Zombies will do Wonders for Your Motivation

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I have just wasted 2 weeks of my life playing “Plants versus Zombies“, the worlds most foolish computer game. The premise is at best dubious, I grow plants in my garden and these protect my house from an onslaught of brain eating zombies, yet I am totally addicted.

I’m 44 years old, I should know better.

I am only writing this now because it is my 10-year-old daughter’s turn with the iPad, otherwise I would still be busy sowing “Venus Zombie Traps”. The problem is that the game takes some skill, it is difficult but it is also winnable and so totally engrossing. The hours fly by.

My wife has been less than complimentary about the situation.

What can zombies teach you about motivation?

The American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied this very phenomenon, people completely absorbed in their task, he calls it Flow.

In one of his studies Csikszentmihalyi gave his subjects beepers which sounded at different times of the day. When the beeper beeped his subjects had to write down how much they were enjoying themselves and what they were doing.

He discovered people are happiest when they are actively engaged in a challenging pursuit like rock climbing, or playing chess, or cooking (or to my shame playing computer games).

Surprisingly not all of our leisure activities result in high scores. Very few people are particularly fulfilled when they are watching TV.

So fighting zombies makes you happy?

Not if you have a life (or wife), but computer gaming does share the characteristics of other pursuits that make us happy:

  • There is a clear goal, it is very obvious what needs to be achieved and you can focus on it.
  • It is challenging, but not unachievable, the goal may be just outside our reach, but only just.
  • It is easy to measure your performance against that goal. Feedback is instantaneous.

If those three factors are present in an activity then you are far more likely to become absorbed in it and enjoy it.

Could you fight zombies at work?

Now that is the question. Is it possible to find the same level of engagement at work? Could you and your employees all find that state, applying yourself to the task in hand with relentless focus, and enjoying it whilst you did it?

Is it a fanciful idea? Plenty of organisations are trying to instill Flow in the work place.

One of the more notable successes is Stefan Falk at Green Cargo (a government-owned logistics company in Scandinavia). He read about Flow and set about instigating the 3 conditions in his organisation:

  • Clear goals
  • Challenging work
  • Feedback

He simply set up an appraisal system where everybody was given clear challenging goals that they agreed to. That wasn’t exactly revolutionary, the difference though is that Falk insisted that his managers performed performance reviews every month. That way the feedback was instantaneous.

Of course the managers didn’t like all those extra performance reviews one bit, but as Falk put it “What are you managing?”

Green Cargo went on to turn a profit for the first time in 150 years. It is hard to prove cause and effect but Falk’s approach certainly didn’t hurt.

But that’s not the real reason I am killing zombies

One last thing Csikszentmihalyi pointed out is that people fall into a state of Flow far more easily if they think the activity is worthwhile. In the workplace that usually means contributing something to society.

And I of course am busy stopping Zombies from invading the house and eating my wife’s brains. You would just think she might be a little more grateful.

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