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July 23, 2013 6:15 AM   Subscribe

How can I rejigger my brain to recognize engaging, rewarding tasks as "fun" instead of "work"?

I've been trying to figure out, for the past few months, why my brain is slotting some things in the "fun distraction" category and other things in the "arrrgh work" category, and how I can go about doing some rewiring so I use my "free" time more productively, and get the same recharge/enjoyment value out of self-improvement as I do out of video games.

Things I've been tinkering with, to varying degrees of seriousness/commitment, over the past couple of years include:

• learning Python/Django
• learning to play the banjo
• building some small Web sites for projects I'm working on
• brushing up on my HTML/CSS skills
• renovating the house, inside and out, to prep for an eventual move
• acquiring some new handiwork skills
• learning more about vegan cooking, especially in the meat-substitute vein
• I'd like to take better control of my finances, invest a little to mess around with stocks, etc.

This is on top of a fairly demanding job that keeps me going for 60 or so hours a week, with relatively frequent travel; a job I'd like to transition out of, if any of my little side projects eventually take off.

I find myself, though, spending a distressing amount of time playing FTL and Terraria and revisiting old Spiderweb Software games on the main computer; playing a lot of Agricola, Minecraft, Block Fortress, Ascension and other iOS games on my iPad. There's nothing wrong with video games, but when I look at what I'd like to do and be, and what I'm actually doing towards it, there seems to be a frightening disconnect between my goals and my leisure activities.

And when I look at what I'm doing for "fun" and what I'm not doing as "work", there doesn't seem to be that much of a difference. I've got a wealth of entirely useless knowledge of crafting systems in Terraria and Minecraft, intimate knowledge of the E Deck in Agricola, encyclopaedic awareness of weapons and crafts in FTL, etc.

So what's going on in my brain where learning all about the Engi and Hull Beams in FTL falls in the "fun" category, and learning Python at CodeAcademy is "work"? Why can I get intimately involved in learning all about the various colours of Geoff Johns Lanterns on Wikipedia but can't be arsed to figure out mutual funds?

The core question: how can I retrain my brain to recognize what I want to learn and do as leisure, and release the idea that something has to be a "game" or explicitly "entertainment" to qualify as fun?

To head one thing off at the pass: I know I've got a lot on the go, and I'm working on cutting back and letting go of some hobbies/interests/projects. Advice in this vein is well-intentioned but isn't really what I need to know.
posted by Shepherd to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
We've had a few threads on gamification. Here's one. Here's Leotrotsky's habitjudo Projects page. There's more.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:21 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

As I see it, the problem I have with similar things is that in "work" the payoff is only in the result, but with "fun" the payoff is the sum of the action(s), inlcuding the result.

For me, its not easy to turn something which isn't immediately enjoyable but has a rewarding consequence into fun all the way through.

Mindless, repetitive things are easier for me, as I turn them into a battle vs. evil in my mind. For example, I'm not painting a wall, but rather coating a prototype shield on the hull of a battle cruiser before the vastly superior enemy shows up.

I'm not stamping a sheaf of papers, but imprinting circuitry on weapons boards for the troops.

It's silly, but it does make the time to by faster.
posted by Debaser626 at 6:32 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know anything about the specific games you're finding it so much easier to enjoy, but fun activities of any kind typically generate very frequent small reinforcements, i.e. instant rewards. Those reinforcements can be as simple as the beeps and buzzers and points in a video game that communicate the sense that what you're doing is working, and that you are making clear progress towards your goal. Any activity that demands you to spend long stretches of time working away without positive reinforcement -- some clear indicators of the effectiveness of what you're doing -- is going to feel like drudgery.
posted by jon1270 at 6:46 AM on July 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I don't want to threadsit, but I don't feel like "gamification" is necessarily the answer here.

Gamification feels like a way to impose game-like rewards on undesirable or repetitive tasks; what I'd like to do is try to recognize some of these activities as desirable and interesting in and of themselves, not overlay a "game" structure onto them.

Building a Web site and making it look nice isn't very different than learning all about how to get a suit of Shadow Armor in Terraria, if you look at it from a slight angle with squinty eyes; I'm not trying to impose a game framework on building the Web site, but make my brain recognize that what I'm doing to build it is the same kind of thing as playing a game.

