Work Is Serious Play

The Greek philosopher, Plato has said that:

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.

My cousin practices singing during the evenings a few times a week because she likes doing it, not because of any specific goal.

My nephew has been playing with LEGO blocks ever since he was 3 (he’s shy of 11 at the time of this writing). He would totally lose himself in the experience of making objects with those blocks. He didn’t care if he played by himself or with others. He enjoyed both experiences equally. He didn’t talk much when he played. It’s like he’s tuned out the world and is fully immersed in the play experience. Ditto when we played with little Hot Wheels cars.

When I listen to music, it’s not another thing I am doing while driving or working. I am doing it as a standalone activity and I give it my full attention because I’ve come to realize, among few things, that you enjoy the experience much more that way. Before, I used to listen to music while doing creative work, but I realized I wasn’t giving my full attention to either music or work, so I stopped doing that. Now, I write sans music. Ditto with listening to podcasts. For me, the whole experience of listening to music is especially amplified when I listen on my headphones in the dark before retiring to bed.

I have a couple of friends who play board games with their friends every weekend. The venue keeps rotating between friends, but the weekly ritual stays the same. Now, if one didn’t know any better, one would be quick to dismiss this weekly ritual as trivial, but it’s far from it.

The point I want to make by sharing these examples is that we do things we enjoy without a specific end goal, outcome, or any kind of structure in mind. We do it just because it’s fun. These experiences renew us in ways far beyond one’s imagination.

Play isn’t something that only happens during our downtime, which I wrote about earlier. For instance, some of my best creative work happens when I am so immersed in it that I lose track of time. The famed psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has described such a highly focused mental state as Flow. In that sense, work for me is serious play. It’s like when an hour seems like a minute, and before you know it, it’s time to have lunch. This experience is in such stark contrast to how most knowledge workers are used to working amidst countless distractions and/or interruptions from others. The thing is, anything you create of value requires uninterrupted focus for large chunks of time. Without that, real value creation is not possible. As Picasso has aptly said, without solitude, no serious work is possible.

These present experiences remind me that we played every day as kids. We would come back from school, eat something, do our homework, and then we would spend some time playing during our leisure time. It wasn’t something that we procrastinated or put off for some day in the future (like we do as adults now). No. As kids, that daily play time for us was non-negotiable, meaning no matter how much homework we had from school, we wouldn’t give up our play time for anything in the world (I know I didn’t). We would play outdoor games, indoor games, etc. with our friends. We would have our friends over and would role play with each other when we were younger. I remember playing with action figurines of He-Man, GI Joe, Ninja Turtles, and even cars from Hot Wheels, all by myself, to name a few.

When we become adults, we no longer play. We think of play as trivial or wasting time and goofing off. We think it’s unnecessary and not required at all, and we couldn’t be more wrong. What we forget is that we were always designed to play. We cannot afford not to play. We spend 10-12 hours at work on most days, leaving no room for play whatsoever. Eventually, we get tired, stressed, and burned out so much in our work that it affects our health, but the writing was on the wall all along.

The above paragraph might suggest that play is separate from work, but it doesn’t have to be that way as I shared in my aforementioned example of doing creative work. For instance, kids can enjoy and learn things that excite them just because they are interested in it and not in the pursuit to get “good grades”. Of course, the irony was when you focused on the learning, the grades came naturally as a result.

When we are at work, we don’t give ourselves permission to play. We work amidst distractions that prevent us from creating work of real value. We end up spending more hours at work trying to compensate for our inefficiencies, which partly stems from our inability to work uninterrupted (whether alone or with our team) for large periods of time. Learning to play at work goes back to focusing on the process to determining the outcome for us.

What is Play? There is Play and then there is play. I think of Play as downtime: time spent away from work doing things we do simply because we enjoy doing them with no goal or structure in mind. We do things for leisure/recreation for the joy of it with no outcome in mind. It could be by way of reading a book (which could also be done without thinking of it as pleasure), listening to music or a podcast, playing a sport, dancing, singing, practicing martial arts, or what have you. Basically, Play is anything that you enjoy doing and that reinvigorates you in some way or form. Almost any activity can be Play as long as the focus is on process and not on outcome. It is not meant to be done weekly or monthly. It’s a daily endeavor like doing work or exercise. You can even think of play as oxygen. We don’t think about it when we have it and we only miss it when it’s gone.

In other words, Play is a practical medium. It’s a safe, curious exploration of things we are interested in. It’s important for our survival, and it’s the opposite of depression or boredom. We were designed to play our whole lives (not just as kids). The thing to remember is that our play is as much a part of our work as our work is a part of play.

It’s not something you did only in your spare time. More than doing, it was a state of being or existence. It was synonymous with divergence. It was as much a part of your work as much as it was outside of that. I know when I was in design school working on projects with my cohort, play was a key part of the whole process that helped us innovate. Work was serious play. It was more than just having fun.

