• Marlena Abraham

Using a Game Design Principle to Take Better Breaks

Read the original post on Medium.


Tell me if this sounds familiar: you keep a to-do list. Maybe you keep several. Between your work trackers, your personal projects, your daily chores, and that voice in the back of your head that you should really be doing more meal prep and getting more exercise in, you consistently go to bed each night feeling like even though you got a ton done, you’ve failed somehow. You don’t deserve a break. You open a new tab in your web browser and scroll through Reddit or Twitter because deep down, you know you need a break, but your inner critic is screaming at you to get back to work.


I’ve been there. It sucks. I’d spend weeks checking things off my lists but never seem to be making any headway. “I’ll be able to relax when I finish this one last thing,” I’d tell myself, but it was never true. There was always someone to contact, an email to write, an event to plan, a doc to finish, laundry to do. After all that, I hadn’t gotten any work on my personal project done. The driving need to be productive slowly drained the joy and energy from my day until I’d flop down in front of Netflix at 10pm, only stopping because I was too mentally exhausted to keep going.


It’s easy to get sucked into the mentality that if you’re not doing something productive, if you’re just taking a break, you’re wasting your time somehow. And hey, that’s pretty terrible, actually! There are so many opportunities moments of daily joy and contentment out there. If you don’t make time for them, you might end up missing out on them for days or weeks at a time. Taking a walk, settling in to read a good book, or making a cup of that fancy tea you bought on your last vacation can be the difference between just another blah day and a wonderfully recharging one.


When you’re mentally exhausted, though, it can be hard to think about it that way. It’s much easier to reach for your go-to social media platform that, (surprise), doesn’t end up helping you relax at all. In fact, scrolling on social media can put you in an excited, even anxious state rather than a relaxed one.


After several years (!!!) stuck in this Get The Thing Done mentality, I’ve finally found a method that helps me really relax and get enjoyment out of every day. It’s based on a principle I use a lot in my work as a game designer. It’s pretty simple, and it’s only got two steps.


  • Step one: Every morning, while I’m making the list of things I want to get done that day, I also make a list of breaks I’m excited to take. It might be reading a new book on the comfy couches at work, playing with my cats, making a mocktail, listening to a new album from an artist I like, or just lying on the floor with my eyes closed for twenty minutes. They don’t have to be the same breaks every day; in fact, it’s a fun start to the day thinking of all the fun things I might get to do between work sessions.

  • Step two: After I make my list, I start making deals with myself about when I get to have those breaks. “Okay,” I’ll tell myself, “I’ve got three bugs to fix at work. Two are pretty easy, but one’s gonna be really annoying and probably put me in a bad mood. But hey, after I fix that bug…” Then I’ll skim through my list and pick a break to look forward to. “After I fix the really annoying bug, I’m gonna watch this new video that one of my favorite Youtubers just uploaded.”


Easy, right? It’s not a particularly new idea. Getting a reward for a job well done is a concept that a lot of people pick up on while they’re still learning how to walk. Getting a sought-after reward doesn’t lose its effectiveness as you get older, though. In fact, it can end up being even more rewarding as an adult, especially if you’re the one who gets to pick your own rewards. When I set up my day like this, not only do I end up getting several brain breaks throughout the day (which does wonders for my energy level and emotional state), I also give myself something to look forward to during the hard tasks, which makes those tasks easier to get through (and sometimes even enjoyable!)


Perhaps most importantly, though, (this is where the game design principles come in), by consciously picking a reward for getting a task done, you are internally accepting that you deserve it. It’s the same feeling you get after beating a particularly hard boss in a video game: if you beat the boss, you get access to more exciting spaces in the game to explore, or maybe a tidbit of story.


By setting up a specific break to look forward to after finishing a specific task, you’ve set the rules for the game with mindful intention: if I do A, I get B. By setting that intention and then beginning the task with the reward in mind, once you reach the end of the task, suddenly the break doesn’t feel unjustified anymore. You don’t feel guilty for taking the break; in fact, you get a spike of satisfaction: you earned this. That intention-setting you do before you start the task makes all the difference.

You don’t feel guilty for taking the break; in fact, you get a spike of satisfaction: you earned this.




At the end of the day, all that hard work on career advancement and side projects are only worth it if you end up feeling more joyful, more relaxed, and more satisfied with your life than you would have if you didn’t do the work. A certain level of stress is unavoidable in life, particularly if there’s significant instability or upheaval in one’s life. There’s no rule that says you have to get all your work done before you’re allowed to enjoy life, though, even if it’s just in little ways. If you can find the little moments that spark joy in life and reward yourself with them throughout the day, you may find that that endless to-do list doesn’t seem so daunting after all.

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© 2019 by Marlena Abraham

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