I've been down the Health Month road before, and briefly tried Chore Wars (Habit Judo seems to be dead, alas). I feel like I'm looking for something one level deeper, where it's less about "here's an artificial reward for getting through your to-do list" and more "many items on your to-do list now feel like fun and now fit in the 'leisure' category, not the 'work' category". Gamification would still apply to things like cleaning the litter boxes and doing the dishes and repainting the house, but I feel like there must be a way to recalibrate how I view other things as game and not need the overlay. I hope this is somewhat coherent.

I can see incremental improvements when I practice and learn the banjo, or Python, or complete some renovations on the house, or upgrade a bit of a Web site. Why doesn't my brain register these things as "reward" the same way as it does when I play a game, and can I convince my brain to recalibrate these "reward sensors" somehow?
posted by Shepherd at 6:55 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I find that there is a threshold I need to cross when working to learn or perfect a new task in order for it to transition from "work" to "fun," and generally I think it's when aspects of it go from requiring constant thought to becoming at least partially intuitive. I'm a bit of a worrier, mostly about what could go wrong in a given situation.

Last year I started working in a totally different aspect of my career with a ton more responsibility. I mostly knew what I was doing, but I was constantly looking through menus and settings to make sure everything was where it should be. Once I calmed down and settled in and grew comfortable with what I knew and that I was good at it, it became much more fun and much less work. This new line of work is tangentially related to one of my hobbies, so I've also started spending a lot more time on that one particular activity as well.

I've also experienced this with learning a new instrument. At first, when I'm struggling and having to be conscious of every little thing, it sucks. It takes effort and lots of concentration and almost feels exhausting. But eventually when intuition takes over, you can get to the meat of what makes it enjoyable. You'll get there, it just takes time.

Also, your to-do list contains a ton of big, involved new things to learn. It could be that you're constantly pegging your concentration requirements and as a result your mind is becoming exhausted and in need of rest (w/Minecraft or whatever). Adding on the stress of wanting it to be fun probably isn't helping.

Finally, don't be so hard on yourself. You have a demanding job and are trying to learn a lot of new skills. You'll get there eventually. Keep in mind that the journey can be more rewarding than reaching your destination.
posted by nevercalm at 7:11 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You're going to hate this, but one thing that helps a lot is to set much more modest goals, to set a lot fewer of them, and to be very very patient about reaching them.

If you set out to become a Great Banjo Player, and renovate the whole house, and get impressively good at vegan cooking, and and and etcetera — and to do all that stuff Right Now, Right Away, before your enthusiasm fades — you will burn yourself out before you begin. You will associate all of those goals with stress and dissatisfaction, and you will avoid thinking about them or working on them because you want to avoid feeling stressed and dissatisfied.

So pick just one goal. Set out to work on it in a very modest way that takes a half hour a week at most. Turn that half hour (or less!) into a pleasant personal ritual, with a nice snack and your favorite music in the background and etcetera. And — this is important — convince yourself that that's good enough, that those thirty minutes (or less!) a week are time well spent and that you deserve to be proud of yourself for sticking with it.

To do this you will have to be very patient, and to have faith that over the weeks or months or years your skills will improve if you just keep plugging away. You also have to abandon the secret hope that you will turn out to be some sort of prodigy or virtuoso or world champion at any of this stuff. Quit fantasizing about how you're gonna work your ass off and become the world's best vegan chili cook by this time next year. Just make some damn chili, and learn to be pleased with yourself when it turns out reasonably tasty.

If you do that, you will learn a new set of associations with your goal: not stress and dissatisfaction, but pleasure and comfort and pride. That will make you more likely to stick with it.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:47 AM on July 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

In many cases, it can be simply the difference between having a good attitude versus a negative one. There is most likely an undercurrent of "ugh, this sucks" when thinking about work types of things that isn't there when thinking about fun things.

I have this problem myself. Just this weekend, I was sitting around with some friends relaxing and gossiping, when one of them decided we should play a card game that I'd never played before. Instantly, I stressed out, because I would have to re-engage the learning portion of my brain that I was so happily ignoring in my leisure. Of course, my ever patient friend just said "shut up and play one hand" and I realized I was being a baby and we then commenced to having a nice time. It wasn't work, it was fun, but I just started out with a bad attitude.

How do you do this without a patient friend around to poke you when you need poking? Figure out what motivates you, and leverage those things. Do you find comfort in doing things the same way over and over? Then leverage that. Do you like improving your efficiency or finding new ways to do the same thing? Then do that.

