Theories On Life Balance through Video Game Design

Theories On Life Balance through Video Game Design

SUMMARY: I know that the path to happiness goes straight through the Mountains of Productivity, a craggy place where discipline and steadiness of action are required to maintain one’s footing. Nevertheless, I have difficulty mustering the energy to even get on the path, as much as I want to.

In this post, I identify myself as a procrastinator-perfectionist, and detail some factors that I believe are barriers to action: a lack of immediacy, a need to be convinced, and a look at “happiness” not as a question to be answered, but as an indicator of pre-existing conditions. After coming up with some ways to trick myself past these barriers, I postulate that video game design may offer an analogous methodology, to be explored in future posts.

Work-life balance has been on my mind a lot, and the underlying question is what’s gonna make me happy? My assumptions are that if I’m balanced, I’ll be more productive and more at-ease. I’ll have to accept a realistic level of accomplishment given a limited set of resources, and suck-it-up. Achieving work-life balance is essentially finding an optimal solution to the “happiness” problem set.

If you’re a problem-solving type of person (or, as my friend Angela might say, “a typical guy”), itemizing potential solutions comes immediately and easily. And if you’re also a productivity-oriented person, you know that getting things done is an essential part of that solution. While I know these things in my head, my heart remains unmoved and unconvinced. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time this past week feeling rather grouchy about the whole situation. The most productive thing I’ve done all week is earn enough experience points in the Facebook game “Farmville” to grow rice. In a way it’s a fantasy form of productivity; the game essentially is about having an idealized farm in which you plow, plant, wait, and harvest. The difference between the game and real life is that the game has clear rules and rewards, but the strategy to advance through the game is essentially up to you. The question posed by the game is, “how do I grow more produce?”, and the solution lies in exploring the set of farming options to create a methodology that makes more money than you expend.

There’s a precursor question, however, that attends this game: “why in the world are you playing a game about farming?” I really have no idea…I just like the idea of growing stuff, and I admire the work ethic of farmers. I’d be a terrible farmer, but this way I get to pretend I’m one. The “why” query also can be applied to “what’s gonna make me happy”. Rather than choose the action-oriented problem-solver response, which runs through the chain of identity-formulate-execute-assess, we might consider where the question is coming from and determine whether it really is a question at all. You’ll probably discover quite a lot by digging into the roots of the question:

  • The question may be part of a larger question, as an expression of exploration rather than a request for a solution. Therefore, answering the question right now is actually premature, because it’s just a first nebulous step. To act on the question immediately will produce results, sure, but they are likely to be the wrong ones unless you are deliberately exploring potential solution spaces.
  • It may be the timing of the question that is most question. Why was that question even asked at this very moment? It may indicate an entirely different problem space, and assuming that your context of understanding is in the same problem space can be misleading.
  • The underlying mental state behind the question may be frustration, confusion, lack of clarity, sadness, anger…these are all significant blocks to execution, so even if you do have a good course of action, you will have to deal with these issues first before suggesting a course of action.

These are all significant blocks to action, and these are the kinds of issues I consider constantly. This is not a choice; it’s the way I’m wired. Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at untangling the threads, but this does not help with getting those big projects moving. I’ve been trying to answer the questions behind the “happiness” question for the past five years.

The Procrastinator-Perfectionist

If this sounds familiar, then you might fall into the “procrastinator-perfectionist” category. I’ve talked to quite a few fellow procrastinator-perfectionists over the past few years, and one commonality I’ve noticed is that we all maintain complex emotional state. We relate everything to everything else, and completed actions are not necessarily points of closure. Instead, a completed action opens up 10 new possibilities. This mindset is the operating context for every action we consider and take. It’s exciting, but exhausting. Especially to people who don’t think this way. Our belief systems are complex, but essential to our sense of identity.

For the procrastinator-perfectionist (P-P) to make the transition to bad-ass GTDer, I think two changes in the belief system need to occur:

  • First, the P-P needs to believe that limited focus is going to help. I think we understand that intellectually, but to execute means turning off part of our brain so we’re not distracted. It’s very difficult to achieve without external measures.
  • Secondly, the P-P needs to believe that the specific focus will actually lead to satisfaction. This belief needs to be in the moment so the impulse to start is there. There is plenty of friction to overcome if the moment of impulse is not present: built-in doubt, the imagined perfect result, and the ability to discern what is going wrong all too easily.

It may be useful to spin the nature of our procrastination not as laziness, but a stubborn need to be convinced that we will be rewarded for our efforts in the moment that action is called for. I’d thought of this as “activation energy” in the past, a primal impetus to act now. One interesting skill of the procrastinator-perfectionist is the ability to imagine so many possible courses of action that doing none of them is easier than choosing one and waiting to see if it worked.

