Work, play, and motivation

6 March 2021
6 Mar 2021
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

I used to think that my motivation to do something was just the product of my personal interest in it, and how difficult it was to do. In this mindset, my motivation for a project is an intrinsic unchangeable quality built into the situation between me and my project – I can’t really bring myself to be more interested in an uninteresting project, and the project can’t really get much easier or harder.

I think this is the common (perhaps implicit) way we understand motivation in our daily work. We think that if we’re initially motivated to do something and then we lose that energy, it’s because that was inevitable, and the project just became less motivating. This makes it easy to justify leaving a project or giving up when we lose motivation, when what we should really do is try to do a post-mortem of our motivation – what went wrong that we lost the motivation we initially had?

Of course, sometimes it’s just better to move on when you run out of steam. Trying to push through an unrewarding project is a lose-lose situation for everyone. But I think there’s a way to think about our relationship to work that gives us many more levers with which to control how motivated we are to do what we do every day.

When I’m working on my side projects, it almost never feels like work. The best kind of “work” on my projects feels like play. I tweak an algorithm here, some variables there, and get something entirely new. After building a hundred and some side projects, I think the valuable persevering skill I learned is how to turn “work” into play. How to turn something that feels demotivating and laborious and make it feel more like a game with dopamine hits around every corner.

The main difference between work and play is that “work” makes you wait to reap the rewards of your labor until the end, where “play” simply comes with much tighter, often immediate feedback loops. If you can take a project with all the rewards and feedback concentrated at the end and make the feedback loops more immediate, you can make almost any work more play-like, and make every piece of that work a little more motivating. This is the job of game designers – taking a 10-hour videogame and skillfully distributing little rewards throughout the gameplay so that you lever have to ask yourself, “ugh, there’s so much of the game left, and I don’t know if I’m motivated enough to finish it.” What a ridiculous question to ask about a game! And yet, that’s a product of very deliberate design, the same process of design we can take to every other aspect of our work.

People often ask me for advice on how to tackle large side projects that are daunting at the beginning, like building a programming language or a compiler. My advice has always been to break it down into small pieces, so that there’s something tangible you can play with after every step, even if it’s not a complete thing. For example, if you’re building a compiler, don’t build it compilation stage-by-stage, so that you can’t run any code until the end. Instead, start by building a proto-compiler for a very tiny language – maybe just addition and subtraction on numbers. Right from the start, you’ve got a project that can do something interesting. Your feedback loop is much tighter. After that, you can start adding small features iteratively, like variables and functions and arrays. After each iterative step, you’ll be able to play with what you just worked on, immediately. Designing projects at work like this can make it feel more like play.

Especially when we plan to learn a new skill like speaking a new language or playing an instrument, the natural temptation is to divide it up horizontally, by skill. A horizontal approach means, for example, learning the full alphabet, and then the sentence structure and grammar, and then the vocabulary, before learning to speak and listen and read. A horizontal approach to learning to play guitar (a hobby I picked up over the last year) might be to learn to read sheet music or guitar tabs, and then learn to play the right notes and chords, and finally learning your first song. But this kind of horizontal approach is draining and demotivating, because there’s very little you can do just by knowing the alphabet of a language or by reading sheet music! Instead, approach broad skills vertically, by thinking about the minimum skill you need to learn to do something small but useful and self-contained. This might be learning a single song, or the 25-50 most often spoken phrases or interjections in a language to be able to watch foreign television. That first song or those first few phrases can now become your first feedback loop. After that, you can iteratively learn new words or grammatical rules or chords one at a time, motivating yourself along with the prospect of being able to play a whole another song with just one extra chord, or recognize another common word or sentence in a foreign language.

It’s possible for anyone to learn this skill of breaking down large projects into small pieces with tighter feedback loops, and it’s one of the more valuable skills I’ve learned building lots of side projects.

Once you understand this feedback loop-driven relationship between work and play, you start to see it everywhere. When we design learning environments in schools and in online courses, how can we shift curriculum layout or design assignments so feedback loops are more immediate? When we work in teams on large projects at our jobs, how can we keep the team motivated by cutting the time we need to wait before feeling the rewards of our work? I suspect this is the reason why many people enjoy working at “fast-moving” companies – work feels more like play when you can build a feature, ship it to real people the same day, and see the results of your experiment right afterwards.

Your motivation to persevere on a project isn’t innate to you or the project – you have levers you can pull and dials you can turn to keep yourself more naturally motivated and energized to move through each step in the project. This model of work and motivation turns many “How do we make this simpler?” problems and “How do we stay incentivized?” problems into “How do we make this feel more like play?” problems. And turning work into play is a meta-skill. Once you start developing your eye for overextended feedback loops and how you can tighten them up, you’ll find that it helps you tackle larger projects and problems across all areas of life, from work at the office to learning a new skill to growing a daily habit.

Thanks to Kunal Thakur for helpful feedback that added to a revision of this post.

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