The Blog.

Can Games Boost Your Productivity?

6 Dec 2013 | Personal Productivity

I don’t know about you but when things get too serious, my brain freezes.

That big important goal I’ve just set myself: way too scary. All those website changes I need to make: no idea where to start. That high profile speaking engagement I’ve just said yes to: what was I thinking?

Resistance has a field day. The inner child in me wants to break out and play Candy Crush for a few hours…

That’s why I’m delighted to introduce Helen Routledge as my guest blogger today. Helen was first introduced to me as a ‘serious games designer’ who is passionate about the psychology of games and productivity.

Games and productivity? Surely that’s a contradiction in terms?

I’ll let Helen explain…

How Game Thinking Can Boost Your Productivity!
by Helen Routledge

Games to productivity is like chocolate to a diet.

That may well be your first reaction, but game design and game thinking can actually help us achieve those pesky little tasks or big scary jobs that have a tendency to hang around longer than they are welcome.

Games are nested problems. They give you an overarching problem to solve, say save the world, defeat the bad guy, build a city, but they don’t tell you how to get there. They give you a long term goal and it is up to the player themselves to work out how to get there.

Also a game doesn’t just throw you in and say “hey dude, go and save the world”, and then leave you to it. What actually happens is that you save the world through very incremental tasks that individually may not seem so important but that actually come together to have a great impact. These are short term goals.

Save the world, one step at a time

What great games do is progress a player along this learning curve very gradually and it’s almost as if the player doesn’t realise that they are getting better and better but in fact they are achieving harder and harder goals.

The careful balance between short term achievable gaols and the long term ultimate goal is a great tool for motivation and is grounded in psychological theory around memory function, decision making and data processing.

And importantly, don’t forget the rewards! 

Games always reward a player for doing something that moves them closer to the ultimate goal whether it’s Experience Points (XP) new equipment, stars, coins or even just points, you always receive something for the effort you put in. You can take this mechanism and apply it managing your task list.

Balancing rewards with overcoming evil is also another element of games we can take inspiration from.

Why not name your distractions as the bad guys? 

Give them names and think about their powers. By identifying and labelling these distractions you’ll start to notice when you’re doing them more often.


To me how a designer approaches game design can be transferred to almost any other task requiring gradual progression leading to that ultimate goal.

Often when faced with a task we focus on the end goal, the long term ultimate goal and all of a sudden it’s ‘eek’, how am I going to get there?!? But by sitting down and applying some game thinking to the process we can break the task down into incremental short term goals. We can work out how best these tasks will flow together (creating our difficulty curve) and then we can apply relevant rewards to those tasks. The rewards don’t have to be complicated or expensive, perhaps it’s a cup of tea, a biscuit, or a an extra five minute break, just so long as it’s something you value. And place a reward on the ultimate goal, something a little more extravagant that is going to make you feel really good and motivate you to get there.

If you don’t have the discipline to do it yourself, rope in your partner or your children and they can become keepers of the rewards and keep an eye out for the bad guys. By even giving fun titles to the people around you you can make a difference.

Just to sum up game thinking can help us:

  • By breaking down tasks into achievable goals and focusing on what’s important
  • By rewarding ourselves when we reach our goals
  • By identifying our bad guy distractions

Task management doesn’t have to be boring; by applying a few tips and tricks from game design we can start to make our tasks less scary and more fun.

About the author

helen-routledgeWith a background and passion in behavioural sciences and psychology Helen Routledge has over a decade of experience of applying behavioural and cognitive theories to highly-interactive serious games and training solutions. Helen’s understanding of psychology and game mechanics, combined with her deep knowledge of learning theory has been applied to an incredibly varied range of solutions including team building, leadership, sales training, IT security, disease control and health.

Find out more about Helen’s work at and follow her on Twitter at @helenroutledge.

What bad guy names would you give your distractions? Leave a comment…


  1. Angela Armstrong

    Really enjoyed this blog Helen, an amusing approach to goal setting. My distraction’s bad guy name would be Soggy Sponge… I have to set myself clear research questions or else I could spend ages reading and learning when I look things up online!

    • Grace Marshall

      Love that name Angela! Glad you enjoyed the blog 🙂

  2. naomirichards

    Lovely blog and good to think of your work as a game – another way of approaching it. Will try this tactic out when a new project comes about.

    • Grace Marshall

      I love the idea of being playful with our productivity – after all we use games to help kids learn and achieve don’t we? Let us know how you get on!

Image if author Grace Marshall

About Grace

I coach, train, write and speak on productivity. I help people adopt new ways of working and thinking about their work to replace stress, overwhelm and frustration with success, sanity and satisfaction.

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