The counter-argument I use on myself is to note that any action at all leads to new possibilities (this is part of the P-P mindset). And among those possibilities, there are potentially higher-payoff actions that are easier to achieve. It’s also lot easier, for example, to make something that people react to to find out what they really are thinking. A corollary is that it’s actually pretty difficult to get something exactly right the first time, and it’s a lot easier to react to an existing piece. These two principles take together encourage me to take the first available course of action no matter how untried it is, and make it less than perfect so I can make it perfect in the next step. However, the reason why these principles work for me is because I’ve empirically discovered them to be a Truth of Human Nature, one of the perfect nuggets of understanding that I can enjoy in contemplation. Ahhhh!

Engineering the Twitch

As I mentioned, there’s a certain activation energy that’s required to move the Procrastinator-Perfectionist into action. For myself, it’s a combination of having:

  • external motivation from people I admire.
  • the notion that I have an important role to play that I want to play or live up to.
  • a belief that the action at hand is absolutely essential and within the reach of my skill set.
  • a temporary lapse of imagination, narrowing my attention to a chain of tasks.
  • a rolling start.

Underlying these factors is the knowledge that making anything tangible or perceptible at all is the essence of being productive. If it’s something you can see or hold, or if it creates a positive change in a person, that’s awesome. If you continue to create things, you can’t help but accrue a big pile of stuff that the universe is gonna have to deal with. And if the stuff you’re making is in alignment with what you really enjoy, it becomes a beacon that attracts like-minded people. Those like-minded people become your audience, your market, your fans, your creative peers, and your friends. That sounds like a formula for happiness to me.

The interesting insight is that so long as you’re creating and showing things, the way you do it isn’t really important, which suggests that one can apply any methodology so long as it meets the essential conditions. And that reminds me of video game design.

When I was in school, I spent a lot of time dissecting video games to their component atoms and ideas. Essentially, though, a good game takes place entirely in your head, which is all about creating focus, drama, motivation, and a sense of completion out of thin air. As in any good story, the effective suspension of disbelief in a video game numbs the analytical parts of our brain, allowing us to accept a reality with rules quite different from our own. What makes suspension of disbelief easier in a video game is that we can create cause and effect through programming. When you press that button and magical things happen in the game world, you have empirically proven the rule that when you press the button you get magic. This is the power of a micro world.

With the ability to create arbitrary cause-and-effect relationships in games, I wonder if it’s possible to create a game-like structure for procrastinator-perfectionists that, in the course of play, produces tangible real-world results. That way, you play the game instead worrying about self-motivation, discipline, and focus in real life. It’s kind of a weird idea, but there’s precedent. Consider that the use of mathematics in engineering as a sort of game. I’m thinking in particular about the use of imaginary numbers in signal processing. Imaginary numbers don’t really “exist”, but they are a useful theoretical concept that happens to, due to the way that their mathematical operators are defined, are very convenient for representing and solving certain classes of problem. I used to get hung up on the lack of “reality” in mathematics, but when I look at it as a form of game design. Rules don’t have to make sense outside of their own specific reality, but they do need to be consistent within it. And, to be useful, there needs to be some way of “converting” the result of an applied ruleset into a context does is your reality.

So what I’m suggesting is that there is possibly some way of creating a “game” for procrastinator-perfectionists that we can play guilt-free, knowing that side-benefit will be increased productivity even while we are procrastinating by playing it. This reminds me a bit of how Douglas Adam’s describes the trick of flying in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is to throw yourself at the ground and then, in a moment of exquisite timing, conveniently forget to hit it.

Universal Principles

There are certain rules of thumb that are universal in game design:

  • Provide persistent and periodic feedback about the player’s progression to the goal.
  • Provide instantaneous feedback on the player’s progress at all times.
  • Give the player enough control to make the task immediately challenging, without overloading them.
  • Give the player a world that is at the core fair and consistent, with observable and intuitive rules and rewards.
  • Keep the player on the edge between challenge and ability.

Game balance, the art of ensuring the a game is consistently challenging and fun, is not that much different conceptually from work-life balance, particularly when one realizes that happiness is, in a sense, a kind of trick we perpetrate on ourselves. Like a game, happiness is all in our mind, and whether a life event is perceived as disaster or opportunity depends a lot on our attitude.

Designing The Life Game

Creating a life-balance game for procrastinator-perfectionists is a tall order, and I’m not going to be able to address this all in just one post, so we’ll just start with the opening question:

“What’s going to make me happy?”

The analogous structure in game design, from my perspective, is:

“What’s going to make this game enjoyable?”

I am deliberately avoiding the word “fun” because it’s a shallow descriptor that trivializes the difficulty of creating a good experience. Additionally, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow makes the distinction between mere “pleasure” (e.g. stuffing our faces with food) and mentally-stimulating “enjoyment” (e.g. a gourmet’s experience in tasting), I find this distinction useful.

For the procrastinator-perfectionist that wants to “be more productive”, I’d say that enjoyment in such a game might involve:

  • Creating an alter-ego that creates very high-quality goods and/or services to exacting standards.
  • Seeing immediate results, in the context of the chosen goals.
  • Validating that high-quality goods produced are more desirable in the world overall, which indirectly validates the alter-ego.
  • Providing the means to assess the quality not only of the goods and services, but of the process as well.
  • Introducing well-defined, yet flexible, methodology for achieving the desired goals.
  • Discernible levels of achievement and recognition, by individual and by group, in a public setting.
  • Increasing reward with increasing risk in a “safe” environment, through applying the methodologies learned during play.

