Zombies will do Wonders for Your Motivation

I have just wasted 2 weeks of my life playing “Plants versus Zombies”, the worlds most foolish computer game.  The premise is at best dubious, I grow plants in my garden and these protect my house from an onslaught of brain eating zombies, yet I am totally addicted.

I’m 44 years old, I should know better.

I am only writing this now because it is my 10-year-old daughter’s turn with the iPad, otherwise I would still be busy sowing “Venus Zombie Traps”.  The problem is that the game takes some skill, it is difficult but it is also winnable and so totally engrossing.  The hours fly by.

My wife has been less than complimentary about the situation.

What can zombies teach you about motivation?

The American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied this very phenomenon, people completely absorbed in their task, he calls it Flow.

In one of his studies Csikszentmihalyi gave his subjects beepers which sounded at different times of the day.  When the beeper beeped his subjects had to write down how much they were enjoying themselves and what they were doing.

He discovered people are happiest when they are actively engaged in a challenging pursuit like rock climbing, or playing chess, or cooking (or to my shame playing computer games).

Surprisingly not all of our leisure activities result in high scores.  Very few people are particularly fulfilled when they are watching TV.

So fighting zombies makes you happy?

Not if you have a life (or wife), but computer gaming does share the characteristics of other pursuits that make us happy:

  • There is a clear goal, it is very obvious what needs to be achieved and you can focus on it.
  • It is challenging, but not unachievable, the goal may be just outside our reach, but only just.
  • It is easy to measure your performance against that goal.  Feedback is instantaneous.

If those three factors are present in an activity then you are far more likely to become absorbed in it and enjoy it.

Could you fight zombies at work?

Now that is the question.  Is it possible to find the same level of engagement at work?  Could you and your employees all find that state, applying yourself to the task in hand with relentless focus, and enjoying it whilst you did it?

Is it a fanciful idea?  Plenty of organisations are trying to instill Flow in the work place.

One of the more notable successes is Stefan Falk at Green Cargo (a government-owned logistics company in Scandinavia).  He read about Flow and set about instigating the 3 conditions in his organisation:

  • Clear goals
  • Challenging work
  • Feedback

He simply set up an appraisal system where everybody was given clear challenging goals that they agreed to.  That wasn’t exactly revolutionary, the difference though is that Falk insisted that his managers performed performance reviews every month.  That way the feedback was instantaneous.

Of course the managers didn’t like all those extra performance reviews one bit, but as Falk put it “What are you managing?”

Green Cargo went on to turn a profit for the first time in 150 years.  It is hard to prove cause and effect but Falk’s approach certainly didn’t hurt.

But that’s not the real reason I am killing zombies

One last thing Csikszentmihalyi pointed out is that people fall into a state of Flow far more easily if they think the activity is worthwhile.  In the workplace that usually means contributing something to society.

And I of course am busy stopping Zombies from invading the house and eating my wife’s brains.  You would just think she might be a little more grateful.

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  1. I love it, James. You can tell your wife that you were actually playing for work, not for fun.

    Great lessons coming out of that, though! Enjoyed the post.

    Annette :-)

  2. Hello James
    My friend it occurs to you that I am not in agreement with you. If I have understood you, you are putting forward the following as the basis of engagement:

    – Clear goals
    – Challenging work
    – Feedback

    Let’s try a thought experiment. I supply you with clear goals: dig this hole 10ft deep and 6 ft wide put the earth in the empty hole by the side, when you finish, you shovel the earth back in the hole you have dug. And start all over again. To make it challenging, I give you a trowel. And I say you have to dig such hole and fill it once every hour. And, as I know you need feedback I give it to you through a whip on your back, regularly if you are falling behind. Are you now engaged?I say yes. Is this the kind of engagement you are pointing at? I don’t think so.

    Now let’s go one step further. I now tell you that digging these holes and filling them up is important for the welfare of society. It keeps the demons away. Is this likely to motivate you? I doubt it.

    So what is missing? What is missing is that which arises when a human being freely chooses. And choice is only present when one can choose to say NO without violence, with punishment, without fear, without ridicule. Notice, your first act was to choose to play the game.

    Second, a human being must get enjoyment out of the activity itself. That is to say the action is itself the reward. Or s/he must be able to connect the actions that are necessary to a purpose that matters. A purpose that touches-moves-inspires one to do what it takes, a purpose that gives one being in life. Given such a purpose a human being is capable of the most amazing engagement with life occurs. Go and watch The Impossible on the cinema to get what I am pointing at.

    No, it occurs to me that you have taken a human being and made him/her into a machine with your threefold prescription: clear goals, challenging work, and feedback.


    • James Lawther says:

      Maz, thanks for your comment, and I think you make a very valid point, people need to want to do the job.

      I should have made that explicit

      My assumption is that most people want their jobs or they wouldn’t have applied for them in the first place.

      Which leads to an interesting question…

      How many people apply for a job that they don’t want to do? I suppose there are some people who are unfortunate enough to have to take any job just for the money but for many of us we apply for a job because we think it will be a good job, it will be something that we think we will find interesting.

      So if people apply for jobs that they want to do, how is it that we manage to make those jobs so dull that people stop wanting them any more?


      • Hello James

        If I understand the situation correctly you work as a manager in a call-centre. I ask you how many of the people who show up as call-centre agents dream of being call-centre agents? I have spent time in call-centres for various well know brands. And I have sat side by side with the call-centre agents. And even gone to lunch with some of them. What I can categorically state is that many are doing call-centre jobs simply to pay the bills. And one does not have to be a genius to work this out. Just look at the turnover rates in call-centres when times are good.

        You make a valid point that there are many who do take on jobs with great hope/expectation. And enough of these people then end up relating to their job merely as a job. How is it that the job ends up being dull? Because most workplaces have the structure as prisons. The difference is that the prison guards in these organisations are simply given another name: manager. The chains are given more fanciful names like policies, practices and processes.

        When one controls a machine say a car then that is useful. When one controls a lathe that is useful. When one controls a tractor that is useful. And control of machines is necessary. Doing the same to human beings kills that which is most vital to human being: creativity, spontaneity, flexibility, vitality.


  3. Hi James,
    I think Maz makes a good point about choice and enjoyment.

    But, that was not what I wanted to add. You mentioned rock climbing in the post. I am a rock climber so I understand where you and Csikszentmihalyi are coming from. But for me focus is key. So much so that rock climbing for me is meditative.

    And, that’s where, I think, many attempts at ‘flow’ fall down. They don’t get the focus thing right. They say they focus but they don’t really….there’s always something else going on or they are trying to multi-task. So, there is no flow. To get close to flow you have to drop everything else. I mean everything and focus on just one thing and one thing only at that point in time. Only then do we give ourselves a chance to achieve any kind of flow.

    I wonder how many organisations are going to let their people do that and I wonder how many people are going to let themselves do that?


    • James Lawther says:

      Adrian, should managers give their employees the chance to focus on the task in hand?

      On face value that is a remarkably stupid question. But I suspect you are right, very few organisations let their people focus.

      Why they don’t is an interesting debate



  1. […] am indebted to James Lawther for a post in his Squawk Point blog which has given me a better understanding of why this model works so well.  I knew it through […]

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