Lastly, don't expect to find fun where it just won't be. I hate doing laundry. It will never be fun. In the past, this meant that I didn't do laundry until it was An Emergency, because the adrenalin of impending failure made the chore tolerable. But I've grow up and just accepted that it is a chore and no amount of gamification or Vulcan mind tricks will make it enjoyable. I simply do it as one of those things that need to be done before I can get on to more interesting things. If there is any pleasure in it at all, it is the small comfort that I don't have piles of laundry around getting in the way of those other fun things.
posted by gjc at 8:27 AM on July 23, 2013

What kinds of thoughts and feelings, specifically, are going through your head when you think about starting one of your side projects? e.g., do you feel resentful? nervous? bored? If you can try to pay attention to these feelings and document them, you may get more insight into why you're avoiding these activities that you feel like you "should" do but don't want to.

(In The Now Habit there's a good chapter about noticing when you're framing things in a certain way - the sort of, "I have to do this entire task perfectly and against my will" thought pattern. You can practice catching those thoughts before you automatically act on them.)
posted by en forme de poire at 1:45 PM on July 23, 2013

Succeed: how we can reach our goals discusses this dilemma. The problem, as I understand it, is all about the type of (subconscious) attitude we take to our work goals and our fun goals. By understanding the attitudes, we can adjust them and make them work for us, not against us. It has lots of research to back up the author's findings and it is a pretty easy and enjoyable read.

Here is the author's website.
posted by Kerasia at 3:58 PM on July 23, 2013

Best answer: I might suggest a few things:

1. Set aside some time to work on a few of your projects as experiments. Right there, that will give you a different frame of reference: instead of "learning to play the banjo", you're doing an experiment about playing the banjo to observe yourself and learn more about what banjo playing does for you.

After you've spent some time on it (half an hour, maybe - no more than an hour), write up your experiment: write down what you did, specifically, and answer the following questions:

* What part of that was the most fun?
* What part of that felt the most rewarding?
* Did the challenging parts feel like the challenging parts of games, or did they feel more like a slog?

You might want to do this experiment multiple times with each project - see if the answer changes, or if just thinking about the rewarding and fun parts helps bring them to mind when you contemplate doing a bit of a project.

And then, of course, see if you can integrate more of the fun and rewarding moments into the time you spend on each project.

2. Make lists of low-energy tasks and extremely brief tasks for each project. For example, I'm studying Japanese. When I'm having a really busy week, I don't necessarily have the energy or focus to work through a textbook - but I can pretty much always fit in a dozen vocabulary flashcards, or even practice writing Japanese characters. When you're tired from a busy week, tackling something like "learning the banjo" is just going to seem daunting ... but maybe practicing a particular chord change won't, or just running through a favorite song.

There are two advantages to this: sometimes it'll get you into the groove and give you the energy and enjoyment to continue; and even when that doesn't happen, you've gotten a pleasant few minutes reinforcing your skills - something that's easy to skip when you're focusing on Making Huge Amounts of Progress.

I checked out Kerasia's pointers to Heidi Grant Halvorson above and found this summary of Nine Things Successful People Do. I think a few of those things might be useful here - specifically:

Get specific - instead of "learn the banjo", make some achievable shorter-term goals: learn a particular song, be able to play a particular picking pattern at a particular tempo.

Schedule your tasks - instead of hoping you'll feel like playing the banjo at some point in the week, make an appointment with yourself - even for a short practice session. "At 9 pm on Tuesday and Thursday, I'll play for ten minutes - 5 minutes practicing my new song, 5 minutes playing an old song I know pretty well."

A lot of this echoes the principles of Tiny Habits - place prompts in your environment ("After I finish dinner, I'll play the banjo" or "At 9:00, my computer alarm will go off and I'll play the banjo") and give yourself very small tasks to accomplish. (He talks about getting yourself in the habit of flossing by planning to floss just one tooth. It may seem like too much work to floss ALL your teeth, but one tooth? Easy. So do that. Very soon, you'll start doing more, but it helps - a lot - to start with something ridiculously easy.)

Finally, take a moment every week to write down all your progress. It's easy for me to forget the five minutes here and ten minutes there I spent working on a particular project - but taking a moment to remind myself of all the bits of practice I put in is really good reinforcement and helps me recognize that I AM making progress on my goals, even if it feels like I don't have time for all the things I want to work on.
posted by kristi at 10:40 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

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