And then there is the world that the alter-ego must overcome:

  • inertia, apathy, lack of discipline, lack of focus
  • sheer scale of the challenge
  • finding a starting point
  • achieving success at the scale that is desired by the individual.

Ok, so that’s a start, but who is going to get “hooked” by such a game? How does one appeal to the procrastinator-perfectionist?

  • There’s a story that every procrastinator-perfectionist knows deep in their heart: I should be doing more. I am capable of it. I crave it. Yet I am not doing it. Something is holding me back. I want to achieve more than I am now, if only I knew how. This is a pretty common story, a variation of the Hero’s Journey in which the struggle is largely internal. There is probably an actual name for it, but I don’t know what it’s called offhand.
  • There’s a truth that every procrastinator-perfectionist believes: There is a way to break out of this. People must have done it. If only I find the right key. This really isn’t so much of a truth as it is a half-delusion. The “right key” is obvious only in hindsight or in highly-structured hand-on methodologies. If you are trying to do anything that is the slightest bit novel or innovative, then the right key will appear to you only when you’re firmly on the path doing something about it. That’s something that I believe, and yet even I have trouble believing it all the time.
  • To make it all work, the game has to consistently prove that it understands the unique context in which the procrastinator-perfectionist-protagonist lives. For example, I think the game needs to show situations where the tendency toward perfectionism is useful, and show how it is made achievable by de-emphasizing the need to “get it right” all at once. The game would also need to help our protagonist identify strengths, sharpen values, and test them in character-building contests of will versus inertia. The scenarios might be artificial, but the lessons and conditioning learned should be eminently applicable in real life.

A Tall Order

It occurs to me that some of the game pieces already exist in the form of my existing Printable CEO, which are based on video game design theory in the first place. What has always been lacking, though, in the PCEO forms is a common framework. It may appear that the forms are designed to work together, but they are really stand-alone tools. Consolidating the tools into a game system, using the elements I’ve factored out above, is a possibility.


  1. Daryl Furuyama 15 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    I’m really excited that you’re approching life through the lens of game design again. Since you first started your PCEO series, I’ve been looking at game design as a way to increase my quality of life (which is why I sent you the link for the flow game).

    Some of the principles behind that game were: the user is in control of the difficulty, minimal punishment for failure, clear objectives, and the ability to explore. I think the important concept is to minimize friction between actions.

    I recently read Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Finding Flow, and one of the interesting things is that it often takes time (up to 1/2 an hour) for a person to get into flow (your activation energy).

    Something I’m really trying to hone in right now is on the user experience and the relationship to the incentive to cheat. I think cheating is essentially changing the game so that it becomes more interesting to you and you can become more engaged.

    Another thing I’m trying to figure out is how to incorporate GSN Theory to create a “productivity” game that can be shared as a community. I like the “N” part as it relates to Joseph Campbell’s theories, plus I really like the word “questing”

  2. Chris 15 years ago

    “For the procrastinator-perfectionist (P-P) to make the transition to bad-ass GTDer, …”

    Oh, this *is* the point, isn’t it. I’ve been looking out for someone who has actually made this transition successfully. Most people who write about productivity have always been, as far as I can tell, productive people. I want to meet, or read the writings of, someone who was like me (and maybe you too, David) and who did something that allowed them to change into a productive person. What did they do? And possibly more important, what did it feel like? Was is a constant effort to be productive that eventually turned into an easily-kept habit? Or was it a change in attitude that suddenly made being productive easier? Or is it simply a matter of re-calibrating one’s own ideas of what it means to be productive? Or was it something else entirely? What I don’t want to hear or read ever again is advice from someone who has always just got a lot done.

    I read what you write, David, because it seems to me that you suffer the same sorts of crises as I do. You want to get more done than you do now, and you’re not willing to compromise everything else important in your life to get there. I hope you make it. I’m right behind you. I bet there are many more of us wannabe productives there too.

  3. Joe Erickson 15 years ago

    Wow. This is so me that it’s scary. It’s funny that whenever I start thinking down a certain road, you seem to post something that clarifies everything.

    My main concern recently is figuring out if I’m even working in the right domain for me. I’ve been a programmer for over 10 years now, but I’m starting to wonder if that’s even what I really want to be doing. Part of it stems from just being frustrated at not being able to act (as you talked about above). Being a P-P, I know a lot of languages and I feel that I’m a master at my craft, but there’s just too much latitude at what I do.  I don’t know where to start or even what I want to really do anymore.

    What’s really been bringing me enjoyment recently has been cooking.  That seems to match many of the criteria you listed above; there’s instant feedback, others can enjoy it and there’s challenge involved. The ability-challenge balance comes in where a beginner can follow the recipe and make a good dish, but as you become familiar with the concepts, you can start experimenting and seeing how you can make it better/more signature to yourself.

