Making Work Fun: Five Productivity Experiments (Liveblog)

Welcome to the lab of productivity experiments.

Today, we are going to undertake a revolutionary productivity experiment, one that could change your plain grits work into a flavorful feast of productivity (or something like that). Let’s begin with phosphorus, er, I mean… the premise.

As people focus on getting motivated or using willpower to take action, there’s another approach to getting things done that trumps both.

Make it fun.

Have We All Overlooked a Great Opportunity?

Sebastian Smith was just an ordinary student… until he was hired for the best job in the world: a water slide tester. Smith was paid £20,000 to travel around the world for 6 months and test out various water slides for scientific factors such as “adrenaline” and “splash.”


Before you scoff and think, “Hmph, lucky bloke,” consider that this job wouldn’t be fun for everyone. The temperature at some of these places was cold. And maybe Sebastian felt empty inside as he slid down his 300th slide. I don’t know. There had to be some downsides, but the upside was obvious. It was going to be fun.

Now, the interesting question is whether or not “fun” is tethered to certain jobs and types of work or if it can be applied to (m)any sort(s) of job(s).

The Fun Factor

If you can make a typically-not-fun activity into a fun activity, working becomes playing, and it gets a lot easier to win. Our perspective alone can make a draining activity into an energizing activity.

Want some evidence of the power of perspective? Consider personality types: for some people, parties are fun and energizing (extroverts) while for others they are exhausting (introverts). The difference is only in their perspective, but the effect is very real and physical.

Okay okay, we get it, but how do we go about making general work more fun?  What can we do to shift our perspective in a fun direction?

I could speculate, but instead, I’m going to try the old fashioned trial-and-error method to find out. I invite you to try these experiments alongside me. I’m going to update this post as I complete these experiments, so be sure to check back!

I will try at least 15 different experiments to make working more fun or compelling. This is not completely scientific because my mood and energy won’t be the same for each experiment (no control), but I think it will still be useful. I will also take into account my mood going in to each experiment to minimize the variance there. I might not do them in this order, but here they are.

The Experiments (and Why)

Note: Green experiments have been completed!

  1. Listen to upbeat music: The theory is that music will occupy the subconscious mind as the conscious mind gets to work, and it will increase the “energy” of the room.
  2. Mini challenges: This is the “breadcrumbs to success” concept, it creates focal points on demand, and the easy tasks should effectively (and instantly) combat distractions.
  3. Dance to one music video, work 20 minutes, dance to one music video, and so on: Dancing is fun and exercise, and it could provide the right combination of movement and fun to make the next work session awesome.
  4. Big reward incentive for working: One big bribe (to rule them all).
  5. Listen to calm/instrumental music: To relax the mind and increase focus.
  6. Incentives between sessions: Straight up bribery in small, measured doses.
  7. Large challenges: To inspire myself to “rise to the challenge.”
  8. “I’m doing this to save the world”: The idea here is to create a perspective shift to add broad meaning to the work. Plus, using your imagination is inherently fun! I’m using “save” instead of “improve” because imagination works best in the extremes.
  9. “I’m going to change one person’s life”: This time, it’s a perspective shift to add personal meaning to the work, using your imagination is inherently fun.
  10. Friendly competition against a friend: Competition is fun for many people (including me)… and I will win!
  11. Food. Lots of delicious food on hand: To sustain glucose energy, allow for uninterrupted sessions, and keep my biological needs and desires met.
  12. Repeatedly tell myself that I’m having fun: Repetition often leads to belief, and while this is a simple and somewhat stupid idea, I think it might actually work.
  13. Feel it out. Set work time goals based on feelings in the moment (E.g. I’ll work for 14 minutes): Work sessions catered to my current feelings (no more, no less), customized structure should eliminate feelings of angst.
  14. Watch 1 minute of comedy, work 20 minutes, watch 1 minute of comedy, and so on: A very small bribe and a direct injection of laughter. Hopefully the mood will carry over to the next work session.
  15. Mini exercise break (jumping jacks, push-ups, etc), work 30 minutes, mini exercise break, and so on: Energy boost, brain boost, and mood boost from exercise (but it might seem more like punishment than fun, so we’ll see how it goes).

