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Play Your Way to Productivity: Using Game Design to Achieve “Flow”

image of game counter and notes
Figure 1. Notes on an Email Game menu.

His heart beat faster as he closed in on his all-time high score. His fingers flew across the keyboard, and his adrenaline-fueled mouse clicks came a split second faster than usual. His point total climbed, paused, climbed more, and then jumped to a new record! He pumped his fist in the air as he…deleted his last email?

That scenario is becoming more common in the office, thanks to the rise of productivity apps that integrate game mechanics. These applications integrate gamification more deeply than virtual badges and score-leader boards, effectively changing the way you work. They increase productivity in routine computer tasks by helping you enter and maintain the state of “flow” more easily.

The concept of flow was introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, published in 1990. It describes the psychological state of one who is fully immersed in the task at hand and feels a sense of mastery and progress. Most productivity studies have found this state essential to meaningful knowledge work: we do the majority of our actual work in this state, and much of the rest of the day is spent trying to achieve it.

Over the years, game designers have refined their techniques to keep people in this state as long as possible—prompting the all-night World of Warcraft raids that leave office workers bleary-eyed the next day. New productivity games are borrowing several important concepts to promote flow and create that same sense of accomplishment for productivity software.

Here are four essential concepts employed by The Email Game, an email productivity app that succeeds at increasing efficiency in managing emails. The Email Game significantly reduces time spent dealing with emails and relieves mental stress that comes with an overflowing inbox.


A good video game completely eliminates the sense of time passing. Accordingly, the most important element that productivity apps are borrowing from the world of gaming is a sense of hyperfocus.

Office productivity apps must become more immersive experiences and make it easier to avoid daily distractions that sap productivity. We’re more easily distracted than ever: the constant nagging from instant messages from coworkers; non-stop notifications from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+; most importantly, the incessant arrival of new emails interrupting the workday. The cost of all of that task switching is a giant hit to productivity—we lose more hours to task-switching than to any other cause.

gmail inbox
Figure 2. The traditional view of a Game inbox.

With conventional email interfaces, it’s almost impossible to get the focus you need to be productive. The Email Game, on the other hand, removes the typical inbox view, leaving the user free to focus on one conversation at a time. By stripping the interface elements down to only the critical functionalities of a basic email client, and adding delightful visual elements, the environment becomes more immersive and creates a sense of focus for optimal productivity.

Email Game inbox
Figure 3. The Email Game inbox view.


Remember how effective a time limit used to be in Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt?

Productivity games are applying that same concept to the workplace. There is nothing that makes you more efficient than a timer counting down to zero. The point of The Email Game timer is to keep you energized and focused, preventing you from spending much more time than you intended on any single message.

Figure 4.  The Email Game timer
Figure 4. The Email Game timer

Using intelligent, situational timers, people can make decisions on each task effectively. Many email management experts recommend using time or word limits, such as the ten-minute rule by Merlin Mann as described in his online article, “Five Fast Email Productivity Tips” (, and tools like or, in which users are limited to 500 words. Instead of providing just one blanket constraint regardless of the content and nature of individual messages, The Email Game timer adapts to the length of the message and the general category of the content. Setting the timer dynamically for each message adjusts the challenge to reflect the inherent difficulty of making a decision about what to do with each message.

When you write email, you are able to set a time limit dynamically for yourself. This type of self-adjustable micro-goal is important for enhancing productivity without compromising the quality of the email communication.

Clear, instant feedback

Both subtle and obvious forms of feedback keep users motivated throughout game sessions. Millions of people collectively spend billions of hours on video games and on social games. For each successful raid for your World of Warcraft character, you receive timely feedback with positive scores, encouraging messages, and loot. When you respond to your email in traditional email interfaces, you receive neither positive nor negative feedback. All you see is a message you respond to, archive, or delete. You really don’t feel any different regardless of what you do. There is no dose of endorphins, and no obvious change from one message to the next.

By providing continuous visual feedback that rewards you for good actions, you feel encouraged to continue tackling the tedious task of clearing your inbox (see Figure 5).

Discrete, manageable sessions

Inspired by the linearity and discrete nature of in-game tasks, productivity games structure your workday into time or unit-based sessions in which it’s possible to enter flow-breaking work into manageable units instead of one endless chore.

Let’s face it, you are never going to have the three-hour block of time needed to deal with the pile of emails waiting for you. You might as well break that seemingly insurmountable block into chunks you can manage between meetings and the next conference call. Instead of trying to deal with tasks in a continuous stream, with no specific goal to accomplish, you can accomplish more with a session-based approach.

Figure 5. Positive feedback.
Figure 5. Positive feedback.

As productivity games continue to develop, these concepts will be the core to making us feel engaged and getting more done at work. By creating an email system that allows people to enter into a state of flow that encourages answering emails quickly, more effectively, The Email Game creates the context for a different state of mind regarding email management. You can really play your way to the ultimate email productivity.
这种情景在办公室中越来越常见,这是由于整合游戏机制的工作效率应用程序兴起所导致的。这篇文章讨论诸如超焦距(Hyperfocus)、计时器(Timers)、即时反馈(Instant Feedback)和离散会话(Discrete Sessions)等基本概念。电子邮件游戏(Email Game)是一个电子邮件工作效率应用程序,该应用程序使用这些概念来缓解收件箱超量邮件所带来的精神压力。



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