    It’s also funny that you brought up farming because I’ve been looking at getting more into growing my own food. There is leeway involved, since I get to pick what I want to grow and eat, but there’s also a fair amount of work that is defined in the process and just must be done.  I find that liberating to a great extent.

    The programming jobs that I seem to actually enjoy involve solving problems for other people and not really in developing a solution for myself. I’m interested in hearing more of your ideas on this to see if I would be able to break out of this way of thinking.

    And thank you for all your posts. I’ve read them for a long time and this is my first comment.

  4. I’ve always enjoyed reading your writing on productivity, but this is especially interesting because it pegs me to a T as well. You have the ability to very eloquently describe how you work, and it’s very similar to my process.

    I think your idea of a productivity game is fantastic! Making getting motivated fun is a tall order but would be huge. Looking forward to how this progresses!

  5. Stv 15 years ago

    Another one here that feels diagnosed by your description of a P-P.

    In terms of the “key” to unlocking the productivity forces i have been searching and trying many systems, to-do lists, software etc. All work well for a very short amount of time (days) before i lapse into a search for something else.

    You seem to be on the right track here. I think you’ve got the diagnosis right and the beginnings of a prescription – or at least some component pieces in the PCEO series (which first drew me here in look for a solution). Very anxious to see where you go next with this…

  6. matthew booth 15 years ago

    Two nights ago I googled “perfectionism” and clicked on a link to a Wikipedia page on the psychological definition of Perfectionism:

    Of interest to me was the line: “maladaptive perfectionists also rate highly in Anxiety and Procrastination”. I seem to meet all the criteria of a maladaptive perfectionist.

    It’s interesting that you make an analogy to game design (with the focus on the user). Games that give the illusion of control and feedback to a user increase the playability. However the control is contrived and works within a set of limitations set by the developer. How many times have you wanted to perform an act in a video game that seems physically possible only to realize the programmer did not make allowance for that action?

    A hallmark trait of a perfectionist is the desire for absolute control. In my 26 year existence on this Earth I have found ‘control’ is a slippery fish that is almost impossible to catch.

    That being said it would seem one of the best way to satisfy the overwhelming perfectionist mindset would be to create a system where one feels the most in control and has constant feedback.

    I am still exploring the idea of goals versus rewards. Being a perfectionist I am motivated by rewards, but I first assess whether or not a goal is attainable. If the goal is out of reach, and reward leading up to that goal seem pointless.

  7. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    Daryl: Cool that we’re exploring similar paths! Interesting to look at the “Flow” game as a model for productivity, though I would categorize it more as an explorative experience than a challenging game because the difficulty was dialed way down. If the “enemies” were just a little more focused on attacking you, the friction and control shortcomings would have quickly shown themselves.

    I just took a look at GSN, which I wasn’t familiar with, and the question it asks is “why do people play certain games”. If the original theory goes into why people play games at all, then which you could recontextualize as “why do people want to be more productive”? As a system design framework, though, I’m not sure how useful it is. Interesting idea though.

    Chris: Regarding ‘finding someone who’s made the transition successfully’, I know what you mean. Maybe what we need to hear is that we just work differently. For me, I do a lot of re-calibration and re-definition because I have the luxury of doing so. But you gotta believe in it. I also emphasize the wonder that anything gets done at all. It occurs to me that perhaps we should start scrutinizing what people ARE getting done, and compare it to what we’re getting done. It might not be as much as we think. Hmm. Thanks for writing!

    Joe Erickson: Thanks for the comment…your experiences do echo mine. There’s that book about “Scanners” by Barbara Scher that might be interesting to you, but I don’t know if it’s a solution. What the book my suggest to you, though, is that you are meant to master one thing and then move on to something else. And if you are of the mentality that mixing competencies leads to more and more unique life experiences, you can probably enjoy it and create new opportunities. Is it that you want to land in the “right” domain, or constantly seek more challenging areas of interest? It could be that is our journey. In the interim, finding the right company where you can apply your people-oriented programming skills might be the thing to do.

  8. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    Sarah: If you have any ideas on how to get motivated in a fun way, I’d love to hear them now! :-) I think one major thing that is motivating me is the exploration and sharing what I’ve learned right here. Maybe there is a character interview that needs to be conducted for each person.

    Stv: Yes, I tend to try different systems and then lose interest. The ones that stick, though, tend to be simple notepads. The most important thing is that they are convenient, frictionless, easy to find when I need it, portable and high resolution. Right now I tend to have a few “data wallets”: for dates and events, it’s google calendar. For projects, it’s numbered folders. For important personal data, it’s the password protected excel spreadsheet that has my hours, passwords, and basic expense accounting. For thinking and planning away from the computer, it’s my 9×12” notebook and fountain pens. For immediate planning, it’s my 9×14” portable whiteboards. Then I have a few shortcut jumping-off points on my desktop, and several context-saving data files in my project folders.