Before we begin, I have one thing to add. I don’t work for long periods of time except on Mondays when I write my newsletter, which often takes the entire day. To me, a good work day is 2-4 hours. Time is the worst measure of productivity. Sometimes I think so hard that I fall asleep—that’s what working hard means to me.

Also, because I’m “lazier” than most and I’m currently working on an overwhelming and grueling video course, I think I am a great candidate for this experiment! Let’s begin!

1. Listen to music while standing up (standing desk required). Bobbing and dancing are allowed mandatory.

I was recently on a cruise. I had been in a bit of a “work funk” lately, and was finding it difficult to focus. I took my laptop to a lounge where there was a combination of live music, game shows, and general commotion. To my surprise, I had one of my most productive work sessions in months! This was interesting to me, because I always assumed that I needed a quiet place to work.

That experience taught me that I might have it all wrong. Maybe I don’t need a quiet environment, maybe I need a FUN environment.

Subconsciously, we all want to have fun. That’s not a preference that we should even try to change, because having fun is great! That must be why in such a chaotic environment, I was still able to focus. I felt like I was having fun as I worked because people around me were having fun. That prevented me from seeking distractions. I also had no internet on the ship, which helped prevent distractions, but that doesn’t explain everything because the lack of internet didn’t help me focus in the silent areas on that same cruise.

My work session with music is going well so far. I feel focused and I’m having fun. I think it makes a big difference to be at a stand-up desk while listening to music, because you can dance and work at the same time. While sitting, your dance moves are limited (and even more awkward). The real test begins now, when I switch to a more challenging work task of working on my video course.

Okay, I just finished up the work session. Here’s what happened.

Music Session Results

  • Initial Laziness Rating (1 is ultra lazy, 10 is supercharged workbot): 2
  • Work Session Length: 1:20 (would have been longer, but I had a dentist appointment)
  • Distraction Count: 6 times (I noticed a much higher chance of distraction when switching tasks/applications, even if they were within the same project. Not a problem if committed to refocusing once “caught.”)
  • Mood Change: Upbeat. FUN!
  • Upsides: Fun. Energizing. 
  • Downsides: Tiring and maybe not great for long sessions, though it could be one part of a longer session. Occasionally, the music itself was distracting.
  • Overall Effectiveness: It got the job done. I enjoyed the work and I was somewhat productive. I wasn’t my most productive, however, and I think that may have to do with the music occasionally distracting me or causing me to dance instead of working.
  • Total Score: 7.8/10

I had a great work session with music. While getting distracted 6 times seems like a lot, that’s actually a lot less than usual for me in the span of an hour and a half. The music generally did a good job of keeping me happy and focused. Because I broke through the initial barrier of resistance, it was easier to get more work done later in the day, too. On some days, I won’t work much or at all because I don’t break through that initial resistance, and it’s difficult to break a trend!

As for what music I rocked, it was mostly catchy pop songs (don’t judge… you know you love them too): Happy by Pharrell Williams, Good time by Owl City, 24k Magic and Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars, Can’t Stop the Feeling by J. Timberlake, Cake by the Ocean by DNCE, any song by Maroon 5, Lose Yourself to Dance by Daft Punk, etc.

2. Mini Challenges (Small Steps)

I will set mini goals throughout my work session. This is my go-to method to get work done. It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs leading you to a productive work session, but instead of following predetermined breadcrumbs, you place them in front of you as needed, and then take that small step, which often leads to several more steps without having to place another breadcrumb (momentum!).

Mini Challenges Result

The mere thought of only having to do mini challenges got me started working right away. I didn’t initially set a mini challenge, because it wasn’t needed. I will do so if I find myself distracted, bored, or stuck.

Mini challenges work perfectly! They get you focused on the first step, which leads right into the second and third.

