Make every day feel like Saturday

One of the most inspiring ideas I’ve come across recently is an idea I got from a  book about changing office culture and how we work. The book is the terribly-named, but fantastically-important, Why Work Sucks and and How to Fix it.

It describes a new way of working, called a Results Oriented Workplace Environment. At its core, it’s about not thinking about hours or “facetime”, it’s about trusting people to get their work done, no matter what it looks like they are doing, or how much time they spend. It talks about the illusion of management where you think you know what your co-workers or employees are doing, because you can see them at their desks. In reality, you have no idea what they’re getting done, and it’s more effective to measure the results, and forget all about “presenteeism”. The most tantalizing nugget they describe is a guidepost called Make every day feel like Saturday.

Remote work

On Saturdays, I’m usually busy and quite productive. This is because I know that as soon as I get my chores and tasks done, I get the rest of the time for myself. So I get a lot done, but I also get to linger a bit over morning coffee, engage a random stranger in conversation, or have a glass of wine in a sunny spot outside. I’ll make some personal calls in between projects, errands, and exercise, but still have time for some socializing, gaming or staring off into space at a cafe. This seamless intermingling of personal and work feels more holistic than a regular work day and it feels fantastic. I feel stimulated, excited, and generally in flow, as I know I’m making my life better in all areas, and making good choices about my time. This is how entrepreneurs and freelancers spend all their live and allows you to be hyper-efficient, but also live your life your fully.

For many, Mondays (and by extension, Sundays) are filled with dread and Fridays are anticipated. Wednesdays are “hump” days, which makes you agonize over your time, hoping the work week will speed up and the weekends will slow down. This is no way to live. We also hold off our dreams until retirement, which is a future that may never come. Even if it does come, often we no longer have the energy or physical capabilities to embark on those dreams we delayed. The results seems to be endless yearning, and a longing for our days to be different then they are, and us becoming ungrounded. Time is alternately too slow and too fast, and we live our lives feeling out of balance and out of control.

What if we stopped thinking of work as separate from our personal life? What would that look like? Or put another way, how could we accept our lives fully, and make every day feel like Saturday? Here are some ideas:

  • Employers give complete control over employees spend their time, including where they spend their time. No one judges anyone else for coming “late” or getting sick.
  • Everyone has clear and measurable expected objectives, goals and results. These expectations and heuristics are missing from most job descriptions and many sprints. But without them, you can feel lost, or unsure if you’re getting enough done, often resulting in working more (generally with diminishing returns).
  • Work starts to feel more like a personal project. Even when the tasks are menial, you get a lot of satisfaction from completing them.
  • You stop doing unnecessary work completely. Any time spent on work that isn’t getting results is time you could’ve spent on personal projects, or simply enjoying life.
  • Your time becomes yours. You are free to go grocery shopping when there are no lines in the middle of the day. Or maybe you have a conference call at midnight because it’s really important to coordinate with someone.
  • You get to view your life holistically, and don’t have to make trade-offs between your personal life and work life.
  • You are no longer on the deferred life plan, and possibly lessen or stop worrying about, and saving for, retirement. This frees you up to enjoy your life more right now. A happy retirement isn’t about idleness: it’s about flow and joy, which we’ve just figured out how to have right now, without waiting for a future that may never come.
  • You become happier immediately, which is correlated with productivity gains (instead of happiness coming from “success”).
  • Finally, you fall head over heels in love: with your job. You don’t take it for granted, and you become more passionate about it. You never want to lose the freedom that comes with it. This is a critical long-term success factor for businesses.

Work can be unique, special and thrilling. Surely, being part of a creative team making a video game is a very rare and exciting opportunity. After all, you can’t just pay money for the opportunity to make a game with a talented group of people. We need to change the implicit rules of the workplace so we can feel deep in our bones, just how special it is.

Mastering anxiety and becoming Real

The last week before my GDC talk in 2011 felt like one of the worst weeks of my life. I say “felt”, not “was”, because I know now that it was a complete phantom of my mind. I was alternating between low-level anxiety and all-out panic. Normally I enjoy coffee but during this time I could only drink steamed milk, due to the excess adrenaline coursing through my body. I lost 7 pounds, due to stress and lack of appetite. I had to take medication to sleep and to function – something I never had to do before then. When my friend Brian mentioned that my venue would be expanded to fill and accomodate an extra-big audience, I became unable to speak, started shaking, and was in that state pretty much until the presentation. The talk went over well – it was rated 4.53 (out of 5) and I got some nice positive comments. But none of that matters very much when I suffered so much to get there.