    Matthew: If you are motivated purely by rewards, what kind are they?

    Regarding the illusion of control in game design: a good game designer creates an environment the player doesn’t even think of doing things that are outside the realm of control. That presumes a suspension of disbelief; if you never get there, no game will work for you. If you decide that because all games are contrived and offer limited subsets of control, and never engage them, then that’s similar to never actually getting anything done. Why bother?

    I don’t think it’s necessary to create “a system where one feels the most control and has constant feedback”, because we already have it. You have control every moment you are awake and breathing, and feedback comes from being able to discern differences between what just happened between now and then. However, I think a lot of people wish for a system that will optimally tell them what they SHOULD do, guaranteeing a result. But even then, the system can’t do the work for you.

    So it might not actually be control you’re looking for. It might be the power to do what you want to do without regard for what OTHER people want you to do. It might be security in job, finance, or relationship. It might be competency in some skill that’s important to you. So the feedback system you might be looking for is one that is telling you that you’re making progress in all these areas. Just a thought throwing out there, in case it strikes a chord.

  9. matthew booth 15 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for the reply. I am actually just starting to explore this “perfectionist” side of myself. I had always just attributed it to helping me push harder, but now I realize it actually holds me back because I procrastinate due to worrying about the success of my efforts.

    As far as the game control, if you have ever played GTA you know there are certain places or things you would like to do that are impossible (I’m assuming it’s due to the current abilities of processing power and such). Doors you would like to open that are just textures, or a NPC that you would like to kill but cant because they are part of the plot. I do play games frequently, but I guess these limitations are accepted as a nuisance and eventually ignored.

    In regards to having control every moment I think it depends on what your intended scope of that control is. I can certainly control my reactions and eventually emotions regarding all events, but in my opinion one of the biggest peeves to a perfectionist are the events that you have no control in avoiding. Those forced decisions, anything that falls outside of the sequence of events in your mind, often are blown out of proportion and become larger than necessary stumbling blocks. Learning to not let those disturbances in work flow detract from productivity or peace of mind seems like a major hurdle.

    I think your last paragraph sums me up pretty well – just ask my wife :-). I think it’s paramount that a perfectionist receive feedback that isn’t from self. My self talk and feedback is usually negative because in my perfectionist mindset I am always looking for an ideal outcome. However, when positive feedback comes from external sources it usually seems more credible and easy to ingest and use as motivation.

    Thanks for your post and feedback. It’s nice to talk to someone who seems to understand my frustrations.

  10. Stv 15 years ago

    Thanks Dave

    I’ve been thinking about trying to write down more details about each task/project I have to do as a way of working “little and often” on many things but to also take decisions out of the “doing” process as these seem to be stumbling blocks when I’m actually ready to do something.

    I’m always thinking and mulling over different strategies to accomplish this or that but most is lost as it is not written down in an organized manner to make it useful later.

    On the game theory side of things – I like the idea of creating the alter-ego or alter-place (ie setting or environment) as a way to shift thinking to the right approach. I have many different types of things to do and i would be able to shift my alter-ego depending on what needs doing. Pure repetitive production work would need me to be a factory cranking out widgets, creative problem solving might be some university lab setting or funky ad office, and strategic thinking could be in a military war room….

  11. Gary Watts 15 years ago

    Hey, I starting reading a few of your articles linked from lifehacker, and I found this one particularly interesting (not the least because I blogged briefly about video games as some kind of therapy earlier).

    Oblivion is my best example of a game that I can spend (waste?) hours on. When I analysed it in my head, it was because it had a decent task-management system, where I could focus energies from the primary “goal” to secondary tasks whenever I felt like. I could also choose to not do any of those things, and go off and do whatever I wanted (something Grand Theft Auto is also particularly good at).

    So what I found helped me achieve more in life was to create a glorified task-management system. There is research that shows the brain releases its “reward” chemical when you’ve achieved something and ticked it off, and it shows, even when I tick the box because I’ve brushed my teeth for the day (well you’ve got to start small!)

    However where it crumbles for me mostly is that my sleep is largely regulated by medication. If I forget (or even choose) to take it later than usual, it makes me groggy in the morning and usually throws me off any system I have put in place for myself. The thing is though it is the same mistake I make, usually that I CHOOSE to make a couple of decisions that throw me off course for up to a number of weeks. I can really relate to what you said about never truely seeing an end to an objectives as well; there is the sense that everything I do is inter-connected, that (as you put it) each completion leads to 10 new possibilities… it is very draining.

    The other thing I’ve found is ALLOWING myself to a couple of days of laziness, as not only does this fit into my impulsiveness to do activities that won’t lead to any particular goal, but it also allows me the flexibility to act on these impulses so my mind is cleared up for other tasks.

    I was wondering what your thoughts were of this and if you’ve had similar experiences?