  • Initial Laziness Rating (1 is lazy, 10 is supercharged workbot): 4
  • Work Session Length: 1:37 (stopped for a food break)
  • Distraction Count: 2 times (This is excellent. I was focused.)
  • Mood Change: Focused. Absorbed in the work. I find there’s an element of fun just in being focused on the work you’re doing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (don’t ask me to pronounce it) refers to this as being in a state of “flow.” If you can detach from the world for a moment and engage in your work, you’ll enjoy it.
  • Upsides: A focusing WEAPON. Distraction killer. 
  • Downsides: It wasn’t as fun as the music. It can be a grind if you struggle to enter the state of flow and require lots of small steps just to move forward. In my experience, however, that’s a rarity.
  • Overall Effectiveness: Very effective. I expected this, as this is basically the mini habit idea applied to daily work. I worked longer and with only a third of the distractions as the upbeat-music-driven session.
  • Total Score: 9.3/10

Early on in this experiment, I’m thinking that the key to productive and enjoyable work is to simply have a plan and be intentional about it. Both methods so far have worked (this one better than the last).

3. After 20 Minutes of Work, Dance to One Music Video. Repeat.

Yes, that is me in the middle of a sweet move, and that’s my work uniform. I know, it’s a strict dress code (some home offices don’t even require shorts… or underwear).

To start it off, I danced before working. It was definitely energizing to dance for an entire music video. It was also a lot of fun. But will it carry over to my work session?

Dancing Interval Result

The first dance break was interesting. At first, I hated it because it interrupted me. I was pretty focused on my work and yet, I HAD to get up and dance for this stupid experiment. But when I got up (and started groovin’) the idea grew on me. Here’s why.

First, I generated more ideas related to the work I was just doing. Second, I broke up the period of sitting with some activity (which, if done consistently avoids a huge health hazard). And my third realization was the most exciting one.

As I got up and started dancing, I found myself in a unique position. I wanted to work! Let me repeat that. I wanted to go back to work. Even when I have focused work sessions, I’d often be happy to leave in a heartbeat to do something “more fun.” But because I forced myself to leave work at a “high point”—something I’ve probably never done before—I craved more of it. This is a fascinating and possibly powerful psychological “trick” to make yourself like working more.

What do people generally want MOST? What they can’t have. If you force yourself to step away from the desk, you might find yourself wanting it more. I’ll have more opportunities to explore this phenomenon in the other experiments that have time-triggered interruptions.

I initially thought it was a weakness to have an arbitrary 20 minute work session, but my mind is changing. In addition to the benefits above, knowing that you only have 20 minutes to work gives you a slight boost from Parkinson’s Law, or the idea that work will contract or expand to fill the allotted time slot (think cramming for an exam in the last hour and becoming a supercharged and focused workbot vs. having six months to finish a simple paper and taking your sweet time with it).

Another interesting insight has come to light. As you’ll see below, I didn’t get distracted ONCE during this experiment. I am, however, beginning to think that maybe these 2nd and 3rd experiments aren’t actually better for focusing than the first one. It could be that I’m simply getting better at recognizing distractions BEFORE they take place. Since I’ve been tracking my distractions, I’ve become more aware of how and why they happen.

Twice this session I’ve avoided being distracted by catching it and immediately shutting it down. And I’ve been switching tasks a lot this session between my video course and this article (task switching carries the highest risk of distraction). That’s an experiment I would recommend that you try—every time you get distracted, write it down. The simplest way is to have a piece of paper nearby you can tally it on. Also track the start and stop time of your work session so that you can calculate your number of distractions per hour (or minute, haha).

  • Initial Laziness Rating (1 is ultra lazy, 10 is supercharged workbot): 6 (I was pretty upbeat going into this one.)
  • Work Session Length: 1:13 (Basketball called, and I answered)
  • Distraction Count: ZERO!
  • Mood Change: I came into this on a fairly high note, so I can’t say it produced a big jump in mood. I’ll report back if I try this when in a lazy mood. I suspect it would help then.
  • Upsides: Energy boost. Fun. Alertness boost (which could factor into the lack of distractions).
  • Downsides: The neighbors might have seen me. Just kidding, that’d be another upside! The main downside is the interruption for mandatory dancing, but as I explained above, that might not be such a bad thing.
  • Overall Effectiveness: Extremely effective, but for unexpected reasons. I’m surprised it even beat out my “small steps” session. That’s the power of fun. Would recommend to a friend. Dance on, friends.
  • Total Score: 9.5/10

