Monday, August 23, 2010

Mental Calvinball at Work

Having mastered a task, it necessarily becomes boring with time. It no longer tests one's skills or presents new opportunities for self-development, so the practice inevitably dissolves into tediousness. It is strange to think of it in this way, but dish washing for a restaurant does include learning and practice. You've got to learn the best way to scrub, how to move your wrist to wash both sides of the plate, how to most efficiently load a pallet, and so on. Afterwords, you practice until it becomes second-nature. After that, you've got a routine.

Such is how I've been viewing my job dish washing lately at a restaurant. No, I'm not disenchanted in the slightest; I still love where I am, what I do, and who I work with. It's just that, having mastered my routine, I desire more development and challenges. Since I'm so intellectually active at home, studying and whatnot, I find that such mental inertia follows me to my workplace.

Unfortunately, I've found such contemplativeness has been biting into my performance. Since I no longer have anything new to learn from dish washing my mind goes off to work on other things, and the more contemplative I get the slower I work. Simply trying to force myself to concentrate brute force style doesn't work since my mind rebels at being pushed and wanders anyhow.

Then I remembered a story I read in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. A worker on an assembly line managed to induce in himself engrossing and intense levels of concentration on his work by playing a game. His job was a assemble a certain part of a device before it went off to another worker, so he challenged himself to do his portion of the job as quickly as possible by timing himself and keeping record. Not only did such a game not interfere at all with his work, it also enhanced his performance.

Deriving the principle from the story, one day at work I hurried to think of such a game to try out. I wasn't willing to allow my performance to stagnate for any longer, and I had already arrived at work and had to think quick. Suddenly I thought: Counting. I'll try to count everything I wash and put in a pallet, minus silverware (too much to count quickly), and treat the numbers as if they were points. The object is to count as much possible, retain the number mentally throughout the entire evening, and hopefully set a "high score" before the shift is over. Much to my surprise, the game worked. My productivity improved drastically. I had an intense amount of concentration on every dish and utensil I handled, held consistent motivation to wash as fast as I could (to score more points), and held my pace the entire evening. Such improvements even spilled over into my other work activities such as cleaning. By trying to retain the score in my head I had every motivation to get my other jobs done as soon as possible, so as to get back to the sink and score more points. This game has improved both my work performance and contentment.

It's quite silly to think of such a game boosting performance, but hey: It works. I plan on also creating other games for my other duties, such as peeling potatoes and mopping, so I can improve myself there as well.

As the post title might suggest, I've decided to call such a type of performance-enhancing game Mental Calvinball, after the famous unorganized game played in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, though I do admit that I don't employ the rule of "never play with the same rules twice." The reason why I call it Mental Calvinball is due to the fact that I came up with the counting game spontaneously and arbitrarily, and exerted myself as if I were participating in a sport.

To derive a Mental Calvinball game for your own job is simple: Just make up some interesting rule or rules to follow in regards to your job functions and follow it the best you can your entire shift, treating the rule(s) like a game. In my case, I made the decision that I would count every dish and utensil I handled, regarded the numbers as points, and hoped I would get a sufficient number of dishes and utensils to set a high score.

Most importantly, however, make sure you don't come up with rules that actually detract from your performance. For example, if you're a delivery person, don't establish the rule that you'll try to deliver each parcel while trying to maximize the number of steps you take. Try to establish a rule that not only doesn't detract from your job, but also enhances your performance. My variant of Mental Calvinball, for instance, is entirely mental and doesn't get in the way of things the slightest. Secondly, don't be so strict about enforcing the rules of your game, otherwise you might disrupt the potential benefits and enjoyment you could get. I can't count everything that comes my way, like silverware, and I do occasionally lose track of my score; the enjoyment is all in the challenge of trying to do so.

Unfortunately I can't do much in the way of suggestions for Mental Calvinball variants that work for other professions. Oddly enough I seem to be entirely mathematically minded in this realm. If you're a cashier, for instance, why not try and keep track of how much money you touch each day? Or if you're a waitress, why not see if you can walk the fewest steps during your shift possible? If you think, surely you will find a challenge.

Best of all, as you improve you can endlessly modify your games so that there's always a challenge present, no matter how long you stay in the same job position. I already have multiple variations of my game prepared for when my current counting becomes inadequate. Once I improve my counting speed I'll eventually include silverware as an added challenge. And after that I could change at which rate I count (e.g. 100's, 1000's, etc.). And after that I could try to keep different categories in my mind at one time, such as counting dishes, tongs, spoons, and other things all separately. There's no way I can run out of challenges.

If you find that you've mastered your own job and have lapsed into tediousness, give this method a try. If you don't like one set of rules then simply try another; there are endless variations.

I'm really glad I thought of this game. It has thoroughly improved my enjoyment of my job and has allowed me to consistently perform well.

1 comment:

  1. I find the idea you strike on here pretty interesting. I had been struggling to remain productive for quite a different reason. I work in a startup company and fill many different roles for that company. Often I need to decide what is the best thing to be doing and that decision will necessarily detract from the other areas of the company. I can't install the new customer and design the new feature simultaneously. And there are many other such decisions. All of that led to some great anxiety because out of context each thing is a Very Important Thing™ and I knew it but I hadn't given myself the proper permission to only work on one thing at a time, I still would think at the end of the day about all the things I didn't do. Even to the point where my boss would ask why a certain thing hadn't progressed and I'd have no answer for him even though I knew I had run myself ragged all day.

    Then I started tracking my time as fastidiously as possible. I used a website called Toggl that allowed me to enter tasks and projects (although I adapted their project area to be more of an area of focus) this helped me in lots of ways. It was a way to bring in the greater context when choosing my next task. I would be able to quickly assess that I'd spent way too much time installs versus design work in the past week or two. It also helped me see the accomplishment throughout the week and even to scale back on my extra work. I mention this because it sort of is a game to improve my toggl stats or bring my statistics into line with what I think are right to accomplish my overall goal. And it allows me to maximize my productivity.


Comment Etiquette

1.) Do not use vulgar swear words that denote sexual activities or bodily excretions.

2.) Employ common sense manners when addressing the author or other commenters.

Additionally, you're welcome to present contrary and challenging positions within these guidelines, but please do not assume that my lack of response, even if I commented before, is evidence of my endorsement of your position.