  12. Nollind Whachell 15 years ago

    Again we seem to be on very similar paths. What you’re talking about here, I went through myself about a year or two ago. Like you, I believed that if I could make work a “game” then it could become “fun” and “enjoyable”. After a while though, I soon realized that I was looking at things from a completely wrong perspective and I was basically doing nothing more than trying to “hack” an old perspective. To make the leap though, I realized I had to make a paradigm shift and look at things from a completely new perspective (similar to the zen saying of “empty your cup”).

    When I did, patterns quickly emerged throughout the history of my entire life and I discovered an important realization that has now taken me onto the next chapter of my life. By no means have I figured everything out, as some things still don’t make sense, but there now seems to be this “wholeness” to my life that I can now intuitively “feel” with each progressive realization and it’s an incredible feeling to experience. At the same time though, it’s also incredibly frustrating because I feel like I’m so very close to discovering my true passion but it seems as though I need at least one more change of perspective to fully grasp what I’m looking at, at which point everything will hopefully fall into place.

    Anyways, the most important thing I realized is that your work does not identify you, your passion, or your purpose in life. It is just the “medium” with which you choose to express yourself, similar to how an artist can use different mediums to do his or her artwork (i.e. photography, pottery, woodworking, etc). What’s the more important thing to focus on is what you are trying to say to people, in effect your “message”. It’s why you can do simple things like cooking or gardening, as Joe stated in the comments above, and get this profound and meaningful feeling from it. Steve Pavlina explains this in his book “Personal Development for Smart People” under Chapter 9, Career.

    “Very often people identify themselves with the medium of their careers. This is a huge mistake. Your medium is merely a shell; it cannot define you as a person. You can expect that your career medium will change over time, but your message will be much more stable. Your message is who you are, while your medium is simply how you choose to express yourself.”

    And actually if anything, the more different activites you do in your life right now, no matter if it’s personal or professional, the easier it will be start seeing these “patterns” between them and discovering what your “message” is all about. It’s the same reason why if you spend all your time on one single activity that doesn’t relate strongly to your “true” message (i.e. say doing a meaningless corporate job 14 to 16 hours a day), you have this profound sense of being “disconnected” or “lifeless” (i.e. a zombie dying to feel alive) because you aren’t expressing your true self and your true message to the world.

    Therefore, the idea isn’t to “trick” your mind into being productive. The idea instead is to find your true passion or purpose (the “message” you’re trying to communicate) because when you do, productivity will be a non-issue as
    Po Bronson noted in the closing chapter of his book “What Should I Do With My Life?” when he had the opportunity to sit with some of the top CEOs in the country to figure out “What do people really want?” within their jobs. When all of these CEOs had responded by saying it was everything from stock options to day care, his turn came about and he indicated the following instead.

    “They want to find work they’re passionate about. Offering benefits and incentives are mere compromises. Educating people is important but not enough. We need to encourage people to find their sweet spot. Productivity explodes when people love what they do. We’re sitting on a huge potential boom in productivity, which we could tap into if we got all the square pegs in the square holes and the round pegs in the round holes. It’s not something we can measure with statistics, but it’s a huge economic issue. It’s a great natural resource that we’re ignoring.”

    In closing, let me again emphasize that discovering your “message” or passion isn’t easy. It could take weeks, months, or even years. Most important of all though, you need the time to periodically get away from everything and reflect on your life, listening to your inuition in the process. If you don’t get that opportunity to reflect, you’ll just be spinning in circles without the ability to think clearly. A good place to kick start your search though is doing a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test to determine your personality type. For example, I’m a INFP (Introvert Intuitive Feeling Perceptive) personality which likes fulfilling certain roles and activities differently than other personality types.

  13. Nollind Whachell 15 years ago

    BTW just want to clarify one thing about my last comment. While I think making a game of your work doesn’t really help that much, I would wholehearted agree that creating a system that lets people interact with each other in a game-like manner (i.e. quests = tasks, etc) is a great idea (as it’s something I’ve thought about as well). This has nothing to do with work life balance though but more to do with designing a usable online work system that makes sense to a lot of people (i.e. the gamer generation).

  14. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    Matthew: Oh, that’s a good example (unkillable NPCs, doors that don’t open). GTA’s a great example of a world that is so interestingly realized that you do think you can do anything. I remember getting annoyed at doors in old CRPGs games that wouldn’t open either, or adventure games that showed items that you could imagine using, but weren’t programmed as usable objects. There’s an interesting analogy we could make with being obsessed with “non-life” objects in our everyday experience, doors that we open that maybe aren’t part of the overall plan, people we think of being important but aren’t activated yet within our context.

    Re: Forced decisions. Yes, I see your point…they’re annoying, and I think they do require learning to not get worked up over them.

    I was just talking about control I have being rather limited: I can only really control what I make and put out into the universe. I can control when I do it, and whether I show it to people. Beyond that, I have no idea what will happen. I can make some intelligent guesses and speculatively plan around their probable outcome based on experiences in the past. I can also try to do things that will “increase the odds” based on a systematic understanding of the ways of the world. But I have no control over ultimately how things play out. I have no control over what events happen TO me either. Perhaps I’ve just learned to accept that, because having control over what you make and when you put it out there is quite powerful. And learning to be prepared for what may come gives me plenty to anticipate also.