Work is serious play. When kids are learning at school and have some control over it, they couldn’t be more focused and engaged because they are learning about things they are interested in and not forced to learn things just because it is required by the school curriculum. Learning is voluntary, and it always should be. Similarly, some of our best creative work happens when we are serious at play.

Play is serious work. For instance, some of our best ideas come while we are playing outside of work. These are activities that we find ourself naturally drawn to. They don’t have any structure in mind. We do these things because we like doing them, and not because we are working towards an outcome.

My friends spending time every weekend playing board games with their friends is anything but trivial. When we are engaged in play doing things we enjoy with no end in mind, it renews us personally, it deepens our relationships with others, and we end up more energized at work than we would be otherwise.

When I read on my iPad, I can get so lost in the experience that I lose track of time. We all have these things we do where we lose track of time. This partly goes back to our strengths. Those are the things I feel we should do every day. It could be taking a 30-mile bike ride, or it could be reading on an iPad, or what have you. It’s where you can end up doing some of your most important work. You’re doing the things simply for the joy of it without having any goal or structure in mind. Part of the reason is that you create the space within yourself. You also give your mind the permission to wander, which is an essential divergent activity. It’s also something we need more of in our everyday busy lives rather than planning every minute of our days and weeks to no end.

By spending time away from work, we are able to solve problems sub-consciously, which we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. It improves our mental well-being, our work, our relationships, and our ability to be creative. It helps us open our minds and to see new possibilities. It makes us smarter, happier, and more creative. When we are engaged in play, we learn to be more present with ourselves and with others. Play is one way (of many) to deal with stress.

Play has a positive effect on how our brains function. When we renew ourselves physically, our brain dominance shifts from left to right. When you play more, you’re stimulating and involving your right brain in the kind of activities that lead you to being more creative and productive at work. Playing also helps you solve problems at a subconscious level, provided you have a problem to solve before you start the activity. When you play more, you’re inspired to perform better at work.

Now, playing can mean different things to different people. For some, it could mean spending time with their families, using time learning something, or spending time on leisure and/or relaxation. Here are some examples and strategies to include more play in your everyday life:

When kids have tests coming up, parents are quick to reduce or cut out play time, or kids may even impose it on themselves mistakenly believing that they’ll get more time to study. In fact, that is the time when kids need to play the most: so they can renew themselves fully and deeply, which will only help them perform better on their exams.

Similarly, when we have projects at work with a looming deadline, we are first to sacrifice our downtime in order to meet those deadlines rather than starting our projects early to begin with and giving ourselves enough time to complete them on time without having any need to sacrifice downtime later on. I also wrote about this in my draft on creating buffer.

At work, we may have clear, defined outcomes for our work in terms of projects we need to complete (meeting certain objectives), but how we do the work is where play comes in (subjective). Work without play is boring, logical, and reasonable work, which can be totally uninteresting.

If you find yourself procrastinating or spending too much time at work, schedule what Neil Fiore calls “guilt-free play” in your calendar. That time should be non-negotiable for you.

Give yourself permission to play every day. Find out what those activities are for you — listening to music or podcasts, reading a book, learning a skill, etc. When you’re at work, spend some uninterrupted time creating things of high value every day.

When you schedule time for guilt-free play, it’s something you look forward to at the end of your day. More importantly, you’re not delaying fun for the weekend or later, but reserving it for the end of day. You’re already scheduling it on your calendar in advance, so you know that guilt-free play time is protected. Then, it’s not a question of if but when.

How would you spend this time? Well, you ask yourself what things you find yourself naturally drawn to where you lose track of time. Then, go do that a few times a week. These activities should have no outcome or structure. Focus on the process of doing things, which is more important anyway.

When you’re stressed out, take out a piece of paper and start drawing. Or, use a coloring app on your tablet. Before you know it, the stress is gone, and you’re back to being your creative best.

One way organizations can promote play is by changing their physical work environments. It’s not just about aesthetics, but one will find that it goes a long way toward shaping the culture in an organization, which can be a significant contributor to driving innovation when done right. Unfortunately, most organizations are simply doing lip service to play.

Here is the thing. Play is an essential part of our lives. It’s how we as children learned about ourselves and made sense of the world. It was not something we were taught. As kids growing up, we knew how to play. It’s how we did things instinctually. As adults, we have stopped playing, dissing it as trivial and a waste of time.

Our ancestors worked 9 to 5, and they got real work done during those hours. When they went to work, they worked. They couldn’t be more focused at work. When they left work, they left work both physically and figuratively. Their time spent away from work after 5 was “their time”. They never complained about burning out or that they were doing too much work or that they were not getting enough downtime. They never worked late shifts on weeknights or weekends either. When they spent time outside of work, they fully renewed themselves, only returning to do better work the following week. In other words, they were equally engaged at work and outside of it.

Work is serious play. Play is serious work. We need both. Too much of either is unproductive. Not enough of both is sub-optimal. Play is vital to our lives. It’s more than fun. Play is guilt-free, and it is as much a part of your work as work is part of your play. It’s high time we start restoring play to our lives both at work and our time away from it.

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