Jane McGonigal Innovates Productivity

On a day when the postperson yet again failed to deliver Jane McGonigal’s new book, Reality is Broken, I ran across a video that she made late last year, which is excellent. I know that research shows that videos around 1 minute long are by far the most popular in blog posts, so it might seem stupid for me to tell you to watch a 45 minute video, but you really should.


Because only watching short videos, or only paying attention to tweets, or only doing things that build up volume might make it seem like we’re getting a lot done, but this feeling is false. McGonigal makes this point quite strongly in her talk.

She starts by having everyone fill out a To-Do list – three things that they can do that will make them feel productive. You list the task, and then next to it you list what doing that task will produce.

Watch the video to see what kind of things people list:

Jane McGonigal – On Productivity from The School of Life on Vimeo.

The critical point that she makes is this: most of the things that people list are tasks like “clear out my email inbox”, or “get the washing machine fixed”. What do these tasks produce? More email, and clean clothes. And the big question is: do the kinds of tasks that we put on our to-do list product things like increases in happiness, resilience or meaning?

If not, then they’re not very productive tasks, are they?

I think that the same standard should be applied to our innovative ideas – do they increase happiness, resilience, or meaning? If not, shouldn’t we be working on ideas that do?

McGonigal draws on research from Positive Psychology, including that of Martin Seligman, to show how we can do this. The key finding is that to be genuinely productive, we need to do things that increase PERMA – which includes:

  • Positive Emotion: we need to be doing things that create happiness, joy and other positive emotions.
  • Relationships: we’re happier when we do things that create and build relationships.
  • Meaning: people need to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves – that their activities have meaning.
  • Accomplishment: we need to achieve things that are worthwhile

This is a lot like the research cited by Dan Pink in Drive – which shows that people are motivated by tasks that provide autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose. It’s also consistent with the kinds of things upon which Umair Haque says we need to be building competitive advantage – things that are allocative and creative.

We’ve talked a lot about how selecting ideas is a critical part of innovating successfully. If we are going to innovate productively, we need to think about whether our ideas will lead to increases in happiness, resilience, or meaning. You could do a lot worse than using PERMA as part of your selection criteria.

Because, really, which would you rather have – an empty inbox or a better world?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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