  15. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    Stv: One of the motivational techniques I apply to myself, to get out of mulling and strategy, is to run experiments that require me to actually get something done to extract a datapoint. I suppose I have a whole variety of mindset and persona tricks that I employ…I should itemize them sometime!

    Gary Watts: I’ve heard the “allowing a couple of days of laziness” mentioned elsewhere as well, and this may well fit into my model of productive living. On top of that, being aware of the consequences of not managing my sleeping time is very helpful too. Actually, just reading about how you need to coordinate medication with sleep made me realize I’ve been engaging in wishful thinking. While I wish I could “naturally” do things and they magically took care of themselves, some self-management is needed to deal with the reality of how I am so I can still be effective. For example, I’m never going to be 6 feet tall, so I accept that I need a footstool to reach the highest shelf in my kitchen. I can’t lift 300 pounds by myself, so I need to have help. These are physical realities, and I am starting to think that maybe I need to expand my definition of them to include things like sleep patterns, motivational triggers, etc. And, that it’s just the way it is. It’s OK. Wishing I was someway else means that I either overcome the “deficiency” with tools (e.g. stilts) or route around it so there is no longer a deficiency (e.g. get rid of the highest shelf). If it is absolutely essential that I need to be six feet tall, then I had better hire someone to stand in for me. Them’s the breaks, and that’s OK.

  16. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    Nollind: Yes, similar paths! I had flipped my emphasis from skills/tools (e.g. “I an an interactive designer”) to message/value (e.g. “I must be around other self-empowered, conscientious, kind, inspired people”) some time ago, and part of my frustration is that the transition isn’t particularly clear. And, as a friend of mine pointed out this weekend, “It’s still work.” Accepting that it’s still work is huge. Then the management task shifts to making sure that the energy is available. I think one hurdle is that the energy gathering itself sometimes is more enjoyable than the work itself. In my case, it certainly is.

    I am also an INFP, though I have an INTJ suit of armor that I used to wear back when I worked for other people. The INFP is all about values (what you call, I think, “message”), and acting out of alignment with those values is painful.

    From a game design perspective, the challenge could be described as creating the game pieces, game backstory, and game mechanisms that accurately reflect the elements in someone’s so-called life. I suppose one could call life “the emotional experience”, and work “the tasks performed to support the experience”, which maps well to certain interactive models.

    In a non-computer game context, I was just at a “cowboy action shoot” as an observer. The emotional experience was dressing up in the manner of the old west with others and playing out a grown-up fantasy with live ammunition in a safe environment. The work was the amount of time and energy it takes to become competent at handling the stages in a timely manner. However, the work itself is (for a firearms and old west enthuiast) immensely fun.

    Maybe what it will take to make productivity fun is to create our own flawed productivity character, the equivalent of Monk, Sherlock Holmes, or someone like that…and then it gives us a persona to compare and live up to.

  17. Will Ross 15 years ago

    Have you looked at Mark Forster’s “Autofocus”, Dave?

    It is almost anti-designed (tools are a pen and a lined refill pad or notebook of your choice), but some happy users report a gamelike state of flow.

    It isn’t everything you describe, but trying it for a week or two might give you some helpful ideas.

    Your reference to numbers reminds me of Conway’s “On Numbers and Games”. (Every number can be considered as a different game, if you take his rigorous definition of a game.) I can think of no way this could possibly be of any use to your present quest.

  18. Nollind Whachell 15 years ago


    Dave, as you originally noted in your post, if you’re feeling as though you have many paths to choose from, then that’s usually a good sign that you haven’t found your purpose yet (even if you think you have, as I encountered the same thing). From my experiences in discovering my own purpose, the closer I got to figuring it out, the more I realized that all the different paths I had been looking at had a similar underlying theme to them which related to my “message” (what I was trying to express to the world).

    Simply put, when you discover your true purpose, all of the knowledge and experiences that you’ve accumulated throughout your life (no matter how insignificant they seemed at the time) will just seem to just snap together and coalesce. I mean even yesterday I was thinking back to when I was in my early twenties and how experiences and thoughts at that time directly related to my purpose without me even knowing it at the time. In a sense, my purpose was driving me without me even knowing it.


    While your correct that “work” is still work from a definitive standpoint, no matter whether you’re doing something passionate or not, the greater question you have to ask yourself is does it “feel” like work? If it does then what you’re doing probably doesn’t relate to your passion and purpose because when you connect with them, the work won’t seem like work at all. This is something of particular importance to INFPs. Their work has to have meaning and importance to them (their core values and purpose in life) and when it does, they dive into it with an intense ferocity.

    Game Design / Story

    When you mentioned game design initially in your post, you quickly followed it up with “As in any good story…”. It almost sounds like you’d like a way to break your life down into story elements so that you can get a better visual map of where you’re going (i.e. storyboarding). There is one problem with this though. If you don’t know where you’re going (i.e. purpose), it’s kind of hard to visually map it out.

