there.
Creating structure, feedback, and the right level of challenge around knowledge work can be hard. I recently faced this with writing my book. While I worked with an incredible team for the project, writing a book has none of the three characteristics I mentioned. It’s one of the least structured tasks imaginable, the rewards and feedback are usually far in the distance, and the challenge of writing often feels beyond your skill level.
Obviously the title of this article is more of a hyperbole than anything; there is nothing that I’m fascinated by more than productivity, and every single day I feel lucky I get to explore it for a living. But it does illustrate a point: when you do knowledge work for a living and you’re not careful, your work can become intimidating and not very engaging.
If you’re not engaged with your work, for the sake of your sanity, try to make your work more structured, rewarding, and challenging. Try things like:
- Constantly asking for more feedback
- Rewarding yourself after reaching milestones in projects
- Creating a daily routine for when and how long you’ll work for
- Forming a routine at work, where you work on certain types of tasks on certain days
- Pushing back on work that’s not challenging enough
- Working from home less, if you find yourself more motivated in the office
- Taking more breaks to reflect on your progress
- Asking for guidance or conducting research to make work less ambiguous and more structured
And if you are a manager, you can use this knowledge to constantly fire up your team—by providing constant feedback and recognition, helping your employees structure and break down their work to make it less ambiguous, and making sure everyone is challenged, but not challenged way beyond their skill level. This can help make your entire team become more productive.
If you have valuable and marketable skills, you may not end up doing work as engaging as washing dishes for a living. The reason people get paid more than minimum wage to do knowledge work is because the tasks aren’t easy or repetitive; they requires heavy mental lifting, which can also make your work more intimidating, unstructured, ambiguous, and valuable. This is a good thing. But at the same time, sometimes your brain resists or becomes disenchanted with your work. With enough planning, it’s possible to hack your job so you get closer to that satisfying thrill of plowing through huge stacks of dishes at East Side Mario’s.