4. The Big Bribe: One Large Reward for Working

I like to gamble. It’s one of my vices, I suppose, and if I’m honest with myself and you, it’s one way I take a break from my life problems. But aside from that possibly depressing explanation, it’s really fun for me. I play slots and craps, and no, I don’t expect to win, which is why I usually do minimum bet on slots. Gambling is (sometimes expensive) entertainment, not a way to make money.

So, that’s my big bribe tonight. If I work for two hours (solid, focused work), I will grant myself permission to go to the local casino tonight. Again, it bears mentioning that serious and focused work for two hours is substantial. My body temperature will likely rise from focusing so hard.

I will try not to use other techniques (no music, no small steps, etc.) and just use the big reward as motivation for working hard. I’m specifically going to use this opportunity to do my least favorite work (things like narrating the video course, organizing the video course content, and creating slides. I hate creating slides…). Big rewards call for big effort. Now, I know I speak strongly against this “big action for big results” sort of ideology, but I DO believe it can be very effective in short bursts, and I expect it to work well here. I speak against its sustainability and consistency as a long-term strategy, not as a short-term strategy. Let’s see what happens!

Big Reward Results

I found it nearly impossible not to use small steps to further my progress. It’s pretty well ingrained for me to ask, “what’s my very next step?” any time I feel lost. That’s one caveat to keep in mind, but…

Wow, what a work session! In under two hours, I basically completed an entire 4-minute video (which sometimes takes me about a week!). I had previously recorded the audio. I discovered that I’m capable of doing much more than I typically do. I think the biggest positive about this approach was the highly intentional focusing. I was determined to “earn” my casino night, and knew that half-hearted effort wasn’t going to be satisfying.

Another positive I’ve taken from this is the power of short, concentrated work sessions. I think if I was forced by myself or others to work for 8 hours, I would take plenty of unofficial breaks just to survive the day. Corporate workplaces are notorious for ineffective use of time, and this is likely the reason. I can accomplish about as much (or more) in 2 hours of highly focused work as 8 hours of distracted work.

  • Initial Laziness Rating (1 is ultra lazy, 10 is supercharged workbot): 5 (pretty average, I felt open to working, but not particularly excited about it)
  • Work Session Length: 2:06
  • Distraction Count: 3 (This is a pretty good, low number for two hours of work. I think my brain needed to cool off, but I wasn’t distracted for long.)
  • Mood Change: Serious. Focused. Driven. I really wanted to earn the reward.
  • Upsides: It was a nice change to feel so driven to do work. Usually I’m very relaxed about it. It makes me wonder how I can apply this in conjunction with mini habits.
  • Downsides: After about an hour of getting a lot of work done, I felt fatigued and had a sudden urge for it to be over. I guess you could call it short-term burnout. That said, I recovered and had a strong finish to the work session. Thinking about my reward again helped a little, but the burnout felt deeper than that… as if my brain needed a break. I have to wonder if this is mostly my fault for training my brain to be lazy over the years.
  • Overall Effectiveness: This was the most effective work session yet. It blew away my previous attempts in terms of what I accomplished in a short amount of time. It was very effective, but also the most draining. It’s also limited. I can’t bribe myself like this every day (can I?). I have to admit that the big bribe worked better than expected.
  • Total Score: 9.6/10

Interestingly enough, this is the fourth time in a row that the experiment was more effective than the previous experiment. Either it’s a strange coincidence, or I’m learning something else about productivity—namely, that while fun injections are super useful to be more productive, the most important thing might be having some kind of plan in the first place. There’s something about having a plan to execute that helps you focus and adds a sense of purpose to your work.

This experiment isn’t as “fun” as some of the others. It is the opposite of the fun approach in a way, as the calming music is supposed to produce relaxed productivity (as opposed to elevating one’s mood and energy with something fun).