    Again what I experienced was exactly like you. A year or two ago I wanted a way to setup my site so it could visually help me map out my direction of where I’ve been and where I’m going. Again my problem was that yes I knew where I had been but I didn’t really know where I was going (even though I thought I did). Once I figured out my true purpose, everything start falling into place and now when I look back on my life, I see a story revealing itself with all of the pieces / chapters falling into place. Yet before, without fully knowing my purpose, it just seemed like I was all over the place when in fact I really wasn’t (as my purpose was driving me without me knowing it).


    One last thing. I’d ditch the word “fun” from your quest. Finding your true purpose provides an intense feeling of personal “satisfaction” more than anything that may or may not include “fun” in it. For example, you could be doing something extremely grueling, yet if you’re expressing your true self in the process, you will only crave more of it because it won’t seem like work to you at all.

  19. Nollind Whachell 15 years ago

    Oh almost forgot. While there are a lot of decent INFP profiles within books and on the Web, the following is probably one of the best I’ve ever found, as it resonated very deeply with me. So much so that I actually printed it out, highlighted important aspects of it, and continually use it as a reference in my everyday life.

    INFP Personal Growth

  20. CricketB 15 years ago

    So many ideas from one post!

    I’m P-P in some areas, not so in others. I started listing them here, then started seeing the beginnings of patterns.

    Perfect, procrastinate: Learning story for performance, making phone calls

    Perfect, not procrastinate: Crafts, blog comments (used to be PP, but took more time than it was worth).

    Not perfect, procrastinate: not a lot

    Not perfect, not procrastinate: most housework—good enough is better than procrastinating


    P-Ps maintain a complex emotional state. We relate everything to everything else.

    I like that insight. My todo lists are filled with trees and sub-lists. (GTD is actually very useful to people like this. Break tasks down to one actionable item.)

    Bonus if one action is progress on two projects! (Knitting produces warm winter socks, reduces my yarn stash, and moves money from the “craft” budget to “clothing” so I can buy more yarn. Posting old light strings on FreeCycle empties the basement and a laundry basket, so I can be better organized, and helps someone else, and the environment.)


    First, the P-P needs to believe that limited focus is going to help.

    Help do what? If it will help us do something we don’t particularly value, then we won’t do it. It will help us accomplish our goals.

    Covey says goals must be based on values. I think that’s incomplete. Some, yes, but I have many goals which don’t fall directly from my values. Although all the goals I thought of for examples tie pretty well to them.

    Rules don’t have to make sense outside of their own specific reality, but they do need to be consistent within it.


    I have a degree in chemical engineering and process control. One of the things I loved was how beautifully math worked, if you just trusted it. Finish minus start equals change. Raise to the half is square root. Laplace transforms make complex control systems easy. All of this happens on a page, and mimics the real world.

    So, yeah, I get it.


    Keep the player on the edge between challenge and ability.

    Is this why I keep adding to my list?


    Mere “pleasure” (e.g. stuffing our faces with food) and mentally-stimulating “enjoyment” (e.g. a gourmet’s experience in tasting)

    And the comment about fun vs satisfaction.

    It’s worth looking at all the positive emotions for this. Each one brings something special to the mix. Some days I’m driven by one, sometimes another. Add short- and long-term thinking to the mix as well. Satisfaction after a gourmet meal is different from satisfaction after a six-month project goes well.


    Your character’s goal is perfect goods?

    I think I mentioned this earlier, and it fits with your comments on triage.

    Sometimes, the best possible outcome is more production, even if it’s not perfect. On soccer night, a meal they’ll eat quickly is more important than veggies. After a messy weekend, clearing all the public areas is more important than thoroughly cleaning a cupboard.


    As for a video game, there already is one. Well, sort of.


    A lot to think about in this post.

  21. Brice 15 years ago

    I am consistently impressed by your work, so thanks! I recently ran across an attempted implementation of some of these ideas in (NYT article about it at It’s a free iPhone application that tries to motivate actions in real life through a video game with some of the elements you mention. They’ve also made use of real-life feedback + motivation by integrating with social networks. So as you progress with real life, you can receive positive feedback from friends. If you’re in a slump, they may also be able to provide some of the activation energy you’re looking for. I hope this sparks some additional ideas for you.

  22. Emmanuel 15 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    It’s nice to know that through your writings and the people contributing to your blog I feel like I’m not alone. Hi, my name is Emmanuel and I am a PeePee :P

    I wish we could all gather in real time and talk, I struggle with the a-synchronicity of the blog.

    Here’s a funny one though. After 10 years working in traditional industry, I quit my job and decided to work in… (drum roll)… video game design! Is that because I subconsciously crave for the kind of satisfaction you describe? Maybe. My motivations are different, but the fact remains that I hope to get tons more satisfaction from my work than I previously did.

    For the record, no, I still haven’t been able to successfully make the transition, particularly in the current economical climate. But I have a goal, and I’m focusing all my energy on it, and it feels good.

    Thanks, Dave.