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Creating a Work playground

When I wrote Happy Grades, I did some research into what it means to gamify learning. It’s a phrase that always sounded fun and interesting, but the prospect of doing it felt daunting. Honestly, the idea of making a game out of what I try to teach to students that could compete with Fortnite seemed like a huge hassle, and an impossible one at that.

What I discovered is that the concept of gamification can thought of in the abstract, metaphorical sense as a mindset of play with some practical strategies that I didn’t have to be a Silicon valley coder to get on board with. 

One of my favorite metaphors from the research on play was that of the playground. A created space you can design with

  1. Boundaries and unique rules
  2. Fun physical structures that inspire creativity
  3. A “play again later” spirit that lowers the stakes
  4. A separation from that judge-y self that cares how others see you, so you can just try stuff for the fun of it. 

via giphy

When I applied that research to the “get playful” section of my book for students, I had no clue that, a year later, I’d be desperately reaching for the strategies to apply in my own life.

I recently started a new full time job. I haven’t worked full time in over a decade so I knew it would be an adjustment. Turns out, it is way more demanding than I anticipated. Each week has brought with it something new where I don’t exactly know what to expect. My stomach is often in knots over the uncertainty over whether or not I have prepared adequately for the next day. 

My “good girl”* side who just wants to impress, meet everyone’s expectations, and avoid any mistakes or any potential that I might disappoint someone was VERY worried and VERY loud. It’s strange because I thought she and I had come to an understanding after all these years. Adult me appreciated and empathized with how hard life must be for her, but I thought we agreed that she could relax now because an adult was in the room and handling things.

Turns out, I think I had just put her to sleep for a while as my life became real comfy (and a little boring). She woke up raring to go once I started to hit this new challenge that started stretching my skills again and scattered my tried and true systems and routines to the wind. 

Yes, there’s valuable advice out there that I’m working to apply around time management and planning ahead, but one of the only things that has been truly helping calm the constant worry over not being or doing enough has been designing my work “playground.” Here are some questions I am using to make the stress of uncertainty and new expectations feel more like play and less like, well, work. 

Where do I want to put that fence that contains work to a unique time and place?

Whereas I used to work all over the house when my business only required a few hours here and there throughout the day, my new workday is longer and continuous and having things in every room made it hard for me to ever walk away from it. I spent a day and a half repurposing our unused mudroom into a dedicated office so it’s contained to one place. The physical containment helps me mentally contain it as well. I’m also aware that just like it wasn’t great for me to have my work spilling out all over the house, I need to create the same fences around my time. I’m honestly not nailing it yet in that category, but I’m getting a little better at it and giving myself the permission to take small steps in that direction each week without having to be perfect at it. 

What can I put in my playground to make my experience fun and compelling?

Although I gave the company’s project management software a good try for keeping my planning and to-do list organized and efficient, it just felt joyless in that digital space – even with their pre-programmed quirky badges and flying unicorns that pop up when I check something off.  Even with my terrible handwriting, I have headed back to multi-colored post its and a dot-grid notebook where my project planning can get mapped by hand with color and shape and where I can feel the physical satisfaction of drawing (or on some days aggressively slashing) a line through a to-do list item. It helps me feel more in control because it’s right out in the open where I can create it and see it in my physical space. 

Beyond these physical tools for making to-do lists and planning more playful, I am surrounded by my favorite books for learning and inspiration. Sometimes between meetings, I will pull one down, flip to any page and see what pops up from the page to give me a little lift. 

What will the ground rules be to keep things fun and avoid injury?

This week, I created these “ground rules” daily based on what was coming up, how I was feeling already, and what attitude I wanted to carry through my day to help. I write these on a notecard posted at eyelevel right above my computer screen. When I see them, I take a breath and do my best to feel into each one. If I have a little time, I might take a small action cultivate one of those feelings in some small way. And when I say small, I really mean it. In fact, tiny steps is probably one of my all time favorite ground rules to keep things more playful and less stressful around here. Often, this just meant looking out the window at the trees and taking three slower breaths.

Who can I invite to come with me to keep things playful?

Playgrounds can be fun for a little while on my own, but eventually that can get pretty boring. I might stick around a little longer if I connect with a friend who is easy to laugh and play with. Luckily, I have never yet had a job where I didn’t connect with at least one other colleague who I genuinely connected with – someone who could help me reframe the things that stress me out as funny or more approachable than I imagined. Someone who could keep me in the game with a lighter spirit or a new game to play. In the very early days of my current job, I leaned on friends outside of work for this role. 

Finally, my last playground design consideration is more of a reminder than a question.

Playgrounds are places I get to leave and back to again the next day. The activities and challenges I find there might change and I may find some more fun than others, but I get to leave it and come back again later, rested, hydrated. Maybe with a band-aid on the knee I scraped and an encouraging hug from a loved one, or a new idea for a way to play tomorrow. I learned this phrase from Casper ker Tuile the author of The Power of Ritual.

“The work is not done, and yet it is still time to stop.”

Playgrounds get pretty dark and creepy at night. I prefer to leave it when I feel the metaphorical dusk approaching and come back again in the light of day. 

What part of life could you set up a playground for to make it more playful and less stressful? What small changes could you make?

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