Early on, this choice feels like a mistake. As you’ll see, I initially rated my laziness at 2/10 (very lazy). That might pair poorly with somewhat sedating music. And that brings up another fascinating point…

What if you analyzed your situation before working and employed a strategy to fit your mood? So for instance, what if I discovered that high energy music didn’t do much for me at an average laziness rating of 5 and higher, but that it performed very well near the lower extremes? Maybe it would pull you out of the doldrums, but only serve to distract you on days that you’re already highly motivated to work?

Note: A big downside to any audio-related experiment is that I can’t do any video editing that involves sound. So I’ll once again focus on the boring stuff like creating slides. The slides I create are fun to experience, but they’re not always fun to make!

Calm Music Result

Initially, it was rough. The music in some parts annoyed me and made me antsy, which is mostly because of how I felt, and not really the fault of the music. 

It’s interesting though, that I feel this negatively about what I’m doing, but I’m still doing it just fine. I don’t hate the work either. I just don’t feel like doing it. This goes back to what I always say: you can still do things even if you don’t feel like doing them (i.e., when you aren’t motivated).

After 20 minutes, I turned the music off. I want silence, and I want to do video editing.

*one minute later*

Okay, fine, I just turned it back on in the name of science. I have a theory that I just enjoy the beginning of the track more than the rest, so I restarted the track. I’ll try again.

*two minutes later*

Nope. I hate it. I feel like a prisoner to it. This is surprising, as I’ve used this exact song to have productive work sessions in the past. I’m just spectacularly irritable right now, haha.

  • Initial Laziness Rating (1 is lazy, 10 is supercharged workbot): 2 (I’m feeling really lazy… and distractible… I wonder what’s on TV? Er, I mean… I must work!)
  • Work Session Length: 28 minutes
  • Distraction Count: 1 (this was partly circumstantial, as I received more texts and messages than usual during the session. The first one distracted me, but then I ignored the rest)
  • Mood Change: I got crankier. The big reward was a lot more exciting. This felt like punishment.
  • Upsides: There are some scenarios and some personalities that could benefit greatly from this sort of music. It’s pretty well known that instrumental music is widely used for studying, working, and focusing. In the case that you’re in the right mood, calm music might be just the thing to help you concentrate on your objectives.
  • Downsides: If you’re not in the mood for it, it’s like being lightly punched in the arm but repeatedly. At first you can take it, but then it really starts to bother you. I almost threw my iMac out the window, but it said, “don’t shoot the messenger, just close the tab.” So I did that and the pain went away.
  • Overall Effectiveness: It was horrible to go through it, but I was still productive during the (brief) session. Once I turned the music off (it’s silent right now and I love it), I became more productive and more focused. Also, I only worked for 28 minutes with the music on, so I have to say it was ineffective in this instance. It seemed like it hurt my productivity more than it helped.
  • Total Score: 1/10

Experimenting is great! I thought this one would be one of the top successes and the “big reward” experiment a flop. I was wrong on both accounts. It’s eye-opening to experiment, try different things, and test your assumptions!

The top three lessons I learned (or had reinforced) by this experiment:

  1. You can still get a lot of work done even if every cell in your body wants to run away. It’s pretty awesome! Think of your body as a slave to your mind. You tell it what to do, and it must listen. No more lame “I’m tired” and “I just broke my ankle and need to go to the hospital” excuses.
  2. Customized strategies might be the future of personal growth. I’ve thought about this before. The idea is that we experience a large but categorizable number of situations and moods. If we can determine the ideal solution for forward progress for each of these states, in theory, we should become highly productive, more successful people. And success has a much broader meaning than fame and finances. Success is living the life you want to live, whatever that may entail.
  3. Failure often provides more value than success. This was by far the worst result so far, but it was the most insightful and interesting experiment. Success is great, obviously, but failure is a fascinating teacher. If you have the desire to learn from failure, it will only serve you in the long term.

Check this page again soon for more experiments! 

(photos by clement127Dvorscak4nitsirkNewman University)

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