So this year, when I was invited to speak about how our community helped us ship Natural Selection 2, I was torn. I really wanted to tell our story, but I remembered how horrible the lead-up was. I would’ve said no immediately, but I felt this unshakeable desire to tell our story. I had a sudden insight when I realized that the story of The Velveteen Rabbit could be an apt and powerful metaphor for our story. It felt like the story had been written specifically about us us and I knew I had to give it a shot. So I listened to that inner voice and reluctantly accepted the invitation.

Then the anxiety started appearing again. I felt like I was in a long dark tunnel leading to a drop-off. There was nowhere to go except off the edge and all the anxiety came flooding back. I suddenly realized that I had a constant low-level of anxiety in my life. My hands would be cold whenever I was going somewhere, even to meet friends or to a celebration. I was always saying things like “So far so good” and “Yes, it’s working…for now” and always framing things in doubt’s shadow. It wasn’t terrible, but it drained pleasure out of my life. The breakthrough was when I realized that speaking wasn’t a problem in itself: it was just a magnifying glass on an existing problem. I also had the shocking realizing that if I didn’t solve this problem RIGHT NOW, I would never speak again. I wasn’t worth it. To me, that was a sad and daunting proposition, and totally unacceptable! So I set about finding ways to fix it once and for all.

I found a book called Be Heard Now, which, unlike other books on public speaking (or Toastmasters, which I tried), it doesn’t talk about technique or performance in any way. It is the opposite of performance. It’s about total authenticity and fully connecting with your audience. The idea is that if you are connected to your audience, you don’t actually have to say anything. That is, being present with your audience and “doing” nothing is actually more powerful, interesting and transformative than delivering a talk perfectly but having a wall up between the real you and your audience. It’s a bit hard to take, but there are exercises within that started to convince me. And I couldn’t argue with it when I started to feel better almost immediately. The author hosts “speaking circles” here in San Francisco, which feel almost like therapy or twelve-step. But the results were instant and palpable, so I decided to take a chance: maybe I could be totally relaxed, totally myself and the audience would appreciate anything I said?

Another technique that helped me a lot was “body wiggling”. It feels kind of like dancing, where you are kind of gyrating in place subtly. I think at a distance of 20 feet or so, people wouldn’t notice, but it’s probably not something I would do on stage! It’s a way of focusing completely on your body, and therefore pulling yourself out of your mind, which is on overdrive projecting all sorts of future scenarios (and giving you that anxiety). Another effect technique is doing a “sumo”, which is a slight-crouch, as if you’re trying to prepare against being knocked over. Doing these for 30+ seconds has a noticeable effect on my anxiety.

Then, a week before my talk, I was re-reading The Power of Now – which suddenly clicked with me and I had another powerful breakthrough. I suddenly realized that my whole life, I’ve been living in the future. I didn’t even know how to live in the Now. I’ve been so fixated on how I want to build my life and create a future that I had no idea how to actually enjoy what I had. So many wonderful things have happened in my life recently, and yet I could only focus 3 months ahead of me. So this had nothing to do with public speaking. This is a problem in my life. And I could stop all that anxiety immediately and start feeling really good all the time, if I could somehow focus on the Now (or possibly turning off my frontal lobe). There is no future – all experience happens in the Now. Living in the future is not really living. I started to believe it.

Over the next few days, I started to live this way. I breathed deeper, looked more at the things around me and everything felt…a bit uncomfortable actually. In my “old life”, I felt like I was in a car, driving at night, with my headlights on. I could see everything in front of me, quite well. In my “new life”, I felt like I was turning off the headlights completely, and just listening to the whine of the engine and feeling the road vibrations through my car seat. I really feel like this is the right way to live my life, although it’s completely unproven. My old way of vigilance worked, and this new way just feels…irresponsible? But I can’t go back to that anxiety and never speaking again, so this must be the new way forward.

Two days before it I became increasingly relaxed. I was still overly-focused on it, but I was able to enjoy my life and wasn’t suffering. I kept feeling myself almost “wanting” to say I was anxious, but it wasn’t true. It felt like habit, an excuse, an old part of me pointing his finger to the sky as it sank underwater (Ekhart’s “pain-body“). Buh. Bye. As I walked to the convention center, my hands were warm and I was smiling at people on the street. Even as I sat in the large audience right before, I was largely relaxed. Two weeks ago, I could never even imagine feeling this way.

I don’t know how the talk was received, and I don’t really care. I told the remarkable, and previously-untold, story of powerful forces that arose out of our community to help us succeed. I was so happy to put our community up on the big screen in front of my peers and lavish praise on them and talk about their amazing feats. I don’t understand why or how this happened, only that it happened. And now over 400 game developers also know this story of the Velveteen Marine. Thousands more will hear the tale through the video, which was recorded in the annals of game-dev history. This feels so much better than cowering and staying silent and lost forever. And through all of this, I’ve received yet another gift, which may be the biggest I’ve ever gotten.