Making Work Into Play

Work, for most people, is primarily a way to turn their time and energy into the money they need to make ends meet in their lives. It’s not something that’s particularly enjoyable for most people, based on job satisfaction surveys.

Last week, though, I happened to be on the campus of the local university for a short visit and I met two sanitation engineers who seemed to be having a lot of fun with their work.

One of them, who I’ll call Alan, was laughing and talking to a bunch of students outside a lecture hall. What I noticed is that as the students walked by, they were tossing trash into the bin that Alan had with him.

I soon realized what Alan had done. He had built up some camaraderie with the students in that lecture and had likely asked some of them to just toss any trash they had from the lecture into his waste bin when they left.

Instead of having to spend more time quietly inside of the hall finding garbage for his trash bin, he got to joke around with students and have some fun while they collectively did much of his work for him.

He made his job fun. Alan was obviously a social guy, so he looked for ways to be social and have a laugh with people while also completing his work.

The other one, who I’ll call Barry, took a different approach. When I saw him at first, he had his headphones on and was deeply in a rhythm of emptying trash bins. He seemed to be moving along at a pretty rapid clip.

Later, when I saw him, I overheard him talking to Alan. It turns out that Barry has a routine that he has to do every two hours where he has to empty all of the trash bins on the north side of the building. Barry tries to set a speed record for doing this each time. This means moving quickly and it also means figuring out optimal paths.

In both of these cases, the workers were figuring out ways to turn their work into play. Alan turned the task of cleaning up a lecture hall into a big social encounter, while Barry turned the task of emptying trash bins into a competitive game with himself.

In both cases, turning work into play inproved their enjoyment of their job. It was pretty obvious from each time that I saw Alan and Barry that they were happy with their jobs. They weren’t morose or silent. They were enjoying their work.

When I spent some time thinking about their situation, I realized that I actually do the same thing and that when I find a good way to make my work enjoyable, I work harder and it doesn’t tire me as much.

I’ve found that there are really three ways to turn work into play.

One, find ways to keep score – and try to break that score. I have a multitude of ways of doing this. I can use word count to measure my actual written productivity. I used subscriber count quite a lot when I was building The Simple Dollar as a measure of my ability to promote the site. I also used visitor statistics in the same way.

You can find ways to keep score with almost any task. See if you can take your most menial task and start timing it. Then, start looking for ways to complete that task correctly in the smallest amount of time. Not only does it become more enjoyable, you’re also getting that boring task out of the way quickly.

Two, find ways to make the job social. I saw a great example of this at a local convenience store recently. A supervisor was giving the two employees in the store some separate instructions for tasks, but when they started, they just started working on the same task together while talking. Together, they blew through the task of restocking the chip section really quickly before they had to check me out (I was waiting for a child to go to the bathroom).

Instead of doing two separate tasks, share the two tasks and work on each one together in turn. Not only does this increase the variety of your work, it gives you a great chance to socialize with someone while completing those tasks.

Three, find alternative goals. For a long time, a close friend of mine worked as a data entry specialist. She found that the job became more fun if she focused on finding ways to work a particular word into a description of an object. For example, for a long time, she would try to find ways to sneak the word “rich” into as many object descriptions as possible while still maintaining accuracy standards.

What that little tweak did is create a different challenge for each point of data entry. It made her think about the data entry in a creative way and made her feel much more in control of the job she was doing.

Remember, the people that succeed in the workplace are people who bring that extra bit of energy and focus to bear to do their job well. If you can tap into ways to make your boring job more enjoyable for you, you’re likely adding to your job security and your promotion potential while also enjoying things more on a day-to-day basis.

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